Unfolding Inheritance

The New Me

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.


I’m building a new me. One step at a time. This is what I told myself as I stomped and spun through the dance routine my friend, Whitney, had choreographed to Raven-Symone’s “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of.” Whitney, Erika, and I were practicing for drill team tryouts. I was excited about the possibility of being on the team, feeling firmly planted as part of something. 

I moved to Louisville, Kentucky from Brandenburg that summer after my parents’ separation. I was the new girl and had only been at Highland Middle School for a couple of months. I was shiny and mysterious, a puzzle people were interested in piecing, I discovered when Cory, a Larenz Tate lookalike (and I loved me some Larenz Tate) sauntered into my homeroom classroom, plopped into a seat beside me and asked my name, if I had a boyfriend. He was the cutest boy in eighth grade and I loved him immediately.  

I could taste the honey-sweet of popularity all over my tongue. This was my chance, an opportunity that I wasn’t going to waste. 

It’s not like I’d been a tragically uncool kid back at my old school. I’d had a good crew of friends, but hadn’t made the crossover to popularity. That status was reserved for pretty white girls and a select few–of the already sparse–girls of color with outgoing personalities. I was shy and mostly quiet unless I was with friends. Most people had known me as one of the two Black girls with long hair. The other girl was popular, a cheerleader.

I was hungry to make a name for myself, secure a win after losing so much–my home, my friends, my stepfather (who’d raised me since I was six), my little brother (who stayed in Brandenburg with my stepfather), my mother. 

I lived with Mama, but saw her in glimpses when she slipped from her bedroom to the bathroom. I kept the volume on my TV low so I could hear her door unlocking. As soon as I heard the click, I poked my head out of my bedroom to catch her stepping into the hall. I don’t know what message I wanted her to read on my face. I likely looked confused. I mostly just wanted her to know I was there. It often felt like she’d forgotten. 

One day when she was supposed to pick me up from school, I stood on the concrete steps at the front of the building, my stomach sinking as I watched other parents empty the student pick-up roundabout. I fought back tears as a school administrator knelt beside me and asked if I needed a ride home. 

“Maybe,” I answered. 

We were on our way inside to call home when Mama pulled up, delivering a quiet apology. She said she’d overslept, which sounded about right. I hadn’t yet learned to question her, at least verbally, though my unease was growing. Why was she always sleeping so much? So deeply? Why did it seem like she was asleep even when she was awake? 

I was desperate to be loud, seen, unable to be ignored. This is why when Vincent, a new boy who was clawing at his own come-up at my expense, went around the cafeteria yelling that I liked some weird, lanky white boy named Lee, I told him to stop. And when he didn’t, I punched him in the face. We were both surprised, but, unlike Vincent, my true emotion didn’t show on my face; they rarely did. He cupped his peanut butter hands over his red nose and called me a bitch. 

I smiled. “Told you to stop.” Outside, I was boastful; inside I was glad his mama had raised him not to hit girls. 

What exactly my mother was teaching me at that time didn’t become clear until years later. 


I spent the night at Erika’s so we could maximize practice time since she and Whitney lived in the same apartment building. Mama dropped me off with the small blue suitcase I took on all overnight trips. It was filled with my pajamas, clothes for the next day, and snacks to crunch while Erika and I giggled and gossiped late into the night. 

Mama didn’t walk me inside to meet Erika’s mother. She was content with the phone number I’d left as I got out of the car and waved for her to go when Erika greeted me at the door. 

You can already see how shit’s about to go left, can’t you?


Even though we haven’t made that turn just yet, you can also probably see why I procrastinate like a motherfucker to write this. 

I read.

I wrote other stuff.

I cooked.

I cleaned.

I shopped. 

I accepted phone calls.

I made phone calls.

I scrolled Instagram.

I watched Youtube.

Now, I’m still stalling by breaking the fourth wall, reaching out to you because I don’t want to be left alone with this memory.

Don’t cry for me. I’ve made peace with this truth and share it willingly, for the mothers, the daughters, who may need to hear it though I write it reluctantly because it’s still difficult to visit. 

The story doesn’t get that dark, but what can I say? Trauma be traumatizing. 


My excitement about the sleepover ended abruptly after Erika and I left practice and returned to her mother cussing about Whitney and her mother.

“I told you I didn’t want you around those bitches!” she spat. 

I couldn’t figure out what Whitney or her mother had done to offend Erika’s mother besides being biracial and white, respectively. Apparently, this was enough for them to be bitches, sluts, and whores not to be trusted, for her to yell all this in Erika’s face, held statue-straight in her mother’s hurricane. 

Meanwhile, I was shaken by the irrational shape of Erika’s mother’s anger, the threatening heft of her body, flung sloppily around the tiny cave of their apartment, in her erratic pacing.

Tucked into the privacy of her bedroom, Erika whispered, “I can’t stand her!” She was all furious, quiet huff. “Why she gotta act like this?” She rolled her eyes, shiny with the gloss of tears, and kept them stuck toward the ceiling so it wasn’t clear if she was talking to me or God. If she’d let those tears spill we would’ve been trapped in a situation no less awkward, but we could have created a moment of something real and comforting just for us. I was tired of pretending what was often more than clear with a close look, always considering how to fix my face for others’ comfort. 

Erika’s mother’s boyfriend was truly unbothered. He, rather than Erika’s assurance that her mother would chill out, that she did this sometimes, convinced me to stay. From his perch in a living room recliner, he delivered firm suggestions for Erika’s mother to calm down.

“The girl ain’t even done nothing,” he said. “The girl” could have been any of us within blaming range of Erika’s mother’s rage: Erika, Whitney, Whitney’s mama, me. 

Thirteen-year-old me would have described the man as old in that rude, lazy way that teenagers paint anyone who looks over thirty. But forty-three-year-old me still finds that description accurate. He looked old to me then, but he also seemed old. He sat before the TV, periodically flicking his eyes away from the basketball game to glance up towards Erika’s mother. He wore the unflappable certainty of someone who had seen this all before and knew there was no need to rise from his chair or stop keeping score. Back then, I knew old people to worry when potential harm was imminent, and I viewed their worries as warnings to proceed with caution. This man maintained a steady through line of reason beneath his girlfriend’s rant, and this convinced me that everything would be okay. Again, I was thirteen and only beginning to learn what would become the familiar ways of weariness, how its drain can dead you to a number of troubling circumstances.    


I waited as the day shaded to night behind the curtains in Erika’s tight, dim room, ready to grab my suitcase and go.

I don’t remember who told me my mother had a nervous breakdown and wouldn’t be picking me up. Mama’s depression, which I’d known about, and her opioid addiction, which I hadn’t, had escalated to an uncontrollable peak. Erika’s mother could have called me to her and dropped the words as I stood in the shadows of her bedroom. Daddy could have told me on the phone, apologizing while I hesitated to sit on Erika’s mother’s bed, crunched up next to the nightstand holding the cordless phone’s cradle, but needed something to hold me up as I cried.

I prefer fiction over memoir because remembering is hard, both the recall of specific details and the emotional toll of journeying to the past. 

Memory is slippery. I don’t remember, yet I can’t forget. 

I don’t remember everything, but I remember enough.

I remember the darkness of Erika’s apartment, how dark the whole world felt, how scared I was.  

I remember Erika’s mother opening empty kitchen cabinets and slamming them shut, cussing about having to feed me. I remember the greasy smell of overcooked hamburgers that I refused though the boyfriend, who fried them, kept offering even though I kept insisting– lying–that I wasn’t hungry. I remember walking to Dizzy Whiz with Erika and buying my own greasy hamburger with the money I’d brought in the event of a funner outing. I remember the handfuls of Bugels and Crunch n’ Munch I squirreled from my suitcase until they were gone.

I don’t remember how long I stayed over Erika’s past the Saturday I was supposed to leave. 

I asked Daddy if he could remember. He answered somberly, regretfully, “I don’t know, baby girl. Everything was a blur. It was a sad time.” 

Who knows how many extra days I stayed? One? Two? I doubt it was more than three. It was enough time to change everything. 


I tried out for the drill team and didn’t make it.

It didn’t matter. I’d already become someone new. 

Eventually, I’d return to Brandenburg with my stepfather and little brother, but while my fathers and grandparents decided what to do with me, I stayed with my grandmother in Louisville. At the time, no one was pressed about me attending school because it was doubtful that I’d remain enrolled at Highland, but I wanted to be around friends, so I caught the public bus and rode the twenty miles across town to school. I felt an urgent need to learn how to navigate the unknown, to prepare myself.  

On the way home one day, while I was waiting for a connection on 18th Street, a car, long-snouted and slow like an alligator, pulled over to the bus stop. 

“‘Ey!” the driver called. His yellow eyes roamed my thin body, a snack for his hungry eyes. “Come here.” He made a move to get out of the car. 

My scream was enough to send him back behind the wheel, screeching around the corner. Still, I ran until my lungs burned. When I stopped, my neck hurt from the twisting, the looking back.

Of course, some creeper could have approached me if my mother hadn’t gone to rehab. If not on that bus stop, it could have happened in a grocery store parking lot, a fast food restaurant, at the mall. Unfortunately, scenes like this play out everywhere before many girls with mamas of all types, but my mother, who I’d relied on as a protector, was gone and I didn’t know when she’d be back. My safety net was gone–ripped and gaping. It felt like anything could happen to me because it could. And it always could have. My mother’s fragility made me hyper aware of my own vulnerabilities.

This was terrifying and activated the long-gone Girl Scout in me, the “Stay ready and you ain’t got to get ready” in me. I eyed everyone suspiciously, wondering how long I could depend on them before they failed me. My answer was always “Not long,” no matter how the person proved themselves. I doubted and questioned. I had no trust, no chill. I made plan Bs, Cs, and Ds. If I could do things by myself for myself, I did. If I couldn’t, I’d begrudgingly ask for help. 

I still do this.

When I’m spending the day with cousins and one is getting hangry, she’ll tap me and ask, “What you got? I know you got something” because I’m always carrying a granola bar, an apple, a box of raisins in my purse. I travel with a water bottle and a pack of spring water in my trunk. 

For better and for worse, I am fiercely independent. Yes, Webbie spelled it out. Us bad broads got our own and we work hard, but you know what else being independent means? It means my boyfriend sometimes has to beg me, “Let me do it.” “It” being anything, all the things because that is what I do. Being independent is empowering, but it is also tiring. It’s a blessing to be able to stand on my own, but the compulsion to insist upon it is not always something to sing about.

When I was a whole thirty-something grown and my boyfriend and I moved in together, Mama told me, “Always make sure you have enough money to cover the bills on your own, so that you can always take care of yourself.” She didn’t know she was sharing a lesson she’d taught decades ago, one I knew by heart, bone, blood and would never unlearn.

Filed under: Unfolding Inheritance


Kristen Gentry is the author of Mama Said. She received her MFA from Indiana University. Her award-winning fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Jabberwock Review, and other journals. She is a VONA and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference alumna, former Director of Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo, and a member of the inaugural Poets & Writers publicity incubator for debut writers. She lives and writes in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.