Natalie Hope McDonald, Philadelphia
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

I am No Bird

I am a woman. 

       An artist. A writer. A thinker and a listener. I question the world around me almost as much as I question myself. What do I want to accomplish in the time I have? How do I want to be remembered? 

       Today if you asked me I would say I’m a daughter who misses her mother. At 41 years old I sometimes wonder where the time has gone between the swing set and the office chair. I’ve counted the years in rocks glasses, kisses and laughter among the family I was given and the one I have chosen. I have made mistakes, lost control and tempted fate. But I have no regrets. 

       When I go home to the small town where I was born, I feel like a stranger. There are ghosts at the corner store, down the street and over the horizon line. There are more cracks in the pavement than I remember. 

       There’s been so much loss. 

       The dinner table does not look like it did when I was a girl. The old gray house where I grew up is gone now, too. But the images burn, burn, burn like the tip of my grandmother’s long cigarette. I often find myself meditating on the things we leave behind and the ones we keep in our hearts forever. I am the next generation, the first in my immediate family to go to college, a woman who comes from a long line of brave and beautiful women who had fewer choices and made much of them. There are times when I take this for granted. And I hate myself for it.

       When I was a girl I would sit for hours at a time on the fire escape at night listening to sirens in the distance. The sweetness of the backyard smelled of magnolia and sounded like crickets and the shutting of a screen door. I always loved the way the rain tapped on the tin awning overlooking that spot behind the boxwoods where we buried the dog and a few unlucky birds. 

       This was the house where they wheeled grandmother away under a white sheet, and then mother just three years later. In many ways my childhood went with them.

       You might say I was born into inherited sadness.  

       My sister died before I could know her. As a kid, an only child, I would visit the cemetery where she was buried with my parents. Dad would stand quietly as mother picked at the crab grass. I always felt guilty for not crying. I would just stand there, kicking rocks and reading the tombstone over and over and over again – it said Infant. No name. It seems I took the name she would have had. I would never forget it. 

       I had my first anxiety attack when I was five, holding an ice cream cone and watching a family of ducks on the creek behind the Dairy Queen. That winter I had my first asthma attack and Dad carried me through a blizzard to the hospital. I knew I was different, more sensitive than the others, that colors had feelings and numbers were just shapes. I was sick a lot. Childhood was never particularly magical. 

       Growing up meant overcoming shyness and wheezing, and finding my voice, knowing my parents were my champions, and learning lessons about life listening to adults slur over clinking ice. 

       I decided I was bisexual by the time I went to college, stopped eating meat and ran off to a big city where I could once again sit on a fire escape and commune with my younger self, the round-faced girl with the ponytail. I had my secrets. Did you know I’m an atheist? I dwell between two worlds, aware of my history and conscious of my mortality. When I voted for the first woman president, I cried. I still have a lot of hope tucked into the pages of my books, into the back pocket of my blue jeans. 

       I recently found several strands of gray hair that reminded me of my mother, of watching her apply makeup before an evening out. It was mesmerizing. But now that I’m at the age she was then, I wonder what she saw. Was she happy? Did she know she was beautiful? Did she feel loved? 

       I picked up a copy of one of her favorite books by Charlotte Bronte and found this underlined: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

       I believe that was meant for me, a message from the great beyond. 

       I refuse to stop listening.  

 

 — Natalie Hope McDonald