The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom -
a memoir of family, love, and survival
Sarah M. Broom's The Yellow House tells the story of a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home, in a neglected area of one of America's most mythologized cities, New Orleans. Recently named the winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in the US, this is a brilliant and timely memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. Here you can read an exclusive extract.
I am five.
This small bathroom where my father sat on the toilet after work and died and where, before then, Mom took baths with green rubbing alcohol and Epsom salts to eat the weariness, is for me a playroom full of things no adult ever touches. The sheetrock leaning against the wall, smelling of mold, is my chalkboard, and the neon-green lizards crawling in and out through holes in the screen are my students. Standing on two bricks lifts me high enough to see out onto the alleyway running behind our house and over the fence that separates where I live from where my friend Kendra lives in the trailer park next door. Careful when coming down that my lavender jelly-sandaled foot does not step into the medium- size hole in the floorboard that will eventually become a large hole letting in more sound and outside creatures.
After this was the room where Daddy went quiet, it was a room with a washboard in the tub and then an actual washing machine, but Mom says the plumbing was never right.
Those plastic white tubes, contorted limbs twisting through exposed walls, are still here for me to look at, but the machines are not. The tub is gone, too.
There is still a heavy door that closes, with a hole for a knob where I have stuffed tissue paper for privacy. I like best to hear the voices in the house calling for me and not being able to find me where I am, here, where I can wait anything out until the night.
The other bathroom is in the second half of the house, in the add- on that Daddy started but never finished, next to the den with the wood- framed TV of my height, where the Flintstones and Jetsons live. Everyone uses this new bathroom just beyond the girls’ room that is pink and mine since I am a girl, too. This bathroom is the only room in the house with a lock. I take full advantage of this, especially when I want to get away from my big brother Troy whose nerves are always bad. His right ear points and I fixate on it. The more his leg shakes when he sits watching football, the madder I can make him. I’ll get up close to his arrow-shaped ear and yell, “Ear, ear, ear!” to rile him upand sure enough he (a seventeen- year-old boy) will chase me through the house from front to back—from the living room through Mom’s room, through the kitchen and the girls’ room where I sleep and into the second bathroom.
“That’s why you Ear,” I’ll yell from behind its locked door. And since Troy will wait a long time outside it saying, “Wait till you come out lil gawl, you gon see, you gon see,” I memorize the room’s insides, learning right then and there the geography of hiding.
The second bathroom is also where I take my baths. The whole time I am in the tub, Mom is asking me whether anyone ever touched me down there, in my privates. I don’t care who it is, it could be your brother, your sister, your uncle, your cousin, your daddy, whoever, if anyone ever touches you down there you make sure to let me know right away. That is your and only your privates, that belongs to you, that is off-limits. I don’t care who it is. The preacher or the teacher. You hear me. No one is ever to touch you in your privates. She tells me this nearly every time my body touches the water. When my big sister Lynette is sharing bathwater with me, she hears it, too.
Mom’s voice, when she is worried, has the same girlish sound as it does when she’s entertained by whatever small thing I am finding hilarious.
Your daddy, whoever.
But I don’t have a daddy, I think but never say.
It takes a long time for me to know why I don’t have a daddy, but I am the babiest, I am told, last and smallest. Babies don’t need to understand.
Sarah M. Broom is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Oxford American, and O, The Oprah Magazine among others. A native New Orleanian, she received her Masters in Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. She was awarded a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2016 and was a finalist for the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction in 2011. She has also been awarded fellowships at Djerassi Resident Artists Program and The MacDowell Colony. She lives in New York state.