When I picked up Blackbird in the bookstore and saw that it was a memoir about a woman's childhood, I thought it would make for a good read and possibly be one that other women with a story of their own would enjoy. It was an easy one to pick up and add to the collection in my arms since I found it in the "bargain books" section. Unexpectedly, the book would not let me go for two days straight and sent me speeding for the sequel. It is a powerful story.
At first glance, Jennifer Lauck's life as a five-year-old girl in 1969 seems pretty normal—she has a mother, father, and older brother and lives in a house in suburban Nevada with a white fence and big willow tree. Her mother, Janet, is a perfect lady who follows Jackie Kennedy's style, reads the latest fashion magazines, and smiles a "hostess smile" even when things are desperately wrong. Jenny is her mother's "Sunshine" and her father's "Juniper." Watching her mother in the morning "getting put together"—applying a bit of powder, rouge, and dark eyeliner—Jenny plays dress-up in her mother's clothes and comes out of the walk-in closet to her awaiting mother's approving eye. She later carries the lessons of her mother's fashion sense into play with her cousins and advises how the paper dolls should dress.
The initial view of Jenny's perfect life is short-lived. In the first few pages of the book, we learn that Jenny's bird-thin mother is seriously ill and we watch little Jenny carry coffee and diagonally cut toast with butter and marmalade on the special china to her mother. Jenny remembers that, "Momma says presentation is everything."
We soon see that Jenny's young life is filled with a beyond-her-years responsibility of caring for her mother and it is soon apparent that she's the only one around to do it. She says, "There's never been a time when I haven't been home with Momma. Daddy works, B.J. goes to school, and it's just Momma and me all day, everyday."
To complement Jenny's mother's fashion-model beauty, her father is equally perfect. According to Jenny, "Momma says Daddy is the best kind of good-looking, boy next door mixed with drop-dead handsome." Not only is he attractive, but he also seems to be a caring, loving father. Jenny "shaves" with her Daddy using the soft side of a comb against her little face. He brushes her long hair and teaches her to comb the tangles from the bottom up. He makes ponytails and reads Snow White to her.
The parents have matching sports cars and their lives seem 1960s perfect. But the fairy tale soon unravels as Jenny's mother spends months in and out of the hospital.
The family doesn't talk about the mother's illness with outsiders. Jenny's father says that it's family business that others won't understand. In kindergarten, Jenny makes handprints with the other kids. The teacher tells her to take them home to her mother, not knowing that Jenny's mother is away in the hospital. After being dared by her brother to run through traffic, Jenny's prints are scattered in the street and run over by cars. She ends up hanging the smudged prints on the refrigerator herself.
After one of many trips to the hospital, Jenny's mother comes home connected to a urine bag. Since the father is away working all the time, and the brother never wants to do it, it seems Jenny is the only one left with the responsibility of cleaning up her apologetic mother. When the mother, accidentally or not, takes too many pills and cannot be awakened, Jenny's father and brother are not around. The girl is frantic and alone, shouldering the responsibility.
Though being caretaker at such a young age can take a toll, Jenny says,
"Momma and me, pills and water, every day, forever. I don't know any other way and I don't care because she's here and she's my mother and without my mother, there's nothing else. I want to tell her that she's going to get better, that today was just a bad day, that it's my fault and I'll just try harder tomorrow."
Jenny has to deal with a lot as she pretty much raises herself. When her father is no longer around, she can only look at the pictures in Snow White. She's still too young to read the words. Later, a teenage male cousin comes to watch Jenny and her brother while their father works. But the boy locks them out of their own house every day while he smokes pot and has sex with a neighbor girl. Jenny's brother, Bryan, rebels more and more against the absentee parents and teaches Jenny the "F" word and how to hold her middle finger up in defiance of the hurtful things in their young lives. Then there's the abusive camp counselor who singles Jenny out.
Things really take a downward spiral when the father announces to Jenny and Bryan, "Mom died. Your mother is dead. It was just time, it was her time…You're both lucky, you're young, you can put this behind you, you can move on. In a few years, you'll forget." It didn't make things any easier that their mother died on Bryan's birthday.
When a fever prevents Jenny from attending the funeral, she has to stay with godparents she's never met. It seems to be the start of her being shuffled off to various strangers. In the urgency of funeral arrangements, she traumatically loses her favorite Barbie doll. When it turns up again, Jenny ecstatically realizes, "You don't always know you're happy unless you have been so low and sad that you forgot what it was to feel happy."
My heart aches for this little girl and her poignant story. I wanted to reach inside the book and rescue her. There's even the "evil stepmother" persona in Deb, a woman with three kids of her own. Deb calls family meetings to assign chores to the kids, always seeming to show her children favoritism.
For her eighth birthday, Jenny receives a pink trunk with a lock and key from her Dad for storing her toys. Instead, she hides her secrets and special mementos of her mother. As Jenny shows her brother their parents' wedding album, she sees the hurt in his eyes and tells him, "It's not good to look at too many at one time. So many memories can hurt."
Lauck provides a child's view of the world, and the unfortunate truth is that children are often helpless. They may have a head full of thoughts and feelings to express but choose to remain quiet, or say "yes" when they mean "no."
Jenny faces more tragedy. At age eleven, she is shuffled off by her stepmother to live alone at a commune connected with Deb's New Age church. The child works in the kitchen, gets herself up in the morning, walks to school, and goes to bed alone at night. Once when she's sick with a terrible rash that closes her eyes, she's left alone to deal with it and is terrified that she's gone blind. Jenny develops a hard shell and doesn't want to care about anyone. Why should she?
As I was reading this story, with its page-turning intensity, I often thought I was reading a fictional account about make-believe characters. Surely all these things couldn't happen to one little girl. Upon understanding this indeed is a true story about the author's childhood, my heart broke for her.
Before Jenny's mother departed, she gave her daughter valuable advice. "I don't know why bad things happen," she said, "...when you can't make sense of things, you have to go inside and find what is real, what you can believe in, what matters...The thing we believe comes to us through our experiences. The thing you believe has to come through your heart."
The story of Jennifer Lauck's early life is tragic...but keep reading...for it will become triumphant.
Check out our interview with the author of Blackbird.
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