What keeps us in something longer than we know is good for us? Friends, I know so many smart, educated, brilliant women who have stayed in relationships far longer than warranted, far longer than was safe, physically, emotionally.
The reasons we stay are as varied as our individual lives, but I would posit that we stay because we are afraid to fail, terrified to admit we haven’t lived up to the cultural fantasy of what marriage and family should be.
I know that fear ruled many of my relationships, one set of fears put me there and another set kept me in them beyond the “best by” date.
I’ve found myself explaining my past a lot lately—funny how potential partners want to know what happened, really, that a gem such as myself should suddenly be single and available now (LOL, I really crack myself up).
What drove me to settle down at 23 and become a parent before I turned 30? Fear. Fantasy.
How did it come to be that I put my need to be loved above my children’s needs in my next relationship? Fear. Fantasy.
How, pray tell, does a 58-year-old still grocery shop and eat like a five-year-old with a credit card? Fear. Fantasy. Seriously.
Dates, even phone dates, have so many questions. And rightly so. We all have arrived in this same space, these boxes on the internet where we are all putting our very best hiking-boot-clad feet forward, vying for the last Fine woman out there. Trying to remember what landed us here and worrying that the others all have the exact same traumas and baggage, fearful we will miss the obvious warning signs.
We are afraid, or at least I know I am. Of one another. Of scammers. Of being alone into our dotages. Of more disappointment. Of being hurt yet again.
We believe the fantasy is possible (and we should, we have to). I desperately want to believe. We want someone to wrap ourselves around on a lazy Sunday morning. Someone to smooth our hair from our foreheads when we struggle, someone to tell us it is okay, that we are okay. That it’s going to be okay.
Humans are wired for connection. We do better in relationships than we do alone. Studies show, that just like children can best self-regulate when a parent functions as a secure base, so do adults in solid relationships. But it takes more than fantasy to create relationships that allow us to flourish. It takes a belief in ourselves as deserving.
I settled down at 23 because I was afraid my parents would never accept me if I wasn’t as “normal” (i.e. as close to heteronormative, though in 1986 that was not a thing) as possible. How better to convince them with than a wife, a nice house, a good job (well, speaking of fantasies), and a couple of kids? It worked, too, btw.
I believed the fantasy that I could live as less than authentically myself in order to fit in. And boy, I gave it a good run.
Fear drove me into my next relationship as well. Fear of so many things, but mostly fear of never finding happiness again after losing custody of my children. I was so afraid I’d miss out on their lives that I failed to notice entire bouquets of red flags. And fantasy kept me there—the fantasy that I could sublimate my needs indefinitely in order to create an illusion of success and happiness. I did that well, too.
And it wasn’t all bad. I have my girls—the reasons I kept on keeping on through it all. I had some fun. We threw some epic parties. I made terrific friends along the way—I found my people, and my people helped me find my way.
I learned I am okay exactly how I am. I was okay before the pandemic. I am emerging from it intact. If I come out of it with a partner, so be it. If I don’t, that’s okay too, because I am Fine. Better than fine. Fabulous.
Relaunched the website tonight. I’d taken it offline while I looked for a job. I go back and forth on this issue–should I let prospective employers see what I’ve written here or should I not? Will my writings help my career or harm it? I have no idea. But, now I have a job, so there.
I have a job! As a counselor. Good thing, since I woke up on Christmas to an email from the Federal Student Loan Servicing Company, reminding me that I was half way to the end of my Student Loan Repayment Grace Period. Yay! I won’t get thrown in debtors’ prison. Yet.
And I’ll be in private practice soon, since my job affords me time to see clients on my own as well. I will be working three, twelve hour shifts each week, so I will have a few other days in which to start building my own practice. I am very excited about both of these opportunities and couldn’t have imagined or hoped for a better outcome and transition into the mental health counseling field.
On the homefront, my 27 yo kid has moved in with me for awhile and I am completely digging having her around. It’s a chance at redemption for me. How often do we get an opportunity to have a real life “Do-Over?” I am one lucky mother.
Speaking of Mother, she has moved to a memory care facility. We reached a bit of a crisis point after Thanksgiving with a pulled tooth, a root canal, and a bottle of pain meds. Suffice it to say that her level of needed care exceeded my level of competency. She has a roommate who has a PhD in Sociology, so Mother is both duly impressed and thrilled to have someone to talk to who is at about the same stage of Alzheimer’s. They arrived within a week of one another, and both seem content (generally) with each other.
Charlie (or Chuck, as I like to call him), Mom’s shitzu, moved too, and seems quite happy to be there along with a handful of other dogs, a couple of hedgehogs, a Siamese cat, a tankful of fish, a cage of birds, and a chinchilla.
The transition to the facility was as awful and wrenching as I imagined it would be. Mom was none too happy with me that night, but I had to move her for her own safety. Who wants to have to make that sort of decision for someone? I certainly never imagined I would have to. And, I am thrilled to have my life back, my time and my home back. You can’t know what it’s like until you live it.
I spent the holidays working. Mom spent Christmas and Christmas Eve with my kids and their other mom. I am grateful for everyone’s love and caring these past few weeks, these past sixteen months. I couldn’t have done this on my own.
We would-be counselors all must take FOO (Family of Origin) before we take any other coursework in my graduate program. This class is the one in which we must sort through all of our personal Family Issues before we move on to counsel others. The idea, I suppose, is that we get our own stuff out of the way, but I’m not convinced we can do much with our FOO issues in 10 weeks. However, at 52, I definitely had an advantage over most of my younger classmates. I’d been working on FOO issues for decades.
Sitting in FOO for three hours every week was like attending group therapy—everybody cried, and I felt like I had one of the least traumatic childhoods of all. Some people had seriously mentally ill parents; others were abused by siblings, and still others grew up in remote, poverty stricken areas and no services for hundreds of miles. My heart ached for many of my classmates who still struggled mightily with their families.
Obviously, our parents leave a lasting impact on us, but one of the more fascinating aspects of FOO was how the same behavioral patterns played out over generations. Even when each generation may not even know much about previous generations. In one family, every generation included a pregnant 16 year old. How does that happen? How do we inherit such specific behaviors from our ancestors?
Epigenetics. The research is fascinating. We inherit memories, behaviors, trauma. A 2013 article from the online Discover Magazine explains it thusly: According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.
Wild, yes? I find it all so fascinating. As the adoptive parent of two children, as the child of a mother who was adopted, and the sister of an adopted brother, I am well aware that more is at work in our development than simply what we experience. We are complex beings, bundles of history and experiences that are not even our own. We are more than half mom and half dad, but carry in our very essence not just the physical traits of our foremothers and forefathers, but their memories, traumas, victories, and defeats.
I guess that’s one thing about becoming a therapist that I so look forward to—exploring with clients how they came to these difficult places in life and working with them to make positive changes. Not only will they change their own lives, but they have the power to make life better for future generations.
Hello! I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to join a group of bloggers who are writing the 50 things for which they are grateful. The trick was we had to write the list in 10 minutes (adding pictures and links came later and did not count toward the total time). I had no trouble at all coming up with so many things to be thankful for. Life is rich. I live in a beautiful place. I have a solid support network, good friends, a loving family. When times get hard, I try to remember these things. I started the list off with some of the things I repeat to myself on mornings when running is challenging–I am grateful for my body parts that all work as they should. If you’d like to join in on the gratitude blogging fun, you can find instructions at the bottom of this blog. Enjoy!
If you’d like to join in, here’s how it works: set a timer for 10 minutes; timing this is critical. Once you start the timer, start your list. The goal is to write 50 things that made you happy in 2015, or 50 thing that you feel grateful for. The idea is to not think too hard; write what comes to mind in the time allotted. When the timer’s done, stop writing. If you haven’t written 50 things, that’s ok. If you have more than 50 things and still have time, keep writing; you can’t feel too happy or too grateful! When I finished my list, I took a few extra minutes to add links and photos.
To join the bloggers who have come together for this project: 1) Write your post and publish it (please copy and paste the instructions from this post, into yours) 2) Click on the link at the bottom of this post. 3) That will take you to another window, where you can past the URL to your post. 4) Follow the prompts, and your post will be added to the Blog Party List.
Please note that only blog posts that include a list of 50 (or an attempt to write 50) things that made you feel Happy or 50 things that you are Grateful for, will be included. Please don’t add a link to a post that isn’t part of this exercise.
I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up.
Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me. For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses. While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be. As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.
As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys. They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement. Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.
A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak: fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.
So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994. Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me. I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters. I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old. They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom. I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves. I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me. We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children. I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie. We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.
We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in. The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition: cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter. Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered. My mother came to coo over her granddaughters. We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great. I love your dress Pam.”
“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling. “I love it!”
“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand. “Merry Christmas!” He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek. “How are the girls?”
“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great. Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”
I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors. They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny. Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it. Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.
“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”
“She’s so dark!”
“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained. “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”
“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”
“Anna! How do you like being a big sister?”
Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.
“She’s still adjusting,” I say.
“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”
“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.
Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt. “Pamalamala?” She laughs. “That’s funny Mommy!”
“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain. “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”
Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears. I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety. Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove. I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t mind.
Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells. The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.
“HO! HO! HO!” Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder. “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!
“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree. Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year. Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash. The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same. I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.
Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie. We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats. After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.
We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences. No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm: being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance. Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace. We drove a Volvo. I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms. I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.
I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself. It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.
Evidently fishing season opened this week. Fisher people of all stripes line my regular running trail and the funky smell of dead trout permeates the early morning air. That smell—muddy, scaly, wet—it takes me right back to childhood.
Fishing loomed large in my family. Everyone fished. For fun. For sport. On my dad’s side of the family, salmon fishing. Expeditions to Westport. Cases of canned smoked salmon and tales of my father seasick, green and puking. On my mother’s side of the family, trout fishing adventures. Long family vacations up endless gravel roads, hundred of miles into the Canadian wilderness to remote lakes filled with legendary trout.
I never got to go along on the Westport adventures, and truth be told, never wanted to. They sounded miserable. But the trout fishing expeditions? Everyone went along on these trips. We’d pile into our truck, the canopied back filled with our tent and sleeping bags, fishing rods, reels, creels, our green metal Coleman cooler, the green Coleman camp stove, jugs of kerosene. Dad drove while mom, Brucie, and I squeezed together on the bench seat. I generally straddled the gear shift while mom held my brother on her lap.
We didn’t have to go too far to meet up with my mother’s parents where my little brother and I defected for Grandma and Grandpa’s camper. We clambered immediately to the top bunk over the truck cab and rode the hundreds of miles up there, peering excitedly out the window, watching impatiently as the ribbons of graveled roads unfurled endlessly before us.
Behind the camper, Grandpa towed his boat—a silver and red aluminum craft, not fancy at all. Not large. I’m guessing 15 feet. It had one engine, maybe 10 horsepower and a set of oars. Bulky orange life vests, tackle boxes, recycled plastic containers filled with dirt and worms from Grandma’s worm farm, and gorgeous bamboo and cork fishing poles filled the boat.
I so wanted one of those fishing poles with the shiny and complicated reel. Instead, I had a child-sized fishing pole with an attached reel—a Zebco. A simple, plastic, one-piece uncomplicated piece of equipment. The Zebco reel was enclosed around the fishing line and had a button I pressed to release the line as I cast.
At the end of my line, a red and white bobber, a couple of lead weights, and a hook with a worm. At the end of Grandpa’s line? Shiny silver spoons, fancy lures, orange and pink and iridescent. Oh, how I wanted those lures on my line. I did not want my Zebco with its pedestrian bait and hook. I remember opening Grandpa’s tackle box and ogling his lures—so many options, each little tray and compartment filled with candy-like choices, fake gummy worms, fuzzy bumblebee bodies that hid barbed hooks.
My tackle box, yellow, held very little—a small glassine bag of hooks, some fishing line leads, those little brass clippy things that attached the lead to the rest of the fishing line. The spools of monofilament that squeaked when I pulled the line out. bobbers, lead weights. I remember pinching these little lead balls open with my teeth, putting them on the line, and then pinching them closed again—with my teeth (this cannot have been a good idea).
I caught a lot of trout on that little Zebco. I wound Grandma’s fat, coffee ground-fed worms onto those hooks, cast my line out, and watched that bobber with single-minded intensity. I sat in that boat, orange life vest tied tightly under my chin, bulky and smelling of last year’s fish, stained with the blood and slime that washed the bottom of the boat. I rarely ate the trout we caught, though I loved to fish. Loved the ritual, the waiting, the quiet on the water.
When we had caught our daily limit, I helped Dad and Grandpa clean the fish—I had my own knife and knew how to cut down the belly, how to use my thumb to scrape the innards out. I can still feel the trout’s spine under my fingers, the serration against my thumbnail.
As I got older, I lost my desire to put the bait on the hook, to slice open the fish, to scrape out the guts. Squeamishness replaced my attraction to the ritual, and I don’t think I ever took my children fishing (though my dad, their grandpa did). This realization as I ran my laps around the lake this morning made me sad. Fishing filled my early years—that Zebco rod and reel saw me through fishing derbies, represented independence (my brother and I used to camp by a stream near our house, fish and cook the trout we caught for dinner over an open campfire), and connected me to family in ways nothing else really did.
I smiled as I ran this morning to see all of the children with their parents, and grandparents lined up around the lake, building memories, casting their lines, grinning widely as they held their catches. If I ever have grandchildren, we will go fishing. They will have a Zebco.
Visiting Mother Our past. My future. Her womb. Cord blood. Still tethered.
The other class I’m taking this quarter is Family of Origin Systems, or FOO for short. Here’s the course description: The purpose of this course is to facilitate the development of competencies in understanding family of origin systems theories of human development and differentiation. Particular emphasis will be placed on students examining their personal and professional development in terms of their own family history, relationships, and conflicts.
In other words, in this class we will take a close look at how our families, the ones in which we grew up, completely fucked us over and caused us to be the hot messes we currently are. I’ve done a fair amount of self-work over the years and have looked closely at my parents, our relationships, how they raised my brother and me. I’ve listened in many workshops as other people describe their upbringings, how they survived everything from drug and alcohol addicted parents, sexual abuse, beatings, to benign neglect and hostile indifference. Compared to most people, I am practically Beaver Cleaver. In many respects, my parents rivaled June and Ward.
But still. The one thing this class makes crystal clear is that none of us leave childhood unscathed. Sure, maybe my parents, like so many, “did the best they could with what they knew at the time,” but they too were products of their environments. And like their parents before them, they carried on, operating within family systems that have perpetuated all the conscious and unconscious family secrets, tragedies, coping methods, and survival mechanisms.
Take for example just two facts from my childhood: We moved to a small logging town when I was four, and my parents became Born Again not long after. These events alone generated major repercussions for my brother and me.
Our parents subscribed to the “spare the rod, spoil the child” parenting style. They raised us to believe that god knew our every move—He knew when we were naughty and nice with implications far more sinister than any Santa might have dreamed up. I grew up believing I could be struck dead (or at least turned into a pillar of salt) should I displease god.
I learned early on that if Jesus returned in The Rapture and I hadn’t caught up on asking for forgiveness for my sins, I might be Left Behind to withstand horrible trials and tribulations. Should I die with my sins unforgiven (because I’d forgotten to pray in a timely fashion), I’d go straight to hell where I would burn for all of eternity. Never mind what the church had to say about being a lesbian.
So there was that. And I’m just scratching the surface of the religious implications. Then there was life in the logging town. Like I wrote in my blog about my brother, we had a fairly idyllic and unfettered (if you don’t count god always watching) childhood. Freedom to roam was one of the many upsides growing up in a small town offered.
Inferior schools presented one major downside. I was a pretty bright kid. I scored high on tests, always tested into the advanced groups whether they were for math or reading, and I brought home stellar report cards year in and year out. But the schools we attended were full of first year teachers who were all on their way to someplace bigger and better, and I ended up attending four different high schools. By the time I realized I needed a better education, I was in college wondering why I couldn’t figure out pre-calc and why I was failing basic chemistry.
I didn’t take a foreign language (well, I took a quarter of it at the church-affiliated pseudo high school I attended most of my junior year); I stopped taking math in 10th grade. I dropped out of biology my sophomore year and didn’t take any more science until college. Thankfully, standards for college admission were fairly low in 1981.
To be fair, my parents hadn’t been to college. They didn’t know what a college bound high-school student needed in order to be fully prepped for a higher education. Many people I grew up with didn’t go to college. Many had parents who didn’t think girls even needed to pursue anything beyond an MRS degree. So, in many respects, I count myself fortunate and very blessed. Yet, what might have transpired had we stayed in Bellevue when I was four? What sort of education might I have received there? How might things have played out differently?
Yet it’s not just about what I know. Families are full of secrets and generational patterns. We all move forward under an ancestral burden (or so they say in FOO). What implications did grandpa’s dead brother have on our holidays? What about grandma’s drinking? How did the antagonism between grandma and her sister get mirrored in my aunts’ relationships with one another and with my parents? What about my grandfather’s upbringing made him so hard on my father, his only son? And why did my grandparents adopt my mother? What was the true story there? Did we move far away to escape these legacies? So many questions.
We have to fill out a questionnaire for class tomorrow, one that describes our roles in our family of origin—for example what sort of child was I? Was I The Rulebreaker? The Delegate (strong self-sufficient and competent)? The Companionate (a friend and peer to one of my parents)? The Rejected Kid? And, why? How did my role in my family of origin affect the choices I made later in life? The partners I chose. The roles I play now. It’s fascinating to ponder.
I’m not writing all of this to lay any blame on my parents. I’m writing to point out that even when we do the best we can (or the best we think we can do), we still pass on to our kids (and I’m a parent, so I have done this too) a legacy with which they, in turn, will need to grapple in order to fully realize their own hopes and dreams.
I know that my parents discussed parenting before they married. I know that they both had dreary childhoods and problematic relationships with their own parents. Together they resolved that they would do better than their parents. And in turn, I resolved the same thing when I had my kids. And, most likely, if my kids have children of their own, they too will make a similar commitment.
I sat in my FOO class and listened to my classmates tell their stories—felt the hair on my arms rise as they recounted tales of abuse, neglect, grinding poverty, drug addiction, mental illness. And I felt a sense of hope wash over me because in spite of all the various hardships, and perhaps because of them, here we all were, eager to learn, to move on. To help.
My little brother and I enjoyed relatively unfettered childhoods. As was typical of the time, we grew up as free-range children, exploring our surroundings as we saw fit—biking, go-carting, camping, fishing, building forts, and playing dangerous games on the railroad tracks, just existing with nary an adult to report to for hours at a time. Some summer days we’d leave the house after breakfast, bicycle into town with our inner tubes slung across our torsos, meet up with friends and spend the entire day floating the river, dragging the inner tubes back up the winding trails and doing it again. We always made it home in time for dinner.
I don’t remember anyone ever telling me to watch out for my brother who was four years younger than I, to make sure he didn’t drown or get chased by the Doberman Pinschers who careened after us as we raced our bikes down the winding country roads. We all stuck together then, in a tight knit pack as we roamed the small logging town that shaped us.
Our parents often left us home alone together at night as well, in the log home that our father had built. At home we’d play elaborately imaginative games, build blanket forts, take the guns out of the gun cabinet, spread the bullets around on the floor, and imagine that we were pioneers who needed to hunt for our supper. We knew better than to ever point a gun, imagined or real, at any human being. We knew to put the key to the gun cabinet back exactly as we had found it before mom and dad got home.
On one of these nights, I took it upon myself to teach my little brother how to fight. As we sparred in his bedroom, I grabbed him by the arm and flung him into his closet where he landed hard upon a sharp bit of metal toy railroad track. Obviously he was not learning how to fight fast enough for my taste. He let out a wail and held up his elbow, which sported a two-inch long gash, a deep gushing gash. I’d never seen blood so thick and dark.
Don’t cry! I admonished as I dragged him into the bathroom. Hush. Be brave. Don’t tell mom and dad! I sat him on the closed toilet seat and gave him a comb to bite on (my dad had done the same for me once when I’d gotten the soft flesh of my palm caught in a pump-action BB gun). Bite! I ordered and dug around in the cabinets for a BandAid and some Bactine.
He screamed as I dumped the Bactine into the wound, and the blood soaked through the BandAids as fast as I could put them over the gash. Hold your arm up! I commanded. Up! Higher! I pushed the loose skin together and peeled more bandages, slapping them on as fast as I could. Finally, the bleeding stopped.
You cannot tell mom and dad, I whispered fiercely so he’d know I was serious. We—I emphasized this—will get in so much trouble if they know you got hurt. Somehow, that wound went undetected for several days. Somehow, I never got in trouble. Somehow, as these things tended to do in the days of unfettered childhood, the injury healed without complication.
He still sports the scar on his elbow, a long jagged coil that has faded over time. We are still close in spite of the occasional childhood brutalities I meted out. He insists he doesn’t remember his childhood. I maintain he must have blocked it out.
He’s grown up to be a lovely man, a wonderful father, and amazingly talented at whatever he tries: banking, woodworking, grilling, restoring houses. He balances a complicated schedule but always has time and his full attention for whoever finds themselves sitting across the table from him. I count myself fortunate when I am that person.
We used to work in the same city—he drove north from his home in Oregon, and I drove south from my house in northern Washington. We each spent the better part of the week away from our homes and families, but we re-forged the bond we’d had in childhood.
I’m grateful we had those few years, the opportunity to reconnect as adults, the two of us away from the usual family settings in which adult siblings generally interact, settings fraught with the emotions of holidays and travel and aging parents. Our paths still occasionally cross when just the two of us can enjoy a meal or meet up to catch a Mariners’ game. When we can enjoy the rare days that are unfettered adulthood.
Sometimes the pressure to write builds up inside of me and it is so huge that I feel like I am going to explode. Someday The Little Woman may come home to find bits of me all over the house, word bits, words that built up and couldn’t find their way out of me. There will be a preponderance of prepositions and a truckload of nouns, verb carnage all over the kitchen, and gerunds on the ground (hey, that rhymed!). Adverbs and those nasty words that end in –ly will litter the walls, pronouns and random punctuation marks will be sprayed around.
Too often, these words don’t find an outlet. Instead I spin and dither. I find other ways to expend the energy inside, activities that seem less arduous than sitting down and grinding out sentences. This week, for example, I’ve set up the art table and started making things: prayer flags with my own twist and boxes to put the prayer flags in. I love making these boxes—I’ve been making books (books is a broad term, in book making, just about any form of art with words) for a number of years, and now for every book I make, I create a box in which to stow it. The timing is good, for making things. I can justify my projects as Christmas presents. These projects are my safety valve, the overflow, where the dangerous steam can spill without harming anything. Still, it is not writing.
And it’s not like I don’t have things to write about. I got married this weekend. I feel like I should be writing something about that.We had a small and lovely ceremony with our daughters and good friends in attendance. My longtime friend Laura officiated, my friend and writing buddy Jolene took pictures (she’s good, check out her page). Our vows reflected the tenure of our relationship, sturdy vows, hard won truths reflecting our accrued wisdom. Mature vows from which the dewy innocence has been shaken, vows with wonder and tenderness and love.
TLW (aka SugarMama) and I have been together for more than thirteen years. We had a silly ceremony ten years ago, and became registered domestic partners about five years ago. None of that was enough in the end however, for me to retain my health insurance benefits with her company. I proposed to her last Christmas not long after Washington State enacted its same sex marriage law. And yes, we gays fought to get married so we could have benefits, but I felt a little irritated rushing our ceremony in to beat a deadline. We were caught between her company’s end of the year deadline and the one that comes in June of next year that says the state will roll our domestic partnership into a marriage if we don’t act first.
(Yes, we had a year to make plans and do the deed. We need not have rushed, but all excuses and reasons aside, that is what happened, so don’t judge me, Dear Reader, just read on, quietly and without comment).
Family: Anna, Nancy, Pam, Taylor
I’ve run out of words. So here are some photos instead and a copy of the poem I wrote for my wife (wow, my WIFE! There’s something I didn’t think I’d ever be saying in this lifetime, forever ending the dilemma of what to call her: significant other, TLW (always), partner, girl friend, spouse, better half, my uhm friend special friend, the boss, etc).
Our rings–mine is the sapphire. Shout out to Jolene Hanson, photographer
It’s fitting that National Coming Out Day should fall during Mental Health Awareness Week. The two are inextricably linked.
We wore our cowgirl outfits to the wedding, after all the invitation had said country chic and it was being held outdoors in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the reception to follow in a barn. Me: black cowgirl hat, pointy-toed boots, Western shirt with pearl snaps, bedazzled cowgirl jeans. The Little Woman: ruffled skirt, black cowgirl boots, black Western shirt with longhorns on the shoulders, pearl snaps. We had road-tripped down in our Jeep, all 1600 miles or so, through eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. We were excited to see the family, to celebrate with my cousin Brad and his soon-to-be wife Megan.
TLW grabbed my hand when we got out of the Jeep and waited for my brother and his family and my father and his wife to debark from their vehicles and join us as we walked to the front of the (very upscale) barn. I let Nancy hold my hand then, but I could feel that familiar uneasiness creeping in the closer we got to the venue, and when I didn’t immediately see anyone we knew (i.e. members of the family) or anyone else so duded up, I pulled away and dropped her hand.
“So that’s how it’s going to be,” she said. “Really?”
At that moment, self-preservation trumped self awareness. I pretended not to hear and walked a little bit ahead, suddenly flooded with shame and hoping that either the ground would swallow me whole or that a whole posse of cowgirl lesbians might be waiting for us just around the corner. Of course neither happened. Around the corner waited only straight (as far as I could tell) normally attired wedding attendees—maybe a bit more casual than normal wedding attendees, but still, straight, suit jackets, dresses, the occasional cowboy boot. I wanted nothing more than to turn heel and run, to safety, to the familiar, to someone I’ve never been nor will ever be: a taller, thinner, more feminine, more socially acceptable me.It did not matter one whit in that moment that I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me. It did not matter in that moment of panic that my brother was also wearing a cowboy shirt and cowboy boots and jeans and a cowboy hat. It didn’t matter that I had come out to my family years ago and that TLW and I were as accepted and loved and as much a family unit within the extended family as my straight cousins and aunts and uncles. All that mattered to me was my obvious otherness.
I did not flee. Even when I realized we were 45 minutes early and would have to mingle and make small talk or stand awkwardly with each other and sip the lavender water. I silently cursed the lack of pre-ceremony alcohol and our obsessive punctuality. I talked myself down from that internal ledge and tried to see us as others might. I tried to look at the individuals in the crowd and not at the crowd itself. I feigned interest in the barn and the surrounding grounds, and I eagerly greeted familiar faces as they trickled in. I reminded myself that I was 50 years old, goddammit and beyond (hahahaha) caring what other people thought of me and my life choices. I berated myself into behaving as if I actually believed that.
Eventually, I talked to enough people, had enough wine, ate enough dinner, spent enough time to re-inhabit my body. No one laughed at me. No one made fun of me for being a lesbian. In fact, just the opposite happened. I relaxed and opened up, and TLW and I danced. We danced together, alone, with strangers on the dance floor, and as we danced a funny thing happened: acceptance.
The wedding invitations had included RSVP cards to mail back. Each card asked for a song request, what song would we like them to play at the reception? TLW told me to put down “Same Love” by Macklemore. I seriously doubted that our song would get played—partly because it’s really not a dance song, partly because it’s gay. But wouldn’t you know it—about three quarters of the way through the evening, I heard those notes, grabbed TLW’s hand and pulled her onto the dance floor as I whooped and waved my hands in the air. We were the first ones out there, but not for long. My cousin wrapped us in a huge embrace and thanked us for coming. Strangers and relatives alike joined us on the dance floor in what felt like an enormous celebration of love. Period.
I wish I could bottle the feeling I had at the end of that night, wear it around my neck and sprinkle it over me before I walk into new situations, because coming out isn’t just a one time event. Coming out happens over and over and over again, every day, every week, every month.