I’ve long admired those who’ve mastered the art of the personal essay. This is by no means a complete list, but I consider Ana Maria Spagna, Annie Dillard, E. B. White, Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, Ryan Van Meter, and Barry Lopez to be among the best writers in the genre. Last summer I finally had the chance to experiment with the form when I took a class from the amazing Melissa Hart. I’d written very little since my mother’s death the previous year. Writing, as always, proved to be a healing experience.
What follows is an excerpt from one of the essays I wrote in Melissa’s class.
“Lies I Told My Mother”
Six Years Old
I have the best daddy in Texas. He works on a seismic crew for Mobil Oil Company, which means he looks for oil deep under the ground. He drives a company truck and parks it in front of our house every night. I love that truck filled with machines that have switches and knobs and bleeping green lights and paper that smells like ammonia. Sometimes he shoots wells with dynamite. I have dollhouses made of wooden boxes branded with the word EXPLOSIVE.
I hear the truck door slam while my mother cooks supper. I drop my dolls and run down the sidewalk to greet him. His blue eyes light up when he sees me. Prickly stubble shadows his face, but his starched khakis still have the creases my mother ironed in them. His black curls still shine from the Vitalis Hair Tonic he used at 5:00 o’clock this morning. He spends twelve hours a day in the desert oil fields, but he still looks as handsome as a movie star when he gets home.
He picks me up with calloused hands as strong and hard as iron. Daddies who work in offices have smooth, white hands that remind me of bread dough. I prefer hands baked by the sun.
“What’s your mama cooking?” he asks.
“Fried chicken and mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas,” I say. Or chicken fried steak. Or smothered steak. Or chicken and dumplings, Frito pie, liver and onions, or pork chops. Never ground beef. That’s all his family could afford when he was growing up. He says it feels like dirt in his mouth.
I stroke his bristly cheek and bury my face in a neck that smells of Ivory soap. My favorite person in the world is home.
We go into the kitchen where I sit in a chrome and red vinyl dinette chair. My mother stands in front of the stove wearing terry cloth slides and a floral cotton dress cinched at the waist. A fat bow made from the sash of her apron blooms on the small of her back. My father takes her in his arms and they kiss. “Hi, Maggie,” he says. Just for a moment, I am forgotten.
My mother’s first pap smear reveals cervical cancer at the age of thirty-six. She enters the hospital in Fort Stockton, Texas, to have a hysterectomy. Something goes wrong. My father tells me she won’t be coming home for a while.
Daddy makes scrambled eggs with bacon grease. They have brown specks and crispy edges. My mother always makes pretty eggs just for me, fried over easy in Crisco. My father tries to iron our clothes. He looks strange standing in front of an ironing board. One morning there’s nothing left for me to wear except pink shorts and a red top. He doesn’t know they clash. I refuse to go into the front yard to play, but I don’t tell him why.
After a month, my father pulls me onto his lap and tells me I’m going to Odessa for two weeks to stay with my aunt and uncle. Then I go to Artesia, New Mexico, to stay with another aunt and uncle. I would never run out of aunts and uncles, but I get homesick. When I return home, my aunt Zelma comes to take care of me and keep our house clean. She cooks eggs better than my daddy and buys my favorite foods at the grocery store—green Jello, grape jelly, and dill pickles. I nestle into her soft body when she reads to me.
We go to the hospital every night. My thirteen-year-old brother can go to our mother’s room, but I’m too young. I sit alone in the waiting room or play in the grass outside her window. Sometimes I stand on tiptoe on a brick ledge and try to see her. After a long time, my father brings her to the waiting room in a wheelchair. Her chenille robe hangs like a tow sack, and her permanent has grown out, leaving her brown hair limp. Smudges under her eyes look like purple thumbprints punched into piecrust. I hide behind my brother.
A shadow of a smile makes her look like herself. “You don’t have to be afraid,” she says. “I’m going to get well.”
“I’m not afraid,” I whisper to the floor. I fight the urge to run.
I hug her through the cold, steel wheelchair. The smell of Dermassage medicated lotion burns my eyes. When she droops in her chair, my daddy takes her away. I can’t stop shaking.
After 90 days in the hospital, my mother returns home. I lean against her on the sofa and pat her leg. Her sharp bones poke me, but I stay put. My face warms with shame. She knows she’s my second favorite person in the world.
I whisper into her ear. “I love you the best.”
“Oh, we know who you love the best,” she says, winking at my father as if I’m not sitting right there. “But that’s okay. I know you love me too.”
I bury my face in her sleeve, embarrassed to be caught in my lie. I pledge to love her best from now on.
My father changes the subject, rescuing me in that way of his. This is going to be hard.