Sorry I’ve been kind of absent lately. I’ve been busy. Writing for me is a respite but not a requirement so I take breaks until something bursts forth and I can’t contain it, like yesterday in the shower. Also, I’m gearing up to head back to the Northwest and my beloved Edmonds to work on the book again in a few weeks, so I’m thinking about things again.
Mostly, I’ve been living and loving my life. I’m back in upper Pennsylvania right now experiencing the calm between storms of activity. We spent months (when I say “we” I mean mostly my husband) preparing this home for sale–remodeling the bathroom (he did almost all of the work except me helping with floor tile and color choices as he’s colorblind), laying down an entirely new floor on the first level, decluttering, staging, electrical work etc. etc. It’s been on the market about 3 weeks now and we are binge watching House of Cards as we wait. Well, John is super busy at work so I’ve been hanging out here in the country continuing to declutter and relax and binge watch The Night Of (OMG!).
We are also building a new home down south aways in Lewisburg, PA. I fell in love with that town the second we drove through it once last year. It took my breath away with its charm and cozy feel. I made one comment about it, but John said it would be too far to relocate due to his contracts and Lillian. Then one day, out of the blue, he said “I think we should move to Lewisburg”. I started looking, then thinking we would rent, and ran in to a beautiful condo community we both fell in love with, also immediately. I inquired about one of the condos listed for rent, knowing we were not ready yet, which led me down a rabbit hole to suggest we consider buying one and one foot in front of the other, we are building our dream home. John has also gotten a new contract there so has begun making the commute there already for work–and to check on our new home which we have named Rafferty Manor (it’s on Baker Street).
We needed to streamline as we do a lot of moving around. A condo is just perfect with all of the exterior yard work, snow removal and maintenance taken care of. It brings John to tears when I say “how does it feel to know you can drive home, push a button to get in your garage, then another button to turn on the heat” after over a decade of splitting and hauling in wood throughout the winter to stoke the woodstove night and day. We are ecstatic about the new life this will bring us. We’ve been going down there regularly to watch the construction and bury things like stones and coins under the foundation. This weekend we, with both John’s daughters Lillian and Alyssa, wrote on the wood framing. We are filling this home with love at every step.
I’m also really enjoying the design process. This is our first opportunity to create our home together. We’ve been living out of each other’s spaces since we met so this is big, and necessary. He reflected last night that we have not had one disagreement over one thing related to the house. As they only build one unit at a time (it’s like a duplex so we will have one side), they take lots of care to make it how you want. We’ve gotten to select many upgrades like counters and cabinets and John takes care of the practical things like electrical sockets. It’s been a true collaboration and nothing but fun. It’s going to be a light, open modern space and most of all, ours.
We’ve been spending lots of time with Lillian this summer which has been fantastic! She flew all the way to AZ with her Dad for two weeks and we swam and spent a week in Sedona doing things with friends and exploring. We saw Shrek the Musical, went hiking, cooking, movies, playing.
**Interlude, as I write this I’m looking at a small fawn right outside the window. We have a mother and her 3 fawns come by most days and there they are right in front of me. Good timing. It’s funny because there are 3 and 2 of them are always right by her side then there’s the straggler who is always exploring something alone then catching up. I relate to that one from my own family of 3 kids.**
Lillian turned 5 this weekend! We were lucky enough to get invited to her family birthday party with her Mom, stepdad and their families in a park about an hour away. She wanted a Paw Patrol theme so I contributed “Puppy Chow” treats and baked beans per her Mom’s request. It was an honor to be included in this way. Lillian’s extended family are salt of the Earth, welcoming good people. I really enjoyed meeting them, tasting their home grown and pickled green beans and talk about gardening and other things. This side of her family takes me back to my mother’s side–farmers who did everything on their own. My Grandma raised and slaughtered her own chickens for her famous fried chicken and always had a bountiful garden. She was the best cook I’ve ever met in my lifetime–grand Sunday dinners with chicken, roast beef, ham loaf, homemade mashed potatoes, green beans from her garden and always a relish plate. My mouth is watering as I type this.
We were also lucky to have Lillian with us on her actual birthday. She started her first day of dance class so we took her to that, then to the world’s fastest carousel in Elmira, NY then home to fix her exactly what she wanted for dinner: clams. She ate 26 steamed clams then the ice cream roll cake I’d made for her with her favorite–raspberries. Lucky me.
Lillian turning 5, not unexpectedly I guess, has pointed me inward to my own life and history. I was just about 2 weeks shy of my 6th birthday when my mother passed. She spent most of my 5th year in the hospital or gravely ill. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35 and was gone less than half way in to her 36th year.
Lillian is at a stage now where she’s very attached to her Mom. Not right away, but about the second week in to her trip to Sedona I would notice her little bottom lip start to quiver and when I asked “what’s wrong?” she would lower her head, tears spilling from her eyes and quietly let slip “I miss my Mommy”.
This new behavior proved a deep turning point in my own psyche on many levels. First of all, I got to be challenged with how to handle something like that personally. What was odd, when I reflected back, was that I didn’t have one moment of hesitation on how to respond. No debris I had to step over inside myself of perhaps a feeling of inadequacy or competition. I just knew to let her know that what she was feeling was ok.
“Of course you do, ” I told her. “I bet she’s missing you too right now.”
This minor meltdown happened at least once a day after that and has continued. Luckily we all watched the movie “Inside Out” together a few months ago which proved an invaluable resource for me. (If you are a parent or a person, please watch it–it’s a kid’s movie but it’s really not–it’s about the value of all of the emotions, particularly sadness or “Sagness” as Lillian calls her).
One evening at the table in Sedona, during dinner, I saw the quiver and the head drop and out of nowhere the sobs started “I miss my Mommy, I really miss my Mommy” came tumbling out.
My “Inside Out” training went to work and I started dialoguing with her.
“Remember how Sadness had to be the leader for Riley to get better?” I reminded Lillian after she looked up and asked “are you mad?” to both her father and I about her tears.
“No, you are at home and you are safe and we have nothing but time. If you are sad, then you can feel it. Just let it go like Riley did and you will feel better”.
John chimed in with similar sentiments as we watched her transform.
Her tears got bigger and the sobs deeper until, quick as a switch, she picked up her fork, smiled and said “I feel better now”. And you could see that all over her. Her eyes resumed their sparkle and that sadness had passed. And she started eating and giggling with us like usual.
She has since asked me questions like “do you miss Daddy sometimes?”. I explain to her that of course I do because we are not together all the time but I just tell myself that I am so lucky to have someone to miss.
Lillian’s 5th year is going to be an opportunity for me to clean up some wounds in my own soul. I am not taking it lightly.
Yesterday, I was reflecting on memories and particularly how things become memorialized in a psyche.
John and I do a lot of pillow-talk post gaming over here. Of course we did so over Lillian’s birthday–reflecting on things that went well, what we learned, what we could have done differently. He frequently tells me in these quiet behind closed door moments “you are an excellent Mom”. At first I cringed because of my own upbringing. I am very cautious of appropriating the “Mom” terminology. This word is never applied to me in front of Lil but he just is helping me to claim the role and the things I’m doing right. In fact, my husband, the psychologist who works primarily with children and families, told me he learned something from me at that “Inside Out” dinner table conversation.
The Psychologist in him, also shared that he believes my natural talents in the motherhood department stem from the imprinting I received from birth to 5. It’s really the only thing that makes sense.
Aside from losing my mother at age 5, I’ve feared something far greater when it comes to being a parent. I think most abuse survivors fear that the same tendency could exist in them (us) and arise at any moment. This has not really been tested in me before Lillian. And I’m experiencing something of a revelation lately in this regard.
As my husband points out all the ways he sees me as a “natural Mom” I realize, who imprinted on me and who is coming alive through me is Dorothy June Schlosser Monkman. My mother who birthed me and instilled something so deep inside that despite Marjorie’s efforts to literally beat it out of me, my stepmother did not succeed. There is nowhere inside me that the trauma inflicted by Marjorie lives on in me when it comes to parenting. Not. One. Cell.
I look at Lillian, cuddle with her, nurture her, listen to her, protect her and there is no place inside me that can remotely imagine laying a hand on her. The opposite in fact. It just isn’t there even when I peek for it. Now, I’m lucky that I’ve not been really tested but let me tell you, those “I miss my Mommy” episodes would have been met with punishment by Marj. Yes it started that small and subtle and progressed to full on violence and name calling. Not of us kids, but of our Mother.
Marjorie wasn’t all bad, of course, she was a human with strengths and weakness like anyone. But what’s interesting to me is that right now, at age 56 and embarking on parenthood, what is memorialized in me–the memories that influence me–are what not to do as inspiration. She was my “mother”, legally, for 30 years. I had my actual mother for 5. Marj taught me something valuable, but my mother instilled in me a golden crown.
In some relationships, the trauma simply eclipses the good. I don’t know if that will be forever and, if or how, I will find forgiveness around that, but I do know I’m just telling the truth about it.
When I reflect on Marjorie, what naturally comes to mind are things like my mother’s photographs disappearing from our bedrooms when she moved in (which let me tell you enraged my Grandma–my mother’s mother–and she replaced them). I remember driving to the cemetery to our mother’s grave site which we did often before she arrived, less after. Usually she didn’t come along yet the spare times she did, I remember her remaining stiff in the front seat, twirling her hair and grinding her jaw, refusing to get out of the car or even turn her head toward us 3 grieving children saying prayers to our Mother. The Mother Marjorie stripped of her proper and earned title, insisting we now refer to our dead mother as “First Mother” and herself as “real Mother”. I remember her standing in front of me in my bedroom slapping me in the face repeatedly until I said “Mother, in an appropriate tone”.
Marjorie is embedded in my memory as the person who insisted on budget development for our school clothes starting around ages 12-13 for Cindy and I–who never took us shopping but insisted we use our approved budgets and bike or bus ourselves to the department stores downtown to seek out our clothes, then submit them for approval before being given the money to go back and purchase them.
I remember Cindy and I going to 4-H and bonding with our leaders there who taught us how to boil eggs and bake cookies and sew, although we had a “mother” right at home. I remember her stiff body when she tried to hug me and her stiffer hand when she struck me dozens of times in to adulthood. Stiffer yet, when she grabbed a wire hanger or spatula or coffee cup to strike me with it or hurl it in my direction.
I remember being embarrassed of her in public and almost never wanting to sit near her. I remember the confusion and envy upon meeting her sisters and watching their natural closeness and loving nature with their children, wondering why we got stuck with the abnormal one, the mean one.
I remember her turning a weapon off my brother and on to me when I was home on a break from college, beating me over the head as I fled up the staircase in to my moment of truth–moment of pivot– as I turned and grasped those stair railings and kicked her back down 4 stairs in to the foyer. I remember feeling convinced I’d be exiled from the family for good for standing up to her like that.
I remember her laying down her weapons and picking up a pen and the voluminous letters Cindy and I would receive detailing our failures and foibles. I remember the time, when she was too ill to get out of bed in her last months of life, but managed to find someone to purchase and mail a “Get Well” card for me months after she’d broken contact with me permanently. She’d allowed my birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter to go by unaddressed. Yet her seeming joy at an abject failure I’d experienced she’d caught wind of–so much so she celebrated it by sending me a greeting card. I wasn’t ill, I was devastated. And she wrote “I heard about your recent difficulties, I hope you get the help you need”. These are the words that roam around my head when I think of Marjorie.
I have to dig, but I also remember her delicious mushroom chicken, feeling proud of her at her retirement dinner and leaning my head on her rigid shoulder once in a boat where I was having extreme anxiety, in a desperate measure to alleviate it and cover it up at the same time. “Tell me your life story,” I said as I listened intensely to every word, hoping it would distract me from the panic inside, and it did.
I’ve been reflecting on how these few positive memories are eclipsed by all of the trauma. And wondering if that will ever change. I spent so much of my life denying just how bad it really was. Even to my counselor’s face, decades ago, who was sharing her opinion that of all the terrible things life had thrown at me–my mother’s death, Cindy’s murder, etc–the one she thought was the straw that threw me in to that anxiety disorder was the physical trauma inflicted by Marj. And yet I still begged her not to bring it up to my father, when he came in for one counseling session with me. I was terrified of it being brought to light in my family, although I could finally start sharing it behind closed doors.
I was 40 years old at that time.
It took a few more years to start talking about it to my Dad and that wasn’t easy. He still refers to my mother, playing along by those old rules as “first mother” but he less and less refers to Marj as “your mother”. I don’t correct him as that is his reality, but I don’t join him anymore in those forced words. They simply do not apply. And they never did.
My mother, Dorothy, has memorialized herself inside me too, even though I have very few conscious memories of her. She lives in me in her love of creative projects, decorating, cooking and now, being a Mom.
I feel very natural in my role with Lillian. Nothing is forced and there are few learning curves. Honestly, this has surprised me. I feel a natural desire to reinforce her relationship with her Mother, her real mother, and I speak kindly about her, always. Lillian notices this and recently semi-scolded me saying “you didn’t say hi to my Mom” when Rachel came to pick her up. Kids notice these nuances. I need to be even more conscious about these details.
It’s not like I’m trying to keep her out of a warring middle–there is no middle. There is a mosaic she lives in of many colors which I’m sure will shift and change like a kaleidoscope.
“Kids are very bonded with their mothers at this age,” my friend who has raised three kids shared with me this week, helping me to understand this new needy behavior. I see it and feel it with Lillian. Needy, in a child, is normal and not something to be scolded for. I’m learning, or maybe unlearning, that too.
And how could I not realize it was right at this stage of Mommy-clinginess that my own mother was ripped from me and us from her. Yes, it’s sad.
Yet I have a new opportunity right now to make things right in myself. To keep nourishing the ways my mother lives on in me, accepting them and allowing them to flourish.
From the creative projects Lillian and I do together to cooking together and exploring new foods, to shopping for her and doing her hair, to travel and adventure, I get to live the life my mother never got to live with me. I get to see her arise and shine through me in all of these moments, getting to know her perhaps for the first time in my 50’s, not my 5.
As they say, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
And just maybe, that illumination will shine so bright that Marj , and her failed attempts to imprint on me, will slide back in to some dormant shadow, quiet, impotent, never able to harm me or anyone through me in a final resting place.
And maybe from that place, I will learn more thoroughly, about forgiveness.
Dedicated to my mother, Dorothy June Schlosser Monkman, forever in my heart.