Blanche and Lulu, 1895 Lulu’s father died 8 months before she was born
Today is International Women’s Day. I reflected again on the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with stories from the 19th century; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me. She started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, who took ships across the ocean. And my mother, Josephine, who’d been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary in the early 1920s while her daughter lived in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle as women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much of their history is the history of America.
In my book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what others have lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, lost narratives, lies, and pregnant silences. I felt each of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, and the secrets and silences that always hovered underneath. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes in my body. I felt the shame of being related to my grandmother and mother, and judged by Gram’s brothers and sisters in the Iowa extended family as “bad blood.” Because they were different. Because they both dared to take a different path from the traditional farm woman who would sacrifice herself and die young.
Lulu, about 25
What do we do as women with these inheritances? We search for our identity. Part of my self-definition was to return to the origins of my family and sleuth out their pasts. For four decades, I talked to family members, who would clam up around certain subjects–so I noted the subjects where they were silent, and was even more determined to find out what happened that created the silences. I made my way to dusty courthouses where I lifted down huge tomes of records, each with hundreds of pages filled with names written in lovely cursive writing. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when did Lulu leave Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl. Why did they fight fought and struggle with each other until the last day of Frances’s life? She died without any reconciliation with my mother.
My mother Josephine was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped she’d at last claim me. When I was twenty years old, she told me not to call her “mother.” She was ashamed of being divorced, ashamed perhaps of being herself. The sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or able to love me or my children. But I was with her at her deathbed, and in those few days she could no longer prevent me from loving her. The silences lifted and there was a purity beyond the story we’d lived.
Josephine, about 5, in rocking chair with her new aunt.
The search for their history continued for twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I pieced together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are revealed in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By doing the research and writing their stories, I healed myself, and could offer a new legacy to my children and grandchildren.
Today I celebrate these women who had to live in a world that was biased, judgemental, and set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. We need to teach the new generations the histories that shape women and help them understand.
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What story chases you? What are the moments you can’t forget? These are clues that you have a story to tell, that a memoir is knocking on your door. For me, it was wanting to understand my mother, who’d left me with her mother when I was four. She’d visit once a year, and I loved her desperately, always getting close to inhale her skin, loving the way her dark eyes and shapely lips made her so beautiful. I wanted to understand her, and her mother, my grandmother, who had taken me in. They must have loved each other, but each visit, dishes were broken, their arguments rising to the ceiling along with the blue-gray smoke of endless cigarette. But these were stories of shame–mothers abandoning their children. Be silent! Don’t tell a story that shows how damaged we were. Don’t speak of what was wrong. But the stories had a life of their own. I lived them, they were part of me. There was no escaping them.
All right, the inner critic wants to silence us, I know, but there was more going on than my mother and missing her. There were those who had saved me–my cello teacher Mr. Brauninger, who revealed the deep beauty and healing power of music. My grandmother’s best friend, Aunt Helen, who blessed me with her brand of southern love: “God love ‘ya darlin'” she’d say, enveloping me in her generous bosom.
What are the stories that call out to you? Moments that shaped you into who you are now? What voices tell you to write them, and what forces stop you? What I learned in wrestling with my inner critic is that writing will cure it. To write, freewrite, write in a journal, just get something down on the page. Allow my voice to show up. I learned that one scene can lead to another scene, and these will be building blocks to a chapter. the stories that won’t leave us alone are the ones that have a key to freedom. The stories that will lead us to resolution–but only if we allow ourselves the voice that is our own. Our truth. And what we make of it.
Start today. Write about a moment you love remembering. Write about someone who touched your life and who you can never forget. Write about your grandmother’s garden or your father’s eye. Find details that make your heart pound a little harder. You’re on the right track.
Fear–everyone experiences an uncomfortable tension, a flutter in the stomach, when they think about writing about their lives and revealing themselves. But most of us come to the page with a need–to explore our lives and memories. To understand something. To muse and wonder about life, relationships. What are the stories that haunt you? What do you need to say and what stops you? What memories won’t leave you alone? Write them down. For now, just write a list.
What gets in the way of writing your truth: shame, fear of judgment from family and friends? Sometimes it’s hard to express the truth of what we’ve lived through, what we’ve done to ourselves and others. And what others have done to us. In writing memoir, we have the opportunity to explore the deeper layers of memory and self. We try to make sense of what happened. Writing allow us to explore our minds and dreams, it gives us permission to discover who we are.
How can we break through the voices of doubt? It’s not easy—just “deciding” to push through may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we need to write our stories. But the real problem is our vulnerable emotional self–it wants to protect us from hurt or criticism. (Often we are our own worst critic.) The silencing voice, “the inner critic” is a part of everyone. Every famous author will tell you in their presentations how hard it was to write, how their inner critic started shouting or whispering. But they write anyway!
Journaling, morning pages, a poem a day–you don’t have to write a great deal to feel the joy of seeing your words flow onto the page. Then celebrate and reward yourself for your efforts. Bit by bit you will be able to write more. Someone once told me “Writing leads to more writing!” It’s true. Every time you write, you’re breaking your silence and freeing your voice.
Make lists of the significant moments you remember, moments that won’t leave you alone. Lists help to contain overwhelming emotions and allow you to slowly immerse yourself in a few memories at a time. Be sure to balance the light and dark memories.
Another technique: Keep your writing private through the first draft. Share carefully and protect your vulnerable early thoughts and remembrances from outside comments until you have written a lot without worrying about what your family might say. Remember that family and friends might have a different perspective of events. Negative feedback or the fear of it stops us from writing freely and honestly. Protect your creative self! Get your stories down and live with them for awhile before sharing them.
- List the 5 things that you are most afraid to write about.
- Take each one on your list and freewrite for 3 minutes why you are afraid. What would happen if you wrote your truths?
- List the secrets you aren’t ready to write about.
- List what you imagine people will say if you write what you really think and feel.
- Make a list of the 5 best memories in your life.
- Each week, choose a story from your lists and write at least 500 words.
- Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to and who can support you. Mutual support and witnessing helps with the process.
- Take classes and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies will grow better with more nurturing.
When the invitation to join our Enid High School 55th graduating class reunion arrived, at first I tossed it aside. Enid, Oklahoma is a long way from California. It takes a whole day to get there by two planes and a car. Would I really connect with “kids” I knew back in the fifties after all these years? Then, curiosity–who are these people now? Perhaps I could attend and include a book reading. Is there a bookstore that would host me? A few Google clicks later led me to “A New Chapter Bookstore,” a new bookstore owned by two women who are indeed starting their own new chapter in life by creating a place for people who love books. A phone call set up my path to take my books home. Thank you Becky and Coral! Before I left, I was tempted to cancel several times. Talk to people I knew about all my secrets? So scary. Too revealing. For days before I left, I hoped that I might not have to go. Yet, I knew I had to go. There was something there for me to discover. When I landed in Oklahoma City, the sweet wind caressed me, as it always had, and I began to cry. I was home. This land I loved so much embraced me as I drove to Enid in a long languorous dusk filled with silence, and wheat fields, and the two-toned call of a bird.
Before my reading the next day, I ran into some women who were the popular girls back then, girls I had admired, but now we were all grandmothers and none of that mattered as we warmly greeted each other. We had so much in common being from that place, growing up in a time so different from now. Free of my old shyness, I invited them to my reading. To my happy surprise, they came and compassionately listened to my story, and what I revealed for the first time.
Talking about shame and silence, reading from very personally revealing parts of my books to people who knew me as a child seemed to smooth away the edges of shame I had always carried. There was so much to be ashamed about–my parents were divorced, which was “not done” at the time–they considered it shameful, as did society at the time. My grandmother, who had loved her Chicago life, and who dressed like she was still in Chicago, had traveled to England on ships and brought a flair to any conversation, did not fit into that town, nor did she try to. She was an interesting “character” but no one wants their parental figure to be so different with her fake English accent and put-on airs. Later, I had to hide the darkness inside the house–her beatings, screaming, and rages as she descended into what later I would learn was depression and mental illness. I was related to someone who acted like that? No one could know and no one did know these and other shameful things. Of course, what I didn’t know then is that everyone, every household and child has their secrets. Everyone carries their own burdens,
The edges of reality blurred, the then and the now, as I stood in the bookstore in the town where I grew up, the big sky and breezes anchoring me once more to the place where my bones grew and my mind searched for understanding. At the reading, I faced people I knew and met new people. I talked about my books and my truth. The rules of silence from so long ago dissolved as I spoke, the need to hide and lie to myself and others about who I was had fallen away because I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother and Song of the Plains. Because I wrote what was true, because I visited the past so often in real life, and in my dreams and my writing, I had laid out the stories and they were now resting in my books. These acts of witnessing my young self, coming to understand and forgive my mother and grandmother for the heartache we all shared are part of the gift of memoir writing–a gift first to myself, and later, to others who identify with the story in their own way.
I had to laugh at my own joke–they say that writing a memoir will heal you–which is what I teach every day and for the last two decades. It’s true. I could see that writing had freed me of the energetic old burdens of the past as I drove around the streets of Enid, said hello to the lovely graceful wheat fields, met other classmates, and spoke of my books and my story. I was free as I spread my wings under the big sky, and welcomed a powerful hailstorm and sun that quickly shone afterward, knowing that I had indeed come Home.
This is the first chapter of my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother–A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.
This story begins to explore a three generational pattern of mothers leaving daughters–and what necessarily comes in the wake of such troubles.
The beginning paragraphs are from a dream I kept having about my mother and me after she died.
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, sitting in the last car, watching the landscape move backward, as if erasing my childhood, all those times when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you?
Even as she is with me, she is gone.
The train station is the center of the universe, with tracks going and coming in all directions. People stand shivering in the ever-present plains wind, their hair kicked up violently when a train blows by, especially a freight bound for Chicago where, as I understand it, all sensible trains end up. To me, the Windy City, as I hear my mother and grandmother call it, is the end of the known world. It is where I began and where my mother is off to as the three of us—my mother, Josephine, my grandmother, Frances, and I—stand in a miserable clutch. I am sure they are as miserable as I am, my mothers, standing there with their arms across their chests, hips slung out, like bored movie stars competing for the same part. Maybe that’s what they are doing—vying for the part of good mother, or bad mother, depending on how you define things. To me both of them are beautiful and thrilling.
But underneath their beauty and power, a secret is buried. A secret that runs in the blood. This moment repeats for the third time what has happened before—a mother leaving a daughter, repeating what Gram did to my mother so long ago, and her mother before her. It will be years before I find out the whole story about the three generations of women who will define my life. At this moment, the ticking bomb is set to go off when my mother gets on the train. No one here claims any knowledge of this dire pattern. I can feel it, though, deep in a silent place inside me, a place of desperation, the beginning of a crack that will split my life open.
The sun pinks the sky in the west, a place where the eye loves to rest in this open land. Already the lore of its history tickles my curiosity, even though at this moment I am four years old. I hear of Indian chiefs and the frontier, if not from books, then from the pictures all around town proclaiming our cowboy heritage—neon signs, billboards showing an Indian chief in full headdress, peace pipe slung from an arm as casually as a gun. Right now the picture of an Indian, wearing only a blanket and standing in front of the Santa Fe Chief, hangs on the waiting room wall, wreathed in smoke rising like a mysterious code to the ceiling.
I read the code here, tapping feet in open-toed suede shoes. I stare at my mother’s toes, as if to memorize an intimate part of her, bringing my gaze up her shapely legs, my stomach in a pang, the scenes that brought us to this moment fresh in my mind.
Mommy and I came here a few months ago from Chicago, where we had lived after my father left. I don’t know much about him, except that he went off to the war, and came back too, but not to us. She cries when she looks at his pictures. Every so often she shows me a small black-and-white photo of a man wearing an army captain’s hat and grinning as he leans casually against a brick building. The crease in his pants is knife sharp. With her slim fingers, she caresses a photograph of herself against the same wall, wearing a big fur coat.
“That was the night before you were born, a cold night in March. What a wonderful thing that was for your mother.” Mommy often talks about herself like that, as if she wasn’t in the room.
I remember our time in Chicago, when Mommy would talk on the phone forever in the evening, twisting her hair in tiny ringlets all over her head, or knitting scarves and sweaters. I remember the amber light that shone over her like a halo, and I remember that I’d do anything to get her to scratch my back with her sharp fingernails.
But a few months ago, we left Chicago; it was my first time on the train. The ride was thrilling: the sound of the whistle, huge clouds of gushing steam, great deep rumblings of the engines that sounded like scary monsters speeding us by green fields and blue skies all around, with little towns along the side of the track and people waving, waving as if they knew us. The whistle tooted a special hello to them. What fun.
That night the porter unfolded the special bed that was our seat, pulling down a shade made of thick green cloth. I loved the little tent he made for us. My mother had a dreamy look on her face, staring at the sights as the wheels click-clacked beneath us. She wore her cotton nightgown, and I my pajamas. We cuddled between fresh cotton sheets. The train rocked us back and forth, back and forth in a sweet rhythm that one day I would remember as the best moment we ever had, Mommy and me. On the train, together. The next day, we arrived in Wichita where I met Gram, Mommy’s mother.
She looked like my mother, with the same pretty face. Her voice was soft as she sifted my fine hair away from my forehead in a gentle gesture and smiled at me with soft brown eyes so dark I couldn’t see the pupils you can see in most people’s eyes. She was nice to me and called me Sugar Pie. But Mommy and Gram—whew—they sure did surprise me by fighting all the time. I’d watch, or hide in the hall, while they yelled, screamed, and cried. Almost every day. It was terrible to hear; it made my skin itch. I scratched the itch, making red marks on my arms. Their cigarette smoke filled the air.
When Mommy rushed off to work each morning it was quiet and nice in Gram’s little house. Windows let in the sun through the Venetian blinds, making pretty patterns on the hardwood floors. Gram read stories to me, and we made bubbles with soap in the sink. She taught me to eat prunes every morning. I began learning how words make stories come alive—Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Bears. Every day I waited for Mommy to come home. I loved her throaty voice, the way she touched my hair for a moment. I was always slinking around trying to get more hugs out of her, but she was not much for that.
One evening, everything seemed different. Mommy yelled. Threw down her purse. Lit cigarette after cigarette, the frown between her eyes deepening with each puff. Gram edged around her, as if she were looking for a way to either blow up or not fight at all. Finally the explosion came, my mothers opening and closing angry mouths. I kept my eye on them while I put dishes on the table.
“I hate this place,” Mother said, stomping her heels on the floor.
Gram made a nasty face. Their voices had sharp edges, and got so loud I had to put my fingers in my ears. They were so loud, so angry, sounding like screeching birds. Then something happened. Mommy got really quiet, which scared me even more, and said, “That’s it; I’m going back to Chicago.” I can’t say how I knew it, but I could tell that she wasn’t going to take me, and that if she left me now, it would be forever.
I watched her walk back and forth across the floor. The seams in her hose were crooked. Mommy never had crooked seams. I sat on the floor, my stomach in a knot, while I traced the patterns in the Oriental rug. I wanted to get lost in those swirls, like in a dark forest in the fairy tales. I could get lost and never be found again.
So here we are, waiting for the train. My chest is tight; there is darkness and ice all the way though me. I am shivering. How can she leave? She knows I don’t want her to go. My mother stands apart from me and from Gram, far enough to show that she is the one leaving, the one who will go alone on the train. I dread the train that’s about to take her away. All around me everyone acts normal. People bustle around getting ready, the train men push luggage carts, kids jump up and down. Words that I cannot say gather in my mouth, fill my whole body. Every muscle wants to run to her, grab at her and scream, “Please don’t go,” but I know that she and Gram don’t want me to do this. I don’t want to make them mad; I don’t want them to look at me with those dark eyes of disapproval. I couldn’t stand it. So I pretend.
The wind blows through me, whirling my dress. Then the sound of the whistle cries out, as if in pain. A deep sorrow lurches through me. I hold my breath to keep myself from crying. The light appears at the far end of the tracks and gets bigger. I can’t stop any of this. The huge train tears into the station, rumbling the earth beneath my feet, kicking up my hair with the blast of wind. A scream comes out of my mouth, but no one hears me. The locomotive is too huge, too powerful and frightening, and it is coming to take my mother away.
Mommy and I are wrapped in invisible gauze, wrapped tight so it can’t break, but as she touches me softly with her fingertips, and leans over to give Gram a kiss, I can feel the fabric unwrapping, unwinding us until just a thin piece is left. She hugs me lightly, as if she’s afraid I’ll cling to her. Her musky smell clings to me. She click-clacks toward the train on her high heels, almost as if she’s glad to get away. Her seams are straight, and she is so beautiful with the sun on her face as she climbs into the train car.
Mommy, Mommy, I chant silently, bringing my fingers to my nose to inhale her memory, her scent on my skin.
How I want to be on the train, to cuddle up with Mommy the way we did before. But when Gram looks at me with such sadness in her eyes, I know that I need to stay with her. It’s funny that she was so mad before, but now I can tell she is sad, though she doesn’t say it in words. I take her hand and stand with her as we watch the train disappear down the track in a puff of smoke.
The train whistle cries its lonely song, lingering in the wind that crosses the plains. It will call for me all my life, in my dreams and while I am awake. The train song, the train’s power and promise, are etched deep in my soul from this day forward.