Excerpt from Composed: Chapter One
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Composed by Rosanne Cash. Copyright © 2010 by Rosanne Cash
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 24, 1955, a month before my dad’s first record, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” was released on Sun Records. My mother had only two dresses that fit her in late pregnancy, she told me, and in her final month, during the most summerlike of the sultry late spring days in East Memphis, she would sit on the steps of the front porch and eat an entire washbasin of cherry tomatoes. It was her one craving. On the afternoon of May 24, my mother went to her regular appointment with her obstetrician, who examined her and told her to go straight to the hospital. “This baby is going to be born today,” he said. I was born after only four hours of labor, at eight o’clock that evening. My mother later told me that the loneliest feeling she had ever felt was when she was wheeled through the double doors of the hospital maternity ward to give birth and looked back to see my dad standing forlornly in the waiting room. He paced and smoked for the next four hours while she labored alone and chewed on a wet washcloth when the pains overtook her; she always spoke with great resentment about the fact that she was given a damp washcloth to suck and then left alone in a hospital room. She was awake for the entire four hours of labor and given nothing for pain, and then put to sleep for the actual birth. It all sounded like a mean-spirited, medieval exercise in physical endurance and emotional isolation. Her accounts of it were so cinematic and full of emotion that I grew up terrified of the prospect of childbirth. I had very few fantasies about having children or being a mother, because I could not get past the specter of childbirth, which seemed almost a horrible end in itself, with something only vague and indefinable on the other side of it. The fact that I eventually did bear four children, delivered both “naturally” and with pain medication, never really lessened my fear.
When my mother went back for her six-week checkup after my birth, the doctor informed her that she was pregnant again. My sister Kathy was born ten months and twenty-three days after me. Kathy was a fragile child who had mysterious illnesses and the worst versions of every childhood disease, and I have always felt guilty that I may have taken all the nutrients out of my mother’s body when I inhabited her womb, just before Kathy’s arrival there.
Two years after Kathy’s birth, my sister Cindy was born, and soon after that we moved from Memphis to Southern California. My sister Tara was born shortly after we settled in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley. My mother’s fourth pregnancy and delivery were difficult for her. She carried Tara for ten months and endured a hard sixteen-hour labor. After the birth of her fourth daughter, my mother, in tears, informed my father that she was finished with childbearing, even though she had initially said she wanted six children. My father agreed, although he harbored a secret desire for a son, which he finally got when I was fifteen and he was married to June, not my mother.
My parents bought Johnny Carson’s house on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino. My most vivid memory of the three years we lived there was of the day a film crew showed up in our living room to tape a show called Here’s Hollywood. My mother was extremely nervous, and we children were made to dress up in poufy dresses, white ankle socks, and black patent leather shoes, with our hair pulled tightly back into bows. We had to sit absolutely still and silent on the sofa next to my parents while the camera was trained on us and the interviewer spoke to them. Then we were sent outside while Mom and Dad were interviewed alone. The whole experience was profoundly unsettling to me. It may have been the first time that I registered – at age five – how it felt to be truly angry. I didn’t like how my mother changed for the camera, showing only a social veneer that didn’t represent her true self at all, and I didn’t like it that my dad had even allowed them in our house. I recognized the falsity, and silently rebelled against the intrusion. Thus began a lifelong wariness of journalists.
But I loved the house.
It had a pool and a big yard, and the room I shared with my sisters had Alice in Wonderland murals on the wall behind the twin beds. We lived on the corner, with a school crossing in front of our house. Every morning and afternoon a crossing guard showed up in her car and waited for the school bus. As it arrived, she got out, slipped her plastic orange neon vest over her clothes, picked up her little stop sign, and positioned herself at the crosswalk to guide the children across the street. This was the most fascinating ritual in the world to me, and the first few times I saw her I ran out to speak to her. She was very kind to me, but after several days, when my mother saw me actually get into the crossing guard’s car to talk to her, she forbade me to pay her any more visits. At age four, seriously disappointed and with great longing, I stationed myself in the picture window at the front of the house twice a day to observe her and the children from afar. Part of the romance for me was the older children, for I badly wanted to go to school.
Sensing my frustration, my mother eventually enrolled me in a nursery school down the street for two or three days a week. Although I enjoyed it, I discovered that it didn’t provide enough to satisfy my curiosity. I would ask my mother to read me every sign, every paper, every milk carton and package I saw. I insisted she tell me every word and what it meant, nearly driving her crazy in the process, and then I tried to memorize their spellings and meanings. On learning that Europe was a place across the ocean, I asked her if “European” was a real word. She made a joke about going to the bathroom along the lines of “You’re peeing” and refused to say whether it was a real word which made me furious with her. She didn’t take my intense need to learn about language seriously, and I was desperate for someone who understood my hunger. My dad would have understood, but he was gone much of the time, and during his recent visits home he had become strange, dark, and intensely distracted. Although I’m not sure why, I didn’t go to kindergarten; bored senseless, I began to create imaginary friends, all of whom were adults. Much later in life, a genial psychiatrist to whom I had confided this fact pointed out how unusual it was for a child to have adult imaginary friends, but it still seems perfectly natural to me. I felt safe with them, and they taught me a great deal. I still think of them fondly and I have a deep superstition about speaking their names aloud. They were my own personal crossing guards.