|The author, Cynthia Watson-Johnson, in a recent interview at Koffee? on Audubon Street. Lucy Gellman Photo.|
Cynthia Watson-Johnson never imagined that taking care of an elderly relative would lead her to write her first personal narrative. Now, she’s getting ready to tell that story to the New Haven community.
Watson-Johnson, who is now 62, is the author of Echoes Of Love: Loving The Unlovely. This weekend, she will hold a book release and book signing at the Hill Museum of Arts, home to the work of Hill-based artist Krikko Obbott. The book, which follows the life and death of her aunt Grace, is her first foray into personal narrative and creative nonfiction after decades of poetry.
“It’s different for me in not only the type of writing but the fact that it’s just ... about me,” she said in a recent interview at Koffee? on Audubon Street. “I’m bearing my soul whereas with poetry, it was a compilation of emotions. This was very revelatory.”
The story of the book goes decades back, to Watson-Johnson’s own upbringing in New Haven. Born and raised as the eldest of four kids in Newhallville, Watson-Johnson grew up thinking she wanted to be a secretary, because she saw them typing on television. It wasn’t the work that called to her—she didn’t fully understand what a secretary did, she joked—but the fact that they spent their days writing. She wanted to know where she could find a job like that.
When she was 10, her dad gave her a typewriter on which she wrote her first poems—a book of limericks that she took to immediately. Poetry came easily to her: she recalled writing poems in school, whipping up rhymes during quiet class assignments, often praised by her teachers in the process. The craft became her refuge: she wrote to express herself and then hid in books of poetry, savoring every last word of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. She became obsessed with Ernest Hemingway’s life story, reading about his struggle with alcoholism and depression.
"The humanity of him—I sort of connected to that for some reason," she said. "I don't know if it was because I was this little black girl, coming from this sort of depressed neighborhood. I always thought when I grew up, I would have this room that would be dedicated to writing, and there would be this Ernest Hemingway-esque feel."
If New Haven was changing, she said, she was largely oblivious to it. Outside the house, her mother fussed and fretted over the Black Panther Party, which had set up its headquarters nearby in the city’s Dwight neighborhood. The group terrified her, she said—but only because she misunderstood her mother's warnings, and thought that huge, wild black cats were prowling the neighborhood looking for human prey. Inside, the house was full of laughter. There was always extended family coming to visit, with weekends doubling as day-long cookouts.
Watson-Johnson dreamed about pursuing a career in writing, but also “didn’t know that I could pursue it” as anything more than a self-taught hobby. When she was a teenager, she became pregnant with her son, now a professor of history at Wesleyan University. Suddenly, people were urging her to find a reliable job to support her child, and writing got put on the back burner. But when she returned home, made dinner and put him to bed, she found time to put down poems before she drifted off to sleep.
"I would write and write and write," she recalled.
Several years ago, she published her first two volumes of poetry. When she wasn’t writing or working, she was learning from the women in her family. She was moved particularly by her mother’s sister Grace, the second oldest of eight children who had grown up in Alabama and moved to New Haven seven decades into her life, to be closer to family as she began to suffer from advanced Parkinson's.
“She was very outspoken, very strong-willed, a pretty happy and outgoing person,”Watson-Johnson said. “And then she got sick, and her whole personality changed. I just didn’t get the whole process there. I couldn’t understand how this woman that I used to enjoy so much could now be such a pain in my butt.”
After several years with Watson-Johnson’s sister, her aunt went into assisted living. She became angry and hard, verbally abusive with the family members who did come to visit her, and distraught about the ones that didn’t. Watson-Johnson said her faith carried her though those years: after a spiritual rebirth in 2003, she prayed with Grace and drove out to visit her even on the days that she did not want to.
“I felt like maybe she was testing me,” she said. “Because so many people that she thought would be there for her were not. Maybe she had given herself to them, maybe she had given her heart to them. And then she had a need—where were they?”
In 2011, her aunt died peacefully. The following year, Watson-Johnson sat down to write, and found that the story of Grace wouldn’t come out. When the words did come to her, they leaked out in fits and starts, often muddled and laced with frustrations. There was, she said, too much anger there—she kept telling the stories of the end of her aunt’s life, when she was in a great deal of physical pain and cold to those around her. She deleted sections and then started over again.
And then she heard a voice in her head—she said she believes it was God—that told her she was writing the story from the wrong perspective. It was supposed to be a love story.
“I just wrote and wrote and wrote,” she said. “And what I realized is that I was unlovely too. When I was being ungracious and stubborn, rebellious—all of those things—I was also being unlovely. Just as much as she was when she insulted me and criticized me.”
As she wrote, stories poured forward. Grace in her younger years, before Parkinson’s began to take over her body. Grace leading the way for her siblings in the Deep South, and traveling North late in life to be with her surviving family one more time. Grace after sickness claimed her limbs and then her mind, sitting in a nursing home in Southern Connecticut. For years, Watson-Johnson edited and edited again. On some days, she found that an hour she had earmarked for edits turned into six or seven.
But along the way, Watson-Johnson felt something open in her too: a kind of freedom with writing that she hadn’t experienced before. When she sent the manuscript to the printer last month, she said she felt exposed, aware that readers would get a deeper glimpse for her after years of poetry in which she was removed from the work. Now, she said, she is excited for the reading as a sort of reveal on Saturday.
“It’s just that process that we’re all going through,” she said. “We don’t know how we’re going to end up, and what process it’s going to take us to get there. Maybe I was unlovely yesterday. But don’t judge me by yesterday. Judge me by today. Just walk with me, because something’s happening.”
She added that she sees this imprint of Echoes of Love as the first in three volumes on the topic. Already, she has begun mapping the second book in the series, based on a dream that she had about dancing with her late father. She expects the third, about “the love of the father,” to drop sometime after that.
“As I write, I feel the presence, and I hope it comes across on the page,” she said. “Echoes of Love is definitely more tapped into that spiritual part of me than I would have expected. It’s not what I thought was going to come across. It’s been very enlightening for me.”
A release party and book signing for Echoes Of Love: Loving The Unlovely will take place Saturday June 8 at the Hill Museum of Arts from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information or to RSVP, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.