By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
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Amanda, 15 when she left home in 1995, and 13-year-old Stephanie were, Gwartney writes, “as symbiotic with each other as the red and green strands of a DNA illustration in a science book.” They still are, sitting in the breakfast nook of Gwartney’s condo, each with luxuriant hair to her waist and three or four large scrolled-silver hoops in each ear. Stephanie lives in Massachusetts and Amanda, southern Oregon, and yet they still communicate in code, needing only a few words about an arrest a dozen years ago before the other nods and cuts the story short, casually recalling the time Stephanie, at 14, fell off a freight train and cracked open her skull.
“God, I didn’t even know this,” says Gwartney, and one sees there are still gaps being filled in, and also that the self-sufficiency the girls required of themselves early on has rendered them strong.
“I can’t imagine being the person I am today without that experience. I’d be really boring, probably,” says Stephanie, who owns a landscape-design company. “I could maybe change the way I did so, without hurting people, but the experiences I had while being gone made me the person I am now, and I like the person I am now.”
Amanda lives off the grid, raising goats and chickens and spinning yarn. “I really wanted to drop out of high school and get a job, and that just wasn’t going to happen [at home],” she says. “I needed to be on my own.”
Gwartney pauses. “I wouldn’t repeat it for anything, but these two are ... ” She pauses again. “I teach [nonfiction] at Portland State and I meet people this age all the time, and I know they’re my daughters and I love them, but I also know they are so much more interesting than most people their age. Something did happen to them during that time, and it was so enriching.”
They agree on what started the rift. The move. The divorce. Gwartney’s attempts to corral the chaos. “She had four daughters under the age of teenage years,” Amanda says. “It was stressful for her; she had to pay all the child-care expenses and work all day and when we’d get home, it was tough.”
Was this when she and Stephanie held the tea parties, arranging peanut-butter sandwiches on china plates and playing Bach concertos so their mom could relax?
“We wanted our mom to be happy,” she says. “Those first few years in Eugene were hell.”
“They were,” Gwartney says. “I had these ideas of how I was going to make my family work, and I would pick everybody up and get everybody all their lessons, we’d get home and I insisted on making dinner every night.”
“And not macaroni and cheese and stuff,” Stephanie says. “Full-on dinners.”
“I just never cut myself any slack,” Gwartney admits. “And in never cutting myself any slack, I never cut them any slack.”
“She was trying to control what we were doing,” says Amanda. “I remember I wanted a Mohawk, and she told me I couldn’t have a Mohawk, and I said, ‘What do you want me to be, a hippie?’ And she said, ‘I’d love it if you were a hippie!’”
“I did?” asks Gwartney. “That’s so funny.”
Gwartney’s two younger daughters arrive, bringing with them Amanda’s two children, including a toddler passed through the air first to Gwartney to nuzzle, then to Amanda, who starts to nurse. Does Amanda ever think she could find herself in the position she put her mother in, and if so, what would she do?
“I’m not going to get into that position,” she says, and while Gwartney and Stephanie laugh, gently, Amanda has tears in her eyes. “I’d probably do the same thing my mom did, but I’d know I’d have more support than she did, because I have her.”
There is quiet at the table. “It’s interesting,” Gwartney says finally, “my first week when I’m teaching, I always tell them that a memoir has to be about, what did I lose and what did I gain from the same event? That whole goal of writing a memoir is to be pushing into that. But I think the ‘what did I lose’ part is so visceral for me; sometimes I’ll be in a grocery store and I’ll see a mom with her adolescent kid and put her arm around her daughter or something.” Gwartney’s voice squeaks high as she starts to cry. “And for me, to not have that, that was just so awful.”
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