going back (5)

Three weeks ago today in San Antonio, Texas, my cousin Jamie (more about my love for him here), my cousin Linda, Jamie’s wife Patricia, and I scattered my mother’s ashes across the graves of her (and their) beloved grandparents’ graves.

I read the Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur , and anyone who wanted to say something, said something. There was no sugar coating of the difficult relationships we all had with her, but we all loved her.

It was wonderful to be with people who knew her, and who cared for her and for me, no matter what. My people.

The journey to Texas with my mother’s ashes was traumatic; I do not recommend it. I was completely unprepared for the separate examination and testing the box would need to undergo. On my own in an airport of rushing people, security folks handling ‘my mother’, I just stood there and sobbed and sobbed. The low point. But I had to get her to San Antonio. Which I did.

(After security, I found a place in the terminal to cry more, send a sad note to the family WhatsApp, and blow my nose. Within a couple of minutes I spoke with E in Boston, heard from M in Pittsburgh, and spoke with R in Cambridge. I am so grateful for my solid, loving family.)

I had not been to San Antonio in 34 years, since leaving for the UK. Yet there, especially after the scattering, sheer elation took me by surprise. I was so happy. I felt like having a party – dancing! Home at last. My home, which I had truly thought lost to me forever. It was so much more powerful and empowering than I could ever have imagined.

My mother would have been delighted, through and through. And would have utterly relished the cracking Tex Mex we had afterward for lunch. We toasted her with margaritas.

Goodbye Mom. Rest in peace now.

going back (4)

This is a photo of my grandparents’ old house in Beaumont, Texas. I took it nine days ago.

The house looks small to my eyes now, though of course as a child it felt palatial: so many big rooms, sofas cool to the touch, cool floors too, even those winding further back into the house, deep soft carpet. The garden full of chameleons I watched turn red on the brick walls, a sandbox my grandfather made for me, and swings.

When I was very little — younger than six — this house meant safety, security, and peace. It meant good food, praise, friendship, and love. It feels impossible to overstate this central truth: my grandparents made me who I am today. They rescued me from the unstable — neglectful — life with my mother and her boyfriends, over and over.

Nine days ago in Texas my aunt Lois and I filled every moment we had together with conversation. We have always been close, almost like sisters, despite our nearly 20 years’ age difference. This post makes clear how and why we always had such a connection — but the truth is too that we ‘never meet a stranger’ (in her father’s, my grandfather’s, words), and we are able to talk for hour upon hour. No exaggeration, the first day we saw each other this time, we managed to talk for eight hours straight. Yep!

I’ve always known — I remember, indeed — that I stayed with my grandparents in times of particular crisis. I was happy with them, and always longed to be there, so I have always taken comfort in my memories of all this. My conversations with Lois two weeks ago revealed a bit more, a couple of surprises: that at one point I stayed with them for at least a year, and that Lois assumed they were going to adopt me.

Lois was at university during this time, so knows few details. But it’s clear that they all considered my mother a danger to me. I don’t know why they didn’t adopt me, but I suspect that my grandparents deferred to my father (their son) — which, as we know, sent me from the frying pan into the fire. But they weren’t to know that. In any case, I was taken aback last week by the realisation that everyone knew I wasn’t safe. I am struck afresh by this refrain of my life: it wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t me; it was his/her doing all along.

I hadn’t been back to Beaumont in 20 years. My parents’ hold on me — my father’s wedge-driving, my. mother’s toxicity — effectively kept me away from a place and people I now know I truly love — and who truly love me.

Lois took me to the house, to the school where my grandmother taught; I saw my beloved cousin again, and I met his three beautiful children for the first time. Lois also ordered an autumn bouquet, which we placed on Ommie’s and Granddaddy’s graves, which I’d never seen. Being with them there was joyful really; in my mind I thanked them, told them about their great grandchildren, and let them know how happy I am now in my life, so much due to them.

My own parents are both gone. My father doesn’t have a burial place, and I scattered my mother’s ashes last week in San Antonio (more on this soon). With this trip to Virginia and then to Texas, I feel set free, an orphan released into love. I embrace the times with my grandparents, and all of my Texas relatives, with a full heart. It’s impossible to know what goes on behind the closed door of any house, but I do know that this house always felt like home.

holding on to what matters

Yesterday I went into town and picked up my repaired bracelet, pictured here. I wear everything permanent on one side, my left: my bracelet, my watch, and my engagement and wedding bands.

Yesterday as I walked back to my car in the underground car park, bracelet newly restored, I was overwhelmed by the rich and familiar smell of oil on concrete. The smell of my beloved grandfather’s garage, and somewhat, the smell of him, working in his overalls there, fixing things as he always did. I spent hours out there with him, just pottering. Him and me.

Yesterday I got in the car and cried. My grandfather died 20 years ago this month. I couldn’t go to his funeral, as my father would be there. I also cried for my father-in-law, who passed only 18 months ago, who was my father for over 30 years with no fuss, and unconditionally.

It’s my father-in-law who gave me this bracelet, on the birth of his tenth grandchild, our young Max, 22 years ago. I wore it daily for years, wearing out the clasp. But it’s back now.

My watch? Bought with inheritance from my mother-in-law, over 30 years ago too. I only knew her one year, but she made a profound impression on me. I have always longed to have known her longer.

I miss the older people in my life whom I trusted and loved. I miss them so much. I know I was lucky to have any, but I don’t take this for granted. I treasure it. They taught me all I know and have ever known.

My grandfather and my father-in-law would both be so proud and happy for the marriage of our first son Eliot, in two weeks. My grandfather held him at six weeks old; we have a picture. And of course, my father-in-law saw Eliot grow and become someone special; they were close.

So I’m holding onto what matters, clinging to it. Not much else in my young life was worth much, to be sure. But I have always known that somewhere I was loved, really cherished. That has never left me.

There are lots of passages in Learning to Survive about my paternal grandparents, Ommie and Granddaddy. They half-raised me, and saved me over and over from the whims and instabilities of my mother. This section is about what it was like to stay with them, their authentic and entirely loving ways.


I believe it is some years before I understand that my favourite people in the world, Ommie and Granddaddy, are my unseen father’s parents. Rather, for all of my early life, I feel they belong only to me.

            They live in Beaumont, a big city in deep east Texas, which first built up around the oil industry, like its larger regional cousin, Houston. Being only a few miles from Louisiana and its swampy backcountry however, Beaumont is never able to take on the cosmopolitan mantle of Houston. It remains fast-growing but provincial, and in the 60’s, all of the Deep South characteristics and traditions are still in place.

            An electrical engineer, my grandfather is a successful part of Mobil Oil’s rise in the 40’s and 50’s. The house I visit is the result of a certain prosperity, designed and built by my grandparents in a then up and coming area of the city. It is a sleek, rambling ranch-style bungalow, set in a large plot of land, with an expanse of lawn and neat caladium-frilled trees in the front. Around back are Granddaddy’s spacious vegetable patch, my swings and a sandbox he makes for me at some point.

            Even now, I can recall the anticipation of arriving on their street, their block. My eyes search for their house, the long driveway, Granddaddy’s pick-up parked on the side, and Ommie’s car in one side of the double garage. We might pull up outside if there are things to unpack, and then walk through the other half of the garage, with its pungent smell of oil on concrete. Someone swings the screen door open; it often squeaks, and always clatters behind you, pushing you through the doorway, announcing your arrival.

            This is the homely way in: on the left is a toilet where Granddaddy washes up from working outside, and Ommie’s enormous laundry room through to the greenhouse. Then you are in the kitchen, with its small table and every inch of counter space laden with food. Outside that window is the hummingbird feeder, with its bright red liquid. Through the kitchen is the lounge – comfortable chairs, a huge half-circle sofa, the television, lots of Readers Digests, a candy dish of clear sweets, and a whole wall of glass doors looking out into the back garden.

            By contrast, the whole front of the house is more formal, with a dining area, a living room no one ever sits in except at Christmas time or with visitors, the piano, and the front door with a sort of entrance hall. The front and back of the house make up a large rectangle; off one end of that rectangle is the hallway to the three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

            The living room, the hallway and the bedrooms are all unusually silent places. Heavily carpeted, you can never hear anyone walk or speak between the bedrooms. The curtains in the living room are always drawn to keep the upholstery from fading, and the windows in all the bedrooms are surprisingly small, high up. Sleeping at Ommie and Granddaddy’s house is like sleeping in a cocoon. I always want to be there, always want to stay.

In truth, I begin to expect to stay with Ommie and Granddaddy; I look forward to it. We traverse the highways between San Antonio, where my mother lives, and Beaumont. I settle into the high twin beds in my grandparents’ house like they are in my own bedroom — more so, as they never change.

            It seems, at one point, or maybe more than one point, that I am always with them. My Aunt Lois tells me that I stay with them for months on end, one time almost a year perhaps. Ommie continues to work, teaching Spanish at the high school. I remember going to see a friend of hers who owned a grey parrot that speaks Spanish.

In Beaumont, I even go to nursery, and Sunday School, where I listen to the lessons and remember a colourful room to play in.

Ommie and Granddaddy take me everywhere. To my grandmother’s hairdressers once a week: a small operation with four or five brown Naugahyde chairs and women who never stop talking. Every once in a while Ommie gestures toward me, mouthing ‘big ears’ to get them to stop gossiping, but they never do. I sit and watch and listen, sipping my coke from a small glass bottle through a straw. Ommie is at her most animated with these people, with her women friends – they even talk while under dryers, their hair up in curlers, flipping through magazines and exchanging views. Sitting on my chair to the side, every once in a while someone comes by, tells me what a good girl I am. And they tell Ommie too, ‘what a good girl she is.’ By the cashier, Ommie reaches out, puts a hand on the top of my head, ‘I know it,’ she says proudly.

I go everywhere with them. Granddaddy takes me out in the pick-up truck, sometimes even in the back if I promise not to move around too much. He drives around the block so I can feel the wind in my hair. For longer journeys, though, I sit next to him in the cab. Together we go to the hardware store, the gardening shop, the fishing tackle store. I inspect tiny drawers full of screws and nuts and bolts, and once, lots of extravagant fishing flies lined up on the counter. It’s not my world, but with Granddaddy in his overalls, his hand around mine, or often, his hands resting on my shoulders, I get a peek at it.

It is Granddaddy who sets up the swing and slide in the backyard, and who builds a sandbox around the bottom of a tree for me. Outside, it is always hot and wet, but with Granddaddy working next to me, I play. The chameleons on the house fascinate me; I stand completely still, just waiting for one to run from the green grass to the red wall so I can watch it change colour. In the front, together we see the squirrels fussing in the tall trees, running through the thick spiky grass. I sit on the front step and watch him mow, watch our neighbours mow their front yards, the hands they raise to one another. And always, should anyone stop to talk, my grandfather waves me over, rests a hand on me: ‘This is our granddaughter,’ he says, ‘come to stay with us for a while.’ And whoever it is, sensing something, or maybe just liking what he sees, says, ‘Well isn’t that nice. Isn’t that nice for you?’ And my grandfather, with a little squeeze, says, ‘It sure is.’

my own private restoration

It’s Easter Sunday for Christians. We have one child home for family time and a good meal. We have each other. Although I do not consider myself a Christian, I am profoundly grateful for our lives today.

On Radio 4 this morning, the ‘Sunday’ programme asked all of its speakers what they did to restore themselves. So I asked myself: what do I do?

Dealing with the fallout from Child Sexual Abuse can be gruelling. I value ALL the work I can do to raise awareness of it, of its prevention, and of survivor issues, but the process can be hard — managing triggers, hearing such grim stories, trying to handle the reality that the world seems to allow CSA, still, by virtue of not looking, and not believing. Yet from this, I value too the support of others, and the authentic love that comes from building friendships and connections out of often such dire circumstances and despair.

So in a sense, connections are part of my constant restoration. What else? My own family. Yes, every moment of every day they restore me. I know who I am because of them, and I know that our love — hard won in many ways, generous, open, funny, and sincere — is completely unconditional.

I don’t have to look far for my lifelong restoration: my beloved grandparents. People often assume that they must have been my maternal grandparents — but they were my paternal ones. In their 80’s, they had to accept what their own son had done. But they always believed me.

I lived with them a great deal when I was little and still in Texas, so before I was six. The image for this post was taken in 1967, when I was three. Each holding my hand.

They treasured me, I see now. They absolutely cherished me. As a college student, I went to Texas to see them more often than I went back to Virginia, where I had grown up. Because in some deep way, they were and always have been my ‘home’. My memories of being with them are — from here — almost unbearably happy. We adored each other. At times I feel that everything I learned that is good in my life — I learned from them. That all the good that I can bring to the world comes down to them. To what they believed in (they had strong Christian faiths) and how they manifested that in the world: through generosity of spirit, through acceptance, through unconditional love. I know that realistically they could not have been perfect — no one is. But they were my perfection regardless, and I hold them as such in my memory always.

My grandparents were married for 72 years, and died 10 weeks apart. I missed both funerals because I couldn’t see my father, their son. But I did go see my grandmother Ommie after Granddaddy died, in that intervening 10 weeks. And later, an extraordinary thing happened on the day of her funeral.

Happy Easter everyone. Happy Restoration Day.

From Learning to Survive:


young again

I fly out to Beaumont [Texas] as soon as I can after Granddaddy’s funeral. My aunt Lois’s husband, Walter, picks me up in Houston, and when we arrive back in Beaumont, we don’t head to their house, but to the hospital, where Ommie has taken a turn for the worse.

            I meet Lois coming out of the elevator, and she is distraught. The care has not been good, Ommie is disturbed, Lois herself is fragmented, fractured. Granddaddy has not been gone long, and now this. She has found a bed in another ward, another hospital, and is in the process of moving Ommie there.

            We follow the ambulance over to the other hospital. As I’ve felt before, I know these are my people, and that Beaumont is my American home, and always has been. My father – despite being Lois’s brother, and Ommie’s son – is not part of this conversation. He doesn’t belong here, and I do.

            At the hospital, Lois and I go upstairs to find Ommie being hoisted into her bed. It has been six years since I’ve seen her, since Eliot was a baby, and I am shocked by her appearance. She has grown suddenly very old, and Lois says it’s all happened quickly, especially now that Granddaddy is gone. Ommie has on a diaper, her hair is wild, and she looks around her as she is hoisted, landing in her bed, with no recognition whatsoever.

            I don’t know what to do. I stand back. Lois relays all of the vital medical information to a kind young nurse, who dutifully writes everything down. I notice that Ommie has frosted nail polish on, as she always does. So the remnants of her life are still with her.

            When the nurse leaves, Lois finishes tucking Ommie in, and smooths and brushes her hair back. Ommie seems to recognise Lois now, and looks at her gratefully, occasionally saying ‘thank you’ and smiling. After a minute, Lois gestures for me to come over. She says that Ommie’s eyesight is bad, and that I must get close. I lean right over the bed. I hear Lois talking behind me: ‘Ommie, it’s Patty. Ommie, look, Patty’s come to see you.’

            Ommie holds my hand and looks right at me, her eyes flying around my face. ‘Hi there Ommie,’ I say, ‘I’m here.’

            All of a sudden she sees me. Her pale grey-blue, bright eyes fix on me, and she squeezes my hand, so tightly, just like she’s always done, shaking it just a little, as if she can’t, she can never, believe I’m really there, because I am so precious.

            ‘Patty?’ she says, ‘Patty, oh my goodness!’ And she turns to look at Lois for confirmation, and Lois says ‘Yes Ommie, it’s your Patty, she’s back!’ And Ommie gives the broadest, happiest smile for a moment.

            Then her eyes fill with tears. Lois says ‘I know, Ommie,’ from behind me, and then to me, ‘She’s sad.’

            I don’t know how I know, but I know she is thinking about Granddaddy, and about how he can’t see me, worse now that I’ve come to visit.

            Ommie squeezes my hand again, her eyes full up. ‘He’s gone, Patty,’ she says, ‘he’s gone.’ And all I can do is say that I know, that I’m sorry, and that I loved him so much.

            Ommie loses some focus then, and soon I know it’s time to leave. ‘This is a lot for her,’ says Lois. ‘But it’s good.’

            I am barely able to breathe. I say goodbye to Ommie, hug and kiss her, knowing this is the last time, even though I am here for a few days, that I will see her. She says goodbye, but I don’t know if she knows she’s saying it to me.

            Lois takes me out into the corridor, and I just about make it to the seats. There I cry and cry, sobbing, doubled over, like someone has kicked me in the stomach. It is so painful. Lois rubs my back, saying ‘I know, I know’ and ‘you were like another daughter to them’, ‘they were so proud of you, and of R and your kids’. And I cry and cry so hard I think I may break in half. I don’t know how long we stay there, but eventually we have to leave.

There are my cousins to see, and Lois to help, and I visit Granddaddy’s grave, but I don’t see Ommie again. I have said my goodbyes. After a few more days, I head home.

            Sitting on the plane is the first time I am really alone, and as soon as we start to taxi down the runaway, I fall apart. I never want to leave Ommie and Granddaddy, never, and yet I have flown away from them so many times, now for the last time, the last time. I cry almost the whole journey home, tears streaming down my cheeks. My seat neighbours check on me, but I can’t speak. I know I will never see her again. I know she will die soon. She has always said that as long as Granddaddy goes first, she will be ready anytime. And I already miss them – miss them being there, somewhere – so much.

            Three weeks later, when I come home from a day out with the kids, R meets me at the door: Ommie has passed away, peacefully. It is July 17, 2002, only ten weeks after Granddaddy’s death. Later Lois tells me that she thinks Ommie feels able to go after seeing me, that only then is she really ready.


the end

Ommie’s funeral takes place a few days later, and, like last time, I can’t go. But I am more at peace with it now, and on the day itself I am alone in the house.

            As the time for the funeral approaches, I am restless. I imagine everyone in the church, I imagine the gathering. I both want and don’t want to be there.

            The hour arrives. I walk out to our back garden, through the gate, and into the wild part of our land, with the stream along the end, a log cabin studio, and a patio situated underneath old trees. For some reason I want to sit down, so I perch on the edge of the studio decking, as if I’m waiting for something. The air is very still. It is overcast, but not dark. It is summer.

            Some birds fly overhead, and I notice one bird left behind, taking its time. I think maybe that bird is sending me a message, a goodbye or farewell. Eventually it catches up with the others, and they move out of sight. And then, as I’m sitting there, there is a sudden, brief rain shower, which lands almost exclusively on me. I can see that the decking is not wet. I can see that the grass is still dry. But I am covered in little raindrops, tiny damp circles spreading on my top. It lasts for only a few seconds, and then moves off. There are no apparent rain clouds, no change in anything else. The sky is the same. But it has happened.

            I look up. I feel certain that Ommie has somehow reached me today, and is letting me know that she’s okay. That they are okay. And right away, I believe her, as I always have. Right away I know that I carry in me every gift they ever gave me, and that nothing, not even their deaths, can empty the rooms where they have always and will always live.