Everything I Wanted to Know About My Grandmother I Learned From Her Palm.

 

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My grandmother as a young woman.

Everything I wanted to know about my grandmother I learned from her palm. A strong, deep life line with little attachment meant she was fiercely independent. She held two jobs down when most women didn’t work. She ran away from home, married a Catholic, lost babies, disowned siblings, and lived the last thirty-two years of her life alone. She loved to work in her home, rarely ventured out, liked order, and respected routine. Still, there was so much I didn’t know. I never knew the cut of her love line, still like a river across her hand, until it was cold in my palms the day we lost her. I could never imagine the woman who wouldn’t answer her door in anything less than full dress as a honeymooner rolling around in the backseat of my grandfather’s Lincoln. I never knew her as young. She was an old lady my whole life.

In the first section of my memoir, I have sex with two different men in three different places. In the second section, there’s two more. In the third, yet another. And when I write these scenes, I hold nothing back. My book is about divorce and body image. It’s about feeling insecure and using men to feel better about myself. I write myself the fool for sure. I write about myself as a young woman, as a divorcee, as someone who is so woefully unsure of herself that I cringe even now as I read the words. Because of my writing, this is the version of me that my children and my grandchildren will know. They will not wonder, they will not question, they will have an insight into my heart and mind that I would have given anything to have with my grandmother, or the mothers who came before her.

It’s not easy to write about our lives, especially if you’re accustomed to writing fiction.  Many of us worry about ex-husbands, parents, children, etc. We worry about splitting open our lives on a page and allowing the world a front seat. And as a memoirist, let me assure you, it never gets easier. That vulnerability is always there. But, the gift we give the generations that will come after us by allowing them access to the inner workings of our lives is invaluable.

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This makes me slightly nervous…

At first, the thought of my twin daughters-now nine-reading the perils of my life someday was terrifying. I imagined them pouring over the chapters in which I fumble, give myself over too easily to love, make the wrong choices, and laughing, losing respect for me faster than I can rewrite my past. Then I realized something. Someday, they will be me: a middle-aged woman with a cobbled-together sense of confidence, doing the best she can to raise her kids with love, hope, and strength. Then, their babies will have babies, and so on. What a beautiful heritage we can help create as mothers when we write down our stories?

You don’t have to write a memoir to leave a written record of your life. You can write a journal, write essays, poetry, or thinly-veiled fiction. The day my girls were born, I started a journal. I don’t write as much as I should because I’ve been busy with other projects, but I try to write once a month or so. I write a lot about what’s happening in the world around us and how I react to these events. I wrote about the sun bursting in my heart as I watched our country elect the first black president. I wrote about the absolute anguish I felt after the Sandy Hook shooting. But I also wrote a detailed description of every home and apartment in which I lived, stories of the men I’ve loved, and tender memories of my relationship with their father. I plan on giving them this journal when they become mothers.

I can’t help but wonder how different my life would have been had I been gifted a written record of my grandparents or their parents as young, hot-blooded men and women. How fascinating would it have been to read the secrets locked inside my grandmother’s heart? To know what she was afraid of, what made her cry, what she thought about life and love? Instead, what I know is highlights and recycled memories handed down through the generations. Lines on a palm with no stories attached.

As a writer, I can do more for my children. As a mother, I should. When you’re given the gift of being able to write, you should ask yourself what responsibilities come with that gift. I never knew where my writing was born from. I have artists in my family, sure, but mostly musicians and visual artists.  So, I’m the writer. I’m the record-keeper, the storyteller, and the one who should be taking it all down. I don’t question this, I welcome it. I refuse to be a stale story, someone remembered vaguely by a distant grandson. Someday, my grandchildren will be able to say that everything they learned about their grandmother, they learned from her own words.

A Letter to Mothers of Sons From a Mother of Daughters

When your son comes to you with arms outstretched and pain in his cheeks, let him fall into you. Let him cry, let him soften, let him be cotton against this hard world.

When your son needs to be caught, catch him. When he needs to be propped up, stand tall against him like a dam. But don’t rush. Let him walk slowly towards you, so that he may learn to ask for the support he needs.

mom-and-son1-600x401When your son grows angry, sooth him. Be the cool against his heat. Show him that the world is bright, and that he is too.

When your son questions himself, question him right back, so that he might own the convictions resting on his tongue.

When your son asks about girls like they are puzzles, remind him that you are one too, and that the clues are the same.

When your son asks about love, don’t give him the answers. Let him wander through that magical universe and earn his stars.

When your son asks about my daughter, tell him she was loved with just the right amount of restraint, so that she can be her own dam. And that she was held with just the right amount of kindness, so that she can still be the cotton.

South Franklin Street

I just finished watching the movie, Wild, based on the wonderful memoir by Cheryl Strayed.  And as I walked out of that theater, I couldn’t help but feel sad and more alone than I have felt in a long while.

I wrote a memoir about getting married and divorced.  I wrote a memoir about how lonely I was, about how it felt to have someone you love reject you, about how sometimes you need to start your life over again even if you lack the basic tools to do so.  An agent loved my book, took it on as hers, and I thought that was the beginning of something.  But publishers didn’t love it like we did.  They felt that nothing happened.  They like books like Wild, because in that book something happened.  So I had to make something happen.  Now it’s a different book.  I miss my memoir.

Crises are not always big.  Sometimes they are small and fall into the crevices of our hearts.  Hearts are not smooth, nor are they heart-shaped.

What if your crisis is that you eat too much?

What if your crisis is that you let your kids have too much sugar, or that you and your husband had exactly two therapy-worthy fights in front of them?

What if your crisis is that you told your father you hated him once, and have never forgiven yourself for it?

I walked myself to sanity once too.  It was not the Pacific Crest Trail, but it was South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre, and that path back to the one and only place I have ever lived on my own, was just as treacherous.

What if your crisis is that you don’t protect yourself from anything or anyone?

What if your crisis is that you don’t always know where to put a comma?

What if your crisis is that you loved someone that you shouldn’t have?

What if your crisis is that you don’t like playing board games with your kids?

What if your crisis is that you feel like no other person on the face of this earth understands you just as you are?

I don’t have one big crisis to sustain a book.  I have a million little ones that I carve into my chest day after day.

On My Twin Daughters Turning Eight

When I first held you in my arms, you were smoldering and you melted against me like burning tar.

In the beginning, our life together was slow and thick.  I questioned everything.  There are no answers, my mother told me when I called her for a twenty minute consultation about your seemingly endless crying, it’s just trial and error.  And I did. try. everything.

You were once connected to me through here, I whispered to you and pointed to your protruding belly knobs.  You smiled at me with shiny, slippery gums.

At nine months, Samantha fell down a flight of stairs because I turned my back to toast a piece of bread. At a year, she ate a piece of plastic only to be saved by my father’s quick thinking as he pulled it from her throat at just the right time.
At eighteen months, Penelope screamed herself to sleep every night for a month.  Inside of me, where the guilt was supposed to reside, lived only exhaustion and a weight the shape of your lips.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mistakes I made were endless.  There was everything between you and safety.  Fear had moved into my belly, the space you left vacant.

I dreamed of fire consuming me.  I made my father call me every morning to make sure I was alive.  If I don’t answer, I told him, come and get the girls.

I dragged the two of you through early development, and you dragged me into motherhood with equal force.

Then, one day, it wasn’t so hard.

Yesterday, the two of you helped me put up the Christmas tree.  Samantha’s arms draped in soft white as she fed me a string of lights, and Penelope carefully hanging the ornaments we’ve collected since the origin of our family.  When it was all over and the glow was celestial, I looked at you for the first time in your short lives and realized how easy it is to love you now.

I once had a man tell me that I am hard to love because I demand too much of people.

You’ve never had a hard time with it.

I put you to bed tonight, the night before you turn eight, and I held you in my arms, pressed you both hard against me.  You were once connected to me, I whispered into the still of the darkness, through here, I said, pointing to your thin slice of a belly button.

God is in the Belly

Last night it was my husband’s turn to take our eight-year-old twin daughters to bed. In recent years, our bedtime routine has been downgraded from a full-on vaudeville act which included singing, dancing, and occasional joke telling, to a leisurely tuck-in full of questions ranging anywhere from “Can we paint our room black?” (No.) to “Is God real?” (Um???) Last night, the latter happened, and had it been me in the room, had I been the one to receive the God question, I might have been okay with what happened. But it was not me. And I was not alright.

I was born on a Sunday, and we all missed mass that day.

When my daughters were born, we made the decision to not have them baptized. They’ve never stepped foot in a church, and up until the age of five they believed our local churches to be mystical castles. They’ve heard about religion, specifically the Catholic tradition, from grandparents and various community members, but they’ve never been formally instructed by any stretch of the imagination. Then, at the age of four, my grandmother decided to introduce them to Ba, my long-dead grandfather. And with that came heaven, because how could I look at their faces and tell them that Ba was simply no more? Because how could I believe that myself? Because how could I allow them to be so jaded at four years old that they believe nothing but blackness waits for them at the end of this light we call life? Because it was 2:30 on a Monday and I was in a hurry to shuttle them from school to piano and to make dinner and do homework in between. And because heaven was easy.

My grandmother wrapped a rosary around her wrist and prayed for my grandfather’s return. I hung rosaries from my preteen neck and pretended to be Madonna.

Match-made-in-heavenWhen I was twelve, I asked my father if I could “drop out” of my Roman Catholic instruction. He sat on the edge of my bed with particles of light in the sunbeams around him. I told him I didn’t believe in God, or heaven, or Jesus, or any of it. He told me faith is walking off a cliff and knowing someone will be there to catch you. No one has ever been there to catch me.
When I was marrying my first husband, we were married in a church by a Catholic priest who was later revealed to have a fetish for the feet of underage girls, and I told him what I knew he wanted to hear. Yes, I believe in the institution of marriage. Yes, I will honor and obey. Yes, yes, yes. We divorced eighteen months later.

Father Penn told my second-grade Sunday school class that Satan was making us yawn during his sermon, and that we should resist Satan and all of his ignorance by staying awake.

When I found out about the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, the children who were exactly the same age as my children, I called my mother with hysteria in my voice and sobs in my throat. I don’t know what to do with this, I don’t know where to put this. I would have given anything for a jar marked ‘FAITH’ in which to pour that pain.

The most religious person I know is my grandmother, who believes with equal conviction that a Scorpio rising sign has more of an influence on your physical appearance than genetics.

Before my girls were born, I swore that as a mother I would “breastfeed, use cloth diapers, and smile a lot.” None of those things happened. I also swore that I would debunk the Santa Claus myth early, not spend money on Christmas presents, never let my kids have soda, and be painstakingly honest most of the time. I just finished ordering two Kindle Fires to place under our tree from Santa, and I’m pretty sure one of my daughters is hooked on Pepsi. And now, they think their great-grandfather is walking around on a cloud somewhere in the sky. And it isn’t that horrible after all, because I’d like to think he’s there too. So, maybe talking to my kids about God isn’t the end of the world. Maybe the best religion is made up of the bits and pieces that work for each of us. What would my life had been like if, during that faith conversation, my father had said he didn’t know? That he was confused too, and that it was okay to be uncertain. Would I have been the better for it? Or would I have struggled more, not having something-real or not- to grab onto in the face of a storm?

There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

What happened last night was the inevitable. “The girls asked if God is real,” my husband said.
Me: And?
Him: And what? I told them that I don’t believe in God.
Me: And what did they say?
Him: They said they don’t either.
And an incredible sadness welled up inside my belly, where they once lived, where I rubbed them, and sang to them, and prayed to God for them.

If there was ever a moment I believed in God it was when I first held them in my arms.