Your letter about layers has made me think of the layers of my own history, manifest in certain pains that I am grappling with now. These layers, layers I thought long ago put to rest with therapy and age, are hitting me hard again in a one-two punch, right in the gut where it counts. One story from my past particularly stands out for me.
When I was a child I had to share a room with my grandmother for a portion of each year when she came to live with us. This placed the oldest person in the household and the youngest together, each of us in our separate twin maple beds. I hated this arrangement, and every year I asked my mother if Gala could please share someone else’s room, and I was told, yes, next year, and then it didn’t happen. When I complained that last year I was told this year, my mother replied, “Not this time. Next year.”
“You said that last year,” I reminded her.
“Well, next year,” she said, and then I was told to be nice. Be kind. Be sweet.
I was nice. I was kind. I was sweet. But only in the air. Only on surface. On paper I wrote what I really thought. The page was the only thing that would receive me without judgement, without telling me to not feel what I felt.
My grandmother was senile. I had no words for that at the time. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t have sympathy. No one explained it to me. No one showed me truth, and so I did not have the information I needed to have sympathy for Gala. She didn’t make sense to me; she mumbled and shuffled, and she looked out the window in the middle of the night, and talked to herself, and she was in my room, and no one else’s ever, no matter what the promises were.
Over the years, I figured out that I was being lied to. I learned that I was not only not supposed to express “negative” feelings, but I wasn’t even supposed to have them. As a result the little red leather diary I had with the cheap lock and flimsy key, filled with hate. I hated Gala. I hated Mom. I hated this house. I hated, hated, hated. I had intense feelings, feelings that were negated and negated and negated, all day, every day, in school, at home, in the world, and I found a place for them. I kept them out of the air as I was supposed to do, but spilled them onto the page.
I am sure that this experience helped shape me into a writer. I found the blank page friendly compared to people. I found a lack of judgement there. I found the page to be nurturing and always there, without judgement, without “shoulds.”
I say all this because I am hurting. A loved one is sick, and care-taking is falling to me, and frankly I am not graceful with it. No matter what I fill the air with, I fill pages with resentment and anger. I want to be free. I feel like a child again. Oddly enough, I want my mother who died many years ago, and with whom I never made peace. I think of how she must have felt as a mother of four. I think of how much work she did and how little freedom she had. I think of my own life compared to hers. Usually I have time for myself.
Now, I do not just miss my room, shared with sickness and trouble, but I also miss the page. I do not have the psychic space it takes to write. I miss the novel I was working on. I miss fictional people. I suppose that some people will think this is sad, to miss something that “is not real.” But, as you know, it is real.
A psychologist or therapist might suggest that I prefer the fictional world to the “real world” because I can control it. But I don’t control it. The characters control it. The characters tell me their stories. I am a conduit and an explorer, but I am not God.
Besides the obvious reason that the page has been a friendly, comforting place for me, I think there is another reason to long for the fictional world. In the words of Mark Twain, “Of course fact is stranger than fiction. After all, fiction has to make sense.” The “real world”, the facts, don’t always make sense to me. In fact they rarely do. In fiction, and in writing in general, I find a way to a deeper truth.
I keep on turning over this little marble of childhood memory. I keep on looking at the clouds contained within its glass orb. I keep on thinking of my mother. I keep on wanting to crawl into her lap and be held. I would not say that my mother and I ever had an honest conversation of what it means to be a woman. I long for that now. I long to hear her say to me, yes, I know how you feel. Yes, I feel the same way sometimes. Yes, taking care of people is hard. I long for this instead of all the rules I was given, rules that I did not see doled out to my brothers. These rules still ring in my head like a bell – remain a virgin until married, never take the Lord’s name in vain, go to church, do not complain, do not feel, do not feel, do not feel – and the bell takes on a voice that says, “You are bad. You are bad. You are bad.”
Like Heloise mentioned in her letter to us about an abiding question – mine is always “Are you a good girl.”
My mother allowed herself only one cuss word. Damn. If she said it once, she said it nine times. The rhythm of that chant is still very much alive for me. I can hear her tone, I can hear the cadence, I can chant it for you in exactly the same way she did, which is how I know it was nine times she said it. Never just one, or three, or five. Always nine.
I have read that in numerology nine is a global number. It is a number that is not judgmental, and that understands the connections between all of mankind. It is a humanitarian number.
My mother was trapped, not in an unhappy marriage, but in a system and society that, at that time stranded a lot of middle-class white women in suburbia, with only a pot of peas and a passel of demanding children for fulfillment. I would assess my mother’s life this way. I would say that one the problems we had with each other was that she could not express herself fully, and I could not receive it. When she chanted damn nine times, every time, she was chanting her truth. We both had our secrets. My truth was always on the page.
Much Love, Nancy