It's February 1995. I'm 28, seven months pregnant with my first child, the guest of honor at the baby shower my friends have thrown for me. I'm decked out in a hat made of paper plates and bows, surrounded by tables strewn with pink and blue confetti and miniature plastic babies. My mother is there, sitting in a circle with the rest of us. I'm opening gifts. Mom waves her hand, gesturing. "Mine next." She sets a box the size of a sheet cake on my lap. I'm suspicious. My mother is at best an unpredictable gift giver, notorious for buying presents and then misplacing them, or for forgetting birthdays entirely. But I tear the lid off hopefully, peel back layers of tissue paper, and instantly recognize what's inside. My mother has given me my own baby book—an album covered in navy blue felt and trimmed in white rickrack—the one she started 28 years ago, when she was just about the age I am now.

Each of the neatly arranged photos on the first pages is framed on a square of colored construction paper. There's 10-day-old me, no heavier than a bag of sugar, staring blankly into the near distance. There I am as a toddler, being held tenderly in my mother's arms; and at 2 with my dad, feeding goats at the Los Angeles Zoo—he was slim and dapper back then, with his quo vadis haircut and horn-rimmed glasses. A few pages in, artwork replaces the fading photos: a print of my tiny hand, my palm painted brown, each of my splayed fingers painted green, red, orange, or yellow to resemble turkey feathers. I inspect my preschool self-portrait, my first-grade report card. On the bottom of each page, in her neat teacher handwriting, my mother had written a brief narrative, a summary of my life so far: "Spokane, Washington, July 1968. Canada and Idaho. Natalie, 2 yrs, 1 month. Saw snow for the first time. Loves Cream of Wheat cereal, corn on the cob, pickles, and listening to Snow White on her record player. Is terrified of snails and balloons. Cries every time her bare feet touch grass."

I keep turning pages, pausing to examine the artifacts that have come loose where the glue no longer holds them in place, until I come to a piece of folded paper tucked into the crease. I open it and read what my mother had written. I look up and across the room at her as a lump swells like a sponge in my throat. "I'll be damned," I say. "I'll be damned."

I'd dreamed of becoming a journalist—a war correspondent like Sam Waterston's character in the movie The Killing Fields. But one day I had a conversation with my dad that caused me to shift focus. "What should I be when I'm older?" I asked him one Sunday after church. We'd driven down to Huntington Beach and were walking together slowly along the pier. "With your looks and personality, you should go into sales," he advised. "You should come to work for me." I didn't need much persuading. His approval meant everything to me, and the certainty in his tone made me think he had to be right. I guessed I'd be going into the family business.

I graduated from high school and went on to the University of California, Berkeley, starting out as a business major and then switching to economics. As hard as I tried, I couldn't make myself care about "guns and butter" or Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Each semester of those first two years, though, I treated myself to an English class as a reward for my suffering, and those hours were my happiest. I loved the English majors, how frumpy they all looked in their clogs and wrinkled khakis as they camped out in the hallways to discuss novels between classes. I spent long weekend days in the Bancroft Library reading Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, and Toni Morrison's Sula, breathing in the words of my literary foremothers and feeling the first stirrings of a desire to write stories of my own. I enrolled in a creative writing workshop, where each week students shared intimate tales of their struggles to figure out who they were. I'd found my tribe. I switched majors. At the end of the semester, our professor pulled me aside and whispered, "Keep writing."


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