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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

(from Chapter 18) 

            Early photographs of my mother confirm my father's frequent remark: "She was a living doll." Sometimes I correct him, joking that if he's looking to make points, he shouldn't use the past tense. But usually I don't make a federal case about it, partly because the remark doesn't seem to bother my mother, but mostly because his affection for her is so obvious and steadfast. Let's say she's getting up from her chair, where she's been piecing a quilt or arranging photographs in an album or writing a note to one of their fifteen grandchildren. As she moves across the room, my father's gaze will follow her with the admiration of a newlywed, for, if we are to believe his eyes, she is all news to him. Sometimes, out of the blue, he will say to me, "You have an amazing mother, do you know that?" This is a rare gift: for a daughter of any age, let alone a daughter as old as I am, to witness a father's love for her mother. And I mark it here, so I will not forget. If beauty resides in the beholder's eyes, my mother is still beautiful.
            Even so, there remains that troublesome past tense: Juanita was a living doll.
            This is where a different writer, one who lives more sagely from the inside out, would interrupt with wisdom, New Age or old. Wisdom older than the stars. She would speak comfort, telling of earth mothers and Gaea, cosmic wombs, and the mysteries of the Kula flower. Imagine the freedom such wisdom would bring. Imagine being one of those wise, gracefully aging women, the ones you see at poetry readings, on yoga mats at the Y, on the jacket covers of thick books. Look, this one stands defiantly before the camera, barefoot in a field of wheat, her breasts untethered under a cotton tent dress, her gray hair tangling in the wind. This is who I am, her weathered face says. Take me or leave me. I have earned the years. Count them on my ringless hands, in the flesh around my middle.
            I have studied such women from afar and have known others who could teach me how to do this natural, terrifying thing called aging. If I wish to learn, I can stand at the edge of my grandmothers' lives, and the lives of my aunts and great-aunts. Or am I wrong about their easy acceptance of all that time did to them? Did they ever lie in bed, as I do, and wonder where the years had gone, what manner of women they were becoming? Did they touch their soft bellies, their fallen skin, and mourn the changes? And my mother? "Oh, no," she answered recently when I related my brother's proud assessment that "our mother is totally without ego." "That's not true," Mother said. "I am too vain. I always have been." Juanita, vain? My mother,  the Living Doll? Is she trying to tell me this isn't easy for her, either, this loss of what has been?

(from Chapter 24)

            One night after we'd made love, my boyfriend lit a cigarette and leaned back onto the pillows. "I'm in trouble," he said. "There's this girl." Smoke floated around his eyes; he blinked, fanned the air. "Was this girl. It's over, but she's been calling." Something hot flashed through my head: He will marry her and I will lose him.
            "There's this place in Mexico City," he continued. "It's nine hundred dollars for everything, to fly her there and back. I have two hundred."
            I had seen the word "abortion" in biology textbooks, but I had never uttered it. In 1969, even at the crest of the free-love movement, abortion was not a legal option in California. I had fourteen hundred dollars in my savings account, all that was left of two years of typing invoices at the print shop. Each Friday I had carried the vinyl savings book to the bank window, where the cashier recorded the thirty dollar deposit, half of my paycheck.
            "I'll get the rest," I said.
            "I can't ask you to do that."
            My next line was from a movie. Something out of the 1940s. I should have been wearing a hat with a feather. We should have been in a French cafe: "You're not asking. I'm offering."
            "I'll make it up to you," he said.
            The passbook shows no record of the money being replaced. Within a year we were married, and what was left of my savings was pooled into a joint account. Nationwide, the economy was in shambles; even my father had lost his job, as an engineer at Ford Philco. I still worked part-time at the printing shop, but I'd returned to school, taking night classes toward a literature degree. My husband found work wherever he could--installing patio covers, clerking at a hardware store, drilling holes into bowling balls at the Voit factory. Late one night, while I was studying at the dining room table, he sat straight up on the couch. "I'll bet she was lying all along," he said, as though continuing a conversation he'd started mere seconds before. "Maybe she just wanted a trip to Mexico. She probably spent the whole time on the beach."
            I turned back to my book. I hoped the girl had spent the weekend on the sand. I hoped she'd gotten a tan. But I knew the girl hadn't lied. I knew because of what had been set into motion since I'd handed over the money nearly two years before. Adumbratio: The shadow of our marriage had made its preliminary approach in the parking lot of that bank, had lengthened and darkened with each month, and has never completely lifted.
            The girl had blue eyes and long brown hair, like me. She lived in Garden Grove with her parents. She had a slight lisp. That's all he ever told me. The rest has been written in daylight imaginings and in dreams: She and I sitting beneath a beach umbrella reading books and sipping tall cool drinks, the ocean crashing in the distance. The child crawling the space between our knees is a girl, a Harlequin doll, her face seamed down the center. Not one eyelash, one fingernail, one cell of the child is his. She is the two best halves of the girl and me, sewn with perfectly spaced stitches.

(from Chapter 22)

            Is there a golden time in the life of a family, a community, a tribe? Or is it only by looking backward that we decide when, or if, that time existed? For my father, the four years we spent in Virginia comprised that golden time: before Vietnam and Watts and the Kennedy tragedies, before the world he had known blew apart. He was stationed at Quantico and loved his work instructing new pilots and flying brief stints. He loved our house, too, on Backlick Road in Springfield, a brick two-story with a fireplace, a fenced-in backyard for the pedigreed wire-haired fox terrier we'd nicknamed Topsy. We children were still young then, young enough for buzz cuts and Little League and Bible School and Easter morning photographs. Easter was a big deal for our family; we prepared for weeks. While our Catholic neighbors smudged ashes on their forehead and debated what they would do without for the next forty days, we Baptists rehearsed Easter cantatas and shopped for new patent leather shoes. Our church held no services on Maundy Thursday. We did not fast, ever, or commemorate Good Friday. Apart from occasional pulpit references to hell, which none of us seemed to take personally, darkness was rarely mentioned, even during the holy season. Spring was one celebration after another: Palm Sunday (which I called Donkey Sunday) a bright rejoicing, followed by the brighter rejoicing of Easter, which through the years meant for my brothers new ties and jackets and for my sisters and me new hats, white gloves, and pastel dresses and dusters sewn by our mother.
            After opening our Easter baskets, which one year included live ducklings that were not destined to survive the week, we assembled in the front yard for the annual Easter photograph. Though it is possible that my father was absent more often than he was present, in the Easter memory I hold onto, the whole family is there. First, gathered in the front yard; then, on our way to church in the gray Borgward station wagon or later the two-tone red and white Chevy wagon and later the Wedgewood blue Olds wagon; then, seated together on a pew close to the front of one Baptist church or another. Since this is my Easter memory and not my siblings', I am seated in the center of the pew, wedged between my parents and clicking my patent leather purse open, shut, open, staring into the space filled with nothing much: a comb, pencil, a quarter for the morning offering. Mother is scented with powder. Her hands are soft white gloves. The preacher's voice plows on, but a thousand words are less to me than the moth fluttering beside my father's sleeve.

MEMOIR EXCERPTS
The Tribal Knot
More Excerpts from The Tribal Knot


The Tribal Knot
The Tribal Knot