It’s 1966, March 4th, and the snow is silently falling, whispering down onto the deserted University of Illinois campus at 8 AM on a Saturday. The moment captures me in its powerful silence, the snowflakes as large as cars, perfect and whole and individually sprinkling to the earth. It’s a black and white etching of a day, the spindly trees reaching toward a grey sky, the substantial brick buildings of the campus suggesting solidity and time.
In those days, I was a bereft girl, still unaware of the toll my childhood had taken on me by the absence—and the wars—of my parents and grandmother. It was a blessing to be unable to know it fully yet, still protected with what I now know as “defense mechanisms.” I had pushed the darkness away in my mind but it always hovered with hints of its dark secrets, putting its hand on my body which led to being sick a lot.
This moment on March 4th seemed to suspend me from my chattering mind, endless spools of worries, the tension that made my back ache. The silence had invited me into it and caused me to reflect, to take in that perfect moment of snow and quiet, my monkey mind at peace. I was connected to the whole world.
Today, as I always do on March 4th, I celebrate this day as my “spiritual holiday,” a celebration of being alive, of “marching forth into spring.” That day so long ago had always seemed special, and I celebrated it as many Midwesterners do after such long cold winters—eager to embrace the nascent spring hiding just under the snow. In my memoir writing, I’ve tried to capture that moment many times, but it’s like music—just out of reach of adequate words. I’ve painted it, and created etchings of bare branches in snow, comforted somehow by its starkness.
I was surprised today with a new insight about this event that happened so long ago—and I can blame many things for it—particularly memoir writing and the gifts it keeps on giving.
People liken memoir writing to “peeling the onion,” a term often used in psychotherapy to describe the gradual evolution of the story being told and the insights gained. Or it can describe the unraveling of the persona that we wear in the world, as the work of insight, grieving, and finding new perspectives continues. I tell my memoir students to just keep writing and see what new stories and ahas rise up unannounced out of the muck of the confusion of our memories and reflections.
Finally, I found the timeline and context of my March 4th memory—which was linked to the theme of my memoir!
The urge to celebrate marching forth had everything to do with the incident I describe in my book Don’t Call Me Mother—where my mother refused to introduce me to a jeweler friend of hers, leaving me miserably by the cold door of the shop where the real and metaphorical cold wind of Chicago froze me out. As we left and I confronted her about her cold shoulder, she said, “You know that I go by ‘Miss Myers.’ No one knows I’ve been married and so I can’t have a daughter, can I? Don’t make a fuss, my life needs to stay the way it is.”
In shock, I tried to understand her then, and for the next 30 years, I’d try to change her. I’d visit her in Chicago and endure her whisking me through back doors, and later she did the same with my children, admonishing us not to tell anyone that we were hers. This theme winds through my book, and informs much of my life.
I began to realize that my forward-looking promise to “March forth” every year, which I have celebrated since 1966, was about the need to move forward despite my mother’s rejection—which had occurred a few weeks before that first snowy March 4th. In the silence that blessed me that day, my spiritual self, or God, or whomever it is that helps bereft and lost children, touched my heart and mind, offering me hope that if I marched forth, I would make it. I would find my way.
I wish you all a Happy March 4th, and may you march forth into healing, into joy, and find your true voice.