Two years after Walter R. Jacobs
was forced to call his new stepmother "Mom," she cancelled what would have been his 13th Christmas. In the memoir Ghostbox
Jacobs explores a life where family problems are blamed on "disrespectful" children who refused to accept "Mom's" authority. His stepmother is a "sociological ghost," a force that limited his thoughts and decisions until he filled a special shoebox with objects that evoke significant memories: good, bad, and ugly. This "ghostbox" has rendered his stepmother's seething presence benign.
Jacobs investigates how just a relatively short stay in his stepmother's house (seven years with his stepmother, father, and younger brother) led to almost twenty years of questions about multiple facets of his identity, such as the proper rules and rhythms of life as an African-American college professor. In the end, he finds the key to finally and completely breaking away from the dysfunctions that threatened his self-esteem and ability to interact normally with others.
Jacobs includes an appendix of guidelines readers may use to create their own ghostboxes. He invites readers into a world where they can reflect on troubling aspects of their lives, and create strategies for making empowering changes.
Eighteen months after my mother died I was forced to call somebody else “Mom.” This would be tough even for the most mature 11 year-old, but for one struggling to adapt to life with a woman who would – two years later – cancel Christmas, it was a never ending daymare. Hey, is “daymare” a word? I guess that I should say nightmare, but daymare is more spot-on since sleep gave me rest…usually. During the day Dad, my brother Keith, and I had to deal with the most unreal shit, like the cancelled Christmas when Joneta got pissed that Keith gave Dad the first present of the morning: “I’ve never heard of a house where a man gets a present before the woman. I tell you what. If you want to disrespect me like that then you don’t deserve presents. I’m taking ‘em back to the store…Christmas is cancelled. Go back to bed.” Damn, my head has started to spin again just from calling this up, so let me wait until later to tell the rest of that story. This is just the first of many to come…. When Mama passed on May 8, 1978 life as I knew it also ended. Afterwards I entered a one-year limbo that I don’t remember too well. Then on June 23, 1979 my second life started when Dad married Joneta. At first everything was cool – like she had a gold Mercedes-Benz sedan (!) that we could roll in, and she made this crazy good hot dog sauce from mayo and spicy yellow mustard – but soon little portents started to pop up. Shortly after the wedding, for instance, Keith and I rode along when Dad and Joneta took one of Dad’s old female friends to the airport. Joneta simmered in silence while Dad chatted with the friend throughout the 20-minute drive, and then exploded when he came back from the gate (remember, this was a pre-9/11 world, so Dad could make sure that the friend had no problems getting on the plane). Keith and I were mesmerized by this first tirade of curses and unveiled accusations, like “why couldn’t that bitch take a fucking cab? You sweet on her?!” It would by no means be her last. Flash forward to the start of November 1979. Dad and Joneta had been married for four months, and Keith and I had been living with them for two months (returning to Atlanta, Georgia after spending July and August in Mama’s old stomping grounds of Trinity, South Carolina). Dad, Keith, and I had left our home on Ovito Drive and moved in with Joneta. Let me tell you, it was Weird to adjust to my stepmother’s house. Unlike our 215 Ovito Drive split-level (bought new in 1974) that was full of fuzzy pillows and plush carpet and lots of pictures and knick-knacks, the flat-topped one floor 3444 Belfrey Place (built in 1960) was a severely Modernist composition. Everything was glass and steel, steel and glass…with a little bit of wood and (white) brick thrown in here and there. While our old battered maple kitchen table served as an all-purpose haven, the new dining room table was a hunk of black-tinted glass plopped on a blonde wood base, and most of the time Keith and I ate at the initially spotless Formica breakfast bar in the kitchen. In our old house we had plenty of space in which to sprawl out and watch TV, but the new TV room was dominated by a glass-topped end table, forbidden for us to put our feet on. A porcelain tiger perpetually prowled in sentry duty on the side. Out in the “living room” the snow-white sectional sofa was also off limits, as were non-runner protected sections of the matching white low-pile carpet that oozed through most of the house. An oversized print of a burnt orange rising sun (or maybe it was setting?) dominated the wall on one side of the room, while the other side was a wall of sliding glass doors that mostly stayed closed, even on the kind of spring days ordered straight from the movies. The wall of doors also bent around a steel corner post and screened the foyer from a concrete patio. In winter the foyer housed a gang of exotic plants that lounged on the patio during the other three seasons, and throughout the year blood-red double doors guarded the exit to the front yard. If I were to visit it now my reaction would be “cool bachelor crib,” but as kids it was the type of house that could – and did – give us nightmares. I don’t think that we ever completely adapted to the interior design of Joneta’s bachelorette pad. Other adjustments were going pretty smoothly, but soon Dad gave us some shocking news that would seriously grind the transition to a standstill: he was about to start a three month assignment at an Air Force base in Florida…and we were not going with him! Instead, we’d stay with Joneta and go to school as usual; he’d be back for occasional weekend visits and would, of course, make it home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yes, and he added one more thing: “It’s disrespectful for a child to call an adult by her first name.” Later in the marriage Joneta would pick up on Dad’s habit of giving indirect instructions – “The lawn looks raggedy,” meant “Get your Black ass out and mow the lawn now,” not “How do you think the lawn looks?” – but Dad was the master of making things appear as requests or suggestions when actually they were orders. However, just to be sure that we completely understood him he added an unusually straightforward command: “While I’m gone I want you to start calling Joneta either Mrs. Jacobs or Mom.” In retrospect this wasn’t airtight, as we could theoretically call her “Mrs. Jacobs,” but his practical directive was unmistakable. Another unspoken certainty was that I would have to initiate the first utterance, as 7 year-old Keith was understandably happy to let Big Bro make the first move. That move was an agonizingly long time in coming.
Walter R. Jacobs teaches at the University of Minnesota, where all of his classes use popular culture and creative expression. In 2005 he published Speaking the Lower Frequencies: Students and Media Literacy. He is learning to love his wife Valerie's favorite movie genre, horror. The couple lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.