All my life I’ve been startled or shocked or violently shaken into realizing I’m not whom I’ve been telling a story about. Starting with the tale itself…
I was born into a happy family in America The Beautiful, loved and nurtured by all around me, bound for my own happy future as a successful complaisant wife and mother. Soon, another child entered the picture and we loved each other. She looked up to me. As I grew I found the need to keep this rosy picture in sight, as pieces of it needed editing along the way.
I noticed my parents react differently to each of us: impatient with my loud expressions of any emotion that dawned on me; more comfortable with the quiet (read obedient) one. “Think before you speak” became a repeated wish from my often embarrassed mother.
As I chose my own path forward I was cautioned by my 1950s parents to stay in the “safe zone” of good manners and conformity. I did understand that these same parents had seen the ravages of both the Great Depression and World War II, who were now middle aged adults living under the threats of the Cold War. So I excused them and kept going.
My story still celebrated my happy place in The Great American Family.
BAM!In a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone, my father left us. The Emperor was losing some of his clothes.
My mother made me proud. She got a job, looked to me like she could survive anything, and kept her head up amidst all the roiling gossip. I thought there was nothing she could not do. My sister withdrew further into a quiet background.
Things settled into a routine as I edited and patched my story.
I succeeded in school. Anything I set my mind to and worked hard for came to pass. Good grades were easy because I loved to learn. Parts in school plays, a place on the cheerleading squad, earning the Honor Society, were all within my grasp because I was determined. I felt some resentment from my sister, but just thought that was natural.
PINCH! Off to college, remembering that my father had questioned my need for it. I don’t know where that came from, but it sure didn’t stop me. At this point, the emperor had moved a different family into the sweet spot anyway.
Got married at 19 and was back in the safe zone. Finished college as a married student, had two adorable children in the very changed world of the 1960s. Began to feel a bit like an orphan. I was definitely outside the Emperor’s realm, and my sister’s little family, still in the same small town I had fled, was now the center of my mother’s world.
Not bereft, I began to feel my strengths. But the story in my head kept writing over any slights, while I still thought all was good.
LITTLE ELECTRIC SHOCKS! When I told each of my parents I was getting divorced, my mother asked me what I had done. My father asked me if I was having an affair! I absorbed the insults and just went on.
NUCLEAR BAM! My first son Jeff drowned on a camping trip at age 20. Surrounded by friends, family, and my destroyed ex-husband, I still went forward. My second son Drew, at 18, was the source of my strength. There were many days when he was the adult in the house. It was because of him, I began to see myself as whole.
Editing my “story,” I redefined myself. Neither of my parents attended Jeff’s funeral, and my sister and her daughters went there and sat by themselves. That strange day did leave a permanent rent in my imagined family fabric. Still, I excused them all.
In the subsequent 30 years I’ve had a mostly successful career in university public relations in three different states, owned and run a bed and breakfast, written a novel, and have a cottage baking business at farmers markets. I have friends still in each place I’ve lived; Drew lives and thrives with his own business an hour away from me. We are truly good friends.
During that time, I recaptured a wonderful relationship with my father and gave him some of his clothes back. That appears to have damaged my relationship with my mother. Unknowingly, I was also cementing a black spot reserved for me in my sister’s heart.
CONFIRMING BLAST! The morning after our father died, my sister exploded. Standing together in his house, she screamed every lifelong real or imagined slight back at me. I had no defense because, even with more and more evidence that I had no part messing in her life, I had continued to hope we could be OK. This would take more than editing, I realized.
That was the last time I saw her. Evidence of her manipulations behind the scenes with my father still didn’t prepare me for what came a couple of years later. My mother was dying. I was forbidden hospital information. My niece hung up on me beside the hospital bed; I had been written out of my mother’s will; and every penny and piece of property was scooped away thanks to misused legalities she had learned when taking care of my father.
QUIET REALIZATION. I am happier than I’ve ever been, sure now that I really know myself. I am thankful every day for the pleasures I find just looking out my window. I am satisfied just standing amidst trees at a river’s edge. I ignore naked emperors completely and listen to birds. I’ve learned to concentrate on the very simplest pleasures like baking breads and things that make people happy and comfortable.
NO MORE EDITING! I no longer reach back to rewrite myself and I regret nothing. I have only today and the maybe-perhaps tomorrows, so I refuse to waste any more time in the past. Story exposed as unreliable fiction, interesting but irrelevant.
TO BE HAPPILY CONTINUED!
I wrote this first in mid-November, but decided to tuck it away because it was too personal. Reading it again today, I realize the important lesson it tells deserves some light. Facing whatever comes leads to really knowing ourselves and our strengths. In re-reading this, I noticed that I have only used two names. My sons, Jeff and Drew, are what make me thankful to be on this earth. Everyone else in this essay is on the sidelines, wishing they could be me.