The More Painful Absence: Keema Waterfield’s Inside Passage

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The question of one’s place in the world punctuates the pages of Keema Waterfield’s new memoir, Inside Passage, as her young mother attempts to hack out a life for herself and her children. Waterfield’s mother is a woman intent on making her way out of the sexual abuse and privation she suffered as a child; she craves a life of music and art that feels true to who she is. But the price of her dream is almost-yearly relocation for her family, near-poverty, and an array of ill-suited and occasionally dangerous boyfriends.

In this lush and raw account, musicians play, voices harmonize and then separate again, town after Alaska town rolls by—Sitka, Ketchikan, Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, Haines, Petersburg—and Waterfield searches for home. She is lodged between two absences: her father, a drug dealer who has left the family, and her mother, who is drifting away. Of her parent whose face she can no longer picture she writes, “I didn’t know his phone number or his full name. I’d gotten used to the silence where my father ought to have been.” Meanwhile, her mother, wound up in relationship after relationship and committed to her art degree, begins to slip further and further from her—leaving Waterfield, the oldest child, more and more in charge from the age of eight on, and more and more alone.

But even as her life grows increasingly unstable, Waterfield knows in her bones that there was a time she could hold her mother’s attention, when their relationship was new and she was enough: “Four-and-a-half months in which something so strong and painfully important grew between us that I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to elbow my way back into the circle of her arms.”

In some of the best memoirs about insecure childhoods, there is an inverse relationship between the lack of self-awareness in a parent and the self-awareness the memoirist has in droves about their circumstances. Inside Passage is no exception. Like Mary Karr in The Liar’s Club, Frank Conroy in Stop-Time, and Paula Fox in Borrowed Finery, Waterfield examines her childhood from the safety of adulthood, and is careful to offer moments of insight about the parents that shaped her life. She’s furnished the reader with details about her mother’s background to illuminate some of the reasons she wasn’t able to offer what her daughter needed.

From the age of five, Waterfield’s mother did the cooking and cleaning on her family’s Portage homestead while her own mother was away working in Anchorage for days at a time. Two hours from the nearest town and without neighbors, her mother could not escape her abusive older brother, who repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Hoping for a fresh start, Waterfield’s mother began her own family as soon as she could to give her children the life she wasn’t able to have. “I wanted you born into a community,” she tells Waterfield. “Children were born into homes with three and four generations under one roof, but we didn’t have that in Anchorage, so I made one for you.” The reader can’t help but see the dissonance—and suspects Waterfield can’t either.

Her mother, “a folk musician with a dash of old-timey jazz mixed in,” may be building a community for herself—taking classes, giving music lessons, waitressing, and jamming with other musicians—but more often than not her children are home by themselves. Waterfield pines for the nest, the “peapod” her mother built for their family in the early years of her childhood. By gathering her three children and a pile of books around her at night to sing and read together in a cozy heap, she created the memories that must sustain Waterfield through her mother’s absences. When Waterfield ventures to complain after one particularly isolating move to Fairbanks, she soon backs down so as not to upset her mother.

“I’m doing the best I can,” Mom said, on a slow breath. “School is so important. It will help me take better care of you.” She ran a hand over her eyes, pressing back those unshed tears. “No one else in our family has a college degree, did you know that?” […]

“It’s important,” I said, diving into her arms. “I know. It’s important.” I swallowed back the part of me that trembled and sobbed for want of being so important that I could come first for a change.

Her mother disrupts their life with every move, every new school opportunity, every new boyfriend. Apart from the music festivals they attend every summer, Waterfield’s childhood is devoid of the community her mother promises. The festivals are the respite she waits for all year.

I was a child of the rainforest. I’d never known such blistering cold or staggering heat as we got in Fairbanks. I couldn’t even think on how much I’d missed the thin prick of rain on my bare arm, or the rich breath of wet spruce, until it came back to me in a lungful as we pulled up to the fairgrounds in Haines.

There is nothing Waterfield looks forward to more than the freedom of those music festivals. Roaming barefoot amongst booths, selling wreaths to festival-goers, sleeping in a twist of sweaters in her family’s tent, nodding off listening to her mother jam with other musicians, she writes, was the best part of her childhood.

I preferred to pivot around my mother’s distant moon out on the road, anyway. Back in our real lives, we had school and work and some variation of boyfriends and stepdads to contend with. But out here, when we had her to ourselves, it felt as if someone had hung lights from the sky just for us kids, and they spelled out This Is Where You Belong.

Those memories, those “endless string of music festivals that may have been the happiest and loneliest part” of her life, help fortify her. But ever-encroaching on the edges of these kaleidoscope summers are the brittle lonely winters where she watches her mother further recede from her, into depression, into her current partner’s arms.

It’s hard to say which kind of parental loss does more damage in a child’s life: the parent who is physically absent or the parent who is there-but-not-there. Of her dad, Waterfield wonders if “on a good day maybe, my father had ever understood what his absence had wrought in my life. What if he had given up the dealer gig and gone straight?” Of her mother, she writes, “It occurred to me to wonder if I was woven as deeply into my mother’s story of herself as she was woven into mine.” Waterfield writes that she “owned a homesickness for something small and warm I couldn’t even remember, let alone name, and I didn’t know how to hold it.” She is searching for the answer to the question so many children with insecure attachments—Mary Karr, Frank Conroy, and Paula Fox included—have asked: why were they not enough to capture their parents’ hearts? That is the legacy of physically and emotionally distant parents: their children grow up wondering if they were worth sticking around for.

What’s clear upon reading Inside Passage is that Waterfield was and is tenacious, tender, and too smart and connected to her family not to understand what she missed. She has captured her story the way she felt it growing up, not the way her parents imagined it or wanted her to believe. She has tracked back in time to see as clearly as possible how precariously she once lived, how tenuous her relationship with her mother became—and discovers that who she was as a child has nothing to do with what her mother was unable to give her. Like other fine memoirists who write about insecure attachments, she comes to understand she will never be able to separate the wish for her parent from the ache. Unearthing her childhood will always be bittersweet.

Ronit is a writer, teacher, & podcaster with work in the The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Iowa Review, and American Literary Review among others. She is host & producer of the award-winning podcast And Then Everything Changed and author of When She Comes Back, a memoir about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Her short story collection Home Is A Made-Up Place won Hidden River Arts’ 2020 Eludia Award and will be published in 2022. For more about Ronit and a complete list of work visit: More from this author →