I just returned from “home,” Enid, Oklahoma, where I read my memoirs and attended my high school reunion–more to come on that. All over town, I encountered places of memory so profound I felt I was surfing layers of time. This photo is of a small lake bordering what was Phillips University back in the 50s, tucked away in silence and peace, a place where I visit in my dreams and memories, a place of encounter that changed my life. After Rusty died, I began to write for the first time. It was a beginning I never could have imagined developing into something that would fill and heal my life. Sixty years later, I return here to speak with him, to remember. On a May afternoon this spring, standing where the winds of memory were rustling the trees, there he was, smiling.
I share him through a poem I wrote long ago to honor a boy who died too young.
August 14, 1961
Rusty was sixteen,
then, and always:
the red dirt road, the hose,
the blue Dodge where we talked
about things that mattered
by the silent lake–iridescent dragonflies,
summer sun, canopy of green leaves, mockingbirds
calling out our future–if only
we could understand.
The day he died, I washed and curled
my great-grandmother’s white hair over my fingers,
reading her skull like a phrenologist,
deep indentations and history.
Ringlets haloed over her pink scalp,
her liquid mind flowing in and out of memory.
I called her Grandma.
Her black granny shoes stamped the buckled linoleum,
creased knuckles curled around the enamel teakettle,
slammed it on the cook-stove,
(hated new-fangled gas). Outdoors by the garden
wood was chopped and stacked into cords
by three sons.
She pumped the engine in that stove,
pounded out pie crust ripe with white lard.
I peeled buckets of tiny green apples with brown holes, bruises,
imperfect apples perfect for compost
and our pie.
Thick virtuoso fingers wedged the rich crust
high around the rim so the apple juice wouldn’t spill.
Even when you’re young
you come to count on the
moon ripening into its fullness,
cycling through years that peel off like skins.
That lost boy, his green eyes forever empty,
sleeps in deadly gases flooding the
fine bones of his face, entering molecule
by molecule his blood and his heart.
He can not count on anything now
but this death by drowning in the wide
plains night, caressed by the silent, hot wind.
Black coffee percolated in the dented aluminum pot,
striking the glass top with its burned beak.
Iowa summer sucked lace curtains in and out,
in and out above our feather beds.
Grandma’s world, 1880 and 1961, time suspended.
Wings of clouds promised afternoon rain.
The letter came while the fire
burned its hottest, Grandma prodding oak and pine,
demanding heat for the zenith of perfection,
apple molecules burst in the summer afternoon.
The letter said he had passed
to an unknown place.
His father begged him to come back, sobbing,
clinging to the coffin that day in the sun,
white roses fluttering like chambers of the heart.
Grandma worked like a midwife, brown eyes burning,
flesh of her arms swinging, her strong hands
mixing the elements–apple and lard, flour, salt, cinnamon,
magic transforming into pie in the dark caldron of the oven,
oxygen and heat and gases an alchemy,
She sliced the crisp crust, apple and cinnamon singing out,
juices scalding, so much life, burning like lightning,
I crumbled to the floor,
hot oven baking my back,
needing the heat to strip me
as she asked how old he was,
did I love him.
Yes, I say mothers, plural because my mother’s mother raised me after I was six, and I saw my mother once a year as I grew up. In my first memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, my mother, grandmother, and all the other adults who shaped my life were viewed through the eyes of a child who grows up to adulthood and motherhood through the book. It ends with the death of my mother, where I fall into a spiritual experience of love and forgiveness with her. She’s unable to talk or reject me any further–a lifetime of rejection is reflected in the title Don’t Call Me Mother. When my mother was ill and dying in Chicago, my arrival to help her was news to her friends. “We didn’t know she had a daughter.”
It was a long journey to rise up from shame about my often hysterical, warring, dramatic mothers as I wrote my first memoir. Still immersed in the dramas and pain through the twelve years of writing, and not writing, the book, I found a healing path as I peeled away layers of feelings, diving deep into the memories of missing my mother, her many arrivals and departures on the train, and the complicated years of history with her mother, the grandmother who was raising me.
Everyone gathers on the platform. I stand right on the tracks and gaze down to the silvery place at the horizon where they meet, trying to imagine what is beyond it. The whole day is magic – my mommy will be here soon and all will be well.
A beam of light hovers far off down the track. The train seems suspended for a moment as in a mirage, not moving, then the earth begins to tremble and the whistle splits the air. The power of the onrushing train shocks me, my heart pounds hard. People scatter as the steel beast roars in fast. When the brakes take hold, the train keeps going for a few moments, its brakes screeching. I put my hands over my ears. Finally, amazingly, the huge train shudders to a stop.
I wonder if I will recognize my mother. I watch a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman step down, my heart pounding. She wears open-toed shoes, carries a paper bag and a small suitcase, and walks purposefully toward Gram. I watch them watch each other, and then I know it’s her. I break into a run, patent leather shoes tap tap tapping on the bricks. “Mommy, Mommy.” I fling myself at her, grabbing her legs, looking up into beauty itself, my mother’s soft eyes, her dark wavy hair. She smiles and kneels down so I can kiss her cheek. I can hardly believe that she is real.
“Hi, Mommy. Do you think I’ve grown?”
“Hi, Linda Joy,” Mommy says casually, as if we’ve been apart only a few hours. She kisses my cheek lightly, stiffens, and gets up.
“Hello, Josephine,” my grandmother says in her cool voice, stiff too, her shoulders taut.
“Hello, Mother.” Her cool gaze is full of something I can’t translate, her voice thick.
The great silver train growls and coughs under the wide blue sky. The drama that will come next is set in motion, accusations, broken dishes, cries in the night.
Josephine, red hair and flair
Even at the age of eight, I could see that something profound and troubling existed between the two of them, a seedling of insight that grew into an extended research project throughout my life. I was obsessed with solving the puzzle–why they tensed up and looked grimly at each other instead of hugging and smiling like other families did at the train station.
Some of the clues came from other members of our family in Iowa. My great-grandmother Blanche, the storyteller-holder of history in the family, told me some stories for the first time as she hacked at the weeds in the garden.
“Did my mama know your mama?”
She grunts as she hoes a patch of weeds. “Oh Lord, yes. When your mama was a little girl, she’d visit my mama in Muscatine. Your mama, Jo’tine – that’s what we called her – would come to see me at the farm where the rest of my kids were growing up. Such a pretty little girl she was, with those big, brown eyes. Poor little thing.”
I wonder what she means.
“She don’t do right by you, I tell ya. At least Lulu has the sense to take care ’a you. But this business ’tween Lulu and Josephine . . . well, you’re too young to understand. I don’t know about those two.” She stomps on a beetle that had been working its way toward a tomato plant.
I try to imagine all these mothers. Our history, my history, reaches so far back. Blanche, Gram, Mother, and me – we all come from here. Next to Blanche I feel very small and young. I look up at her, the mother of the mother of the mother. She knows everything. I decide to stick to her to find out things.
I stick to Blanche all her life, and she delivers the history of the family. I gather clues for the next sixty years, and they lead to my memoirs– Don’t Call Me Mother. And now the clues have led me to discovering my mother and grandmother all over again in Song of The Plains.
Blanche and Lulu, my grandmother-1895
My new memoir is a love song to the Great Plains, Mother Earth who embraced and nurtured me in the long emotional deserts of my life when either I was rejected or I had to protect myself against various kinds of assaults. I could always go out into the landscape and be received.
The Great Plains is a wonder of contrasts.
The deep-indigo night sky is splashed by a wash of stars scattered across the dome above your small self.
In the white brilliance of daylight, it echoes with lonely notes from meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds resting on stark tree branches and fence posts, dangerous barbed wire trembling in the wind.
The sounds of the birds and the sense of space, so large you can’t grasp them with your two-dimensional mind, etch the edges of your loneliness, giving it form, making your heart reach out for the simplicity of light and wind, red dirt and birdcall.
In this moment you are at one with All That Is. You are free.
Blanche’s wisdom and stories about our family and her youth in the nineteenth century–midwives delivering children, boiling the laundry every week in a pot outdoors, cooking on a wood cook stove–and the fragmented truths she was unable to string together into a cohesive story about my grandmother leaving behind my mother as a young child, about the distress she felt about my mother leaving me behind when I was a little girl. Perhaps her stories were meant to give me the threads I would need to weave together the layers of the deeper truths of their story, things I could never have known until I pursued them through the hallways of history and landing us finally on the pages of Ancestry. com.
There I was able to find the heart of my mother and grandmother. They each had told me bits and pieces of their story but nothing that wove together. I discovered that “facts” can unearth insights–I’d always thought psychology created insights more than events and information.
Carl Jung says we inherit the unresolved issues of our parents. They live on in our bodies and our dreams. Perhaps the past itself is a dream, a saga made of all the bodies and yearnings of all those who went before us. They’re silent then, after death, but for wisps of remembered stories, ghosts in photos, the line of a cheek or the shape of an eye. They mark us with their stories; they’re in us and with us. But we must separate from them and create our own narrative.
I see now that my mothers were once children, aching for love, and they grew up in a world where women had no power, no permission to have a life, no way to say no to the traditions that were strangling them. I found them young, as girls, with hearts full of hope. Then, as young women, a magnet for men, who for a time would ease the ache. I know such moments too–each of us repeating our search for wholeness in our own era. In my new memoir, I walked in their shoes and told their stories, weaving a mosaic of the stories I’d been gathering for a lifetime. Now that the book is published, when I hold it in my hands, it offers me peace. Finding the true essence of my mothers, chasing our story through more than 100 years of history, I see the love they tried to offer, I understand them better, and the old ache is swept away. Sometimes I read their letters to me, wishing I’d answered them. Sometimes I look at their photographs and feel the soft touch of their fingers on my cheek. Though they have been gone for many years now, the relationship still continues and softens, and finds its center in love and in compassion.
Two memoirs celebrating generations of mothers
I was one of those children who found refuge in books—burrowing down in bed at night, the golden light of a flashlight creating an illuminated cave as the light played across the pages. Great stacks of books were piled on my night table, and I made my way quickly through them. Books were a refuge, they were my friends, and they helped me escape from the drama in my life that I write about in my two memoirs. There was a pattern in our family—three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. I am the third daughter who took it upon myself to investigate the history that made its way to me. Even when I was young, I knew I had to break the pattern.
I grew up with my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Though not formally educated, my grandmother was woman who was thirsty for knowledge. Her books were piled up on bookcases, desks, and side tables. I was grateful that we both shared a passion for books and stories. When my mother visited and their screaming fights broke out, I tried to understand why, but that would take years of research to piece together their history. Books however were wise, teaching me that people were complicated, helping me to stand back as an observer. Eventually, I became a narrator of our story, investigating our family history for ten generations. The layers of our story are in my new book Song of the Plains—A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence.
If you love books, you of course will find refuge and delight in bookstores. I’ve long been a bookstore lover. I love the smell of the books—I’m a self-confessed book sniffer, the aroma of ink and paper a heady mix. The rows of enticing new worlds on each side of the aisle always has been and still is wonderful to me. For nearly forty years, one of the bookstores I have loved and embraced is Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California. When I first started roaming the aisles of Gallery Bookshop, I would arrive hungry, often in the throes of emotional angst that was a part of years of healing from the dramas and traumas of the past. Just like when I was a child, I’d look for books where I could disappear for a while, books that would teach me something new about life. Gallery Bookshop always offered new treasures. I would find unique books, lovely literary novels, adventures, and psychologically intelligent books. And the best part of being at the bookstore is the people who work there. They know their books well, as if they were family members, books beloved and shared and hand sold.
The bookstore faces the sea, the sound of waves rumbling below the cliffs is part of the sound track of the store, inviting you to walk at the edge of the world. You can imagine how deeply I will enjoy talking about my new memoir at Gallery Bookshop on June 24, 2017. It’s like coming home to speak with other book lovers there as the white spray from the waves lifts up over the rocks.
Now, when I visit Gallery Bookshop, I remember all the years when it sheltered me, offering me hope and stories, and a vision for a life where writing stories might be possible, though for years I didn’t believe that I could write. Story by story, I developed my craft, and the permission to find words for my experience.
Books still feed me, as does this special bookstore by the sea, and I am more than delighted to be a guest on June 24. Please join me to share your own family stories, and how books have changed your life.
In the last post, we examined the inner critic—how it can sow seeds of doubt about the validity of your story, and how we can worry about how the family will react, claiming that their own version of the past is the only “true” one. My advice was to accept that you are not alone! That all writers have doubts about their story, their writing, and how others will interpret the story differently and see it through their own eyes.
When we write a memoir, we’re called to write OUR story, our version of the truth of our lives, the story we need to tell. To do that, we need to trust in the process, which is its own challenge, as there are so many layers—of time, identity, truth, and outcome—to explore, and more will show up as we write. “The process?” my students say. “How can I trust in that?”
It means that each stage of writing and each challenge has a possible solution that will evolve as we write. We need to keep writing with the faith that it will all work out. It’s important to keep the passion and motivation to write our story no matter what. We build strength for each new stage of the process as we keep writing.
Let’s explore the very real problems memoir writers face crossing the boundary of what most people consider private—the family and its history. When we write memoir, the family stories will become public when your memoir is published.
But remember this: when you are just starting to write, the story is not published yet. It’s still in your head, clamoring to get out. So worrying about publication early on is a cart-before-the-horse problem. As I mentioned in the previous article, we need to feel free to write without censoring ourselves as we explore what our story needs to be. We need to feel free to dig deep into the moments that shaped us into who we are now, and reveal what we’ve learned once we understand it—which is part of the process for the writer. When we understand that, then we offer the reader a chance to learn from our experiences—we offer universal truths. We explore these insights privately though at first as we write scene by scene.
There’s so much wisdom to be found in discovering the stories you need to tell and getting them on the page. When you first start writing, most likely you’re not fully aware of how deep your wisdom may be.
So at this stage, keep in mind these points about exposure and family:
- Write for yourself first, imagining your family far away from your writing space.
- Dig into your own truths, the experiences that shaped you. Go beyond what you’ve already written or said. Freewrite—write without stopping for 10 minutes to blow by the inner critic.
- Imagine that you’re writing in a sacred, safe space where only your voice matters. Some people create a ritual to help them remember they’re writing in this space by lighting candles or putting on soothing background music. Sometimes it helps if the music is from the era you’re writing about.
- Put photos around you that inspire you to write. Write from a photo—telling the story of that moment as you remember it. Who is in the photo; when, where, and why was it taken? What is your favorite memory about the photo you chose. What happened after the photo was snapped?
- Much later in your writing process, after your first, or even third or sixth draft, you’ll have a sense of how much of the family story needs to be in public form, how much you need to tell, and what you feel better about editing out. You’ll be able to draw upon your inner editor, not your inner critic, to make those decisions.
- Write your story! See what it can teach you. It’s an exploration.
When you begin to write a memoir, you soon discover several layers to the process: there’s the emotional angst most people feel about writing about themselves, the worry about exposing yourself and your family to public scrutiny when the book is published. And there are questions about the craft of writing a story. After all, your story is so much more than what happened when, though time frames and timelines are important when writing a memoir. When confronted with these complicated questions, there can be a temptation to give up and walk away. Or you can contact a writing coach or join a class to keep going with support and discussion that help you find your way.
From having written two published memoirs—my new one, Song of the Plains, will be released in June, and with four non-published versions filed away, I know the struggle well!
I’m going to address questions about the process of memoir writing in a series of articles, each one focusing on one of the problems. The first one is about the emotional angst.
The angst people feel when they begin to write may lead to these questions:
- Will my story be interesting to other people?
- I’m afraid to start because then I’ll feel too exposed. There’s a lot in my story that no one else knows.
- What about my family? They won’t want me to write this story.
- The whole world will find out about things that will expose other people.
- The family will say that I’m making these things up.
First, let me tell you that I’ve been a family therapist for 38 years, and I bring to this discussion my years of work with people and knowledge of family dynamics and the challenge of revealing secrets or silence. I know how hard it is. I used to feel I’d dissolve in shame when I first wrote the truths of my life—it was a secret shame then because I didn’t know that other writers went through the same thing. I also never thought others could relate to my story—another issue that I found out most writers have. But I kept writing, alone. I kept trying to find the voice for my story and write it because it wouldn’t leave me alone!
You want to know if your story will be interesting to others, but you can’t answer that—it’s really the inner critic talking, the voice of doubt. As I said, it’s a question that every writer asks. We all wonder if we’re blabbing stuff that’s going to be boring, or too shocking, or too something, and we pull back. The inner critic is like that—it creates doubt, and it silences us.
The solution: jump in and freewrite your story. A freewrite means to start writing and go for 15 minutes without stopping—this bypasses the inner critic. Get out as much as you can. Announce to your inner critic that everyone asks those questions and right now you’re going to give yourself permission to explore your story.
Then there is the problem with family and exposure. While it’s natural for family members to be concerned about how they’re portrayed, when you begin, you are not showing your work to them. It’s important to feel free to write what’s on your mind, to write your truth without censoring. I strongly advocate not sharing your early writing with anyone except your exclusive, safe writing group and your writing coach. And don’t show your work to your family yet. If you write in private for a while, they won’t know about it, and won’t judge it or you.
Some writers have told me their family has explicitly told them not to write certain truths about the family, not to reveal certain secrets or embarrassing information. Each writer has to decide whether to step across that “permission” line or not. You need to consider the family “rules”—and whether you’re going to break them. What would the outcome be if you did? What if the revealing of certain stories presented an opportunity for healing? Sometimes there’s positive outcome when you’re ready to share your story with family. There can be fresh perspectives, and a chance for a new kind of conversation about things that have never been talked about before.
But I can’t emphasize enough that in the early stages keep your story private so you can explore your memories and your point of view freely without worrying about the feelings of other people or possible outcomes. As a family therapist, I can’t tell you how many times I’d sit in a session with a group of six or eight people and hear how each of them had a different point of view about a single event—the same event, and each believed they were right. It’s common for people to see things differently, but when you’re writing your point of view, it can feel invalidating to hear these different opinions. So it’s best to hold off until later.
As you begin writing your story, you’re trying to discover your own truths, you’re writing to explore yourself, your story, and how your past has affected you. Write your story to get it down on the page where you can read it as a witness to your former self. This is freeing and is often a healing experience.
In the next article, we’ll look at the issues around publicly writing about other people and how to handle that.