Skip to contents
Book Excerpts

A genre-defying memoir calls on history, science and gripping narrative in a meditation on grief

In "The Lampblack Blue of Memory: My Mother Echoes," author Sarah Adleman employs a mix of literary techniques as tools that dig to the heart of tragedy and explore the concept of forgiveness

Sarah Adleman was born and raised between the bayous of Houston, the swamps of Louisiana, and the desert of El Paso.

She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bangladesh, studied yoga in India, and taught English in China. Sarah earned her MFA from the University of Texas at El Paso and works as a Yoga therapist specializing in traumatic brain injury survivors. Her first book “The Lampblack Blue of Memory: My Mother Echoes” was published by Tolsun Books in 2019. She considers it a blessing to have been born out of the bayous, molded by the desert, and now refined by the mountains, adding Colorado to her list of homes. She lives in Denver and plays on the Western Slope as often as possible.

The following is an excerpt from “The Lampblack Blue of Memory: My Mother Echoes.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Non-fiction

Editor’s note: Due to technical limitations, the formatting of this excerpt differs slightly from the formatting of the book.

The black soot that remains after coal burns is called lampblack, or channel black. It is what’s left after incomplete combustion. It is used to make ink, paint, or products like the soles of shoes or rubber tires. It is one of the first pigments known to man found in ancient cave art, and today, found in factories, fueled into production. Past ash creations become carbon copies of what was into what is, returning the cycle back once more.

Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize Laureate in medicine for his work on learning and memory, correlates the communication of neurons to that of one person whispering into the ear of another.

In three parts:

the lips that speak the space between the ears that hear

Today, there are five legal methods of execution in the United States. Lethal Injection. Electrocution. Gas Chamber. Hanging. Firing Squad. The state you’re prosecuted in determines the eventual method in which you will die.

Although lethal injection is the primary method for the thirty-three states in which the Death Penalty is a path, Tennessee would impose the electric chair if the lethal drugs were unattainable. Oklahoma, the gas chamber. Utah, the firing squad.

But most likely it will be lethal injection—bound to a gurney. Imagine: someone attaches heart monitors to your chest and you (and everyone else in the room) can hear the beep, beep, beep of the beat inside. Another someone (maybe the same someone) will then insert two needles into your veins. This person is not medically trained. So, be wary if they miss the vein and the drug goes into the muscle. There will be intense pain. They may have trouble finding a good vein.

You will lie on the gurney, strapped down, while you are pricked again and again, your loved ones (maybe others you don’t recognize) wait behind a concrete wall, thick glass window, curtain drawn, until the needle connects to the flow of your blood. The saline solution is started. The warden signals for the curtain to rise.

Do you look? Do you look over to your children, your wife, to the faces you don’t immediately recognize? They are looking at you. It’s your last chance to look. Sodium thiopental will start to flow through your veins and this is the last memory you will have before falling asleep. Pavulon will be injected next. Your muscles will become paralyzed and then you will stop breathing. And finally, potassium chloride will stop the beating of your heart. Death by overdose. Death by respiratory and cardiac arrest. But you’ll be unconscious. You won’t feel a thing.

My mother kept a prayer garden in the backyard. Each morning before dawn, before the light ushered in the demands of day, she woke and sat next to the concrete birdbath carried from house to house to house, and the flowers planted and pruned each season. Roses, violas, butterfly weed. She didn’t wear slippers or shoes, just barefoot, skin to concrete, cool and damp in the early Houston hours. The morning after she didn’t come home I find a baby sparrow in the garden next to the birdbath, under the pine tree. If I can nurse the bird back to health my mother will be OK. I make a home for the bird in a shoebox, cut grapes for it to eat, and keep it on my bedside table for two nights. 

Sarah Adleman.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky on decision making, discusses the natural human tendency to find causality in the world: a large event is supposed to have consequences, and consequences need causes to explain them. Somehow causes bring meaning.

If we can find causes or intentions then it helps to understand the place from where the effect was born. In 1839, the anatomist Mattias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann formulated the now ubiquitously accepted fact of cell theory. The theory is composed of three basic precepts: First, all living organisms are made of cells (I am you and you are me). Second, the cell is the basic unit of life (Distilled to form, we are the same). Third, all cells are generated by other pre-existing living cells (Those before to those after).

I smell her in random places. It happens more in the first years after, in gas stations or on the streets of foreign cities. But mostly in grocery stores. It’s her perfume. I follow the unsuspecting women up and down the aisles, stopping when they stop, moving when they move. Following like I also need apples and milk. Silently inhaling as if I might be able to breathe her into existence from the place she disappeared. Once, I asked a woman in front of me what perfume she was wearing. She looked up and answered like I knew she would, Elixer.

That’s what my mom wore, I said.

Memories are stored in the cerebral cortex—the outer layer of the brain, composed of gray matter, crumpled in on itself like a newspaper—where they are originally recorded. The memory of the last time I saw my mother is stored in the occipital lobe of my brain. She is standing in the living room, just home from work.

I’m standing by the front door in running clothes on my way to the first cross-country practice of the season. It’s a week before my senior year in high school. I’m frustrated at the perceived constraints of my life. I want to pierce a second hole in my ears and need parental approval because I am still sixteen.

I’d watched my friend’s brother numb his ear with ice and press a sewing needle through the lobe. Watched the fresh blood ooze down his neck. I wanted it to be fast—relatively painless. Not today she says. It was a Tuesday. Deciding my silence would serve as communication for my frustration, I turn to leave. Sarah, she calls to me from the doorway. I remember her saying I love you. But it could’ve been I’ll see you later.

I do remember looking back. Her smile. I want to remember I said I love you too, but in reality I think I just nodded. I do know I didn’t walk across the living room. I didn’t touch her, feel her arms, or touch her face. I will replay this moment in my mind forever. We are not quite frozen, we are breathing. Our eyes are blinking. One terminal emanating towards the other.

If this train were to flip, would I survive? If
say we derailed, slid down the frozen bank
and tumbled across the plains, would I ricochet
inside my tiny compartment — against
the glass and blue carpet walls and plastic bedside
table? Would I be able to grip the seatbelt
harness above me or maybe wrap an arm into
the thick ribbed curtains while the metal train
car crashed and sparked across the earth? I
don’t think I sleep, but when I wake the carpet
burns across my face and forearms scathe.
Was it not a dream? I lay in bed, still—watching
the blue curtains sway and rattle from the
tracks underneath

I bury the bird in the garden. Fold her wings in close to her body and use a paper towel like a shroud. With a hand trowel, I dig a hole beneath the pine tree, next to the concrete birdbath. It’s Jewish tradition to place stones on graves, though this isn’t why at sixteen I place stones on the bird’s grave. It’s an act of acknowledgement that under the earth lies a once living being. Nobody quite knows where the Jewish tradition stems from, but it became a mitzvah, a commandment. If you are walking from one town to another and pass by a cairn of stones, the mitzvah commands you stop. Pay homage, stack more stones. Rabbi Goldie Milgram makes an argument for stone to be a metaphor for God. The Ten Commandments were carved from stone. Moses beat the stone he was sitting on when his sister Miriam dies. Stoning was a form of capital punishment and stones were used to cover dead bodies as they lay on the earth. Decomposed cells returning to the form of the beginning.

My father tells me one morning while driving to church, a counselor told him to expect a year of grieving for every year they were married. So I guess I have eighteen more years to go. He says it like he has no other choice. He has been committed and must serve out the allotted time. The first year gapes the holes left by her. Emptiness highlighted by the details we were afraid of forgetting, but too painful to consistently remember. All time became slotted into before and after, until one day, not long ago, I realize We’ve lived longer without her than with her. This time before and time after has become balanced by the outstretch of time that lays ahead: a slow incline to the peak, a tumbling fall to the point of ever after, the unknown trek into the after-after.

“The Lampblack Blue of Memory: My Mother Echoes” by Sarah Adleman.

The Hebrew word for Lord is adonai, which has one of its roots in ehden, or threshold. Threshold as in: edge, brink, beginning. As in: We begin after we cross the threshold. Threshold as in: limit, verge, inception. As in: I’m on the verge. In physiology or psychology, a threshold is the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect. As in: pain. Another word for threshold is limen. Not to be confused with liman, a geological term to describe a muddy marsh near the mouth of a river.

Before he killed her she said, I forgive you and God does too. I’ve often wondered when exactly—did she speak these words. I imagine it was after the initial shock of being attacked. After the hypothalamus sent a message to the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. After the initial increase in heart rate and respiration. After the muscles in her legs felt heavy and light at the same time. I don’t imagine it was her initial response. And I don’t imagine she screamed the words. I wonder how close he was. If his ear was near her lips when the words left her mouth. Or was he leaving. Was he walking away, his back turned to her and from the ground, hidden by the tall grass, did she say, I forgive you. And God does too?

For a long time I said to myself, how could I not? But he never factored into the equation. It wasn’t a person that needed forgiving, it was the entire situation. All of the circumstances that led to the consequence at hand. Too many what ifs to counter the one big cleft we found ourselves standing on. Life needed forgiving, not him. He became insignificant in the process as soon as punishment was set. What she did do with her words was open the door to acceptance. Acceptance that life, no matter how hard we try or how hard we fight it, will ever be as it was. Forgiveness comes after. After the necessary stops, cycling through, denial into anger into depression, they catch us thick and flatten into our road ahead. Returning, each time a new experience, each time familiar from before, remembering. Sometimes they catch us whole and their richness provides movement. Sometimes they catch us stuck. Without feeling. Just a body in motion. Time dictates we are always moving forward, even when grief dictates we stop.

Outside the frozen stream passes by under
the window—blown glass, a green hewn murk
frosted still, the grass—burnt sienna, emerges
from the bank leaning slightly in one direction.
As if a frigid wind has gusted everything into
silence. It’s hard to imagine this land at a different
time when the days are long and the water,
warm, sways the tall grass from underneath. The
sun low in the sky, begins its descent. It seems
the days end, just when they’re beginning. From
where the sun is now a shimmer casts over the
frozen water—a luster of reflection. The stream
becomes a river, still, frozen, occasionally a
break in the surface where the ice has started to
melt, where the water is deepest, and I can see
ripples of movement ebbing and flowing underneath.

After the death of his son, Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to the grief as courting suffering. He writes, there are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. By feeling we find truth. By feeling we know in this moment we exist. To be alive and not feel is contradictory to the very essence of living. The preposition of a, as in alive, is a reduced form of the Old English preposition on, meaning in, into, or toward. In life. Into life. Toward life. To be alive doesn’t require constantly being on, but rather moving towards an existence. It’s messy. Feeling truth—feeling emotions we don’t want to feel. That’s vulnerability. Feeling unsafe inside ourselves, moving into what we don’t know, places we haven’t been. Guided only by the simple desire to be clean.

Buy “The Lampblack Blue of Memory; My Mother Echoes” at BookBar.
Read an interview with author Sarah Adleman.