Wednesday Wisdom: Family Ghosts

Many gaps exist in my family story. In trying to piece together my parents’ younger years for my memoir, I am befuddled by the complexity of mistaken timelines and the absence of information. One example that surprised me was the fact that I had always believed my mother was twenty-three when I was born. I have done the math. She was twenty-four.

What difference does this make? A lot. The mind relies on every bit of information as one navigates the world. My stories have built me and I process life through the filter of my understanding. Finding an error in what I have believed to be true means I must recalibrate my truth to a different and unfamiliar understanding. Seeing things differently forces me to step back and question my own beliefs and preconceived notions of how I fit into the world.

With more gaps than I had previously realized, I have to question how much I know my family. As I’m seeing it now, it seems to be very little. The more I delve into photos and years and events, the more wary I become of my relationship to the people who raised me. Certainly, if I don’t know a lot about them, then there must also be a lot they don’t know about me. It is evident to me now that many of my childhood struggles circulated around the feeling of ghosted by family.

Writing is a process of discovery. We write to learn about ourselves, but finding the truest meaning of ourselves also means discovering the truest meaning in our relationships. Merging into this territory is dangerous, difficult work. Now, I am able to do this because I have a strong support network which has taken years and courage to build. My husband and the world of creativity are the backbone of my emotional health. It has taken commitment to my own well-being and letting go of previous truths to undergo this process, and I am so grateful to have people to hold me up when I want to crumble. My fortitude has grown with the belief that my story matters, because even with loneliness, no person’s story exists in isolation.

Perhaps I was called to writing because I never felt understood. Or, maybe I always wanted to be known on a deeper level. Humans need connection. Like so many of us, all of us, in fact, the layers of identity are deep and tragic and uncertain. Loneliness is a trap we can release if we take the initiative to identify what we seek. Generating creative work provides meaning in an otherwise shallow life and illuminates our blind spots. Still, I am realizing that the gaps in my family story were never there to be filled, but to be examined. It’s through the existence of an incomplete that I see myself more clearly as my parent’s daughter. Stubborn. Hard-pressed to finish what I start. I’m finding my connection to them as I write. Present or not, they are here with me.

My paternal grandfather, Robert Wallace. A grandfather I never knew.

Fall Happenings

I wasn’t going to submit the application. One part of me felt hopeless about making the cut for a fall residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Because I had only one published work, I filled a pithy resumé of writing classes I had taken, most of them online, for the goal of writing my memoir.

On the day of the deadline, a notification sidled into view on the screen telling me I had three extra days to finish the application. I groaned. This meant compiling twenty-five pages of work and finding two nice people to send a letter of reference on my behalf.

Weeks later, I was accepted into VCCA. Not only was I fraught with tears because of the unlikelihood of being accepted, but my submission was chosen for an honorary  fellowship. Every year, one person from Montana is awarded a free residency at VCCA. Out of our huge state, I am that one.

I’ll be heading to Virginia in November for two and a half weeks. There, I don’t need to cook, or walk the dog, or do the family laundry, or shower. OK, I will do that, but the rest of the time I will write.

The validation comes in the form of knowing my story meant something to someone I have never met. Although it was a cobbled together sample, my excerpt spanned the years from childhood to adulthood. The writer hovers over a younger version of herself, watching as a girl overcomes fears, speaking words once blinded by innocence with a deeper perspective. One who sees not just a sheet of stars in the sky, but thick layers of them, heaped like the matter of a cellular body.

This fall, I will also be reading from my first publication during the Montana Book Festival. The lyric essay, Small Towns, published in Bright Bones: Contemporary Montana Writing suggests the importance of crossing from one place to the next. There is some irony there, as my writing launches me into the next phase, from isolation to a sharing of long-held secrets.

I’m hoping to grow gracefully in this new space. There is room for everyone in the creative world. I hope to find you there.

 

 

SCHOOLED LIVES: TERROR AND FEAR

GROWING UP, I ATTENDED A SMALL RURAL SCHOOL in Marion, Montana. In 2010, the town’s total population reached 886, a number assumedly greater than it had been in the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was a dreamily imaginative elementary student.

My family had moved from upstate New York—I started as a second grader. The school building took its aesthetic from the past: white clapboard siding of a symmetrical rectangular shape topped with a bell tower. The only outstanding element was the interior where book-filled shelves surrounded the small classrooms like moats. As a new student, I was comforted by the smell of dust and paper and old wood. Mr. Holmquist, my first male teacher, stood at the chalkboard like the Jolly Green Giant, though his color softened beneath red hair, freckles, and polyester pants of baby blue. His stature frightened me. At nearly seven years old, everything about me was small and tentative. Too afraid to ask him if I could use the bathroom, I peed my pants at my desk, sitting in a listless curve while subsequent laughter and jeering from classmates found its way to my ego.

The Wild West conjured images of cowboys with bandanas. Forget cowboy hats. A bandana tied around the neck was a detail of protection, a shield, the thin cotton utilized as sunscreen and probably little else. In my seven-year old girl mind, I thought it was a statement, the marking of a male ego not afraid of vulnerability. A bandana was equivalent to a pair of earrings, a decorous item to fancy up the complete image, and because of this outward display of unabashed femininity, I looked up to cowboys.

The books on the shelves were old, most likely hand-me-downs from other schools or libraries in the county or state. Like many small towns, information was outdated. Without knowing it, I lived in a sphere of removal but the books provided me with a world of intrigue and expansion. By third grade, I had become friends with categories of books bearing titles such as Flutterby and Hucklebug, the illustrations a spark to my imaginative mind and belief in mythical existences. Immersed in the beauty of nature, I grew into the idea of wild security, a sense of safety within the landscape of unlimited threat.

I didn’t know terror. The recent school shooting in Florida, leaving seventeen dead and countless lives shattered, has impaled me with yet another white-knuckled grip on the handle of grief. As our country mourns the vulnerable, I can’t help but notice the stages of trauma played out on media platforms. There is anger. There is blame. The hurt we feel is expressed in outbursts of rage and confusion, a normal response to existing in a state of unending pain. We don’t feel safe.

I can’t help but wonder how this same landscape played in the mind of the shooter. Ordinary people don’t kill other people. To say this person is unlike us is to acknowledge his vulnerability in a world of unlimited threat. I don’t want to continue this concept any further, I only want to place reality onto a situation of mythical proportion.

I won’t pretend to have grown-up solutions, but to offer my thoughts on the root details. The pattern of violence is also a pattern of fear, an emotion I know and understand to fall within the normal experience of humanity. I hope we can agree that security is, in its absolute reality, a thin veil, conceptually beautiful but elusive in performance. Shields are fallible. Our world, our landscape, is a struggle for survival, and we are a part of the greater wild, our children the most vulnerable of all. The shooter, too, was once a child. Somewhere in that time span he probably learned isolation. At home or at school, children fall into tactics that offer security from the stature the world has over them. It only makes sense that our obligation is to collectively care for all children, because every child deserves to believe in something beautiful.

My imaginative self sees a safe harbor for children in the unity of spirit. I am willing to set aside my anger and grief in the hope of connecting through courage. I am no longer afraid of vulnerability, but afraid of its absence. There are no walls in this world, only a belief that together we can replicate a sense of wild security. We must open the books that expand our worldview, take in the beauty, embrace the difference. In deliberate smallness, we can grow ourselves to believe beyond fear.

Mother is Scared, But…

This summer I felt my first earthquake while sleeping in a teepee. A loud boom erupted in the distance. My first thought was that train cars were connecting on the railroad on the other side of the Jefferson River where I was camping, but it didn’t make sense that railcars were active in the middle of the night. The mountainous landscape was dry and sparse, a synchronous description of the activity along the wide river’s valley.

The earth rocked beneath me—really deep beneath me. Later, I would learn it was a 5.8. Zipped inside a puffy sleeping bag, I shook like a cocoon in a breeze. I sat up and said, “Earthquake”. It was more of a statement than a warning. My two daughters, and Charlotte, our French exchange student for a month, formed three-fourths of a ring on the ground and I wanted them to know the cause of the rattling. For them, I wanted to pretend that I wasn’t afraid.

I was, of course, very afraid.

I waited for them to respond. Aileen, my oldest daughter, twisted her head to look at me.

“Did you feel that?” I said, probably a little too emphatically. My heart was racing. The other girls hadn’t moved.

Aileen nodded, sleepy-eyed. I waited for her to react appropriately, to tuck her head beneath her arms or something like that, to show that she was just as scared as me.

“I have to pee,” she said.

I groaned inside. Then came the dreaded question.

“Will you go with me?” she said.

I wasn’t excited to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night with my sixteen year old, but I did it anyway, because I knew she was afraid. A mother intuits her child.

Teepee
Teepee, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, MT

My sleeping bag completed the fourth part of the ring. I had taken the girls to Lewis and Clark State Park for a night under the stars. The next day we would tour the caves that snake through the depths of limestone rock like secret passageways to a hidden world. It was supposed to be an adventure, and with a bright waxing moon in the sky it would become a night-day mix-up, a transversal of daylight’s stretch stopped within the gaping mouth of limestone that continued to a nighttime world.

I walked with my daughter to the outhouse. Rain began to fall in quiet, little drops on my shoulders. After we climbed back into our sleeping bags, two aftershocks waved through before I was able to fall asleep. Meanwhile, the rain pinged the canvas walls with a softness that only happens in summer. Lightning flashed overhead.

It wasn’t perfect. I was afraid of entering the caves the following day. Despite knowing I had no reason to worry about a teepee catastrophe, I imagined being deep in the caves during another earthquake. The worst part was that I imagined bringing the girls to their doom.

After an unrestful sleep, I had to make a plan in the morning. Do I go? Do I not go? Do I let them go without me? Certainly, they were old enough.

But what if they were inside the caves without me and an earthquake struck?

While waiting for hot water to boil on a propane burner, I chose the ultimate job required of parents–—I sacrificed. A hiss formed the background noise while I consciously solidified my life’s prerogative: I was willing to die for my children.

Like the fourth arc in the ring of life, having a clear initiative transcended the fear. I felt complete. I wonder now, how many times have I initiated out of fear rather than love? How often have I disappointed rather than embraced? Is it really that hard to sacrifice?

That morning, with the hot morning sun burning our skin through our shirts, I walked into the dark mouth of the cave with my daughters. It was day. It was night. I walked into the cave with my daughters because it was the right thing to do.

After Mother’s Day

Sunday was Mother’s Day. I had an appropriate celebration: breakfast in bed (Nutella crêpes, coffee, a banana, a glass of freshly-cut lilacs), gifts, cards, and dinner with the family at a nice restaurant. We ended the day by sporting goofy faces, of course, for a family selfie.

Some days, it is hard to believe I am a mother. Our daughters are teenagers now, more independent than I  was at that age. Sometimes, I feel as if they could live just fine without me, but that isn’t true. They need me for large notions: moodiness and friendship struggles, college plans, identity approval, and character building. (I don’t tolerate diminishment. This is the singular area where I am quick to scold.)

My mother and I shared texts on Mother’s Day, wishing each other a happy day, telling each other I love you. It was an appropriate interaction. Except my mother sent it as a group text. On a text that I wanted for myself, she included my sisters, one of whom is not a mother. My older sister doesn’t know the challenges of motherhood, nor the reason it was inappropriate years ago to set her large purse on top of my daughter who, at three months old, slept in the car seat while we ate lunch. How do you explain worth to someone so ignorant?

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My older sister replied to my mother with gushy flowers and hearts. It reminded me why I am uncomfortable around my birth family—they are, in my opinion, still children, perhaps the same emotional age as my daughters, but probably not quite. With family, as a mother and a daughter, I am eternally stuck in the middle. One family is age-appropriate, the other is not. Navigating the polarity of emotional terrain comes either with a reward or a struggle. Flowers and hearts from children has a different meaning than flowers and hearts from adults.

I know now that mature love makes the difference. Timeliness makes a difference. As a teenager, I wanted my mother to tell me I was smart, worthy, special. I wanted her to love me as much as she loved my sisters. Instead, I felt ignored, insignificant, betrayed. She simply wasn’t emotionally situated to give me the love I needed.

But she tried.

Now, I can articulate my needs. My mother is trying to meet them, really trying. I hope when my daughters are adults that I will continue to try to meet their needs. Being heard, feeling heard, is how a woman feels loved. It is so much larger than hearts and flowers.

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Do you agree? How do you feel loved?