love across the raging river

[image: Lisa Marder]

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

Like much around LOVE, I have rejected Valentine’s Day and all celebration of such for years and years. Too much about ‘love’ has felt fake to me, or worse, sinister, a way of disguising the true motive of abuse: using, misusing, abandoning, damaging. With no thought for the suffering.

And yet.

And yet. Time and again LOVE has shown itself to me, in its pure and authentic form. Time and again I have stumbled upon moments of real love, in spite of myself. I have known that it exists, though I have sometimes not known what to do with it, ill-prepared as I have been for it much of my life.

Over the weekend, my elder son got engaged. The wedding is this summer. We are all, to a person — absolutely delighted. Thrilled and so, so happy. It’s still a shock to me that I can experience such pure happiness. That I am capable of it. I mentioned this on Twitter: I’ve been thinking about joy, being joyful.

So how am I able? How do I have the capacity for joy?

I get asked this question a lot, in fairness. What kept you going?

Because the more realism with which I come to see my early life, the more damage I see. The more darkness and despair.

Except.

Except that I think — I believe — I understood, somehow and deep down, about unconditional love. I knew that somewhere — not with my mother, and not in my father’s house, but elsewhere — I was loved unconditionally. And ‘all’ I had to do was hang on long enough to be near it once again.

I see now that there were two sources of unconditional love in my life, right from the start. First, my beloved grandparents Ommie and Granddaddy, my father’s parents. I stayed with them for weeks at a time in my early childhood, and they provided the routine, the warmth, the indulgence I needed. They loved me unconditionally my whole life, and even when I moved away from them, when I was six, I was aware that they were there, somewhere, even if far away. And that someday I would see them. I would be grown up, and go and be with them. They appear a great deal in my memoir, and I’m sure I’ll mention them again more than once here.

When I moved from Texas to Virginia to join my father’s household, my father — I found out later — asked all my Texas relatives not to contact me. This included Ommie and Granddaddy, Granny (my mother’s mother, in San Antonio), and all my various relatives on both sides. Even my mother. Because, he decided, hearing from them upset me too much.

I was six years old, and in the space of a few months I lost everyone and everything I’d known before.

I remembered, and held onto, my grandparents’ existence throughout. And being my father’s parents, we did hear from them sometimes. However, my mother’s side — Granny and all those relatives — almost completely disappeared.

The second source of unconditional love surfaced as I approached my 16th birthday, 10 years after moving to Virginia. Here is what happened then, from my memoir Learning to Survive.

So I’m thinking today: Love begets love. Unconditional love saves lives. And in that spirit, HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY, one and all.

*

Sweet Sixteen

I remember taking the letter outside for privacy, onto the front porch. It is January 1980, six weeks before I turn 16.

            I don’t recognise the writing, or the name in the top left-hand corner. I open it. And it’s from Jamie – gentle Jamie, my long lost and barely remembered cousin in Texas.

My dear Patty,

            I honestly don’t know how to begin this letter to you except by way of an apology for not having written it years ago. I can only hope that my many years of silence have not led you to think I have forgotten you, or much worse, have stopped caring about you.

            It may have taken me even longer to put pen to paper had it not been for some shock therapy inflicted on me by your Granny Wood. During Christmas holidays she handed me a picture of a near 16-year-old woman and told me it was you. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I accused her of playing practical jokes but she assured me it was indeed my favourite second cousin.

            After the initial jolt wore off, I began thinking where all the time had gone. Last time I held you in my arms you were half as old as you are now. I think [your mother] was teaching at [a middle school in San Antonio]. I best remember the way you loved to climb on my back for a horse ride through the house. That is, until you got so big that I was almost left with a permanent curve in my spine. I loved you more than you’ll ever know, Patty. You were like the little sister I always wanted but never had. I love you to this day.

            I hope I haven’t thrown too much at you at once during the course of this letter. Ever since Nana and Papa died, I’ve slowly come to appreciate the need for close family ties. I don’t know how much you remember about me and the rest of your Texas family; nor do I know if you are aware of the some of the petty feuds which took place here so long ago. I barely understand them myself. I do know that our generation had nothing to do with them, and we don’t have to inherit them either.

            If you can find it in your heart to do so, drop me a note, ok? After all, you shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to tell me what do with my life – fair is fair. Stay healthy and happy in all you do. I love you so much,

                                                            Jamie

The sky has the grey of snow coming. But I sit on the front porch and cry and cry then, my old life rolling back over me in all its heat and greenery.

            Someone cares, someone still cares. They are still there. They have not forgotten me. And he is right: I really, truly thought they had. Until that moment, until I read his letter, and except for the distant voices of Ommie and Granddaddy, I think that this is all there is. And now I know it’s not.

Jamie and I remain in touch from then on. I write him; he writes me. I don’t see him again until I visit San Antonio with R in 1988, eight years after the letter, but since then, we’ve met up several times – his family, mine.

            Not until the summer of 2018, however, when he comes with his wife and his daughter, and we are all sitting around after dinner, am I really able to say to him, to let him know, the extent of the lifeline he throws me when I am nearly sixteen. The truth is that it is always hard to imagine escape. It is hard, no matter how determined or strong you are, to keep holding onto that thought, when beyond all this is the unknown, perhaps full of even more loneliness and being alone.

            In the letter, Jamie does not directly mention the ‘injunction’ placed on the family by my father, forbidding much communication. He does imply it though, and also implies that he rejects that, and that we aren’t bound by those ‘rules’. His rejection of my father’s orchestrated surroundings – his blast through them, indeed – helps give me the strength I will need later to break all ties, because I now know, for sure, that Jamie is there.

            I tell Jamie all this over dinner that summer. His eyes are full of tears, as are mine, and I’m having a hard time finishing my sentences. When I’ve said enough, I look up to see my own now-grown-up children’s eyes full of tears too. Again and again, I remember the moments that keep me from drowning; I remember how I stepped one to the other across the raging river.

2 thoughts on “love across the raging river”

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