Up until the year 1992, I was and thought I would always be a fiction writer. I got an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, published two short stories and started writing a novel. Then in 1991, something big and dramatic occurred in my life. I knew I had to write about it and tried to translate it into fiction. But I couldn't make that work, and finally it came to me that I should write the story in the form of a literary memoir. I did, and the results ultimately became my first book, The Rooms of Heaven. In the process I learned that I'm much more comfortable and probably better suited as a writer to the form of memoir than I am to fiction, and I also came to value the literary memoir as a vehicle for exploring spiritual, psychological and social issues as well as for, as John Gardner called the job of fiction, "creating the dream." Eventually it occurred to me that I seem to be writing (or wanting to write) three books which are loosely linked in terms of story and themes, with The Rooms of Heaven being the first book, The House of Dreams, which reaches back into my childhood, being the second, and a third book which will take place in the present. When my call came from Cliff Becker, I thought I was almost finished with the manuscript for The House of Dreams and would use the fellowship from the NEA to start the third. As it turned out (and as so often happens), The House of Dreams wasn't finished, and I will be using this very welcome financial support to complete another draft of it. I'm more grateful than I can say to the NEA for the opportunity to focus on that task full-time for a significant chunk of time.
from The House of Dreams
I grew up in the home of a family that wasn't my family. Their last name was Payson and they lived a mile and a half down the road from my real family's house. I stayed in contact with my real family as well. My father visited me at the Paysons' every night; my sister, who had also lived with the Paysons for six years early on, came over to play with me when she was allowed; during certain periods -- stretches lasting anywhere from a couple of months to years -- I spent holidays and parts of every weekend at my parents' house. That was the only time I ever saw my younger brother or my mother. Seeing my brother was one thing, seeing my mother another. I never thought of my parents' house as home but my father called my visits there "going over home," an expression left over from his old-fashioned country upbringing, and he would beg me to come "over home" on Sunday afternoons when I hadn't been there for a while until I finally gave in and said that I would.
My mother and I kept rotating through a certain cycle. The cycle went like this: I would be visiting my parents' house on, say, a Sunday afternoon. At around four o'clock, when it was getting close to time for me to return to the Paysons', my mother would say, "Mary?" She had the faint remnants of a Southern accent; you could only hear it when she said particular words. One of these was my name, which she pronounced with two drawn-out, long-voweled syllables, as if it were spelled May-rie. I dreaded hearing her say that, especially in the tone of voice she always used at those moments, a manipulative, trying-to-be-pleasant, nobody-has-to-be-afraid-of-me voice, and I would do anything I possibly could to prevent it: act quiet, invisible, obedient, try to melt into the walls to avoid attracting her attention. But it wouldn't work, of course.
"May-rie?" my mother says again, in this scene that keeps happening over and over. And then she says something like, "I want you to come home to live." Not exactly an unreasonable request, but it produces in me a wild, terror-stricken, almost animal response, though maybe not yet. I try to say no politely, or else I don't say anything, still hoping, pretending to myself, that I can sneak past her. But my mother is not so easily fooled and neither am I. We both know what's coming. Or maybe only I know, and my mother is still somehow convincing herself that this time she can change my mind, this time there'll be a different outcome. She asks again, and now she's getting mad. I have to say no again, or say no for the first time, and now she gets really mad. She unleashes her awful rage and yells at me, but I can barely hear her. This is where the narrative part of the story ends and the energy takes over. Where the energy of my mother's rage goes out and mingles with the energy of my terror, my body fills with all that energy, adrenaline pumping through me like air forced into a balloon, I am stiff, rigid with fear, my skin, my organs, my whole physical being stretching over it, my orifices opening and closing. I start to cry hysterically and my father hustles me out to the car and drives me home to the Paysons. On the way he keeps asking me to stop crying, begging me, really, in this apologetic way, as if it bothers him to see me so upset and he needs me to stop for his sake. I do stop, but some physical mechanism that has been turned on like a switch by all that terror and adrenaline and crying cannot get turned off yet and so I keep taking big loud shuddering involuntary breaths, the way you'd breathe if you'd fallen and had the breath knocked out of you, and my father keeps asking me again, kindly, sadly, to please stop.
After that I would live at the Paysons without seeing my mother or going to my parents' house for about six months. It was understood during this time that my mother did not want to see me, and I certainly did not want to see her. Then eventually, on some Saturday or Sunday while he was visiting me at the Paysons', my father would talk me into going back. "I just want my whole family to be together under one roof," he would say. "Please? Just for a couple of hours?"
"No," I would answer firmly, but eventually I would relent.
So he would drive me over there and my mother would more or less ignore me and after that she and I would maintain a kind of uneasy truce for a while, with me "going over home" for part of every weekend. Then one Sunday afternoon she would say, "May-rie?" and the cycle would start all over again.
Mary Allen received an MFA in fiction in 1988 from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is the author of The Rooms of Heaven, published in hardcover in 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf and in paperback in 2000 by Vintage Books. She has published non-fiction articles in Real Simple and Library Journal, short stories in Shenandoah and Beloit Fiction Journal, and poetry in The Spoon River Poetry Review. She is a 1994 recipient of a Paul Engle/James Michener Fellowship. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Photo by Dan Coffey.