I wrote my first poem around age 12, I think. I rode my first motorcycle at age 8, I’m sure. I love twists and turns, throttle and words.
I’ve always been driven with a journalist sort of mind. I have always known I would write and be in these mountains, these West Virginia mountains. Even though as a girl I dreamed of myself as a writer – a war corresponded, a fashion editor, a script writer – I wanted to be interviewed on Merv Griffith as a writer perhaps with my fellow West Virginian Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton (in fact that was the last time I remember watching Merv was when Mary won) I imagined Merv would ask me about where I’m from and I would share all my ideas and then, he would complement me on my shoes.
The idea of being a poet came later.
I’ve learned sometimes writing can be prophetic. As an adult poet I was given the assignment to write about quantum physics and Randy Moss (the West Virginia native all-pro football player it didn’t turn into a book, not quite but the idea, or part of it is a TEDx Talk (for now) http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=u2ocBoGBWSo.
My journey to merge these two topics – Moss and Quantum Physics, in a poem is as windy as the road from Richmond, VA to Charleston WV. It’s an over the mountain through the woods kind of story about Affrailachia and following your dreams and it started — long before I knew I would write poetry – or my first book Valley Girl that I would dedicate to the folks who taught me how to drive.
It started in a car ride.
When I think of myself between the ages 15-16 my main priority was getting the privilege to drive — legally.
Growing up in West Virginia I knew the freedom of being on a go-cart or a four wheeler. I knew what it felt like steer a boat and gallop a horse. From mopeds to the lawn mower. I knew I liked to drive – but the real freedom I craved was in a car.
My Daddy – a man I wouldn’t meet until age 12 and then again at age 15 when I was delivered to him at gas station somewhere between Tallahassee and Richmond, VA. My Dad said I was just like my Momma – I could drive anything. I have no memory of them together but in this statement I knew he knew my Momma well.
He shared this after I hopped out of my Granddaddy’s Cadillac with more suitcase than could fit into his 4 cylinder no air-conditioning Chevrolet. That day, my Dad let me take the wheel of his Chevy. I was 15 — it was illegal but it was his way of offering me what he had – the keys. For me I knew right then we were kindred spirits– my Daddy gave me freedom and a highway. He calls me a Gypsy to this day, Gypsy Girl.
My oldest son is 15 (he’s now 18 geez, this blog post took me a long time). I let him drive – with his permit – it’s legal. My son is the same age when I first fell in love and found a connection with God and with the mountains. That love has stayed with me.
I’m teaching my son to drive now — check your rear view— on occasion. Signal, it’s polite. You’re too close to the curb. Driving is a life metaphor.
They say boys pick women like their mother. My son has a girlfriend. She’s bright, beautiful — and biracial (he has a different girlfriend since the time this was written but, still bright, beautiful and biracial). I’m afraid to ask if he is in-love so while I’m teaching him to drive I say things like keep your eyes on the road, wear your seat belt, no texting even at the stoplight. I haven’t asked him, can she drive?
I can drive.
Two months after I turned 16 after living with my father for 8 moths — I decided to go home to West Virginia. I had a burning desire to be with my mother and younger sisters. I missed the familiarity of my town – the railroad tracks, Dairy Queen Mister Misty’s (grape and cherry mixed together), and eating dinner at least three of my neighbor’s houses. I have never been shy about getting my plate and as model-skinny as I was back then my bottomless pit eating was a neighborhood joke. I would always arrive at my neighbor’s doorstep hungry and barefoot
I grew up in the suburbs of sorts in a nice quiet town – middle class. At my Mother’s house I certainly had plenty of food and shoes – in fact I had two closets – but I’ve always like to feel the earth underfoot, barefoot.
When I decided to “go home”. My mother had divorced my step-father– and I had transitioned in my town from mixed girl to a black girl. At least this was the report from my friends in St. Albans, West Virginia – I was black, now.
I had a new style and confidence. This attitude was different from what I had learned as a model in New York. I started modeling at 12 and by 15 I had already worked for major fashion designers – but returning home from Richmond, with my Dad, I had learned a new walk and I carried with me the new rhythms of hip hop and coconut hair lotions.
I finally learned to do my hair.
While living with my Dad I often took the train from Richmond to Charleston on these yearnings be back home — I was always on a mission to get back to West Virginia. In my Richmond high school (Meadowbrook) the kids talked as if West Virginia was like some other planet. I’ve learned since most of the world does too. I couldn’t wait to drive. To be able to get myself from here to there on my own time.
At my Dad’s I had one pair of tennis shoes — I needed a new coat and I knew that all the amenities for a teenage girl – especially a teenage girl that had been a professional model in New York were at my mother’s house. My father certainly provided what I needed — a roof, food and love but he struggled to provide me with Clinique lip-gloss and moisturizer and the connectivity of fashion and fun. At my mother’s I always had a spread of new clothes, shopping and girl time.
I needed train fare. So, I got a job. Not a modeling job but as a telephone sales operator job at Olin Mills. I landed the job sharing my photography vocabulary — I explained that I had worked with Ralphs Lauren and such. I imagine they thought I was lying – they just needed me to answer to call people and sell their photo packages. I sold them and I sold them well – I made the hour’s fun pass by practicing different accents and characters on the phone.
It was at Olin Mills that I met a woman who was from West Virginia, my supervisor. She and I traded West Virginia stories. Our conversation made me miss home – not just lip-gloss. We talked about the beauty of the mountains, waterfalls and the Mountaineers. I shared about the long walks I would take with friends and my baton twirling.
One day she said she was going home. Without hesitation or permission from my mother or my father I asked for a ride. She said sure and that there would be no charge. I was glad to save my money – I was ready to go shopping.
I finally asked my Dad – he agreed – and I painted a very reliable picture of the woman I had been working with for two weeks. My father dropped me off in the parking lot to meet my supervisor. I remember it well – he was wearing tube sock and dress shoes with shorts. I was teenager and embarrassed at his attire – and then I looked the car I would be riding in for the next 8 hrs.
It was an old car – big like a Delta 88 with Bondo and no bumper. It was in this car that I had a life-changing trip home.
My supervisor was sitting with Jack – her husband in the front seat. I call him Jack because the two of them reminded me of the riddle –
“Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean”
Jack was the skinniest man I had ever seen and she was the biggest. She must have been over 300 pounds. He was not only skinny but the mean – his meanness I discovered with ever turn of the car – he told her about her weight the way she shifted the car. There are a lot of turns between Richmond and Charleston. It’s a windy road.
I was anxious to get home and nothing was going to stop me. Not this car or the puppies I discovered I would be sharing the back seat with.
I waved good bye to my Dad and noticed the back seat floor board was rusted – there was a big hole and you could see the road. This was dangerous – certainly for me but for the puppies roaming. I discovered I would be traveling with a litter of puppies. It was my job to keep them from the hole in the floor board.
I knew this was going to be a long ride home.
Sharing a back seat with puppies was cute until they peed – or worse pooped. Luckily the car broke down – at least three times. I say luckily because during these breakdowns I was able to clean the car and me up. Jack was cruel – he chastised his wife for everything. I cringed at the cruelty and clung to those innocent puppies they offered me comfort. He was also uncomfortable that I was Black, I could feel it. My supervisor refused to let him say nigger even though I knew it was sitting there like another passenger on his tongue
I took my mind home to the dogwood tree in my mother’s front yard – wandered myself back to New York City and Central Park. In that ride I dreamed of being a scientist of exploring things that I could not see. I had plenty of places to go in my mind and I imagined one day I would be driving myself in a fine, fast and fancy car.
The closer we approached Charleston, I realized my mother would be furious at my Dad for letting me take this journey with Jack and his wife. The car by this time was smoking. As soon as I saw West Virginias gilded gold dome capitol glowing like a beaming beacon, I knew I had made it!
They dropped me at the Go-mart. I stood at the pay phone with my bag, smelling like dog, hungry.
I was home.
I had grown up in what is known as the Kanawha Valley, I knew the seasons of life. I knew you had to cross bridges daily. For me then and now those bridges represent how you get over the challenges of life. My journey with Jack, his wife and the puppies was no different. It was full of challenges – race, socio-economic, landscape – but was driven by the knowing and safety of home.
My Dad called to make sure I had made it home. He shared that he too was going to be coming home. He was a native West Virginian who had spread his wings in Richmond and had now decided he was coming home and was going to live in Rand, WV.
I had been raised Baptists, I knew how to pray. I prayed a lot on the car ride home with Jack – for him to stop his cruel verbal attacks on his wife. I felt like my prayers were answered as soon as we hit the Welcome to WV sign. He – magically stopped.
My adolescent indeed was challenging – It intersected the American standard of beauty in modeling, my body image, being bi-racial and a host of family dysfunction and abuse.
My Mother was still young when I came home from my Dads– she had me as a teenager so often family friends helped in my rearing. I understand this now – as the mother of three the value of the village.
One family friend took me to church – this wasn’t a Baptist church as I was used to but a “spiritual” church. Here I learned about affirmations and how to think about your thinking. She taught me Bible verse and that lesson stuck with me.
For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7
It was in this church that the map of my mind would alter – I felt that we all me and Jack, my father in his tube socks, my mother – all of us have something in common.
Life started connecting for me – I could see that small town and people are all interrelated like the parallel tracks from Rand to St. Albans.
I knew if I wanted to I could walk from my Mothers to my Dads new address in the unincorporated town of Rand. I knew where Rand was because – we passed it often on the way to my Mothers Credit Union.
The West Virginia breeze blew my imagination and memory often. I learned to listen to the wind. I listened as an adult as I did as a child to the wind and often heard the familiarity of the train.
Amtrak always moved the wind fast — passing like the moment when the Oprah Winfrey show called my NYC agent to request my appearance on a special show about up and coming young models. Oprah was my hero.
My Mother refused the request because I had skipped school that day – my Mother would later discover to her horror why.
I didn’t know that Oprah was going to call the day I skipped school, I was most concerned about missing my first appointment for braces. Oprah called before my mother sent me to my Grandfathers in Tallahassee with a big Cadillac – before I would be sent to my Dad’s with the Chevrolet and the roll down windows, before anyone knew of the terror I was living in.
The day Oprah called I was on my way to school — my white step-Father naked and aroused – again – said good morning to me asking for me to look, to touch him, complimenting my developing hips . He had a way of subtly reminding me that nobody would ever want my mother –because of me, because I was Black.
I walked out the front door that day wishing I could drive – and just keep driving. Instead I walked the train tracks. I’m not sure how far I walked that day, but I paused to autograph my name with a rock into a utility box on the tracks. I was going to sign books one day. Last I checked my signature is still there.
I am a writer.
Childhood dreams, like an Amtrak train, passing. I watched fashion models and thought of model trains, model ships, model behavior. Everything had specific directions and rules.
I knew that West Virginia – The Valley was special. It was healing in so many ways. I wondered if the Valley created entanglements. Was the Valley giving us all the same “spin”? I knew as that things exist in duality until you decide.
My opportunity to go on Oprah is gone. I kept the dream and hope alive until I watched the Oprah show go off air I realized that it will never be.
I grew up.
My teeth are still crooked teeth from skipping school and that missed orthodontist appointment. They remind me of windy roads – and that our childhood dreams, losses and experiences shape us – they sharpen us, they don’t define, we define us. We have that power – the power to decide how we see things.
I remembered the hole in the car floor with Jack and his wife. How I watched it like a black hole and the road moving underneath pass– how I created a future in that hole that would get me home, again and again and as many times as needed to a place that was safe and sometimes – out.
When I arrived at the Go-mart — my mother hugged me. She didn’t ask any questions then she told me about my gift. She was proud of me – of my grades of writing for the school paper for being strong and telling the truth.
She had a car for me. A blue Subaru Legacy – stick shift. It was time for me to get my license.
I drove myself, with a cool lean and my Uncle Boy in the passenger to take my drivers teat. I passed made the decision to be an organ donor then signed my name – in my mind this was my official second autograph.
The Sheriff handed me a lamented card, it said West Virginia Wild and Wonderful.
I could go and be anything. I could drive.
Many thanks to Elizabeth Gaucher for driving this essay. I was nervous to publish because at the time it was written I was in the process of prosecuting my step-father for sex crimes against me and others. He has since been found guilty of sexual abuse and I am free to not only write what I want but free to live a richer and fuller life having accepted not only my crooked teeth but all of me.