In my quest to see what other essayists are writing, I peruse various internet sites. They sometimes offer tips for newish writers. And there I found this, on a blog by Jeff Goins (http://goinswriter.com/):
Great heroes sacrifice themselves, right? So do just that. Avoid the parts that make you sound amazing. Instead, focus on the broken, ugly parts of your story.
Not exactly new advice, and an odd direction to pursue on might think, but it reaffirmed what I read in other places. That, along with the usual directives to write every day and write what you know. In another essay, I talked about how our stories unite us. But I think that in some ways our stories can also divide us, set us apart, make us feel alienated and unique in ways we don’t desire. Especially if you feel your story is decidedly different than those you see being lived and enacted around you. I avoided the ugly and broken parts of my story, at least for public consumption, because I didn’t want to make it look like I was wallowing in self pity or trying to capitalize on it. Over the past year or so, I’ve read more and more tips by other writers and this theme keeps appearing: be authentic, write about the scars, and the defeats, and the hurts and the failures. It is liberating say the writing mentors, and freeing and cathartic. And though I did write about a few things, like my aunt’s schizophrenia, there is more. There is always more. Even if you are retelling the same story. you can always tell it in a new way. There are always more layers, more strata, and more nuances. You can always hold it up to new light and peer into the cracks. There is always more in the compost heap of memory to be turned, and unattractive elements to highlight.
As a child, and a young adult, I envied those other kids, or friends, who seemed to have “ideal families.” Now that is probably an oxymoron. I realize that now. There is no real ideal family, even though some come close, except in books, fairy tales and some sitcoms, like “The Donna Reed Show,” and “Leave it to Beaver.” Some children are lucky to have pretty nice environments; but even in their lives, there is sibling rivalry, and parental friction, and even divorce. And perhaps alcoholism or sexual abuse. Then, as I grew older, I began to see cracks in those very families I envied and I realized they weren’t so ideal after all. Today, the more enlightened observers of life realize families are often more like “Modern Family.”
I was an only child and my parents were almost 40 when I was born. So, in some ways, it was like being raised by one’s grandparents. My mother was an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. To say she was psychologically complex and hard to get close to would be an understatement. She had periodic bouts of what I would now identify as depression (never officially diagnosed), with a somatic overlay that had her taking to her bed for long periods of time over the span of all the years I knew her. And in occasional intervals she seemed fairly normal, though quite strict, over-zealously religious and dogmatically rigid with her discipline.
She would retreat for periods of weeks, sometimes months, to her bed in a whimpering, sniveling, “poor me” mode, sleeping off and on — more on than off. She moaned about the pain she was in, so debilitating she couldn’t find words to describe it, nor could any other human possible understand. Her pain was always of some vague nature that no doctor could pinpoint, that defied a specific diagnosis, and that no drug could treat, that no test could measure. And if a doctor did prescribe a drug, she would take one pill, declare that she was having a horrible reaction or side effect and then she would not take another one.
This was back in the 1950s and 1960s when psychiatric counseling was not yet in vogue and anti depressants hadn’t yet become “mainstream.” And even if such help were available or anti-depressants readily at hand, I know now that she would have spurned such opportunities as morally wrong. Somehow she had it in her head that the Catholic Church disapproved of psychiatry as the work of the devil, that it was unholy and sinful. Perhaps that was because of the Freudian emphasis, back then, on tending to place blame on one’s parents and family as the root of all one’s sorry lot in life. And if you blamed your parents because you were dealt a bad hand, or because your life didn’t turn out well, then you were committing a sin against the commandment that tells us to “honor thy father and thy mother.” And therefore you couldn’t possibly upbraid your parents, or grandparents without toppling the rightful order God had ordained. If you were dealt a hard blow, a difficult set of circumstances, you were to suffer it stoically (as Jesus suffered), pray, and offer the whole thing up to the Lord. The notion of taking personal responsibility, regardless of the genesis of your bad karma, for pushing onward with life was a foreign concept. I didn’t learn of that odd notion until well into adulthood.
It was particularly difficult for me when I was ages seven and eight or thereabouts. There were things I couldn’t do for myself, like launder my own clothes, or iron clothes, or fix my own hair in the mornings before school. In those days, my hair was parted from ear to ear across the crown of my head, and the front part divided into two parts which were braided, and the braids were then criss-crossed over my head and fastened on top with bobby pins, like pictures you may have seen of little Dutch girls. The rest of my hair in the back was brushed or combed and hung down to about my shoulders. The front part had to be dis-assembled, combed and rebraided every morning and re-pinned. I depended on my mother for that. When she was in one of her “sick” periods, she was too sick and too weak to sit up long enough to braid my hair and I often went to school with the braids askew, hair poking out of the day old braids (or sometimes longer than a day old) at odd angles and the bobby pins sticking out or falling out. Even at an early age, I took reasonable pride in being neat and tidy in my appearance, so this was devastating and I felt like everyone was looking at me and was very self-conscious. My father was no help at all. He was truly helpless in taking care of me and himself. And, besides, by the time I was getting ready for school between seven and eight, he had already left with his carpool to go to work. So I was on my own pretty much. And during these periods my clothes would be rumpled and I would be wearing some clothes I’d already worn several days before, that were a mess from playing on the monkey bars, or falling on the playground, or the usual scuffling and rough-housing that goes with childhood.
While I was in school I worried about my mother. Would she be alright alone? She was too proud or stubborn to ask a neighbor for help. And she reveled in (I realize now) the drama of being ill. If she could have been helped, the dramatic effect of being ill and aggrieved, and the power that emanated from it, would lose its impact. And at the same time as I worried, I would dread going home, because the atmosphere there was so bleak and oppressive I could hardly stand it. Upon arriving home, after being dropped off by one of the neighbors in the carpool, I would go into the house, head for my mother’s bedroom and find her just as I had left her that morning, with the window shades still drawn down. She would be huddled under blankets, not moving, a mountainous lump of suffering and self pity. I would watch just long enough to make sure she was still breathing, and then walk into my own room, or the living room or the kitchen.
My mother would not arise to even attempt fixing dinner and she didn’t seem to much care that this was a dilemma for me and my father. I wonder now why I never had any anger or disdain for my father for not taking matters in hand, for not telling her to get a grip and get on with life, but he was passive and helpless as were many men of his generation. Gender roles were very fixed and rigid then, and most men didn’t cook or do laundry or care for children — those were women’s tasks. And no one, at that time, thought this was strange. So, in the evening, I would make dinner for me and my father as best as I could. I had watched my mother cook; she was a good cook when she was in one of her normal periods. I had a reasonable comfort level in the kitchen for one so young. So I could dish out cereal, or open and heat a can of soup, and by the time I was nine, I could make both fried and scrambled eggs. I could open cans and heat a can of Franco American spaghetti, make sandwiches out of luncheon meat, and heat leftovers. I could open cans of fruit, like Dole pineapple and canned peaches. And by the age of nine, I could whip up pudding made from a boxed mix, adding milk and stirring constantly until it was the right consistency. In the early years, I had to stand on a chair to use the stove, but I managed. Our stove back then wasn’t one that lit automatically with the turning of a knob, and I had to light a match to bring the burner to life. [I had a flash of identity and commiseration with Jeannette Walls as she described, in the early pages of The Glass Castle, how she used the stove to cook hot dogs at the age of three, and caught her dress on fire and was badly burned as a result. She too had a dysfunctional family and a mother who often left her children to fend for themselves. Luckily, I never had any such horrendous mishap.]
I would call my father when the food was ready, as he was almost always in the living room reading a book, or in the garage tinkering with this or that (I didn’t understand man caves back then, but that’s what it was — his man cave). He would come in and I would dole out the food into bowls or onto plates and we would eat, mostly in silence. I would go into my mother’s room and ask if I could bring her anything. The usual answer was a whining, simpering “no.” Sometimes I would take in a tray of food anyway, or a cup of warm milk, but often I would find it in the morning, cold and untouched.
After the bleak dinner, I would either put the dishes in the sink or wash them as best as I could, and then I would do my homework. My dad would read or work in the garage and go to bed early, and I would do likewise. Maybe I would watch TV, but in those early years, we hadn’t yet been blessed with a television. I was an early reader, so always had books to read myself and I was glad for these companions, many of which became my best friends. When I went to bed, I would pray that my mother would be better and I would ask God for “the grace” for us to be a normal family. But days and months stretched into years and those prayers weren’t answered.
After several days or weeks, we would start to run out of food. My father was not good at grocery shopping — again, this was women’s work and anathema to him. So I would take a scrap of paper and a pencil, go to my mother’s bedside, and she would dictate what I should buy. I would bring her purse to the bedside and she would give me several bills, an amount she reckoned would be enough to cover everything, with instructions to bring back the receipt and the change. Even from her sick bed, she controlled the finances. As she recited the items, I would write: milk, bread, lemons, canned soup, canned fruit, cereal, hamburger (I soon learned how to make hamburger patties and fry bacon), eggs, lunch meat, sliced cheese, cottage cheese, butter, and so on. Luckily I was a good speller early on.
My father would drive us to the market and I would direct him down the aisles, as I knew the layouts and location of common foods by now, and select the appropriate items. Occasionally I would have some coupons, clipped from the local newspaper, weekly specials from the Food section. I knew which brands my mother favored — always Best Foods mayonnaise, Dole or Libby’s canned fruit, Campbell’s soups, Post Sugar Crisp cereal (with a prize in the box if I could manage it), Weber’s bread in the blue checked wrapper, Royal pudding mixes (not Jell-O, which my mother thought inferior), Niblett whole kernel canned corn (making sure not to get the creamed kind), ground sirloin (not ground round or ground chuck — too much fat), Oscar Mayer bacon. If we bought potatoes, I knew the difference between white rose and russets, and knew to buy the white rose or red potatoes, since we rarely made baked potatoes in those days. For boiling, the white or red kinds were best, because they wouldn’t get mushy and fall apart in the water. I would open the cartons of eggs and carefully check to make sure that none were cracked. Even at eight or nine I was well trained and a meticulous shopper, checking cans carefully for bulges, running my hands expertly around their rims and putting them back if they were dented or dinged.
I think back now on this odd childhood, a mixture of pleasant and painful memories, and wonder at it. I know now that it was not typical in many ways, yet I managed. Many of the skills I learned too early would serve me well as an adult. They fostered independence and made me resilient in many ways. And the painful parts, well there is that old adage about that which doesn’t kill us making us stronger. I think I took away both strength and tremendous vulnerability from my early experiences. I grew up with an odd mixture of compassion for the poor and the needy, and at the same time wanted to distance myself from their plight. When I read Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle, I felt like I was reading my own story in many ways. Her independence too was honed with amazing experiences at a young age. And she too was reluctant to tell it too soon.
What an odd potpourri of experiences we humans endure, participate in, what odd elixirs we drink at the fountain of childhood. And we secret them away, badges of honor and shame, trophies of toughness and evidence of amazing tensile strength. Only much later do we realize what a blessing and a curse are the diverse particulars and ingredients that contribute to the honing of a singular human soul.