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Original Essays

How I Coped

by Debra Gwartney
  1. Live through This: A Mother
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Profoundly moving....An achingly beautiful chronicle of unfathomable sorrow, flickering hope and quiet redemption." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    "Gwartney deserves high praise for her clear and lacerating prose, her refusal to assign blame or make excuses, and the stunning candor with which she offers telling glimpses into her own, and her daughters' father's, youthful recklessness and parental flounderings." Booklist

About 10 years ago, my older daughters jumped on a freight train in Eugene, Oregon. They were 16 and 14 years old then. One September night following months of driving tension at home — fights that ended with me standing at our front door shouting that they damn well better not leave as they scurried toward town, disappearing for a night, two nights, three — the girls hid in thick blackberry brambles, waiting for instructions. A couple of punked-out boys good at riding the rails (travelers, my daughters called them) told the girls to stay as hunched and frozen as possible until the railroad cars were stilled, until the guards had moved on with their lights and dogs and billy clubs, and then to run across the jutting tracks and rough gravel to leap onto a box car, finding a place to huddle in a corner. That first night, they chugged off to Portland. A few days later, they jumped another train to San Francisco. After that, more trains to who knows where.

My oldest daughter was arrested and sent back three months later. The younger daughter hopped another train to another place. We didn't see her again for a year.

The mornings they were gone, after mostly sleepless nights, I'd make myself say I'm handling this out loud into the foggy bathroom mirror. I was pretty sure that I was handling it. Handling it so well, in fact, that no one at my workplace or at the grocery store, or even the two younger daughters I was taking care of at home, realized how close I was to flying apart. Bursting into a thousand pieces right in front of them. Except now, over the decade that's passed, friends have admitted that they feared for me and for my younger girls; they tell me, finally, that I was over-defensive about everything, snapping at the smallest slight or insult. It's true: Every time someone around me complained about her child's relatively mild (in my mind) misbehavior, or about an ill relative, or concerns about unpaid bills — just about anything — I tended to glare. Do you think you have it bad? That glare said, No one has it worse than me. So I don't know how I kept believing that I was deft at hiding this judgment of others, how I thought I'd shoved my personal ball of fury deep inside my chest, undetectable. There was so much evidence to the contrary: I yelled at my younger girls like a crazy person for not making their beds or putting away their clothes, the smallest sign of disarray in our house sending me into a tizzy. I holed myself up at my small office at work, growing ever more nasty to co-workers and bosses, until I was fired after a series of humiliating confrontations.

During that period of missing daughters (when I still had the job I went to relentlessly, refusing to give myself an hour off, out of my mind with certainty that someone was waiting, baited, to call me weak or ineffective), I allowed myself one glass of beer or wine with dinner. That was it. There'd be no coping by getting drunk, but just enough to take the edge off, as they say. The edge off: I dropped my younger kids at their schools in the crisp fall mornings and on into the winter, then walked down a particular sidewalk so I'd pass an old oak tree. I circled the tree with fogged breath, pressing a foot on each new nut, freshly fallen from the tree during the night, waiting for the millisecond of the pop, the release. I flattened every one, leaving not a single acorn for another consumed-with-terror-or-panic passerby.

On those walks to work, instead of looking up — up, where I could decide not to greet a stranger with even a smidge of kindness or affirm with indignation that the sky was gray once again — I scanned the sidewalks with fervor. Head down, searching for a glint, a coppery edge, of a penny. Parking meters are the best hunting grounds: apparently, people dump the one-centers when rifling through pocket change for parking quarters. Every day, the discovery of a few pennies (preferably heads-up) at the bottom of the meter's cold pole inexplicably eased the despair over my daughters. A small ease, but one I wanted to repeat by the minute. So, if I saw a penny on the sidewalk with too many people around it, or someone accidentally knocking Lincoln's visage into the street, I'd have to stop and wait. Once the others had moved on, I'd slide in for the grab. If I couldn't get it for whatever reason, I'd fuss about that penny until I could return to that same patch of sidewalk, that same stretch of leave-packed gutter, to scour again.


My daughters returned from their lives on the streets long ago, and we've spent the past 10 years slowly forgiving each other for too much pain and all that terrible misunderstanding. And my girls, now in their 20s, all four, have taken up healthy, happy lives. I'm trying to put the past in the past, where it belongs. But the tissues of my body sometimes can't forget that year, that awful year. I still scan for pennies on the street, and still can't walk by one once I've spotted it. I become seriously rattled if I don't think I'll reach it before it's scooped up or it simply disappears into the detritus of leaves and garbage. If I'm anywhere around an oak tree during the weeks of autumn, I veer off in its direction and kick through the acorns looking for those that are whole. I place the bottom of my shoe on a single nut in just the right position; lean forward so my weight is transferred to that one foot. I feel the nut about to give — the hard shell primed to split under the force of my determination — and then it happens. The acorn gives way suddenly, the meat inside pounded instantly into grit, and my heart bounces with a momentary relief so sweet that I'm already searching for the next one.

÷ ÷ ÷

Debra Gwartney is a former Oregonian newspaper reporter, and worked as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine for ten years. She is on the nonfiction writing faculty at Portland State University. Her 2002 appearance with daughters Stephanie and Amanda on This American Life garnered intense listener response. The mother of four daughters and married to the writer Barry Lopez, Gwartney lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Read Carson Smith's interview with Debra Gwartney on the blog! spacer

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