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.
There’s a saying, “a man’s home is his castle.” And nothing – in a quite literal sense – could be more true for Luddy, or “King Ludwig of Bulgaria” to his subjects.
He was a young man when he assumed the throne – 18 years of age. But rather than focus solely on war and conquest, he chose instead to turn his attention to architecture, and built the Bavarian Neuschwanstein.
Such a beauty is this castle. Gatehouse, turrets, corridors, ballrooms, and a sixth floor singers hall, grand and spacious, with soaring ceilings. Yes, Luddy was into music. Wagner was his favorite. From high in that castle hall, the strains of those musical performances surely floated on the wind, and were enjoyed by people for miles.
Any one of the turrets – there are six major – may have held a young girl whose long, flaxen hair spiraled down, allowing her suitor to climb up.
The connecting bridges, did they ever feel the Beast’s weight as he went searching for Belle? I would not be surprised.
And what of Ludwig? Did he ever stand, high up on the sixth floor of his castle, looking down on the valleys surrounding, and ache for his princess to show, the one he had built all this for, the one he was prepared to rescue on his white horse? I like to imagine.
If you look at the chateau, above, and think it looks familiar, it should; Disney has used it as the architecture reference for its fictional castles … including the one it uses in its logo.
This dwelling has been known throughout history, and still stands today, as the Castle of the fairy tale king.
“Where’s Hudson?” I looked around, the other kids were heads down on their iPads. “Hudson?” I got up off the sofa and walked to the hallway. “Buddy? Hudson?”
I looked out the window, maybe he’d gone outside. Nope. I lifted my chin and called into thin air,
“HUDSON!!” I caught Gabby’s eye. She gave a head check toward the couch, mouthed the words, “He’s over there.” I nodded and went to see.
Sure enough, there was Hudson, crouched behind the sofa.
“What are you …”
“NannyBoo! I’m busy! Go! Go!!” He waved me away, his face beet red. I got the message. I went around, lifted him up, said,
“Buddy, there’s nothing for you back there,” and – in spite of his wailing objections – carried his stiff, folded body to the bathroom.
By now, he was sobbing.
“I do not want to go in there!”
“Well, Buddy, you don’t have a choice. This is where big boys – and all civilized people – do their business.”
“I … I’m sort of a big boy, but … I’m not with those civilized people.” I peeled his pants and underwear off, and sat him on the toilet.
“Well, you need to be with the civilized people. Life’s gonna be tough if you’re not.”
He glared at me.
“Okay, now will you please get out. I need my privacy.”
“Okay. But I’ll be right outside if you need …”
“Yes, I get it. Go. Please go.” I went.
Five minutes later,
“NannyBoo.” I cracked the door and peeked in.
“How you doin’?”
He was sitting there stripped naked, and shot me an exhausted look. Big sigh.
“Good job, Buddy.”
As helped him get his clothes on he asked, “Am I one of those civilized people now?”
“Yes you are!”
“Do they get treats for pooping in the toilet?” I took his sweet little face in my hands, kissed his forehead.
“Today they do.”
This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”
If three year olds can be gang members, I was one. We had a pack of kids in our neighborhood on North Marion Street. Each morning, as early as any parent would allow, a youngster drifted out the front door of his little clapboard house, and stood in the yard wearing nothing but a pair of rumpled camp shorts. Maybe he’d wander the length of the driveway, bend down, pick up a rock, survey the street for signs of life, and head back to sit on his porch stoop. And wait.
Almost immediately, sets of young eyes threw quick glances out picture windows. Front doors opened, and small, tan feet ran or skipped or sauntered to assemble where the child was planted.
Thinking back, it gives new meaning to “the gang’s all here.” But we were. The men in our gang wore shorts; the women, bloomers. We were brown as biscuits, the soles of our feet well seasoned from weeks of running around bare.
We played all day, moving in a raggedy clump from one yard to another. Bill’s dad had left the hosepipe hooked up on the front spigot, so we all ran over because Shorty and Margo were thirsty. Mitchell and Bobby turned the handle, and the water spurted out. It went quickly from hot as fire to so clear and cold that suddenly we were all thirsty. Everybody got a chance. About eight or ten three year olds bending over spouting water, slurping it down their throats and bellies, all of us clamoring for more.
I don’t remember every name from back then, but I remember that water. It started in Lake Spavinaw, and came pouring out of that front yard hose icy and sweet, flavored with a touch of rubber hose and a dash of brass metal. We all loved it, and kept drinking until Bill’s mother came out on the porch to shake the dustmop and caught us.
“You kids turn that water off and go play!” she hollered. She gave us the hard eye till Bill went over and cranked the handle. By that time we were soaked, but we didn’t care. In fact, we liked it. It was 90 degrees in the Oklahoma shade, which there wasn’t much of.
Our gang lasted till we all started school, then life its own self took over and we drifted into our separate worlds. But if anyone ever asks me about gang membership, I can tell them, quite honestly, that I was a gang member very early on. And I’m proud of it.
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 me 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.
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 are certain things I’d never call myself. Beautiful, for example, is one. Extensively educated, at least in the formal sense of the word, is another. Lord knows I’ve learned a gracious plenty, but the really important lessons rarely happened in the classroom.
Life starts telling us who we are early on. As little ones, we’re blank slates, eager for the information. And we don’t know better than to swallow whole what adults tell us about ourselves.
When I was three years old, one of my dad’s friends, who I only knew as Cuz, called me “muscles.”
Even at that young age, it felt like a bad thing. I didn’t want muscles. I wanted blonde curls and blue eyes like my cousin Joanie. But there I was, a sturdy little girl with black ringlets and hazel eyes. A kid who in summer turned brown as a biscuit in ten minutes flat.
On the playground at school, the nuns would cluck disapprovingly as we lined up to go back inside. “Cecelia’s voice carries. You can hear her above all the other children.”
I remember, at around ten, being at my Nanny’s house in the summer. Old lady North, who lived the next street over, would come across the alley and in the back door for coffee. I dreaded that woman.
“Myers,” she’d say to my grandmother while studying me, “I think this child is an Indian.” Then she’d reach out and take hold of my upper arm. “She’s brown as an Indian,” she’d say. Nanny didn’t argue. She just passed the half and half, lit another Chesterfield, and changed the subject.
As innocuous as they may have been at the time, those descriptions from the grownups in my childhood delivered the bad news to my sense of self. They informed me about who I was.
And the fact that after so many years I can still go back to those moments, see those people, observe them observing me, tells me just how impactful the comments were.
It’s taken decades. But eventually and deliberately I let go of my tendency to be defined by what was said long ago. In fact, those statements serve me well now. They’ve made me pay attention.
When I talk to children, I’m purposeful with what I say to them about who they are. Because the words adults use have staying power; they will frame – for a while, or forever – how those kids feel about themselves.
And when they think back, I want to have contributed tender words about their own beautiful truths.
Birthdays are interesting benchmarks. They roll around on the same date, year after year. As a kid, I generally looked forward to them. It meant “something” would happen; in the earliest years there were celebrations with cake.
Birthday number one was The Event. As the first-and-at-that-point-only child, family gathered round. Photographer Wilmot Dahlem was summoned.
I was put in the highchair, a cake was placed in front of me. I reached for the single candle and literally remember being told, “Nono, don’t touch that.” So, I did what any thinking one-year-old would do: I picked it up with my mouth.
Wilmot documented the moment
The next Birthday I remember is number three. I had a baby brother by then. That’s also the year I found Mama’s scissors when I was supposed to be taking a nap; I cut half my long hair off. Mama documented that one. The expression on that lady’s face tells the story.
My grandmother (Nanny) crocheted me a dress, with hat and purse for my Birthday that year. Wilmot took pictures of me in my dress.The short curls peaking out from under the crocheted hat … made my Mama cry.
As I got older and the number of siblings grew, it became more of a day when — eventually — all eyes glanced at me at some point during the day with, “Hey. It’s your Birthday.” Yes, I knew. I was “waiting for sixteen.” Then, “waiting for eighteen.”
When you’re a kid, waiting and pining to be older seems to be part of the M.O. But there’s a point; a moment. There’s a place in the sequential order of annual things when a body feels the urge to say, “I’ve had quite enough. Let’s stop this now; can we?” Well, no, comes the answer. Not really. Time, and tides, are gonna roll on. The only known way of stopping is leaving. And that’s generally not what one is thinking when it crosses the mind, on some advanced Birthday, to say, “Check please.”
I had such a Birthday yesterday. I felt full ready to call for the check … until a guy at the grocery store started chatting with me. I was standing in the aisle with the motor oil, and reached for the 5 W30 ‘high mileage’. The young man (and I say young because, at this point in my life, isn’t everyon else?) asked me a question about my car. I did a little fake laugh and told him my car needs the OCV replaced. That stopped him for a second; a woman who knows what an oil control valve is … rare bird. Then he complimented me on my sweater. Oy. I could see where this was going; I felt my face flush. I couldn’t look him in the eye. But I knew he had to have been born some year after my children. Holy crap. Nope. Moving on.
I grabbed the jug of oil, mumbled “Have a good night,” and went to self check out. I spied him heading toward the produce section, and was able to get a good look at him. Damnation; he was tall, a bit swarthy, he must work out. He was eye candy-ish … in a much-too-young-for-me-but-god-help-us-all-look-at-you sort of way.
I paid for my oil, walked out to my car, got in, and sat there for a minute. Just breathing. I considered how old I ‘am’ compared to how old I ‘feel’ … and pulled out of the parking lot thinking maybe, just maybe, I don’t need the check after all.