Ask any number of people to summarize their childhood, and you’ll hear a variety of descriptions. Our childhoods are laced with humor and heartbreak, tragedy and joy, failure and triumph – all in varying degrees. Some of our parents gave their all, though limited emotionally, financially or physically. Other parents had much to give but thought only of themselves and neglected, abandoned or abused us instead. Some of us possessed an innate tenacity and self-assurance while others harbored self-doubt and timidity. Some of us thrived, some crumbled, and some are still trying to come to terms with who we are and how we feel about the men and women who raised or didn’t raise us. Whatever our backgrounds and tendencies, though, I think our journeys contained certain commonalities; what we wanted wasn’t always what we needed, and sometimes what we needed wasn’t at all what we received.
I just finished reading an inspiring memoir by Sarah Bracey White called “Primary Lessons,” a book that chronicles her struggle to establish her identity and to define love despite the family, social and cultural upheavals surrounding her. A book that spans from 1945 to 1963, “Primary Lessons” describes how Sarah, a precocious, free-thinking 5 year-old, is ripped from the only home she ever knew and loved – a nurturing, supportive, middle-class home she shared with her aunt – and transplanted to her mother’s poverty stricken, dysfunctional home in the segregated south. Suddenly faced with new limitations due to her race and poverty, in addition to her single mother’s constant attempts to curb her inquisitiveness and assertive nature, Sarah finds herself struggling with feelings of abandonment, alienation, frustration and confusion about her place in the world. Ultimately, Sarah’s determination and unfailing sense of self are what pull her through a life filled with tragedy and obstacles at every turn.
I had the absolute pleasure of befriending Sarah, recently. An exuberant woman who radiates warmth and positivity, this 67 year-old author hasn’t allowed hardship to tarnish her view of the world or the people in it. In fact, it’s done the opposite. It seems her relentless self-examination and tenacity have given her incredible wisdom and strength. The author, who says that she spent the majority of her life believing she never loved her mother, wrote “Primary Lessons” to make peace with the woman who died when Sarah was just 17. What she learned in the process of writing not only surprised her, it seems to have healed her. What she realized is that each event in her life contributed to the woman she is today – her strength, resilience, and her ability to view the world with an open mind and heart. She learned that both of the women that raised her, despite letting her down, also loved her. And while this story is about a young black girl during a time of racial inequality, its universal themes speak to the child in all of us, and to mothers and daughters of all backgrounds – everywhere.
Sarah, like so many children, didn’t always receive what she wanted or needed from her caregivers. But as I discussed in a previous blog post, parents and relatives whose limitations affected us negatively often provide us with the very tools that can shape us into strong, independent, resilient adults. I’m not saying this isn’t incredibly disappointing and painful, but it’s all about how we use the experience; it’s entirely possible to dig deep, stay true to who we are and to try to create something from that loss. Sometimes it involves walking away altogether. Sometimes we need to seek what we’re missing from other healthy sources. Always, it’s good to remember that it’s never too late to make your peace with a parent who has disappointed you but did their best. In Sarah’s case, she only lived with her mother for 12 tumultuous years. In that time, despite their different views, despite Sarah never feeling the affection and joy that she needed, her mother taught her some valuable lessons she would need to survive in a harsh world. “What I wanted was a warm, loving mother,” she says, “What I got was a loving mother’s guide to life. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.”
“Primary Lessons,” by Sarah Bracey White, is available for purchase
on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, UPNE.com and at The Village Book Store
in Pleasantville, NY. It’s a wonderful book that had me engaged from cover to cover. The author’s ability to change her “voice” with each chapter as the character ages is especially endearing and captivating, as is her touching story of personal triumph.
Additional Note: I am honored to have this review appear in a longer format (with a direct link to Amazon.com) in Southern Literary Review: A Magazine for Literature of the American South. To review a digital version, as well as access the link to Amazon to purchase Primary Lessons, please visit: www.southernlitreview.com/reviews/primary-lessons-by-sarah-white.htm