Mostly, though, she was unknowable. I don't even know where she came from exactly (somewhere in Nebraska, I believe), but I do know she was from a poor family, and my father, with his relative fortune and undemanding nature, had saved her. But curiously, for all her poverty, there was nothing work-worn or used about her; she did not appear to be depleted, nor hardened. Rather, she gave the impression of being one of those indulged women who floats from her father's home to the finishing school and into her husband's arms. (The glow that seems to surround her in Owen's photograph, her early, quiet death, her sleepy, slow movements, all make me remember her as luminous, protected, cosseted, even though I know otherwise.) As far as I know, she had no education (reading our report cards aloud to my father, she stumbled over words: "Ex-, ex-em?pu," she'd sound out before Owen or I would shout out the word--Exemplary--to her, smug and impatient and ashamed), and she was very young when she died.
But then too, she was young in all things. In my memories she is persistently childlike, not only in behavior but in appearance as well. Her hair, for example: no matter the occasion, she wore it loose, rippling down her back in a loose, snaking helix. Even when I was a child, this hairstyle of hers was troublesome to me; I saw it as further evidence of a rigorously, inappropriately maintained girlhood--the long hair, the distant, vacuous smile, the way her eyes would wander from yours the moment you began to speak to her, all things not admirable in a woman with her supposed responsibilities.
It is discomfiting to me now, as I list these few details of my mother's life, how little I know and how incurious I have remained about her. I suppose every child yearns to understand his parental origins, but I never found her an interesting enough person to consider. (Or should that reasoning be inverted?) But then, I have never believed in romancing the past--what good would it do me? Owen, however, later became much more interested in our mother, and even passed through a period as an undergraduate in which he attempted to trace her family and complete an informal biography of her. He abandoned the project months after its inception, however, and became very defensive about it when asked, so I can only assume he found our maternal relatives without much trouble, realized they were yokels, and gave the whole thing up in disgust (he was still enough of an avowed elitist back then to do exactly that). (2) She has always mattered to him in a way that I have never been able to understand. But then, Owen is a poet, and I believe he thought it important that he have these details available for future employment, however mediocre or ultimately disappointing they may have been.
At any rate. It was July of 1933. I hesitate to say "It was a day like any other," for it sounds so melodramatic and portentous, as well as wholly unbelievable. Yet it is also true. So: it was a day like any other. My father was off with his friend Lester Drew, a small-time farmer, doing whatever it was two small-time farmers did together. Owen and I were gathering a bucket of leeches that we planned to bake into a pie and then give to Ida, the part-time cook, a sour woman we both hated. My mother was dangling her feet in the stream.
For weeks afterward, Owen and I would be asked to try to remember--had anything seemed different about her that afternoon? Had she seemed listless, or ill, or particularly fatigued? Had she spoken to us of feeling dizzy or weak? But the answer was always no. Indeed, if I can tell you very little about my mother's actions or mood that day, it is probably because they so closely resembled what we had come to accept as her normal behavior. As exasperating as our mother was, we could never accuse her of inconsistency. Even her last day of life followed that same inscrutable rhythm that only she could decipher.
Excerpted from The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Copyright © 2013 by Hanya Yanagihara. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, 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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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