DiagnosisBy the time I was six months old, she knew somethingwas wrong with me. I got looks on my faceshe had not seen on any childin the family, or the extended family,or the neighborhood. My mother took me into the pediatrician with the kind hands,a doctor with a name like a suit size for a wheel:Hub Long. My mom did not tell himwhat she thought in truth, that I was Possessed.It was just these strange looks on my face—he held me, and conversed with me,chatting as one does with a baby, and my mothersaid, She’s doing it now! Look!She’s doing it now! and the doctor said,What your daughter hasis called a senseof humor. Ohhh, she said, and took meback to the house where that sense would be testedand found to be incurable.When Our Firstborn Slept InMy breasts hardening with milk—little seepsleaking into the folded husbandhankies set into the front curvesof the nursing harness—I would wander aroundthe quiet apartment when her nap would last a littlelonger than usual. When she was awake, I waspurpose, I was a soft domesticprowling of goodness—only when she sleptwas I free to think the thoughts of onein bondage. I had wanted to be someone—not justsomeone’s mom, but someone, some one.
Yet I know that this work that I did with herlay at the heart of what mattered to me—wasthat heart. And still there was a part of meleft out by it, as if exposed on a mountainby mothering. And when she slept in,I smelled the husks of olive rindon that slope, I heard the blue knockof the eucalyptus locket nut, Itasted the breath of the wolf seekingthe flesh to enrich her milk, I saw thebending of the cedar under the seaof the wind—while she slept, it was as ifmy pierced ankles loosed themselvesand I walked like a hunter in the horror-joyof the unattached. Girl of a mother,mother of a girl, I paced, listening,almost part-fearing, sometimes, that she might have stoppedbreathing, knowing nothing was anything, for me,next to the small motions as she woke,light and wind on the face of the water.And then that faint cry, like apelagic bird, who sleeps in flight, and I wouldturn, pivot on a spice-crushing heel,and approach her door.Calvinist ParentsSometime during the Truman Administration,Sharon Olds’s parents tied her to a chair,and she is still writing about it.—review of The Unswept Room
My father was a gentleman, and he expectedus to be gentlemen. If we did not observethe niceties of etiquette he whoppedus with his belt. He had a strong arm,and boy did we feel it.—Prescott Sheldon Bush,brother to a president anduncle to anotherThey put roofs over our heads.Ours was made of bent tiles,so the edge of the roof had a broken look,as if a lot of crockeryhad been thrown down, onto the home—a dump for heaven’s cheap earthenware.Along the eaves, the arches were likeentries to the Colosseumwhere a lion might appear, or an eight-foot armoredbeing with the painted faceof a simpering lady. Bees would not roostin those concave combs, above our rooms,birds not swarm. How does a young ’unpay for room and board? They put aroof over our heads, against lightning,and droppings—no foreign genes, no outsidegestures, no unfamilial words;and under that roof, they labored as they had beenlabored over, they beat us into swords.One Secret ThingOne secret thing happenedat the end of my mother’s life, when I wasalone with her. I knew it should happen—I knew someone was there, in there,something less unlike my mother thananything else on earth. And the jarwas there on the table, the space around itpulled back from it, like the awestruck handmadeair around the crèche, and her openmouth was parched. It was late. The lideased off. I watched my finger draw throughthe jelly, its egg-sex essence, the fourcorners of the room were not creatures, were notthe four winds of the earth, if I did notdo this, what was I—I rubbed the cowlick ofpetrolatum on the skin around where thefinal measures of what was almost notbreath swayed, and her throat made a gutturalcreek bed sound, like pebbly relief. But eachlip was stuck by chap to its rowof teeth, stuck fast. And then I workedfor my motherhood, my humanhood, Islid my forefinger slowly back andforth, along the scab-line and underlyingcanines and incisors, upper lip and thenlower lip, until, like a bastedseam, softly ripped, what had beenjoined was asunder, I ran the salve insidethe folds, along the gums,common mercy. The secret washow deeply I did not want to touchinside her, and how much the actwas an act of escape, my last chanceto free myself.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds. Copyright © 2008 by Sharon Olds. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.