Authors: Tara Westover
I typed slowly, reluctantly: Do you remember telling me not to go to school, that I was the only one who could handle Shawn?
Yes, I remember that
There was a pause, then more words appeared—words I hadn’t known I needed to hear, but once I saw them, I realized I’d been searching my whole life for them.
You were my child. I should have protected you
I lived a lifetime in the moment I read those lines, a life that was not the one I had actually lived. I became a different person, who remembered a different childhood. I didn’t understand the magic of those words then, and I don’t understand it now. I know only this: that when my mother told me she had not been the mother to me that she wished she’d been, she became that mother for the first time.
I love you, I wrote, and closed my laptop.
MOTHER AND I SPOKE only once about that conversation, on the phone, a week later. “It’s being dealt with,” she said. “I told your father what you and your sister said. Shawn will get help.”
I put the issue from my mind. My mother had taken up the cause. She was strong. She had built that business, with all those people working for her, and it dwarfed my father’s business, and all the other businesses in the whole town; she, that docile woman, had a power in her the rest of us couldn’t contemplate. And Dad. He had changed. He was softer, more prone to laugh. The future could be different from the past. Even the past could be different from the past, because my memories could change: I no longer remembered Mother listening in the kitchen while Shawn pinned me to the floor, pressing my windpipe. I no longer remembered her looking away.
My life in Cambridge was transformed—or rather, I was transformed into someone who believed she belonged in Cambridge. The shame I’d long felt about my family leaked out of me almost overnight. For the first time in my life I talked openly about where I’d come from. I admitted to my friends that I’d never been to school. I described Buck’s Peak, with its many junkyards, barns, corrals. I even told them about the root cellar full of supplies in the wheat field, and the gasoline buried near the old barn.
I told them I’d been poor, I told them I’d been ignorant, and in telling them this I felt not the slightest prick of shame. Only then did I understand where the shame had come from: it wasn’t that I hadn’t studied in a marble conservatory, or that my father wasn’t a diplomat. It wasn’t that Dad was half out of his mind, or that Mother followed him. It had come from having a father who shoved me toward the chomping blades of the Shear, instead of pulling me away from them. It had come from those moments on the floor, from knowing that Mother was in the next room, closing her eyes and ears to me, and choosing, for that moment, not to be my mother at all.
I fashioned a new history for myself. I became a popular dinner guest, with my stories of hunting and horses, of scrapping and fighting mountain fires. Of my brilliant mother, midwife and entrepreneur; of my eccentric father, junkman and zealot. I thought I was finally being honest about the life I’d had before. It wasn’t the truth exactly, but it was true in a larger sense: true to what
be, in the future, now that everything had changed for the better. Now that Mother had found her strength.
The past was a ghost, insubstantial, unaffecting. Only the future had weight.
*1 The italics used on this page indicate that the language from the referenced email is paraphrased, not directly quoted. The meaning has been preserved.
*2 The italicized language in the description of the referenced text exchange is paraphrased, not directly quoted. The meaning has been preserved.
When I next returned to Buck’s Peak, it was autumn and Grandma-down-the-hill was dying. For nine years she had battled the cancer in her bone marrow; now the contest was ending. I had just learned that I’d won a place at Cambridge to study for a PhD when Mother wrote to me. “Grandma is in the hospital again,” she said. “Come quick. I think this will be the last time.”
When I landed in Salt Lake, Grandma was drifting in and out of consciousness. Drew met me at the airport. We were more than friends by then, and Drew said he would drive me to Idaho, to the hospital in town.
I hadn’t been back there since I’d taken Shawn years before, and as I walked down its white, antiseptic hallway, it was difficult not to think of him. We found Grandma’s room. Grandpa was seated at her bedside, holding her speckled hand. Her eyes were open and she looked at me. “It’s my little Tara, come all the way from England,” she said, then her eyes closed. Grandpa squeezed her hand but she was asleep. A nurse told us she would likely sleep for hours.
Drew said he would drive me to Buck’s Peak. I agreed, and it wasn’t until the mountain came into view that I wondered whether I’d made a mistake. Drew had heard my stories, but still there was a risk in bringing him here: this was not a story, and I doubted whether anyone would play the part I had written for them.
The house was in chaos. There were women everywhere, some taking orders over the phone, others mixing oils or straining tinctures. There was a new annex on the south side of the house, where younger women were filling bottles and packaging orders for shipment. I left Drew in the living room and went to the bathroom, which was the only room in the house that still looked the way I remembered it. When I came out I walked straight into a thin old woman with wiry hair and large, square glasses.
“This bathroom is for senior management only,” she said. “Bottle fillers must use the bathroom in the annex.”
“I don’t work here,” I said.
She stared at me. Of course I worked here. Everyone worked here.
“This bathroom is for senior management,” she repeated, straightening to her full height. “
are not allowed to leave the annex.”
She walked away before I could reply.
I still hadn’t seen either of my parents. I weaved my way back through the house and found Drew on the sofa, listening to a woman explain that aspirin can cause infertility. I grasped his hand and pulled him behind me, cutting a path through the strangers.
“Is this place for real?” he said.
I found Mother in a windowless room in the basement. I had the impression that she was hiding there. I introduced her to Drew and she smiled warmly. “Where’s Dad?” I said. I suspected that he was sick in bed, as he had been prone to pulmonary illnesses since the explosion had charred his lungs.
“I’m sure he’s in the fray,” she said, rolling her eyes at the ceiling, which thrummed with the thudding of feet.
Mother came with us upstairs. The moment she appeared on the landing, she was hailed by several of her employees with questions from clients. Everyone seemed to want her opinion—about their burns, their heart tremors, their underweight infants. She waved them off and pressed forward. The impression she gave as she moved through her own house was of a celebrity in a crowded restaurant, trying not to be recognized.
My father’s desk was the size of a car. It was parked in the center of the chaos. He was on the phone, which he’d wedged between his cheek and shoulder so it wouldn’t slip through his waxy hands. “Doctors can’t help with them diabetes,” he said, much too loudly. “But the Lord can!”
I looked sideways at Drew, who was smiling. Dad hung up and turned toward us. He greeted Drew with a large grin. He radiated energy, feeding off the general bedlam of the house. Drew said he was impressed with the business, and Dad seemed to grow six inches. “We’ve been blessed for doing the Lord’s work,” he said.
The phone rang again. There were at least three employees tasked with answering it, but Dad leapt for the receiver as if he’d been waiting for an important call. I’d never seen him so full of life.
“The power of God on earth,” he shouted into the mouthpiece. “That’s what these oils are: God’s pharmacy!”
The noise in the house was disorienting, so I took Drew up the mountain. We strolled through fields of wild wheat and from there into the skirt of pines at the mountain base. The fall colors were soothing and we stayed for hours, gazing down at the quiet valley. It was late afternoon when we finally made our way back to the house and Drew left for Salt Lake City.
I entered the Chapel through the French doors and was surprised by the silence. The house was empty, every phone disconnected, every workstation abandoned. Mother sat alone in the center of the room.
“The hospital called,” she said. “Grandma’s gone.”
MY FATHER LOST HIS appetite for the business. He started getting out of bed later and later, and when he did, it seemed it was only to insult or accuse. He shouted at Shawn about the junkyard and lectured Mother about her management of the employees. He snapped at Audrey when she tried to make him lunch, and barked at me for typing too loudly. It was as if he wanted to fight, to punish himself for the old woman’s death. Or perhaps the punishment was for her life, for the conflict that had been between them, which had only ended now she was dead.
The house slowly filled again. The phones were reconnected, and women materialized to answer them. Dad’s desk remained empty. He spent his days in bed, gazing up at the stucco ceiling. I brought him supper, as I had as a child, and wondered now, as I’d wondered then, whether he knew I was there.
Mother moved about the house with the vitality of ten people, mixing tinctures and essential oils, directing her employees between making funeral arrangements and cooking for every cousin and aunt who dropped in unannounced to reminisce about Grandma. As often as not I’d find her in an apron, hovering over a roast with a phone in each hand, one a client, the other an uncle or friend calling to offer condolences. Through all this my father remained in bed.
Dad spoke at the funeral. His speech was a twenty-minute sermon on God’s promises to Abraham. He mentioned my grandmother twice. To strangers it must have seemed he was hardly affected by the loss of his mother, but we knew better, we who could see the devastation.
When we arrived home from the service, Dad was incensed that lunch wasn’t ready. Mother scrambled to serve the stew she’d left to slow-cook, but after the meal Dad seemed equally frustrated by the dishes, which Mother hurriedly cleaned, and then by his grandchildren, who played noisily while Mother dashed about trying to hush them.
That evening, when the house was empty and quiet, I listened from the living room as my parents argued in the kitchen.
“The least you could do,” Mother said, “is fill out these thank-you cards. It was
mother, after all.”
“That’s wifely work,” Dad said. “I’ve never heard of a man writing cards.”
He had said the exact wrong thing. For ten years, Mother had been the primary breadwinner, while continuing to cook meals, clean the house, do the laundry, and I had never once heard her express anything like resentment. Until now.
“Then you should do the
” she said, her voice raised.
Soon they were both shouting. Dad tried to corral her, to subdue her with a show of anger, the way he always had, but this only made her more stubborn. Eventually she tossed the cards on the table and said, “Fill them out or don’t. But if you don’t, no one will.” Then she marched downstairs. Dad followed, and for an hour their shouts rose up through the floor. I’d never heard my parents shout like that—at least, not my mother. I’d never seen her refuse to give way.
The next morning I found Dad in the kitchen, dumping flour into a glue-like substance I assumed was supposed to be pancake batter. When he saw me, he dropped the flour and sat at the table. “You’re a woman, ain’tcha?” he said. “Well, this here’s a kitchen.” We stared at each other and I contemplated the distance that had sprung up between us—how natural those words sounded to his ears, how grating to mine.
It wasn’t like Mother to leave Dad to make his own breakfast. I thought she might be ill and went downstairs to check on her. I’d barely made it to the landing when I heard it: deep sobs coming from the bathroom, muffled by the steady drone of a blow-dryer. I stood outside the door and listened for more than a minute, paralyzed. Would she want me to leave, to pretend I hadn’t heard? I waited for her to catch her breath, but her sobs only grew more desperate.
I knocked. “It’s me,” I said.
The door opened, a sliver at first, then wider, and there was my mother, her skin glistening from the shower, wrapped in a towel that was too small to cover her. I had never seen my mother this way, and instinctively I closed my eyes. The world went black. I heard a thud, the cracking of plastic, and opened my eyes. Mother had dropped the blow-dryer and it had struck the floor, its roar now doubled as it rebounded off the exposed concrete. I looked at her, and as I did she pulled me to her and held me. The wet from her body seeped into my clothes, and I felt droplets slide from her hair and onto my shoulder.