A couple of months ago, as we were stuffing our blocks into the cubbies after a yoga class, a woman I saw frequently but knew only as “the short one with the beautiful blond hair” introduced herself. Alex Hewett is one of the producers of the Baltimore/DC chapter of Mortified, a show where adults present diaries, letters and other archival materials from their childhoods. She wondered if maybe I, or some of my students, would be interested in performing.
It sounded like fun, but I didn’t keep a diary as a child. I’ve often wished I had, as my memories of my youth are pretty thin. This is a real handicap in the memoir business. Writers like Mary Karr, who seem to have photographic recall of what the guests were wearing at their fifth birthday party, confound me. Recently I’ve been working with my ex-mother-in-law, Joyce Abell, on what will be her first book, Prickly Roses, to be published by Passager Press next fall. (First book at 92! May we all have such miracles in overtime.) About half of Joyce’s book is based on things that happened before she was ten years old – just the other day, she told me she’s writing a new essay about the Great Depression, inspired by a conversation she overheard when she was six. Six!
Despite my deficiencies in the childhood memory department, there’s a Rubbermaid box in my closet filled with the things I saved from my old bedroom when we cleaned out my mother’s house after her death in 2008. I decided to poke through it and see if maybe I did have a diary I forgot about.
Turns out, I had a whole alter ego I forgot about. Her name was Tracy Beth Richardson. And dozens of her poems from 1968 and 1969 were in a manila folder labeled with a green Flair marker which surely came from the cup of pens and pencils on the built-in, Formica-topped partners’ desk in my parents’ study at 7 Dwight Drive. (Said the girl with no memories.)
Maybe part of why I forgot my childhood or tried to, at least, is that I was miserable for so much of it. I was a decidedly ungainly little girl, klutzy, chubby, and isolated by my precociousness and intense self-consciousness. You can see it my class pictures all through elementary: I’m the angry, puffy-faced one in the second row. It’s hard to imagine someone so young being as burdened as I was, but this manila folder I found contained the documentation.
by Tracy Beth Richardson
Must always be borne
With looks determined
And none forlorn
Although it hurts and will cause you pain
You must bear your iron chain
And throughout your life you must always bear
Unbearable things that will always be there
by Tracy Beth Richardson
When I was young
I could not understand
Why people cried
Now, when I am older
I cry too
When I was young
I laughed but knew
Not why, now I am
Somber, with reason.
Why has laughter turned to weeping
Ask the willow tree
It has seen.
Why Tracy Beth Richardson? Well, obviously Marion Winik was no kind of name for an artiste such as myself. I remember considering Alexandra Dumas and Jeanne-Marie La Fontaine, but eventually rejected Frenchy pretension for this girlish, goyish name filled with all-American cuteness. And echoes of Emily Dickinson, who had a poem or two in the large format, pale green children’s anthology of poetry illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund I read, re-read and memorized — also rescued from that bedroom on Dwight Drive.
Though my mother was an obsessive reader, my parents were not literati. T.B. Richardson was easily their favorite poet. My dad very sweetly had his secretary Gail Spolan type up all my poems and brought them home to me in a fancy black binder. With my manuscript I received my first fan letter, on a historic Brookhaven Textiles memo form, the kind that came with layers of carbon, between the white original, the pink duplicate, the yellow triplicate.
This memo was one of the things I showed Alex Hewett when she came to my house to see if I could put together a segment for the upcoming Mortified shows in DC and Baltimore, and it was projected along with a couple of (miserable looking) pictures of me when I made my first two appearances last month. Other acts in the shows included the reunion of a boy band from a Jewish sleepaway camp, the diary of a young Mormon looking for love, and videotape weather reports made by a homeschooled little redhead and her reluctant sibling assistant. So funny and great. I could see why people can’t get enough of this stuff, with shows running everywhere from L.A. to Oslo.
My segment tracked the despair of Tracy Beth through 7th grade, when I abandoned my pen name, and also gave up on changing my clothes, brushing my hair, and all other attempts to be normal and fit in. By this time, I had absorbed the idea that misery and mental illness were the marks of genius, and I was going for it. I went so far as to weakly attempt suicide by swallowing thirty-two aspirin. My parents did what they could: got my stomach pumped, sent me to a psychiatrist, bought me a Smith-Corona electric typewriter.
In my teen years, I would absorb another idea about creative genius, that it requires single-minded devotion to drugs and alcohol. Here, too, I committed myself wholeheartedly, and thus my baby blue period gave way to my teenage badass period. A second folder I found in the Rubbermaid box contained xeroxes of calendars I made for my boyfriend Jon for the years 1974 and 1975. Each month had an illustration and a quote from the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead, as well as a poem.
okay, sugar let’s get it on
let’s make our dreams come true
touch me tender make me melt
paint me shades of you.
I only know it’s wrong
for people to be free
and you gotta know that evil is the only way to be
it’s decadent to scratch an itch
it’s sacrilegious to be a witch
Is it nerves that make you twitch
or are you just a turned-on bitch?
I don’t wanna be good
I don’t wanna be nice
Place your bets people
Gonna roll the dice
we’re stoned we’re drunk we’re dead
we’re lying in the road
when we kissed the golden goddess
she turned into a toad.
I don’t know if it was the drugs, the sex or the rock and roll – it definitely was not the psychiatrist – but the poems of my high school years reveal a change in my emotional climate. Even if it meant I could never be a truly great writer, I became determined not to feel so bad all the time. Forget those unbearable things and that iron chain – don’t listen to the willow tree – my new state of mind was determined optimism. The paisley-patterned mood of The Iced Tea Poem is the wallpaper in my head to this day.
The Iced Tea Poem
Sittin at the kitchen table
and my mind is in a maze
lookin at my friends
and wonderin what to do
cause I’m feelin kinda tight
and I gotta know I’m free
so I think I’m gonna take a dive
into my iced tea
I’ll swim around and wonder
if I’ll ever get the chance
to be on Johnny Carson
and do a belly dance
and If I do, then tell me
will I be a household word,
on the cover of Time and My Weekly Reader?
And did you know that Leon Russell
is close to 45
and the scientists at Berkeley
have proved that we’re alive
So if you let me touch you
I’ll try not to break the glass
Cause I just want you to know
That it’s the happy things that last.
And so, I’ve gone from being a person with no childhood memories to being the literary executor of a sensitive young writer and antiwar activist whose work has come to light after a half-century of neglect. I plan to do right by her this time around.
Tracy Beth Richardson will be appearing with Mortified DC at Kennedy Center in July, Mortified Brooklyn in September, and Mortified Baltimore in December. Tickets and info at getmortified.com.