Told with raw, rugged honesty, this heartrending memoir from journalist Sarah Tomlinson recounts her unconventional upbringing and coming-of-age as colored by her complicated relationship with her father.
Sarah Tomlinson was born on January 29, 1976, in a farmhouse in Freedom, Maine. After two years of attempted family life in Boston, her father’s gambling addiction and broken promises led her mother to pool her resources with five other families to buy 100 acres of land in Maine and reunite with her college boyfriend. Sarah would spend the majority of her childhood on “The Land” with infrequent, but coveted, visits from her father, who—as a hitchhiking, acid-dropping, wannabe mystic turned taxi driver—was nothing short of a rock star in her eyes.
Propelled out of her bohemian upbringing to seek the big life she equated with her father, Sarah entered college at fifteen, where a school shooting further complicated her quest for a sense of safety. While establishing herself as a journalist and rock critic on both coasts, Sarah’s father continued to swerve in and out of her life, building and re-breaking their relationship, and fracturing Sarah’s confidence and sense of self. In this unforgettable memoir, Sarah conveys the dark comedy in her quest to repair the heart her father broke.
Bittersweet, honest, and ultimately redemptive, Good Girl takes an insightful look into what happens when the people we love unconditionally are the people who disappoint us the most, and how time, introspection, and acceptance can help us heal.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Sarah Tomlinson is a Los Angeles– and Brooklyn-based writer. Her writing has appeared in publications including Marie Claire, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Salon.com, and Vol1Brooklyn.com. She has ghostwritten nine books, including two uncredited New York Times bestsellers. Visit her online at SarahTomlinson.com and follow her alter ego, Duchess of Rock (@DuchessofRock), on Twitter.
Read an Excerpt
We were building the house we would live in forever. The two-by-fours rose like a ship’s mast against the still, blue New England sky. I squinted into the sun watching, feeling the adults’ anticipation swell. It was our house. We were making it ourselves: my mom, her boyfriend, Craig, and me. Helping us were members of the community we’d formed with three other families in the woods of midcoast Maine that spring of 1979.
Where there had been nothing but forest and swamp, there was now a clearing, a home. Dressed in denim and flannel, the men called back and forth to one another beneath the wooden skeleton. I stood nearby, clutching my Raggedy Ann doll, trying not to get in the way. At three and a half, I was tall for my age, unathletic and pale, with crimson-brown hair and heavy, reddish freckles across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.
One by one, the men removed their hands from the beams and stepped away. The timber stood straight and true. Everyone relaxed and laughed and paused to have a drink of water. Even with just the outline drawn, it already looked like a house.
At day’s end, we camped in a tent. This little orange triangle felt like home, as we had begun staying there on weekends the previous year, clearing trees and brush to prepare for the build, and then pouring cement for the foundation. After that, Craig went by himself to pound nails on weekday afternoons, until we were ready for the group effort of the house raising. During the week, we lived in an apartment an hour away.
When she’d left my dad the previous spring, Mom had moved us up to Augusta and taken a job at her friend Lou’s health food store. She soon reunited with her college boyfriend, Craig, who had been living at home on the Jersey Shore, working at his family’s flower shop and as a carpenter. He joined us in our new life.
The idea to go back to the land had first taken root among a small circle of my mom and dad’s like-minded friends, including Lou and Dot, whom my parents had met before I was born. Mom had inherited a little money from her grandmother and wanted to buy a piece of the hundred-acre plot the group had found in Maine. But my father, who had become a compulsive gambler soon after my birth, would not agree to the plan. Believing deeply in the chance to create a better way to live, and realizing she would end up on welfare if she stayed with my dad, my mom left him in Boston.
My mom and dad had met at the Trenton Public Library in 1973, where Mom worked after graduating from the West Virginia liberal arts college Davis & Elkins. My dad had recently washed up at his mom’s apartment after hitchhiking back and forth across the country, emulating the Beat writers he adored and dropping acid 120 times. He was tall and loud, with a thick, dark beard and a shambling laugh, and he smelled musky and exotic, like sandalwood and myrrh.
A photo of my parents appeared in the 1973 year-end issue of LIFE magazine. They’re kissing in the crowd at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a music festival with performances by the Grateful Dead and the Band. One of only two photos that exist of them together, it sums up their union. Blown together by a frenzied cultural moment, they had a passionate relationship that could not be sustained. And they had me.
Their connection was already troubled when Mom became pregnant. When my dad proposed, she said no, later telling me that she refused him because she believed in marriage. When my dad learned I was on the way, he redoubled his focus on est, a seminar devoted to personal transformation, hoping to become the man and father he knew he was not. I was born in January 1976 at a farmhouse in Freedom, Maine. My dad said I came to him in a dream during Mom’s pregnancy, and I was born two weeks late so I could be an Aquarius. Mom took my name from Bob Dylan’s song “Sara,” which, tellingly, was written for his wife during their divorce. My father insisted I have a home birth, having read how important it is to ease a child into the world gently and with love.
That summer my dad left Mom and me alone at the farmhouse with no car, miles from the nearest town, and hitchhiked to Boston to attend a review seminar of the est training. Although he had never been drawn to gambling before, he went to the track and won a hundred dollars. And then he lost a hundred dollars.
When he hitchhiked back to Maine and told Mom, she was devastated. He was not otherwise working, and they had almost no money. In lieu of paying rent, my dad had agreed to paint the farmhouse, but the owners weren’t happy with his work and we had to leave in a hurry. We lived in a big domed tent in the yard of some friends, and my dad worked for Lou, helping him break down a stone wall for a masonry project.
That fall my parents relocated us to Boston. My dad drew on the connections he’d made through rebirthing to find a sublet in Somerville and a job driving a cab. Rather than being warned off gambling by his first failure, my father had stirred up a fierce compulsion. Mom held on, staying home with me while my dad lost money and drove extra shifts to allow him to spend more time attempting to make up for his loss. And then, realizing he would never change, she left.
After we had been in Augusta for a few months, Mom told me that my dad was coming to stay with me while she and Craig went camping in Baxter State Park with college friends. The anticipation built and built, and then, he was there. The moments I remember of my father—like this one—are vivid with detail and emotion because I saw him so infrequently and cherished our time together. It was overwhelming, almost too much, but I moved toward him anyway. When he bent down to hug me, I pulled back before he did, knowing even at three not to seem needy or provoke his guilt.
My dad took me to St. Augustine’s, the Catholic church across the street from our apartment, because he wanted to check it out. I felt very small as we crossed the road, which sloped steeply down toward the river.
I let my father lead as we climbed a flight of steps carved from the same pale stone as the building’s exterior. It was so big and fancy that I held my breath as we went inside. I didn’t understand what it was, but I didn’t dare ask.
My dad paused and surveyed the scene. “Far out,” he said.
He looked down at me. I smiled, uncertain, but happy to be with him.
“We’re going to visit all the churches of the world,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied.
Okay was my response to whatever my dad said or did. I could tell how hard it was for him to be around Mom and Craig, and even me, although I had no idea why. It seemed as if he were about to spook and bolt like one of the horses at his beloved racetrack, and I knew that if he did, there was a good chance he was never coming back.
Before it seemed like the visit had really begun, he was headed home to Boston. There was no stopping his leaving, nothing to be done. As soon as the door closed behind him, my attention became fixed on the next time I would see him, and on how we would do, together, all the things he had promised.
A few months later, I was coloring a picture on the floor of our apartment. My real focus, though, was on my father, who was coming to visit me that day. He would be there any minute. The phone rang in the other room. My mom’s face grew clouded. But she had become a master at the smooth facade, and she smiled at me as she went to answer. I could hear the low murmur of her voice, but not her words. Anxiety bloomed inside of me. When she returned, she sat next to me on the floor, down at my level.
“Sarah, your dad can’t come up this weekend,” she said.
I didn’t look at her, intent as I was on coloring absolutely within the lines, controlling my exterior even more rigidly as my feelings began to riot.
“Why?” I said.
She paused for a long moment. Still, I kept my eyes down, holding on tight.
“He has to work.”
“He’s going to come see you as soon as he can.”
Soon was not now. Anything beyond now was impossibly far away. I wasn’t hearing her anymore. I was running to my bed, taken over by the flash flood of tears I only allowed myself when he was not there. Mom let me cry until I had exhausted my tears. There was nothing she could say to comfort me, or to explain, but she never spoke badly of my father, either. She let it be between him and me.
In the fall of 1979, when I was three and a half, I was invited down to Boston to visit my dad in the big city where he lived, where I wanted to live, too. I was taking stock from the moment he parked his cab. His apartment was on a short, dead-end street in Somerville. I studied the drab vinyl exterior. So this was where my father spent his time instead of with me. I followed him up the dark, narrow stairwell to his second-floor apartment, absorbing every detail as he swung the door wide, revealing a life that was as strange and wondrous as I’d always imagined it to be.
He turned on the kitchen light, upending my sense of reality. The lightbulb was red and bathed us in an intense, surreal glow like Christmas gone crazy. The kitchen wall above the table was a giant collage of newspaper clippings and health food store greeting cards with photos of sacred locales in India and Asia, and illustrations of mandalas and the Buddha. I drew close. I’d seen these images on the cards my dad sent Mom, sometimes with forty or sixty dollars, more often with an excuse, only mentioning the track when he’d won, always blaming his lack of money on his taxi shifts.
He was already bopping into the next room, lighting incense. I followed him, breathing in his particular scent of essential oils and the musty paper from his many notebooks and the racing forms and new age magazines he read. I followed him into the living room. He pulled the chain dangling from the lightbulb. Even though I was prepared this time, the blue light that bathed everything in an aquatic chill was still startling.
With my gaze, I traced the yellowing Scotch tape on a crack in the living room window. Although I’d been too little to remember it, we’d all lived here together, the family I wanted us to still be, Dad and Mom, and me. But now my dad lived here alone. I lived far away with Mom and Craig, who struggled to mask how little he thought of my dad. He wasn’t like my father, who focused on me with flattering wonder during our brief visits. Instead, he could be aloof and short with me, as if he didn’t know what to do with this intense little girl he’d suddenly found himself helping to raise.
My dad took me out for Japanese food, the tempura batter crunchy on the broccoli and carrots—unlike anything I’d ever eaten. I fumbled with the chopsticks but didn’t ask for help. Instead, I did my best to mimic how my dad balanced his on a little dish of soy sauce, which had the magical feel of a child-size tea party.
My father leaned in.
“Do you like Joni?” he asked, inquiring about one of my parents’ friends.
I looked at him with surprise.
“Daddy, I like everyone,” I said.
My dad laughed his big, shuffling laugh, and I puffed up with joy.
After dinner, my dad walked me through the city streets. I marveled at each cab and building and person. We arrived at a big lurking structure, which shimmered inside with twinkling lights and the salty allure of hot popcorn. It was a revival movie house. Sitting beside my father, I thrilled at the bright, happy chatter of Singing in the Rain, loving how the characters spun around light posts and twirled their umbrellas.
The next day, my dad took me to the place he had, in a way, chosen over Mom and me—Suffolk Downs racetrack, or Suffering Downs, as he later told me it is called by those in Boston wise enough to avoid its grinding gears. My father was easy amid the frantic sea of strangers, who jostled each other as they hurried back and forth across the wide, barren space—like a city train station without the excitement of an impending trip. He ran into a friend and, barely introducing me, bent down to listen eagerly as the tiny man spoke. I trailed behind him as he made his way to place a bet at the window, his racing form folded under his arm. During our visits before, he’d been intent on me, and I didn’t like how far he seemed from me now. There was no magic in the horses, or the jockeys’ bright satin uniforms, or the pomp and circumstance of the announcer’s voice over the loudspeaker. Everything was gray and dark and cold.
Not long after I returned to Augusta, Mom called me to her one day. “Your dad sent us a letter,” she said.
I leaned against her as she read it out loud in her soft, clear voice:
“Halo Lovelies, Oh Sue I’m so sorry, I’m finally in touch with my irresponsibility, it’s what I’ve wanted to feel lately, because I have been doing things all along and not feeling them, and I kept thinking I know I do these things, but I don’t feel it like I used to and now I do, it’s great, and I get the only one I really hurt is me. So now I am living and breathing and digging (loving) everything. I know it will take a while to straighten everything out, but it will be easier now, now that I’m here doing it, instead of wanting to do it and feeling sorry that I wasn’t.”
The message ended with a description of how charmed he was by our conversation over dinner. “She’s such a blessing and I’ll be up as soon as I can.”
The majority of his letter had been way beyond my understanding. But I felt like my efforts to behave well had been rewarded, and I was happy to have made a positive impression. Even if he hadn’t realized he couldn’t stand to be away from me, which was my ultimate goal. And that meant more waiting.
As much as my separation from my father pained me, the life my mom and I were leading in his absence was actually running smoother than ever. After our house raising, the building had come together in fits and starts. By 1980, the construction site was our home, and we lived on the land with three other families, whose six kids were my first friends. The seven of us were given free reign to run back and forth through the woods between the houses, where our parents could rest assured that all of the snacks would be healthy and vegetarian, and we’d be encouraged to play outside whenever possible and only watch educational TV. The men had jobs off the land, but there was always a mom home somewhere, and I remember a safe feeling of being watched over.
Designed to heat itself with sunlight during the day, our house had four big skylights across its roof and four big windows in front. They looked out onto the yard Mom and Craig had cleared. It seemed I was always standing at one of the windows, careful not to get too close because the glass was chilly, even in summer, and I had been warned not to smudge it. My father’s promise of a visit “soon” had extended into more than a year, but today he was really coming to see me. I watched intently for the flash of yellow through the sun-dappled trees that would signal my father’s taxicab, doing math in my mind—it took three and a half hours to drive from Boston to midcoast Maine. If he’d left at nine, then he would be there by twelve thirty, or maybe one, depending on how many stops he made. I hummed with anticipation and joy. His cab should appear any minute, and he’d be there with me, just like he’d said.
Our house was like my sibling. We grew up together, intertwined. A ladder of two-by-fours nailed to the wall gave way to stairs, which were pitched at a steep angle and crossed by a low beam that held up the two bedrooms. When I was little, I fell down those stairs constantly. By the time I was old enough not to fall, I was also tall enough to hit my head on the beam, never quite adjusting to the house’s quirks. Our only source of heat was a pretty maroon woodstove, and we chopped our own firewood. From an early age, I knew how to use a small ax and feed logs into a wood splitter we rented from town, and one of my regular chores was to stack firewood in the summer, and bring in armloads of wood after school in the winter.
The house was what we did as a family when other kids and their parents were sailing or playing Ping-Pong or watching TV. Though, eventually there was a television with rabbit ears that sort of got a few channels, and a record player for the hours Mom and Craig spent listening to music—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Armatrading, the Pretenders, the Police. I knew how to pound nails (not well) and spackle (which wasn’t hard enough for me to be bad at it) and sand and stain wood (which was forgiving enough to hide the flaws in my work). I knew how to get a banked fire going again. I knew how almost every item of food I ate was made or where it came from. I knew how to weed and water the organic vegetables we grew in raised beds Craig built for Mom. The garden was like my refrigerator. I pulled up carrots, wiped the soil on the grass, and ate them standing in the sun. My childhood motto, probably learned from Mom, was “A little dirt never hurt.”
But still, my dad was the one who I thought held the wisdom. As I waited for him to arrive, I rested my fingertips on the wood of the windowsill, staving off my fear of disappointment by redoing the numbers in my mind. At two, when he still had not come, I held on to the logic of my math problem: if he left at eleven, he’d be there by two thirty. But no, just to be safe, maybe he hit traffic, or got his cab serviced, or grabbed a fish sandwich on Route 1.
When four o’clock arrived and the phone rang, I felt a heavy knowing inside of me, like being aware of my own powerlessness. But I did not lose faith, not even then. I still believed in my dad, even when Mom summoned me to the phone, her face so devoid of any emotion it was scarier than if she were crying or raging with fury. In the absence of any signal from her, I didn’t know how to behave.
I knew how I felt—bereft—but I didn’t let it show. I took the cold plastic receiver and turned away from Mom, preferring to be alone within the sliver of personal space I wanted to believe I could control.
“Hi, Sarah,” my dad said.
My heart went sweet and sour like marmalade. I loved his voice, the languor of his slightly nasal New Jersey twang, like he couldn’t be bothered to close up the syllables. He flattened out the a’s in “Sarah,” saying my name as no one else could, his tone giving me value. He retained the dropped consonants of the teenage hoodlum who sang doo-wop in the Trenton projects, where he was one of the only white kids and got kicked out of ninth grade for his bad grades and truancy. His words were separated by spaced-out pauses, the synapses of his brain—and his world vision—altered by those 120 acid trips.
“Bernie couldn’t lend me a cab for the weekend,” he said. Or maybe it was . . .
“My cab broke down on Ninety-Five, and it won’t be fixed until next week.” Or . . .
“I couldn’t get the money together to come this weekend.” Or . . .
“My back is acting up. I can’t make it this weekend. But I’ll try to come next weekend. And if I can’t get up then, I’ll be up as soon as I can.”
Never that he wouldn’t come to see me; always that he couldn’t, as if there were a barrier between Boston and Maine that made it impossible for him to reach me. Of course there was an obstacle, only I didn’t understand what it was at the time.
I listened to him very closely, careful not to do anything to scare him off. I did not cry or yell or lie down on the pine floorboards and kick my feet. I did not tell him I had been standing at the window all day, believing in him, when even he did not believe, not really, in himself, and Mom did not believe, and Craig did not believe, and my cat, Molasses, did not believe. “I’m sorry, Sarah,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said, not quite convinced of the lie myself but pretty sure he was.
“It’ll be great when I can get the cab,” he said in a rush, relieved to be on to the fun promises that were always really, truly going to happen next time. “We’ll go for a long drive. And we’ll stop at McClellan’s on Route 1 and get a fish sandwich. And we’ll drive up to Rangeley and go camping. I have a little tent we can use.”
“Okay,” I said, clutching the phone, willing myself to hold on, just hold on.
I never asked for an explanation of what was keeping us apart or pressed him to tell me why I should trust him. I simply believed him, the way my dad believed, insanely, after losing everything hundreds and thousands of times at the track, he would suddenly win one day, and it would be transcendent, everything he’d ever dreamed of on all of those sad, losing days. Next time he would win, he managed to believe. Yes, next time we would win, I, too, believed.
My dad’s great, lumbering laugh erupted from him; he was glad to be free of his earlier anxiety about disappointing me, and to have gotten exactly what he needed from me. I was happy, too, because even though I hadn’t gotten what I’d wanted, I’d made him happy.
If I didn’t say anything to scare him off, and I made myself smart enough and funny enough and pleasant enough, maybe I could keep him on the phone just a while longer, and maybe, just maybe, he would come see me soon. I would be a good girl whose father wouldn’t stay away for any reason in the world.
But long distance was expensive, and money was always an issue.
“I gotta go, Sarah,” he said. “This call’s costing a fortune, and I missed a shift this week because my back was acting up.”
“Okay,” I said, pushing down the panic rising within me.
“Tell Mommy I’m gonna send yous the money for last month as soon as I can. I’ll figure out when I can get up again, and I’ll send a letter with the dates.”
“When?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“I don’t know, Sarah, as soon as I can. I have to go.”
When I was sure he had hung up, I returned the receiver to its cradle and tried to fold myself back into reality, which seemed flat and stale compared to even just his voice on the phone. Around me were the roughly built counters, which were nothing more than open wooden boxes, really, topped with plywood, containing the big glass jars in which Mom stored brown rice and dried beans. This was my real life, but it felt like a cheap substitute for what I most wanted: my dad.
When we moved to the land full-time in the winter of 1980, Mom gave up her job at the health food store in Augusta. I loved having her at home with me. Her days were largely devoted to the never-ending tasks by which we shaped the house into a home and stayed warm and fed. Throughout the morning, she would return to the kitchen and punch down her rising bread, a job I enjoyed helping her with, my small fists sinking into the dough, which was soft and sticky, pliant in a way that felt very much alive.
Once the bread was in the oven, Mom could usually be convinced to play a game or do a puzzle with me. Craig didn’t like to play games or do puzzles, and he could be impatient with my little-girl whimsy, so we were not close. Instead, we were joined by a shared adoration of my mom. She made me a game out of small pieces of paper, each printed with a letter, which had a match hidden in the stack of squares. After we had played a few times, I knew my letters. I begged Mom to teach me to read, which fascinated me because I saw her doing it all the time. I wanted to be just like her, because she was beautiful and good at so many things.
Mom and Craig had met at Davis & Elkins in 1969 and maintained the bohemian habits of their generation, growing a few pot plants for occasional consumption during our first few years on the land. From an early age, I knew the plants were illicit and sometimes snuck other kids back to the clearing where they sprouted. Briefly, during Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, I worried Mom and Craig would get arrested and be taken away. But, overall, the pot intrigued me, as did everything on the land. It was something the grown-ups did, and I was interested in everything the grown-ups did.
My only issue with them smoking together in the evenings was that I wanted to watch TV like other kids, and instead, Mom and Craig preferred to listen to music and talk. They sometimes let me watch The Waltons as a compromise.
One night, Craig turned off the television after my show was over, and a small orb of light hung in the center of the darkened screen for a long moment. When that faded, it seemed to sever any tie we had to the outside world. A rattling sound scattered across one of the skylights. My head jerked up, even though I was always terrified I would see a face looking down at me through the glass. There was nothing there, just more darkness.
“It was only an acorn,” Mom said, smiling at me.
Craig kneeled and slid out a record, handling it carefully the way he had showed me, even though my own hands were too small, and I wasn’t allowed to play the records yet. There was a faint staticky hiss and the album began: Peter Gabriel’s Security.
I sat next to Craig on the floor and pored over the album cover for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, with its image of two suit-clad men shaking hands, one of them on fire. Craig lit a small purple glass bong. The room filled with sweet, musty smoke. He passed it to Mom. Her long hair fell around her face as she leaned down to inhale. Craig’s stereo speakers were large and powerful, and Peter Gabriel wailed amid a wash of electronic instruments. I became very aware of our place in the world, just the three of us alone together, tucked away in a small house amid a big forest on the edge of the immense ocean, and felt a deep melancholy I didn’t quite know what to do with.
I loved the music deeply, consuming it as if it were food, tasting its flavors of genius, of madness, and of the vast, magic world just beyond the land. When I got bored of listening, Mom played Parcheesi with me, always letting me be the red player, because that was my favorite, even when I gave her first pick.
Every night, Mom slid into my twin bed with me and read me a chapter or two from the books I already loved like family—Little Women and The Secret Garden, or my favorite book from my childhood, The Year of Mr. Nobody, the story of a discontented middle child who feels alienated from his family and so invents an imaginary friend.
With my Sesame Street comforter pulled up to my chin, my mom lanky beside me in jeans and her Guatemalan slippers, her bangles making their familiar music as she turned the page, I felt safe and content, maybe not entirely happy, but at least full of an uneasy peace that was a relief from my normal waiting state. Inside the world of the book, I could forget my own longing and lack. A few months into our new life on the land, I could read the easy authors kids learn first—Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.
Mom got a job and put me in a local day care. My only real, vivid memory of the place is how much I hated naptime, already eager for a life filled with constant activity and excitement. The heavy claustrophobia of insomnia rising, I knew I would not be able to sleep. But I was a perfectionist and a rule follower, never tantruming in front of anyone but Mom and Craig, and so I willed myself still.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I quietly reached for a book. The adults who found me reading couldn’t really be angry since I hadn’t disturbed anyone. My mutiny was permitted. Reading became a reward for me, and finally, something I could control.
As much as I loved reading, I would have preferred to be at home playing with my own toys, on the land with the other kids who were like me. Being out in the world was always a little fraught. We didn’t live like other people. We didn’t watch the same TV programs or eat the same food, and as much as my instinct was to fit in, I mostly liked how we lived. It was familiar, and it had an aura of old-timey adventure, like living in Little House on the Prairie. Going back and forth between the two realities—carob at home versus chocolate at day care, wooden blocks and tinker toys versus plastic, plastic, plastic—was like being bilingual.
From an early age, I had a list of chores I was expected to complete each week. Instead, I was often hiding away upstairs, tearing through a library book. I hated getting in trouble, but I was like a drunk at the bar in the final minutes before last call, trying to squeeze in a few more precious sips.
The one chore I didn’t have to be harassed about was checking the mail. As I stood on the side of the country road that passed by our house, I willed myself to yank open the wooden mailbox. Usually, it was just bills and seed catalogs for Mom.
But sometimes, there was an envelope that smelled exotic yet familiar, its exterior marked with my dad’s distinctive handwriting, which I adored and tried to copy for a time in my teens—my name rendered with lowercase a’s nestled between a capital S, capital R, and capital H. When I was little, these cards were mostly addressed to Mom. I clutched the envelope to my chest and ran all the way back, always a little surprised when our house came into view amid the unrelenting trees, the skylights glinting in the mellow New England sun. Mom was making a stained-glass window at the table, bent down over the pattern of blue and yellow flowers she’d laid out, her hair falling forward.
“Mom, Mom, you got a letter from Dad,” I said.
She looked up, her face tense, then smiled at me. “Here, I’ll open it,” she said.
I held my hand on her bare arm, freckled like mine, as she tilted the card so I could see the painting of an old-fashioned woman holding a brown dog, and read:
“Hi Sue and Sarah, Hope/Intend this catches up with yous. How does bringing Sarah down Sun the 21st or Mon. the 22nd sound and I’ll probably bring her back up on the bus, cause I just don’t have enough confidence in my bomb.”
My heart leapt in my chest. I was going to see my dad. I was, wasn’t I? I looked at Mom, but she was focused on reading, not giving anything away: “If it sounds good to you call me collect from the land or otherwise I’ll call you Weds. morning. Good luck, good weather with your house, tell everyone I love them, John.”
Mom gave me the card, picked up her soldering iron, and went back to work.
“Am I going to Boston?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” she said.
It was like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween all put together, but better, because it was a wonderful surprise I hadn’t dared to let myself hope for. Now I just had to wait until his phone call to make sure it was really happening.
“Why don’t you go outside and play?” Mom said.
Ever since I’d learned to read, I wasn’t so into playing in the woods. I’d outgrown the idea that a little dirt didn’t hurt, and I always seemed to be afflicted with a sunburn, even when I’d barely been outside. But this was the refrain of my childhood, and I wanted to behave so nothing would get in the way of my time with my dad. I took my book—its constant presence like an extension of my body—out to the front yard.
Everything on the land had a strong smell; the air never seemed to warm up completely, except for a few weeks in late summer, and in the short, cool afternoons, the earth’s odor was sharp and tangy with minerals. I lay on the grass, which was sweet and clean like the aftertaste of milk. It was so quiet I could hear the wind in the trees, a gentle whooshing noise that became hypnotic. There was something supremely lonely about the sound. In order to hear it, there must be no evidence of human life anywhere—no car engines or horns, no television laugh tracks, no human voices talking about the price of potatoes, no electric guitar solo from a classic rock song drifting over from someone’s radio. There was nothing and no one, a feeling like the end of the world, an absence and emptiness that created an early, unformed dread; I was all alone, as we were all alone, with nothing but the wind in the trees.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nice, easy read
Familiar story of broken people, addiction, and recovery but clearly a unique and informative path. Looking forward to the sequel. When books like this end I always feel like I lost a friend. Maybe Sarah can stop by for coffee someday and catch me up on how she is doing now. Take care.
I loved this book. It is the best book I have read in a long time in that I stayed up until the wee hours, unwilling to put it down. Perhaps it is because of my own struggles with my upbringing and how that has colored my life and how often I have doubted myself along my own creative path but I truly appreciated the candor and clarity with which the author wrote. This book has reaffirmed why I love memoirs so much.
Wish I could read it.