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, drink harder, and show up at Mass every Sunday. I was their first child, born to them when they were young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love.
When I was a little girl I would study my mother’s face … her hazel eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star. I wondered what she was doing in that two bedroom house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and parched sapling in the front yard. Even at four-and-a-half, 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, my job was 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. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal;’ imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families had no foxhole at all.
I grew up and, with what I’d learned of how life works, and my place in it, I went out into the world. Within short order, I said “I do” to the boy in the band.
The boy and I were a textbook example of symbiotic dysfunction. Our fractured parts fit together perfectly. Through twenty five years and two children, we cut ourselves and each other on those jagged edges. Part of his brokenness included repeated indiscretions. Part of my brokenness included denying they were happening, while blaming myself that they were.
It was his final, spectacular betrayal with my sister that made me sit up and say, “No. There is no amount of glue that can put us back together this time.” I gathered up the pieces of my heart; I left the boy in the band.
The next eighteen months were like a slow motion train wreck. All I could do was hang on, and wait for it to stop.
I remember the date. May 10, 1991. That morning the phone woke me up. My attorney, calling to tell me the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I think I said, “Thank you,” but I wasn’t grateful for any of it. I hung up, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I would surely feel … relief? Excitement, maybe? No. Just silence.
I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared at the face in the mirror. Who will I be now? I whispered at her. A sincere question. I’d lurched through the decades, constantly reinventing myself, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. Now I had no one to tell me. I was at a loss.
The next months and years were like being born, over and over again. I was the mother giving birth; I was the baby shooting out of the canal into what I prayed would be a gymnast landing. I wanted a 10 from the judges.
But it wasn’t working anymore, as if it ever really had. I finally raised the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. I was exhausted. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
For months, going out in public unvarnished was really frightening; but there was also an undercurrent of excitement. And eventually, slowly, what I’d feared most became easier, partly because it was natural. And I’d have to say the surprise for me was that while life is always full of challenges, showing up in it doesn’t have to be hard. Sometimes there are still glitches, but every day I’m moving closer to the center of someone I’ve always known; the person God put here and breathed life into. There’s a peace in connecting with what’s true in me; authentic perspective gives a clarity like nothing else.
During those years, I was living in Toluca Lake. On my walk one morning I glanced at a flower growing up through a crack in the asphalt. I went past it, then stopped, backed up, and studied it. That little flower was blooming and reaching for the sun, in spite of the considerable efforts made to stop it. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me.”
Ever since I was a tiny girl, I’ve felt a check in my spirit … like a tiny thread of light, deep inside. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have snapped, or caught fire, or disintegrated. It never did. And that’s what I’m back in touch with now.
These days, I know where home is. I’ve discovered that I was right here all the time.
And I have to smile because the truth is, I’ll always love the boy in the band.
Lately I’ve been wondering how much of me is left. I mean, when I think back, it seems like there have been at least a couple of incarnations in this one lifetime. I was someone’s kid in the first lifetime, and a sister. In the second lifetime I was someone’s wife, and mother. How much of me did that use up? By the time I became a wife, did I remember who that girl was? Was I still that person? Today I’m someone’s mother, someone’s mother in law, and someone’s grandmother. What about that kid? Is she still here? Does she know how old we are? Is she observing the relationship challenges, the unreached horizons that float in the mist, just ahead of wherever it is I am? Or is she the one driving me forward?
It’s funny. These days there’s a familiar authenticity inside my skin; is this what she felt then? Or is that dementia? Is that old age? I don’t know. But I can tell you this: I feel more on purpose than I’ve felt since I was five. Since I was the kid on that swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion, crying because I couldn’t write a song like the ones on the radio. I don’t cry about that now. Today I’m grown up, and I write songs for a living. Does she know?
When I work on the various projects that keep my passions fired, I feel her here. She sits across the table, smiling at me, her chin resting on one dimpled hand.
I also feel her tears. When my Daddy — OUR Daddy — died earlier this year, she is the one who cried into my pillow. She’s also the one who took my sister’s face in her hands at the funeral home and told her everything was okay. In many ways I felt like I was watching her do that. I was the observer. Looking back at that weekend, I realize the girl of me led us through it with her broken heart wide open, loving everybody as big as she could.
Since then, she and I have hit a rough patch. One where healing and grief keep getting locked in hand to hand combat. It leaves me bone weary, and she’s trying to make sense of it all.
When I lie down and rest my head in the dark, I feel her there. She keeps watch through the night. Sometimes in that space between awake and asleep, I hear her whisper, “Daddy always believed in us.” The adult of we never thought so. The girl of we always knew.
There are those who would call me daft for seeing us as two separate people. Shrinks might tell me to “integrate.” I reject that clinical diagnosis. The adult mind lives on the surface where life appears steady, things are kept in tidy lines, and all rules apply. But the child mind is boundless; it explores below the surface. There are times I need to get hopelessly lost in her world of unseen wonder, secret caverns, mighty whirlwinds, and fragments of dreams unlived. This is where the thrill of excitement rides in on a sunbeam, where fragile hearts dive deep, shatter and heal, only to dive deep again.
Not breaking through the surface with her would pose a far greater risk to my Spirit. I cannot bear the thought of skimming the top, and never living the we of me at all.
If Daddy can see us, we know he’s proud.
Women all over the world are dealing with separation and divorce. Many believe they are alone in their relationship drama; they think theirs is a unique situation, a solitary journey, with no hope at the end of the road.
I want to spread the word that we are a global community of women whose hearts have been softened by the breaks they have endured.
I met my husband our freshman year in college. We were both singers in a rock band. I can think back and realize that I had two visceral responses: revulsion and connection. That might sound strange, but I don’t think it’s unusual for a girl who had no clue what a “gut feeling” was, or what to do about it. Most of us – if we’d followed our guts in the first place – would not have made the choices we’ve made.
First rehearsal he was big and hairy, the center of the universe, he cracked jokes and tuned his guitar with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The first time he ever talked to me, he called me “Babe.” Normally that would have turned me off completely. But from him it was a fish hook, and I was a carp.
He was a charmingly thoughtless boyfriend, sweet but self-centered, and stayed drunk or hungover most of the time. In my purse I carried a big bottle of aspirin and a roll of Tums, because he needed them on a regular basis. He was a popular guy around campus, a reckless boy who was driven by booze, cigarettes, and rock and roll. I’d led a small, cloistered life. In my mind, I was walking on the wild side. We had sex early on he was my first. We used no protection. It was the sixties, and society said l-u-v was free. My woolly boyfriend and I got married in September, less than a year after we met. I was Catholic, and pregnant. He was Southern Baptist and he was nineteen. His father had to sign for us to go before the judge. We were perfect together, a match made in a textbook on dysfunction and codependence.
I was born in the late 1940s, so I had this idea that love conquers all (though I’d never seen it happen), life could be beautiful (though so far for me it hadn’t been), and that babies were the glue that holds things together.
We were nineteen and twenty when our daughter was born. Our son was born two years later.
We were married for almost twenty-five years. We divorced in 1991, and since then I have allowed myself to see – through therapy and self-discovery – how rose-colored my glasses really were.
The first thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that my husband and I were in two different relationships. I never thought about cheating because it’s not in my nature to cheat. He thought I was cheating all the time, because he was a cheater. So he accused me, and I comforted him.
There were sweet moments, the times “between the cheats.” During those periods he was like a little boy making me laugh, unsure of himself, needing to talk, take long walks holding hands, calling several times during the day. It wasn’t until the marriage was over and I was in therapy that I was able to recognize the pattern of adultery. You could chart it on a graph, like the Dow Jones report. When my therapist made me see it, when it finally registered, inside I let out a birthing cry that, though it’s grown quieter through the years, is still there.
In the end my husband was so deliberately cruel, so public in that last Big Affair, that I literally felt myself going crazy. I was convinced that he was setting me up to kill myself. I went so far as to write my attorney, my brother, and my therapist, assuring them all that if anything happened to me, it would not have been by my own hand. Yes, I was a little paranoid; I quit going to the grocery store because I was certain that the shoppers were whispering to each other about me through the shelves of soup cans. My eyelashes fell out, my hair dropped in clumps, I didn’t sleep for days at a time.
I started writing a lot. I bought an old IBM selectric, and taught myself to type so I could go faster. I wrote frantically; sometimes I would start at suppertime with a bowl of cereal on the table next to me, and find myself still writing when the sun came up. The cereal had turned to mush, and the floor was covered with pages. I had to get it out of me, had to park it somewhere. And so I did. It was cathartic, the writing.
There are so many facets that go into making us who we are. Through the years we chip off pieces of ourselves in order to stay small enough for the love we’re in. But when we find ourselves alone and our heads begin to clear, those pieces we’d abandoned show up again. It shocks us, because we never made a conscious decision to surrender them at all.
When I moved out of our home and into my own place, it was the first time I had ever lived alone. I was startled when I realized that I didn’t know what kind of music I liked. Music played in our house all the time, but the choice was always his or the kids and I went along with it. I mean, I enjoyed it enough. But now it was my choice. I had no idea. He kept the CD’s, so I went to Tower Records and wandered around for a couple of hours. I looked at everything. I listened at every listening station. I ended up buying Enja, Muddy Waters, and a Big Band compilation.
They say that time heals wounds. I don’t believe it. I think time takes us farther and farther from the source of our wounds, but it’s up to us to heal ourselves. That was my goal – to heal myself without turning my heart to stone.
My journey over the last decade or so has taught me a lot about who I am, and about the process of getting to here from there. In fact, now when read I what I wrote back at that kitchen table, I am stunned by the story written there. Who was that woman? Can I have been she? It feels remote, mostly disconnected from me. Yet the remnants of that past continue to color, in a variety of ways, the days of my life now.
For example, I’ve learned the subtle but profound difference between loneliness and solitude. During the first days, weeks, months of my independence I was embroiled in the seas of loneliness and longing. Stay with that long enough, it will wear you to the bone. There comes a time when you literally have to say, Okay, I’m giving notice to the both of you: Longing, you have visiting privileges, but you can no longer live here. Fifteen minutes, once a week, that’s it. Loneliness, you have two hours to leave. Pack up and get out. I have two new roommates moving in today. Their names are Comfort and Solitude.
Comfort was tricky. I had spent my life creating comfort for others. I couldn’t wrap my brain around how to do that for me. My therapist said, “Cece, make a list of the things that you would do for a friend who is going through what you are. Then do all those things for yourself.”
At first I was self-conscious. But I made my list. Flowers, massages, facials, pedicures, a nice meal out after church on Sunday afternoons. I literally felt guilty for being kind to me. I had to be deliberate, fight the resistance; for many, many months it seemed totally unnatural. Today it feels normal, and I know that it’s that very self-nurturing that has kept my heart soft, my spirit hopeful. I can tell you honestly that today I am able to see the goodness and the possibilities in life. And what I now know is that an empty glass cannot fill others. When we don’t fill ourselves first, there’s nothing to spill on anyone else.
Solitude bears a special quality. There’s a freedom to do, be, or say whatever the heart calls for. No ridicule. Linen cases on the pillows, starched and pressed; waking in the pre-dawn and lying in the quiet, listening to the birds in the crabapple; rolling out of bed and taking time – personal, quiet time – to wash face, brush teeth, open curtains, peer out at the day. So far, no word has been spoken. None are needed. Look in the mirror. The message is clear: you, and all your choices, are welcome here.