In her memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, bell hooks…
I think of Mary Yoder standing just outside the kitchen door, one foot holding it open, swatting mosquitos in the white flood light. She smoked a cigarette like it was delicious. Her waist-length hair was tied back in a tight ponytail and then braided—she hadn’t figured that part out yet. But she knew how to talk, and she talked slow and low and gravel. She turned her Pennsylvania Dutch into a real deep Dietrich German. When she came to stay with us, she woke up at 5 a.m. and walked up and down the hill until the sun came up. Mom said Mary was used to getting up early. Pop said she had a demon that followed her around, and every morning he sat by her bed and talked and talked and talked until there was no point in trying to sleep anyway. A demon that looked like her daddy.
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Mom said it’s hard being a woman without a family, and I remember saying it back one day—parroting it to them when I got in trouble for this or that and decided to run away. I walked up the hill with a Golden Dawn bag full of clean underwear and a few sticks that looked like they’d make good slingshots. When I got to the top, I saw how small my house looked down at the bottom, how far away. I ran home with a demon of my own behind me. Inside, Mom and Pop were fixing dinner, and they ignored me. But Mary was just inside the door, and she held me and wiped my eyes with her shirt collar. I breathed her in, clean laundry and dish soap. I remember thinking, this is a woman. We were both learning how to be.
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Mary left her family for an English boy, the one who taught her how to smoke, but Mom told us it didn’t work out. Sometimes the phone would ring, and Mom would hand it to Pop, and he’d lower his voice, and he’d say go to hell. Mom would lead us into the next room, and when I’d ask who Pop was talking to and what about, she’d smile and brush my forehead.
Man stuff, she’d say.
And I’d think about the boy as I imagined him—covered in dark light—while I watched Mary pull on her panty hose. And I’d think about how she must be thinking about him too.
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When Mary got into community college, Pop brought home a bottle of champagne, and he made a ceremony of opening it, singing like Marlene Dietrich singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Mary said her accent—though still far off—was closer than any of ours to her mother’s. And she and Mom and Pop stayed up late some nights listening to Marlene and talking. And Mary was penciling her eyebrows thin like Marlene. Learning to be a woman; but otherworldly. When the cork finally came loose, it shot straight into Mom’s new dome light, and she cursed, but nobody bothered to fish it out. And we all stayed up late laughing about it, a little dark spot in the light above our table.
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Work and school kept Mary away long hours, and when she was gone, I’d fish through her things, and I’d smell them one at a time: her hairbrush, her bath towel, her quilt crazed with age. She did not have yearbooks. She did not have photo albums. All I had to study was Mom and Pop and these few, precious artifacts of womanhood. I was in the slow years before my period, and Mary seemed so very perfect. One afternoon, I found a musty handkerchief—a man’s—at the back of her sock drawer. I smelled it too. Plunged my face into it and back out like a baptism. I was a devotee. And Mary wasn’t fallen yet. At least not to me. But she was going out then, longer and longer.
And she seemed to go deeper and deeper into the night, until she didn’t come back at all.
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Years later, I saw Mary again, and not since. I was home from college for the summer working the night shift at the desk at Howard Johnson’s. I was calling my first real boyfriend on my breaks and negotiating my mandatory orange polo shirt and khakis over chest and hips, wearing makeup because a girl in my dorm said I should. Someone ran in from the hotel bar to tell me there was a fight in the parking lot, and I grabbed the cordless phone and walked to the window to have look. Two men were rolling back and forth over the hood of a car, hands swinging viciously, one was wearing khaki shorts and a shirt with French cuffs—a man from somewhere else come in off the highway. The other man was wearing deep blue denim and Brahmas and his hair was dark with grease. And he was swatting, gesturing for someone to stand back. My eyes followed his hands, and I saw a woman with straight hair and feathered bangs. Her body was still taught and tall and, smoking a cigarette, her face a little wrinkled. She was cringing with each swing, her eyes squinted and carefully lined black with makeup. As I dialed the police, I ignored the tugging I felt to get Mary, to ask her inside, to hug her. To see if she still smelled so clean.
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Now I go for walks, and sometimes I think about the way Mary used to move up and down the hill, in and out of our world like there was someone chasing her. At Mom and Pop’s, there’s still a shadow in the dome light in the dining room, but I really don’t look up anymore. I am grown, I say. I know who I am, I say. But something about childhood aches, and every time, I allow that pain to chase me out of the house, to follow me for a while. I am a woman now, and there’s not a woman in the world who doesn’t know the feeling of someone behind her.