I’m standing on a chair looking out the window as ice crystals fall from heaven. A figure obscured by snow and hardwood trees appears, walking toward the big house sheltering me. She stands out against the backdrop of brown, green, gray, and white like a pirate ship sailing across the desert or a red fox trotting over snowy tundra. For a second I believe the form's shape is alternating between human and wild animal, but in reality it’s my mother. She’s walking home from work in her long red coat made of wool, her neck protected from the wind by a collar of black fur. When she steps into the house I greet her with the delight of a wolf pup whose alpha has just returned from the hunt. We go into the kitchen. I stand next to her as she warms a pot of vegetable soup on the gas stove. She has to work a lot. Two jobs to feed, clothe, and house seven kids so when she’s home, I just want to be close. I tag along as she moves from room to room, checking on the other kids, picking up dirty socks, sweeping the floor. All of my memories begin here with her in that big old house thirteen miles north of Detroit. The place was like a mansion. Parts were sectioned off with blankets so Mom didn’t have to pay to heat the whole thing. It had a basement, main floor, four bedrooms upstairs, and an attic; an old farmhouse that seemed so massive I thought it would take years before I could explore all of it. Being four years old, my sense of scale was interpreted by how small I was.
At age four my perceptual light flickered on. I have body memories before that, of loving hands stroking my infant flesh, of words being spoken and sung to me, but my eyes didn't begin recording images I can remember until sometime in 1974. In that year there was a birthday card on top of the television set. It was shaped like a number 4. I held up my fingers, counting: I, II, III, IIII. The card was mine but it didn’t make sense. I felt older than that–nearer to age ten.
Thirteen miles from Detroit patches of undeveloped land still existed back then. Blocks of uncut acreage, mixed forests of large deciduous and soft wood trees holding space for happy little water ways to run beneath them. Not too far from the house was a boggy area my siblings would take me to. I’d crawl out on one of the dead fall logs and watch tadpoles swimming in the pond. Day after day I went back, observing the tiny creatures throughout their developmental stages and, in wonderment, began to grasp what it meant to undergo metamorphic change. That a tadpole could become a frog, a caterpillar could turn into a butterfly, or a forest made into a sub-division meant anything was possible.
For a period of time that now seems only as wide as the space between my thumb and index finger everything appeared stable. Even though the traffic on the main road was heavy, for a moment my life was lived in the trees away from the city. Always, there was the feeling of being enveloped in love. I had Cream of Wheat drenched in Aunt Jemima syrup for breakfast, bologna and mustard sandwiches on Wonder bread for lunch, and despite my mother always having to work, many nights she was there to sing Puff the Magic Dragon to me as I fell asleep. Being the youngest of seven I was lucky. My brothers and sisters were my babysitters when Mom was gone and they liked to play with me beneath the giant red maple in the field just off the back porch. They would pretend that tree was a portal leading to a land of enchantment; they said the doorway was at its base. I tried to enter but couldn't. They said I had to try harder; use my imagination. I concentrated deeply, furrowing my brow, wanting to see what they saw but I couldn't. If the portal was there maybe I didn't need to walk through it because to me, the tree itself was magical enough. Ironically, as I sit in the mountains forty years later, it is the sound of a chainsaw which brings all of this back, remembering the day when the men arrived with their saws to cut that ancient maple down.
Of course, things weren’t really perfect before then. Mom was a single working woman with the responsibility of taking care of us kids. We were poor and stuck out in that neighborhood thirteen miles from Detroit like African Americans daring to step over the line of segregation demarcated by 8 Mile Road. Our struggle reminded our neighbors of everything they were trying to forget as they fled the inner city. With money earned from auto factory work, they fenced off the last little bits of outlying feral lands and created enclaves for themselves they believed would be protected forever so long as they were hardworking and loyal to their companies. The houses they built up around the farmhouse we rented looked like pre-fab boxes that only came in three different styles. Some of the people who lived in them seemed to hate us. They called our house an eyesore and the fact that some of my mother’s boyfriends were black resulted in ugly displays from the most bigoted among them, some of whom shot at us with pellet guns as they drove by our place. I didn't understand.
Eventually we were given notice: the house was sold, the land was being subdivided, and the block of hardwoods we lived in was getting bulldozed. Whether we liked it or not, everything had to go: the trees, the bog, the deer that grazed outside the window, the jackrabbits and garter snakes, even us. There was nothing we could do about it so my family packed everything that would fit into Bessy, a humongous green station wagon with side panels covered in fake wood paneling, and we motored on down the road. For many years after that, the car was the only place I truly considered home.