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.

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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.’

the challenge of normalising

Two or three times in the last couple of months I’ve ended up in conversations about Child Sexual Abuse — with friends at hydrotherapy, and line dancing. Not soul mates, but folks I talk to and who talk to me. Whom I’m glad to see, and vice versa.

It has been a long time since I’ve disclosed to acquaintances. And I’ve come so far in such a short time when it comes to being open, not apologising, not rushing to make them feel somehow okay about my experiences — so far indeed, that I have been surprised all over again at the responses:

  1. oh, it hardly bears thinking about, paired with a pursing of the lips. Horror.
  2. this happened to YOU? (to someone middle class, educated, from a ‘good’ family)
  3. it turns my stomach, said with a flat hand outward, keep it away. Disgust.

Sigh. There is SO MUCH work to be done, still, in order to have ‘normal’ conversations about CSA. So many misconceptions, factual and psychological.

  1. We MUST think about child sexual abuse, as upsetting as we find it. Not acknowledging its existence perpetuates it. Silence creates secrecy. It perpetuates abuse. This is a simple equation.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen ‘over there’ somewhere. Abuse happens everywhere. But the stigma surrounding it — that it only happens in ‘bad’ households, in ‘deprived’ areas, to ‘uneducated’ people — ensures it’s kept at arm’s length. Refusing to acknowledge how widespread it is — you guessed it — perpetuates it. If people don’t believe it happens everywhere, they won’t believe it happens anywhere near them. So it will continue. Another simple equation.
  3. Sexual abuse IS disgusting. But for 1 in 6 children, it’s a REALITY. These children don’t have the luxury of turning away in disgust. By not acknowledging this reality — again, as upsetting as it is — again, we perpetuate abuse. We abandon children to the perpetrators.

The shock of sexual abuse is real. Finding out that a friend or acquaintance was abused, or that a child you know is being abused, is pretty awful. There’s no getting around that. We all know abuse is BAD.

I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to forget how upsetting those who have not been abused or are not involved in intense dysfunction can find the whole idea of sexual abuse. I probably mention it several times a day in conversation, and have done now for a few years. It’s my ‘normal’.

However. Hear me out. NORMALISED doesn’t mean that CSA is RIGHT or OKAY. ‘Normalised’ means in the open, discussed — not ignored, skirted around, backed away from. ‘Normalised’ means part of a life. A sad part of life, an upsetting part of life, to be sure — but day to day reality for perhaps 15% – 30% of families in the UK right now (the victims and their families, and the perpetrators and their families).

When we ‘normalise’ CSA we aren’t saying it’s ‘fine’. We are saying this happens. Everywhere, and to every kind of person, across all ages and stages. We are also saying perpetrators are close by. We are also saying be alert, make space for children to disclose, be open to the possibility. We are saying: we see this, and we want to stop it.

The gap between survivors for whom CSA is an openly discussed reality, and those fortunate enough to claim they have ‘never known anyone’ who has been abused, those who are so horrified that they physically and mentally turn completely away — this gap is hard to bridge. We need to be able to acknowledge the awfulness of abuse, the horror of it indeed, alongside being able to take practical steps to help, to raise awareness, to see it as possible anywhere, and possibly perpetrated by someone in or well known to the family.

CSA is a terrible thing — destructive, damaging, a lifelong sentence for survivors and their loved ones. But not allowing ordinary conversation and awareness of CSA is another kind of terrible, the kind of terrible which guarantees more and more suffering for those who are drowning in silence, the 1 in 6 children, the 11 million adult survivors in the UK.

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This poem is from Learning to Survive, written within days of my father (my abuser) dying. This is the openness, the awareness, the acknowledgment of complexity I know is possible. The place where we are not keeping secrets anymore, and friends and colleagues know and understand, without horror.

[…]

yesterday

white flowers

evergreen foliage

huge blooms

arrive for me

from work

they know

who you were

what you did

because I am not

keeping secrets now

there’s a card

edged in black

for mourning

and the florist

is tearful at my door

later Sarah D

sends me a text

with condolences

then Dorothy

Claire, Vanessa

Simon, Nancy, Scarlett

David, Eliot from Boston –

so many now know

so many understand

the complexities

that I begin to believe

I am grieving

grief

[image: The UnStill Life, at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, Grenada]

Planning our son’s wedding, I am more aware than ever of the huge holes I have in my own family. Both my husband and my future daughter-in-law have large, cohesive families, with marriages and relationships which have lasted, lots of children, and no more than a ‘usual’ sprinkling of the inevitable dysfunction.

My blood family — what is left of it — are disparate, spread all over the US, in tiny pockets.

I mentioned in my last post the way that my father drove wedges between family members, both immediate and extended. This is a typical abuser tactic for maintaining the silence of the victim, and control over ‘information’ generally. An abuser needs to contain any possibility of the abuse being revealed — often not because he (in my case) necessarily believes it ‘wrong’ (though it obviously is), but because he believes the relationship is so ‘special’ that no one will ‘understand’.

The end result is a lot of missing relationships. When I think of ‘wedges’ I think of pieces of pie — and so when I imagine the ‘wedges’ my father drove between us all removed (which they are now in theory), I still see the spaces where the wedges sat. Those pieces of pie will be missing forever. And not just in my life, but in my whole family’s lives — my brother’s and sister’s, my step mother’s, my aunt’s and her children’s, my cousins’, and even my grandparents’, who knew about his abuse of me toward the ends of their lives. They too must have felt the terrible loss, and the lies: their son was a criminal, though never brought to justice. And everyone could see — everyone — how all of our lives had been misshapen and distorted, like trees forced to grow in high winds, over time.

When my father died in 2018, unexpectedly, the focus of the dysfunction died with him. We were all left with empty spaces, untethered ends, gaps now thrown into sharp relief. There was no memorial or funeral.

I know my brother and sister found grieving for my father complicated, and I cannot speak for them in any deep way. I can however speak for myself. The layered grief of past loss — what never was — with present loss — what isn’t now — with future loss — what will never be, for a time threw my own life into chaos, again. Loss upon loss upon loss, again and forever.

I only really acknowledged the wholesale destruction my father wrecked on all of our lives after he died. I only really felt the gaps, the collateral yet irreparable chasms that he and his actions created between us all, then.

It’s easier to feel a righteous and focused anger at someone who’s alive. It was for me, anyway. When my father died, my fierce and full anger at him did too. What took its place in some ways feels worse: bitterness, hopelessness, and a useless regret — not for my own actions (I truly know I did the best I could), but for the incredibly incompetent and deluded person he turned out to be. He could have done so much more to help his family find ways through, and he didn’t. He could have filled in some chasms, but he didn’t. Instead, he just left us all here, forever picking up his ‘charred’ pieces.

Part 4 of my memoir Learning to Survive is a collection of 16 poems written while my father was dying, and directly after his death. I’m pasting three here. They are untitled, so this […] denotes a new one. In my writing life, poetry has been what emerges when I can only see the world in fragments, and so it was this time too.

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