Writing Myself Home I don’t know if I could or even if I should dig through the debris of buried memory to get to the place where I can face… myself.
I wrote the above poem in the late 1990s and when I wrote it, I suspected it had to do with my mother’s mental illness and my fear it would happen to me. I had a good life with a husband who loved me and the daughter I’d always wanted, but something was always gnawing at me? I never felt satisfied, and my mother’s memory hung over my life like a grey cloud. I quit writing shortly after when work and family life took priority.
I came out to myself 12 years later. It would take another 6 years to come out of the “having a mentally ill mother” closet.
Last Fall after moving back to North Dakota, I read a call by the BisMan Writer’s Guild for a collaborative touring art show called The Art of Writing, sponsored in part by the North Dakota Art Gallery Association. Artists and writers were to submit samples and if an artist selected a piece of writing (or vice versa), they would create pieces of art inspired by the other’s work. I wanted to submit my poem, but it needed a title.
After having spent two years drafting, rewriting, excavating, and shaping my memoir, I realized the poem was a way to express what I could not. It was the beginning of “coming home” to myself. Then a year ago September I moved back to my home state of North Dakota. I literally and figuratively had come home, thus the title Writing Myself Home.
Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet for me. I became a mother to the daughter I always wanted at 30…and my mother passed three months later. She never got to see and hold her granddaughter, and I was motherless on my first Mother’s Day.
Mother/daughter relationships are complicated.
Five and a half weeks ago I had bicep and rotator cuff surgery. I had heard the recovery was difficult and I can definitely affirm that, but I was unprepared for how helpless I was to do routine tasks…and how much we take for granted having two functional hands.
Knowing I had surgery scheduled in a week, I started using my non-dominant hand to get used to doing daily tasks. I’m very right-handed so the awkwardness of brushing my teeth with my left hand continues to this day.
I reported to surgery at 5:30 AM where I had a pain block with anesthesia for my arthroscopic surgery. My daughter Daisy took me home just after Noon. She had arranged to work from home that first week and I was to recuperate in her big, beefy recliner. I was feeling no pain in my pain block fog so I went upstairs to do a couple of laps around the kitchen and dining room. Then I had a brilliant idea! I need a few things while I’m in the recliner so I’ll just put them in a bag and carry them downstairs with my left hand. Oh, and I need to eat something. Daisy heard the microwave door open and came rushing up the stairs.
“What are you doing Mom? I’m supposed to be getting things for you.”
In my pain block induced stupor, I looked at her indignantly and blurted, “I. Am. Independent. As. Fuck!”
“I’ll make you whatever you want. Please go sit down. You had surgery today.”
I took up my position on her recliner, she put a pillow under my legs, and tucked the blanket around me snug as a bug in a rug as my mom used to say. Not long afterward, she left the room to answer a phone call.
I started getting too warm so I tried kicking the pillow out from under the blanket. When that didn’t work, I scooted down a little and reached with my left hand to grab the pillow and push…and suddenly the reclined chair tipped forward and touched the floor, with the back end in the air. I couldn’t scoot up into it and I definitely couldn’t get out of it.
I was just getting ready to text Daisy to say, “I think I have an issue…” when she came back into the room to find me at the bottom of the topsy turvy recliner. She didn’t skip a beat.
“So how’s that independence working for you now, Mom?”
“Well, I may have been a little hasty after all.”
I spent the rest of that week in a pain coma, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep in my recliner. With my useless right arm hanging like a limp noodle, Daisy and I confronted personal care-taking that I hadn’t imagined. The helplessness I felt was mortifying. The second week was pain coma round two getting off the narcotics and alternating acetaminophen and and ibuprofen. With my elbow and right wrist immobilized, there was little I could do for myself. I needed help dressing, showering, removing bottle caps, and the smallest of tasks that I wouldn’t have thought twice about before the surgery.
Near the end of the second recovery week, the funeral of a beloved aunt, my Mother’s sister, was to take place. My Aunt June was the closest thing I had to a career mentor in the family who was a registered nurse. My Mother looked up to her older sister and one year for my birthday Mom gave me an engraved bent-handle nurse’s scissors hoping I would follow in her sister’s footsteps. When I was raising my daughter out of state, Aunt June kept me in contact with the family and always tried to visit us when she was nearby. When she took the train to see me in Michigan, I surprised her with a bus trip to Niagara Falls. When the bus arrived earlier than planned, we had just enough time to make the last Maid of the Mist tour if we ran. So we did, with fashionable Aunt June running in her platform heels.
The trip was one of my fondest memories and Aunt June meant the world to me. As the weekend of her memorial got closer, the realization that I may not be able to make it was crushing. I took it day by day and tried to regain some strength. My cousin Shane said he would help me so I could go and he picked up me, my suitcase, my ice machine, a cooler filled with more frozen bottles of water and ice packs, and off we went with his mom, my Aunt Myrt.
The weekend spent in the company of my Mother’s extended family and 14 cousins did more to help my healing than any amount of rest could. Their stabilizing presence in my life during my formative years when my mother was hospitalized helped make me the person I am today.
Daughters are always hardest on their mothers and I’ve spent my life trying to understand my Mother and myself as her daughter. Many times when growing up, the last thing we want to to be like our mothers. I’ve spent countless hours in thought, writing, and therapy about mother/daughter relationships. I wrote this poem in the late 1990s.
Healing My Mother Wounds
I will never be the mother my daughter needs me to be
Just as my Mother was not the mom I thought I needed.
I can only love, protect, and comfort her to the best of my ability
knowing that I'll somehow fall short of her expectations...
and that's okay, because as a daughter my greatest fear
was to become like my mother with her worrisome ways.
Until I became one.
Then I understood with crystal clarity...
She did the best she could.
Mother/daughter relationships are complicated.
The challenge is even greater when as a mother, you’ve always been in control even though your daughter is an adult. This recovery has been a humbling experience, but I’m thankful to have had Daisy’s loving help and guidance through it. I’m nearing the six week mark when I can start driving and become independent again. To say I’ve been a compliant patient is an overstatement, but I have learned to relinquish control in small doses.
On this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful to my Mother and all the Aunts and women in my life who have mothered me. And to my daughter, ten years ago when I came out, you tucked me under your wing like a mother hen. During this pandemic year we’ve survived break-ups, moves, and surgeries…and if we can get through this, we can get through anything. I am forever grateful that I am your mother, and I’m proud of the woman you’ve become.
The first weekend in the new year, my daughter and I opened the time capsule we had buried at the dawn of the new millenium.
It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves. In a previous post about the time capsule, I described going to the cabin to bury it on New Year’s Eve. When we opened the time capsule, taped to the cover was a baggie with the letters we had written ourselves and a four page cover spread from the San Luis Obispo Tribune dated January 1, 2000. Unless they published early, we hadn’t gone to the cabin until New Year’s Day.
So what else was inside? Just as we remembered it, an old Sony cell phone we used for emergencies only. Note the handy quick reference card tucked inside the zippered case. But why didn’t we include the charger?
In a little box marked “Open Me First” was a whole lot of nothing, insignificant trinkets.
“Mom, why did we pack all this junk?”
“I have no idea. What were we thinking?”
There were some old CDs, a cassette tape, a program from a middle school play my daughter stage managed, our custom goth Christmas card, keychains, and Gidget the stuffed dog who was the ‘Yo Quiero Taco Bell’ mascot back in the day.
Most interesting were the letters we each wrote to our future selves. The past two months I’ve struggled with the reality that 20 years have gone by in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to wrap my head around all the changes that have occurred in the span of those years. Changes we could never have guessed would happen to us.
Then, there were the two poems that were published in Unity Magazine in 1999, the first sales of my fledgling writing career. My letter talked about finally knowing what I want to do with my life…be a writer. Eight months later we would move from California to Michigan. Then life got in the way. Finally, 19 years after I wrote that letter, I reconnected with my writer self and last year I had my marathon story published.
It’s taken me over a month to write this post because the reality that I may not be here in another 20 years has rendered me mute. The mean spirit of our current reality makes me ponder whether that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m not going down without a fight.
When writing about my life at age 25 for an English 101 class at Mira Costa College, I wrote, “I want to pass hot-dogging down a ski slope when I’m in my 90s.” I thought maybe I could will my body to ignore the inevitable decline of aging. My arthritic joints tell me I’ve not been so lucky.
My letter included the following poem I wrote to my future self about aging:
Yield to the seasons of life.
Gracefully embrace the wisdom
of passing years, while ignoring
disappointments and regrets
in the past.
Be thankful and grateful
for all that you have
and all that you are.
For in the end,
memories are all
you have left.
A memorable moment ~
a memorable millenium ~
a wonderful life.
Some words from my letter have never been more true. My letter ended with “I’ve always been a late bloomer and only now am I coming into my own…I hope this finds you happy, healthy, and living your dream.”
I’m turning into my father. Yesterday I withdrew my name from consideration for a promotion at my day job. I had received word earlier this week that I had passed the third of four hurdles in the promotional gauntlet and my interview was scheduled for Tuesday, January 28th. With more responsibility and stress, I felt conflicted about the job. But, I reasoned, the bump in salary would make a big difference in my pension when I retire in a few years.
When sharing my news and conflicted feelings with a recently retired friend, he asked if I had run the numbers…what my pension would be without going for the promotion and what it would be with the promotion. I hadn’t, assuming it would be a big enough difference to make the sacrifice worth it.
Yesterday I ran the numbers and did some serious soul searching. Other than my NaNoWriMo fiction win, my writing has ground to a halt since I applied for the promotion back in August 2019. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not. Then I thought about getting the call for the third hurdle in the gauntlet just before the New Year. Since then, it was all about cramming, studying, and preparing. I haven’t written a blog post or anything of substance, and my next two weekends would be spent in interview prep, not writing.
I’ve worked hard for the past 14 months, and writing is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I realized my momentum would be seriously curtailed with new responsibilities. I’ll withdraw my name, I thought and immediately felt a huge sense of relief. Then pride and that part of me that always wants to do the best, giving a 110% kicked in. I’ll see what the numbers say, maybe it will be worth it, I told myself. The numbers told a different story.
I’m turning into my father. A shift-worker his entire life, I couldn’t understand why my father didn’t want to be considered for an 8 to 5 job promotion. When I asked him why, his answers never satisfied me. I couldn’t fathom why you wouldn’t want to pursue the next rung…until I finally felt that way myself yesterday.
Today I attended a Poetry Workshop and in a session lead by Jan Shoemaker, learned about writing a poem using an extended metaphor with the title as the subject. I struggle with metaphors, but this is what I wrote:
The war rages on, each side fighting to be heard.
I listen to the pleas with measured breaths,
not wanting to rock the boat, yet
consider joining the struggle.
My father’s faint whisper, barely imperceptible,
“Don’t do it.”
“Why?” I ask. “It’s who I am.”
“Because,” he says. “Who do you want to be?”
The lilacs are blooming late in Michigan this year.
Once when I was in the 5th grade, I ran by the blooming lilac bushes in our back alley and immediately stopped. Catching a whiff of the sweet fragrant blooms, I was momentarily transported back in time. I have no sense of where and when, but felt startled by that vague yet seemingly familiar recollection.
Lilacs remind me of another place and time, and awaken me.
I haven’t felt that exact feeling again, but I do experience an odd sense of deja vu every Spring when the lilacs bloom.