Rebecca Hazelwood 

Study of a Childhood


I was four, pink-cheeked and big-eyed, when my father introduced me to his lady friend in a red one-piece. Her name was Linda. Lin-duh. Lin-duuuh. I repeated and dissected her name in my head. I’d never met a Linda before; all names were new names at that age.

Linda wore red to the Juniper Hills pool—red, a color I thought reserved for lifeguards rather than women who dated my father. At four years old, I thought all women in red bathing suits were lifeguards, all men in white trucks were my father, all women in plaid shirts were my mother. I had learned to judge others by appearances rather than acts and facts.

But the fact is that at a public pool on the other side of town, my father brought me to meet his girlfriend while he was still married to and living with my mother. 

                                            As an adult, I read that first memories bundle together like                                                 a tight rubber ball core. All other memories stretch over                                                         this bundle like new rubber bands, securing and                                                                           strengthening the core.         

       During that day at Juniper Hills, I’d forget Linda’s name temporarily, but I never forgot her red bathing suit. Each time I jumped back in the pool, I didn’t look for my tall towheaded father; I looked for Linda’s red bathing suit. It was a bullseye. The most vivid red I ever saw, the most vivid red I ever remember.

I remember few other details from that day, that period of my life, like learning chlorine turned the water turquoise and stung my eyes underwater. My baby pink skin burned in ten minutes. Snack bar food cost too much money and might cause cramps. My mother hated swimming, but my father couldn’t get enough. Neither could I. I wouldn’t learn how to swim for a few more years, but my father coached me to jump into his arms anyway. “Trust me, baby,” he said. “I’ll always catch you.”

As an adult, I read that first memories bundle together like a tight rubber ball core. All other memories stretch over this bundle like new rubber bands, securing and strengthening the core. Every later memory is built upon this core. Memory creates our most permanent sense of self.

I don’t remember if my father kissed Linda, and I don’t remember telling my mother about Linda’s red bathing suit, though I must have. Those memories don’t form my core; they might hurt too much to hold onto. Or maybe they’re immaterial. But I do remember how happy and normal my father and Linda and I seemed under the blue suburban sky.


Here are a few things I remember from a night riding in our black 1989 Honda Accord: the hazy, foggy windshield and the heater blowing warmth inside; the fuzzy-edged, red stoplight; the bright white lines reflecting off the road outside. My mother’s hands resting on the gearshift, veiny and thin, her small bones and olive skin so unlike mine. My memory’s an impressionistic painting, a first-grade-blur. And though I can never be sure whether I recall this one night or ten like it, I know my mother and I were on the hunt for my father.

My parents were separated but not divorced, not for twelve more years, and my father lived in an apartment in Tierra Linda, which I pronounced a different way every time. I couldn’t say it and I couldn’t spell it and I couldn’t write it in my oversized letters because I was still learning. I was six years old; my world was text.

I rode low in the passenger seat of the Accord, waiting for the light to change and my mother to turn right. I practiced giving directions in my head—turn right, take an immediate right, turn into the parking lot—just in case I’d have to give directions later. When the light changed, my mother eased right onto Hanley Lane, right into Tierra Linda. The weeknight was still and calm, the parking lot full and quiet. We spotted my father’s cruiser but not his truck; we’d have to keep searching for him.

In the darkness, we drove toward Bald Knob, where my father’s friend lived, the car moving steadily under the command of my mother’s hands and my directions. My mother said we were heading toward the boonies, a word that conjured boogeymen hiding in bushes and trees. I leaned in closer to my mother, wanting to feel safe with her.

At six years old, my hair was snow-white, pure, like my skin, my emotions: I was excited to be of use to my mother. We looked nothing alike and we shared just one physical trait: crooked pinkie fingers. I looked so much like my father that only pictures of my mother’s pregnant belly had put my maternity questions to rest.

I favored my father in other ways, too. My father took me to his poker nights, introduced me to the secretaries at the police station, told me when he was sneaking off to the horse races at Keeneland. Each time he left without me, he told me he’d be back quicker than you can say Jack Rabbit. “Jack Rabbit, Jack Rabbit, Jack Rabbit,” I’d say before he even left the driveway, his name, Jack, quick on my tongue. Each time he left, I cried.

I do not now remember my father moving out. Not this time, not any time. Scientists say remembering fires the same neural pathways as the original experience, almost as if we are experiencing it again. I suspect it would be too painful to watch my father leave again.

I remember the 15- or 20-minute car ride toward Bald Knob as an adventure, our mother-daughter adventure. I was learning to pay attention; I was learning that it mattered. Turn here, I think it’s this way, this house looks familiar, I instructed. I knew all the landmarks: the sharp curve of the road, the humane society building with concreted floors and metal gates, the heaping sand barges churning up mud in the Kentucky River, the flat, abandoned field next to the river. But when we got to the road where my father’s friend lived, I couldn’t find his house.

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” I said. “I don’t know where it is.”

“It’s okay, baby.”

“I thought it was here.”

“It’s okay. We’ll go home.”

My mother scanned the road for my father’s pickup truck until we were long out of sight. As an adult, I never drive past this stretch of road without looking for my father, too.


“Fuh…fuh…fruh…what’s that word?” I asked my father’s lady friend, the one named Peggy. I was six years old.

“You know that word, don’t you?” Peggy asked. “I know you know the word.”

I stared at the newspaper again.

“She knows this word, doesn’t she?” she asked my father.

I tried again.

“Fuh…fuh…friend?” I asked.

In my father’s Tierra Linda apartment, by the light of the sliding glass doors, Peggy was helping me to read while my father was looking for his sunglasses. Peggy—in my mind, her name was Peggy, the same as my mother—Peggy with her pockmarked face and thin dishwater blonde hair in a high bun. I didn’t know then that she was ten years younger than my father.

There’s a lot I don’t know even now. I can’t be sure of her name. For years I remembered my father’s girlfriend as Peggy, though my mother says her name was Nancy. But I know memory is malleable and serves us. Maybe all women in my life were named Peggy at that age. Maybe she was easier to forget if I thought her name was the same as my mother’s. I think of those two Peggys as tectonic plates rubbing against each other in my memory; without room for both plates, my father’s girlfriend became subducted, pulled under, dormant for years.

What I do know is that Peggy wasn’t as pretty as my mother, who had long brown hair and big doe eyes and olive skin. My mother never wore much makeup, maybe just a bit of rouge on her lips and cheeks. She was short and petite, six years older than my father. He was her opposite: six feet tall, blond, blue-eyed, handsome but slightly pockmarked himself. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand what my mother and father saw in each other, how they stayed together until I was 18.

Peggy was a brief dalliance in the scheme of my parents’ marriage, only memorable to me because she helped me read. Peggy and I used the newspaper my father read on the john every morning. The john, dishwater blonde, pockmarked: words I knew but hadn’t yet learned to spell.  The newspaper crinkled in my hands, covering them in soft black ink. I liked the feel of pulpy paper in my hands, the way my eyes moved carefully over the words and my mouth slowly formed the right sounds. Peggy spent many hours helping me, as if she were invested in my future.

I did not then know the many girlfriends my father would have, the many stories my father would tell, stories more colorful than anything we read in the newspaper: stories of divorce, producing papers that were never actually filed, stories of rehab when he went on vacation with his girlfriend instead. Decades later, I still have trouble reconciling memory of my father with the truth. If my memory reminds me of who I am and how I fit into the world, this truth destroys it.

Eventually, I moved on from the newspaper to books in the school library—first The City Mouse and the Country Mouse, then chapter books, harder books I had to read on my own, silently. After Peggy was gone, I read alone.


Every afternoon of my second-grade year, I heard the snap of my mother’s waistband, the rustle of her socks, the click of her laces against her tennis shoes, always in a hurry to get to the YMCA for an aerobics class after work. At seven years old, I was more drawn to the contents of her dresser drawers and her closet—her little brown bikini, her small lyrca shorts, her fitted red polka dot dress, her thin turtlenecks—than exercise. I never noticed my mother growing smaller. I never took note of the frequency of her exercise.

Instead, I noted the monotone YMCA gymnasium: yellow lights, yellow hardwood floors, yellow-white walls. I should’ve been concentrating on my movements rather than the colors of the gym, teaching my arms and legs to move separately but gracefully. But in repetition, the mind stops paying attention to activities as minor as the way our feet move, as major as a mother obsessed with exercise. I lived in a world of wonder and learning, not noticing my mother herself. If I’d noticed her, I would’ve seen how clumsy my mother was but how hard she was working anyway. How much we were alike.

One day before class started, our aerobics instructor unveiled a new program by pointing to a multi-colored U.S. map glued to a corkboard. She held up a pack of push pins, one to represent each of us. Our pins would start on the east coast, but each time we attended class or exercised on our own, we would move our pins west toward California. The goal was to Run Across America at the YMCA. The goal was a brand new I Ran Across America at the YMCA t-shirt. My mother signed up. 

                                                               Memory only survives when you are paying attention. I only                                                    remember my mother’s lithe body, the bare curves of her                                                    svelte hips and legs, the way my grandmother would                                                               admire how slim my mother was getting again

          I did not then know, not for almost two decades afterwards, that my mother’s collection of Jane Fonda tapes and devotion to YMCA classes grew every time my father had a new girlfriend. I did not then know that my mother had stopped wearing her seatbelt, not caring if she lived or died. If I noticed anything, I forgot it. Memory only survives when you are paying attention. I only remember my mother’s lithe body, the bare curves of her svelte hips and legs, the way my grandmother would admire how slim my mother was getting again. But to me, my mother was always the same.

It didn’t take long for my mother to get a red t-shirt bearing a runner in white outline. She still keeps her faded and worn t-shirt tucked in the dresser drawer that she used to share with my father, because my mother Ran Across America at the YMCA.


For a collection of summers in my childhood, second through eighth grade, I submerged myself daily in the YMCA pool, diving lower and lower in the chlorine, swimming with my eyes open underwater. Or floating on top, ears covered so I only heard echoes of voices. Shutting out the world. By the time my father picked me up in his cruiser every day, I was too tired to think.

The summer between third and fourth grade stands out the most; my memory’s all sensory: vents hissing cold air, police radio voices murmuring 10-4 in the background, skin smelling clean like chlorine. I’d blink back the late afternoon sun as my father sped up Wilkinson Boulevard toward home. “Hey baby,” he said, handing me a bottle of Visine he kept in the car. “You can sleep when we get home.”

My father was living at home again, though I don’t remember how, or since when. I was nine years old. My memory’s smudged, incomplete until high school, at the end of which my parents separated, cleaved, split for good. The house was quieter, stabler, when my father finally left, though my mother slept on the couch and used the oven timer as a morning alarm. I remember that clearly.

But in that summer of 1991, my father still lived at home. What I remember most is the ride home from the YMCA Summer Fun Club, the violin solo of Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” playing every day. My father let me turn up the radio, so I could hear Paula Abdul’s voice fill all the spaces of the car: And all I want from you is what you are. And even if you’re right next to me, you’re still too far away if I’m not inside your arms. How much I felt those words. I preferred my father to anyone else.


Rebecca Hazelwood grew up in Central Kentucky, but generations of her family lived and died farther south and east, on the land in Waco and Berea and everywhere in between. In fact, her great grandfather went to prison during Prohibition for operating a still on the side of a mountain in Red Lick. This region will always call to her, no matter where she lives. She is a writer, an MFA graduate, a teacher, and a former photographer. Currently, she co-runs Structure and Style a poetry website where she writes mini-essays about poems with a friend. You can currently find her work in [PANK]which is her first publication.


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