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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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.
In July, I spoke at the Story Circle Women’s Writing Conference—a group of bright, energetic, and eager writers of all genres. What moved me most was the look in some of the women’s eyes as they told me how much they needed to hear permission, again, to write and tell their stories–from me and from other teachers at the conference. Most of us struggle with how to feel internal permission to write what most needs to be written—the deep truths that have shaped and governed our lives. It helps to get encouragement, to hear how important this is, over and over again.
We know that there are things that get in the way—shame, fear of judgment from family and friends, and our own reluctance/fear to put into words painful things that we have experienced. These reasons not to write or explore the depths and layers of our stories fight with the need to be authentic and real, and to be who we really are.
How can we break through these barriers? It’s not easy—just “deciding” may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we can and should write our truths, that it might be beneficial. Freeing. It says yes, and it knows that may other people have done this. That it’s possible. But…the real problem is our emotional self. It’s cautious and protective of us. Sometimes we call the voice that silences us “the inner critic.” But perhaps it’s not only critical—it’s protecting you from being hurt.
How do we work toward breaking open and telling the truth? How can we feel more permission? One technique for protection is to make lists—lists help to contain the emotions that can feel like they are “too much” when we’re exploring truth and secrets.
Another technique is to keep your writing private. Share carefully when you decide to share, and remember that family and friends may have a different perspective from you. If you get negative feedback, it can stop you from writing honestly. Protect your creative self!
- 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 you think might happen.
- List the secrets that you aren’t ready to write about.
- List what you imagine people will say if you write your truths.
- Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to.
- Take classes, and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies grow better with more water.
The more you write, the more you will write! It’s amazing, as if you become your own cheerleader. And community offers help–writing conferences, writing sites online, and bookstore readings. All these connections feed your writing soul. Each new piece leads to another. Enjoy!
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.
It’s a question that people have been asking me: why write another memoir? This summer, I’m excited to be involved with book launches, reviews, and discussions about my new memoir Song of the Plains. I asked myself, what still needs to be said after my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother?
Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness
My first memoir is about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. It’s a coming of age story through a child’s eyes that begins when my mother left—I was four. The book follows the theme of mothers and daughters who were estranged, and struggled with their relationship. When I discovered that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a little girl, I knew that something was wrong, that there was a generational pattern that demanded to be explored. The story takes the reader on a journey that shows how I coped with a volatile and rejecting mother, and my grandmother. She had saved me and raised me with great flair—sharing her passions about music, history, and literature, but she deteriorated as she got older into an angry, punishing person. My mother’s diagnosis of manic-depressive illness on her deathbed offered some insights into our family pattern—it often runs in families. Having a name for some of the crazy things that happened as I grew up helped me to understand the struggles I’d witnessed. Knowing that there was a mental illness explained in part what happened in our family and helped me to have compassion for my mothers by the end of the book.
Song of the Plains
The themes of this book had been whispering in my ear for decades, though the cadence grew louder last year, which reminded me that I’d been gathering books and quotes about the Great Plains for years. I was a history buff fascinated by archeology, geology, and the westward-ho movement that sent pioneers across America, not yet knowing how deeply that history was engraved in my DNA.
Growing up in Oklahoma put me in touch with western history—wild and reckless and “Indian country” until well into the 20th century. I had a personal relationship with the Great Plains—its huge spaciousness felt like a protection when I was stressed by my grandmother and mother’s conflicts. The beauty of the azure sky and huge towers of clouds offered peace and inspiration. And the wind has always been a character in stories about the west.
Since I was a child, I had a powerful curiosity to know what happened in the past, ever since my great-grandmother whispered her stories to me in a featherbed when I was eight and she was eighty. From that time on, I was a genealogist and a historian, always searching for more insights.
The voice for this book began to whisper in my ear, and there also was the familiar inner critic voice: haven’t you said too much already? Isn’t one story enough about all those people? What’s new that hasn’t been said? Aren’t you writing too much about yourself?
We all have that voice, but there’s another voice that whispers invitations—have you heard it, too? It goes like this: What if…
My voice said:
- What if… you learned more about your grandmother’s life—maybe that would change your perspective about her.
- What if… you could find out what happened to your mother as a little girl—maybe that could explain why she was so angry and sad.
- What if…there are more stories about them you don’t know. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to find out?
These questions led me to do decades of genealogical research, which for years had still left me without a story I could piece together. The “What if” questions are what drove me to the courthouses and graveyards for the last forty years as I tried to discover the hidden stories about my family. I found a treasure of information in the small town newspaper in Wapello, Iowa.
For seven years, I searched for our family names in the microfilm archives, and luckily was rewarded by finding pieces of my mother’s story—when she was born, where she lived. It was exciting to see my mother there as a little girl, and my grandmother, when she was only twenty-one years old. Suddenly, people who had a story in the misty far past became real and in focus. They came alive to me, proving that history is not only something that happened long ago. History is a living story, lived moment to moment, and when we can follow the breadcrumbs, we can find to a deeper understanding.
My book weaves the themes of history, of land and people, and hope and failure. Hard work and adventures across the sea. It’s bigger than me and my story—and I’m happy for that. I hope my book encourages you to look for your roots and celebrate your heritage. Perhaps you will even want to write about it!