My Life in Three Sentences

She was born into a difficult, violent family and thrived in spite of their poverty and lack of ambition.  It turned out that life was good. She loved it.

be_happy

This is a wall in our home that we see every day.

This is a wall in our home that we see every day.

Advertisements

Mom Hit Us With Her Fist

Mom hit us with her fist.  Hard.

She also hit me over the head

with 1″ thick broom sticks,

I can still feel the dent–

she striped our legs with lathe

or switches, smacking with

either side of her hand,

hitting me with an iron skillet. Cold.

Anything that was handy really—

if she was mad and I was nearby.

Mom slugged me when I was tiny.

I would fly across the room

and land on the furniture,

arms and legs akimbo, stunned.

Or I’d smash into a wall and drop

to the floor in a shriveled pile.

I don’t remember being hugged

or kissed, or having my hand held

gently, kindly, guidingly.

I remember my arm being jerked

one way or another,

lifted off the ground like a rag doll

My shoulder painful, sore.

I don’t remember being loved,

but I remember loving,

I remember loving each of my

two sisters and two brothers,

and even the one who was sent away—

Adopted by strangers,

not spoken of aloud by the adults

in the room, whispered about

with my sister under the woven bedcover

in the chilly darkness at our grandparents,

or in the wagon wheel bunk beds,

When we were lonely and wished for someone

to love us more than a fist.


The following is from an email I sent to a group of new thought ministers, many  of whom wrote to me until there was so much correspondence that I needed to write this to help them understand.  I hope it helps you too.

You are all so very kind.  I heard from so many of you that I was surprised. For many years I didn’t say anything specific or of consequences about the way I grew up.  There was far more difficulty than just the beatings.  There was sexual abuse at the hand of two of my uncles and a babysitter that my mother brought to our house when I was in first grade.  I changed schools 27 times before I dropped out of high school.  I didn’t have contact with anyone long enough to develop supportive relationships.

But I didn’t want anyone’s pity.  I wanted people to see me, and not just the circum-stances of my childhood.  That became something of a habit.  Children who go through these hellish childhoods are treated with little respect and a lot of assumptions.  Charity and pity are funky, awful things that embarrass children and make them different than the other children.  If that wasn’t enough, the last thing I needed as a kid was someone trying to sell me on Jesus’ blood and the salvation of my soul.  You’d think I had dragged these circumstances in upon myself into the deep hole folks acted like I was in.

I was much the same as I am now as a child, and when I could escape the darkness of the attitudes that people around me had, the labels that they wanted to put on me, I was able to see something more possible for myself.  I was tougher than my sister, more self-contained and self-reliant, but I was the oldest and even in the worst circumstances, being the oldest calls a child to take charge for the benefit of the younger children. I learned at a very young age that folks don’t look very far into things, that they are easy to jump to conclusions and don’t see what is right in front of them.

I consider one of the great accomplishments of my life to be that I am profoundly ordinary.  I don’t mean to deny my gifts, or accomplishments, but that the kind of being ‘special’ that draws undue attention for things that were not my doing, well I just didn’t want that kind of attention.  I didn’t live my life depending upon my appearance either.  I like being appreciated for the things I chose to be.  In the end, it is our personal choices that matter.  No one wants to be a victim.  We either let Spirit in, to act as and through us, or we allow the circumstances of our lives to hog the spotlight and bring attention to ourselves for reasons that are neither of our own making or which simply cannot bring us the true Joy of life itself.  I am all for Joy.  That is how I am made.

COMMENTS FROM OPEN SALON

Susanne, I cannot imagine that type of treatment as a child; nor can I imagine a parent doing that to their children. But, I am glad that sisters & brothers were there to comfort, love and support each other.

This is a powerful piece and sends a message of despair that parents can all taken notice of. Thanks for sharing.

Rated for honesty

This is powerful and hints at where you learned to be so kind. I’m sorry it was from suffering.
The prose of brutality serve as the most effective means to stand up to its onward march.
Susanne, I was with you every punch of the way. My mother was much like yours. She beat us with whatever was convenient at the time; wooden ping pong paddles, broom handles were also a favorite,fly swatters, spatulas… I guess she’d found out that it hurt your hand when you punched someone. It’s amazing what a child will forgive, for a very small amount of love. Once we were adults, my mother treated us very differently. It seemed that once we were no longer dependent on her, we were easier to love. Later in life, when mine was a total mess, she could fix just about anything with one of her big bosomed hugs. Crazy, isn’t it? junk1 Rated
Suzanne, you took a subject we see all the time, unfortunately, and made it personal and real. I did not suffer as much as you. My mother’s weapon of choice were here words and an occasional and surprising pop on the mouth. She’d bust my lip and then deny she’d done it. Sort of a wierd world to grow up in.
You have certainly found a way to cope that helps others!
Oh my God! This is very upsetting and it felt like a slap to me too…
You wroteso clearly of yourexperience and without any trace of self-pity…don’t think I could do it.

My mother spanked us too much I think but much, much less than she had been…I think she was physically abused and I know she was verbally and/or emotionally abused…I am trying to understand her better now that she is gone, since January 12th, and I want to better integrate, in my own mind, all of who she was and WHY she was the way she was to us…
My mother suffered depression all of her life…I am sure early trauma and never knowing if she was going to be hit or hurt some way was the cause.

Sorry Susanne for all of this. There were times when people and to some degree society thought this treatment was acceptable. I hope this behavior will soon be a thing of the past.

You are a sweetheart. If your thoughtful mind and disposition blossomed out of hardship, you have lived to best a person without love or empathy in her heart. You have survived!

Moving and powerful. Hugs to you.
rated
A wonderful piece. And a difficult one. Thank you.
Susanne, I grew up in a country and within a vanishing culture where parents were supposed to hit their children when they–our parents–were angry. Never mind if the anger was at themselves, at their children, or at their neighbors. Call it crazy, but somehow we felt it was part of their job description as parents and that they were showing to the entire barrio that they were not spoiling us rotten. When we were small, my brothers and sisters were never spared by both our mother and father from the fist, the rattan switch, the bamboo stick or anything that was within reach—the ever handy belt, a slender piece of firewood, whatever. The funny—or should it be sad?—thing was, my siblings and I never harbored any hatred against them; nor did these shared blows and lashes draw us closer to each for supportive comfort. Perversely, it seemed at that time, we felt that whatever anger they directed at us was some coping mechanism in a tightly knit barrio community that had no use for a jazz guitarist (him) and a failed seamstress (her). They are both gone now and we, my four brothers and four sisters
Sorry, I hit the Post button before I could finish with my post.

…have gone to raise respective families of our own. And on our parent’s death anniversaries, all of us gather at the ancestral house and among the stories we tell our children during these reunions are their grandparents’ “wicked” ways. And they ask us: “How come none of you went crazy or rebellious or all screwed up?” And we tell them: “Because we all loved your grandma and grandpa.”

Crazy, isn’t it? And I’m sorry if this doesn’t make sense.

powerful and sad beyond words, portrayed beautifully

I know some of this though not to this extent. I am with you.

This makes me ache for you and for all the children who are brutalized in our country every day. KD Lang had it when she sang “the rights of the children have nowhere to stand.” Thanks for this post.
Dramatic free verse. Was your mom abused too? Abusers sometimes like to pass on the pain for a reason I will never fully comprehend. Peace.
Powerful and vivid. I hope it helps to write this stuff out – I know writing is therapeutic for me. My mother used words, not fists, but we found out near the end of her life that her mother did use physical abuse at least at times. It all made more sense. So it trickled down and now her children treat their own children lovingly. The trail ends, thank god.
Wonderful but sad. Rated. Take a look at the post “The Nuns Made Me Do It.”

It’s amazing people still grow up and can be happy. Good for you. It looks at though you found that love instead of a fist!

Ah, Susanne, you took my breath away with this one. Right there with you. Moved beyond words that that that little girl was able to turn into the woman that you are, who transforms, transcends, and remembers.
Thank you, each of you, for your kind remarks. I always wondered if I could write my own version of “My Papa’s Waltz” but it never came until last night when I couldn’t sleep.

I don’t think that anyone can ‘understand’ this, though there are folks here who have their own parallel experiences, such as junk1, Gayle, and Mitidor. I think our culture was accepting of such behavior when I was young. I have a story about why I know this in me, so I will save it for that.

Matt Brandstein, you most clearly stated the truth: “The prose of brutality serve as the most effective means to stand up to its onward march.” For those who have suffered at the hands or the words of their parents, what we have to say about it is exactly the tool we have that turns the tide in our own lives and for generations to come.

Yes, there was abuse of my mother and her brothers. My uncles told me about it when I was a young woman. My grandmother was orphaned in the flu epidemic of 1918. I believe she had a very hard life.

This is so painful and powerfully descriptive I could almost feel the blows. I cringed, I jumped, I wanted to run. My stomach hurts, my heart hurts for you and your sisters and brothers.

To have gone through this abomination and emerged with the ability to love and allow yourself to be loved is nothing short of a triumph of will and spirit and determination.

Now I understand a little better why you always seem to understand. I’m so sorry for your pain, but very, very grateful for your courage.

Thanks Sally. Writing saves a lot of people, be it good writing or not.
Susanne,

I did not realize you had this kind of history in your family. Thanks for sharing it with us.

I think we have all experienced some kind of abuse in our lives. I was abused as a child, too, although the physical abuse I suffered did not compare to what you have described here. For me, there was some degree of physical abuse, but what really hurt and caused problems for me that reached/reach far beyond the physical, was the mental/emotional abuse; the power of the words that were spoken to me so constantly about my shortcomings, and my apparent innate ability to “embarrass” my mom did far more harm than the physical abuse.

RATED

Yeah, a difficult and moving post. I had an abusive childhood.
Hit by both parents who were themselves abused. You stopped the
cycle.
AND NOW YOU ARE LOVED.
Susanne, it was physical abuse for you and emotional abuse for me…but it hurts no matter what. I really understand, respect you for the fine person you are.

I’ve got your back. Rated.

again, i wonder almost randomly (well, not randomly in this case cause i’ve been meaning to get over here for some time) onto a post and my breath is taken away from me by what i read.

i don’t know what to say susanne, except maybe that you’re an inspiring example of how it’s possible to be so much more than where we came from.

Wow! Powerful! I hope you’ve healed.
This is really sad.
Susanne,
Sending you hugs of love and healing from someone who can relate. Thanks for sharing with us…it’s a very brave thing to do.
Susanne, Thank you so much for this heart felt and honest post. It was beautifully written. Brought tears to my eyes. I send you lots of love and hugs from someone who can relate and who has been there. There is since in violence against another life.
You have been very brave to write this.
Thank you for sharing
Thank you again for reading and commenting and mostly, for caring that such things happen to children.
yow. painful to read. i think you hit it.
Susanne – I am so sorry for the pain and fear you must’ve experienced as a child… this is such a powerful piece. I can’t stop thinking about it and wishing the little Susanne could be protected from these blows. I hope you have found some peace in adulthood, although I know there are scars.
I am struck by how difficult this is for so many to read when for me it is merely a few of the facts of my childhood. It took quite a long time to get to the place where I could say these things in the same way that I say I am left handed and have golden hazel eyes, I am no longer blond the way I was when I was this same little girl. And if you saw a picture of me from this time you would know that I hid this secret, and that you could see in me then the same happiness in my being in spite of the misery that visited me from time to time.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Your piece (poetry) was very heart felt. I have been blogging my stuff so I can understand the injustices that many went through as children and no matter how old you get, you never forget. The only good thing my parents gave me was a lesson on what to avoid being like. Peace of mind to you and thanks.
Sarah, Just keep writing. It gets clearer. I promise.
People, all people, are capable of all kinds of horror, of inflicting all manner of suffering on each other. This in itself is difficult to accept, (though I feel we must), but to imagine people are capable of doing this to children and their own children is just something I would love to reject even though I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of cruelty to my children and my parents. It’s something to question and deal with and ultimately learn from. I’m sorry for you because of what your mother did to you, but apparently your life has turned out *sweet, in spite of the misery* I hope. Sad, thoughtful poem.
“I don’t remember being hugged

or kissed, or having my hand held

gently, kindly, guidingly.”

Oh, sweetheart. There are no words to describe, but you did. You also are taking something so ugly and unimaginable and creating beauty from it.

Thank you for sharing something so deep and painful, yet so tragically common.

Thanks Mari. It is good to be understood and well received.
Unfortunately, this happens everyday, every week of every month in every year.

Anyone who’s worked with children knows the back stories. I can’t tell you how many times CPS, child protective services, has come to my classroom and all the classrooms I’ve been in thus far to take a child away.

Colleagues and friends have their own stories as well, and we talk about it as a way to get it out of our system.

And I suspect this is a way for you as well.

It horrifies me what children are subjected to. Maybe that’s why I’m always happy and smiling in the classroom.

It’s to make the children feel better and at the same time to mask the sadness of the true reality you’ve written about it.

Susanne: First I am very sorry that you had to endure that as a child. Unfortunately, far too many of us had similar childhoods.

All the things that you described my mother did to me. My stepdad loved me unconditionally and never touched me; and when he was home she would not touch me. The rest of the time it was totally without any rhyme or reason when or why she would go crazy over some small thing.

The difference was that my mother would then go into periods of remorse that manifested itself in smothering love and affection that created for me what I later learned was a classic love/hate syndrome.

As I grew older I continued to honor the idea that a child was never to lay a hand on a parent and was to take his/her punishment no matter what it was.

It all came to a head when I was a senior in high school getting ready to go to school and she came at me crazy and screaming and seething with rage and struck me with a wooden suit hanger in the side of my face. The hanger cracked and she drew back to hit me again. I reached out and grabbed her wrist and squeezed until she let go and told her that she would never hit me again. Ever.

I got in my car and went to school. When I got back all of my clothes were scattered all over the yard, my stereo and games and anything that had anything to do with me was thrown, mostly broken, into the yard.

I gathered it up and never went back. What a sad mess that was.

Reading about your pain brought all that pouring back out of recesses of my memory I almost never access.

God bless you, Susanne, for growing into the compassionate and strong person you are today.

Monte

Difficult to read, sad, and powerful.
Well written (though it would be worth writing even if it wasn’t.)

It’s amazing that you grew into the kind person you are today.

I had a problem dealing with how somebody who claimed to ‘love me’ could cause me so much pain. I had bruises but never a broken bone.

I was kept home from school a few times even…

It took me a long time to trust people. I still have flashbacks sometimes.

I wonder if I’ll ever know what it’s like to love someone completely. I have ‘trust issues’ I’ve been told.

It shouldn’t hurt to grow up. In other words, your parents shouldn’t be allowed to wail on you with abandon. My first home visit with my second serious girlfriend was marked by an explosive beating by my mother. I yelled at her to leave me… She didn’t give an inch. Later, she helped me move out after another violent confrontation.

I owe her a lot. As repayment, I married her… She got the short end of the deal by far, but most men marry up… Cheers to the wives! We thank you… 😉

Oh Susanne…this is so raw and painful even just reading it. I can’t understand why people do these things to their own children. I hope that you and your brothers and sisters are in a much better place these days, far away from that abusive fist.
Magnificent and sad. Rated.
Hello, Suzanne-
thank you for the poem; feel free to call my attention to your posts anytime.
Things left unsaid and worth exploring include who did love you; How did you become the good-you in the now? What ever happened to ol’ violent mom? I’m not saying this should be included in the poem; it is a gem unto itself. Only that there are rich fields for exploration.
I was born in the early 60’s, kid #10 of 11. Catholic. No birth control. The realities of family life as opposed to the idealism preached from the pulpit…well. My rich fields to write about.
I would gladly have consented to be aborted if my absence would have meant any less resentment and pain in Mom’s life. Yet, I don’t think it would have. She would have found another way to manufacture it.
She was a kind of prisoner. Of her biology, of her ideology. A child posing as an adult. And so many of my siblings have carried on the unconscious drama of rage and control, misuse of power over the very people they claim to love most.

I’m in your neighborhood now; if ever you attend Seattle unity church, look for me.

Heartbreaking, and beautiful at the same time.
Suzanne:

Here’s an excerpt from a recent post of mine, dealing with my mother’s dementia and the sudden death of my father: http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=62794

“When I was in my early teens, I had one of a series of major arguments with my mother. I recall how she stopped hitting me and reached down to remove her shoe so she could hit me with that– I was getting to be too big for her to effectively use her bare hands. When she reached for her shoe, I grabbed her, dragged her to the ground and told her that the next time she hit me I would hit her back. From then on, whenever we argued she would run to my father and ask (or berate) him to do something about whatever it was I had said or done– she never struck me again.

I mention all this because after several days of dealing with her behavior while all of us were hurting, my mother got angry and slapped me. I didn’t hesitate– I slapped her back. Her dementia, my respect for others, the knowledge that my father lived with her for sixty years without hitting her (that I am aware of), my understanding her pain and feeling my own, none of that mattered to me; all I could think of was that, after more than forty years, I had kept my promise.”

I am so so so so sorry that this happened to you and your siblings. So sorry.
Your poetry speaks to me so clearly and painfully. I wish I could write about my childhood as powerfully as you.
Highly rated. At some point, I guess, the recognition of this forced you to a concerted action to end the cycle. So many never figure this out and I’m guessing your Mom is one of them.
I’m stunned into silence and screaming for your healing. Rating for the writing and BEGGING for everyone to read this. Including you, Joan and Kerry.
Cartouche, I am healed, clear & centered, so don’t worry. I don’t think Joan or Kerry are likely to read this. They have other interests that they are pursuing.
You mirror my soul….
From violent unloving background
A wealth of understanding finally….
And my totally broken heart is mended….
But it took the light of understanding…. shining it’s torch at me and bringing back the hope that underneath the cruelty …..
There was love, masked, but there…
I was, and am sorry for the pain this shadow cast over our existences…
{rated}
That was lovely nahatsu. Thank you.
Susanne, what a heartbreaking set of memories. I think you’re so brave to put this into words rather than squashing in the back of your mind – though that would be tempting and I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to go to this space every day and still function. If there is any peace that comes from sharing I hope it comes to you. I live on the other side of the world but your pain comes through loud and clear. I feel for you and hope you find some joy in your present and future.
I am a very happy girl with a haunting past. It is good to be me. I share this now because I can and because there are children out there having this experience now.

Thanks for coming by.

Susanne, this is a horrendous and sad thing that you have gone through but, I’m glad you had the support and love of your siblings.

Remind yourself of your goodness and strengths. You have survived and that is a victory. You are an amazing lady!

Susanne,

This is difficult to read. I wish we could rewind and I could loan you my mother. But perhaps you wouldn’t have turned out the remarkable woman that you are.

I wonder if there are a few advocacy organizations for battered children that you would like to bring to OS readers’ attention. I guess after experiencing something this horrible, I look for a way to do something about it.

I suspect that Dan the Man has had a huge role in your healing. Give him and the cats hugs from me.

Hugs and admiration,
Mary

hi, susanne, it sounds like where I grew up. Something like this can kill your soul. It killed my sister’s spirit. 50 years later she’s still wounded.

I read your writing and know that you’ve survived it–and more. Gone on to live a good and useful life.

Thank you John. One of my sisters is like yours and another is more grounded like me. This kind of childhood settles on each of us differently.
After working for 5-1/2 years in foster care and 3-1/2 years in private practice, I have no illusions about the torture which parents will inflict on their children. Many times clients will ask me if they will ever be “normal.” My response is that they will never be the people they would have been if they hadn’t been abused, but that with time and work the abuse will become “something that happened to me” vs the monster in the dark that keeps you trapped. It is clear that you reached this place in life, and for that I am happy for you, despite all that went before.

I still occasionally stumble. Last night I was watching a movie and a character looked so much like my 1st stepfather, that for the first time in years I had a flashback. But it was short, and when it was over, it was over, and I remain who I have worked so hard to become.

Merwoman,

Good for you! The same thing happens to me from time to time. The mind likes to take what is happening right now, no matter whether it is truth or fiction, and categorize it as if it is the same or equvalent to something that happened earlier in our memories. It’s mechanical and has nothing to do with the hard work it takes to clear up ones life and grapple with a nightmarish history. It’s interesting to me now because I can simply observe it rather than be taken by it to a dark place in my memory. The fact is, most memories are not entirely accurate anyway and some things we think we know are not even completely accurate and true.

Dear Susanne, this is one of the most important posts written…opens windows and doors of reflection and insight , and shared pain too, for so many readers…

I love how you said you are a “happy girl” … how many can say that? even with “good” childhood backgrounds??…happiness seems a frail element in American or the Western World life…yet you have it and I believe you when you tell us that you have it…to overcome the past is a life struggle for many, even for me at times, I am so impressed by you!
You did a BIG thing for many, many people by writing about this subject. BIG.

Thanks again for your comments and concern. I hope that what I have said does make a difference to people, that they can see themselves or think about how they treat one another with love and respect, and if they don’t, that they wll look for the source of their unhappiness.
Sorry I’m late to this Suzanne. I loved the language of your poem. It sent me back too a bunch of decades, sure, but mostly it just made me love you so intensely I could kiss and hug away every distant and lingering trace of your pain. You are beautiful, inside and out, and whether it’s my own pain and love I’m projecting or yours, who cares– it redeems us both, so what a celebration!

x nada

Very sweet Nada, thanks. Keep doing your spooky good love with your kids and dance happy on the earth!
My God you’re brave……I admire you so much.
Riveting piece of writing…..a mature step to bind the assailing hands of the oppressors.
Gary, I am glad that you were here to read it. Some eyes you just want on your work, and yours are some of those eyes my friend. Thanks for your kindness.
Susanne, thank you for sharing your story with us. I am all for joy too and I want you to know that yours shines through.
Root and Branch

My mother’s fidelity to her marriage bed
Was rooted deeper than any Penelope.
My father’s departure, he no homeward bound Odysseus,
Became the charybdic black hole where anger
Anchored her against the uncertainty of failed expectations.
Thus the bitter bark of abandonment roughed skin once caressed
And spiteful acid pooled where aroused blood flew.
Her graceful limbs turned twisted sneers of gnarled branches.

We, her children, thought or mother beautiful.

She wore every grey venomous leaf left to her
Like a wreath of glorious victory,
Their rattled whispers sighing:
Your father was a good man.

We played out our youth
In the shade of her love
As if nothing was wrong.

I understand too well. For me there was no touch that didn’t leave a mark. Not all of the marks were visible cuts and bruises. Sometimes they were worse. Beautiful and brave.
Thanks Zul. I do understand.
Thank you.

It’s funny, but it seems to me almost like these words have been put away and because you read them they are ‘out’ again.

She Hit me: Forgiving My Mother

I wrote the original version of this about 20 years ago and have re-edited it a bit.  (I’ve had a few more insights into relationships & forgiveness in the intervening years). I have practiced forgiveness long enough that I have forgiven all the people who hurt me as a child, and myself for the ideas I once held about myself as a result of an abundance of the difficult events I reveal here. What a freedom comes of forgiveness! We don’t have to let those who once hurt us suppress our lives, limit our choices or dim the luminous nature of Love that is borne in each of us and seeks to express as us… 


She Hit me:  Forgiving My Mother

Rev. Dr. Susanne Freeborn


Me and Mom

I changed schools 27 times before I dropped out of high school. That was only 45 days before graduation. This was not because my father was in the military. It was mainly because my mother was single–with 5 children by the time I was in high school. My parents never married. It wasn‘t for want of a proposal by my father that they did not marry. He begged my mother, but she was having none of it because her first husband had deserted her when she was still a teenager, and she was not going to let that happen to her again. It mattered not to her that my father loved her or that they had two children together. She was not going to be hurt again. Then my father killed himself a few years after they had separated, when I was only seven years old. He drove his truck into an enormous Coastal Live Oak tree at 60 miles an hour somewhere near Fresno, California in the great San Joaquin Valley. He left a suicide note they said, I wasn’t allowed to see or hear it.

There is not much point in going too deeply into a description of the pain and suffering of my childhood, just a sketch will do. Remember the Fifties and Sixties? Being a single mother was not common then, nor was it understood, supported and God, there was no respect at all.  We would be called “That woman and all her brats.”   Women didn’t make even close to equal pay, child support was not enforced, nor was it reliably collected by the state even if there was a court order in place. Our family life was a serial travelogue of spots between a rock and a hard place.

We were all bastards. One of my two sisters still doesn’t know her father’s name. None of us had five different sets of school clothes, and making friends was a dangerous business if you knew that you were only going to end up moving away right after you finally made some friends. And leave we did, because we were evicted from our home repeatedly when my mother ran short of cash.  During my sophomore year of high school in the spring, when all the promise seems to be returning to the planet, we had to eat corn meal mush for two months straight because there was nothing else. We were very desperately poor and it was very hard for my mother. She came home exhausted from her job as a cook and beat all of us out of her frustration and anger.

At one time we were taken from her by the state and sent to live with our grandparents after a neighbor saw her beating me with a stick of lathe. A couple of years went by and then they sent us back to her, though nothing had really changed, except what house we lived in. During those years I fell prey to sexual molestation by two of my uncles and a male babysitter. When it was discovered, my grandmother acted as if a nine-year-old girl could actually be provocative to her sons, who were much older than I, one of them in the Navy. She taught me to feel guilty about the inappropriate behaviors directed toward me by men.  She said men only wanted one thing.  I didn’t feel safe in the world unless I was with my Grampa, but I couldn’t always be with him.

I tell you this so that you will understand why I had to come to know forgiveness intimately. Children who have a difficult childhood usually think that they are in some way responsible for what went wrong and we blame our parents for what we perceive as their failures to love, protect and provide for us. We, and our families, are fundamentally wrong in our own eyes. My poor mother was damned from the beginning.  If the circumstances weren’t difficult enough, Freud was let loose on the world prior to her arrival and I was taught to profoundly blame her for everything. However, blaming Mom and my father brought me no peace, and only more suffering and a state of perpetual victimhood.  I loathed being a victim.

I don’t remember exactly what it was that brought the miracle of forgiveness to me. But sometime during college, when I was around 28 years old, I was pursuing Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland and I began to see the culture that my family had lived in a wholly different way. I saw the terrible economic and societal pressures my mother had faced and saw that she had not given up on taking care of us, even though she was alone and without much help. Even if she had to lie to the landlord or creditors, she had always done her best to keep us safe. No matter what. And I began to realize why she had been angry and that in her grief and anger she had hurt us.

I became a little less overwhelmingly angry and disappointed with her and began to forgive her. I began to let her love me the way that she did instead of the way that I expected her to love me like June Cleaver. I began to love and respect her for how she had taken care of us, swallowing her pride, setting aside things that she had been taught, like honesty, so that we would be OK. She didn’t expect much from life, so she didn’t, couldn’t, have great hopes for us in matters of education or future professions. I saw the price she paid. She simply ensured our survival. She thought life was hard and so it was. She really didn’t have much time for being a soft, warm & loving mother.  She was more like Sisyphus, continually rolling our family up a hill, never reaching the top, never being able to relax or to rest.  Love does not always fit others pictures of what it ought to be.  When you live only to survive many things look as if they belong only to others.  Still my mother kept a roof over our heads that had a door to the world.

Realizing this allowed me just enough space to see another possibility for my own life. That I had all the say in the story of my life. My barely blessed mother let in just enough light under the door for me to see another kind of future. My life was very hard when I was young, but it has been one miracle after another since the day I began to forgive my mom.

I had to forgive my mother so many times that it seems like I have made that choice an infinite number of times. Yes our life was hard. Yes, I was horribly, overwhelmingly angry. Yes, I thought for a very long time that it was all her fault. Then I thought it was my fault. Along the way to forgiving Mom, I forgave myself into a life of freedom and joyous self-expression.

My Mom lived with me after having experienced a series of strokes, and I took care of her as tenaciously as she took care of me when I was a child. I kept flowers in her room because she said that “they look like happiness” and because, for me, flowers symbolize the grace of God. A grace that allowed me to see the error of the judgments I made as an innocent child against her and against myself.  Mom died in January 2000.  I am so fortunate that I used my time and my life the way I did prior to her death.  That the wisdom of forgiveness revealed itself to me and I was able to share it with her, I couldn’t be more grateful for the peace that existed between us when she made her transition.

Trike

Knowing Myself: The List Part Six

Wherein Life Really Goes to the Dogs

 Schools I attended by age 11

  • Alice Birney Elementary School
  • Bonsall Elementary School
  • Valley Center Elementary School
  • San Marcos Elementary School
  • Richland Elementary School
  • Conway Elementary School

Conway Elementary SchoolMemories of School
  • Alice Birney Elementary School – Little cots for nap time.   Pedophile in a car stalked me.
  • Bonsall Elementary School – Had a part in the Christmas play as a tree
  • Valley Center Elementary School – two years attending 3rd to 5th grade. I loved Mrs. Conway.  Tried to learn clarinet.
  • San Marcos Elementary School – I wasn’t there long enough to remember anything but playing jacks at recess – then I was bussed to Richland.
  • Richland Elementary School – Finished 5th grade here. Mrs. Maiwald told the kids to be nice to me when she introduced me to the class.  I won the spelling bee at this school.
  • Conway Elementary School – It was a new school.  I didn’t make any new friends.

100523bonsallschool_r620x349


I liked school quite a lot, and for the most part, I excelled even though by sixth grade I was attending my sixth elementary school. My friend from Valley Center, Jane Rogers was a student at Conway, her family had moved into town and bought a house of their own.  She was in my class again!  But she didn’t seem to want to include me, though her mom invited me over to play Candyland. We drifted apart.  I was pretty lonely and sad,  horribly disappointed that she didn’t seem to like me anymore. She had meant so much to me before, like a life vest against the rising storm waters in my family.  But that is a lot to expect of another little girl, isn’t it?

Kids are resilient though.  I was sort of the leader of the neighborhood kids in whatever shenanigans we could get ourselves into, without our parents learning of what we had done.  We built a fort out of abandoned old doors and lumber from a house that was demolished nearby.  Sometimes the doors fell on our heads.  I don’t think we had many nails to hold everything together, nor did we have any adult help, since we built it secretly down by a creek.

Avocado Groves in Escondido, California

We hiked up into the hills, in the avocado and citrus orchards, where we were chased by gigantic black mastiffs guarding the crops.

Shouts of “They’re going to eat me!” and “They’re going to bite me.” Followed by “Run faster!”  “We’re almost there!” were repeated until like little keystone cops, or the dead end kids, we raced down the slippery leaf covered hillsides. We all kept falling and sliding past one another, tearing clothing and flesh, getting up and running for dear life as the dogs kept coming and barking loudly and fiercely.  We slid under the barbed wire fences escaping without any bites.  Some of the littlest kids were sobbing and shaking with fear, for of course, they were the closest to being caught.

After everyone calmed down, there was a lot of laughter and embellishment of our tale of adventure.  But the reality was that it wouldn’t have just been me getting physical punishment that night if more than scrapes and scratches had been evident.  The very fact that other kids got spanked at home seemed solid enough evidence to me that I wasn’t so different, after all.


Valley Center Orange Groves


Knowing Myself: The List Part Five

  • I don’t like or feel healthy around edges, steep drop offs, cliffs, being a passenger on curvy mountain roads, windows in tall buildings, or “view” tables at rooftops cafes
  • I am not so sure about men either, Grama says they want only one thing and she calls Grampa an “old battle axe” which I think means something like sonofabitch, one of those words that will get me in trouble if I say it

West Lilac Road, Bonsall, CA


Mostly, I was raised by my mother with a lot of help from my grandparents through the time I became a teenager.  The things that children deserve from their families were not always present, all at the same time, at our house.  The only thing that was predictable at our house was that all hell could break loose at any moment. Either we were about to be evicted, which we were more times than I can count, or there was fighting going on between my mother and Elmer, my little brothers father.  He came into our lives when I was about nine years old.  He was also a good bit older than my mother; he had daughters that were her age, whose children were only slightly younger than my little sisters.  He was an alcoholic.  His drink of choice was vodka.  He hid bottles, something I was familiar with, because Grampa had hidden a few around the egg ranch, which I found from time to time.

A child of nine should not have to know as much about alcoholism as I did.


Cutting Horse


When he wasn’t drinking, Elmer was a decent, hardworking horse trainer.  He trained quarter horses and cutting horses.  Cutting horses are the ones used when herding cattle, and when cutting particular cattle from the herd.  He was one of those people who could do tricks with a rope that would amuse and baffle other folks on the ranch.  He really did seem okay, until he was drunk.  He never hurt me physically, but he did make me feel as scared for my mother as I had felt when she was laying on the road unconscious.

Our fears seem to naturally hook up with the fears in our past, gathering steam and power.  It didn’t take long for me to be afraid of him.  He was threatening when he was drunk, but it wasn’t until I was about eleven, and had poured out a bottle of vodka that I found, that he finally did cross the line from scaring me to threatening me with violence.

We were living in Escondido by then.  He was working on a ranch somewhere training horses.  He came in the house with his Ryder boots with the Spanish heel and his spurs.  He went out to the garage, where I had found and disposed of his vodka.  I was in my room, with the multi-tiered lavender bedspread, hiding behind the bed waiting for what was next.  He came back in yelling about the vodka and asking who had taken it.  Finally, after a lot of shouting and stomping around, the metallic jingling and scratching of his spurs on the linoleum, he grabbed me up by the arm from the floor where I was crouched, and asked if I had done something with his vodka.  I confessed that I had poured it out; I didn’t want him to drink.  I was afraid when he was drinking.


 Cowboy Boots with Spurs


He threw me to the floor and said he was going to smash my head in with his spurs.  He said he was going to stomp me to death.  My mother ran to grab me from the floor.  She pushed him until he slid into the closed door of my sisters’ bedroom.

By then, I was up and running out the front door, running as far and as fast as I could down the street. I don’t know what happened while I was running and running and running.  I ran until I couldn’t breathe.  It was a long, long way from where I lived.  I didn’t have any place safe to go really.  Anyone who knew my mother would have just taken me back home anyway.   My mind raced as fast as my little feet without finding any solution.

After a while I walked home slowly and I went around the back, where I had buried my six toed cat, and peeked through the dining room window to see if it was safe to come back inside our house.  The TV was on in the living room.  Both Mom & Elmer sat on the teal hide-a-bed sofa watching Bonanza, like nothing had happened.  There were dishes still on the table.  Mine was empty.  I quietly opened the kitchen door, tiptoeing on my stocking feet through the kitchen and dashed through the dining room to my open bedroom door.  I closed the door, changed into my nightgown, crawled into my lavender bed and cried my self to sleep as quietly as I could.

The next day I went to school as usual.


 

Conway Elementary School

The Value of

KNOWING MYSELF

My Life in List Form


Gnothi SeautonKnow Thyself  

The unlived life is not worth examining. –Anonymous

And I found this follow-up penned in beneath a sign quoting Socrates on the drinks case at my favorite lunch time deli in Salinas, California years ago:

The unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates

And a little bit of examination goes a long way!  –Anonymous

 

Knowing Myself: List Part Four

Mom Wrecks Our Car on a Mountain Road

Let me backtrack a little bit here.   I think that when this happened I was pretty small, about four or five years old.  Since it involves the geographic area where my grandparents lived and my memory of those hills, I know I was pretty small and I don’t think we lived in San Diego quite yet.  This memory is a bit disembodied, scary, and left out of its time frame because it is for me, in a fragmentary part of my memory as well. There isn’t anyone alive who remembers it anymore, so I will just do my best here with telling the tale. 

Camp Pendleton
Perhaps my mother was still working in the Pro Shop at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.  That is the only reason I can think that we would have gone there at all.   I know she worked there for a while, and that she met my youngest sister’s father while she was there.  He used to call me Pumpkin and I remember him as a very kind and funny man who took us to the beach and held my hand as we walked in the shallow waters.  But this was something that happened in December.  There was a big party at Camp Pendleton, with a Santa for the kids, the Marine Corp Band, cake and I think some presents.  Mom took Sally and I to the base for the festivities.  I don’t really remember the drive to get there, it is the drive home that is burnt into my memory like an Old West branding iron.

Camp Pendleton Area

I think she drove from the base over through Highway 76, to Bonsall, then across the cattle guard onto West Lilac Road as it wound around the hills where some years later I would ride the school bus home.  The road was a series of “s’ curves and hairpins that wound around the curvature of the mountains and hillsides that dropped down slowly and then steeply to the San Luis Rey River bed.  There were only two lanes and a sharp drop off on the down hill side of the road, where the earth travelled through dry creeks and narrow canyons.  I vaguely remember sitting in the back seat with my sister, with my shiny patent leather Mary Janes and lace edged white socks jutted out in front of me.  I don’t think I was watching the road.  We were singing Christmas songs as we wound our way to the Williams Ranch, where our grandparents lived and cared for 29,000 laying hens, two cows, a small citrus orchard and a one acre garden.

Suddenly, the car crashed into something, I think a boulder,  and went airborne; the car rolled off the side of the road and somehow stopped short of travelling to the bottom of a ravine, hung up just in view of the road, clinging to an outcropping of the black and white speckled granite that was common there.  It seemed that my mother was ejected from the car while it was still on the road, perhaps when it went airborne, and as I sat there crying, hiccupping, screaming I saw her there, lying unmoving, but I was trapped somehow, terrified that someone was going to run my mother over, killing her,  right there where she lay in the road, not moving.  My little sister screamed and cried along with me.  It seems like it went on forever, and then we were on gurneys in the emergency room, the screaming was over, but not the hiccups, and they had my mother with a mask upon her face laying on a gurney.  It was loud in there.  There was a lot of shouting of words that I didn’t know.



I don’t remember the Christmas that followed that car wreck.  The memory of it is obliterated in a wash of other Christmases at the ranch.    I think the next one I was in first grade and got a blue two wheeled bicycle with training wheels, and a new baby sister named Sharon that was born in July.  Before the New Year, I ran down a weasel that was running out from one of the chicken houses, and I remember screaming then too, as I ran across it with the big wheels and one of the training wheels, as if I had killed it.  I never really knew, because it ran brokenly down into the ravine off the side of the dirt road never to be seen near the chicken houses again.


  

Knowing Myself: List Part Three, I meet Eleanor Roosevelt

A Few More Good Things That Happened  

  •  Reading, EVERYTHING
  • Valley Center
  • Making ice cream from fresh cream separated the day the cow was milked
  •  Learning to garden with Grama and later, Mom
  • Living at Rancho Lilac
  • Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt

Early Spring Garden @ Toad Hollow

Socrates was asked once why it was that Alcibiades, who was so brilliant, was so unhappy.

Socrates replied, “Because wherever he goes, Alcibiades takes himself with him.” This is still very profound for each of us today.

Have you ever tried to move to a new place, to start over, only to find the same situations following you from place to place?  This certainly happened throughout my childhood, the issues of poverty following us from place to place as my mother lied to one landlord after another, changed jobs and clung to survival as tenaciously as is possible.  The deeper, and more personal issues followed me into my adulthood for resolution.

I changed schools about 27 times, counting the schools at Hillcrest Receiving Home and the high school classes at San Diego County Juvenile Hall.  I counted that out about 25 years ago, now some of it is a blur of forgotten names and circling back to schools I had left already.

I have been thinking of what I am grateful for. It is quite ordinary to be so loved and so appreciative. My gratitude extends to everything about my life these days and particularly to very ordinary things. I am grateful for the kindness, encouragement and intelligence of my husband with whom I live in a consistent state of Love. We live comfortably without any particular excess. I am grateful for the wisdom to live simply and to live trusting that our needs will be met.  With all the shortcomings my family may have had, I am grateful that I was raised to take good care of what I am given, preserving it and honoring the privilege of my abundance. For that I say “Yea and Amen!” to Grama Cavanagh with affection.

I know that outside the window where I sit there is a colorful garden that represents in microcosm the entire basis for my deep appreciation of nature and all its gifts to human life. I am grateful to those who have been so generous in my life and I am amazed as I discover the depths of that well of generosity out of which we take our gifts for one another. I believe that we live lives infinite in the means whereby our gifts are created and dispensed. We are avenues of Spirit’s self-givingness and grow in that capacity as we open to the possibility of endless gifts.  We are meant to be generous and responsible for how we use the lives we are given.


Eleanor Roosevelt


MEETING ELEANOR ROOSEVELT


When I was a little girl, I had the privilege of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, who was visiting Rancho Lilac, in Valley Center, California, where I lived as the daughter of the ranch cook.  Interestingly, Colonel Irving Solomon, who owned the ranch with his wife Celeste, had served with Roosevelt at the UN.  During her visit to Rancho Lilac he had apparently told her that there was a little girl who wanted very much to meet her.  When the school bus stopped at the gate to drop me off, there she was waiting to meet me!  Imagine such a generous and wonderful surprise!  It was a short visit, only a few minutes at best. But they meant a great deal to me in the years to come.  Because I met her, all my life thereafter I have been inspired by what I learned of her as I grew up.

As I got older I  felt driven  to find out more and more about her, she was the most important public figure I had met,  and I was inspired to discover in her qualities that I could later find in myself.  Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who stood up when others sat down on their rights.  She was a self-defined woman who decided who to be in her life no matter what the challenges she faced.  She was a champion for civil and women’s rights.  She didn’t worry about being liked as much as being an effective force for good.  In 1948, when the following Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed without dissent by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt served as the chair on the Commission on Human Rights, which brought the Declaration to the Assembly for approval.  What a fine legacy the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to leave the world!

On a more personal level, I wonder what would happen if we each took the time on a daily basis to think, “Today, how could I spend a few minutes acknowledging someone, a child, an elder or a colleague so that they would be changed or even, that they would remember the precious gesture decades later?”

“Rancho Lilac was the site of the smallest post office in the United States. The post office, which still exists, was not much bigger than a phone booth. It functioned until about 1912. The property changed hands many times and eventually was purchased by Col. Irving Solomon in 1945, who raised Hereford cattle. Solomon was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations.” [1]

I played post office on the site of this tiny post office without knowing its history until recently.  I simply came upon it while playing in the yard in front of Col. Solomon’s ranch house.  I didn’t know as a child that Col. Solomon had worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on the formation of the UN.   I did know that his cattle were prize winners and that he was a really nice man.  I have no memories of his wife and family at all.  I am indebted to him for his kindness to me on that one day when he could have left Mrs. Roosevelt to enjoy a rest beside the pool, but instead asked her to greet me.

“Sometimes the days they can be very busy, so I like to stop and think now and then.  I think of the reasons I have to be happy, and that makes me happy all over again.”

From the Broadway musical “A Year With Frog and Toad”

[1]  http://orangebook.com/directory_valley_pauma_california_history.htm (This page has since been taken down)