A Review of Carla Rachel Sameth’s One Day on the Gold Line
November 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Alison Ernst
I did not think having a child was an option for me, mainly because of fear: pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. All of it scared me. I loved children, especially the preschool ages, though the vulnerability of newborn infants terrified me. Someone I knew in college couldn’t wait to get pregnant and have a bunch of kids; eventually, she hoped to become a midwife. I couldn’t relate at all. The out-of controlness, the potential pain of the whole endeavor seemed like something I could never handle. The concept of parenthood was particular fraught. My brother and I figured out early, we were on our own; our parents’ alcoholism and whatever trauma they’d experienced in their childhoods left them unable to refrain from passing on damage. I held an honest distrust of the institutions of Family, and the Cult of Motherhood. I’d even studied developmental psychology in college hoping to learn what a healthy childhood looked like, which mine had indeed not been. Though I grasped elements of how a parent might nurture a beloved offspring, I had no confidence in my own ability.
The preface of Carla Rachel Sameth’s book, One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays, concludes with her weeping in a lifeboat bobbing on the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night, fleeing a burning ferry. She writes, “I was not ready to die without having a baby.” Her yearning for motherhood reaches clarity during the chaotic emergency evacuation, setting the stage for much of the book’s focus. Sameth documents her fierce desire to get pregnant after several well-considered abortions, miscarriages, and frustrated infertility treatments, including artificial insemination, even after a successful pregnancy and birth of a son.
Sameth writes about the challenges of being a Jewish lesbian parent of a brown son whose father is African-American. The essays explore the inner workings of abusive marriages, futile attempts to craft a happy blended family with a dysfunctional wife, and the parental nightmare of an adolescent son with substance abuse.
The memoir derives its name from an essay about a graphic incident of police brutality. Sameth was erroneously suspected of boarding a train at a Pasadena metro station without a ticket, and for this perceived violation was slammed into a subway pillar by a sheriff’s deputy who handcuffed her. Sameth crumpled on the filthy floor—nose broken, teeth chipped, and bleeding—while passersby turned their heads and uniformed perpetrators stood around appearing bored, waiting for their supervisor to document the injuries. This terrifying incident took place the same year as the events inspiring an award-winning film, Fruitvale Station, in which Oscar Grant, a young black man, was killed by a police officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform.
The eponymous episode appears about halfway through the book, following a lighthearted chapter titled, “The Year of Eating Banana Splits,” with subheadings such as “Gestational Diabetes, Beets, and Baskin Robbins” as well as “Ice Cream and Hot Tub for Mother’s Day.” Sameth swings from humorous to serious, even within an essay. Early in the book, “A House Is Not a Home,” a poignant piece about the hope and promise of a new relationship and the destructive impact of its disintegration, Sameth quips, “So I stopped shopping around for sperm and began searching dating sites for a girlfriend.”
Sameth’s voice varies throughout, at turns funny, frenetic, and despairing. Sameth appears in several developmental stages, from childhood identity as scrappy Sammy Boy, an insecure college-aged young woman working on a back-country trail crew, through shifting sexual identities, marriages, and motherhood, and losing one’s shit with an adolescent child in a treatment center for drug abuse.
The traumas I survived in childhood and adolescence led me to think I would be incapable of bearing and raising a child of my own. Despite my fears of the emotional and physical trauma, I had the good fortune to eventually go through the whole rigmarole of having and parenting a child who has survived to adulthood. Sameth was determined to have her baby by any means necessary and, as he grew, strove to create a nurturing family. The traumas inherent in her efforts, as well as her fierce maternal love, is the grist of One Day on the Gold Line.
Alison Adams Ernst is a librarian by profession and writer by compulsion. She’s a frequent participant at Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers Conference. Though her MFA is in Writing for Children from Simmons University, she’s currently working on a decidedly adult memoir.