Sheyene Foster Heller teaches English at Barton Community College. Her work has appeared in W.W. Norton’s In Brief, Brevity, Nebraska Review, River Teeth, Clackamas Literary Review, Pennsylvania English, American Cowboy, Invisible Insurrections, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the 2003 AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, and the piece selected (based on a chapter of her memoir) appeared in issue 26 of Tampa Review.
From “An All-American Tomboyhood”
Rodney leaned back in a tan overstuffed chair, his slick black hair and ruddy complexion blending into the shadows. His eyes were hidden behind tinted sunglasses, head hanging limp against worn cushions, his distinctively Cherokee nose jutting up into the air. Headphones covered his ears. Music blared, so loud I could hear it too, and it completed his absorption in a world of his own. A universe revolving around Night Rider, Styx, Alabama, Pink Floyd, centrifugal forces of other things I couldn’t know, pulling him away from me.
I skipped toward him lightly, still in my ballet costume, pink tutu hanging slightly crooked on six‑year‑old hips, tiny feet encased in leather dance slippers.
I stared at the man in the chair, tilted my head at an odd angle, as if seeing him for the first time. He seemed almost alien to me, but something inside told me he was someone I should know. Someone I hadn’t seen around much lately, but who was supposed to be there.
There was no response.
I climbed onto his knee, patted him on the chest, peered into the glasses suspiciously.
“Daddy,” I attempted again, my soft pink palms smacking his broad shoulders more forcefully. His chocolate eyes flickered for an instant, then opened wide, red‑rimmed, staring blankly at me.
I looked at the man in the chair, my father, and he looked back at me, the girl on his lap. He slumped forward.
“An All-American Tomboyhood” is the first chapter of my memoir Natural Disasters. From my toddler years, I tended to identify more with boys than other girls. My first friends and playmates were boys, and though my birth father was absent following my parents’ divorce when I was five (after some of the scenes depicted in this chapter), I spent many of my early days following my grandfather Poppy around, “helping” him restore antique cars, mend fences, and tend his large garden. Later, after Poppy’s death, I spent time in my stepfather’s plumbing and electrical shop, learning about PVC pipes and caulk and duct work. In high school, under the guidance of my FFA advisor Mr. B, I was taught about raising livestock, meat judging, soil judging, basic horticulture, aquaculture, and three different methods of welding. Though my mother had a profound impact on my childhood, I was lucky to find men throughout my life that allowed me to feel not just part of their world but fully of their world. This was the greatest gift a girl like me could have been given and one I have grown to appreciate more in the decades since, long after becoming a wife, a stepmother, and a mother. Long after becoming a city-dweller almost completely cut off from nature, a teacher who works with words rather than oxy-acetylene torches, and a person who remembers fondly those early years with patient men who were willing to show her the power in her own hands.
Beautiful words, beautiful world.
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That last line, “He slumped forward,” gave me chills. I felt it in my own body.
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