(Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds)
In 1979 I turned 18. Without ceremony, not realizing how liberating it could be until one night in October when I lay in my room, door closed but unable to sleep, forced to listen to the country music I hated. Hated mostly because it meant mom was drinking and reminiscing on the real or imagined hurts of the past. By the time she made her appearance in my room, liquor had pulled down the edges of her lips and left a white film of spittle in the corners of her mouth. She tore up my room like a wild animal, pulling pictures out of photo albums and knocking my beloved potted house plants to the floor, all the while spewing a string of hateful words at me. Exhausted from effort she stood at the edge of my twin bed and poked her finger through the blanket and into my back, breathing heavily she hissed the words I’d heard before, “fat, ugly bitch. No man’ll ever want you.” The smell of moist dirt filled the air and I knew she was now pulling down my indoor garden of hanging plants. The jute macramé holders made a squeaky sound as mom grunted and struggled with the strong rope until it either slipped off the mounted hook in the ceiling or the screw itself dislodged. The sound of plastic sheets being pulled apart told me she was attacking my photo albums and my favorite black and white pictures would soon be added to the pile of broken dirt and ceramic. I would usually cry myself to sleep after one of these tirades and wake in the morning with swollen eyelids. I’d rub ice cubes across my eyes trying to reduce the swelling but nothing but time really helped. Tonight I couldn’t cry. I waited until the country music stopped and no other sounds could be heard, then crept from my bed, filled a plastic bag with a few clothes and left the apartment. It was after midnight and the neighborhood was dark and quiet. I would have preferred some noise or commotion as the silence made me feel vulnerable. I walked briskly towards 35th Avenue. I knew the busses would still be running but didn’t know how long I’d have to wait. Within minutes a Metro bus approached. Air blew and hissed as the driver opened the door. I boarded and took a seat keeping my face toward the window. I hated seeing my reflection in the glass but didn’t want to risk making eye contact with any of the passengers. Only a handful of people were on the bus and each in a seat by themselves. I wondered if they were hating their lives as much as I hated mine? Were they too wanting a fast and final escape but finding nothing but a slow bus ride as the way out? I put my head against the cold glass window and closed my eyes letting the rhythm and motion of the bus soothe me. I wanted to be someone else. I prayed for a life other than the one that claimed me.
For the next three months I lived with a classmate and slept in a spare bedroom. The girl’s mother didn’t mind. She was divorced and a little on the wild side, spending most nights out with different boy friends. She was probably happy to have an extra person around to help with the dishes and vacuuming. I peeked in her bedroom once and was shocked at the large nude painting of her that hung at the head of the bed.
I bumped into Mike Corcoran on a bus ride one day and we started dating. I fell madly, in love. He was someone I’d met on a summer job a few years ago. He was classically beautiful with dark hair and blue eyes, high cheekbones, a broad smile and a strong, square chin. Mike rode a motorcycle and took me for me dangerous un-helmeted rides around Allentown where we’d come so close to the pavement during curves that I could see the pattern of the cement. He worked out at Gold’s Gym and ate tuna straight from the can. On the weekends we’d spend heavenly hours lounging in his bed in the studio apartment he rented, watching from the small single window as pigeons took fight from the rooftops and traffic hummed on the street below.
By the third month our love had cooled. I went to Mike’s apartment one afternoon and found the large rubber tree plant I’d given him sitting in the hall. He was taciturn and cold and I was heartbroken. The days ahead were emotionally exhausting and I wondered what I’d done wrong.
During this time I received a letter from mom that made me so sad, I packed my things, called a cab and returned home to our apartment in the projects. She didn’t apologize but she did say “I lost my faith in people a long time ago.” Mom was drunk when I arrived. She was quiet though and didn’t say much to me. I fell into a depression shortly after and quit school with only three months to go before graduation.
In June my period was late. I confided to my friend, Shannon, and we both rode the bus to the Planned Parenthood office on East Madison. I was 6-8 weeks pregnant. Pregnant at 19. ’d be a new mother at 20. Single, unemployed and without even a high school diploma.
I found work at the Olympic Hotel downtown, washing dishes and then transferred to the housekeeping department. When I was four months along I quit and took the little slip of paper from Planned Parenthood that was stamped positive (pregnancy UA) and applied for welfare benefits. The next several months were laid out for me and I knew exactly what I needed to do, taking great comfort in focusing all of my free time and energy in preparing for my baby’s arrival. Mom took a hiatus from drink and bought new material to make a quilt. We were like hens feathering our nest and it was nice, really nice for a change. The days were pleasant and predictable and the summer held an air of sweet anticipation.
I found an Ob-Gyn and faithfully kept my appointments. I never missed taking my prenatal vitamins and was never tempted by the smell of morning coffee, choosing tea instead and having just one cup per day. Mom and I made weekly treks to the library where I would search for books on breastfeeding and the stages of pregnancy and delivery. Mike paid a visit when I was five months along. He was neither surprised nor excited about becoming a father. He wasn’t working and said he was living with his mom up on Capital Hill. My feelings for him were not the same and I was disappointed when he suggested we get our own project apartment.
My father was living in Tennessee and it had been four years since we last saw him. There was only sporadic communication by letter and I had no idea that my brother, Kenny had written him recently to let him know I was pregnant. He must have felt some stirring of parental responsibility and perhaps a dose of guilt too because he was on the next train to Seattle. He looked exactly the same; tall–well over six feet tall with hunched shoulders, a round face and large belly that protruded over his belt. He took me shopping and bought me a hand mixer. That night we stood together in the small kitchen while he showed me how to make cream puffs. He stayed only three days and it was a peaceful visit, for the stars and heavens and fates above had allowed me a small glimpse of normal family life. I had not expected anything from my father, a man I knew very little about and yet before he left he helped us move out of the projects and into a small duplex in South Park, a small working class neighborhood along the banks of the Duwamish River, and did something even more surprising—he bought us a car!
I went into labor on February 22, 1981. The contractions were sporadic and then stopped altogether after only 3 hours. The nurse said the doctor would administer an IV of pitocin and oxytocin to start labor again. It was five o’clock in the morning and I’d been at the hospital since two. I was already growing weary and I hadn’t even started pushing yet. The hospital room was cold, drafty and the thin gauze like sheet provided no warmth. I was restless and frightened. When labor began again it came with a fury. The pain was intense and as hard as I tried to breathe through each contraction, imagining the pain as a blue wave on the ocean—ebbing in and out with each controlled breath—I couldn’t. My mouth was dry as sawdust. The nurse offered a spoonful of ice chips and I swallowed them eagerly, wanting more but being told no. My lips were chapped and my tongue felt large in my mouth. I was tired. So weak and exhausted and I just wanted to close my eyes for a few minutes but the nurse touched my shoulder and said it was almost time to push. The large band around my belly indicated another contraction coming and two nurses helped me lean forward by supporting my arms on either side, “Ready, push!” I was dehydrated and my attempt at expelling the infant from my womb was feeble. I tried pushing again but quit before I was supposed to. I’d been at the hospital for nearly 24 hours. I was growing weaker and could not push effectively and my baby was showing signs of fetal distress as its small heart slowed with each powerful squeeze of my uterus. It was decided a C-section would be done and I was moved to the operating room. I knew mom was in the room with me but all I could see was the green cotton screen that hung at my chest and separated me from the rest of my body. The glare from the overhead lights was blinding and I closed my eyes until I felt a tugging sensation. There was no pain at all and in minutes, Michael Taylor Corcoran came screaming into the world. He was beautiful–perfect in every way except for the quarter size purple bruise on his scalp left by the fetal monitor. I was allowed to see him but could not hold him yet as my wound had to be closed. Within minutes I succumbed to the 30 plus hours of labor and fell into a deep, deep sleep.
“Your discharge papers are ready but don’t leave until you talk to the nurse and get your home visits scheduled,” the doctor instructed. My incision had become infected and I’d need a nurse to change my dressing every few days. I’d spent over a week in the hospital and my beautiful baby boy was now the biggest in the nursery. He was so handsome that the staff referred to him as a ‘Gerber’ baby. Michael lay swaddled on the hospital bed when mom arrived. One look and I could see she had been drinking, her pinpoint pupils focusing on her new grandson. We took a taxi from the hospital to the duplex in South Park and after feeding Michael we all lay down and slept. Later that night mom started drinking again. I’d breast fed Michael and we were asleep in the bedroom when mom pushed open the door. Michael’s wicker bassinet was sitting between the wall and the bed and when mom barged into the room, she did so with such force that the door tipped the crib and it sat tilted, leaning against the wall. I ran to the bassinet and hurriedly pulled my baby out. Whispering angrily for mom to leave, I sat in the dark rocking Michael back and forth. I rocked slowly for the longest time, rocking to soothe myself as much as my baby. I kept my eyes on his little face; so serene and unaware and I felt ashamed. There was no reserve of spirit on which to draw from and the tears flowed in exasperation. ‘I’m so sorry…so, so sorry…’
When Michael was about 10 days old, Mike’s mom, Juanita and his sisters, Jane and Mary came to visit. I was nervous but excited to see all of them and I eagerly offered to provide lunch, assuming mom wouldn’t mind fixing a little something for us. Mike was a menopause baby and though he was only 22, his sisters were in their 40’s. Everyone brought new clothes or blankets for Michael Taylor and they all took turns holding him. Little Michael was happy to ride the wave of changing arms and warm laps and found contentment in the soft voices. I was happy things were going so well. I knew mom had been drinking but she seemed content to let us visit and had only popped her head in the living room for a brief minute. When I thought we might be ready for lunch I called out to mom asking for her to start the chicken (we were going to have southern fried chicken and potato salad) but she appeared in the doorway of the living room with a cynical smile on her face. Her pupils like tiny steel bullets as she looked across the room at Mike’s sisters, sizing them up from head to toe, “I don’t think so” she announced triumphantly. I was mortified! Mike’s mom tried to brush off what was happening by saying, “Oh, sweetie we need to get going anyway.” They had been so nice to me and I was humiliated into silence. Mom seemed hell bent on isolating me and I was too afraid of rocking the boat to make an issue of anything. I saw Mike’s mom only a few more times after that (sneaking away with my baby for a few hours on the weekend) but it was too hard to hide this from mom and eventually I had to say goodbye to Juanita. Michael would have no relationship with his paternal grandma.
Weeks flew by and warm spring air replaced the gray, cold, dampness of winter. Michael was a happy, healthy and robust child. He was the common bond I shared with mom and we both loved him dearly and loved caring for him. We especially enjoyed walks after dinner, pushing Michael in the second hand stroller throughout the quiet streets of South Park, walking and admiring the older homes with their quaint front yard gardens. We’d usually find our way to the Duwamish River and there we’d feed the ducks and Michael would squeal and laugh out loud as the ducks
Michael had quickly outgrown his bassinet but there was no money for a crib. I met with someone at the welfare office who told me about a training program to get women into non- traditional jobs. The pay would be good but there was a waiting list and then the training– which would take several weeks. I didn’t have time for that. I needed work and a regular paycheck.
The Westin Hotel hired me on as a room attendant. I’d earn $5.70 an hour. The work was hard but I felt good knowing I was earning more money than what welfare provided. After a year I transferred to the laundry department and made a little more money, $6.20 per hour. In the morning I’d get up early but Michael always slept. I’d pick out a few jars of baby food and leave them with a note on the kitchen counter. It was my way of having some small involvement in Michael’s day since I ‘d be gone for nearly ten hours, but I quit doing that after mom had a fit, yelling at me one morning, “Do you think I’m stupid? You think I don’t know how to feed a baby?”
I continued working, bought a nice white crib and though there was never money left over I usually made due from one pay day to the next, food clothing and shelter were my monthly goals. I accepted my lot in life and was as content as I could be, not even realizing how poor we were until one day in early Fall when little Michael took ill with a fever. He tossed about uncomfortably and would not be consoled. The liquid Tylenol lowered his fever but after only two hours it crept up again. He became jittery, making jerky movements with his arms as if he’d been startled. He refused his dinner and when he was laid on the bed for a diaper change, his chubby arms became rigid and his back arched as his eyes rolled back in his head. I screamed for mom to call 911. The convulsion lasted only seconds and when it was over Michael began to cry. Mom and I stood terrified in the small bedroom as we waited for the aid car to arrive. I paced the room, rocking my precious baby and not understanding why this had happened. Michael was taken to West Seattle Hospital and his fever was quickly brought down when a nurse submerged him in a basin of tepid water. She instructed me to sponge the water over his head, chest and back. Michael cried in protest but as soon as he was dressed again he fell asleep, the ordeal had taken its toll on his small body. In the waiting room I held my still sleeping boy and pondered my situation. It was 3:30 in the morning and I had no cash. The buses wouldn’t start running until five probably, but Michael didn’t have a coat or shoes. I gingerly approached the reception desk to speak with a nurse. They tried to call a CSO officer but none were available after midnight. “I don’t know what to do,” I told them, “I only live a few miles away.” The doctor who’d treated Michael heard my plight and offered five dollars for taxi fare. I felt sick with embarrassment and could not look at the doctor’s face. I’d struggled for so long on my own thinking I was doing all right by my son. My eyes focused on the doctor’s hand and the brown leather wallet from which he pulled a five -dollar bill. When the doctor left I asked the nurse to please write down his name. Payday was in two days and I’d send the man his money. The taxi arrived in minutes and I was grateful for the solitude and darkness of the back seat. At least Michael was ok. The doctor said every time he got a fever he’d have to take Phenobarbital. The drug would calm his brain and prevent another convulsion. I felt in my purse to make sure I had not forgotten the bottle of small white pills. For the next several weeks I watched my young son carefully, checking for a fever if his cheeks seemed even the slightest bit warm.
A few months later we moved to a nicer place just off Roxbury but the rent took 50% of my income and the struggle to put food on the table was harder than ever. The worse times were always three or four days before payday. It was especially difficult in the morning when I would sit with coworkers in the cafeteria and drink tea before starting shift. I’d quell my grumbling stomach with free saltine crackers; small crumbs falling on the table in front of me as I tore open the square plastic wrapping. Thomas, one of my coworkers in the laundry, always seemed to park himself across the table from me. A tall, pimply faced young man who ate pancakes and bacon for breakfast every morning. He smacked his lips rudely and in between sticky bites took long, loud gulps of cold milk. The smell of bacon was almost unbearable and my eyes couldn’t help but follow his hand as he awkwardly pushed a crisp piece of it into his mouth. The bacon broke in two and fell into a delicious pool of syrup on his plate. I watched him feeling envy and repulsion knowing my own breakfast of tea and crackers would also be my lunch time meal.
Despite my dire economic situation, I made sure that every payday, Michael had some nice experience to remember. Mom and I liked to ride the ferry and for my sweet baby boy it was a grand adventure. The ride to Bremerton takes nearly 45 minutes and it’s inexpensive. We like to ride over and then have lunch at the McDonald’s before returning. One spring day while we were waiting to board I spotted a young couple nearby. The woman was about six months pregnant and wearing a pretty cotton dress in a floral pattern. Her hair was long, light brown and tied back with a silk ribbon, and her husband stood close by, his hand protectively on her lower back. Their heads bowed together in quiet conversation and separated briefly when they laughed. I found them fascinating. I watched them as if they were an exotic, endangered species, savoring and scrutinizing every subtle movement until I realized they were just an ordinary couple, until my own sadness and longing to have had that kind of experience brought tears to my eyes. I quickly turned away and fought to regain my composure. Michael was tugging at my hand and I hoisted him up on my hip and squeezed him tight. When I dared look again, the young couple was gone, the ferry had arrived and we were moving in line to board.
I don’t want to think about moving again but I know we’ll have to. It’ll be winter soon and the gas was turned off over 30 days ago. We’ve been using the stove for heat but it won’t warm the whole house. I imagine us huddling in the kitchen in a semicircle in front of the oven, inching closer and closer, drawn like a magnet to the glowing red coils and I wonder how much longer it’ll be before I can no longer afford the pay the electric bill. It’s hard to find a house to rent for any less than what we pay now. I called on a duplex near the airport and spoke to the owner but when I told him I live with my son, mother and brother he said he wanted to rent to a “real” family.
We are moving to Columbia City. It’s kind of an eclectic neighborhood with a good mix of people. The apartment is in a large older home that’s been divided into units and the one we’ll rent is the largest—three bedrooms upstairs and only $275.00 per month. I’m riding the number seven bus into town and back home again at the end of my shift. I work swing and leave the hotel at 11:OO PM. I was afraid at first to be on the number 7, riding along Rainier Avenue so late at night, but everyone is just as tired as I am, just as weary and anxious to get home.
It snowed yesterday and mom took Michael outside to play, taking pictures and helping him roll big snowballs. They met one of the neighbors, a nervous single mom with a boy about Michael’s age, but with massive purple and red scars on his face from an attack by a Pit Bull. We put up a tall, scraggly Christmas tree, purchased from the Chubby and Tubby. Mom, Michael and I drug it back through the snow and across the busy intersection at Rainer and South Angeline. Michael is sick now with a fever and I worry about him having another seizure. I give him the Phenobarbital and since he protests against tepid baths, I try to keep a cool wash cloth on his forehead. I came home from work last night and was upset at seeing the front door open and several of my brother’s friends in the kitchen drinking while Michael lay ill on the sofa. I gathered him in my arms and went to our room, reading from his favorite books until he fell asleep.
I’m not sure what I am feeling these days but I know I want change. I am so alone and I cannot find anything in my surroundings to encourage me, give me hope or even make me smile anymore. Each day has become a physical and emotional struggle. On Saturday I played with Michael in the back yard but had to take him in when the young couple that lives above us started fighting. We’ve heard them before; heard the sound of crying and of a body falling to the floor. Today the husband or boyfriend was yelling and throwing things out of the window. Pictures and knick knacks fell like shrapnel from above and I hurried Michael inside where we watched TV and played with his Care Bears for the rest of the day.
It’s spring and we are in the process of moving again, now to a duplex in the Highland Park neighborhood. Moving becomes easier each time because we tend to leave stuff behind with each subsequent change of residence, whether it’s an end table or an entire sofa…it gets simpler.
I had a severe asthma attack after months of trying to control my wheezing with over the counter meds. It got so bad I scared a woman downtown yesterday as we passed each other on 3rd avenue. I didn’t realize I’d been using my face and neck muscles to help me breathe. The woman looked at me with a shocked expression on her face and it wasn’t until later that day, in front of the restroom mirror at work that I saw what she saw—rigid lines of muscle along my neck and under my chin appeared with each struggle to inhale. Two days later I nearly blacked out. I spent three days in the hospital and left feeling weak and shaky but able to breathe. I stupidly did not refill my medications and I’m wheezing again. I called 911 and when the fire truck arrived I pleaded with the firemen to give me a shot of adrenalin. They finally relented and gave me an injection, but the dose was so low I barely felt any relief. I struggled through the rest of the night and finally felt better in the morning.
It’s getting harder to feel positive and I’m struggling with the feeling of needing to run away—to escape. I have visions of 1950’s diners where soda jerks great me like a best friend and I live on a block lined with picket fences and daisies, where neighbors come to talk over a cup of coffee and ask if I’ll babysit for them on Friday.
I called dad yesterday. He’s agreed to send us money to move to Tennessee. I gave two weeks notice at work and mom had a moving sale on Sunday. She sold a lot of stuff but Michael refused to give up his lamp. It’s a desk lamp made of a ceramic baseball mitt and ball. We can’t take it with us but at least he didn’t have to see someone walk away with it.
Our lives have been reduced to eight large cardboard boxes; mostly towels., photo albums and pots and pans. The Amtrak will take us to Dyersberg, Tenn. where dad will meet us. My brother will stay at our place until the landlord comes looking for the rent. After that, I don’t care what happens. Dad met us in Dyersberg, Tenn. late in the evening two and a half days later. We stopped to have a bite to eat and I shared a plate of biscuits and gravy with Michael. The tension between dad and mom is palpable. Dad rented us a motel room and dropped us off there. He will get our boxes from the train station in the morning and store them in his small apartment. The next day I’m up early, anxious to have a look around. Dad arrived and took Michael to feed squirrels at the town square while mom stayed behind and read the paper. The September heat wrapped itself around me like a wet wool blanket but that didn’t stop my need to explore. Our motel is on a long stretch of interstate and across the street are miles and miles of cotton. Plump white balls dotted against brown dirt for as far as the eye can see. A restaurant next to the motel boasts a flashing sign that reads: Spaghetti and Chitterlings, Friday Night—All You Can Eat!
Mom is quiet, tense and the days are full of anxiety. I was saddened but not too surprised to find there are no jobs listed in the classified section of the local paper. Maybe if we go to a bigger city like Nashville I can find work. When I told dad we decided to go back to Seattle only three days later he didn’t even ask for an explanation, just showed up and drove us to the train station. Mom had a bottle hidden in her purse the whole time and was drunk by the time we arrived at the small depot in Memphis. It was a little after six in the morning and we were the only ones there. Wooden pew like benches lined the waiting area to the left and right of the small glass ticket window where a solitary agent stood sorting through tickets and checking schedules. Michael sat with me, leaning against my shoulder I couldn’t tell whether he was sad or sleepy, I supposed he was both. Dad stood awkwardly in the middle of the room with his hands shoved deep inside the pockets of his baggy trousers. “Across the street is where Martin Luther King was shot—at the Lorraine.” I nodded and squeezed Michael closer to me. He tucked his head under my arm, cautiously eyeing his Grandma. Mom glared and locked her eyes on mine, shooting daggers through constricted pupils. She didn’t speak –didn’t need words—and I knew all too well what she was thinking, ‘fat, ugly, bitch, whore…’ I sat, wielding off invisible arrows, ducking punches and deflecting blows to my most vulnerable places, all the while Michael, my precious little boy leaned against me and wrapped his arms around my waist.
Dad glanced helplessly around the small room and when he shifted his weight from one foot to the other I heard the wooden floorboards creak. He pulled his right hand from his pocket and thrust a wad of folded money at me. He fumbled for the words to say goodbye and started toward the door. Mom sprang to her feet, charging him with a drunken fury. She flailed at him with her fists and feet screaming, “You bastard!” Dad was able to hold her off as he inched himself toward the door. The train would arrive in 45 minutes. Mom tried to coax Michael into sitting with her but he remained at my side, scared and silent. She sat across from me and Michael, just the three of us and the sleepy ticket agent behind a glass window. Mom would not take her eyes from me. A few people arrived, men and women, smiling and talking like normal people do. They milled about the room, reading posters on the walls and chatting with the ticket agent. Eventually they found a spot on one of the benches and settled down to wait. I sighed and patted my hand on my jean pocket, making sure the money dad gave me was safe. In a few minutes the train would arrive and we’d be on our way back to Seattle but we’d be homeless upon our arrival and there were no friends or relatives I could call. On the train I counted the money dad had given me–$150.
I managed to get us into temporary shelter in the Yesler Terrace projects across the street from Harborview Medical Center. We had thirty days to get signed up for welfare benefits and to find our own apartment. I wouldn’t need that much time. I was hired at the Four Seasons Hotel as a switchboard operator but felt so exposed and vulnerable that I only stayed for two weeks, long enough to get a paycheck and money to buy Michael a winter coat. One of my coworker’s took me to lunch and tried to talk me out of leaving. She dropped me off near the hospital and asked casually as I opened the car door to leave, “Is the reason you’re quitting because you don’t have anything to wear?”
I sought work at the Westin, feeling more comfortable working in the laundry where at least I would be provided a uniform. The job was only part-time but it was enough to pay the rent in a studio unit at the Franklin Apartments on 4th and Bell Street, downtown. I could walk to work and we were even within walking distance of the Seattle Center, one of Michael’s favorite places.
In March we waited for my tax return to arrive and with that we’d move to a small rental house somewhere. I took thirty dollars of the money and bought a pretty spring dress and a new pair of shoes and I learned then and there that my mother, the woman I trusted to help raise my son, was not a friend. She yelled at me for buying the dress and accused me of not trying to find a place, afraid I’d spend all the money and we’d be stuck in the small studio. I saw mom in a different light after that, knowing she needed me and I’d have to take care of her, but realizing that my happiness– my needs, however simple, were never of concern to her.
It’s early spring, 1987 and I’ve finally achieved complacency. I say this as if it’s an accomplishment because for me, it is. I no longer expect to get married, have any more children or a home of my own. I’m resolved that I must take care of my mother and focus on raising Michael, as best as I can without financial or emotional support from anyone. It’s liberating in a way–this resolve and acceptance– as I’m free to embrace the day without too much expectation, and tomorrow doesn’t scare me like it used to. I don’t even bother much with the future, really—what would be the point? Dreamers need the future and I certainly don’t have the luxury of dreams.