Yesterday Chris and I visited a few gravesites we’ve meant to see, some are my family, my grandparents at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, my great-aunt at the Columbarium.
We tried to find my great-grandfather in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery but couldn’t get a map, so he will need to wait until next time. I think he’ll stay put.
Then we hit two San Francisco characters I can’t believe I’ve never visited before. On the very famous side, we have Norton I – Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. We dearly love him.
Within that memorial grave lies the mortal remains of one William Snyder, aged 13. Now, this next bit will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but remember, he died in 1854, so no one who knew him or his family is still with us. William Snyder died by…see below picture.
Horrific. Tragic. Both of these and more. I hope my death is that utterly hilarious. I mean, this is objectively funny.
I have a list of things in and around the City we are going to visit, local hangouts, restaurants, memories, places we’ve meant to see but never have. We’re getting this done before we leave my beloved City and move up to Portland, Oregon.
We are leaving because we have an amazing opportunity we can’t pass up. We will be able to own a home, something that will never ever happen here. I love Portland, I’ve been going there my whole life, the PNW (Pacific North West) is my home and I love it, so I’m not “settling.” My sister and brother-in-law live there, a pack of cousins and in-laws. It’s a very good, well-timed move that we’ve considered carefully for months. It is the right thing to do at this time in our lives. So I’m excited to get there, move into our own home, finally get a dog we’ll call Smedley.
But I am finding myself swinging rapidly back and forth. On one side, I am excited, starting a new chapter, owning my first home, leaving apartment life behind. We will have a backyard, a patch of dirt for some carrots or something, and a room specifically for my Hello Kitty collection. That was my husband’s idea, but I think it’s mostly so it will be out of the bedroom. Regardless, it will be ours, Portland is beautiful, art is everywhere, and we had some of the best Ethiopian food there.
On the other side, the thought of leaving the City where my family lived since the 19th Century, where many of them are buried, where I have so many memories all of my life, a place that is my heart and my identity, where a clown-related comic-tragedy took the life of young Mr. Snyder. Except for a handful of graves, there will be no more family in California at all, which gives me chills.
It would be so much easier if I hated my City, but I don’t. I’m not blind to its problems, but “lost its soul?” Good gravy people, breathe. The San Francisco my great-grandparents loved in the 1800s is not the one my grandparents knew in the early 20th Century, which is not the one that my dad knew in the 30s and 40s and is not the one I knew in the 80s and 90s. OK, rant over, back to the actual topic.
This is the right decision. Chris and I have been processing it for months. We are not being forced out; we are not leaving due to economics alone, we have chosen to do this and we have solid reasons. Otherwise, quite frankly, I’d be pissed as hell. But that’s not the case. We are heading off on a new adventure, one with a backyard, a private laundry, without a pack of hideous people living above us, without hours-long screaming fights and banging that shakes our cupboards and drunken hostility when we ask them to keep it down since like the very first time we ever did oh my god how do people live like that and think it’s ok to treat people like that and use my illness as a weapon and….<deep inhale>
Anywhoo, that’s done. We’re off to a new, but not unfamiliar place. I have family in Portland living not too far from us. Memories to be made, new favorite places, and a dog called Smedley. No idea what he’ll be yet, other than the one we fall in love with at the shelter. His name has been Smedley for many years; a story for another time.
It will be a few months before we go, most likely. I’ve learned words like “good faith deposit,” “escrow,” “closing costs,” “eye-bleeding fear.” For now we’re purging, packing non-essentials, and sightseeing, all of which I have on checklists because that’s what I do.
We’ll be trading this deco masterpiece, seen here through the living room window, for the green one there in the cover photo, St. John’s Bridge. And we’ll love it. And I already love Powell’s because it is a bibliophiles dream-scape.
I’ll be writing as we go through this process, leaving the state, starting a new chapter. I do welcome any and all advice, words of comfort, or places we should definitely see in Portland, especially the spooky ones. We like the spooky.
Christmas is almost here, which is stunning to me, but I thought I’d share a thought for the many of us who sometimes have a problem dealing with it.
You don’t have to be jolly every minute of Christmas.
There’s a lot of pressure around this one day, a lot of messages to be happy and joyful, to bake cookies, watch some version of “A Christmas Carole,” smile at children, or something. If you’re religious, there’s a whole other level of pressure; I remember it from my youth. Sit and be happy with your family, smile, be loving, give meaningful gifts. Also, you must have gifts.
If someone in that family has abused you somehow, this can be devastating. Maybe you seethe all day, maybe you act out, maybe you self-medicate, or worse. I did all three. The only way I could even remotely deal with this was to medicate with alcohol or weed. It tarnished the holiday for me, darkened it, and that took years and the removal of the toxic person, to overcome. I still feel down now and then, but less often and with far less intensity, and I’ve remained sober. I also had help from the family I kept in my life, my friends, and my husbands. I’ve been married twice, my first husband remains a wonderful man.
This brings me to “Mr. Robot.” Chris would say he just got whiplash from that segue but bear with me.
“Mr. Robot” is one of my favorite shows. Recently there were two episodes with disturbing scenes involving attempted suicide and a mind-exploration (I’m being as vague as I can to avoid spoilers) that were graphic. I didn’t really key in on the first too much because I was wrapped up in whatever horrible thing was happing to Rami Malik that week.
But the second scene hit me to my core. Chris knew it would, so he asked me if I was ok. We talked about it, and I was able to center and appreciate the art of it, but it did, in fact, rock my world for a bit.
Here’s the thing though, at the end of both episodes, a message came up listing the appropriate contact numbers. I was shocked to silence for a few minutes; I have never seen anything like that.
This is what I mean when I say we must watch out for each other, that we are all in this together. It’s why I’m very careful with what I say or the images I use and include the appropriate references at the bottom of any article I believe could be provocative. Also, because I write about such personal things, and I write without blinders, many articles have thrown me for a loop, and I have to find a way to process my own words. My therapist told me she loves that I do all the initial work at home and bring in what needs to be worked on. It’s a timesaver.
You may not know this, but I am incredibly protective of you. I spend a lot of time editing words or photos I fear might be upsetting to someone, so sometimes I do find myself completely paralyzed. “Is this word inclusive enough? Could this hit a button for anyone? What if I make a joke so bad that it makes someone pass out with rage?” That last one is pretty likely to have happened.
People need to feel safe and nurtured, but that word seems especially vexing for some. Why? Is there a bottle somewhere full of nurturing, with a message like, “Expires at Age 20 – Please Place All Bad Feelings in Your Stomach.” I really don’t think so.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am all about play, giving yourself permission to have fun, whatever it is, go to a meadow and make a chain out of wildflowers. You know, I never figured out how to do that, I tended to just blow the fuzz off of dandelions.
Christmas is hard for some of us, to one degree or another. It’s gotten easier for me, and I enjoy it and my chosen family. I love the traditions the family has. Chris and I have our tree up, pride-of-place on the tree goes to a severed finger ornament, all bloody, wearing a Swarovski crystal ring, Crazy Legs generally leaves it alone. I have my own Hello Kitty tree set up, and of course Ermastus, greeting people as they come up the stairs. He’s friendly, but he can’t hold his liquor!
My family is largely gone, my parents and brother have passed, my sister and brother-in-law moved to Oregon, but Chris’ family is here, so we spend the day together, we enjoy each other’s company, exchange gifts that can be fun toys from Think Geek (pay me Geeks, and I’ll do that more} or something sweet and meaningful, it doesn’t matter. Then a huge feast of Indian food, Christmas Crackers, listening to each person read their horrible joke and show off their prize, lovely desserts. No caroling though, I’m the only singer. I do miss that, but it’s all good.
Oh, Indian food, yes. Most of Chris’ family cook and they love to show off at Thanksgiving just for fun. Years ago though, long before me, they decided that Christmas was stressful enough without having to do all the cooking again, so one of the only places open for delivery would be Indian food and there it is, a tradition that makes me happy, and very full.
But this was not always the case. And the messages we get from every direction are we must be happy at all times, that a sad face is somehow an affront.
You do not have to be jolly every minute of Christmas.
In the spirit of taking care of each other, which Christmas should be about, remember that. Feel what you are feeling. Try to not compound it with guilt because you don’t want to skip down the street singing, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Anyway, that’s nonsense, the most wonderful time of the year is when the Halloween stores open. Then Chris and I skip hand-in-hand through the parking lot to find batties and ravens and skeletons that will sit outside and greet our neighbors.
No, no, I’m kidding, Ermastus. Nobody can replace you.
So, taking a page from Mr. Robot, I’m listing some numbers for you below in the closing credits so to speak. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this holiday, if you need help, do not hesitate to call. There would be nothing worse at any time of year than to lose you.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Say what you will about Facebook, it can serve as an enlightening peek into human opinions, I said, as a master of understatement.
A friend shared this picture a while ago. She commented that she’d prefer her children feel comfortable coming to her, so if they did something stupid like drink at a party, they would feel safe calling her for a ride rather than try to drive impaired. There will be consequences for drinking, but they made a mistake that can be fixed, rather than a potentially devastating, life-changing decision.
The first and fast response, from the father of a small girl, was one word – BULLSHIT!
His argument eventually boiled down to he is the boss, he is the authority, his child fears punishment, and his child obeys because she is afraid. He actually said, “I would rather be feared than loved.”
I suspect he will get his wish.
I am not a parent, I knew decades ago that it would not be good for a child or me. I like children, but motherhood was not a good idea, since mental illness is heavy in my family, and I didn’t want to hurt a child during either a manic or a depressive place. I wasn’t willing to take the risk. It is precisely because I like children that I chose to not have them. What my mother did was due to her illness, and a response to all of ours. Nothing that happened was due to malice on her part, it was a reaction to an illness that was not her fault, an attempt to turn a blind eye to how absolutely broken we were. She did not set out to be abusive.
This man, however, not only set out to be abusive, he bragged about it. “My child is afraid of me, as she should be. I would rather be feared than loved.”
I’ve had parents try to shut me down by saying, “you’re not a parent, you don’t know, you can’t have an opinion.”
If we’re talking about proper bedtimes, getting the child to eat some damn food – “What do you mean you want mac&cheese with no cheese, but still with orange color, OMG I’ll just melt an orange crayon on it then” – (that’s a direct quote, by the way,) the headaches my friends suffer, then no, I don’t understand, especially since I never see it because I’m auntie and I get perfect behavior. Sorry parents, that’s the way it is.
So with everyday struggles like that, I agree 100%. But if you belittle them, demean them, call them stupid, or hit them when you are angry, that’s very much my business. It’s everyone’s business. (I’m not entering into the debate about physical punishment as a concept, strictly of objective abuse.)
Now, a parent is absolutely going to screw up. My friends are good and wonderful, loving and intelligent parents, but sometimes that child decides he absolutely will not wear those red socks and forcing them to wear the red socks is the worst affront to a human person in the history of the world and if you don’t give me the yellow socks I swear to the old gods and the new that I will scream so loud your ears will bleed, and you will be late to your job, and now you have to feed me the food I will not eat! NO! Now I want to orange socks! (That quote is exaggerated for comedic effect, but only just.)
In such a situation, the parent may overreact. We are all of us human.
The thing is, the little child is also human, and wants to be understood and has an ego and a need to be heard and can’t yet communicate what they want. They have bad days like we all do.
Overreacting is not necessarily the bad thing, as long as we’re not talking about actual abuse. Going back to that child and apologizing and then talking about it can help a hurt, possibly angry child feel validated and respected. It also sets a good example of human behavior, yes adults make mistakes, parents are not infallible, might is not right, and you have an absolute right to be human too.
No, I’m not a parent, so the regular day to day frustrations I can’t speak to. But this, I certainly can. We all can and should.
I don’t believe that anyone is irredeemable. The potentially abusive father there can absolutely find a better way, make amends, and become a better person.
He could decide to work with his child, to change his fear-based approach to parenting. He could do all of these things, and I would applaud him.
But for that little child, it could be too late.
Children look at the grownups around them for guidance, to learn how to be adults and what to expect from adults.
A little girl with an abusive father, she may grow up to believe that’s what she deserves, and there are plenty of men who will agree with her. She may internalize the lesson of fear he is bragging about, and take from that low self-worth, or respond with anger. At the very least, she will put in her heart the fear and pain from physical and emotional abuse. This is the place she should feel safe, and the first man in her life.
Little boys can learn might is right, and bully the children in school and later, their partners. They can also be filled with a heartsick pain that may not be addressed since they were most likely raised to believe that men should be strong and asking for help is weak. That’s toxic, and it’s how unhealthy men are made, and it’s how abuse is passed on. We all suffer, society suffers, and the man who believes he cannot ask for help is in pain. A little boy is no less worthy of protection, safety, and humanity than a little girl.
This father bragged about causing her pain and fear. He bragged about it on a public post.
These are about the biggest red flags that can fly. A parent who is comfortable enough to loudly and proudly proclaim this, I fear what goes on behind closed doors.
No, I’m not a parent, so I can’t comprehend the day to day frustrations and power plays and envelopes being pushed.
But I can watch out for them, I can look for red flags that are visible from space. I can speak out. We all can and should.
Children are not playthings, they are not going to obey commands or do anything to please you at all times or submit to your authority without question.
You’re thinking of a dog, and you shouldn’t have one of those either.
My husband was away this weekend, and since I was on my writing break, I got bored. I needed to do something creative but I didn’t know what.
Poking around in Facebook I saw an ad from a corsetry shop a friend owns. The featured corset was made with the lace from an old wedding gown which was in tatters. I thought that was a great idea. Then I remembered that my first wedding gown is under my bed. I had it cleaned and preserved after the wedding, and it has sat in that box unseen for 31 years.
But it’s much older than that. My dad and my uncle split the price, and my mother wore it in 1954 for their wedding, and my aunt shortly after. When my first husband and I got married, I wanted to wear it too, so a few alterations later, it was ready for the big, extremely ill-advised day in my 20-year-old life.
The pictures of me are so funny; she looks like maybe we are related but not the same person. Well, we aren’t the same person. I mean, few of us are the same as we were at 20, I don’t think. Unless you are 20, then hey, you do you.
But the dress is not sacred, we split up after five years, so why on earth should I leave it in its box like a mummy in a sarcophagus?
To recap, I was alone, bored, and had a 65-year-old gown with two previous owners including my mom, that I wore 31 years ago and haven’t seen since. Nope. Nothing there to set a person into a spin.
I dug it out from under our bed, brought it into my dining room, and started to unbox it like Howard Carter but with fewer “wonderful things” and deadly curses.
I had forgotten how heavy it is, and how fragile the lace was even back then, and the veil is so huge I sat on it when I was wearing it.
It did not fit. I am a tad larger now. But I found that if I unbuttoned the back I could slip my arms into the sleeves and it looked, from the front, like I was wearing it. It is old and cracked and the pearls are dropping off with each step and something had to be done with it. Something…spooky.
I was alone, and the good camera was with Chris so I decided I would just take some random goth-y photos as selfies with my phone. And then I had an idea. I made a little photo-narrative. I used the plastic skeleton that is in my profile picture, (Ermastus, meet everyone, everyone, meet Ermastus) to be the…
You know, I’m torn here. I am fairly dark by nature, I cut my teeth on Poe and Lovecraft, I’ve always leaned to the macabre, and to me, the Paris Catacombs are beautiful and life-affirming. But not everyone shares that and this page is not meant to upset anyone, so I’m not going to explain it.
Here’s one of the photos that is not spooky.
I do have to explain this though. Part of the process was getting a photo of me in crippling pain; pain so deep and so unfathomable, my mind has left the physical world, never to return. In order to do this, I had to make the faces and body language to capture it (while holding a phone and trying to disguise that I’m taking a selfie,) and after an hour or so of this, something odd happened. I started to feel deeply, horribly, crushingly, depressed.
I took off the gown, put my jammies back on (who are the people who dress in street clothes in their homes?) and left the room. I looked at the photos. Seeing my face and body like that, in an old storied gown, remembering my mother, long gone, my aunt, my first marriage, long ended, every single wound and unnamed pain, and every time I considered suicide…I closed the photos and thought about the void.
Here’s a picture of my cat, Crazy Legs.
This is why it is so important to know how to practice self-care. I was alone, and I would be for two more days, so I did familiar things, ate some leftover gnocchi, sat on the sofa with Crazy Legs, and started to marathon “Parks and Recreation” for I think the fourth time. I love that show, it’s comforting and normal and is not even acquainted with depth. I can do it nearly line for line and I love every single person on it.
I do wonder though, how someone looked at sweet, tubby Andy and said, “Hey, let’s make him Starlord!” But I’m glad they did. I could have watched any of the Marvel Movies too.
After a couple of hours, I was fine. But something very intense had happened.
My art is mainly on the page, and sometimes on canvas or three-dimensional. Photography is new to me, and this sort of quasi-acting is unknown to me, so I was not prepared for what it would do, what it would dredge up.
Holding that pose, over and over and over, pretending to scream and wail, I was not prepared for what that would do to me. Chris has acted, so when he got home he told me that’s what actors may go through; it can really fuck with a person’s head. I only did it for an hour. They do it for days or weeks or more. The body/mind connection is powerful. It can hold emotions that can be triggered by anything, touch, smell, vision, or action in this case. The mind brings it forward, affects the body, and so on.
Now, I did get some beautiful shots from this whole thing, so it was worth it. But it was hard, and knowing what to do to shake it off was critical.
Whatever it is that you do, whatever might bring pain to the surface, you need to have a full toolbox, ready to grab what you need to fix it. Sit down, take stock, and think – what makes you happy, what simple thing can you do to make yourself feel safe? A certain food? An animal, a beloved T.V. show or film? What is your simple joy?
Also, celebrate all the victories, big or small, cute or spooky. For me, I’m writing again, I’m making art, so here’s an alcohol-free toast to all of us!
Being raised as a Baptist, I know three things well:
1 – Potlucks will always have too many potato salads
2 – Catholics are amused by grape juice communion
3 – Summer camps
My dad’s employer had a camp reserved for them, and we went every year when I was a kid.
Now, when I say camp, I’d like you to imagine please the 1970s/early 1980s suburban camps, with hot meals in the dining hall, large patio with shuffleboard and ping pong. Our tents were wood frame “hogans,” basically a cabin with a canvas roof. Think Brady Bunch with fewer footballs to the nose.
You probably can’t tell, but these are ancient family snapshots.
There was also a creek to swim in of course. Now, this is the Tuolumne River. If you aren’t familiar, this river is from snowmelt. It is clear, beautiful, and exactly as warm as you would imagine liquid snow to be. But it’s what we were used to and we loved it.
One time my sister and I were heading back to the “tent” for a reason lost in time. When we got there we flipped the door flap and there, hanging all upside down, was a teeny tiny bat having a nice snooze. In hindsight, he was perfectly adorable. But 9 or 10 year old me was not enchanted.
I screamed so loudly that the poor little fella sort of shook. The next morning at breakfast, as we all stood in the line for food (no bacon, will the suffering never end!) a few people in line were comparing notes about the piercing scream that came out of the woods the day before. Laughter and jokes commenced as I crouched down further into a metaphorical hole. Bev, as I recall, was zero help.
Anyway, traumatized bats aside, it was fun to run around without supervision, to have a “summer boyfriend,” a local boy who once rescued me as my inner tube got caught in “rapids” that put me in very grave danger of bumping slightly into a rock and being annoyed. But I recall everyone on the river bank screaming and my hero running into the very dangerous rapids, grabbing my hand and pulling me slowly out of harm’s way. He was a dreamboat, I tell you.
And then we left and I never saw him again. Such is the life of a song from Grease.
These were good times.
When I was a little older, I went to a Music and Drama camp.
MAD camp was fun; I was around like-minded people, and I got to show off my voice. Next to writing, singing was my greatest joy. The councilors would choose a piece for us, we would practice and do a performance at the end when the parents got there, which was exactly as corny and wholesome as it sounds.
One year they chose “Godspell.” I loved this musical, and I was chosen to sing a solo of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
I know this song perfectly, I had sung it before. I figured I could work on other things and just ran the song through my head once or twice. Easy!
Here’s the thing though, this is a rapid, wordy song, there is little time to think. When I got up to sing it at the show I realized that thinking something is not the same as singing something.
I don’t have a clear memory of it except to say that my heart started to pound, my eyes bugged out an inch from my head, and the sweat poured off my body and made a pool on the floor as deep as our freezing cold river. Those last two may be exaggerations but only just.
I got through it. The director told me I repeated a couple of lines, but overall it went fine. My parents and friends said they had no idea that it had happened.
Many years later while I was studying opera (not as impressive as it sounds as I still don’t know how to read music,) I told my instructor about that, and he told me a secret.
When he was applying for his scholarship, he had chosen a song in German that he knew well.
He got up on stage, staring at the faces of the people who would decide if he could afford the Academy or not, and started to sing. Halfway through, his brain simply froze. He listened to the piano between verses hoping to jar his memory but…nothing. So he started to sing again on his cue and simply sang words that sounded vaguely German-ish but meant absolutely nothing. On the next verse he got his brain back from whatever frozen tundra of fear it had been hiding and finished the song perfectly.
He got the scholarship.
He had the opportunity to ask one of the professors how, exactly, had that happened? The seasoned performer told him, “Of course we knew what had happened. Of course we knew you were singing nonsense. But you did not stop. You filled that gap with words that fit the meter and sounded German, the average listener would never have known. Being perfect is advisable in performance, but being able to get past a mistake is truly impressive.”
“Being perfect is advisable in performance, but being able to get past a mistake is truly impressive.”
See? And I’ll bet you wondered how I was going to tie this into my intentions for this blog.
Both of us, in varying levels of importance, froze and could have failed. I did not practice, and he became overwhelmed with stress.
But we kept going and we got through and we did well; we did our best.
Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. If you fall, that’s ok, get back up and keep going.
Don’t worry what anyone else thinks, because there’s a good chance they didn’t even see you skip a beat.
My sister and I have a shared memory that one of us remembers absolutely wrong.
Bev is five years older than me, but we would still do things together growing up. One of the things we loved to do was put a record on the console hi-fi, (ask your parents) play a song and sing into hairbrushes, because hairbrushes are microphones, naturally. This would be to a song by The Beatles, or Journey, something we both liked.
I have a vivid memory of singing along to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds,” a fairly graphic song released in 1976 about a killer for hire. Our mom came in disgusted that they were glorifying murder like that. Bev looked at her and said, “Three words, mom. Mac. The. Knife.” This is a fairly graphic song released in 1959 about a killer for hire. Realizing she had no comeback to this, she turned and left the room.
I told that story to a group of friends recently, Bev among them. We all laughed because the opportunity to zing a parent like that is very rare and very funny.
But Bev frowned, “No, that’s not what happened.”
“We were in the car singing along to The Beatles, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” on the radio. Everything else is the same, mom said that, I said Mac the Knife, all that, but we were in the car, and it wasn’t Dirty Deeds.”
I was flummoxed. “It absolutely was Dirty Deeds. We were in the living room like we always were.”
Then Bev made a very excellent point.
“I hate AC/DC, that’s your thing. I would never have sung along with them.”
I do a lot of research for my articles. Sometimes it’s scholarly texts, sometimes it’s Facebook Messenger.
She is 100% correct, she does hate AC/DC, (on that point anyway, she is grievously wrong) so it is very unlikely my recall of this is accurate. But the thing that bothers me is, even after she described what likely happened, even after the completely reasonable argument of why it could not have happened my way, I still see it how I always have – living room, hairbrushes, AC/DC. One of us is simply wrong.
But neither of us is lying.
I am 100% certain that my version is right. I can see it, I can hear the song, our painful adolescent attempts to copy Bonn Scott’s un-copy-able voice, I can see the hairbrush in front of my mouth reflected in the living room window. I can see my mother pound into the room and angrily interrupt, and I can see Bev’s raised eyebrows and grin as she delivered the verbal body-blow that ended the argument.
I remember it exactly like that.
Except I am more than likely, 100% wrong.
It seems like a contradiction, but it’s really not. I’m not lying when I say I see that scene play out exactly as I describe.
In preparing this article, I spent some time talking to my psychiatrist about the implications of memory fluidity. I had to come to peace with my own issues around this before I could try to offer any comfort to you. But she has, as always, helped me work through it.
Because that’s really the thing, isn’t it? That’s the easiest way to dismiss an accusation, to devalue an experience, especially if it happened long ago, in childhood, teenage years, is to simply say, memory is fluid, you have a vivid imagination, you saw a TV show and made it real in your head, etc. until no one believes it, and eventually, maybe you don’t even believe it.
Memory is fluid, eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable, that is a fact. But what does that mean for survivors?
I used the example with my sister because it’s funny, and I wanted to work into this a little gently. But it is also apt. I remember it exactly as I always have. I don’t remember being in a car. I don’t remember Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. I remember the living room, hairbrushes, and AC/DC. I am likely completely wrong.
But, and this is important, I am wrong about the details, the where, when, what song, but I am right about the important part of the story. A taboo song, a mother trying to shut it down, Bev winning the argument before it even started. We are in complete agreement about these details.
The actual, important event, is correctly remembered.
This is important to me because memory has played such a critical role in my “story” and even my identity.
I was abused by various people, including a brother, throughout my childhood. I have no memory of not being angry, of not feeling rage and fear and blinding, white-hot hatred, for him. I remember specific events.
I have identified as a survivor since my 20s. When the book “The Courage to Heal” came out, it was a revelation. I was validated, seen, and I was not alone. I remember going to an all-day event and watching women much older than me walking from lecture to lecture carrying stuffed comfort animals. I remember wishing I’d thought of it, and realized that I would not have had the courage to carry it in public if I had. Allowing myself the self-care I needed was nearly two decades away. But here I had a community, a large group of kindred spirits who had been victimized to one degree or another, all equally valid, all worthy of love and care.
I remember sitting alone at the lunch break and falling to pieces. All of these women are here for each other. All of these women are here for each other, because all of these women have been brutalized and broken, to some degree or another. I felt hurt, wounded, exposed, and heartsick.
In the coming years I came to terms with my alcoholism, my depression, and finally landed the correct diagnosis of bipolar II, which became bipolar I a few years later.
But the abuse, that was first. That was in the late ‘80s with the release of that one book, the first time I heard the term “survivor.” And I am forever grateful to Ellen Bass for that.
When my father confronted my brother after I’d spent a horrible afternoon telling my parents what had happened, dad asked him why he did it. Dad told me later that he hung his head and said, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.” These are not the words of an innocent person. The words of an innocent person are, “What are you talking about? How dare you! How dare you accuse me of something so horrific! So vile! How dare you!”
With that tacit confession, I should have no longer doubted what I recalled.
“I hate AC/DC. It was in the car, not the living room.”
It’s not only a single detail being confused here. It is the entire scenario. Except for the “punch line,” every single thing I recall is wrong.
I have my memories, and more importantly, I have an admission of guilt and diaries and poems that go back to nine-years-old. I have “source material,” if you will.
And even still, I had doubts sometimes.
What of the women who don’t have anything but their memories? What of the women for whom this is a “he said/she said” situation?
What of the women who completely and utterly disassociated while it was happening, to the point that it’s a black nothing in their memory? Don’t think that’s possible? Here’s another story.
When I was 16, I bought my first vehicle, a yellow Toyota truck with a camper shell. I took it out for a spin with several of my friends, laughing and having fun in the back of what was basically a playhouse for teenagers.
I was on a four-lane street with a large grassy median.
Here’s what I remember next. A car swerved in front of me within inches of my fender. I remember seeing the jackass in the back seat turn around laughing as I tried to keep control. Next, I was on the median, the entire left side of my truck on the curb, my rims had bent and ripped my tires to shreds. My friends were trying to open my door and get me out. When I came to, when I started to get my higher functions back, my hands were so tightly gripped on the wheel that I could barely remove them, and I was aware very slowly of the shooting pain up my arms as I had apparently used them as shock absorbers during the crash. My friends finally coaxed me to unlock the door. I got out, lost control of my legs, fell to the ground, and just…shook.
My friends said I was amazing, I kept control of the truck, I had no choice but to crash the way I did, but I skidded along on my rims and came to a safe, controlled stop.
To this day, I have zero memory of any of that.
My brain simply went on some sort of autopilot, I guess literally this time. It was so horrible that my memory said “Well, I’m out. I’ll be back here with Smell until this is all done.”
This happened during a car accident. Imagine what our brains can do when we’re being raped, abused, beaten, molested, imagine how far away we can leave our brains and hide, or even rewrite, something life-shatteringly horrible.
Memory can get muddled, that’s a fact. Those of us who are survivors become extremely good at disassociation. I have been a pro since I was a child; it’s an escape, it’s a world you control, you are essentially a god. It can also make for a rich creative life.
But these things can be, and are, used against us. How do we know what is real? How do we know what really happened, was is AC/DC or The Beatles? Is it a total blackout from mental self-defense, did it spring from a vivid imagination?
I can’t answer these questions for you but I can tell you this.
My memories are real. Maybe not minute details, maybe not the room, the surroundings, the time of day. But the events – what actually happened – are drilled into my head. The more traumatic the event, the more likely we remember. Or sometimes it simply never writes to memory. Like my accident, that 3 or 4 minutes is not there.
I have the details surrounding the event wrong. It was The Beatles, it was in the car, this could not be more different from my memory. But the core of it, the actual, meaningful event, was correct.
Friends, men and women alike, if you have a memory of abuse, if that memory causes your heart to hurt, I suggest that it is probably correct. At the very least it should be examined, try to find a therapist to help you work through it. I’m including some resources you can use as well.
Please, do not let anyone tell you it’s not true, you are misremembering, or worse, that you are lying. If it hurts to think about, look at it.
Memory is foggy and imprecise. But it is not to be ignored because the curtains were blue and not yellow.
Please take care of yourselves. Be gentle with yourselves.
Carry a stuffed comfort animal if you need to.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
I cannot properly put into words how much I love this place. It is a shiny blissful memory in a childhood that was not always so happy.
My sister and I had absolute free rein to a degree that my mother probably would not have approved of.
We would ride the cars, swing the heavy poles when we got to the end of the line to go back the other way. This would have been in the late ’70s to mid-’80s so I would have started when I was in the 11-year-old range. Not sure we’d get away with that now.
We’d poke around the car barn and its many pointy bits and pieces, run down the mainline tracks to find dead sheep. After closing time dad would let us run one of the cars.
I also got to work in the bookstore, an old building warmed entirely by a Franklin stove. In the cold days of winter, it was perfection. There was an old-timey cash register I got to use. Eleven-year-old me felt very important.
“The House” where the guys stayed was full of dusty, weathered antiques, mismatch dishes, a probably-safe-why-not fireplace. I would spend hours in there too, enjoying the privilege of being my dad’s daughter. It was private, set far back from the public areas, but we came and went as we pleased. There were also many stray cats and kittens who would sleep in the planter boxes in the sunroom. We’d pick them up one by one, snuggle their kitten faces, plop them back down when their mothers came back. There was a small room crammed with bunk beds; this is where mom drew the line. We always stayed in a hotel in Fairfield. In hindsight, I would have done exactly the same.
Since I grew up with all this, it was normal, and I took it completely for granted.
I would like to go back in time right now and just sit there. Actually, I just did.
In the summer the valley was surface of the sun hot so we would alter our activities accordingly, so we did not actually die.
But the winter, the winter was magic.
There’s a thing called “tule fog” that is thick and cold and billowing. It hugs the ground in a flowing blanket that made me feel calm and contemplative, as it blew wisps of ground cover that made everything unreal. There were few tourists there if any, and only a skeleton crew, so I could be absolutely alone most of the day. I would sit by the duck pond and imagine that I was the last person on earth, that the ducks were my only source of food and I’d have to scrounge to get by in this new, human-less world. I would walk through the fog around the trees and grass, around the tracks, back into the empty house and imagine utter solitude. It was bliss.
Tucked inside this blanket of fog was the nonfunctional steam locomotive #334. I bonded with her very early, and she will be in my heart for the rest of my life.
That’s her in the featured photo, as I knew her back then. But this is the view I generally had, leaning out the window of the cab staring down the track as I flew along to points unknown.
There was a decaying wooden seat inside, held together only by habit. Sometimes when I sat down I could hear it creak out a warning, there will be splinters soon, but I didn’t care. My heart and my mind were worlds away. For hours and hours, I would go away.
The levers and knobs inside still moved a bit so I could control it, and the cover of the firebox would open with the grind and squeak of very old metal so I could stoke the fire.
Every now and then Casey Jones was the engineer. I was already fairly morbid.
Anyway, sometimes I would be on a track, sometimes I would be in the clouds. Generally the wind blew so strong that with my head out the window it was all I could hear. I was absolutely free as I was nowhere else. My dad was doing his thing, any siblings were doing older sibling stuff, so no one was watching me, no one was bothering me, no one was telling me to get out of that fantastically dangerous, tetanus-ridden jungle gym.
It was magic.
So off I go to this incredible event, this huge event, and I will be there. I will write again about it I’m sure, and I’ll post some photos. Probably not ones where I’m crying but, besides that.
I hope that even if you are not a rail fan, you can enjoy the story and pictures. Maybe you’ll find yourself getting lost in the daydreams and fantasies, the utterly romantic and spooky glory that is rail.
I explain gallows humor in that article so I won’t go over it again here, but in a nutshell, it’s finding something unendingly hilarious in otherwise horrible circumstances, things where there really shouldn’t be any humor at all. It’s a survival technique, generally.
For example, this story begins…
So we went to pick up my dad’s ashes.
My sister, brother, uncle, and aunt went to the funeral home to pick up my dad’s ashes.
Everyone grieves differently, sometimes from moment to moment. My sister was not in a good place at this point, and I was in full disassociation mode.
Full disclosure – I loathe the funeral industry. I have nothing but contempt for the business that takes advantage of people while they are in the darkest place of their lives to sell them caskets that cost thousands of dollars that they may have to take out a loan to afford. There is no reason and no excuse beyond predatory capitalism.
It is with that frame of mind that I walked in and immediately my mind went sproing. It looked like Barbara Cartland barfed on Laura Ashley, accompanied by the dulcet tones of music that made Yanni sound edgy.
The overstuffed furniture and pillows, the pink and green throw rugs and flower patterned curtains with puffy valances, which looked like a Jiffy Pop dome covered in 1950s wallpaper.
Already, I was stifling giggles. It was just so very aggressively absurd.
When we were called into the salesman’s office, my sister and I sat at the desk and everyone else crowded around us. My husband sat next to me, which ended up being a very good thing.
Before we started choosing the headstone, when the salesman began to speak, I started to lose any semblance of control. He spoke in this near-whisper, so-very-sincere it practically oozed concern, the kind of voice one practices with a tape recorder to make sure it is just the right mixture of concern and sincerity. It caused me physical pain trying to keep it together. Then he poked the proverbial needle into my composure balloon.
He said the word “cremains.”
I had never heard that word before, and it was without question, the funniest thing I had heard ever. Then he said it again. And again, with that soothing voice right out of central casting, surrounded by tiny roses that I swear were mocking me, pointing at me with their thorny rose arms chanting “Haha! You’re trapped!”
My eyes started to fill with tears. I reached for Chris with my left hand, while my right hand snatched about seven tissues which I shoved against my face and just, lost it. I shook with laughter, my whole body lurching up and down and a sound I can only describe as the squeeeeeaaak a straw makes if you pull it slowly out of a plastic lid. Luckily, everyone interpreted this as weeping, except for Chris who has met me.
In the end, we did what we needed to do, and the salesman handed my dad’s “cremains” to us. Nothing about that was funny.
All of this is taboo. We have so many around death, but they are things we should be talking about because I know that they can eat at a person, the guilt behind it.
My dad had prostate cancer. The doctors didn’t catch it until it was far too late. He lived the best he could during his final years, but ultimately spent the last six months of his life in a hospice.
During this time, Chris and I drove to see him every day. We left San Francisco for Fremont, about an hour and a half drive, at 4:30 during rush hour. We did this every day for months.
After a while, I found myself grousing about this obligation. It became an inconvenience, we had to leave work early, traffic is a nightmare, and so on. Dad did not ask us to do that, it was what I wanted. But after a while, it became a burden.
When I caught myself thinking that, frowning as we headed to the car, my heart sunk. How many times did he drop everything to be there for me? How many sacrifices did he make to see me grow up? I felt terrible.
I got the call from my sister. We went to the hospice to say goodbye and have an impromptu wake, and I saw my dad lying there, no longer my dad but looked like him. We shared our memories and cried with the staff (dad was a charmer, everyone there loved him) and we went our separate ways to grieve.
The next day, at 4:30, a thought entered my head. I don’t have to go to Fremont. We don’t have to make the hour-long drive during rush hour. We don’t have to do that anymore.
And when I caught myself thinking that, my heart sank.
I was relieved.
I was not relived my dad was gone, that I would never see him again. I was relieved that my life could slowly return to normal. That I could finish my work day, come home at a reasonable hour, have a relaxing evening with Chris, plan for Saturday.
I wasn’t relieved that my dad was dead, I was happy that I was alive.
He was in terrible pain, bedridden, couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything he loved. He didn’t want to live that way, not even in a hospice with its own very good dog.
He was an active person, he belonged to so many clubs, this was not life for him. He was just waiting. I know this for a fact.
Shortly before he died, dad asked me if I would interpret a dream for him. He had never done something like that before, a WWII veteran, he wasn’t touchy-feely. He started to speak very quietly.
“I am in an elevator, but it goes all sorts of ways, up and down, sideways. The doors open but I don’t get out. I want to get out, but it’s not the right floor. So it gets to the top floor, the doors open, and there is such a light in the room. I want to get out, but I’m scared. What do you think it means?”
His voice started to tremble slightly at the end, and when he asked the question, he lowered his head, looked over his glasses with raised, fearful eyebrows. He knew exactly what it meant, but he wanted to hear it.
“Why don’t you want to get out? That room sounds nice.”
“I’m scared. I don’t know what will happen.”
“If it feels warm and nice, maybe that’s a good place for you. A safe place.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then nodded and turned his head.
A few days later he was gone.
He had checked in with each of us. He wanted to know that we would all be ok, and he wanted us to know that he valued what we are. My brother was an electronic wizard, my sister was levelheaded and dependable, I was the touchy-feely arty person who interprets dreams.
I loved him, I didn’t want him to leave. But he was in terrible pain, and he wanted to go. I know that for a fact. The elevator dream was not exactly ambiguous.
It’s not bad to want one’s life back. He would not have been happy if we had stopped enjoying the life that we have.
In the end, my dad valued my strangely wired brain. I believe completely that he would have been as disgusted by the funeral home as I was, and I would have caught his eye, pointed to the plug-in air fresheners that smell of chemical roses, and he would be giggling as much as I.
So please, be as kind and gentle with yourself as you are with your loved one. Call on whatever it is that gives you comfort, however you cope. You do not disrespect them by living a good life, you honor their memory.
My dad found his peace finally in his Christian faith.
My uncle asked him what he wanted to pray about. He replied in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.
A dear friend I haven’t seen in years is visiting this week, so I am all about her and the niece and nephew I’ve never met and must dote over like a proper auntie.
We’ve been friends a long time, so there are many memories to be had, but I thought I’d share a few of my favorites from her wedding in Mumbai.
She married an Indian man I approve of (important, he’s got to be good enough for my girl!) Chris and I traveled to India for the wedding. We had never been there or attended a Hindu wedding, so we had no idea what we were doing. Wanting to be good guests, we learned as much as we could, but there were a few things we missed.
We dressed in traditional clothes, he in a lime green kurta and me in a beautiful cranberry sari. We bought the sari the day we arrived so we didn’t have time to learn how to wrap it. They sent us away with detailed instructions, a pin here, a tuck there, how hard could it be?
The next morning, one day after arriving and no time for coffee, we took the instructions and began to wrap. No problem.
The shop had sent us on our way with a few large safety pins, should be plenty! One frantic call to the front desk later, and a hotel staffer appeared at our door with many additional safety pins, because there was no way this garment was going to stay on my body without dozens of pins.
So Chris wraps, I hold, he pins, it falls, he swears, he wraps, I hold…this goes on for some time, and I am anxious we will be late. One does not show up to weddings late.
Finally, it is staying put. The pallu (the fabric draped over the shoulder) reached only about a foot down, but we figure, well we tried. It’s fine. We’re going to be late.
Off to the front desk to ask for a cab.
The lovely lady looks at me, smiles sweetly, and says “Oh, you look so pretty! Would you like me to help you wrap it?” I looked up “diplomatic” in the dictionary, and there she was.
Off to a back room to be entirely re-wrapped.
She and another lady set about removing it, disconnecting the pins, and rewrapping. This took a while, and I’m stressing; we are going to be so late for the wedding. But they finished, the extra fabric cascaded down my back. I thanked them profusely and scurried away.
Off to the waiting taxi.
Western people, you know that you do not show up late to a wedding. Never, ever. If you do, you walk into the silent, reverent room, all heads swivel to stare at this breach of WASP rules, and the walk of shame begins until you slink down into a pew. That is what I’m used to.
We tell the cab driver that we are in a terrible hurry, we will be late for a wedding we’ve come halfway around the globe to attend. He understands and promptly stops for gas.
Once we were finally on our way, dizzy from no food and more importantly no coffee, we arrive at the hotel. We enter with fear and caffeine headaches and…there’s my friend, the bride, sitting in a chair watching with everyone else. Part of the ceremony is taking place without her.
She looks up and smiles. “Oh hi! There’s coffee and food in the back if you’d like.”
Do you know those cartoons where someone is running away quickly, and all that’s left is a cloud in their shape? Yeah.
Later the groom joins us, and we tell him that we were so afraid we’d be late. He smiles and says, a little confused, “there is no late.”
My friend’s sister and brother were not able to make it, so my husband and I stood in for them. I cannot tell you how wonderful that was, being directly involved, performing a Hindu ritual on such an important day. It was an experience I will never forget.
After the wedding, there was a few hours break until the reception. Chris and I were deeply jet-lagged and on a stress come-down, so we went back to the hotel for a nap and then a change of clothes. We were excited to dress properly, so we had bought two different outfits, my evening wear was a salwar kameez, and Chris had a beautiful purple kurta. Feeling good, feeling proper, off we go to the hotel.
We walked in and saw all the Indian men dressed entirely in Western clothes. To a person, suits and ties, not one traditional outfit to be found.
The swiveled heads I expected earlier happened now, only amused rather than eye-stabby. Chris later joked with a few guests that no one at the wedding actually knew us, but we had shown up and won’t go away. The groom’s brother laughed so hard nearly lost the ability to stay upright. If you live to make people laugh like we do, this was almost the highest praise possible, just under peeing oneself and passing out.
That was in 2011. My friend settled down in New York, but it seems like she is still in Mumbai; I’ve only seen her once since that time and have never met her children.
Now they will be here, and I will do the auntie thing, and there will be presents and bonding because kids tend to love me.
My great hope is that they are not afraid of all the spooky stuff in here. I’ll make little goths out of them in no time.
I live in an older building, built in 1927, which has its quirks and issues. Recently while doing some repairs, the plumbers found the pipes are not up to code, so parts of walls in every apartment have been slowly torn apart to fix it.
One of those is in what’s called the “butler’s pantry,” the small space between the kitchen and the dining room. There’s a built-in hutch and decals of crows and branches on the walls. We like the spooky. (We got this place on pure luck – a hand-me-down from a friend. I always feel compelled to point that out.)
We also love history. This building has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s called that because it “bridges” the Golden Gate, just a fun fact for you. The people who lived here then could watch it being built.
I would love to see an inside photo of the apartment from around that time. I would love to see how people in 1927 and thereabouts decorated, how they lived, what was new and trendy. I want to know what it looked like, but finding these photos has proven impossible so far. So we painted and decorated it to reflect my beloved 19th Century instead, with additions like a TV and penicillin, and I am left to daydream.
One of the quirks is water leaks so when we noticed the paint was buckled and blistered on one section of the walls we shrugged and went on with our day enjoying indoor plumbing and horseless carriages.
But when the workers cut out part a wall in the butler’s pantry, it caused one paint chip to fall off the wall next to it. My husband peeled it off figuring it will have to be repainted. Then he called me over.
I nearly passed out. Seriously, I gasped so deeply I made myself lightheaded.
Under all that paint, layer upon layer for who knows how many decades, was the most amazing wallpaper. I haven’t researched it yet, so I don’t know when it was put up, but the design looks to be around the 1930s. If anyone knows from the photo, please leave a comment with that information, I will be your very best friend. Also, I have cookies.
She is a faded beauty, an aged but lovely lady patiently waiting to be unveiled and make an entrance. She is water damaged, faded, ripped and pulling from the wall, but I cannot stop looking at her. Wallpaper is female, apparently. I didn’t realize that either until typing this.
Now my head is swimming. What did it look like when it was new? Did it cover the entire little room? Was the hutch painted white at that time, or had that particular crime not yet occurred, so it was still the bare wood it was meant to be?
These people went to a store, chose that pattern, and had it put up. At that time the building had a dumbwaiter and kitchen so one could order food to be sent up, so I’m assuming they did not do their own work. I imagine a small forest of plants.
What was in the hutch? What dishes did they have? They were likely wealthy so did they have a maid who laid the table?
We are not wealthy, we painted the apartment ourselves. By “we” I mean “my husband.”
I keep going back to look at it, stand back, move close, and touch it with my finger, tracing a line around the palm trees and bridges. It smells musty, old glue and paper and probably mold. It’s a lovely smell, like old books tucked into a proper library. The smell brings so many questions and flights of fancy for me. So much wondering about the people and their lives. Among those lives, my family, going back to the 19th Century. I was born across the Bay, a fact I will forever be bitter about.
Family stories are wonderful, but seeing this relic in my own home, something that, judging by the thickness of the paint layers has been lost for a very long time, it’s like finding a ruin, counting strata to figure out how long it’s been there.
This is how my mind works. This is how I see things. A strip of wallpaper has sent me into a rabbit warren of daydreams and an aching desire for a time machine. But since I don’t currently have one on account of they don’t exist, all I can do is wonder and smile.
Eventually, probably next week, the workmen will come back to patch the holes, and at that time the jig will be up, and they’ll probably have to paint over that spot.
But before they do, we are going to slice that strip of paper out and frame it, and then hang it right in that spot. I’ll walk past it every day and smile since she’s right back where she belongs.
Well, I had finished this article and we sliced out the paper. Lo and behold, there was another behind it! This one was against the plaster, so it is the original. We cut it out too, and they will both be framed. I’ll share that when it’s done.