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Emily Raboteau | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, created by Deesha Philyaw.


How has the experience of raising children shaped your own personal growth as a writer and as an individual?

I have two kids. They are now eleven and thirteen years old. My writing habits have changed a lot since they came along. I’m more methodical now. I try to get a little bit of writing every day, preferably in the mornings, rather than binge writing at night, which is what I used to do. My subject matter has also changed. In the last decade plus, I’ve been writing less fiction and more nonfiction – personal / political essays about the forces that threaten my kids’ well-being. My new book, Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse,” is a collection of linked essays about climate change, social and environmental justice, from the lens of Black motherhood. I’m more interested in local politics than I used to be. I guess I feel I have more skin in the game, though I don’t mean to suggest anyone needs to have kids to feel that way. 

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a parent, what would it be?

Since I knew that I wanted to have children, but not the degree to which it would take a village to raise them, nor how much wisdom I would need from older women, I would advise myself to live closer to my mother, or to convince my mother to move closer to me. 

How do you navigate societal expectations or stereotypes as a Black parent in your writing while staying true to your authentic voice?

I write about stereotypes pretty directly. I suppose my authentic voice means to call them out. For example, I wrote an essay about the insidious racism and stereotypes that surface in New York City playgrounds among parents anxious about school placement. What the “good” schools are. Where the “bad” schools are. Those conversations are really code for race and class. We have one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. It’s so painful. 

What themes or topics do you find yourself drawn to explore in your work since becoming a parent, and why?

I was a travel writer before I had kids. My last book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora represented a decade of travel looking at Black utopian communities across the globe. My writing became a lot more local to NYC after having the kids, since this is where we live, and it’s harder to do deep investigative journalism elsewhere. Luckily, New York City is a global city, and endlessly fascinating, with so many layers and pockets. Ironically, I wrote this one essay called “Climate Signs,” about visiting a public art project staged across the city’s five boroughs, and it was anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, even though I technically never left home. I’ve learned to train my traveler’s gaze upon my home place. That said, now that the kids are older, they’re saying they want to go to Japan…

How do you handle creative challenges or setbacks?

I’ve learned to ask for extensions on deadlines when I need them, which is pretty much always. I’m late with everything. Someone always gets sick, or gets head lice, or something, throwing a wrench in my writing time. I’ve learned to be more flexible, less precious about guarding my time. The pandemic was the biggest setback of all, but I was weirdly productive in that era. Maybe because I was taking notes on and writing about the era itself, as we were living through it. 

How do you navigate the fine line between sharing personal experiences in your writing while respecting the privacy of your family?

I’m not comfortable revealing very much about my family at all, outside of the experience of mothering, which is to say, my own experience. I don’t write about my kids’ diagnoses or gender identities, for example. Their life stories are still in development, and are theirs to tell. The only story I feel comfortable telling is my own. I write about my fears for my kids, my hopes for them, my love for them.

How do you carve out time for self-care, down time, and creative expression? 

I’ve been enjoying gardening for both self-care and creative expression. I try to get out into my garden every day, even if it’s just to have a cup of coffee, or to weed a little. It calms me down to be out there, among the pollinating plants, watching the bees and birds and stray cats. You know, I went through this Jamaica Kincaid phase in my twenties. I read everything she’d published – except her book on gardening. I wasn’t ready for it until I reached middle age.

How has your parenting journey impacted your perspective on your writing career and artistic aspirations?

Being a parent has both lowered my bar and raised it when it comes to my writing career. I’ve published three books. I’ll be satisfied if I publish five total before I die. I just want one of those books to survive me. I can’t know which book that will be. For me, that would be enough. I remember when my kids were babies hearing some kind of calculus about how having a baby was like giving up on writing two or three books. I felt upset about that at the time, as if I’d given up on a dream. I’m more relaxed about it all now. I’d rather take my time with the writing so that it’s seasoned. I’d rather have quality time with my kids while they’re still under my roof than feel bitter about not spending enough time working. 

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

I have comadres in my community – women with kids the same age as mine. We trade childcare to offer one another free time to do whatever it is we need to do. I feel comfortable asking these women if they can take my kids, and vice versa. I think it’s good for my kids to be exposed to other kinds of parenting, other cultures, other languages.

What advice would you give to other mothers who aspire to pursue their writing goals while raising a family?

Find the comadres. If you’re mother’s still alive, live near her so that she can help out. Wake up early in the morning. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Join a writing community.

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

Grace Paley was my teacher. She’s one of my heroes because she balanced writing with activism and parenting. Like Alice Munro, she only wrote short stories. That’s what she had time to do, at the coffee table, while her kids napped, or were at school, She had time to write short-form. The form had to fit around the content of her life. 


Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Emily Raboteau’s books are Lessons for Survival, Searching for Zion, winner of an American Book Award and finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the novel, The Professor’s Daughter. Since the release of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, she has focused on writing about the climate crisis. A contributing editor at Orion Magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Raboteau’s writing has recently appeared and been anthologized in the New Yorker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, the Atlantic, Best American Science Writing, and elsewhere. She serves as nonfiction faculty at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writing Conference and is a full professor at the City College of New York (CUNY) in Harlem, once known as “the poor man’s Harvard.” She lives with her family in the Bronx.

Terminal

The moment she sees the blue-and-orange checked dress shirt, she knows she must follow him.

He pulls an upright roller bag and weaves around slower foot traffic while talking into a cell phone. The cell phone is the second sign. Follow that man.

She tries to appear casual, watching everyone they pass to see if they notice her following him. She does not want to be observed like this, so reckless, so impulsive.

He pauses by a kiosk stocked with travelers’ toiletries. She stops a short distance behind, still unable to see his face. She reaches for her own cell phone as she waits, opens the photo album titled Dad. She’d created it two months ago, the day after her father’s burial at the Islamic cemetery in Houston. 

She scrolls down until she finds it: the photo of her with her dad and brother in a sari shop on Hillcroft ten years ago. She is smiling broadly in the foreground, shiny black hair not yet tinged with gray. Her brother stands to the right at the shop counter, his wallet out, looking at something across the room. Her father stands behind her, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, partially obscured by her profile, caught in between realizing a photo is being taken and trying to get out of the way. His expression, not meant to be captured, has always amused her, the look of someone who was not supposed to be there. 

Her last communication with him was a text the night before he died. A single mom, she had been putting her six-year-old to bed and hadn’t picked up when he called. Putting your nanubhai to bed–can’t talk now. His reply: Ok. 

She had called him back the next day. Twice that morning, three times that afternoon, and many times that evening, all going to voicemail after four rings. Then in the middle of the night, her brother called. Their dad was gone. 

The increasing pressure she had felt in her chest throughout the day had signaled to her that this was coming. It was as though she and her dad had sent the same silent message to one another when they hadn’t answered their respective phones: can’t talk right now. Too busy trying to survive. The struggle to keep going, albeit in different ways, had bonded them across the miles between her home in Ohio and her dad’s hospital room in Texas. 

Even though his death at the age of eighty-three had not been a surprise, the moment of their parting had been so nebulous, so undefined. Missed calls lacked the finality she associated with death. True, she had attended the viewing and burial, had witnessed the white shrouded body lowered into the grave by her brother and three family friends. And yet she felt as though she had been pocket dialed by her father by accident and so she waited now, listening to all of the background noise until maybe he would realize she was on the line. 

 

As she waits by the kiosk, she scrutinizes the narrow sliver of her father’s shirt visible on her phone, then studies the man carefully. The blue-and-orange checked pattern is the same.

The man turns and resumes down the concourse and she, more determined now, pockets her phone and follows him. She notices his graying black hair and the way he holds his body tall, erect. She wonders if he always walks as though he is on his way to a job interview. 

Closer now, enough to reach out her arm and touch him if she wants, she smells a familiar scent, gone as quickly as it came. The urge to inhale this man seizes her. Airport smells–coffee and some sort of cleaner–flood her nose instead. Just a little closer. She expects Old Spice or Speed Stick musk or Benson & Hedges Ultra Light Regulars mixed with the cloves she imagines him chewing after a smoke. Yet the air around the man is devoid of scent and her heart aches. 

She’s gotten so close that she hears his voice speaking into the phone. Like a magnetic force it draws her to him. Suddenly he veers left and then center again and she follows, narrowly avoiding a plump blonde woman holding a young girl’s hand, Cape Cod branded on the woman’s navy blue sweatshirt. Normally she has extensive sympathy for anyone she perceives to be a parent traveling alone with their child, but today she regards this pair as an unwelcome island dividing her and the man. Her arm grazes the girl’s blonde ponytail as she hurries forward, straining to make sense of the dull hum coming from the man’s mouth, to break the sound down into some language she can understand.

And then she hears him laugh. Recognition floods her, the laugh unmistakable. She can’t explain, but she is certain now that she knows who he is talking to, as if she were his daughter on the other end.

What does his daughter call him? she wonders. If she called out to him right now–Baba!–would he turn around? Or maybe Daddy? She doesn’t know how old his daughter is, what her voice sounds like. And here she was, over forty. It never occurs to her that the man might be closer to her age, that he is bhai and not baba.

She strains to make out what comes after that magnificent laugh, to catch the special tone of voice he surely saves for his youngest so that he does not have to tell her that she is his favorite. Panic fills her chest when he pulls the phone away from his ear for a second, looks at it, and then brings it back. He might hang up at any moment and the connection will be gone.

Desperate, she forms a plan. She will pass slightly in front of him and to his left just when he starts speaking, close enough to hear his exact words. She misses her first opportunity when an oblivious passenger walks straight into her path. Her face flushes with anger at the slight man with close-cropped hair in a black peacoat walking with his head down, hands in pockets. Idiot! Watch where you’re going!

She eyes the man she is following and quickens her pace. Soon she walks alongside him, holding her backpack out to her left side like a shield against anyone else who gets in her way. She casually tucks her long hair behind her right ear and listens. 

It’s not English…but what is it? Is it her own Bangla? She glances sidelong at his face. The bushy eyebrows over dark eyes, sunken deep into the pock-marked face, surprise her. Still she lingers like a mosquito, hovering, patient. She yearns to hear him speak again, to find the parts of him she knows despite his stranger’s face.

Suddenly her backpack is pushed from behind and she pitches forward. She recovers her balance quickly and turns to glare at the teenager who has run into her. 

“Sorry,” he says and points to the cart passing them, the driver shouting “Make way please, cart behind! Cart behind!” 

“Whatever,” she mutters. Disgusted, she turns away from the teenager. She takes one step forward and stops short.

The man has vanished. 

Her heart drops. Holding her breath, she scans the terminal for the stranger who is so much more. 

To her horror, she spots the man some distance ahead in the wide corridor. He has stopped by gate B9 and is flagging down the cart that just drove past her. The driver stops and the man begins to climb into the empty seat behind the elderly couple who have taken the middle row. Her gaze locks with his for a moment and then she watches, helpless, as he is taken away. 

A splinter of rage pierces through her from within and she feels the heat coming off of her, searing her skin and rising from it like steam. Once again, she’s missed him. Once again, because she had been busy tending to somebody else. 

Propelled by the combustion of anger and loss churning inside of her, she runs to catch up with the teenager and shoves his arm. “You!” she yells. “Look!” She points to the cart quickly disappearing from view. “You made me lose my dad!”

The teenager removes one of his earbuds. “I’m sorry, what?” he asks, a mixture of surprise and mild amusement on his face.

His almost-smirk, the idea that he could be laughing at her, is too much. “My dad!” she shouts. “He got in that cart and now I can’t get to him because you got in my way!”

Others slow down and stare as she tries to catch her breath, as she pushes down the panicked sob that threatens to pour out. The teenager raises his hands and backs away. She realizes that he looks scared now, that she is screaming and baring her teeth, that she has been standing too close to him.

“Hey now.” A heavyset man wearing a pair of brown cowboy boots, his long-sleeved button-down shirt tucked into his jeans, approaches her and although he does not lay a hand on her, she flinches at the sensation of his touch. 

“We’ll find your dad,” he says. His eyes, clear blue behind wire-rimmed glasses, distract her with their absolute confidence. “I’m Jeffrey. What’s your name?” 

“We’ll find him?” she asks, ignoring his question.

“Of course.” He shifts his weight, adjusts the strap of the black bag slung over his shoulder, and strokes his goatee, chestnut brown streaked with gray. “Where y’all flying to today? I got a long layover. You and I can just head on over to y’all’s gate. I guarantee he’ll beat us there on that four-wheeler.” Jeffrey cracks a smile. 

She realizes the teenager is gone, that the people who had stopped to stare have moved along. 

“We weren’t going to the same place,” she says, her voice cracking. A tear makes its way out of the corner of one eye and trails down her cheek.

“That’s alright,” he says. He fiddles in the front pocket of his bag and finds a brown paper napkin that he hands her gently. “We just need to know where he’s going and we can figure out the gate.” He points down the terminal. “There are screens that tell us the gate for every flight. There can’t be too many choices. We’ll narrow it down. Let’s go find ourselves one of those screen banks.”

She nods and begins walking with him towards the central domed area ahead where multiple corridors intersect. As they make their way through the concourse, she thinks about what she will say when they arrive at the screens, how to explain that she does not know her father’s actual destination. That the last time she saw his face, his real face, he had dried blood on his lower lip from being intubated and only half of his upper teeth, the partials he wore having been removed. That his shocked expression had changed at the viewing over the hours he lay there as his body, shrouded in white, warmed and his face relaxed so that he looked like he was laughing. That after she kissed his forehead, her lips smelled sickly sweet like formaldehyde for the rest of the afternoon and she had not washed them off. That still she carries dirt from his grave, wrapped in a tissue and in a ziploc bag, in her backpack, for no reason other than she hasn’t been able to bring herself to remove the only thing that’s close to them both now. That she knows she will never see him again.

Suddenly she stops. “I’ve got to go,” she says. “I–I’ll miss my own flight.”

He looks at her, surprised. “You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I just…I didn’t realize what time it was. I’ve got to go.” She spins around and hurries back the way she came, hoping he won’t follow. She doesn’t look back, having no way to answer the question she knows she will see in his eyes. 

She ducks into the first women’s restroom she finds and sits on the commode in a corner stall. She stares at the dark gray floor tiles, listening to the sounds of people coming and going. She hears faucets turning on and off, the whoosh of flushing toilets, small talk. A mother instructing her child to “please sit down, sweetie. Mommy needs you to sit.” 

Finally, she emerges and studies her face in the mirror as she washes her hands. The brown skin, large eyes, silver strands glinting within thick black waves that frame her face and tumble down her shoulders. Her father’s eyes. Her father’s nose. 

She does not look like she has lost her mind. Only my dad, she thinks. She gives herself one last look before she dries her hands and walks out. 

It is not until she is at her gate, staring at its blue sign with white lettering, that it dawns on her. B9. She looks around for the cart, even though she had seen it pull away from B9 with her own eyes. She remembers the moment the man climbed in, how they’d locked eyes before he’d taken his seat. He had given no special sign of recognition, but they had both known that they had been there together in the terminal before he had disappeared.

She sinks down at the end of a row of stiff connected chairs, her backpack taking up most of the seat behind her. She lets out a deep sigh and looks around at her fellow passengers, each passing the time in their own way. A man she guesses is in his sixties sits nearby, legs crossed, happily working a crossword, occasionally popping a Cheez-it into his mouth. She watches him out of the corner of her eye as he periodically turns to the table next to him and murmurs something in a tender voice. Not wanting to be intrusive, several minutes pass before she finally looks at the table and notices the soft black netted carrier, a tiny calico cat nestled inside. The cat seems unbothered by the noise or confinement, content to rest near its companion. 

The man catches her gaze and smiles. “She’s good with trips,” he says, pushing his glasses up onto the upper bridge of his nose.

She smiles back. “It must help how you keep letting her know you’re there,” she says. 

He returns to his crossword and she pulls out her phone. Her child’s father has texted a photo of their kid laughing, eyes closed, snuggled into a pile with his dad and stepmom’s puppy and toddler. It was the kind of photo she would have forwarded to her dad. She thinks fondly of the man she had followed through the terminal, the matter of who had left the other by now irrelevant.




Ten Questions for Renee Rutledge

What inspired you to tell this story? 

My first novel, The Hour of Daydreams, was inspired by the questions I had after reading a Filipino folktale. Why would a woman marry a man who stole her wings? Why would she leave her daughter behind? Writing the novel was my process of uncovering the answers, to explore motivation and tell the story behind the story.

For my first children’s book, One Hundred Percent Me, I wrote the story I wished I could have read to my own daughters when they were growing up, one that includes a character of mixed Asian and Latina heritage like them. When I became a mother, I repeatedly witnessed my daughters being asked the same questions about “what they are” or where they’re from. The main character in One Hundred Percent Me turns those questions on their head to say, “I’m from here; this city is just as much mine as yours; and I am myself and beautiful.”

What did you edit out of this book?

In writing the children’s book The ABCs of Asian American History, it was important for me to make sure it is not stereotypical, but rather breaks down stereotypes. That it doesn’t show Asian Americans as monolithic, but as complex and multidimensional. I included words like “kimono” or “zen” to take them back from Western representations and make clear they have a deep and long history in Asia. Too easily a book like this could have contributed to a generic notion of Asian Americans, but I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce young learners to facts and people they don’t get the chance to read about in school. To open the conversation. To be celebratory while not letting the realities of the Exclusion Act and internment be ignored. And to include a wide range of Asian American ethnicities, from early contributions to contemporary figures. As you can imagine, this was a tall task!

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion? 

Going back to my novel on this one, I learned I like to leave myself breadcrumbs. After completing a particular movement or scene, I write myself notes about what I think is going to happen next and what is running through the characters’ heads before I put the keyboard away. When I come back to the manuscript, I read my notes and they connect me to the current I had been following when I stopped. I also like to edit as I go. I read and re-read. Then I add to what I’ve written, and I re-read again. The ending of the novel was something I thought I was writing toward the entire time, but it wasn’t a moment I could pinpoint. It came to me rather than the other way around. I read and re-read and nothing in the text stopped me. Each sentence rang true in a continuous thread that as a whole became something apart from me, something that could stand on its own, and what I had been writing toward was there. 

What was your agenting process like?

When I finished the third and final draft of The Hour of Daydreams, I decided to go straight to the small press route. I had compiled a short list of small presses that I’d researched, those with a solid distribution channel, willing to take risks, and investing everything they had in innovative literary fiction. I received a response and acceptance upon sending out my first set of queries, and timing-wise, I was just really lucky to have connected with the perfect home for my novel with Forest Avenue Press. At the moment, I’m not agented, but that’s a route I will pursue upon completion of my next book. 

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Taking a book tour to Portland, the press headquarters of my first book, and to electrifying New York, were highlight moments as a debut author. I made a road trip out of Portland, discovering quaint little towns along the way and drinking in the beautiful scenery. Once there, I was able to meet a wonderfully engaged community of fellow Forest Avenue Press authors as well as readers, booksellers, and journalists who continue to be an integral part of my network today. In New York, I read with several women writers whose debut books were also released that year, and meeting them in person for the first time then sharing the stage with them, with East Coast friends and family I rarely see in the audience, was unforgettable. To get there, my family and I took a long detour, flying first to North Carolina to beach hop with loved ones for a few days before driving our rental car to Washington, DC, for some history in the nation’s capital along the way.  

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

On days off I like to wake up early, before anyone else is up, and spend a couple of hours reading, then writing. Workdays are harder. I put away my book editor hat around 4 pm, then spend an hour on my writing. Then I put my computer aside to cook, have dinner with my family, and take a walk together. While my daughter is doing her homework or at volleyball practice, I write for another hour or so. Later in the evening, I write for anywhere from half an hour to a few hours more. Balancing work and family life with writing can leave little space for anything else. I go through streaks when I write every day in this fashion, but for me, that’s not sustainable. I go many days when I don’t write at all. The waves of productivity usually coincide with when I’m completing particular scenes from a novel or working through a short story arc, or when I’m in the thick of drafting a personal essay. 

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

1. Every writer has an inner compass that steers them to what’s true. This is the voice to listen to and trust, above all others.

2. “I don’t have time” is an excuse, because it’s not like writers happen to be the ones with enough leisure time to while away the hours writing. It takes persistent effort to build that discipline—This can mean not scrolling social media, skipping the next show to binge, or maybe waking up an hour earlier—and using the extra time to write. The momentum grows from there!

3. No writing is wasted. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be part of a specific book you hope to write. Write what you feel you want to write at the moment that you want to write it. Then put it away. Look at it again tomorrow, or months from now, and the inspiration or spark of meaning that called you will still be there. Follow it. Never stop following your sparks of meaning. 

What does literary success look like to you?

For me, literary success has been a rainbow of many different things. It has been getting the chance to introduce my parents to a room full of readers. It is getting feedback from a stranger telling me that they have read my book again and again with their child, or their nephew, or their student. Or that a book I’ve written impacted them in a meaningful way. In the end, literary success is not all about getting published but building a life where there is space for writing, when you’ve established consistent productivity that does not get in the way of living a full life but is integral to living a full life.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

My author friends help me feel less alone because most of my friends and family do not understand the challenges of being a writer. I also have a writing group that helps me to stay productive with regular deadlines. Reading their work in progress is a privilege, and talking about the creative process ensures I continue to grow as a writer, as well as fires me up to write.

Who are you writing for? 

I discovered writing on my own as a child, before it became an assignment to complete for someone else. The question makes more sense to me as “Why do I write?” Because the more I do, the more I understand and the more connected I feel.


Renee Macalino Rutledge (she/her) is originally from Manila, Philippines, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her novel, The Hour of Daydreams, won an Institute for Immigration Research New American Voices Finalist award, Foreword INDIES Gold, and Powell’s Top Five Staff Pick. Her children’s picture book One Hundred Percent Me, told from the perspective of a Filipina and Puerto Rican protagonist, celebrates multiracial families, and her children’s book The ABCs of Asian American History has been called a “must-read” by educators and parents around the country. When she isn’t reading next to her tabby cat Storm, Renee loves the outdoors and is always on the lookout for a new adventure with her husband and their two daughters. Find her at www.reneerutledge.com or connect with her on Instagram @renee_rutledge.



My Two Dads

This is Unfolding Inheritance, a column by Kristen Gentry exploring mother-daughter relationships, the impact of parental addiction, and the journey of finding and loving yourself through it all.

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Both of my fathers have shown my boyfriend their guns. 

My stepfather, let’s call him Daddy D, did it by way of introduction. Joe and I were seventeen and prom-bound. We’d been together for two years by then, but lived an hour apart and neither of us drove so we rarely saw each other during my weekend visits with cousins in Louisville. Our communication was mostly a mix of phone calls and handwritten letters. The letters were old school even then in the late nineties, but now they and the phone calls seem archaic. The calls were made on community house phones, not personal cell phones, and almost always while I was in Louisville because a call from home in Brandenburg was long distance and cost extra. 

Until Joe arrived in our driveway laughing loudly, incredulously at the cows lining the fence of our gravel road, Daddy D had only known him via the scrawl on the envelopes he’d carry from the mailbox to my eager hands, the shaky voice asking for me when Joe received permission to call. In his white tuxedo, tails and all, Joe followed Daddy D on a house tour that began and ended in the hallway with the gun cabinet showcasing a collection of rifles. Joe nodded knowingly, gravely. 

Twenty years later, long after Joe and I had broken up at eighteen but not too long after we’d reunited as thirty-somethings via the magic of Facebook, my biological father, let’s call him Daddy J, pulled his shotgun from under the sitting room couch. He let Joe hold it, shared its history, and told him he’d inherit it when he married me. It was a heartwarming bonding moment, yet  the unspoken sat amongst the room’s framed portraits of me big-toothed and smiling at seven, Daddy J standing tall and proud with his freemason brothers: “Don’t play with my daughter. I know what to do with the body.”

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Mama bagged both of her baby daddies at the same soul food restaurant. 

Jay’s Cafeteria closed in 2008, but the day she met Daddy J, Mama was with my auntie and he came strolling over in that smooth as hell way I imagine he must have approached women back then since he already had four kids and just as many baby mamas. When Mama shared the story, she rolled her eyes and laughed at his weak game about her anklet and its meaning. I pucker my lips in sarcasm. Whatever he said must not have been too lame because I popped up a year later. I’m guessing his curly hair and pancake bright skin did the work where the words failed. Daddy J has told me many times, “Your mama said she couldn’t have kids and then here she go talking about ‘I’m pregnant.” He raises his voice to a shrill pitch in an imitation of Mama that sounds nothing like her, grins that grin I’m sure had a lot to do with getting me here so I know there are no hard feelings. It says he loves me; he’s glad I’m here though I wasn’t supposed to be. 

He and Mama didn’t make it far, but he speaks of her fondly with respect for her “nice shape,” work ethic, and independence. They were broken up by the time Mama delivered the news of her pregnancy. When Daddy J tells their story, he acts out that moment, speaking Mama’s part in the same horrible imitation, “‘You don’t have to worry about taking care of her. I don’t want your money, I just want you to be in her life.’”  

Here, he sits upright in his chair and shifts firmly into his own voice. “I told her I take care of my kids. She ain’t got to worry about that.”

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Daddy J admired Mama, but Daddy D loved the shit out of her. I mean, absolutely fucking adored her from the very beginning. They met in the hospital where Mama worked as a nurse, caring for Daddy D’s father. Grandmother (Daddy D’s mother) has told me a million times that the first time Daddy D laid eyes on Mama he said, “I’m gonna marry that woman.” I never tired of hearing that fairy tale “once upon a time” even after I’d lived the sad ending.  

I was there at Jay’s for their second fateful meeting and saltier than the fried drumstick I scowled over. Who was this blue-jeaned, cowboy-booted man stealing Mama away from our lunch? Even the five-year-old hater in me couldn’t deny my fascination with his hair, a thick braid that hung to the middle of his back. I had never seen anybody with such beautiful hair. 

Soon after that meeting, Mama drove us what seemed like forever to his house where he introduced me to his three dogs and showed me the cows, chickens, and pigs on his farm. He sat on the toilet while Mama stood above him unraveling all that hair. She massaged it with moisturizer and brushed it into a shiny black river that she let me dip my fingers into. I listened to him talk while Mama rebraided and hated him a little less. 

#

All that hair was gone when they married months later at Grandmother’s house. I can’t help but think of Samson and Delilah when I write the story this way, even though that’s not what happened. The truth is far more complicated. 

Mama’s depression and opioid addiction were nothing she planned or wanted; she loved Daddy D. His possession of extraordinary strength is questionable, but that strength is not in his hair, beautiful though it may be. His haircut was a choice, not a theft. I’m just losing myself in simple comparisons–a love story gone wrong, shorn locks, a weakened man, a collapsed house. 

I used to think men couldn’t cry. I am and am not embarrassed that I carried this belief until I was twelve; I’d simply never seen it. So when Daddy D came into my room, sat on my bed, and told me Mama was going inpatient for depression, I was shook. Not by what he’d confirmed was happening behind their locked bedroom door. That made her days lost to sleep make perfect sense. It was the tears that made a short creep to his red, pockmarked cheeks before he wiped them away, the choking sob that fell loud in the quiet when he hugged me. I felt that sob, the way it bent his back, folding him smaller like a major foundation had broken inside of him, the way it wrestled with him when he pushed it down to silence, unsteadied his words when he told me everything was going to be okay. 

#

Mama’s nervous breakdown and second inpatient stay brought Daddy J in his Lincoln Continental crawling down the gravel road. Daddy J had never driven to Meade County, and the occasion, which felt very city mouse visits country mouse, was set with a heaviness that made me fidgety. Having both of my fathers in the same room without Mama was weird. Everything was weird and had been for a while. Daddy D and Mama separated at the beginning of the summer when she and I moved back to Louisville. Since her breakdown, I’d been staying with Grandmother, half-attending school, caught in limbo unsure what would happen to me. The daddy meeting signaled more change to come.

Daddy D began. “Me and your mama aren’t together,” he said, “but this is your home–always–no matter what’s going on between me and her, you hear me?”

I nodded.

“If you want to stay here, you’ll stay here.” 

Daddy J shifted on the couch, stirring the scent of his cologne, as he spoke, “If you want to come with me, we’ll keep you in your school, get your stuff moved over to the house, get your room together…Whatever you want to do.” He held open hands before his chest to prove he held no tricks. “We’re here to support you.”

I was thirteen years old and they were trusting me to do what was best for me? 

I knew the decision was important, but the significance of them offering the choice didn’t hit me until years later. 

My grandmother (Mama’s mama) told Daddy J he needed to go get me; Daddy D and Mama weren’t together and I’m not his blood. It makes sense. But my fathers didn’t care about what made sense to most; they cared about what I wanted. Despite the false ”deadbeat” judgments others could have thrown against him–a man with eight kids and seven baby mamas–for leaving me in the care of another man, Daddy J respected and honored my decision to stay in Brandenburg with Daddy D to return to school with longtime friends. Daddy D took on responsibility he didn’t have to, sacrificing money, time, and all of the stuff that parenting takes from you. He sold his cows when he came home from his job at Louisville Gas & Electric to find them roaming the gravel road, the fence latch busted. He sent me to school in the morning smelling like bacon with crooked parts in my hair. He stirred his steak gravy to a silky brown with one hand on his hip, and I always wondered what he was thinking as he stared into the steam shrouding his face.

#

My fathers echo Mama’s advice not to depend on a man. Then–and now–the three of them round a ditty that goes a little something like this: “Make your own money. Be able to make your own way in this world.”

Daddy D and Daddy J are day and night. Country and city. Daddy J is matching short sets, a Kangol, pinky ring, slick talk in a loud bar on a late night. Daddy D is well-worn jeans, a black t-shirt, holster at his hip, a rock song floating from a truck window on a back road. But on the point of my self-sufficiency, there is unquestionable agreement. 

“Trust no one,” they chorus. 

I’ve lived my life heeding their words, yet reflecting on the ways they’ve rebuilt my faith, assuring me that, though few, there are people who can be trusted.  

They’ve protected me from my mother and the harm she did and did not intend. 

#

Sometime after the daddy meeting, after she’d been released from rehab, after she’d been staying with a friend for a while, Mama came to pick up some of her things. She stood in the house she and Daddy D had worked so hard to make a home–decorating a circus-themed nursery for my little brother, painting my bedroom babydoll pink, planting a garden where I plucked strawberries from the ground to my mouth, building a playset in the backyard, adding a wraparound porch–and tried to burn that bitch down. 

I don’t know why she was so mad. I don’t know what she was thinking, if she was thinking, if she’d been on something then, if she realized that if she’d succeeded her children would’ve been homeless or worse. I’ve never asked her about it.  

Her rage was stunning. It kept me rooted to the couch as smoke unfurled from the phone books she’d sat on stove burners cranked to high. My brother screamed with the smoke alarm and I followed him outside to get Daddy D, glancing behind me to catch her splashing bleach on the curtains. Later, I watched the burgundy bleed backwards into blank splotches. 

That day, Daddy D called the sheriff and let the law and somebody else’s gun do the talking.

#

Last year, Daddy J answered my call on the first ring after Mama and I had a big fight. 

I was moving from Rochester, New York and staying with her while I searched for a new place in Louisville. She was perfectly pleasant and drove with me to see houses, but mothers, even the ones who are a decade clean and free of a depressive episode, can work your nerves when you’re a grown person used to being in your own space. I went for a walk to vent to my cousin. Upon my return, Mama asked if I was okay. I said yes. 

She said, “I hope you weren’t talking about me.” 

I said nothing. 

She said, “Oh. So you were talking about me?”

I said, “Not anything bad–”

She slammed a book onto the kitchen table and screamed, “I’m so sick of this shit!”

“This shit” being, I guess, me expressing my feelings about her to others. 

Whenever I spend too many days under the same roof with Mama, the past rises, thickening the air with so much unsaid, the little me who shrunk herself to appease, to fix problems that weren’t hers to solve. I tried to explain this to her, but she scoffed like I was being dramatic. “Am I supposed to pay forever for my mistakes?”  

I sat on the porch crying with Daddy in one ear and Mama’s accusations, floating from inside the house, in my other: “You’re wrong, Kristen. You’re wrong.”

“Get your stuff,” Daddy said. “Your room is ready. I’ll be here.”

#

The premise of the late eighties sitcom, My Two Dads, is that two men, total opposites, get joint custody of their ex-girlfriend’s daughter when she dies. 

That’s not what happened, but it felt like it. Mama didn’t die but she slept days away and zombied around like she was dead.

In the show, neither man knew who fathered the girl. Of course, I know who my biological father is, but I’d argue that both daddies made me. 

Daddy J is in my face, the fat cheeks I wore as a baby, the signature we share with the swirling tail of the “y” in our last name swinging up and to the left to cross the “t.” He is the me talking much shit with cards fanned in my hand, the throaty kee-kee and pink flash of tongue.     

Daddy D is the me in thrifted Levi’s boasting a faded wallet imprint and vintage tag on the back pocket; the me blasting Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits in the car, my left hand riding the waves of the wind; the me on the porch in my rocking chair, face to the sunset’s raucous beauty in the day’s quiet close.

I know I’m lucky to have two good dads when too many don’t have one. 

Both maintain confidence in my choices, even when I doubt.  Nights after I left my tenured teaching position, I sat up in bed worrying about bills and what I was going to do to pay them. I voiced these concerns to Daddy J as we sat in matching recliners.

“You smart, girl!” he exclaimed, flashing that grin, fat with pride like my intelligence would fix all my problems, like I am all I need in this world and he had to yell so I’d hear him, smile so I’d know that –I am–a good thing.

When I called Daddy D, he said, “You’ll be alright,” and it wasn’t one of those flimsy, nothing things people throw around. It was a beefy, full-bodied sentence that I wrapped my arms around and held tight.  

I tried to gain strength from that daddy meeting decades ago, the two of them listening, waiting, knowing I’d choose the right path. I wanted to share their certainty, but, honestly, thirteen-year-old me had an easy choice. With Daddy J on one side of my decision and Daddy D on the other, the decision was a win-win. 


“How to Travel with Kids while Getting Life-Changing News” EXCERPT from ALL WATER HAS PERFECT MEMORY by NADA SAMIH-ROTONDO

Olympia, Washington 2019 

You are a thirty five year old wife and mother of three, who just started a job teaching English language learners at a new school. Your husband tells you about a conference he has the opportunity to attend in the Pacific Northwest. In a rare moment of spontaneity, you say, Lets do it, lets go.” You havent been on an airplane in five years, you just completed a masters degree, and your youngest is right on the cusp of aging out of the free seat. Why not? Excited to be shown around the PNW by your husband, who attended college in Olympia, you request your days off at work and book the flights on a credit card. 

Two days before your flight, you check your To Do list and note how hard it will be to travel with a four and an almost two year old. You are grateful your oldest can go to his fathers house a few minutes away. On your lunch break, you open up your laptop and see an unfamiliar name in Facebook Messenger. You receive the shock of your life when you suddenly and unceremoniously learn that you have three half-siblings and a long lost father half a world away. Even more shocking is that they have been looking for you for a long time. They want to speak to you. 

They want you.
You are wanted.

You speak with your father for the first time in thirty years and forget how to carry on a conversation. Your kids carry on their normal after-school activities of requesting snacks and switching on the television. Soon enough they sense some- thing different is happening today and buzz around you like bees, adding to your feeling of numbness. Your father assumes the long pauses are due to emotional overwhelm and tells you its okay to cry. You discover you dont have the right words in either of the languages you know to explain youve left your body to watch yourself from the other side of the room. You dont know how to explain that youve had thirty years to perfect disassociating from reality. Your baba tells you an Arabic saying youve never heard before: What is meant for you will reach you, even if it is beneath two mountains. 

When you get off the plane, you see a mountain for the first time. Mount Rainier is a classic snow-topped mountain that is so picturesque it looks fake against the blue sky. This is your first trip to Washington state, so you are relieved that contrary to what you were warned about the constant rain, it is sunny and bright. You take the kids to a playground after grabbing coffee at a cafe your husband used to frequent in his college years. You savor a piece of pumpkin bread, remembering it is the start of a new season. Your husband knows his way around the small city and points out the sights, which you are grateful for because you cant seem to figure out which way is up. You come up with a list of notes for future reference. 

In case you are traveling out west for the first time with small children while receiving life-changing news, note the following:

  1. You will have unreliable internet
  2. You will need to download WhatsApp because thats what people with family overseas do
  3. You will need to buy more data for your phone, since its the end of your billing cycle
  4. You will be jet lagged and sleep-deprived
  5. You will give the kids chocolate whenever they want
  6. You will be over-caffeinated and cry publicly every place you go

You learn your grandmother wants to speak with you as soon as possible. You set up a day, forgetting you are on the other side of the country and that there is such a thing as time zones. You end up speaking to the teta on your babas side for the first time in thirty years while in Olympia on the front lawn of the house of your husbands friend. It is just after dawn, but in Jordan it is afternoon when you hear your tetas faraway voice. Afraid the call might drop, you run outside for a better signal, forgoing shoes. Your eyes burn from lack of sleep and your feet get wet from the grass, which is still dewy. The air is sweet and filled with the sound of roosters crowing from the farmhouse next door. Sunlight pours from the sky in bright streams between the clouds, a shower of heavenly light. Your children follow you out into the dewy morning but stop as their feet hit the grass, their socks suddenly cold and damp. This buys your husband time to coax them back inside, gifting you with space. 

During your stay in Olympia, you are a hibernating tulip bulb, dug out from cold winter soil. You feel weak, exposed, and helpless. Your guard is down when you call your mom and tell her everything. She reacts aggressively and makes it clear she doesnt approve of this new connection. Logically, you understand it doesnt matter how she reacts. You are a thirty-five- year-old woman who has taken care of herself in countless ways since childhood. You havent even lived in the same state as your mother in over a decade. Its a good idea to let it go, to keep your mouth shut, but you are a home to a rage creature that is chomping at the bit for some action. 

I went through a divorce too,” you say, words that take you running across thin ice. 

Whatever might have happened between us, I wouldnt have taken his child away from him,” you conclude dryly without remorse, recalling the several instances when you could have moved away but choose to stay and feel through to the bottom of the pain instead. You learned at a young age there is always a bottom to it; you just need to sit with it. 

Pandoras box flies open, as you predicted it would. Your husband is driving the family to a waterfront area with a view, because you said you wanted to see the Pacific. You regret allowing the rage creature to surface when you realize you are missing the sunset. You are only here for a short stay, you remind yourself: every moment counts. You glance at your children in their car seats; they have the same eyes as you, brown and shaped like almonds. You have a hard time sympathizing with your mother when she claims she had no other choice. We always have a choice, you think to yourself, as she sounds off her list of grievances and what she went through. 

I needed to get you out of there,” she explains, choking on tears. I had no rights as a divorced woman, absolutely no say,” she recounts. Your dads mother said I was nothing but a vessel for children. You have no idea what they put me through.” 

You notice your breathing is shallow, so you try to inhale deeply. You tuck your rage creature away at the bottom of your belly and concede. This is not a fight worth fighting; she will always have her truth and you will have yours. You remember another Arabic saying as your husband parks the rental: The wisest is the one who can forgive. 

A couple years later, after the shock has worn itself down to a blunter edge, fresh chaos erupts when your mother learns of your recent reunion with your paternal side overseas. You are at a movie theater awaiting previews when you notice several missed calls and texts. Sensing an emergency, you call your mother back. You step out into the empty lobby as she picks up on the first ring. 

You went to Amman?”

Without ceremony or hesitation you flatly respond: Yes.”

“Why didnt you tell me?” Her voice transforms into hot venom from across state lines.

You told me not to tell you anything more about him.”

The conversation descends into one-sided garble. Your mamas voice is simultaneously breathless and angry, the victim and the victimizer one and the same. You realize your eyes are tightly closed when your vision fills with dragons spewing flames. You open your eyes to spinning movie post- ers and raise your free arm to grip the snack counter, warm from the popcorn machine. You find this both comforting and tragic—the fragrant popcorn and yellow overhead lights, the gateways to movie magic, suddenly defiled. Your mama loves the movie theater. You recall the countless times she took you to see new releases.

All Water Has Perfect Memory (Jaded Ibis Press, 2023)

Despite what was falling apart in your life, she would somehow find and press the pause button. As though guided by magic, she would eagerly guide you by the hand toward thresholds of wonder, islands of clear weather in a childhood of storms. Movie theaters became dark sacred spaces— temples to action, adventure, romance, and fantasy. Shrines of visual storytelling, popular stars, and animated creatures. Lion King, Toy Story, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire— all holy and worthy of your full attention, for what is prayer but concentrated attention? Youll never forget the summer you were eleven when she took you to see Independence Day, despite a tropical storm warning. You remember an extraterrestrial sky greeting you as you exited the theater, black clouds in the same shape and size as the alien ships that descended on Earth moments ago. The air was thick yet still—the quiet before the storm. You rode home staring at the sky in awe, convinced Will Smith was also in that Warwick parking lot, ready to save you both. 

In a flurry of tears your mother hangs up. Exhaling, you notice the movie posters have returned to their original positions. You switch your phone off to return to your husbands side at the small movie theater. Previews are about to begin and your feelings can wait. 

In Olympia, you feel an unnerving dissolution of self when you surrender that which has defined you for so long. It is an act of courage to embrace what remains, to no longer be defined by lack or loss. At your husbands conference the kids pass out for their naps on benches in the hotel lobby. You chat with your newly found father on your newly down- loaded WhatsApp. 

Your baba writes, I did my best to let your sister and both brothers know about you so they can search with me for you. Alhamdula, thank God, we found you. And I was always thinking, did Nada know I never forgot her? Anyhow, you do know now how much we missed you. Every moment alone—of which there are few—is spent sobbing, so you are grateful you are not at work this week. You grow accustomed to the puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and constant nose-blowing. 

Thirty years,” you say to your husband in-between workshops. We missed so much that we will never get back.” 

Your father never got to see you graduate; he never celebrated with you at your wedding, nor saw his grandchildren as tiny newborns. 

But think about what well get now,” your husband says. You still have time.” 

You have a parent that kept vigil for you, that still has pictures of you sitting in his lap, just like the pictures you have of your babies with your husband. There is photographic evidence that you were loved and cared for and embraced by a family and never forgotten about. You know that now the real work begins. You need to figure out who you are with this revised story. You have found a thin place, like the threshold to a darkened movie theater, a doorway between worlds. The movie ends and the lights come up. I did everything to protect you appears on your phones screen. Slowly the audience stirs as if awakened from a deep sleep. Bodies shuffle down aisles solemnly. 

In Amman, after thirty years of absence, your baba asks, How did she do it? All these years and I wonder, how?” 

Baba recalls my mother as someone seven years his junior. A soft-spoken young woman, timid and unsure of herself. Someone incapable of driving nearly 950 miles across a desert during a war. He never witnessed how a wave of maternal protective instinct could surface, how the crest activated generations of maternal fury and power. 

Alone,” you respond, new awareness dawning.

She did it alone. 

Your baba talks about getting to visit the city of Yafa for the first time, and feeling like he was back. 

Back? he thought to himself. Ive never been here before. 

You tell him youve felt the same way about Palestine just from looking at pictures. Just from listening to stories. The land is in your DNA and you know that will never be erased. You feel like reuniting with your father is like reuniting with your land. It is just like a celestial bodys orbital return, long but inevitable.


Excerpted from All Water Has Perfect Memory by Nada Samih-Rotondo. Used with the permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Press. Copyright ©2023 by Nada Samih-Rotondo.