MY EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER started college this fall. She's working, attending classes full-time, and living at home. She's growing up, more adult than child, and the tidal patterns of our relationship seem to fluctuate between two states: shallow and surge. We're always close, always connected, but the emotional and financial tethers of dependency loosen more each day.
Our togetherness is changing; still she and I have only to wade through our collection of shared books to revisit the yesterdays of her childhood. Some days, I stand before our bookcases in the living room and think how it feels a lot like standing at the ocean, each book we've read together a seashell, a sand dollar, a starfish, a treasure from our history.
How often have I stood on the shore of motherhood for these eighteen years uttering one of two kinds of prayer: thank you or oh shit? How often has just the right book washed ashore in response? Just Us Women by Jeannette Caines became our road-trip-home-to-Mississippi book when Judith was three. When she was eight, Because of Winn Dixie served as a post-divorce reminder that we were an animal-loving family in need of a dog. Even now, books help us find our way through things.
Last week, my daughter and I read Tyrell and Bronxwood by Coe Booth back to back. She hadn't yet finished Bronxwood when, unable to stand waiting any longer, I poked my head in her room and asked, "Do you love Tyrell?"
"I love him soooo much," she said. "But I can't talk about it right now; I need to finish. Tomorrow."
Booth writes Tyrell and Bronxwood in first person present. The urgent, immediate, realistic voice of Tyrell reeled us completely into his life and his community. In Tyrell, the family is living in a homeless shelter, having lost their apartment shortly after Tyrell's father entered prison. In the midst of this housing crisis, Tyrell tries to keep up with his friends, stay tight with his girlfriend, who still lives in Bronxwood, and figure out school. The city jerks his family around, and Moms (Tyrell's mother) soon spirals from a state of almost functioning into a full-blown case of I-need-a-man paralysis. Tyrell takes charge, determined to earn enough to care for his brother and Moms without breaking the law.
In Bronxwood, Tyrell's father is just released from prison and shows no respect or gratitude toward Tyrell for all that his teenage son has done to keep the family together. In fact, Pops seems set on breaking Tyrell's spirit. Are you a man or a boy? Pops repeatedly demands. While Tyrell struggles to answer that question for himself, throughout Tyrell and Bronxwood, we learn exactly who Tyrell is.
We see a young man who craves the love and acceptance of his family and friends, a guy who does right by his people even if doing right means sometimes doing wrong, and a boyfriend who likes to reassure his lady, "I don't know if you know this, but I'm one of them sensitive brothas." Tyrell possesses an incisive self-awareness, a gentle heart and a badass ability to take care of business. Here's a teenage boy who cuddles a crying infant to give his best friend a moment's respite from the insane juggling act of being a teenage dad and a drug dealer. When Cal stresses over his baby boy's colicky fussing, Tyrell intervenes. "Give me him," Tyrell says and raps a babified version of Tupac lyrics to the infant. Above all else, Tyrell is devoted and loyal to his mom, his brother, his friend Cal, and the ladies — Novisha, Jasmine, Adonna. So, how could readers feel anything but safe enough to examine their own feelings, their own regrets, in the company of Tyrell?
When my daughter is ready to talk about the books, I get my car keys and meet her by the front door. We live by a wild river that's rapid and slow, shallow and deep, rocky and flat. Like always, we take the riverside road and drive for an hour, finding our way toward each other. We catch up for a few minutes, coordinating work and school schedules and checking in with each other on our horses, our dog ... just easy bits about life. The riverside road curves and bends and I wonder if our talk about Tyrell and Bronxwood will bend like this, too? We could talk about Tyrell's relationship with his dad, his effort to stay out of drug dealing, or how much he loves his little brother. What she wants to talk about, it turns out, is Tyrell's love life — the love triangle that spans both books as Tyrell sorts through his conflicting feelings for Novisha and Jasmine.
"I didn't like Jasmine at first," my daughter tells me. "I like Novisha."
"Really? What's that about? I like Jasmine," I say.
She shoots me a dirty look then laughs at herself. "Nah, I like Jasmine. But I felt like I was Novisha, like Tyrell was my man."
I let no laughter nor even a faint smile cross my face. By now, after a gazillion wonderful river book talks, I know. I can already hear it happening — the books are letting her talk about her life in a safe way that offers her a quick out should she need it.
So, when she says, "I felt like Tyrell was my man," I nod my head. True, the closest either of us has ever been to the Bronx is driving that little stretch of I-95 that goes through New York City on our way to her summer riding camp in Vermont. In most ways, Tyrell's world is way different than my daughter's; in some ways, their world is the same. Like every teen, Tyrell is transitioning between childhood and adulthood. Tyrell wants to prove that he is a man, but who gets to define manhood? Tyrell? His father? Moms? His friends who make serious money selling drugs? He wants people to look at him and respect him, respect his efforts to do good. He feels torn between his parents, his friends, and his own instincts. No matter the city, the neighborhood, or the family situation, this transition is what it means to be a teen.
I can tell my daughter wants to tell me something important, so I don't speak my first thought: "We don't live in the Bronx." Nor do I say, "You'd last about a half a minute in the Bronx, Miss Lady." Because what do I know and why does it matter? What matters is that we're driving around by our river and she's talking. She's approaching, just approaching, a conversation about herself, about one summer when she made a mistake. Like Novisha. She's also trying to tell me something about how the boy she's with now makes her feel safe and respected, the way Jasmine feels when she's with Tyrell.
Without spoiling too much of the plot of either book, I'll just say Novisha lied to Tyrell. Big time. At first, as my daughter and I discuss our feelings about Novisha's lie, we're miles apart. As a reader, I place the consequences of the lie fully on Novisha herself. My daughter forgives Novisha for lying, and she wants Tyrell to forgive her and me to forgive Novisha, too. As I listen to my girl talk about the books, what I hear loud and clear from her is something along these lines: sometimes it's hardest to forgive oneself for a mistake.
Forgiveness. She's talking about Novisha and Tyrell; she's talking about herself.
Is there anything you want to tell me about last summer? I finally ask.
We round a stretch of road that runs right along the south bank of the river at the flatwater put-in. She doesn't answer me, just looks out at the water. Every year, we expect to see the tiny Bufflehead duck out there by late fall. They are late this year.
Is there anything you want to tell me? I ask again.
And she tells me everything. The only right response is for me to say exactly what my daughter said about Novisha: It doesn't matter. You made a mistake and you are beautiful and worthy and amazing and so loved.
See, Coe Booth's characters are full and complete and complex and complicated. Like my daughter. Like all of us. While she cries about the books and cries about her own mistake, I listen. I listen, and I give thanks for Coe Booth and for so many children's and young adult authors who have greeted my daughter and me when we needed them.
So this was the gift of Tyrell and Bronxwood: an hour's long drive by the river, listening and talking with my child about who she is, about the burdens that she carries, and about the partnership she still needs from me in figuring things out. Like Novisha, my beautiful girl carried a burden so heavy that it made her wish she were someone else. Like Jasmine, she had found a true friend who would do anything for her. Yesterday, I shelved Tyrell and Bronxwood in our living room library between Forever by Judy Blume and Rebel Angels by Libba Bray. I am grateful to Coe Booth and these two books for doing something that a teacher, her parent or even her friends could not do — shine a light deep into the ocean of my child's interior life.