ORDINARY LIGHT: A Memoir
By Tracy K. Smith
Knopf. 349 pp. $25.95
During the summer before Tracy K. Smith started fifth grade, her father purchased an egg incubator, so that his youngest daughter could nurture and witness the miracle of birth. A few weeks later, the quail eggs they’d bought at the feed store began to hatch, and Smith was awed as the little chicks began pecking through the shells.
But one struggled to make it out. “He struck me as stuck, exhausted, in need of help,” Smith writes. “I didn’t think of that last step — the chick shaking off the shell and stepping finally out of it — as a necessary rite of passage; it was merely something to be gotten past, the final obstacle to my own relief at having hatched every last egg.” So she reached in and tugged the remaining piece of shell off the chick’s head. “I would not be an alien observer but rather a mother, a protector,” Smith exulted. “I’d carry the chick over the threshold and into life.”
Yet the liberated chick slumped over, and the others ignored their contorted, hunched companion. Stung by guilt, Smith told her father, who, with grim mercy, cupped the animal in his hands and took it away.
A poet and creative-writing professor at Princeton University, Smith has written a memoir about her early years with her own mother and protector, and the rites of passage a daughter and mother must endure as the child grows and finally breaks free. The milestones are familiar — struggles over love, faith, distance, death and regret — yet Smith’s telling is engrossing in its spare, simple understatement. You don’t have to know Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry to appreciate her ability to interpret life in a way that feels both unique and universal. Subtle and evocative, “Ordinary Light” slowly reveals itself as a luminous memoir.
Growing up in a middle-class Northern California suburb in the 1970s and ’80s, Smith is the youngest child among five in a loving black family suffused with a father’s dignity and a mother’s faith. Smith hero-worships her father, even eating her eggs and grits in the same manner as he does, and seeing him as “a character from the books he collected — someone out of Dickens or Thackeray who fled a humble past and made himself anew.” But she spends the most time with her mother, whether in the kitchen, in the car or at night reading “Little Visits With God,” a book that made always doing the right thing by the Lord incredibly simple.
“Belief was stitched into me, soldered to my bones,” she writes. “It was almost as though I was born believing.” And she sought to live by it: She’s the one who encourages her older, worldly cousin to let Jesus into her heart; the one who expresses disappointment at an older brother who moves in with his girlfriend. “My mother was proud of my decorum,” Smith recalls. “She liked having a little girl who instinctively wanted to obey. She would give me instructions once, and I’d do just as she said, never considering the alternative.”
As a child, and like all children, Smith mainly regards her mother and father in light of how well they discharge their parental duties, as though nothing else defined them. “Did I ever wonder who my mother used to be,” she asks herself, “before she belonged to me?” At times, she glimpses the woman who was and could have been. One Halloween, Smith’s mother makes her a ghost costume, though one closely resembling a KKK robe, pointy hood and all. The author asks: “Was stitching up a mini Klan costume for her unsuspecting five-year-old a way of depleting the image of whatever lingering private terror it might have held for her?” Another night, the family all make up funny new nicknames for themselves. “Call me Sexy,” Tracy’s mother suggests. And on the few occasions when Smith recalls her mother describing her own early life, she only says, “I was searching.”
Smith sensed more. “No matter how decorous she was and how much she lived by the grace and the humility of her faith, there was always this other thing we knew was there, this mirthsome, living thing that set her apart from the church ladies and the military wives and everyone else she knew. I loved when she brought it out and let it run around without reins.”
But even when she has opportunities to understand her mother more deeply, the young Smith averts her eyes. In a visit to her mother’s native Leroy, Ala., Smith stays indoors, avoiding the history of the place, of race, of family, of her mother. “Not even crawling into bed beside her at night or folding myself into her arms during the day could make me feel less out of place here, less of a stranger.”
This outsider feeling is Smith’s companion, whether in Alabama; in high school, where she felt like “an interloper, a not-quite-neutral observer”; or later in college. This vantage point may be typical for talented writers, but it also deepens the author’s detachment from those she loves most.
Smith has the gift to see herself clearly, without apology or judgment. In her visits home from college, she developed disdain for her upbringing compared with the intellectual, racial and sexual sophistication she believed she was acquiring at Harvard. “The need to put some distance between my mother and myself suddenly felt urgent, desperate.” The existence of a boyfriend back at school — and her parents’ knowledge that she was sleeping with him — proved a sharp wedge. “Dear Lord,” one of her mother’s friends at First Baptist Church said within earshot of Tracy, “we pray for Kathryn’s daughter Tracy and her relationship (she paused just before that word, as if not sure she ought to use it) with her boyfriend.”
When Smith’s mother became ill with cancer, she told the family, “I know God can heal me.” Smith knew that her mom wanted to be strong in her faith, though she worried about the loophole her mother had left the Almighty “by employing the word can where I would have wanted her to say will.”
Smith was present as her mother’s illness grew more serious — returning home after graduating from college for what would be her mother’s final months — but she didn’t forge the bond she knew both desired. Even at home, “I was too far away, an outsider unable to anticipate what would be needed next, not wanting to be fully aware,” she writes. “Sometimes now, I wonder if she might have been waiting for me to approach her and ask what she felt and thought, what it felt like to be her at that unthinkably harrowing juncture in her life. Sometimes, too, I wonder if she ever hoped I might sit down on the side of her bed and tell her what my life felt like and what it was composed of. Not just what I knew she wanted to hear, but the truth, my truth.”
Some two decades have passed since Smith’s mother left her. Smith now has three children of her own, including one daughter. When they were born, she began to pray again, and this memoir feels like part of that prayer. “My search must have at its core not just my mother and whatever answers she could provide for the questions I never learned how to ask,” she concludes. “I’m also searching for a glimpse of the person I could have been alongside her but chose not to be.”
There are many things we say and wish we could take back. “Ordinary Light” is about finally uttering what we left unsaid for too long.
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