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Excerpt from Child


Like thousands of white southerners in my generation, I was raised by a Black woman who had to leave her own child behind to work for a white family. At least, that’s what I always believed. It wasn’t until I’d written several drafts of this book, then happened upon unsettling information which had been in these pages all along, that I started asking questions of the people who were still alive. And that’s when I learned there was more to the story.

A story that, of course, encompasses race. But also childhood. And all that occurs before we grasp the true scale of the grown-up world.

These are micro-narratives. Fragments that form a love story. A jumbled-up love story. The ordinary, moment-by-moment story of Mattie Culp and me—from the time I was three until her death sixty-three years later.

Memory is two parts.

First, the re-inhabiting:

The light outside our window is fading. Mattie and I sit side by side on the edge of the bed. She takes off her glasses and places them on the Bible on her bedside table, leans closer to me so that I can rub her pillowy shoulders, mostly her right shoulder, the one that always goes stiff after a day of work. My small fingers soften the knots that need softening. She whispers, “You got magic in your hands.”

Then, the interpreting:

Our love was unwavering. But it was, by definition, uneven. She was hired by my parents to iron my dresses and fry my over-light eggs. But that doesn’t begin to describe the marvel she was to me.

And what was I to her? How to be clear and un-idealized about that?

At times, I’ve hesitated to even talk about us. And, if I couldn’t talk about us, I sure couldn’t write about us. Our relationship was lovely in an unlovely context. So many contradictions. If I say one thing, I could be denying something else. My opinions might really just be assumptions, any innocence I express simply defensiveness.

Nothing is ever simple.

But I’ve wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember. I’m eighty now. There won’t be a better time for me to get the details down. To try to understand the complications of a key relationship in my life. To answer that voice saying yes, go ahead, write our story, before it’s lost.

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