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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
It was a lovely reprieve to take part in Luther Hughes’s workshop, Reaching for Joy last week. Writing memoir has already proven to be hard, rewarding, triggering, and necessary. Luther’s workshop felt like playtime in comparison. I am not a poet, but it’s fun to try it.
The assignment guidelines: start with “it”, a time you made a choice to basically have faith and also include a food.
Some of you may recall this “story” from a blog post in the very beginning of this blog as I drove from Montana to the southern tip of Baja.
Somewhere In Mexico
It was noon
Driving slow, low shoulder, two lane highway
Potholes in the middle
Didn’t see it coming but heard the pop, felt the bump
Damn only sand
It was the only way to go
All alone as far as the eye could see.
A man came along as we tried to understand
Resigned to not panic, only to trust
He tried with his truck and chain to get me unstuck
As if from the sky, a bus fell into sight
Angels who looked like farm workers descended and lifted my car
I witnessed a miracle
Then was on my way to the next town to get a taco
I discovered Chris La Tray a few months ago. Yes, I shared his substack link with you before. He is nearly finished with his book, Becoming Little Shell.
As I work on memoir, I find it all consuming mostly. Going back over journals, photos, emails, etc. Then putting it down on paper for my memoir coach and I to fine tune. It has broken me open. My heart is tender, trying to reconcile how all has come to be, losing my daughter and grandchildren and my part in it. Chris’s post today felt relevant as they often do.
Excerpt from his writing today, Broken Open:
“The thing about being broken open is a lot of love pours through too. Love coming in, and intense love reflected back out. It sounds overly sentimental but love can heal the world. Or at least our human place in it. It is the only thing that can! But we have to move beyond the definitions of what love is as just this airy thing and create an active love in the world. It’s like hope, it’s meaningless if one just shrugs and throws it to the universe to solve whatever problem while we just go on with our business. The business of hurling ourselves into the grinder of doing the same thing over and over until only shreds of what we began as remain. The universe does provide but it takes work. Sometimes toil. Sometimes setting aside what is easier, or what we think we want, to show love as courtesy. Love as simple kindness. Love that can be inconvenient. Love that challenges us. If we all did a little more of that, how much better would we get along? That’s what I try and teach these kids about poetry. It is what I am trying to teach myself but I’m not very good at it at all. I’m too angry all the time.”
“Write from the scar, not the wound” is advice given to those writing memoir. However, that’s not always possible. Then you attempt to turn that wound into wisdom.
There is an art to radical vulnerability and I’m trying to learn it. Trying to take care of myself in the midst of writing memoir while getting re-triggered when looking through old journals, pictures, emails and texts.
Is this necessary, one might ask.
I believe it is.
I have been stripped of many things I love. Some things are because of my doing, my wrong doing. I don’t want to hide behind secrets, especially my own.
But I have not been stripped of writing.
I’m finding my own rituals to empower and protect me. Last night I stayed up late making play lists. One for dancing, so I move my body to get energized then dance it off after the tough stuff. Yea, songs that might motivate you in an aerobics class, corny and upbeat. Everybody Dance Now, Can’t Stop That Feeling or Love Shack. My empowering playlist includes, Lizzo’s Good As Hell, Girl by Maren Morris and Dianna Ross I’m Coming Out. U2’s Walk On continues to be my theme song.
My friend, Wendy, suggested a monster doll to sit with me. I like that idea and found a very cute one on Etsy. It’s got to be cute, not scary. Cute felted monster.
Thanks Chris for sending me this Brevity essay by Aimee Christine.
By Aimee Christian
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I started my memoir because I’d been writing personal essays and creative nonfiction for some time. It didn’t take me long to learn that I was wrong. Writing memoir meant wandering around in my past in a whole new way, and I learned that my past can be a pretty bad neighborhood to be in alone.
When I try to re-immerse myself in how it felt to be a child or a teenager, it’s nearly impossible not to feel all the feelings from those early years, which is great for the story but, as it turns out, is terrible for my marriage and my children. In revisiting my memories to write, I found myself mourning breakups, looking up old apartments on Zillow, Googling my bullies from summer camp, and spending hours rereading old journals and old yearbooks…
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I might be coming out of radio silence. A little over month ago I got stopped in my tracks due to shocking news.
I have been reconciled with the fact that I likely will not have a relationship with my adult daughter in this lifetime. That acceptance has helped me to get on with my life a bit.
But I had held out hope that I might know my grandchildren who I knew for the first two and a half years of their life. It’s been four years since I have seen them. That hope was diminished at the end of January when I learned my daughter has put it her divorce papers that I am not to have contact with my grandchildren. My ex son in law was wanting me to know them again, but my daughter has made sure that will not happen. It’s heartbreaking. It has set me back. I was writing, I haven’t been writing.
I go to the store, someone asks me, “how are those grandkids of yours?” I say, “I don’t know” as my eyes start to water. This person tells me her cancer is back, her husband just beat colon cancer. She is chipper in her brightly colored clothes. My tears are still there, now for her and the gift of witnessing her strength. I tell her so.
On social media someone is showing off their new grandchild. I click away, happy for them while reminded that I do not have that privilege. I instead go searching for an island vacation.
What I know is that this feeling is temporary. I have to be gentle with myself and everyone involved. I will write again, I am writing now.
What I also know is while the family thing hasn’t worked out so well, I have some of the richest, most authentic friendships a person could ask for. I have kids in my life, a couple of them consider me their stand in grandmother. This does not go unnoticed and is not taken for granted. A therapist of mine says if you have one person you can call during your worst times you are rich in friendship. I have several of those “one” persons. I think they know I am that person for them as well.
In telecommunications, radio silence or Emissions Control is a status in which all fixed or mobile radio stations in an area are asked to stop transmitting for safety or security reasons. I believe it has been a safety issue to not be writing. It’s getting safe again.
Love you all, thanks for reading.