A fantastical letter in celebration of your birth, which we celebrated both before, on, and after its official date of commemoration, has long been in order. January 13th is one of my most favorite days of the year, of course, and I was touched to watch it approach and amazed to see it go. And now you, my January Baby, are no longer eight. You are nine! Nine years old: that’s three, three times! It shocks me to write it. I wonder, what is it like to be you and to be nine? On your birthday, I thought about the passing of time, and I spent a lot of time, during the twilight hours of your birthday, looking at photos of you as a tinier you with lots of tears in my eyes and grateful adoration in my heart.
I also tried hard to remember what it was like to be nine. I was in fourth grade (whereas you’re in third), and I had just moved from a town called Sweet Home to one called East Amherst. It was a transitional time for me. We were living at Grandma Mel’s house on Paradise Road– Melissa and Billy shared a room, and I was staying in single room for the first time ever. The room I was staying in belonged to your great, great grandmother, Grandma Walsh, and she wasn’t staying in it so that I could. It is where she usually stayed when she would stay with Grandma Mel. It had a big roomy closet that I liked to play in but that also freaked me out a little. I remember my white vanity and my wicker baby-doll carriage (the one with the broken wheel that you and Elanah played with here on Chasewood), and I remember sleeping under a yellow and brown floral-print, lace-trimmed canopy on a twin bed, and I remember feeling terrified every time the grandmother clock would crack and moan from downstairs, reverberating throughout the whole house. Grandma Mel always had the softest pillows at her house, so I remember those, too. We were staying there for a year, while we waited for your Grandpa Adam to build a mansion in Grand Island for the man who lived at 68 Chasewood: he gave Grandpa Adam the Chasewood house as part of his payment for the house your grandfather was building, and Grandpa Adam gave us the house to live in when the deal was complete. And now, so many years later, I’m still in this house, preparing for it to be sold to another family who will live out, part or maybe all of, their story in it.
It is possible to feel attached to a house, and more specifically to a room, when it is your own. Just ask Virginia Woolf (and read the chapter of my thesis entitled “Woolf’s Rooms” but not until you’re older and have an entire day to devote to it, because it might, oh say, inspire you to take a long “nap” or to pick up your own composition notebook and try your own hand at writing…).
But it is you, Darah Sage, who reminded me of the woman-room connection when we were talking on the drive from Buffalo to Macomb. You said that you did not want to ever leave your house in Illinois. You told me that you wanted to keep your house forever, and that instead of moving away from the house someday, you will be very rich so that you can afford to buy multiple houses wherever you need them and keep them all forever. If that were to happen, you would be the proprietor of many rooms, my love. And I have no doubt you would let others stay in those rooms when you were not using them, because you’re generous and loving, and you know that rooms should be occupied, particularly by women with pens and exceptional minds.
I wonder what it would be like to think about years of our lives in terms of rooms. Like: what if each year of your life were a room in the house of you. What would the room of your eighth year look like and what color would its walls be and what would you call it? Any thoughts about the room of your ninth year? What kinds of things do you imagine will line its walls? What will you keep nearest to your bed? On the highest shelf? Will there even be a bed? If not, what? Will it be empty? Honey, your mind is the room that leads to endless other passages and rooms within you, ones that can take you anywhere you desire to go. It’s all there, in you, waiting to be explored, discovered, decorated.
As for your actual room, you sleep in a beige safari-themed room on a double bed that you share with your sister. Your bedframe (headboard and baseboard) is the one I bought and set up myself when I lived in the Pierce Street Apartment for a couple of months, during my first separation from you. I remember setting it up. It was not easy. In fact, I set the entire thing up and felt so proud of myself, only to realize that I did it wrong. Then, I had to unscrew everything, which was ten times harder than setting it up, and I had to set it up again. I cursed, I cried, but eventually I got it. That room was cozy. I liked having the two of you sleep over and snuggle into that bed with me during that strange time for us– the strange time during which I didn’t have a table for us all so you ate on this little wicker doll table in the tiny family room. I fed you a lot of caesar salads because I was too poor and my closet-sized kitchen was too tiny for much else. But we managed. And that bed, the one I set up that you now sleep on every night, was a first step in my fight for independence. I’m not good at things like that but somehow I did it. I’m so glad you’re in that bed.
Have you ever wondered about your room, and why it is the way it is? Your Momma Si and I picked out bedding that was gender neutral because we wanted it to grow with you and not influence who you desire to become. Want to know something funny about Mummy? I used to love to have my room re-painted every few years to fit a new theme. I’m sure I would have done it every year if I could have managed it. Your Aunt Missy and I had a bright pink room, at one time. One with dark pink trim on the baseboards and windows. Even our closet doors were pink. Everything in the room was a shade of pink. That was our room on Sunshine Drive, and we loved it. Then, when we moved to Chasewood, my room was sponge-painted peach. And the next year, a mint green was sponged on top of the peach. It became a bit muddled at that point, but I felt strongly that the mint green should be added. And then a few years later, I was in a citrus phase, and the theme of the decor in my room was neon, or perhaps citrus fruit. The walls were a yell0w-orange shade and the accessories were hot pink and lime green. The room on Chasewood stayed that way for a while, until I nagged your grandfather enough to paint it again: this time, a shade between loganberry and mulberry. I liked that a lot. I like my room to be painted a dark color; that’s cozy to me– I prefer dark rooms. And now the room is a greenish gray shade. This is the last shade it will be with me in it because at some point in the near future, your grandfather will sell this house and I’ll be moving again, just like the vagabond that I am at this juncture of my life. A special someone new will eventually paint this special room again someday.
Your room may still be the color it was when your Momma Si and I bought the house, but I have no doubt your room is changing, as you’re getting older. You have a fine dresser in there, now. It looks beautiful. When I lived with you, I spent a lot of time decorating your room for holidays and with your artwork, so the neutrality of the beige wasn’t so relevant.
Someday when I have my own house (a number of years from now), you and Elanah will have your own room, and we will paint it whatever color, or colors, you want. Together. I can’t wait. I will sob with relief when I can give us a house and each of us a room. It will be a long time from now but it’s one of my life’s primary goals: to obtain a room of my own, a room for you, and a room for Elanah. And it won’t be my house; it will be OUR house. I will have a room of my own. And your room won’t be my room; it will be YOUR room. And it will always be yours, whether you are thirteen or thirty or ninety three. Whether you act like a precious fool or straight lace yourself to death. Whether you’re the most successful person in the world or the world’s biggest loser.
It will be your room. In our house. And you can do what you want in there. You can slay dragons. You can jump on the bed. You can write on the walls. You can keep a booger collection like your grandfather did when he was a lad. You can believe in things that don’t exist. You can dance, you can paint, you can study, you can read, you can conjure. You can talk to your friends. You can talk to your imaginary friends. You can talk to yourself. You can watch UFOs from your window. You can alert the authorities. You can hide them from the authorities. You can study the mating rituals of snails. You can breed orchids. Whatever.You.Want. It will be your room, your safe space, and you won’t have to worry about ever losing it. It won’t be taken from you. It will be our home. And there won’t be bad guys and jerks. And there won’t be people who will harm us. And there won’t be people telling us what to do. There will be lights. There will be dreams. There will be freedom. And there will be pens. With ink. Endless, endless, endless ink. And places to write. And paper to write on. And boards with chalk. And desks. And books. Heavy, cumbersome, ancient books. And love streaming through every room. And a ginormous lock on the front door that we can use if we need, if we want. And a security system that we can use if we need, if we want. And we will be free, safe and free, and together.
There will be all these things in our house. In our home. In our rooms.
Why am I writing about rooms -glorious rooms- in celebration of your ninth birthday, my love? Because rooms are a symbol, to me, of independence, and you are the most independent-spirited kid I know, and you are growing more independent every day. Independence is so important, but always remember that there is no independence without dependence. Depending on those you love and being depended on by those who love you is an essential thing in life. You can depend on me.
I may seem far away right now but I’m not. I’m on my way, moving toward the life that we will share in the future, traveling toward the three rooms, the den/study, the kitchen, the sitting room, and the attic that will someday be ours. There will be a lot that will stand in my way. There already have been too many terrible, unspeakable, horrible, unfair things standing in my way, but I’m not like the other moms: I have this thing that you and Elanah inherited from me called an “indefatigable spirit.” I am in the upper echelon when it comes to ethics (there are only a few of us here, my dears), which puts me in peril (because I tell the truth and stand by my beliefs no matter what), but my indefatigable spirit is the thing in me that I would call “God at work,” and it is this thing that makes my survival possible. I will fight my way through all the things that stand in my way, on my way to our future because our family -the three of us- is everything to me. To the things that stand in the way of us and of our home, I say, “Bring it!” The more I survive, the more I can stand.
I will never give up on my impossible dream. Never. You might as well just call me “Mum of La Mancha.” A mum must dream and chase her dream, and her dream is truth, justice, lovingkindness, and unity. Her dream is not impossible it all. It is the horizon. It is always there, the thing inside that leads the way. Divine love, we call it. Or, hope. The belief in a better world than the one that now exists. You, to me, are that better world.
Do you know any little girls, besides you and Elanah, who share in our “indefatigable spirit” and are formidably determined? Perhaps one I introduced to you when you were about half the age you are now…
How about a few clues.
Her name starts with an M. She didn’t have a sense of family or home until she had been through quite a lot of trauma in her short life. Though small, she had a great and powerful mind. Her intellect, her committed sense of justice, and her intense indefatigable spirit, when combined, were able to affect tangible change in her life and in the lives of others, change that would appear as magic to those around her. She faced many terrible things that stood in her way, including a Very Backward School, a Very Backward Family, and a Very Backward Society. But she never let them stop her from pursuing knowledge, wisdom, justice, and contentment.
Oh, and she was a reader.
Yes, Matilda! Matilda! Matilda!
If there were one book I would have liked to have read to you on your birthday, it would most certainly have been our family favorite, Matilda. First, because it is the first chapter book I read aloud to you. Secondly, because it is one of our favorites and we never tire of it. And, finally, because you are my little Matilda. My Dartilda. My little reader. My little (but growing rapidly) justice-seeker. My little investigator. My little social-reformer. My little entrepreneur. My little wise one. My little sage. (Nine Years) Old Blue Eyes. My little baby with her forehead pressed against mine and her alien eyes beaming brightly my way through the night.
How do I consider thee to be like Matilda? Let me count the ways, Little Mighty One.
And let me begin by telling you that you were a reader well before your first birthday. One of your primary characteristics as a baby that has carried all the way to your ninth year is that you are CURIOUS, curious about language. Curiosity is one of your defining features, just as it is one of Elanah’s, despite your sometimes divergent interest areas. You were more interested in books and language than anything else, starting from when you were a baby. It amazed both of your mothers.
Our Little Reader.
It was with you and because of you that I rediscovered my love of reading and writing. I had a lot of time on my hands during your first year, when I was rocking you a lot and breastfeeding you every three hours. So I read. And wrote. And wrote. With you in my arms. I started reading the Harry Potter books while I held you in the rocking chair and you slept softly against my chest. And I reached over your sweet head to write poems on the nightstand while you breastfed. I was nurturing you and you, by giving me time to read and write with your heart beating directly against mine, were nurturing me. How I miss the nearness of those little heartbeats as I write this, but still I feel you close and I try to feel happy for the gift that Momma Si has received in having your and Elanah’s heartbeats near her so much of the time. If God answers my prayer, our heartbeats will be together again someday.
If you listen extra hard, I bet you will feel my heart pulsing as you read the words on this page. It’s a different kind of listening. And a different kind of heart-monitoring. One that doesn’t involve a stethoscope or a clip that pinches the finger. It’s reading. Literature is a universal heart monitor, one each of us can connect to in order to listen to and feel each other’s heart, each other’s pulse.
Matilda feels alone and out of place, the beating of hearts having never occurred to her, until she falls in love– with reading, with literature. It is through the act of reading that Matilda finds what Don Quixote found: a safe place within, a refuge from the world outside. It is this place that Matilda finds in a book, and it is this place in me from which you were born, and it is this place in you that makes you want to snuggle up with me when I offer to read a book aloud to you– it is the same place in you that makes you want to jump up and act out adventures, too. In reading and writing, hearts travel, minds travel.
“Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea.”
My friend, whom I have at times referred to as your Uncle Arthur, often reminds me of what Virginia Woolf wrote in her novel Mrs. Dalloway: that “Communication is health; communication is happiness.” That is why I video-call you every day. That is why I write you here whenever I can. That is why I am “linked in” to social media outlets. That is why I dance and sing. That is why you organize get-togethers with your friends. That is why you go on Disney Mix. That is why you beg your sister to play Barbies and Lego Ninjago with you. That is why you like going to school. And that is why we love to read.
“These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”
You are a reader, Darah. And you are a valiant spirit, like Matilda, who found herself and discovered her truth, the magical power she possesses inside, through the act of reading. Roald Dahl wrote that “sometimes Matilda longed for a friend, someone like the kind, courageous people in her books.” Reading showed her what she longed for and then she had to discover on her own that she was that friend. That she could be like the kind, courageous people in her books. How inspiring. I bring it up because I think you have discovered that about reading, and through reading. Your favorite characters have always been the self-possessed, valiant ones, and that is because those are the qualities in you that make you shine and soar.
“It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.”
In reading about people and about ideas, Matilda is able to make sense of her own life and to make it her quest to make a better world for herself. She develops a sense of agency through reading. Agency is the ability to make decisions on one’s own behalf, or to enact change in one’s life. Agency is something we talk about in women’s studies classes because it is something that not everyone can practice, especially women and people of color, because of systematic unfair circumstances that lead to a lack of access to education and important learning tools, like books.
“All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”
Matilda was born into a home where literacy was not valued in the least, but she manages to get to a library, and once that happens, her mind flies open and the learning begins. When we are kept from something so vital to us as is literature to Matilda for so long, our thinking patterns and value systems shift.
Once Matilda was made aware of what she had been missing, she instantly became an avid reader and learner. Her lack of access to education is the very thing that fuels her quest and passion for it. That is the silver lining of unfair and difficult circumstances: they make ever more clear to us what we value and the morals we live by (in other words, being treated unfairly or being wronged can teach us how not to treat others and how to treat others, and can also lead us on the path of trying to change things for the better for others so that they will not have to suffer our same fate).
You are also like Matilda because you, like her, are too smart for your own good. Sometimes being smart can get a girl into trouble. That’s what happens with Matilda. Let me try to explain. If you are smart and you are very powerful, you’re a lot safer than you are if you are smart but you lack the authority and power in society that will protect you from the harmful ignorance of others. And I’m not talking “average-smart.” I’m talking above average smart. I’m talking whiz, kid. I’m talking brainiac.
If you are exceptionally intelligent, or intelligent in an unusual way, but you are not a person in a position of power, you can run into trouble. That’s what happens to Matilda. She is smarter than all of the authority figures in her life. She is smarter than the adults, the so-called leaders in her life and world. She is smarter than all of them, and time and again in the novel, she pays dearly because of this. She is treated like a freak in her own home, degraded by the people who should be protecting and empowering her. She is treated like a criminal at school by those who should be advancing her education. This is not Roald Dahl whining about the unfairness of life, though. This is Roald Dahl empowering children and adults to know the power they posses and to stand up to corrupt forms of authority for the good of humanity. I guess, Dartilda, I would say that Matildaism runs in our family, so just be prepared. Sometimes you may suffer because of that exceptional mind of yours. But it’s not because there’s something wrong with you; it’s because there’s something right with you. Use it for good. Help others. I know you will.
I want to remind you that although Matilda is bullied throughout some of the book, she is victorious by its end. Consider when Matilda speaks up to Mr. Wormwood. He says to her the famous authoritarian line (adapted perfectly for the film), “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” This injustice fills Matilda with the burning thirst for justice, which results in the mind-magic with which she achieves justice. He doesn’t recognize it because his ignorance is too colossal. He cannot see Matilda as she is, of course, because she is beyond the limits of his non-existent imagination. She does pay dearly for standing up to him, and it’s not fair while it’s happening, but in the end, the crooked Wormwood flees the country and Matilda is set free to live a new life with Miss Honey. In fiction, villains do make their exists and happy endings do exist, and the fact that they do helps us to see the possibilities for happiness in our own lives.
There is justice. Imperialism loses and the little unlikely anarchist wins. I think that’s the bottom line of Matilda. Imperialism can come in the form of a mediocre, ignorant salesman, like Wormwood, it can come in the form of a principal at a school, it can come in the form of a priest on the pulpit, a judge on the docket, or an institution– it doesn’t even have to be human. In fact, treating others as inhuman is what it does best. It takes fresh, courageous young minds, like you(rs) to work against it and make the world better. If this sounds like a political birthday letter, it is. Your mummy, you should know, abides by the philosophy that “the personal is political.” It’s a feminist concept coined by Carol Hanisch that I discovered in a Feminist Theory course in college. Learning about it from my professor, Dr. S’thembile West, changed my life and the way I write. But no one and nothing changed my life and the way I see the world more than having you and your sister. You taught me the most important lesson I will ever learn: you taught me the meaning of GRRRL POWER!!!
I know of a book company that reminds me of you: it’s called Better World Books. You’re my Better World Kid. Yep, that’s you. My little teacher. My reader. My proof of a Better World.
By the way, Honey, congratulations on writing your first short story. I am hoping your Momma Si will send me a copy of it. I have asked a couple of times for it, and will ask again.
Read, dream, write, follow the quest, onward to glory, my valiant nine year old child!
Miss Mummy Mumtilda Honey / Mum of La Mancha / Mummynea
“Darcinea, I see heaven when I see thee, Darcinea, and thy name is like a prayer an angel whispers, Darcinea, Darcinea.”
Dartilda, you can be anything: you can be Dar Quixote and Darcinea, if you dream the imp-possible dream. There is no gender, no role, no single fiction that can define you no matter how popular with others it is, Sweetie. Be you. Ninja, knight, maiden, matador. All that is you.
The impossible dream is possible. You and your sister exist. That is all the proof I need.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where
The brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march,
March into hell
For that heavenly cause
And I know
If I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart
Will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be
Better for this
That one man, scorned
And covered with scars,
Still strove with his last
Ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable,
The unreachable star
And I’ll always dream
The impossible dream
Yes, and I’ll reach
The unreachable star
*Note: I wrote this letter to you in late January, Darah, but due to unfortunate life circumstances was not at liberty to publish it until late March.