I almost didn’t cry the whole time I was back in Charlottesville, even though it was my childhood hometown, even though I hadn’t been there in over a decade, even though I’d taken the trip with the intention of grieving. Not until the three of us – Matt and Anna and I – went to the comic book shop. It’s not that I’d ever gone there with my mom. It’s just there’s this whole alternate history in my head where instead of moving away just before I turn ten, we stay and I frequent hip downtown stores like this as a teenager. I don’t have a picture of what my mom’s life looks like in this scenario. Just her being alive feels like enough.
I know it’s irrational to assume she would have been alright in Charlottesville when she wasn’t anywhere else. But mythology about this town runs in my family. My mom met my dad here while they were both UVA students. He said her idealization of that period was what drew her back later. And it does feel like a paradise lost of sorts, the fact that once upon a time my mom was a doctor’s daughter, attending an elite university, seen as a good match for a budding lawyer. That wasn’t the woman who raised me.
The most logical explanation is she had what it took to make it through school but couldn’t sustain it. Schizophrenia was always in her genes waiting to emerge; there was never any one thing that made her sick, or any one thing that could make her better. But some of the studies talk about environmental factors, and I should know it’s possible to be one person in one place and someone else somewhere else. Or maybe they’re talking about circumstances, like having to raise three kids all by yourself, what that does to a person.
My mom wasn’t the only person who raised us, but what I remember best from my time under sitters’ roofs is being bored. Practicing all the foreign words I knew out loud, watching shows we were too old for, fending off older boys. A shelf with two books on it. One was about people’s butts going on strike. The other was a hymnal: “Amazing Grace” was one of the first written things I ever cried over.
I should mention our caregivers were all black women. My mom raged at one for telling my brother his drawings of a rainbow should really have more than one color. She said the woman wasn’t imaginative, and I realized she thought on some level we were better than these people she was entrusting us to.
I couldn’t pay them or their homes a visit because I didn’t remember how to get to them. There were so many like that, sites I wanted to see but I’d lost touch with the people they belonged to. Even the most mundane errand locations, like where my mom went to get her hair cut. The salon was in a building that had served as a hospital during the Civil War; when I tried to play in its closets, the stylist informed me they were haunted. I told her I was too old to be deterred from poking around places by some story about a bogeyman, but this time the grown-up genuinely believed in their ghost.
And places like Grace’s house outside town towards the mountains. I was only there the one time. I realize now her parents might have invited me out of pity. She was best friends with Pearl, the girl I’d been assigned to sit next to on the bus. I knew the things about her that you could know about someone whose house you pass by every day. Her roof had come off in the hurricane; her dad had gotten a new car. At Grace’s we three played hide-and-seek. I want to say that’s the only impression her huge house made on me, the heightened number of hiding places. That, and the fact that she was far enough from town the Milky Way appeared as an actual strip of light. Staring up at the stars together, I tried to be deep and awkwardly asked Grace how she felt about being trans-racially adopted. On the way home her mom played “the sky is high but I’m holding on”, a song I’d never heard before and tried to soak up as the other two sang along.
Growing up, I never had friends over. I understood my mom would feel judged. My first hint of what race might mean was that she worried most about what my non-white friends’ parents might think of her. Our family was worse than white trash. She’d been all set up for success but somehow still managed to struggle.
In lieu of local connections from back in the day, I had Matt to accompany me as I made my rounds. The two of us had bonded in college over being transgender and autistic and poorer than other students and having to go to therapy. He moved to Charlottesville after graduation to be with his best friend Anna. It was only when I mentioned the first stop would be my old elementary school that Anna and I realized we’d been in the same class, under different names and genders. She’d brought in a Bionicle for one show-and-tell and I’d asked whether she really believed they existed. At the support group for children with divorced parents, I’d said I wished I could kiss my dad a dozen times at the end of weekend visits and she’d pointed out a dozen was only twelve. I’d assumed it was bigger.
I knew before looking that the underside of one of the playground slides would feature dinosaur bones printed on its plastic. That’s when I started worrying every stop on this tour would turn into a trivia game, that the only details I’d be able to remember would be the ones that didn’t matter. Still I stepped under to see it, telling myself that once I confirmed it was there everything else would feel more solid too.
I know healing should be less about excavating memories anyway and more just letting myself feel the things I didn’t feel even as they were happening. I shouldn’t be jealous of people who unearth terrors from their past, the skeletons still intact. The fact that the pain is so well-preserved must mean it really was that bad, still sharp enough to cut years later. Still, I had been looking forward to possibly coming back from this trip with a souvenir of sorts, even if it ended up being heavy.
I knew before we got to it that the community center where my twin brother and I had spent our summers would still be standing. A bit before we roller-skated in its gym, the building had served as the black high school, and it was selected for historical preservation partly thanks to a letter-writing campaign our teachers had us participate in. But a parking deck had replaced the playground where my brother and I once spent a morning on our own after our mom dropped us off late and in too much of a rush to register, and everyone had already left for that day’s field trip.
My twin and I had each other; it wasn’t a big deal. I only remember now because it would be a much bigger deal when she did the same thing to my little brother in Powhatan, the next place we lived. After that we all had to move to Yorktown, where my dad was. She wasn’t going to be trusted to raise us by herself again. So much of what I carry is like that. It’s mostly in the looking back that it hurts.
And there’s only so much I can see clearly enough to look back on it. I remember the public, natural spaces where my mom brought me and my brothers when she needed a break: parks and rec centers and nature trails. I tell myself it’s good we got to spend so much time outside, but sometimes I wonder what I’m missing in terms of memories of interiors. I can’t picture the lay-out of my bedroom at our old house there, and I have only one recollection set in it. It takes place just after my mom got reported to Child Protective Services for the first time. I had a fever, and the floor was encrusted with cat poop, and her voice switched to a different register, and she shook me, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough that I took in all the details I’d normally ignore and thought, “This is the worst day of my life,” which served for so long as the bookmark and benchmark to go back to it.
My mom’s first mistake, according to my dad, was spending too much on a house. I didn’t know when we lived there we couldn’t afford it, so I mistakenly registered leaving itself as the loss. In our house there, I had a room to myself, never mind that I can’t remember what it looked like. So the apartments and trailers that followed it marked a step down.
I know, I should know better to look to documents – whether they’re deeds, diplomas, marriage certificates – as evidence of a downward spiral. It’s never so straightforward, but a descent is easier to envision than madness as a constant presence, in the room with us no matter how big our home was.
But look, we had a garden outside the Charlottesville house. I had almost forgotten about it, maybe because it seems miraculous looking back that we managed it. Plants plea so much less than children or pets, but somehow they still got watered. One spring, we put pumpkin seeds in the ground and sunflowers came up instead. A mistake of labeling.
The star magnolia in the front yard was in full bloom when we stopped by the house, its pink petals crushed on the driveway. Growing up, I never guessed it was the same species as the dark-leafed, white-flowered Southern variety that’s always been my favorite thing to climb. Cross over the creek and through a thin strip of trees in Dad’s backyard in Yorktown and you’d come to a graveyard, an old one that contained Confederate soldiers. A magnolia grew there, too, with a spot at its top where I would sit and stare down at the lines of stones. I knew not to listen to the urge to jump, but I liked making myself feel it. When I wasn’t alone up there, I was with Ruth, the girl who could climb higher than me and didn’t have her soldier mom around when she got her period either.
I’d stayed in the area for college, but I mostly managed to avoid Yorktown and my mom’s place there. I had a dream the tree burned down once, so I had a college friend drive me there one Halloween night to check on it. I’d wanted them to ask questions about what it had meant to me. We were all so proud to have been admitted to our school. When worthiness is the thing you hold in common, it gets so hard to show weakness. And I hadn’t met Matt yet.
At the center of our school’s campus are the Sunken Gardens, a lawn set into the ground with steps leading down to it. One of the ghost stories was that on certain foggy nights the spirit of a Native American boy runs across it, suspended meters in the air not by supernatural powers but historical consistency: when he lived there, the space hadn’t been dug out yet.
I know part of me needs things to be haunted for when I don’t feel like I belong among the living. My mom fed my twin brother’s fascination with politics by buying him a book of famous speeches. I secretly borrowed it to read, but I was bored by all the promises and pomp until I came across a speech Chief Seattle had supposedly delivered. The last lines describe how Indians will always occupy this land, so we’ll never be alone here. I found this comforting rather than ominous. No one had talked to me about Native Americans in the present tense, and though I had a vague sense it was inappropriate for me to feel connected to the ghosts, given what my ancestors had done to them, I was getting old enough to realize my family wasn’t normal and I was trying to find ways to be proud of that.
My friend Hannah and I got in a fight when we were around eleven about which of us could have survived living in the Native American longhouse replicas we were touring on our class field trip. I’d been over to her house recently and seen the spread her mom put out for dinner, equal to what my mom might manage on an especially good Thanksgiving. So I argued Hannah wouldn’t adapt easily to the loss of that abundance, while I was already accustomed to wilderness. I cited the grass in our backyard as evidence. It was tall enough that laying down in it you were completely hidden from view.
The reason my mom didn’t mow it is because she was mentally ill and because we couldn’t afford a lawn mower; it wasn’t a conscious choice to cultivate something more natural than a lawn. I know now living off the land isn’t the equivalent of simply going without. It requires disciplined habits of mind. A woman daunted by cutting the grass couldn’t have lasted any longer out there than she did in the modern world.
Hannah and my hypothetical wasn’t supposed to include my mom at all: we were doing the kid thing where you imagine a world without any familiar grown-ups. But what struck me about the wigwams was that they were evidence that the expectations my mom was failing to meet hadn’t always been held, not by anyone. I wanted a world where people would not ask more from her than she could give.
Someone’s been writing weird messages in chalk on the bricks of downtown Charlottesville, urging people not to trust the police. Some Googling takes me to a Reddit thread where strangers are speculating on whether a local woman died by suicide or was murdered by alt-right bikers. The sense is that this is a deluded attempt to memorialize a personal tragedy through politics. But it’s all always been political.
I have to be careful about speaking the city’s name aloud in front of some of the activists I know. It can hurt them even if they aren’t from there. They’ve seen communities come together to protect each other when they’re up against forces too strong to take down alone. If my mom never made her way into a circle of care, never found her people, it’s partly because she’d been led to believe someone like her – white and well-off even when not well – should be more than capable of taking care of herself.
And it’s so easy to mistake what happened to us as our problem: painful and sad but contained, an accident of nature, not a human pattern. It takes me forever to find the word “disability” and the accompanying force “ableism”, partly because it means letting go of “sick” and its implications of a cure, of a separate experience with a start and an end. I manage it only when I think of the police, of Child Protective Services, of my dad, of me, and realize my mom was never truly alone, that her life was plenty intervened on, just not by the right people,
The first of the things my mom left behind that I read through was a little red notebook with a painting of a cardinal on the front. It was a gift someone named Susan gave her on her twenty-first birthday, a little younger than I am now. It’s full of handwritten inspirational quotes, some vaguely religious. There’s a poem about the passing of time: “In a while / too short to count / I’ll be old / and when my kids read this / they’ll say / Mom sure must have been.”
She wasn’t that old, though. But here, another journal, this time the bird is a penguin, it’s a year later and someone named Andra writing, “By the way I told Susan the name of the guy you like. And if you believe that then I’ll sell you a bridge.” So she had friends, real friends.
The poems are supposed to be for my mom to put up in her class. She was getting a degree to become a special ed teacher – she got the degree but never went into the classroom. I don’t know how the three of them knew each other. I hold a photo in my hands – Andra was black, but if my mom had ever mentioned her black friend I would have told her that didn’t mean anything.
The thing is full of misspellings, but the handwriting’s neat. A poem called “Strange” asks, “What is strange?.. Is it when you are in a new environment?” It’s dedicated to my mom. Andra identifies herself as someone who’s “strange for 24 hours of the day;” my mom is “strange for 17 hours / of the day / but she has not figured it / out yet.” I cling to that “yet.” The world I long for isn’t one where my mom isn’t strange. It’s where she figures it out sooner, finds the right people to share it with.
Sorrah Edwards-Thro is a queer, trans masc, and autistic writer. He shares a home in Maryland with twelve people and holds down jobs as a tutor, grantwriter, and translator. Their work has appeared in Free State Review, the London Reader, and Entropy.
© 2020, Sorrah Edwards-Thro