The messages we’re given in childhood are powerful. Until we get out into the world on our own, they define our reality. They define our normal. They tell us what’s expected of us, and what value we have. And behind those front doors, each family has its own brand of ‘normal’.
I was raised in a house where there was one right way to do everything. Often I discovered there was a right way after I’d done something the wrong way. Mattered not if I accomplished my goal. If I didn’t do it the right way, I got it wrong. And that “right” way could change without warning; I learned that early on. So, go ahead, knock yourself out. But don’t count on anything except maybe being blindsided by a new rule, a new way of you failing again.
This is a piece of the legacy inherited by a child of alcoholics. Eventually, once we’ve reached adulthood and if we’re aware enough and brave enough to launch the quest for self discovery, we catch a glimpse of how life is defined outside the hazed cocoon in which we grew up; the only “normal” we’ve ever known. So there’s an overriding sense of betrayal, or having been lied to about ‘what’s going on out there’, ‘how I fit in the world,’ or even ‘who I am’. And, at its center, ‘what love feels like’.
That’s not to say that drinkers are evil. They’re not. I truly believe that very person, in one way or another, is ‘trying to find their way’. But some people get so off track; are so myopic as to what they’re doing and the damage caused by it, that they’re pretty much a walking (or stumbling) wrecking ball.
I’ll admit there are certainly things ingrained in me from my childhood that I treasure. I have a very well calibrated moral compass. I’m not an angel by any stretch, but when I’ve veered off course, I know it.
This comes from a Spiritually driven center that was awakened in me very early on. I clung to it, and was convinced that ‘if I’m good enough’ good things will, ultimately, happen. There’s probably a piece of me that still believes it.
In Seminary we studied addiction. It was pointed out to us that addicts are “headed the wrong way down the right road.” They crave a different feeling, a different perspective. But they’ve employed chemical shortcuts to get there, which always end in failure. Because in order to keep the feelings gained from drugs or alcohol, you have to stay drugged or drunk. The process is deeply and heartbreakingly flawed. Those same good feelings are authentically available. But like all things of true value, we gotta do the deliberate, serious (and personal) work to ‘get there from here’.
And something else I learned in Seminary, is that there are quite possibly as many ways to do something as there are people to do it. Not right or wrong, based on approach. When I heard that it was not like a light went on in my head; it was more like a bomb went off.
For decades I held back on doing so many things, big and small, for fear I would do them wrong. It was earth changing when, after finally trying something, and doing it my way, there was no one there to tell me how wrong I was.
Maybe I was never really wrong, after all.
There was a period, not sure how long, during my growing up when I remember being blessed. I’m not talking about blessings abounding, though looking back I’m able to see that some did. I’m talking about the ritual of Good Night.
After pajamas on, teeth brushed, I was summoned to stand before my mother. She rested her hands, softened and smelling of Jergens lotion and tobacco, on my head.
“I bless you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” she droned. Her breath carried the DNA of Brown Derby beer.
There were no kisses. No hugs. Just a blessing.
Then one night, after the blessing, I posed a timid question.
“Aren’t we supposed to kiss and hug, or something?”
“You got a blessing. Go to bed.”
So I guess, when thinking about “being blessed,” this memory peaks up to remind me that those blessings did happen.
Regardless of what she’d been smoking, or drinking, the blessing was its own thing. A spiritual lifeline thrown to a little girl by a mother who knew no other way to tell her she was loved.
Every night, for as long as it lasted, I grabbed that line and held on for dear life.
That lifeline became a lifeboat, one that has carried me from stark childhood to rocky marriage to the open sea of tender possibilities. I know now that sometimes a brokenhearted love lies hidden in the coldest blessing, aching to be thrown a line of its own.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I was thinking today about the Christmases in my life.
In my early childhood, they were silver tinsel, colored bulbs and an angel star on a tree that shined through the front window and made the world feel magic. They were chenille robes, and the smell of bacon and coffee on Christmas morning; hair left uncombed and presents torn into. They were oranges and nuts, hard candy and a treasure tucked deep in the toe of a stocking.
They were rides in the car to Nanny’s house, clutching my new doll. They were pickled eggs in a jar on Nanny’s buffet, and a pink Christmas tree that glowed with starry lights inside a cloud of angel hair.
When I was old enough−about seven−mother started taking me with her to Advent service on Tuesday nights. I sat between her and my grandmother, Mom, breathed deep the incense, threw back my head and sang the Advent hymns lustilly, as young girls do.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptists cry,
announces that the Lord is nigh
awake and harken for he brings
glad tidingsof the King of Kings.
By the time I was in my teenage Christmases there were five more children. The young ones were so precocious that, every year on Christmas Eve, Daddy prevented early peeks by sleeping on the floor at the entrance to the living room.
Our trees had gotten smaller; Daddy usually picked one up at the grocery store for free the night before Christmas. We were all excited, it was Christmas after all. But something had changed; I was too young to know what, or why. I just knew I felt a little lost. Advent services, and Advent songs, had started to define the season for me, and I turned to them for the comfort I needed then.
Looking at it from here I can see it was during those years my father lost his job; he was doing what he could to keep six children fed and a roof over us all. It’s clear that his was a hero’s journey, and my heart breaks a little for him when I think about it now.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
I became a mother when I’d just turned twenty one. And that changed everything. Christmas was more magical than ever. Being Santa to my babies was wonderful. I sewed, and baked, and made ornaments out of egg cartons. We strung popcorn and cranberries; every year we bought the annual Christmas album from the Firestone store.
I saved S&H Green Stamps all year long; I poured over the stamp catalog to see what gifts I could get with my books of stamps.
We made our Advent wreath, lit the candles, purple and pink; said the Advent prayers; went to church and sang the hymns. We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and every Christmas morning the children would run to see if the tiny statue of the Baby was in the manger, having been “born” during the night. The ultimate result, through the years, was Christmas seasons of love, and laughter, and plenty.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
Then there’s the Christmas I was separated from my husband of twenty-five years, headed for divorce. I’d been holding my own through what was a very rough year. But it seemed like everywhere I went during my holiday shopping I ended up face to face with the perfect gift for him. It was like the stores conspired to show me what I would not be purchasing. Try getting through the holiday without buying him THIS. With each ‘gift confrontation’ came another crack in my heart.
It was exhausting. I clung to my Advent. Yes, it became mine. I wrapped myself in it; I sang the songs and prayed the prayers, sometimes silently other times screaming them at the top of my lungs. There were moments I lost track of what I was praying for, or who I even was; I just knew that Jesus was my lifeline, and I was calling 911.
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth and let thy light restore
earth’s own true loveliness once more
I’ve grown into a lovely single life, my kids are beautiful adults, and I have five precious grandchildren. During these Christmas seasons I find that I’ve returned to the feelings of my childhood, but with a depth I couldn’t know then. The many times, and ways, in which my heart was broken have taught me this: in me dwells a personal and a tender yearning for new life; I ache for the beauty of the season; I am joyful at the redemption this Holy Baby brings. And I treasure the brokenhearted, hopeful Advent in us all.
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
whose advent doth thy people free;
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.*
*Words: Charles Coffin, 1736;
trans. John Chandler, 1837