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.
This is a wall in our home that we see every day.
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.
This is a wall in our home that we see every day.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Wherein Life Really Goes to the Dogs
Schools I attended by age 11
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gnothi Seauton: Know 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
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.
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.
A Few More Good Things That Happened
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.
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.” 
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”
 http://orangebook.com/directory_valley_pauma_california_history.htm (This page has since been taken down)