I do have a biological family. Lots of relatives, actually, but according to my mother you are either on her side or mine. You cannot be in contact with me and still be allowed into the matriarchal fold. Lines were drawn quite clearly two decades ago, and if anything, the fence she has erected has grown rusty and the gate unusable over time. My family of origin has held fast to the myth of the perfect family on a Neiman’s Christmas card, despite all evidence to the contrary. I jar that picture with my tales of blood and bone. My stories of childhood sexual and physical abuse, drug addiction and disordered eating were shameful. Keep quiet, don’t speak of such things, I was told. Keep quiet. It was your own fault. And so it went on for years. The truth of my story never got told. I was used as the contrast to overlay the rest of the leaves of the family tree upon. I was the scarlet Jezebel cast out from the fold. I was shamed for my hyper sexuality, my drug abuse, and my disordered eating, but their origins were left unquestioned. The family’s social standing was far more important than the damage done to their daughter.
My own children ask for stories about when I was little with trepidation. They often pull the covers over their head and climb into my arms as they ask. The stories of my childhood are scary stories; stories that a small child might not imagine in her darkest nightmares, and yet they were stories of my every day realities. Why didn’t your mommy love you, they ask as they curl into my arms and cling like limpets. Does every child that is born feel that their parents love them unconditionally until they are proven wrong? Did I? It’s been so long I don’t remember how it began. I only remember how it ended. My childhood was a dark Grimm’s fairy tale; the object lesson of what happened to little girls that didn’t behave.
Several of my blood relatives have decided my mother’s ruling against contact with me is capricious. They have embraced my life, my children and my career. I know they have been clear about not choosing sides and I honor each of them for that brave path. My mother is a scary woman. I would not want to cross her needlessly. I was shamed into silence for a long time. I was trying to raise my children as a single parent and had to run a business on my own. I could not risk my financial security in the face of her wrath. I had done that once and it had come with a hefty price tag. Like so many before me I had survivors remorse. If your own mother doesn’t love you there must be something wrong, I reasoned, and spent twenty years in therapy trying to figure out why I was unlovable. ‘She’s not well,’ my mother stage whispered to anyone who would listen. ‘She does drugs,’ she would chorus, completing the scene by sighing and wringing her hands like a worn out libretto from an ancient opera. When I first opened Hobos she wrote a long rambling review comparing me to Lady Mac Beth and misquoting Shakespeare. The victor writes history, the loser has no control over what tales are told.
Be quiet was the message, loud and clear.
I published a story about Grandmother the other day. It was a reprint of one originally written for Delmarva Almanac on Delaware Public Radio a year after her death. It told the tale of my childhood from the other side of the country, a place where I was safe, if even just for the summers. I loved my Grandmother and knowing that I was her favorite was probably the only thing that kept me going most of my childhood. I didn’t care about what my mother said, because the only person that really mattered loved me the most. She would whisper it in my ear. I was my Grandmother’s favorite. I knew that and locked it away in my heart as my special secret. I was her favorite child. I repeated that endlessly in my head to drown out the other sounds.
My cousin posted, “what sad beautiful days you tell of.” I doubt she was quoting Theodore Dreiser or Bob Dylan. Possibly referencing the poem ‘Halcyon Sun’ by Patti Masterman-Heterodynemind,
Sad beautiful days
Embrace me, from some stranger land
Than told to truth, beneath a sniper’s moon.
A hidden truth about the long decline of Parkinson’s, and the battleground which ensued over my Grandmother’s deathbed. My own mother was her eldest child and the keeper of the keys. When Grandmother could no longer give voice to her own wishes, I was disallowed from visiting further and sent to my stranger land. Uninvited from the funeral, and told that the wedding ring my grandmother slipped on my finger the last time I saw her would be considered theft if I didn’t return it to the estate. ‘Fuck you,’ I snarled, and curled over my precious. I didn’t care about the ring, it was just an artifact. I was grieving and hurt. I wanted to blame her for my Grandmother leaving me, I wanted to hate her for what she had done to me, but all I felt was sad. The one person who had loved me most was gone. I was all alone in my sad beautiful days.
Be quiet, little me whispered.
In the last eight months, with the perfection of hindsight only reached through embracing forgiveness, I have realized how profoundly sad my childhood and early adulthood might seem to outsiders. But with that forgiveness has also come empathy for the aging mother and father that are too entrenched in their ‘right’ positions to realize that they have missed the sad and beautiful days that make up a life; my life, my children’s lives. Twenty years later I have finally begun to weave my truth into words; loud and strong and fierce and with the lessening of anger that only comes from forgiveness, not time. I speak of my childhood solely in an attempt to find my voice, not to sensationalize it. I have stopped caring what ‘they’ can ‘do’ to me anymore. I am sad that they have warped a carpet of lies woven around my weft. I am sad for them they are still embracing a lie rather than a life.
Those days were sad, yes, but weren’t they so beautiful too? Doesn’t each story that we survive to tell bring us to exactly where we are supposed to be? My experiences as a child led me to be the mom that I am to my girls; to make a composite of a negative. My experience as a child led me to parent myself and reinvent my vision of a life well lived. It didn’t come from a Neiman Marcus Christmas card. It came as my experience as an adult survivor of child abuse has allowed me to firmly and clearly speak my truth. A truth that is not based on matching sweater sets hiding bruises and damaged hearts, but rather long summer days spent in a tangle of forts and blankets, bicycles and baking cakes, sunburned noses and catching lightening bugs. A truth that is not created from a posed photo, but a collage of long winter nights with snuggling, hot chocolate, singing carols loudly off key, and trips of wonder to winter lands of snow; a truth about reinventing my own childhood through the eyes of my children. A truth about being the mom I always wanted for all of us.
You don’t have to be quiet anymore.
Shout loudly, little one, I tell my children. Let the whole world hear your voice. Let the whole world feel your power. Let the whole world know who you are. Shout loudly, LOUDER and LOUDER STILL, the whole world needs to hear your joy. Shout loudly little one, I will love you through your life and beyond mine, with a mother’s love so strong it transcends time. A love so strong that it will protect you from evil and darkness and things that go bump in the night. A love so strong that my tears are now those of joy.
I merely followed a different path with different types of breadcrumbs. I am now the storyteller who can tell the tale of a late bloomer who found her way through the forest and finally blossomed in saturated Technicolor brilliance within my safe garden walls. I did blossom boldly and fiercely at the end of those sad days, and I wouldn’t have traded that dark path for all of the fairy tale happy endings ever written.
Oh what beautiful days are these …and we are still just at the beginning of the story.