Authors: Margaret Robison
The Long Journey Home
is a work of nonfiction. Some names
and identifying details have been changed.
Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Robison
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and Design is a registered
trademark of Random House, Inc.
were originally published in “Begin by Remembering,”
, Fall, 1995. The following were originally published in
Kaleidoscope: International Magazine of Literature, Fine Arts, and Disability:
an earlier version of
appeared as “The Headache” (Spring/Fall, 1998);
was originally published as “Common Bonds” (Summer/Fall, 1999); and portions of
were originally published in “Renascence” (Winter/Spring, 1993).
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission
to reprint previously published material:
Harvard University Press:
“There is a pain so utter” from
The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition
by Emily Dickinson, edited by Ralph W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), copyright © 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College.
Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., and Harold Ober Associates Incorporated:
Four lines from “Dreams” from
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad with David Roessel, Associate Editor, copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Print rights in the United Kingdom and worldwide electronic and audio rights are administered by Harold Ober Associates Incorporated. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., and Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The long journey home: a memoir / Margaret Robison.
1. Robison, Margaret. 2. Robison, Margaret—Childhood and youth. 3. Robison, Margaret—
Family. 4. Robison, Margaret—Health. 5. Women artists—United States—Biography.
6. Artists—United States—Biography. 7. Women authors, American—Biography.
8. Young women—Georgia—Biography. I. Title.
Jacket design: Abby Weintraub
Jacket images: courtesy of the author (girl), Ronnie Sampson, Viridian/iStock Vectors/Getty Images (bird)
For Pat King
“Why are you here?”
A young psychiatrist sat across from me, clipboard propped against his crossed leg. My friend Helen and Dr. Turcotte’s daughter June sat beside me, silent. My son Chris stood in the doorway, his adolescent face earnest and distressed.
“Because the Amherst water is polluted,” I replied flatly. “Because the rain is poisoned.”
Dr. Turcotte sat across from me, sleeping, his chin resting on his chest. Lamplight glistened on his thick white hair. It was he who had driven me to this psychiatric hospital, who had driven us all, me in the backseat silent.
“Because I have a therapist I wouldn’t recommend to the devil,” I said.
The young psychiatrist wrote something on the questionnaire clamped to the clipboard.
I did not tell him that a bomb as large as the one that leveled Hiroshima was about to go off anytime
My son shifted his weight. Behind him, in the hall, a nurse pushed a cart full of medications past the open door.
The doctor looked up from his questionnaire. “Religion?”
With my breath I lifted a hot-air balloon off the ground and was keeping it afloat at a safe height. The balloon basket was sturdy and well insulated. If I can keep my son, friends, and myself in the air until the danger is past, we’ll all be safe
, I thought.
“Religion?” the doctor asked again.
“I take the best from each and throw the rest away,” I answered sullenly.
I don’t remember how long I kept the balloon aloft, but I was exhausted from the effort
“What day of the week is this?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked down at my bandaged fingers and left wrist. I had burned my fingers by holding them against the coils of a small electric heater in my kitchen. Before or after this I had pressed a burning cigarette into the flesh of my left wrist. But I have no memory of doing these things, only a memory of lying on a table in the hospital’s emergency room while a doctor dressed the wounds. Self-inflicted wounds. I looked down at the bandaged evidence, feeling a mix of incredulity and shame.
“What’s today’s date?”
“I don’t know.”
The doctor scribbled something on the paper again.
“My mother never knows the date when she’s writing or painting,” Chris said. His statement sounded like a plea. What he meant was that I didn’t keep up with the date even when I wasn’t crazy.
The bomb didn’t go off. How hard I worked, using my breath to keep us so high for so long
Now I was in a decompression chamber. People came and went, saying nothing. No one understood what was happening to me. It didn’t matter. I didn’t expect them to
, I told myself.
My son and friends left the hospital for the night.
I stood before a mirror, talking to myself, gesturing with both hands. But when I try to remember what I was telling or asking my image in the mirror, when I try to go back to enter this experience again, I am able only to stand outside my body. Like someone floating above a car accident, looking down at her crushed and mangled limbs, I can only observe. I feel nothing. But when I look into my eyes, what I see there is terror.
OTHER STOOD AT THE TOP OF THE LADDER, SCRAPING WALLPAPER OFF
the living room walls with a putty knife. Uncle Frank’s wife, my Aunt Mary, came through the unlatched screen door without knocking.
She looked up at Mother.
“Louisa, I just want you to know that you’ll never have a house as nice as mine.” Mother looked down at Aunt Mary, who stood with her hands on her hips, a white leather handbag looped over one arm. She was dressed in a red-and-lavender polka-dotted dress and white sling-backed shoes. “I tell you this now so you get all such thoughts out of your head from the start,” Aunt Mary continued.
Mother—married three months and already six weeks pregnant with me—was wearing a sweat-drenched cotton housedress. Scraps and curls of wallpaper lay around the ladder. All afternoon she’d been soaking down the layers of old, stained paper and scraping them off; rose-colored stripes and rosebuds, formal bouquets and baskets of violets, bits and pieces of Richter family history were now strewn on the floor.
Aunt Mary was much older than Mother, who had married the youngest of the three sons in the Richter family. Daddy and Uncle Frank were partners in a produce business. With their sister Bama—
her real name was Alabama Margarete—living miles away in Columbia, North Carolina, Aunt Mary was reigning matriarch, and according to Mother she intended to keep it that way.
Mother climbed down the ladder. “Why, Mary,” she said in what must have been that sweet tone of hers—ice water running just beneath the words—“a new house is the farthest thing from my mind. I’m just trying to get this dirty old place clean and decent before the baby comes.”
She offered Aunt Mary a glass of mint tea.
Aunt Mary declined. Hers was not a social call.
This was one of the first stories Mother told me, and she retold it again and again. This, and how Aunt Mary somehow manipulated herself into the delivery room to watch Mother’s manners and restraint dissolve into one scream after another as I wrestled my way out of her tortured body while lightning lit the sky and thunder rumbled like an angry god. “Your birth was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me,” she repeatedly told me.
Mother was twenty-four years old when I was born.
She never stopped talking about what she referred to as the humiliation of Aunt Mary’s shocking invasion of her privacy. She claimed that the sight of my aunt’s face over my carriage was enough to send me into a fit of screaming. I don’t know if Aunt Mary actually scared me or if I picked up on Mother’s controlled but ever-present and powerful emotions. I have no memories at all of Aunt Mary in my infancy. Nevertheless, I grew up with Mother’s stories of her a part of me as surely as the genes that gave me green eyes and a prominent nose like my father’s.
Growing up I had a pleasant relationship with Aunt Mary until Uncle Frank died in a house fire in 1945 and Daddy and Aunt Mary had a dispute about the division of property and the business. After that Aunt Mary forbade her children to relate to us, though her son Peyton and I continued our friendship in secret and her daughter Roberta remained fond of Mother.
As an adult, on a trip back to my hometown—I believe it was in
1970—I decided to ignore the tension of the years and visit Aunt Mary. I phoned first, and her daughter-in-law said it would be fine for me to visit. Aunt Mary welcomed me warmly. She was lying in bed, smoking a cigarette. Holes from cigar and cigarette burns dotted her lavender satin comforter. Beside the bed a wicker clothes basket held a pile of paperback murder mysteries.