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 (1)

[NB: probably part of a series]

After several years away, in two weeks I am going to the US. My main purpose in going is to settle my mother’s things, collect her ashes, and take her back to Texas from Virginia. I’m so grateful for all the support I will have over the two weeks I am there: Max, Brett, Anthony, Anna, Lois, Jamie and Patricia. I’m not sure any of this would be doable without you.

My mother died in May 2021. She was 79, and had been in a nursing home for a few months, following a few months in hospital. She had huge mental health challenges, and I now recognise that she had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In her younger years, she could present a kind exterior when she wanted to. She believed she was kind, indeed. And more clever than anyone else, more sympathetic, wiser etc. She once told me, almost pleading with me to believe her, that she was ‘good with children.’ My understanding is that narcissists have no idea that they are ill. Because the problem always lies with someone else, not them.

I am her only child, and her only relative (bar Jamie in Texas) who ever spoke to her. She had also alienated all of her friends, one by one, as her selfishness became her single prominent characteristic.

I know she was lonely. And yet I called my mother only twice in the last year of her life. The penultimate time, I could hear that she was slipping. And, exactly like the old days when this happened, she called me names, accused me of conspiring against her, and said that I should stop trying to help.

It’s so hard to tell the difference between mental illness and actual personality traits. I came downstairs after that phone call, and as usual, completely fell apart. I was 56 year old, and my mother’s sharp, disparaging tongue could hurt me every bit as much as it used to.

I went into therapy again. I knew I needed to free myself from her, but I had no idea how to do it, having tried and failed numerous times.

It took a long while to unravel some things, in particular to unpick the deeply imbedded guilt: she’s had such a hard life, and everything about our relationship is just making it worse; why can’t I love her? Etc.

One day, as I was struggling to express this rock of guilt, my therapist said: ‘you do realise that in this day and age you would have been taken out of your mother’s care?’

My mouth literally fell open. ‘What?’

‘Yes,’ she went on. ‘She was abusive. She took drugs in front of you, she did sexual things in front of you, she allowed you to get into dangerous situations. She was neglectful. Nowadays social services would have been called in.’

After the shock, relief washed over me: there is a social consensus about caring for children, and she did not satisfy it.

No she did not. She did not know how to take care of me, and therefore didn’t.

The last time I spoke to my mother was shortly after this realisation. She was still in hospital, and her meds had clearly been balanced. She was pretty lucid, softly spoken, and nicer than she’d been in years. I had called to talk about plans for her apartment, and her belongings. And she said two things, bittersweet: Patty, you don’t owe me anything, you really don’t. And Patty, I trust you completely. You’ll make the right decisions. This was the closest she ever came to acknowledging her part in our disastrous relationship, and the only time she ever entrusted me with anything.

As her only child then I am going to Virginia in two weeks to go through what remains of her things. I am collecting her ashes, and then getting on a plane to San Antonio, where Jamie and I will scatter them. She was always but always trying to get back to Texas. I am as certain of this as I am of anything in my life: she wanted her ashes in Texas.

Finally: it’s important to register that my mother’s negligence and inabilities set me up for the sexual abuse I would later undergo. We never spoke directly about this, but I know it’s true. By six years old, when I went to Virginia, the pattern around love and attention being conditional was already well established. My grandparents planted unconditional love in those first six years and afterward, enough to see me through the very worst times of my life, but no one — not even them — could fix my mother’s conditionality. Or my father’s, for that matter.

In a change from Learning to Survive, here are three poems from my last poetry collection, Baby (Liquorice Fish Books, 2016), with apologies for having to work with wonky images. Formatting is not fun on WordPress!

The ‘you’ in these poems is my mother.


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.

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 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 loo 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,


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.