For Sarah Broom, Coming-of-Age Means Learning to See

Of a Childhood in New Orleans

My growing-up world contains five points on a map, like five fingers on a spread hand.

This world of mine, it must be said outright, is a blur. I can see, but only up close. This is how my big brothers, hiding in plain sight, can jump out from the open, yell boo and still make fright in me.

I hide my eyes’ weakness from my mother for a long time. It is not hard, she is busy making her new world. My poor sight and the hiding of it shapes my behavior and thus my personality, becomes me in a way only time made me know. I needed, I always felt, to get out in front of things (people and circumstances) before they could yell boo. In photographs from these blurry years I wear a vacuous look, turned in the direction of, but not seeing the eye of the camera. My mother discovers all of this, the poor eyesight and my cover-up, when I am ten. But that is five years away from now.

The farthest dot away from me in this universe (the thumb) is Grandmother’s house in St. Rose. We call her house the country even though there is little open land except on former plantations. In St. Rose, I see certain things for the first time. Like giant horses ridden on sidewalks or on top of the levees.

To get to the country, we drive on the interstate for 30 minutes, then down a narrow 3-mile road that we call “long road,” with swamp on both sides and no shoulder. We cross two sets of train tracks where every time I pray Mom’s banana-yellow Aries won’t give out the way Uncle Joe’s car did when he was a young man and had to push his car off the tracks seconds before a train arrived. This is likely one of Uncle Joe’s tall tales: One of his stories, Mom says. Grandmother always says, “Don’t tell stories” when she means don’t tell lies. I keep trying to know the difference.

After escaping the train, I latch onto other fears in the moving yellow car. We speed through night, Lynette and I in the back, Mom alone up front. In the dark, peering out the back window, my eyes make horror out of all they cannot see. This is the time of Swamp Thing and Jason from Friday the 13th. “ChChChHaHaHaHa, ChChChHaHaHaHa,” Lynette is always taunting me, at home after we watch the horror movies where I sit right in front of the screen where everything is scariest. These are the days of burnt Freddie Kruger and his red-and-green stripy sweater, The Thing and Gremlins, who I am convinced live underneath my bed and in the kitchen at night.

When I think of Grandmother’s house, I recall her in the bathtub, heat rising from underneath the door crack and moving into the hallway. I remember her sky-blue Daniel Green slippers, how her toes hang off the front. How in the bathroom mirror she dabs her face with a red puff that smells like canned cream. And her kitchen: Grandmother bakes a Bundt cake; Lynette and I fight over who gets which utensil from the leftover batter. I like the metal whisker where I can slide my tongue through the maze. Or else we—all of the grandchildren—are outside in the fenced-in backyard, pecans falling on our heads.

Each year I gain a new fear related to blindness or to water or to falling or to the soft ground that we live on, until I am older and shame mixed with wildness beats out fear.

A skinny, burnt-looking man named Diggs lives in Grandmother’s spare room with the twin beds. Grandmother calls him her friend instead of boyfriend, which is what he is. Whenever he sees me, Diggs riffles through a painted white drawer and gives me quarters, mumbling something I don’t stay around long enough to hear. What happened to Diggs? I don’t know. He disappeared from the house either by dying or by walking out the door. The same thing, he was gone.

The banana-yellow Aries that we take to the country is the same car we take to Schwegmann’s Super Market on Gentilly Boulevard (pointer finger of spreading hand), which is one of my favorite places to act a fool. Getting there from our house requires that we drive down Chef Menteur and over the Danziger Bridge, which raises up like a backhanded slap when boats pass by underneath. One of Mom’s friends kept driving even when the blinking lights warned cars to stop and plunged into the Industrial Canal below. That is the real-life scary story that grips me for the entirety of 1985. The woman survives; the woman becomes rich; but I still do not want to plunge into deep waters.

Each year I gain a new fear related to blindness or to water or to falling or to the soft ground that we live on, until I am older and shame mixed with wildness beats out fear.

The other three points on my map (middle, ring, and pinkie finger) are clusters: our house and the short end of Wilson Avenue where we live, Pastor Simmons’s house-church where we go now that Mom is feeling more Pentecostal than Catholic, and Jefferson Davis Elementary. School is just across Chef Highway and church is just down Chef Highway, at the corner where the SkyView drive-in movie theater used to be but where the great big brown post office is now with our zip code painted across its facade in enormous numbers so that we can never forget: 7 0 1 2 6.

These are the places that make my growing-up world.

*

I become Sarah on the first day of kindergarten. My mother and I stand in the circular parking lot, just short of the entrance to kindergarten class. This Jefferson Davis school is shaped funny, like a split horseshoe. Each classroom has its own elevated ramp, like porches. Everywhere is painted royal blue and bright yellow. I am wearing the school uniform, a pressed white button-down shirt and a blue A-line skirt with ruffled socks.

My mother says to me: When those people ask your name, tell them Sarah. Those people is the phrase she uses for strangers (mostly white, mostly men) who decide how the world works.

I hear the big children pouring into the main entrance—which is where Black Santa Claus will sit for pictures in December—four doors flanked by a pattern of yellow and blue metal triangles pointed like arrows.

Up until this moment in my life, I was Monique. But now I wear a navy JanSport backpack with a blue mat for naptime sticking out from it with s. broom written in my mother’s oversize print.

Near the ramp leading to my first classroom, a blur calls at me. “Auntie Monique, Auntie Mo.” When we get close to the sound, I see that it is my nephew James, same age as me, a month older actually, standing next to his mother, my sister Valeria.

The teacher is at the door now. She is the same teacher who taught and loved Byron and Troy and Carl. The same teacher who taught and loved Lynette and Karen. Every one of my siblings except Simon Jr. had passed through these doors and now it was my turn. What’s your name little girl the teacher is wanting to know.

Tell those people . . .

“Sarah,” I say.

I have been named Sarah, I come to know, after Sarah McCutcheon (for her love of beauty) and Ms. Sarah from the Divine Mission (for her love of God) and for another Sarah, a nice lady who worked at the laundromat near the corner of Wilson and Chef. I have been told that I was named Monique because Michael, who was in Charity Hospital’s psych ward tripping on LSD when I was born, insisted that the new baby’s name start with an M so that we would be forever aligned, alphabetically at least. No one at home calls me Sarah until I am older and they want to make fun or put me back in my place. Later, when friends call home asking for Sarah and Carl answers the phone he will say, “Sarah who? You got the wrong number. Ain’t no Sarah here.”

There are only two people in this school who know who I really am. They are James (my nephew) and Alvin (my neighbor). But Alvin is in the third grade already, on the other end of the building, down a long hallway, past the cafeteria and the library, in one of the classes held in trailers, outside.

At playtime the boys, who are mostly Vietnamese—everyone in this school is black or Vietnamese—call me Syrup or Surrah or Searah. Because I know that Sarah is not my actual name, I don’t correct them. I let myself go by all possible names. When I get home, I change out of the uniform and the name and meet Alvin in the giant oak tree in front of Ms. Octavia’s house where he lives.

*

In the beginning, Alvin is my rough-playing next-door neighbor. By the time his mother dies when he is 11—and suddenly so—he will be my soul brother and closest friend. Our relationship is so long that I cannot remember ever first meeting. He is hide-and-go-seek in wet summer air and five-cent Laffy Taffys with knock-knock jokes on the wrapper.

Alvin is the one who dares me to throw my elbow through the glass window of our den as a happy birthday present to him when he turns ten. I happily oblige, appearing afterward in the den where my brothers are watching a Saints game, Lynette’s bedsheet wrapped around my arm, dripping with blood. One of my brothers (now I can’t remember who, but the only one to stop and mind me) says, “Go head on now, you all right” and turns back to the game. Mom rushes me to Charity Hospital in the yellow Aries; the elbow is stitched. Alvin loves me in the way of a male buddy from then on, I think.

Alvin is brown skinned with red coloring and has soft, curly hair. His lips seem made for kisses; they are big and smothering. I call him Liver Lip in play; he calls me Olive Oyl after Popeye’s rail-thin, awkwardwalking woman. We go tit for tat like this. Hours go by.

Alvin is first to kiss my slivers of lip. I lean out the front window of our living room, over the cactus bush that Mom planted in the world before me. Alvin swallows my mouth whole. “Lean your head sideways, move your nose out the way,” he keeps on saying. It is the grossest thing in the world.

On our long walks to school together we cross the sinister Chef Menteur Highway, just as Karen and Carl once did. The goal, Alvin says, is to survive Chef Menteur. Alvin, who is three years older than me, grips my hand and seemingly spirits me across. Once safe, off we go, running for no reason, past the Ratville apartment complex on the long side of Wilson where Carl’s first girlfriend, Monica, lives, past indistinct nubs of houses to where Gant and the long side of Wilson intersect, where we wait for the crossing guard to flag us across.

We tell stories of how the ground eats things whole. That ball you left outside, we say, where do you think it went?

Alvin has a mother who we call Big Karen to distinguish her from my sister and a disappeared father whose name we never call. Big Karen is rarely seen, except for when she moves the curtain on the front window of Ms. Octavia’s house, spots Alvin and me playing in the tree, then pokes the side of her face out of the door. “Get to school” or “Come on in here, boy” is all I ever hear her say. I see Big Karen’s entire body exactly once: Buying candy in Ms. Octavia’s house and using her bathroom, I run into Karen in the kitchen. She’s wearing brown pants, the itchy-looking kind, with elastic at the waist. Black hair hangs down her back. She seems, in an illogical way, the most memorable adult in my growing up. I always dwell on absences, I think, more than the presences.

On weekends, adults seem to vanish anyway, and the short end of Wilson where Alvin and I live is overrun with children. Neighbor JoJo’s daughter Renaya comes. So does Kendra from the trailer park next door. Valeria drops off James and Tahneetra. Toka, Darryl’s firstborn, comes over, and so does Lil Michael, Michael’s firstborn who is two months older than me. I am these people’s Auntie even though I am still peeing in the bed. But I have the title and the title is what matters. Lynette teaches me that. “Lil girl, lil girl,” she is always saying. “I’m your big sister. You need to remember that if you don’t remember nothing else.” Karen was the oldest daughter still living at home, but Lynette acted it. Her job, as she saw it, was to control me.

Mostly we kids play hide-and-go-seek, which we mostly call “It,” in the grassy spaces between the narrow houses. There are few places to avoid being found. You can crouch behind a car until the driver backs out, as my brothers always do, leaving me in the wide open and exposed. Or sometimes one of my loudmouthed brothers sees me crouching and pulling up grasses in the time between hiding and getting caught and gives me away, something Troy does religiously. Or else I’ll try to hide behind a tree that I’ve deluded myself into believing is wide enough to cover me. All of this to avoid the best hiding places that require getting close to the spongy earth, underneath Ms. Octavia’s house, for instance, which looks precariously lifted, sitting on evenly spaced stacks of brick.

Big Karen’s dog is vicious too. If you run in the yard between Ms. Octavia’s and Joyce’s houses, he’ll chase you to the limits of his metal chain, barking and drooling and nipping at the backs of your feet. Only the brave hide under Ms. Octavia’s house where the ground seems to be melting. Everyone understands that no one will search underneath there; you’d be left in your self-inflicted misery for however long you could stand it. Who knew what you would come out looking like. No one cared if that’s what you wanted to do to yourself. That spot is reserved for those more terrified of being “It” than being eaten by the squishy earth.

We tell stories of how the ground eats things whole. That ball you left outside, we say, where do you think it went? A certain section of ground is quicksand, we decide, over there, back by Ms. Octavia’s shed. It will take you in if you aren’t careful. When it rains hard, water collects and stays for days. In our child-wise minds, the seal between deep ground and our present reality above that ground is string thin.

I hate being “It.” Searching for people who do not want to be found, who when discovered yell like maniacal banshees and then run from you, afraid of the invisible scourge you are trying to pass on. With my poor eyesight, I often find a hiding person by mistake, just bumping into them by accident.

For these reasons, I do everything “It” is not supposed to do. I count with one eye open to see in which general direction the others run. And, too, many times in the middle of the game when others are hiding out-of-doors, waiting to be found, I’ll stop being “It” without saying a word to anyone except myself, go inside, and call it a night.

*

When I am ten, my mother discovers that I cannot see beyond a hand in front of my eyes. I have been acting a clown in school to distract from this nonsight. The children sitting all around me are annoying blurs, the chalkboard black waters with scratches of white.

Sometimes if I slant my head (the way Alvin had instructed for that kiss), close one eye, and peer out of the side of the open eye, I think I can see better. I love desk assignments because I can bend close in to the paper to work silently, but most of our lessons require looking at the teacher and the chalkboard in the front of the classroom, which forces me to act out to hide the truth. This is why I get an X instead of a check for “exercises self-control” on my report card that year. If the teacher asks a question based on something she’s written on the board, I’ll say something smart-alecky to hide the fact that I have no idea what she’s written.

I annoy everyone around me by observing out loud what everyone already knows. Now everything is particular and distinct, the house a nosy child’s dreamworld.

It is hard to know what you cannot see. The teacher finally guesses something is wrong—maybe she sees my contorting face—and moves me to the front row where even while squinting my eyes into slits, I still cannot make anything out. I am not legally blind, but nearly. What’s the difference when you can’t see?

Mom and I drive together in the banana Aries across the High Rise and into “town,” which is what Mom calls anything resembling the New Orleans that most people understand: uptown, downtown, the French Quarter, those places nearer to where she grew up. We park on gravel and walk the short distance to a storefront on Claiborne Avenue. The shop that contains the eyeglasses that would make me see is lit up with cold fluorescent bulbs. All of the buildings where we go for physical wellness have this dull quality. Plastic and metal frames glow from behind like crown jewels. Rows and rows of them. My eyes are examined, and I am directed to choose one of the ugly frames in the much smaller selection offered to children with broken eyes who can’t afford decent-looking glasses.

*

“Trees have leaves.”

According to Mom this is the first thing I say the moment I can see. My chosen glasses are large purple squares, plastic, the outer edges scalloped. The kind older teachers wear and let dangle from a chain around their necks.

That matters little now. On the way home, riding in the back seat of our yellow Aries I read aloud every single word we pass, from billboards along the interstate and from storefront signs. I read the numbers on the radio dial. The mile markers and exit signs have words, too. We arrive home and I read from the cereal box and from anything that is in front of my working eyes.

I annoy everyone around me by observing out loud what everyone already knows. Now everything is particular and distinct, the house a nosy child’s dreamworld. I read the label on the bathroom sink and the covers of cassette tapes. There is the Abramson High School sticker in the window of Lynette’s and my room that before was a smear of blue and white on glass pane. My siblings pass before me as if I am a space alien and stare, my eyes small dots behind the lenses. I can see detailed versions of everyone I thought I already knew.

Karen wears pinkish glasses that nearly match mine except her lenses stick out from the frame, Coke bottles we call them. I laugh out loud when I see the clear version of Karen—who was then 25 years old and had just had her first child, Melvin—for what seems like the first time. The protruding thickness of her lenses seemed to taunt: this is what you can aspire to, blind kiddo.

The walk home from Jefferson Davis changes. I see the scantily clad women walking Chef Menteur Highway as Alvin and I wait for the light to change. How Alvin walks now with the older boys and the switching girls, leaving me behind. Now, waiting at the light to cross over to the short end of Wilson after the school day, I can see Carl in the distance, milling about outside our house. Can see him looking in my direction and waving a hand.

Every night, I hide the purple glasses underneath my pillow while I sleep. During the night, they change position so that when I wake, I beat the mattress frantically in search of them.

Only when they are on my face can I know what kind of day I have awakened to.

By the end of my tenth year, my first year of 20/20 eyesight, one detail overwhelms them all. Our side of Wilson Avenue, the short end, seems a no-matter place where police cars routinely park, women’s heads bobbing up and down in the driver’s seat. I am struck with the wonder of this, how we live in a city where police take such peculiar coffee breaks. Walking home from school, I try not to see what is right in front of my face. Sometimes, when I want the world to go blurry again, I remove my glasses when passing by these scenes. In this way, I learn to see and to go blind at will.

__________________________________

Excerpt adapted from The Yellow House. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah M. Broom.

Sarah M. Broom
Sarah M. Broom
Sarah M. Broom's work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Oxford American, and O, The Oprah Magazine among others. A native New Orleanian, she received her Masters in Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. She was awarded a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2016 and was a finalist for the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction in 2011. She has also been awarded fellowships at Djerassi Resident Artists Program and The MacDowell Colony. She lives between Harlem and New Orleans. The Yellow House is her first book.





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