Roots tie you to your genesis. They are a constant reminder of what makes you, of what sculpted your beliefs and dreams and strengths. Where you come from is why you are who you are. I am a kaleidoscope of experiences and pathways. This is MY genesis.
I come from brick rows of low-income apartments, with no grass to play on but plenty of concrete. I am 4 and squish tiny red bugs on the cement slab wall in front of our building, staring in awe at my fingers dotted with their crushed insides looking so much like blood. Ice cream truck. Walk to the Laundromat. Walk to the grocery store. No car. The big cement play area in the middle of the apartments smells like beer and trash. Moms sit out on the back steps smoking and talking. There are not many Dads and the ones that are there are usually drinking beer on the back stoop. Two bigger boys beat up a smaller boy and I am scared but I watch anyway from my back steps. Someones sneakers are tied together hanging off of the telephone wires high up. I sit in the front in the teensy patch of sun with my mom while she gets a tan in her hot pink and baby blue bikini. She slathers baby oil on her body while I practice my letters in a notebook. I go to headstart and refuse to wear anything but dresses despite the fact it is winter and the teacher sends notes home “Mrs. Brown, Tonia cannot be dressed in a dress with snow on the ground.” My mom sends a note back telling the teacher if she has a problem with it SHE can come fight with me about it. One time I accidentally shut my hand in the car door and it is locked and it takes my mom AGES to dig her keys out of her GIANT purse. Her purse carried the world and I still recall that car. It was a beast, as all cars were back then in 1984. Drug deals went down outside. A stray cat came to our door , jumped up on the railing and rang the doorbell every day. We adopted her. That was my first pet.
I was far more tomboy as a 11 year old. Told the neighborhood kids my new name was Toni. Rode my bike and jumped the ramps better than any of the boys. My mom worked in a factory making circuit boards. We went the company picnic and I won a prize for being best at limbo in my neon leopard print two piece outfit and side ponytail. My skin was darker than anything and I looked very much my fathers daughter. My father is 100% Portuegese. I have never met him. My mom is Irish and Canadian French. We don’t talk much. I walk the train tracks through town and into other towns with my friends at 13. We put pennies on the tracks. We hitch rides back home. We live in a condo. It’s nicknamed “The chicken coops ” because it looks that way. I sneak friends over . I sneak smokes. I watch MTV after school while my mom is at work and I babysit for my kid brother. He is 5 and when he gets off of the bus his backpack is down to his knees. I simultaneously adore him like a mother hen and am annoyed with his presence because I want my friends over and he gets in the way and tattles on us when we smoke. I fall in love for the first time. I know kids that young can love because he ends up being my best friend for years after, gives me away at my first wedding and now at age 35 I still love him. Not in a romantic sense, but he is a part of my soul.
I am a high school drop out. Never officially passed 10th grade so for all intents and purposes I have a ninth grade education. At our school fights go down daily. I learn not to make eye contact with anyone my first year of high school. I watch a girl get her face smashed in repeatedly into her steering wheel by a kid who grabs her through her window. I witness a girl get bloodied by brass knuckles. Drug-sniffing dogs roam the halls. I cut class and sit under the back stairs writing poetry ad listening to my Walkman. Smashing Pumpkins and Hootie and The Blowfish. I cut school and sit home watching daytime tv. I kiss boys. I dye my hair black. In my second year ol highschool I get a serious boyfriend. I decide I don’t give a shit about impressing anyone. I wear candy nacklaces and neon tights with long flowy skirt s. I carry a lunchbox for a purse and smoke more. I carry a bible. I am an intricate tornado. I am angry a lot. Melancholy sometimes. I tell my future husband to fuck off 5 years before I know he is my future husband. I yell at my mom a lot. I slam doors hard enough to make our house shake. I run away at age 16. Stay a week with my boyfriend who is 19. We do not have sex despite the fact my mom thinks we do. I am still a virgin. It is 3 more years before I finally have sex. And it won’t even be worth it. At 16 my mom puts me in a mental hospital. I am scared. They drug me. I get a new roommate who smuggles in a piece of glass and slices her arms all up with it right in front of me while I watch in horror. I listen to her screams while she is strapped down and put in the rubber room. I hear her screams in my dreams, animalistic and primal. They let me have a pencil. I write poetry and a long letter to my Gram and a longer letter to my boyfriend. I go to group therapy and am allowed the privilege to sit in the shitty cafeteria and eat the shitty food. When they tell my mom I do not need to be there any more she says she does not want me. I pack up my backpack and take with me the cardboard nameplate I made in craft class with my name on it in glitter. I go to live with family in New York that I don’t recall knowing.
I come from too many new apartments, too many guns to my mothers head and wake ups in the middle of the night to my mom screaming while my step dad drunkenly swung at her. I come from hiding with my baby brother in the crack beside the stove while my step dad stumbled after us with a knife. I am from climbing trees higher than the boys. I come from living in our car. I come from living in a tent with my 3 sons, cradlling my newborn son to my chest in the freezing night nursing him while the rain came down on the tent, putting two pairs of mittens and hats and 3 pairs of footed jammies on my sons so they don’t freeze. I come from trailer parks. From a place where the cops come through hourly, where drive-by shootings happen, where men grab their women in the front yards and shake them like rag dolls by their throats. Where women scream swear words and throw rocks at cars as they peel out. I come from dirt roads filled with rocks. I come from boiling water for baths and to wash dishes. I come from raw. From tough. From fear. From fights. From violence. From mighty. From backstabbers. From trouble. From drama From taking dollar store finds and trying to make a house into a home. Put a rug over the scratches in the floor. Hang a picture over that hole in the wall. Every wall has holes. I come from broken marriages. Plural. I come from messy crying at 2 a.m. I come from death. From burying my soul mate in the snowy Ohio ground. I come from getting hit really hard, so hard you see stars by the man you love and getting right back up to take another hit. I come from trying to hit back and getting my ass beat for it. But being proud of the fact I didn’t take it lying down. I come from spunk. I come from balls. I come from a world where it’s eat or be eaten. From dirt under nails, oil stains in the palms of hands, working hard, REALLY HARD for your money, teeth falling out, sweat glistening, broken bodies, sick but go to work anyway, 3rd unplanned pregnancy, friend asking you if you can front her money for the abortion, just gotta make it til food stamp day, go ask the neighbors if they have any bread, they bum smokes off of me, I sit on the front porch with my cat at night smoking and looking at the stars and wondering if it can ever get any better than this.
I don’t see how it could.
I come from broken homes. Latchkey kids. Broke. Struggle. Always struggle. Dog fights and eviction notices. Keep my chin up. March on. Babies under my wings. Fight to the death. CPS comes knocking, fight them. Ex husband comes calling, fight him. People talk, fight it. Fight to protect those babies. I am weary and feisty all at once. Worn out and old feeling. But those babies are my life. My heartsong. Fight to keep them by my side. Trust no one. Sleep with a knife under my pillow. Be brave. So brave. Cry when I can’t give them a Christmas. Sew them handmade pillows at night as gifts. Shoplift diapers and soap.Try to figure out how to make $150 a week stretch better. Hope. Wish. Pray. A lot. Go outside and weep to God when the babies are sleeping. Confess to him how scared you feel.
This is where I come from Who I am.
Life is different now. I am thankful.
But I will never forget where I came from, who I am, how it made me.
These scars and lines are proof.
But so is the fire in my eyes and the stomp in my step.
I am grateful just as much for my life now as I am for my roots.
Hallelujah and amen.