Re-write your story

This woman walks the talk and I am lucky to have her as a writing coach. She keeps me on track, keeps it real and pushes me forward with a gentle firmness.

“On the verge of self-imploding after a one-two punch of breast cancer and blindness, Ingrid Ricks, NYT bestselling author and mother of two, realized she had a choice: let fear and self-loathing swallow her whole, or give her inner demons the boot and rewrite the soul-destroying stories she was telling herself.”

Tuesday, June 15th, 8:00-9:00 PST AM, she will be sharing how she transformed her life and changed the stories she was telling herself. You will learn steps she uses to keep the negative voices at bay. It’s free and sure to be enlightening.

Register here: Rewriting The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Mental Health Awareness

The last day of May marks the end of National Mental Health Awareness month. May awareness not stop here.

I did happen upon an enlightening show and podcast this month.

In the series, The Me You Can’t See, Oprah Winfrey brings stories to the screen that attempt to bring truth, understanding and compassion to those suffering. The things we don’t see or understand scare us. It’s in story that we can heal, listen and find compassion.

As I watched, it brought to mind my most unfavorite word, crazy. It’s limiting. It does not take into account what may have happened to someone. Calling someone crazy is dismissive, only adding to the stigma of mental illness. It is used as a defensive mechanism to shut someone up. Instead of calling someone crazy or saying what is wrong with you, ask what happened. Then listen.

*In Brene Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, she speaks with writer Ashley C. Ford about her new memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, and how it is written for everyone who walks into a bookstore and feels like they can’t find a book about themselves and there are a lot of us looking for that. They talk about the writing process, the truth-telling process, and how connecting the two can be liberating not only to us, but also to others. It is not just a story about her life, it is a story about life and what connects us to show us that we are not alone–and that we are braver than we know.
Ashley makes the point that there are not heroes and no villains in her story. I aim to make that apparent in my memoir. We are all flawed, most of us have had something happen to us and we all deserve grace.

*Thanks Lola for the recommendation

Thanks for reading. See you in June.

I don’t wear jewelry anymore

I don’t wear jewelry anymore

Did I beg mama to give me the cluster of pearls ring that was my grandmother’s
Or did she just give it to me willy nilly and send me on my way
all I remember is I was around nine. 
Memory is sometimes vague, often it only comes with a certain feeling. 
I remember being in the back yard searching for it, just me. 
Did she know I lost it, I don’t know but I hate that I don’t still have it.

My high school/college boyfriend, yes he was the love of my life really in truly, brought me a necklace of an etched whale’s tooth from his family trip to Hawaii. I still have the Bulova watch he gifted me. Wish I still had him, ha. He is dead though, he died from ALS. His wife invited me to come visit several times before he died. It was precious. 

Mama wouldn’t let me pierce my ears. I took care of that with an ice cube and a sewing needle. I don’t think I got in trouble. She usually didn’t have the energy to punish or guide me. My pierced ears created a tradition, my daughter would always get me a new pair of earrings for my birthday. I kept some of those earrings even though I don’t wear them anymore. 

A few years ago, my ears began to turn red every time I put an earring in. They would itch and burn. The best solution was to no longer wear them. I gave away most of my earrings, kept the ones that hold a special memory in my heart. 

In 9th grade, Mama took me and my older sister, on a ten day tour to Europe. In ten days we went to London, Stratford on Avon, Paris, Lucerne, Rome, (day trip to Assisi), Florence and Venice. My memories are fairly vivid from this trip. We were blessed by the Pope at the Vatican. In Lucerne, Mama announced we could get a special piece of jewelry to commemorate our trip. My sister chose a watch. I chose a sapphire diamond ring. Eventually I passed it down to my daughter. I hope she still has it.

The one last piece of jewelry I possessed from my grandmother, a stunning, unusual turquoise and diamond ring was stolen a few years ago. Traveling through Portland. I went out to my car after a night’s stay at a boutique hotel in the northeast neighborhood. Not only was one window busted out, but two. I had the ring in the car because I was taking it to be repaired. It is gone. I searched craiglist ads, placed an ad. I still think some weird miracle could happen, shopping in Portland and spotting it. Who knows, none of us know. 

There are no excuses

I am writing my story as I remember it and what is true for me.
While I share my struggles and grief, I acknowledge and do not want to discount that my daughter had an experience of me that has caused her to cut me out of her life. I was a practicing alcoholic during my daughter’s crucial adolescent and teenage years. My marriage at the time was full of lies and betrayals. I was angry. She was witness to my drunkenness, my anger, be it shouting, leaving the house abruptly or feeling the tension of my silence. This was traumatic for her. If I could heal her trauma I would.

I can not undo what I did. There are no excuses. There are explanations.

For My Mamas

I used to wonder if I was adopted, but my siblings love to tell the story of the day I was brought home from St. Dominic’s hospital in Jackson, MS. It was summer, 1959. They asked if I could be taken back or maybe they could sell me. Who was this creature coming into the fold of a family that functioned just fine without me? I was the runt of the family, the fourth child. There were three miscarried children between me and my closest sibling. My sister was seven years old when I was born, my brother eleven, my eldest sister was thirteen. 

My siblings tell the story of how they would put me in the center of the bed, surround me and shout “I hate you; I hate you” until I cried. They thought I was cute when I cried. They would laugh and giggle as they recounted this event. My oldest sister also shared how she was in charge of me at times. She and her friends would treat like their baby doll. Probably with love at times, probably left in the crib sometimes forgotten, as baby dolls often are. 

My mama was an older mom, 37 when she had me. That was an embarrassment for my siblings to have this mom walking around pregnant when she should have been done making babies. Mama must have had some inkling of the dynamic being created by having me at an older age and with such an age span between me and the others. She would tell me, “I tried to have a friend for you.” She had two miscarriages after me. The miscarriages seemed the casualties of my mother’s lifestyle. She drank, smoked, ate Southern cooking and didn’t exercise throughout her pregnancies. At birth, I was only five pounds, but I was the embryo that stuck in the middle of five miscarriages. 

I often felt left out when my family recounted stories of a legendary camping trip that happened before I was born. Mama, Daddy, my two older sisters and brother drove from Mississippi to Canada. We would watch the family movies while they would delight in the bond that was created during time. As my family made their way West, certainly litter was thrown from the car, no seat belts were worn while both of my parents chain smoked their way across the US. Those habits continued after I was born. The reminders of the unsullied family landscape I never was a part of. 

There was a light in my childhood, a very bright light, Woosie. Her given name was Elizabeth, which my toddler mouth couldn’t pronounce, hence Woosie stuck. She was our black maid. She took care of all the cooking, cleaning, caring for us children. When I came along, she was pretty much in charge of raising me. My older siblings did not receive the same individual care and love I got from Woosie since they were older, and she was not our maid during their younger years. Woosie was there from the beginning of my life. She’d come through the door in her spotless white uniform, a stark contrast with her beautiful dark brown skin, her round face with always smiling eyes. I felt comforted, safe from the chaos and dysfunction of our well to do, white Southern family. She’d put her things away in the laundry room next to her designated bathroom that no one in the family used, blacks and whites did not share bathrooms in private homes or public places. Our days together were ours. Once everyone left the house for work, or school or bridge club (mama didn’t work but she kept herself busy with social engagements and shopping), Woosie would swoop me up, hug me tight and look in my eyes to say, you are loved. Her honey scent permeated and freshened the cigarette smoke filled air mostly present from my parents’ chain-smoking habit. While Woosie cleaned the kitchen and prepared for our next meal, she’d plop me on the counter, serve me toast with honey and a tiny bit of coffee with lots of cream and sugar. I take my coffee with cream and sugar to this day. We’d talk and giggle. I was her shadow for the remainder of the day. Late mornings, she’d turn on As the World Turns, slip off her shoes, exposing her tri-colored feet, caramel on the top, white on the sides with shiny pink soles. She knew I loved them. They were prettier, more colorful than the white pale feet I was used to seeing around our house. I’d tickle her smooth tough soles until she had to get back to ironing our cotton sheets and pillowcases as we chatted and watched white people’s drama unfold as quickly as Woosie folded and creased our clothes into neat piles.

Woosie was the blessing in my life for the first six years of it. She raised me from infanthood. I was her baby, and she was my beautiful “mama”. Our bond was tighter than her relationship with my older siblings as they had school and friends to play with. I would ask if I could go home with Woosie. My mother would give a nervous smile and say no. One day Woosie did not come. It was sudden and her disappearance was not discussed. I don’t remember if anyone gave me a false reason such as she was sick or got another job. But it was not the truth. Not until I was an adult, did I learn from my siblings that Mama had fired Woosie, accused her of stealing. But Woosie wouldn’t have stolen anything. The truth is she probably spoke out of turn, gave her opinion on something when her role was to be quiet and take orders. My mama would have none of that, being the Southern white woman of the 50’s and 60’s where it was believed that whites were superior to blacks. I wish I knew more of the details of why she was let go. 

I have since found a 2nd grade class picture that shows my disheveled hair and sullen face that exposes the sadness and abandonment, I was feeling in Woosie’s absence. I was feeling the enormity of how alone I was in my family home without even the attention of having my hair combed. 

As a young adult I thought of Woosie often and wondered how she was. I asked my mama if she knew where she was, did she know how to contact her? I had since moved West from the South. On a particular visit back home, I wanted to have Woosie over, serve her lunch at our table. It took a bit of convincing for my mama to get her head wrapped around the idea, but she conceded. With some maturity, my mama could recognize the significance of Woosie in my life. I wanted my nine-year old daughter to meet the woman she heard me speak of so often. My daughter and I waited outside my parent’s home in Jackson, MS on a hot summer day for Woosie to arrive. Once she did, our eyes locked. I felt I had found the birth mother I had lost for years. As our gaze remained locked, she and I shared a knowing we had carried for years. She had protected me, loved me and nurtured me. She knew our family secrets; she knew I was neglected, and she saw my spirit. I saw hers too. The four of us, Woosie, my daughter, Mama and I sat at our kitchen table eating the sandwiches I had served while drinking a  Coca Cola. My father never came out of his room. 

Once I was back at home in the West, I received a thank you note from Woosie. “Dear Frances, your visit to Mississippi made my life worthwhile. I was so glad to see all of you. It made me feel young. I was so glad to see your little daughter. She looks just like you did when you were young. Call me when you are in Mississippi again. With lots of love, Elizabeth.”

I came back to Mississippi about once a year, usually my visits filled up quick with family and friend activities. I thought of Woosie each time, but time didn’t allow for me to get in touch with her. Finally, I made time. It took me ten years from the previous visit. I tracked her down. She was living with her daughter as her health was declining. She was delighted to hear from me. Woosie told me she had just been speaking to her daughter about all the white children she had cared for (she cared for a few). Her daughter had replied to that, those children probably never think of you. I called. Her daughter was gracious enough to have me over to visit with her mama. Woosie’s daughter took a photo of the two of us that still hangs on my wall. 

Woosie died in 2009 at age 97. I know this from looking her up and finding her obituary. I still think of her often, wish I knew more about her. If only I had contacted her more consistently, we could have had deeper conversations. 

If I could, I’d ask her a few questions; 
Woosie where were you raised, how many siblings do you have? 
Was that white uniform uncomfortable? 
Tell me about your parents, your childhood. Is it true you and my mama used to play together while your mama cleaned for my grandmother? 
Who took care of your daughter while you were taking care of me? 
Where did you learn to cook all that delicious food you cook for our family? Why isn’t my floating island dessert from Joy of Cooking as good as yours? 
How much did my parents pay you? How much was the bus fare to our house? Which church did you go to? 
What was it like to witness all that went on in our household? 
How did it feel when Mama accused you of stealing? 
Can I come over to your house sometime? 
Woosie, did you know I love you very much?

*Woosie pronounced woo-see


Worthless or just misunderstood

One of the gifts of isolation time during Covid has been time, time to write, time for online writing classes and time to read. Reading other memoir is a great teacher while writing my own memoir. The latest memoir I picked up, What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang is about mothers and daughters, family secrets and how we cannot grow up until we fully understand the people who raised us. I can’t put it down only stopping to re read and underline phrases.
Maya’s mother was a psychiatrist, her father had a temper and did not hold women in high regard.

“Against this backdrop, my mom’s stories provided a glimpse of an alternative universe where people aren’t worthless; they were simply misunderstood.”

This week, I was fortunate enough to have a small piece of writing published by Visible Magazine. A boost in the arm, knowing my writing is worthy of publishing. Maya’s quote worthless vs. being misunderstood struck a cord. I’d like to believe that if some understanding came to be, my family could heal. If grace ever presents itself for the opportunity to understand, I will surely welcome it. Meantime, I’ll accept what is and keep writing.

In honor of National Independent Bookstore Day

This is an excerpt from my memoir in honor of National Independent Bookstore day. Bits of it have been revised but for these purposes I like it. Thanks goes out to John, my previous boss, who has taken the time recently to speak with me about my days working at his bookstore. Lemuria bookstore continues to be a top independent bookstore in the United States in large part because of John’s dedication and hard work.

The Mousehole Cat

My daughter was five when her stepdad and I meet. After eight magical years in Missoula, MT, I had returned to my Southern hometown of Jackson, MS. Paul and I worked alongside each other at a local bustling bookstore. As a previous frequent customer, he had waited on me for years. Eleven years my elder with his salt and pepper hair, beard and blue eyes staring through wire rimmed glasses he looked the part of a wise, caring bookseller. Here we were sitting and working together at the open circular customer service desk, right in the middle of this beautiful bookstore. 

Lemuria bookstore had just moved to this new location a year before. It had grown out of the small space it previously housed. Now it was nationally known for its first editions collection as well as author events. The first editions had its own room, the children’s section, OZ, was like a little store of its own. Visiting authors would read to a packed crowd from their newest book then situate themselves in a booth tucked away up a couple steps. This allowed readers a moment to say a few words to the author while having their book signed, then walk through and down steps on the other side making for the perfect flow. 
It was an honor to meet writers such as Lorrie Moore, Kaye Gibbons, Jim Harrison, John Grisham, Tim O’Brien, Mark Childress and Tom Robbins. I would assist in the signing, sitting next to the authors in the booth, greeting their fans and getting the books opened to the correct page to sign. As the endearing Willie Morris signed and visited with readers of My Dog Skip, I dutifully kept his coffee cup filled with his favorite whiskey.

Behind our little world at the customer service desk, Paul proved to be nothing but helpful. Each morning for my first week of work, Paul would greet me, look at me as if looking into my soul saying, “Frances, let me know if you need any help finding a book, anything, I’m here to help.”

Since I was a single parent, my parents were helping quite a bit with my daughter. Part of the routine was for them to drop her off at the bookstore just before I would be leaving work. She would come behind the counter, proudly sit in my chair while I balanced the register at closing.  She and Paul struck up a friendship. It was so heart-warming to look over and see the two of them drawing or looking through a book. He was giving her undivided attention while encouraging art and reading. Paul would get downright silly with her at times. Over time, his kindness won me over. I asked him if he would like to spend time with us outside of the bookstore, so my daughter would have a male role model in her life. Her dad lived a thousand miles away. He jumped at the chance. He was married, but his wife traveled often for work. On days off, the three of us would find a local hike, visit the Mississippi petrified forest, hunt down the best shaved ice shop or the best local BBQ for dinner.

It was all innocent enough. I cannot remember the reason, maybe he had a book in his extensive book collection at home to show me. I went by his house. My daughter wasn’t with me. We were alone. As I was leaving through the kitchen door, he kissed me. I was baffled but before I knew it, we were sneaking off for private moments together whenever we could. He wrote me beautiful love notes, bought me tasteful romantic gifts. Including a fused glass heart brooch, which I still have. Other gifts were well thought out and much appreciated. When my coffee maker went on the blink, he showed up with a high-end coffee maker that could be set to make coffee as I was waking up. What more could a girl ask for?

Paul eventually divorced his wife and we moved in together. Our bookshelves were full, our decorating taste matched perfectly, and I had a family to cook for. 

The three of us, Paul, me and my daughter found much comfort in each other. Paul loved finding the perfect book to bring home and read aloud to my daughter. There was one children’s book we loved for the story and the illustrations, The Mousehole Cat. A beautiful black and white cat was the main character. The cover of the book was a sea captain with a full gray beard holding the cat. Paul resembled this sea captain with his kind eyes and full graying beard. We felt it was fate, when on the day before Christmas eve, a woman came in the bookstore and shared that she had a litter of kittens that were looking for homes. One was a black and white tuxedo kitty that looked just like our favorite character. Paul phoned me from the bookstore. We quickly made arrangements to have this kitty as a Christmas surprise on Christmas morning. It was magical. Nick the cat, who loved only us, was with us until the end of our marriage.

*Kaye Gibbons wrote one of my favorite books, Ellen Foster.
*Lorrie Moore came to the bookstore to promote, Like Life. She is a delight.
*Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip is also a movie, a tear jerker, highly recommend.

Enjoying the view, getting infused

The sun is shining. I have view of Mount Sentinel which sits east of Missoula just up from the University of Montana. A few years ago, I would have been able to see the “M” which is about 3/4 of the way up the mountain. Residents and visitors alike enjoy hiking the zigzag trail for exercise with the grand view of Missoula valley as the reward once you reach the “M”. However, growth is blocking that view today. Stockman’s Bank built a six story building in 2015 obscuring many views in Missoula. I don’t know what the height restrictions are in this city. I began to research and there is much to read, so I’ll continue that later. Missoula is growing and it saddens me. The rising cost of housing, increased traffic and the slick expensive boutiques that sell a a polished cosmopolitan look are taking away some of the Missoula magic that I discovered back in the eighties when I first moved here. But I still love it and it is where I feel most at home, always have.
Mount Sentinel jutes up and serves as a guard, one I have often looked to for grounding, helping me find my way, even as I run errands and need to know what direction I am going. On clear warm days, hang gliders, that look like fairies, fly off the mountain, floating through the air. It’s that kind of day and just spotted the first one of the day.
Some of the folks sitting in the same room as I are getting their chemo. I am here to get an iron transfusion. My ferritin levels continue to be low. That explains lack of energy. Some days I physically don’t feel like lifting a pen to paper or click at the keyboard. When you wake up after a ten, sometimes twelve hours sleep and your tired, something is off.
Why are my ferritin levels low? That is the unknown. My hematologist would like me to get a colonoscopy sooner than later to rule out the dreaded but she said it so it’s somewhere in the back of brain sometimes, colon cancer. Yea I don’t want to go there, but I will get it checked out. The gastro doctors are backed up so the appointment to consult with the gastro doc isn’t until the end of May, then schedule the colonoscopy.
For today, I’ll sit back and enjoy the view, feel the protection of Mount Sentinel and delight in the fairies flying off of it.

Order and Appearance

Order and Appearance

The mimosa tree was a place of refuge with it’s smooth bark short truck, not too high limbs that were perfect for climbing, sitting in and reading. 

The Seuss-like spiky, pink, white with a bit of yellow puffball blossoms shot up from fern like leaves and put out a faint sweet smell.

Girlfriends came over to climb with me, photos give evidence that we are related to monkeys.

It was the only tree in our large front yard that was mainly green St. Augustine grass with a couple of low growing red azalea bush flower beds. 

Our yard was neat and tidy. In fact, we were Yard of the Month once, and a sign was placed by the local garden club near the street for all to see. Certainly, John Henry, our sweet yard man should have been given this award, but that’s another story.

One day Daddy cut down my mimosa tree because the blossoms were messy. 

The Ethics of Silence

“The ethics of silence are just as tricky. Is it ethical to keep the stories hidden?  If I am to be silenced in the name of niceness, are we not also suppressing the whole truth? Half-truths linger silently, a monument to missed opportunities, a quietness of suppression.” Sandra Hager Eliason

I sit drinking coffee this morning feeling somewhat powerless. 

There is nothing I can do. 

My ex-husband who I haven’t seen in twenty years—except for about 30 minutes ten years ago—made a statement for a legal document that determines me being able or not able to see my grandchildren. He stated that I have borderline personality disorder. He is not a professional psychiatrist or counselor by a long shot. In fact, once when faced with looking at his part in our conflicts at a therapist office, he lashed out at me and told me it was my fault. In talking recently with an ex-boss that my ex-husband and I shared, he had similar issues with my ex not being able to take responsibility for his short comings or mistakes. Some of those mistakes cost the business quite a bit of money.

 My ex and I made the commitment to move in together when my daughter was five. That summer I drove her out West to be with her real dad. On my return home, my now ex-husband sat me down and told me he had an affair with his college sweetheart while I was gone. He begged for forgiveness and I granted it. 
There was another woman a few years later. My bad, I forgave him again. 
After ten years together and another discovered betrayal we eventually separated. Not divorced yet and still going to counseling together, he began secretly seeing his college sweetheart again. 

By this time, my alcoholism was in full swing. Alcohol was my coping mechanism, albeit a very unhealthy one. On top of that, after a hysterectomy my hormones were causing me to feel unhinged after surgically onset menopause. It wasn’t pretty. 

When I discovered this secret developing relationship my heart was broken and all trust issues between us were triggered. It was traumatizing. 

On a drunken night I phoned said college sweetheart and called her a whore. 
She is not a whore, probably a lovely person.

I recall my ex-husband telling me after that incident that she had suggested that I might have borderline personality disorder and he should cut me out of his life.
During my daughter’s college years, she spent summers with my ex-husband and his new girlfriend, now wife. They shared this information with my daughter and told her about the time I made the phone call calling her a whore. 

My daughter and I have struggled since our divorce. Without her knowing of his betrayals, she sees me as the one who broke up our happy home. My alcoholism and behaviors while drinking is what she witnessed. She did not witness or experience his betrayals. 

My ex-husband’s strongest feature is that he is a very nice guy. If anyone challenges that they may begin to feel less than behind closed doors—as in a marriage. 

Writing memoir will not change events that occurred. My hope is that it gives some freedom by sharing untold truths and gives a reader the courage to share their untold truths. 

I share with you an essay, Ethics of Silence by Sandra Hager Eliason published on Brevity’s blog