Camp Break

I’m taking a couple days off from my memoir writing project. We have a busy day today and tomorrow and I’m finding that my writing flows better when I’m not trying to squeeze it into a set amount of time. 

Camp NaNoWriMo has given me some focus. The memoir entries I’m writing are meant for my kids. Some will be shared with them now and some later as they get older. I started this because I only know bits and pieces of my parents and grandparents stories. We share events. I want to share impacts. 

One thing that surprised me over the past three days is how much I want my mother and my siblings to write about the events thus far. I’m not sure I have the confidence to share with them some of what I have written. I will see how I feel at the end of the writing project. Perhaps imagining their perspectives is where my memoir becomes a novel. 

I’m starting small. Memoir entries. A few short story ideas. I don’t yet feel like I have a novel to write. My plan is to work on my short stories offline today and tomorrow. Flush out the key scenes and then start to build the rest. I haven’t written a short story since high school so I did some research about writing. I’m drawn to the concept of three, but neither of my story ideas have that. I’m hoping I can incorporate it into at least one of them. Need some more noodling to get there. 

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There was a knock at the door. On the other side was a man. Scruffy. Dirty. Wearing a large backpack. Unclean.

I clung to the babysitter in fear. She asked who it was.

“It’s my father.”

This is my first physical memory of my father. I remember the fear. Unlike my siblings, I have no memories of the physical violence my mother endured at his hands. Yet this memory speaks to what I don’t remember. Why was I so afraid if I didn’t remember?

My mother talked openly to us about the abuse she suffered. Not the details, but the fact that it occurred. She attributed it to his mental health and drug abuse. I’ve always been aware of the fact, but have no memories of the violence. Yet I was afraid of him.

Other memories of him don’t involve fear. They are glimpses of activities and places. Riding in a convertible. Waiting in the car while my mom went to his hotel room to talk to him. I don’t know if these memories took place over more than that one visit to Milwaukee.

We visited him at least once in Pennsylvania. I remember playing with his band equipment in my maternal grandmother’s basement. This was after my mother had remarried. My step-father was not on the trip with us.

Limited memories of a father I never really knew. That trip to Pennsylvania was the last time I saw him alive. He sent a birthday check once. He called a couple times. The last call was disturbing and my only real glimpse of the darkness.

He called from Hawaii. He told me he was living there and dating a married woman. I felt a deep sadness for him. A grown unhappy man struggling with his demons. Sharing those demons with a child he didn’t know. Looking back I wonder if he was drunk when he called.

My last attempt to contact him was when I was graduating from high school. I sent him an invitation through my paternal grandmother. I didn’t know where he was living. Please come see me graduate from high school. He never responded.

Many years later, after he died, I learned that my half sister was born that day. A half-sister I only knew about because my brother went to our paternal grandmother’s funeral a few years after I graduated.

Somewhere along the way, I forgave him. He was as good a man as he could manage. I wish he sought the therapy he needed and maybe he did. Sometimes I wish he had kept in contact with us and sometimes I don’t. Mostly I feel like it was probably for the best that he wasn’t there.

His absence allowed us to bond with our step-father in a way that may not have been possible had he remained in our lives. We grew up in a stable home with loving parents. I can’t envision a scenario where he is involved in our lives and there is stability.

There are unhealthy parts of me that are a result of him. My first serious boyfriend was an alcoholic. I walked away when I figured that out. There is a level of paranoia about drinking that escalates when I’m dating someone. I’m not sure I will get to a place where that doesn’t happen. I’m not sure I want to.

I’ve never done drugs. Not even pot. And I couldn’t date someone who does. Drugs have always seemed like a riskier proposition than alcohol. No drug addict ever intended to be one. They just wanted to try pot or cocaine or heroin or whatever their drug of choice happens to be. Every addict starts out by “just trying”.

I keep it with me. I’m a child of an addict. I’m at a higher risk for addiction. I’ve avoided drug and alcohol addiction. I have not avoided the addictive behavior. I recognize that.

The fear of my father is forever linked to my first physical memory of him. Fear of becoming him has shaped me. Fear of loving someone like him has shaped me.

I forgave him. I accept my fears and will continue to carry them with me. Forgiven, but not forgotten.

My Memories are Lies

We moved to Milwaukee, WI, in 1974. The Milwaukee Public School System implemented an integration plan in the fall of 1976 when I was starting first grade.

I don’t recall much of first grade. We were renting an apartment and I walked to the local school. It was only a few blocks away.

My memories of integration are from second grade. By then my mother bought a house in a different neighborhood and I changed schools. We lived two blocks from a school, but our street was part of the integration plan. My brother, sister and I walked to a school that was about 10 blocks away. Greenfield Elementary School.

There were kids bussed into Greenfield Elementary School. As I child I assumed they were the integration kids – the black ones. That may not have been the full reality. I didn’t know the racial makeup of the neighborhood. Mine was all white. I have no memories of playing with black friends outside of school. There were no play dates. I played with the kids on my block.

When I would relate the experience to people one of the details that I shared was that I was one of only 4 or 5 white kids in the class. I’m not what caused that distortion. I have memories of playing Superman with one other white kid. All my other playground memories are of running around and playing tag with the black kids. My classroom memories are similar.

The most shocking thing that happened that year was when one of the boys swore at the teacher. They left the room and she washed his mouth out with soap. That’s what we were told anyway.

I have no negative memories of integration. I didn’t like the long walk to school knowing there was a school two blocks away from where we lived. I knew the school was integrated, but I had attended kindergarten and 1st grade with black kids so that wasn’t new to me. Children are aware of societal stressors no matter how much parents try to shield them. I knew the school was integrated and I knew it had a negative connotation. Negative just wasn’t my experience.

My mother put together photo albums for each us after my grandmother died. It had class pictures from my 1st and 2nd-grade classes. The pictures surprised me. They did not align with my memories. My memories contained a lie.

In my 1st-grade picture, there are a few black and brown children in my class. The teacher was black. I don’t have any specific memories of that school other than I used to take a long bus ride home from the sitter’s house. I don’t even remember how I got to the sitter’s house.

Research provided the historical timing of integration in the Milwaukee Public School System. I was not aware of integration in 1st grade. My memories in 2nd grade are connected to the walking distance, but I don’t think that is a complete picture. I don’t think that alone would have created the distortion in my memories.

Kids pick up things even when we don’t intend them to know. The information is incomplete because we don’t talk to them directly and answer their questions. They are left to fill in the details according to the patterns they observe.

I knew integration was bad because that’s the sense the adults around me gave me. There had to be a lot of anxiety associated with it. People don’t like change and will fight it when it is forced on them. Lack of control breeds anxiety and fear. Children can sense that and internalize it.

Racism and white supremacy created the need for integration. Black residents weren’t able to buy or rent outside of certain areas of the city. School districts were drawn along those same lines. It is a common theme in cities throughout the north. Systemic segregation without Jim Crow is still segregation. White people did that and that’s racism.

Every time I hear someone say they are not racist I hear a lie. A lie just like in my memories. It’s a distortion of the truth. Not calling another human being the n-word and being friends with a black person are not a “get out of racism free” cards.

I’m racist. I can’t avoid the network of privileges that are afforded to me. That network is built on white supremacy. We are all a part of a system that continues to perpetuate false narratives using coded language based on racist ideals.

Owning racism is different from acting deliberately racist toward another human being. I work to be aware of the ways in which white supremacy is perpetuated. I work to be vocal in situations where it arises. I have begun to recognize in new ways how I perpetuate it. I frequently fail and am silent. I’m learning to find a voice here in my writing. Preparation is key to confronting racism and white supremacy in the moment.

Effective change comes not just from a desire to change. Change is an action. Learning is required and provides the tools needed to bring a feeling of control back to the situation. I cannot control racism and white supremacy. What I can do is learn better skills to identify and address situations in the moment. I cannot control whether I change someone’s perspective, but I can give them another perspective in the hopes that they understand.

Where I have the biggest sphere of influence is with my children. I don’t want them to be at the midpoint of their lives and reaching this place. I want them at this place when they first become adults. I want their journey to go further and have a greater impact than mine.

I don’t know that I believe in the mountaintop. It seems to be a mythical goal to me. I’m choosing to focus on the journey and picking a path with the destination in mind.

Leaving Day

October 11, 1974.

Shattered glass. The color blue. 

Early childhood memories are like that. Flashes of a memory. They were talking in the kitchen. I don’t know what was said. I just remember there was broken glass and a blue liquid on the floor while they talked.

Outside was a semi-truck being loaded with things. Our things. We were moving.

Flashes of memories that are detached from the feelings. An out of body experience.

I wanted to ride in the semi-truck. I wasn’t old enough. I rode in the car with mom and grandma. I was jealous of my older brother and sister who were able to take turns riding in the semi-truck.

Jealousy is the only tangible feeling attached to the memories.

We stopped at a Howard Johnson’s.  We ate birthday cake to celebrate.

It was my fourth birthday. Etched in my mind by shattered glass and painted blue.

My mother left her husband that day. A husband who abused her.

The day she left was my birthday. A bittersweet gift.

So much of the strength I see in my mother comes from this day. It harmed me. I can’t deny that. I also cannot deny the courage she displayed that day.

It takes courage to move from imagining a life without abuse to making a life free from domestic violence a reality. It takes courage to uproot three young kids and move halfway across the country to build that new life.

When asked about my best birthday memory this is the one I want to share. Sometimes I do and other times I don’t. Sharing this requires an intimacy that isn’t always present. Sharing this requires the listener to understand that the alternative was a house of hidden horrors.

October 11, 1974, is the day that my family was liberated.

Domestic violence was just starting to be part of the national discourse in the 1970’s. The first women’s shelter opened in 1973. The first state to pass a law providing orders of protection to women was in 1974. 

There were no pamphlets in the bathroom offering support and guidance. There were no online forums providing advice for the safest ways to leave your abuser. Divorce was not common. Unpaid child support payments were difficult to collect. Women’s options were limited and those that left their abusive spouses forged their own path.

When I was growing up I knew of no other families that experienced domestic violence. It wasn’t talked about outside the family. My paternal grandmother knew what was happening and would intervene to help calm him. What was her house like when her children were young and her husband was still alive?

Did he grow up in a home with domestic violence? Did he have an undiagnosed mental health issue that caused the violent rages? Was his mental health issue exacerbated by or caused by the drugs?

They were married for 10 years. When did the abuse start? Before the unplanned pregnancy? Before the wedding? Before my brother was born? Before my sister? Before me?

Why did she stay?

I’ve never asked. I’ve never asked her any direct questions. And I never will. She has no need to justify her decisions to me.

Somewhere along high school and my early 20’s I worked my way through my feelings to find a place of acceptance. I stopped wondering whether I had done something to make her leave. The when’s and the why’s don’t change the reality. I’m a child of divorce. I’m a child of domestic violence. I’m a child of drug abuse. I’m a child of an absentee father. Those statements are all my reality.

I began to think about what would be true if she stayed. I would lose the mother I experienced if she had stayed. I would lose the childhood I experienced if she stayed. I would not have learned that it’s never too late to change your circumstances and find a better, healthier path. I would only know the staying.

People are complicated and people fail. They make bad choices and struggle with the consequences.

My mother was lucky. She was alive to make the decision to leave. She revealed to me a few years ago that the night he held a gun to her head was the night she decided to leave.

My mother was lucky. She had resources to leave her abusive marriage. My father’s brother drove that semi-truck. We moved in with my maternal grandmother’s aunt when we arrived. Not all women have that. They are trapped in situations without the family, emotional, financial and physical security support needed to leave.

My mother was lucky. She was not physically harmed when she left that marriage. The most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves her abuser. Women are murdered by domestic partners at a rate of 3 per day. That’s today. She left in 1974.

Learning how dangerous it is for a woman to leave an abusive marriage changed how I tell the story. I used to say that any day was a good day to leave your abuser. It’s not. Sometimes it is safer to stay.

My mother found her way out of an abusive marriage. She found a job that supported her family. She bought a home with money from the divorce settlement. She dated. She fell in love. She married again.

That’s the best part of this story. She met a man who has never touched her with anything other than love. She met a man who accepted her children and raised them as his own. She met a man who has been her life partner for the last 39 years and talks about her with pride in his voice.

Old age has not been kind to their marriage. They are less patient with one another. Physical limitations and mortality have joined them. Every once in a while I get a glimpse of the foundation. A few weeks ago they traveled to see my mother’s sister in Florida. My mom forced him to go and I heard it again. That pride in his voice. The love.

October 4, 1974, made that possible.

October 4, 1974, made my life possible.

I’m forever grateful.

Finding a path

I didn’t subscribe to any blogs before joining WordPress. It’s not that I didn’t read blogs. A friend would post a blog entry on Facebook and I would read it if it caught my attention. Since joining I’ve dedicated time each week to reading blogs and have subscribed to a few. I want to keep the number I subscribe to low so that it is manageable and I want to have a mix of styles and subjects.

One of the blogs I started to follow is Blissful Scribbles by Amy Walters. She is in the process of writing a novel and her blog is about her writing process as well as book reviews. A recent post about Camp NaNoWriMo intrigued me so I checked it out. I thought about it for a few days and then I signed up. Camp starts July 1st.

Inspiration and a challenge!

That seems to be the course I’m on right now. Challenging myself to do more and expand my way of doing things. All the while ignoring an important part that isn’t going well. Next week the kids start summer camp so I’ll be on a new schedule. I’ve built dedicated time on the important part into my schedule and that will have to be enough.

I feel strongly that the reading and writing path that I’m on will help me figure out why I’m struggling with the important part that isn’t going well. There’s a hurdle and I either need to scale it, knock it over, go around or change directions. Camp NaNoWriMo is where I hope to figure some of that out.