In “Blood: A Memoir,” which comes out Oct. 29, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer recounts the domestic violence she witnessed in her childhood, ultimately resulting in her father killing her mother, then taking his own life, in 1986. Moorer, a Grammy- and Academy Award-nominated musician, examines the trauma she and her older sister, Shelby, experienced and describes how she was able to find a sort of peace in adulthood. In this excerpt, Moorer discusses her relationship with prayer and her memories from the past.
“Please God, don’t let Daddy hurt Mama. Please God, don’t let Daddy hurt Mama. Please God, don’t let Daddy hurt Mama.”
I could type that sentence all the way down this page. I don’t know how many times I would repeat my prayer while I lay in bed, listening and hoping that everything would be all right by the time morning came. I often fell asleep with it going through my head. It was more mantra than prayer—the one sentence over and over—rhythmic, solid, and the only worthy offering I could come up with from my quadrant of our circle.
“Please God, don’t let Daddy hurt Mama.”
Seems a simple enough, straightforward request. A whole world existed within it. If God didn’t hear me, and Daddy did hurt her, what would that mean, and what would happen to us? I was always afraid I would wake up and she’d be gone. My mind never traveled further than that when I was so young—I couldn’t have been more than four or five when I started lulling myself to sleep with the plea that seemed to keep time with my heartbeat.
Mama always tucked us in at night when we were little girls. We would get under the covers and wait for her to walk softly down the hallway. Sometimes it was a while before she appeared if Daddy was home and had already started in on her, but she always did. I looked forward to saying my prayers with her. She’d sit down on the bed and talk us both through them one at a time, Sissy first, then me.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
Our God-bless lists were long. We included everyone in the family, immediate and extended, plus all the puppies and kittens and sometimes even a sick calf or goat. When we finished, we’d exchange I love yous. Then she’d turn off our light and leave the bedroom door cracked a little as she left us. I’d remind her to leave the bathroom light on because I was scared of the dark. She’d go back to him.
“Please God, don’t let Daddy hurt Mama.”
I hoped God understood the stakes. I thought he would if I could get my words right. Surely he thought we were important enough to save. I hadn’t yet been told I wasn’t supposed to ask for anything and instead only say thank you. I thought that if you asked for something that was obviously something that needed to exist, or was the obvious preferred dynamic in a situation, it would come to be, because God was all-knowing and benevolent and he cared.
I didn’t give up on that notion until she died. F--- that Footprints poem. I was never more utterly alone than on the day Daddy finally killed her just as I was always afraid he would. God wasn’t anywhere around that day that I could tell, and he certainly wasn’t carrying me.
I’m not sure where I am with God these days. I pray now if for no other reason than just in case. Though I’ve taken it up again, I’d be lying if I said my faith had completely regenerated after it has taken so many blows. I do hope it’s just taking its time. I look at it from the corners of my eyes. I want to believe, I just don’t know if I should. So I try to make my own grace and notice it in other earthly forms. Can I be angry and simultaneously admit the miracle of my every breath?
The words I heard come from my daddy’s mouth while I lay in bed terrified me. They bounced down the hallway like ricocheting bullets and landed in the bedroom Sissy and I shared. He called Mama a pig, a worm. My ears burned and my heart hurt. I don’t know how she stood it. I don’t know how he did either. It’s hard work to be that mean. She didn’t fight back very often, if at all; I don’t think she knew how.
Sometimes he’d take a breather and go out and pee in the yard. I could hear the kitchen door open with a jerk and close with a slam—it was the most violent way of opening a door that I can imagine besides kicking through it or tearing it down. He did most things violently. He was not a soft touch. Or he’d go to the old pie safe that Mama had refinished and made into a liquor cabinet—she’d accidentally gotten lye in her eyes and was almost blinded while she was doing it. He’d refresh the drink that he kept in the avocado-green insulated tumbler with the white rim. Then he’d start in again, spewing his vitriol until he grew bored or passed out and let her get some rest. It was all a regular thing, a way of life. What a thing to grow accustomed to.
Out of everything I remember about my childhood, my mama is what I want to hang on to most. I want to keep her fresh and right in front. I want to remember how she smelled, how she talked, how she walked, how she laughed, how she dressed, the shoes she wore, her hands, her jawline, her skin, the way her arms felt around me, and how she tilted her head in little, almost imperceptible backwards nods and blinked a lot when she got insecure or anxious. I think of those things most every day, even now. I struggle to keep her close with those small details and things like rings, photographs, and the songs we used to sing and that she loved.
I can tell you most everything about who she was on the outside and about the little things she did that made up daily life with her, but I know almost nothing about her big hopes or her hurts. I don’t know how she ended up living the way she did—what decisions led her to a life with Daddy. She never said anything about any of that. He got between us when I was a girl, and he gets between us now, taking up all the space and spreading over my memories of her like coffee spilled on a white tablecloth. I sift through them to catch a glimpse of her, but he is always in them. He inflicted more pain, so of course I’m going to remember him through episodes that are impossible to forget. He etched them into me. He sits on top of everything and weighs it down like the heavy Southern air does, demanding all of the attention, even in death. She is my foundation and much harder to see. Trying to describe her place in my life is like trying to talk about a book I’ve read while not being able to quote a single sentence from its pages. Its essence winds around my spine and will always be there.
Nothing is remembered the way it happened. We remember this thing and not that one for reasons unknown. We recall random events down to their minute details but something that would be deemed by most as more relevant is forgotten. I’m afraid I’m going to get it all wrong, that I won’t remember correctly. So many years have dirtied up my rearview mirror. I don’t think I’ve lied to myself about what I saw, but even with all Sissy and I were privy to, I know it wasn’t everything. You can’t know everything about everything, even your own mother, sometimes especially your own mother.
You can’t always trust your mind. I let that sink in. My heart rate goes up a little. I can hear it pounding in my ears. I take a deep breath. I touch her ring. I feel the part of it that’s broken, the part that sometimes pinches the flesh just outside of the knuckle that connects my finger to my hand. I conjure her. I can hear her, I can smell her, I can see her, and I can feel her.
Excerpted from “Blood: A Memoir” by Allison Moorer. Copyright © 2019. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.