A note from all of us at Memoir Magazine:
Do yourself a favor and read this book!
We are thrilled to present you with a memoir in the finest sense of the genre. An easy read, packed with astonishing events that flow into one another like water, The View From Breast Pocket Mountain is a coming of age, cultural history lesson, travelogue, spiritual life journey, and enduring love story all in one. Who could ask for more? The writing is deft, refreshingly accessible, and at times even lyrical. Hill Anton is an excellent storyteller, her narration is honest, sincere, and tender, yet never self-indulgent—one cannot help but follow her from Harlem to Europe to the hills of Japan on a wildly inspirational journey to the self that is unlike any other. That Hill Anton is able to do this in a mere 296 pages is a testament to her mastery of the writing craft. So enjoyable, it reads like 100 pages. This is a memoir for the ages, and one that we fully expect will someday make a very fine film. A tour de force. For now, we share with you this brief excerpt below.
Seeing my mother required a long train ride. To visit her, we’d go to places far out in Brooklyn, Queens, or Long Island. Kings
Park State Hospital was the name of the last institution I recall.
Johnny, Mollie, and I would stand together looking out the large window at the front of the train. That’s when my tears would begin to build up. I always wondered if they wanted to cry, too, but I never asked them. And they never cried. I didn’t either.
We always visited her on a Sunday, and it was the only time there was an excuse not to go to church. Our father made a lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, collard greens, biscuits—our usual Sunday dinner. It was like we were going on a special outing, a picnic. But it wasn’t a picnic. When we arrived at the hospital, my father went in, took off his hat, and asked for “Mrs. Iris Hill.” We were never allowed in because we were too young. So we waited, playing on the steps of the institution until the attendants finished dressing Iris Hill and my father escorted her out. Her dresses, floral prints just like any mother would wear, were always new because she only wore them for these visits, and our father always bought her more. Her lipstick was smeared. Every time. There’d be a smudge of red lipstick on her teeth. It gave her away.
Daddy introduced us, one by one: “Iris, this is Karen,” he’d say. “Say hello.” In a sweet voice she’d say, “Hello Karen.” Sometimes she wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t even look. She’d just continue talking to herself, as I guessed she did all day. She usually laughed, too. But sometimes the sweet smile would suddenly change and she’d scowl, looking angry. Real mad.
Since we weren’t permitted in the hospital, we only visited in spring and summer so we could sit outside. It seems strange, I think now, that the desolate experience of visiting my mother was always against a backdrop of blue skies and marigolds.
Now at home in Japan, when I bend down to catch the scent of the marigolds, the only flowers I have in my traditional garden of stones and bamboo, it’s to remind myself. I purposely smell memory. It’s not enough just to see the irregular orange and maroon petals. I must smell the flower to really be five years old again and visiting my mother at a mental institution.
I never wanted to go there. Never.
When my father told his friends at church, matronly women in hats and men who wore hats too, that we wouldn’t be coming the following Sunday because “I’m going to visit my wife if the weather is fine,” they’d smile down at us beneficently as if we were the luckiest children in the world. “Now, isn’t that nice,” they’d say, presuming our happiness at the prospect, and never imagining, I suppose, what a hateful, heartrending experience it was.
We sat on a bench on the hospital grounds to eat our lunch. We could have our favorite parts of the chicken. Johnny got the leg, Mollie the thigh, and I got the breast. Iris just put food in her mouth
—she didn’t seem to care what part of the chicken she had, or how she ate it. The oily chicken made a mess with the lipstick around her mouth. My father made sure she had a napkin. I never figured out how I could eat at all with a torrent of tears dammed up behind my eyes, bursting through the back of my head, and blocking my throat. But I did eat. And I never cried. Not even once.
“But how did you feel while you sat there on the bench?” asked Dr. R, the therapist, a Filipina practicing in Japan, I sought out much later.
“Yes. Describe it to me. It’s all right.”
I’d never let myself feel anything. How could I? It wouldn’t have been “all right” to sit there crying for “no reason.” Would my father have understood? He’d made a nice lunch and brought us that long way to see our mother. He was doing everything he could. And I wouldn’t want to upset my sister and brother. No. Those tears had to be checked. I couldn’t have survived otherwise. It was much too painful. Feel? It’s pretty simple: I wanted a mother. I wanted her to know me. I didn’t want to be visiting her there, sitting on that bench.
While we ate, our father talked to her, as if she were a normal person. I could hear the hope in his voice as he talked to his “wife.” He hoped she’d be responsive, but she wasn’t. The few times I talked to her, I looked her straight in the eye thinking that was the way to get through. But the eyes that looked back didn’t see me. I knew she didn’t know who I was—didn’t have any idea and didn’t care.
I often heard my father talking about her on the telephone, saying the doctors said, “She’s coming along now, she seems to be getting better.” He acted like he really believed that, and I wanted to believe it too—maybe she’d be better and would come to live with us to be our mother. I was a year old, Johnny was two, and Mollie just a few months when she disappeared. My father never told me about it, but when I was about ten, I found a bunch of notices announcing her disappearance. These were index-sized cards in assorted colors in the top drawer of the same mahogany-colored bureau that held the wedding gown. I suppose the cards were passed out to people on the street.
“MISSING” it said at the top and asked if anyone knew of the whereabouts of Iris Hill, five feet, five inches tall, brown hair, brown eyes, last seen wearing… There was an extra plea at the bottom that said the missing person had three young children at home.
I don’t know if my brother and sister ever saw those cards. I never asked them and I never told them. Why would we want to talk about such a thing? We didn’t sit around crying and being sad about a mother we didn’t have. We had friends, toys, dolls. My dolls had first, middle and last names. They had their ears pierced. They had library cards. When necessary, I could take them to the doll hospital on Broadway, a magical place where headless, limbless dolls lined worktables and were put right again. I had roller skates and ice skates, too. I had a dollhouse, and the chemistry set, and I could turn my room into a lab anytime I wanted. I took ballet lessons (Johnny and Mollie took tap) and I was a butterfly in a recital at which I wore a fluffy yellow tutu with sparkles that I bet I’d seen in my dreams.
Every year, our father took us, and a bunch of neighborhood kids, to the Ringling Bros. Circus and to Coney Island, where we could eat big clouds of pink cotton candy and green pistachio ice cream. Not all kids got to do stuff like that. Our father was respected in our community, we knew that. Everybody knew Mr. Hill, and they’d say things like, “He’s doing a wonderful job. That man is mother and father to those children.”
Those cards that told about the missing mother were my own secret, not to share. When no one was around, I’d take them all out— there were a lot of them. When I was in high school, I took one, just one, and put it with my things. I knew then that one day I would want to remember. It would be evidence. Proof. But the apartment burned down, destroying those dolls and diaries, Joan Baez and Miriam Makeba albums, snapshots from my Brownie camera, school class photos and yearbooks. No photos exist of me as a child. But I was a child once. That one card I’d saved, the evidence of the motherless child, was lost in the fire. Still, I know those cards answered the mystery of why there was no mother. Instead of words like “amnesia” and “hospital,“ they said she disappeared. She walked out the door one day and was gone.
I’ve forgotten a lot. And now that my whole family is gone, there is no one to check with to find out if this or that happened. Incidents notched in my life belong to a past now veil-shaded, vaguely remembered. But memory doesn’t entirely fail. It is the memory that made me that lives with me. And I remember those cards were in all the colors of the rainbow.
Iris did come home for a trial run, but by that time I was eighteen and subletting an apartment downtown. When I’d visit, she’d be sitting on the sofa like a guest—a guest who laughed and talked to herself and stared into the empty space between us. It was never like having a mother—that was a hope and a dream that became a fantasy and then a forgotten idea. But I couldn’t believe or accept she didn’t know I was her daughter, and the minute my father left the room, I’d begin to talk to her—rather, interrogate her.
“What’s my name?”
“What hospital was I born in?”
“When did you come to America?”
By this time, she’d say things like “So you’re Karen,” though it wasn’t convincing. She even told me the name of the ship she sailed on from the West Indies. But was she right? She said I was born in Harlem Hospital, whereas my father told me I was born in Mother Cabrini Hospital and that it was Mollie who was born in Harlem Hospital. But Iris insisted and I wanted to believe her, and I was glad she was so sure. She’d given birth to me, she should know. And if she knew it would establish her as my mother, it would validate her, even if she didn’t know my name.
I was born in Mother Cabrini Memorial Hospital, April 11, 1945.
It didn’t work with her being at home. She needed constant care and couldn’t be left alone, and my father was already too old to look after her, so she was put in a neighborhood nursing home. I would visit her because my father told me I should. Like Mr. Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre, she was my secret. No friend of mine ever saw her.
Johnny visited her at the nursing home, too, but he didn’t have to be told. And just like my father, he acted as if she were normal—at least it didn’t seem to break his heart to talk to her or about her. He seemed to have a relationship with her, and I suppose both he and my father had a memory of her from the time before she became the woman who talked and laughed to herself and had lipstick on her teeth. They both sincerely cared about her, whereas I thought of her as a duty and I pitied her. Though I’m sure I pitied myself more.
At the nursing home, I’d sit with her, expecting nothing, sometimes talking, sometimes not. I’d always found it difficult to look at her because there was nothing to be found in her face. Even her angry looks or sudden laughter didn’t reveal anything about her.
Four years later, when I returned from Europe after Nanao was born, I took her there and introduced her.
“This is your granddaughter, Nanao. Say hello.” “Hello Nanao.”
Living in institutions for so many years left its mark on Iris: untreated diabetes left her partially blind, she developed tuberculosis, and she had heart disease. But she wasn’t old. She was forty-seven when she died, a few months after my father. I don’t know the date. I don’t remember if it was Johnny or Mollie who telephoned me. I have no photograph of her. I don’t remember if I called her Mother, Mama, Ma, Mom. None of those words are familiar to me. They didn’t belong to her or me, either.
I’ve spent my whole life observing women, mostly the mothers of my friends. Unknowingly, they presented themselves as examples for me. I admired these women and watched them closely, with their husbands, their children, and their homes. I saw what they did with food, clothes, books, emotions. They couldn’t know I watched. I didn’t know. I had no idea that I was picking and choosing. And unlike my girlfriends—who had no choice, and who would be, to some extent, like their mothers whether they liked it or not—I could take what I liked, what I found useful, what I would come to value.
I wasn’t sure I could be a mother, that I would know what mothers do and how to imitate it. But I am a mother. I may be faking it, but my children call me Mama and they seem to mean it.
You can pick up a copy of Karen Hill Anton’s riveting tale of becoming here: The View From Breast Pocket Mountain by Karen Hill Anton
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