Sights Unseen : A Novel

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The acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Ellen Foster,Kaye Gibbons paints intimate family portraits in lyrical prose, using as her palette the rich, vibrant colors of the American South. Sights Unseen shows the author at her most passionate and heartfelt best -- an unforgettable tale of unconditional love, and of a family's desperate search for normalcy in the midst of mental illness. It is a novel of rare poignancy, wit, and evocative power -- the story of the relationship between Hattie Barnes and her emotionally elusive mother, Maggie, known by their neighbors as "that Barnes woman with all the problems." This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.


Sights Unseen
A Novel

Chapter One

Had I known my mother was being given electroconvulsive therapy while I was dressing for school on eight consecutive Monday mornings, I do not think I could have buttoned my blouses or tied my shoes or located my homework. I see myself fumbling with the snap on my skirt, trying to connect the sides, turning around in a circle like a cat chasing its tail. I was twelve, deemed too young to be told what was happening to her and in fact too innocent to surmise it.

There was a certain power in her healing that I, as a child, felt was beyond my capacity to comprehend, the way I, as an adult, cannot comprehend the largeness of the universe, the number of its stars, the heat of the sun, or the speed of light. I could not fathom how such a terrible sick woman could get well. Unless the doctors were using some sort of medical magic, I could not understand how pills and a changed environment were helping when her family's love had been of no use. I believe I was jealous of the hospital and her doctors. At home, she had simply endured her life. In the hospital, she began to flourish. She returned home an independent woman.

I worried about my own lack of influence in her life. If I had a little girl, I thought, I would look at her and discover ways to ground myself. I would find reasons to move out of the haze and into the clearing, where a husband, a son, and a daughter could see me fully and welcome me. If I had a daughter as needy for my love as I was for hers, I could, I thought, will myself to be well for her sake. But Mother did not find that inspiration in me. Her illness, manic depression, was beyond her control. Along with my father, I mourned the inability to change her, to restore her. And I worried that later, when she had been back home with us for a while, the pills and the doctoring would stop working and she would revert to her old crazy ways, and once more, the voices of my father, my brother, and me would be no more than background noise to her ravings. I worried that her wellness would not take, the way vaccinations take. Life with Mother, I feared, would again be life with a stranger, a changeable stranger.

Because of her illness, it was impossible for her to be with us all the time. However, I always maintained the notion that I deserved a mother ant would someday have mine. Instead of playing solitaire at the kitchen table while Pearl, our cook and housekeeper, fixed dinner, I would deal a hand of old maid or spades with my mother. She would join me in my life. I hoped for that even in the worst of times. As much as Pearl mothered me, she never let me forget for a minute that I had my own mother up stairs resting or in that hospital, and someday all would be well in our household. I am drawn to know why and how I never abandoned the ideal of a mother. She gave me ample opportunity to ostracize her completely. Why did I "turn out"? Why did my brother "turn out"?

Mother was depressed almost always, and her sadness was fractured only by wild, delusional turns of mind, with brief periods of stability that were celebrated and remembered by my family as though they were spectacular occurrences, like total eclipses or meteor showers. Had she not crashed to a halt in 1967, I would never have known her. I would have been raised wholly by my father and Pearl, and I would have spoiled my life trying to mitigate the ill effects her absence might have forced on me.

A girl cannot go along motherless without life's noticing, taking a compensatory tuck here and there in the heart and in the mind, letting out one seam or another whenever she is threatened by her loneliness. I could have lurched on ahead to adulthood, straining to be a good girl not ever learning what to do when my own children were placed in my arms. My instinct might have been to ignore my responsibility for them the way my mother had initially relinquished responsibility for me. The children might have had to wait for me to find my way, as I had had to wait for my mother, and they might not have been as patient. My patience came from a deep longing for an ideal, and had I not pitied my mother, I would have stopped waiting for her, given up on her and ranged about for love elsewhere. But we caught each other just in time, right on the edge of my puberty. She pulled me back from the rim of an abyss. Just when I should have been growing away from my mother, we moved toward each other. When I should have been running out of the house with the screen door slamming in my wake, I was crawling into her arms. Boys, when they finally took notice of me, had to wait for my mother and me to learn each other, to learn our habits and our ways.

Copyright ) 1995 by Kaye GibbonsSights Unseen
A Novel
. Copyright © by Kaye Gibbons. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Sights Unseen: A Novel by Kaye Gibbons
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