About a year ago, I finally pounded out the last pages of the first draft. A project that began in 1995. The early chapters are covered with the splatters of someone in the midst of an attack. The blood was boiling as the words hit the page. Twenty-plus years later, I can tell you this much: distance gives perspective. And through the years, as the story continues to write itself, the narrative shifts, changes. It — if you’re doing it right — becomes reflective and wise. I am reflective now, and wiser than I was then. So it’s stunning and a little uncomfortable to look back at the initial writing and see how unwise, how in pain, ‘the writer’ was.
I thought I wanted people to know the truth, as I knew it. Writing it down was a form of therapy; I wrote during the divorce process, sometimes all day through the night and into the next morning. I still have those pages, written on an old IBM Selectric. I haven’t read them in awhile, largely because I can’t bear it. That young woman was so broken, and — because she had no place else to put it — she poured her brokenness onto those pages. Maybe that’s how she was able to keep breathing. To put one foot in front of the other. To get from there to here.
It’s been twenty-four years since I started the book. The woman writing this now is not the same woman who wrote the first one hundred sixty five pages. Yes, all those things happened. But wasn’t it another lifetime? The scars are there, they show that wars were braved, but that’s okay. Everybody has their tragedies, losses, betrayals. Love is the ticket to all of them. There is no love with out them.
Think about that for a minute.
Loving someone is the bravest thing a person can do. To truly love means you’ve cracked your heart open and said “yes” to the utter bliss of it, and to the deepest emotional pain possible-while-still-breathing. A surrender to that depth of caring, of vulnerability, invites it. Invites it all.
My parents were the first example of what a marriage, and love, looks like. Theirs was filled with laughter, and dancing, and alcohol, and drama. It all swilled in the chalice of the Holy Catholic church. Daddy was an usher, Mama was fragile and beautiful. Our family, which topped out at six kids, sat in the front row every Sunday, “those stair step Myers kids.” In our chaotic house Mass, and the prayers we prayed there, were the two things that I could always count on. They became my lifeline.
When I say Mama was fragile, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t strong. It means she was different after she had the breakdown. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the priest coming to the house. I was young, and confused. My brother Bob was about two, and we were farmed out to family members each day. I went to Uncle John and Aunt Mabel’s. Bobby went to Nanny’s. Daddy dropped us off every morning on his way to work. When I got to Uncle John’s house, it was still dark. But the front door was unlocked. I climbed out of the car, shut the car door, walked up the driveway to the porch, opened the front door, went inside, shut the door, sat on the couch in the dark, and waited for someone to wake up. I was five years old.
Now, sitting here knowing that in March I’ll hit seventy one years of age, it’s a strange feeling; I think back on that little girl. I am she. She is I. We are us.
In a way, it’s like looking at an old movie of someone else.
But I guess if I had to do it again, and was delivered to my aunt and uncle’s home in the dark, I’d still open the door, go inside, shut the door, sit on the couch in the dark, wait for somebody to wake up and turn on a light.
That was a long time ago. Now, I have five beautiful grandchildren, each one a gift from my son Chris and his wife Shanna. On days when I’m not sure what I’m doing still here, I tell myself that they’re the reason I’m upright and taking nourishment. I know that’s a bit dramatic, but I really am determined to keep myself healthy so I can dance at their weddings. And I’ll foster their creative energy, their sense of humor, and their musical prowess till the day I die.
My mother has ten grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. Daddy passed away in 2014, and mother lives in the moment, from day to day. She’s sweeter than she’s ever been, partly because she doesn’t have a clue who anyone is, other than Karen. Karen, the youngest of her children, watches over her and makes sure she’s well cared for.
Last time I saw my mother was when I went home to bury my Daddy. We visited, and I probably told her who I was ten times in fifteen minutes. Her response was always, “Well, I’d love to get to know you.” I looked into her eyes, and thought to myself, Mother, you’ve never known me. And for so many years, I couldn’t find you in there. Now, you’re gone completely. I’m trying to learn to be okay with that.
It’s awkward. I’ve worked hard to make peace with the fractures in my family, and with the ones who caused them. I know I’ve built an invisible wall of protection around myself, a sort of PTSD response to family drama and the heartbreak it caused. I wish I didn’t need it, but I do. And so, there it is. But I no longer have the time, the energy for, or the interest in keeping track of who, how, and how often family members have done me wrong. Seriously. Let’s stop.
It’s funny what life does to a person. You start out as a little squirt, being exactly who you are. You can’t really be anyone else, because you haven’t discovered there’s a choice, so you’re just you. Then, with all its pre-conceived judgments, life gets in. You start questioning everything about you. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe you aren’t who you thought you were. So, for the next several decades, you start jumping and adjusting in time to everything that’s said to you about who you are. It’s exhausting; just when you think you’re making progress, just when you think you’ve left that original, ‘unacceptable’ you behind, the bottom falls out. And you’re back to square one … face to face with yourself. But the truth is, that’s the best gift of all. If the world didn’t need ‘you,’ you wouldn’t have shown up in the first place.
I’m still who I thought I was, way back at the beginning of things, and while I’m a little more careful as I navigate, I have not really slowed down. On the scale of “women types,” I’d say I’m a square shouldered work horse with a great attitude. I can clean myself up and be in groups with the best of them, but given the choice I’ll hit the drive through in my pajamas.
As far as what the future holds, I’m planning to write … songs, essays, articles, books of any sort, fiction or non-fiction. My grandson wants me to write children’s books — a “NannyBoo” series which, I must admit, sounds fun and funny. NannyBoo’s their name for me, once I was christened by three-year-old Chloe’. But whether or not I write the “NannyBoo” series, I plan to write whatever comes out; I’ll write it all down as long as I can. And I’ll finish that book. If it doesn’t get published, at least I’ll be able to leave it for my children to read when I’m gone. They can gain a deeper understanding, if they’re interested, of who their mother really was, and why she was that way. They’ll get to know me better and, by extension, themselves. That’s the best gift I can give them, after all.
Knowing the “me-of-me” is, I believe, the lesson at the center of all the lessons we can ever be faced with. I’m here as me, you’re here as you, and we’ve got us. Let’s give authenticity a shot.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
The text from my brother was there when I woke up. “Mother’s gone.” I rolled over in bed and laid there for a minute.
Gone. Mother was gone. The space she never really seemed to fill up completely, or well, was officially empty.
I texted my children. “Grandmother’s gone. I’ll keep you posted on details. Love you madly.” Heart heart.
I got up, peed, and called Bob.
“She passed quietly, when Karen was out of the room. It happened early this morning … about 2:30.”
“Any idea what the plan is?”
“No plan yet. The funeral home has been there, and Karen has gone to breakfast with Cornelius.” Cornelius is Karen’s grown son.
“Okay. Just keep me posted.”
Bob. My brother. I was the oldest, he was next in line. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. We grew up, drifted apart, then back together. He and I, in our separate lives, had sought all the good counsel we could find, determined — each of us — to land on our feet as the people we were put here to be. And for the most part we succeeded. Our lives had been shaped by our childhoods, as most lives are; we were determined that our choices as adults were not defined by them. We’re now in our senior years, and we’ve never been closer.
The funeral arrangements lunged and looped like a Chinese fire drill. Ten grandchildren were all over the world, we six children were spread across the country … and schedules were impossible to coordinate.
“Karen said the funeral director told her he could oil mother down if we need to wait a few weeks till everyone could be there.” My stomach turned, but before I could respond, he continued … “and she said no, she’s not going to leave mother in an icebox that long. We’ll schedule around when we siblings can be there, and hopefully the grandchildren can make it. But we gotta move on this.”
So we gathered, we hugged, we rosaried, we viewed mother’s body in a box. We attended the funeral Mass where the young priest talked, in personal terms, about life, and death, and the fact that the circle of life, while it can be painful, is also beautiful.
We drove to the cemetery and sat facing the box. The deacon read a passage, we all bowed our heads. We watched in silence as the swarthy worker removed his hat, adjusted the pulleys, and lowered the box into the ground. When he was done, he gave a quick nod, put on his hat, and walked away.
After a couple of minutes we began to rise and drift into small groups; we chatted in hushed tones, and headed to our cars. It was a sizable group, I guess. Mother’s six children, some of her grandchildren, a couple of great grandchildren, nieces and nephews … each person knew a ‘piece’ of Ruth. And now, she was gone. Her story is gone with her, except for those pieces she left with each of us.
No two pieces were exactly the same, and I couldn’t help wondering … if we put them all together, would they make the whole of who she was? There was no way to know. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, after all.
My daughter Michelle was heartbroken that her schedule prevented her from coming.
“I can’t be there then.”
“Go, my darling, and live your life. Grandmother is not in that box. She’s up above the clouds, young and healthy, dancing the jitterbug with Granddad.”
The depth and breadth of the things in this building suck the oxygen out of the room.
- First exhibit, childhood. Promises to hold, support, love … to encourage and protect. They lie in pieces on the ground, dusty and forgotten. Forgotten to everyone but me. Check check check. Check check.
- Up the escalator to the mezzanine, is high school, and teenage years. Potential recognized and undermined. The remnants of hope’s fire, a burnt offering of the dreams held there. A young girl with no one to reflect back to her the truth of who she was, gifts she brought, or the light she shined.
- Shattered glass on the second floor, shards of a dark and betrayed relationship. Two beams glow bright, the children born, and a third, the tender flame of one who left too soon.
- Top floor, on golden shelves sit baskets, overflowed with bit and pieces, half-made promises of friends and family. Those whose only real crime was that they failed themselves before they ever could fail me.
- The ceiling above is open to the sky, dark and starry. Constellations weave a spiderweb, a language all their own. They tell of secrets yet revealed, and assure me that … no matter how it seems, I am not alone.
When I was five or six I was drawn to the microphone at the Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners. My Uncle John would step up on that stage and use it when he introduced Monsignor Fletcher to say the blessing. And when he announced the three piece band, made up of parishioners. Ladies with blue hair played the stand up bass, the accordion, and the saxophone. Their pearls and ear bobs swayed or bounced to the rhythms while the grownups danced.
But it was when they took their break, and the microphone stood up there all alone that I felt the pull. I wandered up. I sat on that stage, just a low riser from the floor. I pivoted and suddenly, I was there. I wandered over. I looked out at the people seated at long tables, talking and laughing. The microphone was about a head and a half taller than I was. No way could I reach it. So I stood.
Years later I would actually use microphones, in the studio and on stage. For years I worked in an industry where people think if you haven’t “sold” a song or gotten famous, you’re just a wannabe who didn’t quite have the stuff.
But the truth is, the fame part was never an issue. Never a goal. It was always about the music. And music is its own thing. Fame is about politics, and strategy, and not just a little bit about the dark side of our nature. There are those who squeak through to the main keylight unscathed, but it’s not a huge percentage.
Looking back on my years in the “microphone” business, I know that every prayer I ever prayed about it was answered. But the picture looked quite different than I had imagined. The clarity I have, and the perspective given by years of experience, make me grateful for being blessed to do what I’ve done, and am doing, without ever having sold or being driven by anything but the music.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, and drink harder. I was their first child, born to them when they were still young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love. When I was a little girl I would shyly study my mother’s face … her wide eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star in hiding. I wondered what she was doing in this little life, in this house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and one parched sapling in the front yard. Even at five, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, I took on the job of laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. No one. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal,’ so imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families have no foxhole at all.
I lurched through the decades, reinventing myself over and over, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. It took over forty years, and one spectacular betrayal for me to stop, and turn my attention to the whisper of truth. It was there all along, but I hadn’t heard it before, because I wasn’t ready. Not only had I become ready, I threw up the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. And I was exhausted.. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
I remember the date. May 12, 1991. My attorney’s call that morning woke me up. She was calling to let me know the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I got off the phone, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought surely I would feel … something. Relief? Excitement, maybe? All I got was silence. I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared in the mirror. I looked into my own eyes, searching for … someone. Who will I be now? I whispered. I had no idea.
Ever since I was a tiny girl, there’s been … something … like a tiny thread … woven deep inside me. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have broken, or suffocated, or disintegrated. It never did.
Like a flower finding its way to the sun through a crack in the stone, that shimmering little strand found its way back to me.
The very thing I feared would be most difficult has become easy, feels natural. Coming home to myself is simple, and honest. I am moving back toward the center of someone I’ve always known. It warms my heart, settles my belly, and brings perspective into sharp focus. I know where home is now. And I see that I was right here all the time.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought be here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.