If you are reading this, and either you know me, or follow my blog, you will know the struggles I have just writing “Chattahoochee Child.” Years ago, at a writer’s meeting, I shared the premise of this story, receiving much encouragement. At the time, I had no idea where the story would go, but now, after a few life events, I recognize I must get this story down. There have been many times I have written, only to hit the delete key, erasing everything. Now, today, I recognize the time is now. Years ago, I submitted a small portion of “Chattahoochee Child” to a writer’s competition, winning first place. Below is a comment I received from one of the judges:
“Chattahoochee Child was on another emotional level. There was emotional honesty and vulnerability there, mixed in with some magnificent writing that just stood out…It affected me emotionally…” Another quote from this successful writer and judge shared: “I have judged stories that were superficial, clever, or lecturing, but yours just went deep to the bone. You had some beautiful passages in there. I read one aloud to my wife, and it stopped her in her tracks… You have a genuine gift…”
Today, I will share a bit of freewriting I worked on during the holidays. Today, I awoke with thoughts dancing a graceful ballet in my mind, telling myself I cannot write. I’ve fought this doubt for much too long, only to discover and re-read these quotes this extraordinary writer and judge shared. Yes, I keep his comments near my desk — for inspiration. Another discovery today for me is how important music is for me while writing. Music is my therapy!
Today, I share a letter written to the character of Rebecca:
Sometimes in life, we must write a letter to ourselves, for us to heal. Writing the message gets the words down…opening the mind to what happened, how we coped, and, most of all, how we learned to love again. For years, I lived without love. Why? Simple. I thought I was unworthy of love. After all, no one in this world would ever love someone so outspoken, independent, and threatening as I was, at least those were the words I grew up hearing over…and over…and over again! I believed I was a monster. And so today, Dear Rebecca, I address this letter to you, after all – no one knows you better than you know yourself. You are Rebecca!
Sitting here in the early morning light, I reminisce about my childhood and I am thankful. So thankful I had a strong-willed grandmother teaching me faith. Thankful, I found guidance woven within the fingertips of her hands. I watched her with a critical, curious eye when she folded her hands in prayer. When she whispered ever so softly for God to guide her and give her strength. I learned so much, just by watching her actions — the beliefs and values she taught me are priceless.
I am thankful that I got to know and improve my relationship with my father. As a child, I overlooked his indiscretions. When my mother criticized him for his quick temper, I looked to see a different person. In my innocent eyes, I saw a caring man who adored singing with me. He taught me how to harmonize, and to sing from the pit of my stomach. He taught me to believe in the power of God’s words, and when he rarely spoke about his identical twin brother who died too young, I saw the pain on my father’s face. I wanted him to love me like he loved his twin brother. I wanted to learn more about their dreams of harmonizing and preaching the gospel to others. During the times when my father lost his temper, beating my mother, I was the one to run between them, pushing my hands on their hot bodies to move them apart. I was the one who strove to see the good and not the bad in relationships. I am grateful that I overlooked the sadness of a volatile man who only showed his anger behind the closed doors of our home. Singing and preaching in church, no one knew the secrets of our family. When Dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I am grateful that I was the daughter to step up and care for him. I am thankful we had a small amount of time to heal the wounds of childhood while we developed a close relationship before we said goodbye.
Now, as a woman, I am thankful I found the courage to believe in myself and the goals and dreams I established at such an early time of my life. I am grateful – when the storms of life threaten me, I have an inner strength that helps me find the courage to survive. My grandmother influenced my life by guiding me as she practiced the values, philosophies, and standards she shared in her actions and her prayers. Without her guidance, I would not be the woman I am today. Reflecting on my childhood, now I recognize how painful it was. Yes, as I look back into my life as a child, I could dwell on the heartache and pain, the many episodes of family abuse, and the hatred that appeared to always dance inside our moments as a family. However, I chose to move forward, as my father said to me during his torrential battle with esophageal cancer. I do want to move forward, to wash all of the hurt and anger away. While it still dances inside my mind at times, I wish to bid the rage and abuse goodbye permanently.
As a young child, I lived in fear. Fear of my parents and their habitual demeanor of shouting angry, hateful words to each other. Never did I hear my mother or father say, “I love you,” to each other or the children of their marriage. Most households awaken to children laughing with excitement for the events of the day. Morning hugs are shared. I hungered to have just one morning where my mother would hug me before I left the house. Monsters appeared inside our household, inside the cantankerous voice of my mother and the boisterous shouting of my father. I haven’t addressed our household as a home because it wasn’t home. A home is where a family goes to receive love, attention, and a feeling of belonging. Home is a place to share life’s events and life’s tragedies, a place where children come for comfort and guidance. As a child, I was a stranger trapped within four walls. We moved like drifters, never establishing roots or cherished memories. Never did I feel a sense of belonging. Deep inside my heart, I struggled to find positive, happy thoughts, seeing them only in the energy, happiness, and pride I found whenever I sang or wrote. For years, I kept a diary, hiding it underneath my mattress, and that is where I slowly learned to feed positive energy to myself. “A home is where the heart is,” only my heart never felt comfortable within my birth family, with the exception of the wisdom and knowledge I received from my maternal grandmother and my father – on his good days.
Once I heard the quote, “Turn a negative into a positive,” I asked my teacher how someone could do that. She smiled at me, saying, “By applying positive feedback and believing in yourself. Don’t allow others to discourage your dreams.”
My teacher’s encouragement remained with me. I recognized my home situation was venomous. The toxic words I heard so often felt as poisonous as the stings from a yellow jacket or a snake, burning inside my brain and body. Hurting. Destroying. I realized to survive, I had to build myself up by feeding my positive brain thoughts. Although I was a child, I could not permit negative thoughts to destroy what I desired in my life. My life was up to me. Slowly, ever so slowly, I applied the newfound knowledge of turning a negative into a positive. Whenever I heard my mother tell me I was a stupid child, I visualized being smart. I read books. I studied. I did everything within my power not to be a foolish child, and before the age of thirteen, I realized I was not stupid. In school, I made all A’s. I sang in the choir, and whenever a project was assigned, I worked hard to make the best grade in the class. Teachers complimented me on my writing and researching talents. The choir director told me I had a lovely voice, and when the words of destruction from my mother’s voice echoed in my head, I fed myself positive thoughts. After all, I wasn’t stupid.
Although I was young, the struggles of my life taught me courage. I was on a journey to find the young girl who would become the woman I am today. Many people have told me that as adults, we are a reflection of our parents. I was determined to break the toxic, backbiting habits of my mother. Yes, I watched her actions, making mental notes to make my life different. Observing her manipulations, I chose to do things in a different style.
Life is so precious, and we must cherish every breath we take, every moment we live. The only regret I have now is the reality that my mother and I never made peace. Repeatedly, I tried. My mother allowed negativity to feed anger within her. Now, she was in the twilight years of her life, struggling to become stronger after a stroke. Before this, she allowed the many storms of her life to destroy her. Filled with anger and resentment, she rarely shared compliments or encouragement. Instead, she spat back with a toxic attitude, telling me I would never amount to nothing but a hill of beans. I grew to hate her attitude towards me. Perhaps her resentment was a reflection of her innermost desires. Maybe she considered herself a failure, and now, in the twilight years, she realized her days were numbered. Mortality was knocking at her door, and there was nothing she could do to fight it.
Or – maybe – my mother was jealous of me and the relationship I developed with my father. As a child, I overlooked his temper, and when he sang, “You Are My Sunshine” to me, I melted. Just maybe…just maybe I was lovable, after all!
During her struggle to survive, I challenged myself to look at my mother’s life. Although she never shared her childhood stories, or the romance and marriage, I realized there had to be pain intertwined within the core of her persona. The only time I recall her showing any emotion was on the day she and Dad separated. Arriving at home, I found her in tears. When I ask her what was wrong, she replied, “Your damned daddy has left me. It’s all your fault. You’re the one who told him to leave yesterday. I hope you are happy now, you stupid bitch.” Her hand slammed hard on my face, leaving a fiery redness I felt for hours. Rubbing my face, I tugged at her apron strings. “But you said you wanted him to die. Over and over, you said you hoped Daddy would die soon. Don’t you remember saying that to me when I was little?”
“You shut up. Death is different…You have time to mourn. Divorce…Why Divorce is something shameful, especially for a Southern woman.”
Regardless of how cruel she was, I learned to accept her as a lost woman. A woman who never achieved her own goals. A woman angry that the man she married chose to divorce her instead of standing by her. Angry. So enraged. Infuriated that her children grew up, refusing to remain by her side. Angry that no one else wanted to be her friend or companion. The red-eyed monster of anger captivated her. She could not see the deceptions she created, blaming him for the thunderstorms in her life, nor could she accept responsibility for her actions.
Still, to this day, I regret how my mother would not allow me to be close, but now that I am older and wiser, I recognize that she behaved in the same hateful, malicious demeanor to others, especially to my dad.
After my mother’s death, I have recognized our relationship is now a closed matter. We cannot sit down together to attempt an open discussion of why we were so estranged. She is gone.
On the night of her death, I did not receive a phone call from the nursing home or hospital. Later, I found out why.
Eula Mae, my youngest sister, phoned me 16 hours after her death, letting me know the funeral would be a graveside service. She inhaled and slurred her words. “Do you think they’ll do an autopsy?”
I didn’t answer. Maybe I was in shock, or perhaps I was uncomfortable talking to this woman who was an estranged sister I hadn’t seen in years; nevertheless, spoken to her.
Later that evening, while sleeping, I awoke to the words, “Do you think they’ll do an autopsy,” rushing through my brain. Nothing I could do or say could bring my mother back. I had to find peace. I needed to come to terms with what happened on the night of her death. Although she was an embittered woman, with a poisonous tongue, I loved her. She gave me life. Watching her actions, I learned that I was the one responsible for my character, my values and my beliefs. My life was up to me to build, and I was determined that others would not destroy me. I have come to the reality that I am the woman I am today, thanks to all that I endured. I found strength and purpose inside an unhappy home that should’ve taught me destruction. Instead of walking in the shadows of my mother, I chose to walk alone. I suppose I have finally found my way home.