The Little Things

As we drove up the winding mountain road, the vibrant fall colors seemed blinding. The kids were quiet, each absorbed in whatever they were watching on their phones. An earbud in one ear, I half listened to an old Art Bell Coast to Coast episode. My other ear caught the sound of my minivan’s tires gliding across the blacktop. My eyes watched the road, but my brain wasn’t focused on anything except the events of the past week.

She’s been gone for a week. Betty was the epitome of grace. When I married her son twenty-five years ago, I instinctively knew I’d have a lot to live up to. But, I also knew I’d have quite a bit of time to prepare for that future role. Betty’s mother is well into her 90s, Charley’s mother lived into her 90s and his grandmother had the same longevity. I figured I’d be a senior citizen myself before wishing them a final good-bye in their extreme golden years and all would be well.

Life has a super funny way of making things not well.

When Charley was diagnosed with cancer last year, Betty’s nursing instincts and training from decades ago kicked in. She banned all of us from the house out of fear that Charley’s chemo-weakened immune system wouldn’t be able to handle even the most common of colds. We knew that Charley would have surgery around January and then? We could get back to life as normal.

But that wasn’t to be. January stretched to February thanks to ineffective chemo and February slipped toward March as he battle pneumonia. And then? COVID-19 hit the country and none of the hospitals were performing surgeries. When he was finally able to enter an operating room in August, it was too late. His cancer had spread everywhere. And still, Betty battled for her husband of 56 years.

Several days before Betty had her stroke, Charley called hospice. I know, deep down, that the stroke was due to stress. It was all Betty this last year. She drove Charley to all his chemo and doctor appointments. She fixed his meals, shopped for groceries, ran errands, paid bills, did absolutely anything and everything, all while keeping their environment COVID-19 free. She did it all, 24/7/365, with no break, no rest, no respite.

I’ve expressed a lot of anger as of late with people flouting common sense rules when it comes to social distancing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated when the time comes. And some people couldn’t understand why. And this is why. Because my mother-in-law shouldn’t have done this alone. Was COVID-19 the cause of Betty’s death? In a round-about way? Yes. I think so.

But, I digress. Let’s consider those last four paragraphs the Tom Clancy portion of this blog post. You know, when you crack open a copy of Red Storm Rising or The Hunt for Red October and sandwiched between all the action and suspense is Tom’s chapter on the political philosophy of whatever it is he’s writing about. That up there is some of what I’m stewing on as of late.

What we’re facing, right now, as a family, is the loss of both of our parents and our children’s grandparents and great-grandparents. And that shouldn’t have happened. And in the midst of this absolute, all-encompassing grief and anger and frustration and fatigue, I’m trying to remember the little things about Betty.

When Betty and Charley first gutted their mountain home and began rebuilding it to match their dream, they envisioned a huge kitchen with a play area for the grandchildren directly above. And one of the first things Betty did was tie a pail to the railing so that the kids could lower down the bucket and she could send up snacks. This pail was used for years just for that purpose and when I looked up from the kitchen and saw it sitting there, it was like a punch in the stomach. The pail was last used was over a year ago, when we visited for the annual fall festival, when the voices and laughter of three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren echoed through the house, the pail being passed down for food and toys.

When we got to the house, one of the first things I did was ask Tyler for his mom’s car keys. He looked at me quizzically and I replied, “I have to fix her clock.” Betty never did learn how to change the time on her car’s clock and twice a year, I would do it for her. When I turned the key in the ignition, the clock blinked. Clearly, she had tried changing it herself, but was never able to finish it. I did it for her. It was something I needed to do. Even though she wasn’t here to ask me.

Betty had perfected her chocolate chip cookie recipe. And any time she made cookies for us, Tyler and I fought the kids for them. She started labeling them “Hugs” once COVID-19 hit and we could no longer visit. Tyler would make the trek to their home periodically to talk to his dad about the family business and Betty would pass along bags of cookies, her hugs for her grandchildren. I found the last dozen in the freezer on Sunday. I’m never throwing this bag away.

We all have our bedrooms where we sleep at their home. Tyler and I always crashed out in the bedroom directly under the kitchen. Each and every morning, I would wake up to hear Betty’s quick footsteps through the kitchen, turning on the ovens, checking the coffee pot, followed by Charley’s heavy boots to help. I would lay there, light pouring through the windows, my blurry eyes focusing on the bronze sculpture across the room, willing myself to get up and help make breakfast or wash dishes. I would run my hands over the back of that sculpture as I looked out the windows, gauging the weather, thinking how smooth the artist had made the model’s skin. But now, for me, when I see it, it personifies my grief.

The rocking chairs by the kitchen fireplace were where we would all gather. Betty and whoever else she co-opted to fix the upcoming meal would be moving around the island while the rest of us would sit on the hearth, in the rocking chairs, or pull in chairs from the dining room. And we would talk politics, religion, current events, anything and everything. Clutching coffee mugs or wine glasses, depending on the time of day, many great conversations were had, usually with Charley front and center and Betty trying to pull him away to help with food.

“Charley,” she would tentatively begin, “could you check on the roast?”

“Bet,” he would gently fuss in response, pushing himself up from the chair, “I just checked it ten minutes ago. It’s fine.”

She would look over her glasses at him and he would sigh and do whatever she wanted, returning to the conversation several minutes later. At which time she would encourage him to check on something else. At which time he would grumble and do whatever she asked. Rinse. Repeat.

Charley is the family artist. And summer, 2019, he drew like crazy. He took Amelia and her cousin, Hannah, to the side, and the three of them would spend nearly each morning drawing. Charcoal, pastels, pencils, beach scenes, waterfalls, whatever. Didn’t matter. One afternoon, Heath worked hard to fly a kite, wearing his signature orange. My memory of that day is being on the beach, laughing at his antics. Betty, though, was too focused on her other grandchildren and great-nieces and great-nephews playing in the water, worrying about sharks, jellyfish, riptides, and too much sun. Meanwhile, Charley was up on the condo balcony, capturing the pure joy of that moment on paper.

There are so many other little things that Betty and Charley did, too numerous to name, that I know will come at me in waves. There will be the small waves, like the annual family Christmas puzzle, that will merely wet my ankles. And there will be the larger waves, crashing around my waist, taking my breath away, like remembering the first two weeks of our children’s lives, at home, when Betty spent each night watching them sleep and waking me up to feed them. She would arrive at dinner, leave at breakfast, and help us ease into our new normal. She was exhausted, but she insisted. All the waves, all of the memories, in varying sizes and shapes, will come at me throughout the ensuing years. And I will do my best not to stumble when they hit, to instead allow them to wash over me like cool, ocean saltwater on a hot summer day.

Betty was, without a doubt, the most incredible woman I have ever known. She will never be replaced and I will never be able to be half the woman she was. But, that’s OK. Because even though I was her batshit crazy purple haired hillbilly daughter-in-law, she loved me. Unconditionally. And never asked me to be anything other than what I already was. I will miss her so much.

A Quilted Life

My grandmother, in the dark dress.

I had just left Gainesville. Wayne had labored over my salt and pepper hair to give me an amazing noggin full of purple strands. I had my favorite podcast blasting over the car speakers, the sunroof was open, the day was good.

My aunt called.

I had texted her to get an update about my grandmother, who had recently received a devastating cancer diagnosis. I hadn’t received a reply, but I knew she was busy.

As soon as I saw her name pop up on my phone’s screen, I knew it wasn’t good. Grandma was gone. I had to pull off to the side of the road, finish our phone call, and sit for a few minutes, hazard lights blinking, cars flying by completely unaware and uncaring of the fact that one of the greatest women on this Earth had left us. I cried. I scrambled through my center console, looking for any and all spare fast food napkins to sop up tears and snot. I knew she was going to die, because we all are, but that didn’t mitigate my sadness. I was fortunate enough to say final good-byes two weeks before, but it still stung. My tears were, and are, a mix of sadness and anger. Because I allowed myself to be gaslit for decades and had voluntarily cut off contact with my grandmother in order to support the woman who had lied to me.

Thelma Hutsenpiller Berkley grew up in and around Lewisburg and Fairlea, West Virginia. She was born in August, 1921, and like most women of her age, she married young and had two children. Unlike most women her age, she left her husband when he turned out to be an unfaithful lout who just up and ghosted her and stopped supporting his wife and two young children. Grandma moved back in with her parents, found a job with the telephone company, and worked, supporting her children and raising them as a single mother. It wasn’t easy, but she did it.

Paw-Paw and Grandma, on their wedding day, April 19, 1969.

One April day, in 1968, when the telephone operators went on strike, my grandfather–along with many other telephone company engineers–was called in from Charleston to Fairlea to help fill in. It was my Grandmother’s responsibility to help train them and there was this tall, handsome man named Simeon Berkley. He looked familiar to my grandmother because he was the brother of one of her neighbors. He asked her out to dinner and a year later, they were married. And she was the only grandmother I ever knew.

She knitted, crocheted, tatted, quilted, embroidered, grew the most gorgeous gladiolus and roses, canned, cooked, baked, gardened… everything. You name it, she knew how to do it. In her later years, she developed macular degeneration and gradually lost her sight. She quilted by hand and the last quilt she ever made, her cousin Earl helped her thread the needles so that she could finish. She knitted afghans for my three children when they were born. They weren’t up to her normal standards, but that’s because she knitted them by feel. The gardens she and my grandfather planted were full of fruits and vegetables that they would share with their blended family of children–six in all–and the cattle they raised help feed all of us throughout my childhood. I honestly wonder how, looking back on my childhood, my parents would have fed me if it hadn’t been for Thelma and Simeon Berkley.

My grandfather died in 1992. For 18 years, Grandma continued to live alone on their 70-odd acre farm in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Every morning, the fog from the Greenbrier River blankets the rolling fields, obscuring the surrounding mountains. Each day, the sun will burn off that fog, revealing beautiful vistas. It’s a magical place. They called it, “Pleasant View Farm.” I don’t know. It’s more than a pleasant view. It’s a knock-your-socks-off view, but that’s too big for a sign.

One of the greatest moments for me was reading my book to Grandma.

Over two years ago, I re-established contact with my grandmother. Even though we hadn’t spoken in decades, she had still sent me cards for Christmas and my birthday, with some money tucked inside. She sent me baby gifts when I was pregnant, the odd postcard when she would travel. I later found out that she waited, all these years, for me to realize the truth of the lies I had been fed on a regular basis. And when I woke up, she welcomed me with open arms, no judgement. Over the course of several visits, she sat in her pink recliner, I sat across from her, and we talked. Constantly. We caught up, laughed, cried, and consoled. A couple of times, these talks went late into the night. I learned many truths, found out a lot about myself, her, and my mother. These moments are absolutely precious to me and I’m so fortunate to have had them before she left us.

Our family was like a Brady Bunch of knitted and sewn together connections. Four children for my grandfather, two for my grandmother, numerous grandchildren between all of them. None of us were treated any differently from the others because this one was a Berkley or this one was a Hoke. We were all loved, cherished, and provided for. My mother tried to make me believe otherwise. As I sit here, 24 hours in a world without my grandmother, I’m crying. I’m sad, angry, lost, tired, hurt, and just gutted. I know that within the next few days, I’ll be driving back north in order to celebrate Grandma’s life and accomplishments. Until then, I intend to wrap up in the quilt she made for me all those many years ago and think about the time we had together. She was a wonderful woman who lived a long, incredible life and every single one of us who knew her will miss her terribly.

Thelma Hutsenpiller Berkley, 1921-2020

The Other Half

April 6, 1966.

For many people, it was just a day. Nothing special. A spring day much like today. Outside, the trees were probably showing off their newest green. Tulips were extending their heavy heads and the cool mornings were giving way to warm afternoons. The promise of summer was teasing many across the country. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president, the Civil Rights Movement was going strong, and we were still embroiled in Vietnam.

It’s also the day my mother gave birth to a baby boy and gave him up for adoption.

Family secrets are weird little creatures. They are furtively whispered about, behind backs, used as ammunition, and held tightly against our chests. For the lucky few, the family secret is never found out. It’s kept in a box and dies with the secret-keeper. But for others, it’s like trying to keep water in a cracked glass. At first, there are drips. And then, before you know it, the drips are a puddle, and suddenly the contents of the glass are no longer contained outside. The secret is fully exposed, staining everyone and everything around it. And there’s no way to get it back into the glass.

When I was in ninth grade, my cousin told me our secret. We were discussing our relatives and how this adult aunt wasn’t talking to that adult uncle and, as teenagers, we were OH SO MUCH MORE ADULT than those who had the years and mileage, but clearly not the maturity. We were trying to piece together the puzzle of our strained family relationships, and it slipped out.

“Heather, I heard your mom had a child out of wedlock. A boy.”

That one sentence had me reeling. For YEARS. I was the glass and that water was poured into me. But I was cracked by years of family strife, a mother who was damaged, and a father who was the focus of that damage. I would at times forget that tidbit of information and then remember it all over again. When it would knock on the door of my consciousness to remind me it was there, I had SO many questions.

Did Dad know?
My parent, who has told me never to have sex until I’m married, had sex before she was married.
Who is the father?
Do we know him?
Is my brother alive? Dead?
What did he look like?

And so many more questions swirled through my head. I had always wanted an older brother. I would watch reruns of The Big Valley as a child and the adventures of the Barkley family of Stockton, California, always captivated me. My grandparents didn’t have cable, but their antenna picked up a local TV station in Bluefield, West Virginia, and in the evenings, they showed old episodes of that 1960s western starring Barbara Stanwyck as matriarch Victoria Barkley, mother of three sons, Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, and one daughter, Audra. I loved that show. And I loved how protective Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, were of their sister. And I, as an only child, wanted that. I wanted that house full of loud, boisterous, male laughter, ready to lend me a hand, get me out of scrapes, fuss at me and how I was dressed, grill every boy I even glanced at. Instead, I had a quiet home, just me and my parents. While I sequestered myself in my room with my books, ignoring the invisible tension between my mom and dad, my parents mostly ignored one another until mom would lash out at dad for a perceived slight. I always thought it was a lonely only-childhood and watching The Big Valley that made me long for an older brother and what I thought the perfect family should be.

Now, though, I wonder if it was something genetic, a memory from the womb, a bone-deep knowledge that I wasn’t the first, and was supposed to have someone there waiting for me when I emerged. Someone who would have been five years old.

The secret I kept for many years finally spilled out of the cracks during my college years. I confessed the secret to my father, who took it to my mother, who finally admitted to both of us that she had had a child before either of us ever entered her life. She told us his birthday and that she had named him Sean–or Shawn–when he was born. But, she didn’t volunteer any other information.

It’s only been in the last few years, since reconnecting with my mother’s family, that I’ve gleaned even more details of that time in my mother’s life.

I always knew my mother had worked at the West Virginia Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964 and 1965. I remember seeing black and white pictures of that time in her life. I could tell that she had fun, enjoyed her freedom as a young 20-something, out in the big city, away from her parents. What I didn’t know is that while she was there, she became pregnant. Was it consensual? Was it rape? Was the father American? Was he from another country and also working at the Fair? I have no idea. All I do know is that my biological grandmother–who I never knew–drove northward to retrieve my mother and told New Jersey cousins during a stop, “No daughter of mine is giving birth to a black baby.”

My mother was promptly sent off to a “home for unwed mothers” where she gave birth to her unwanted child. She returned home a short time later and eventually was the nurse for the woman who made her give away her baby. My biological grandmother died 19 months later from complications related to bladder cancer. Another 15 months after that, my mother married my father.

Every year, on April 6th, I wonder where my brother is. Is he alive? Dead? If he’s alive, is he happy? Does he know he was adopted? Has he looked for us? If he’s dead, what happened? Did he have a happy life? Sad? Does he have children? Grandchildren?

If he’s alive, today is his 54th birthday. Does he have a spouse with whom he can celebrate? A child? And does my mother even remember today’s significance? Or has she blocked this day from her memory?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. What I can answer is that each time my 23andme app tells me I have new relatives, I get a catch in my throat. And when I open the app to see that said new relatives are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins, I get disappointed. I have several accounts with different adoption web sites… that have lead to nowhere.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find him. And maybe, when I do find him, he won’t want to be found. Or he’s not living in a town but rather a cemetery. I may never make that “big brother connection” I’ve always craved. That life-long need for a sibling will probably never happen. But, I will still look. And still try. And still wonder every April 6th if he maybe always wanted a little sister.

Like me.

Postscript: Since this post is receiving a lot of traffic, here’s what I know:

My brother was born on or about April 6, 1966. I’m assuming he was born in West Virginia. I know the most popular “home for unwed mothers” at the time was in Wheeling, West Virginia. But, honestly, he could have been born in any of the surrounding states (Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania). He is most certainly of biracial ancestry (white mother, African or African-American father). The birth mother’s surname is Berkley and the birth father’s surname is, for me, unknown.

If you or someone you know matches this description, please feel free to reach out to me at the following email address heather@afutureghost.com. Thank you!

Of birthdays and being alone

My father never wanted to celebrate his birthday, and it always pissed me off. Like, how on earth could there be someone who didn’t want to celebrate their own special day? Cake! Presents! Ice cream! Attention! Candles! Balloons! A special meal! AND CAKE, FOR CHRISSAKE!

It would upset me a great deal when, every year, I would ask, “What do you want to do for your birthday?” and he would respond, “Nothing. I don’t want anyone to celebrate it.” And, it wasn’t an attention-getting kind of response. I knew he was truly done and over with the whole thing. I could never understand it. I had no clue as to why he would feel that way.

Now? I do.

I see quite a bit on social media of how birthdays in the 21st century are celebrated. Some people celebrate for the whole month. Others have big parties, donate to charities, or spend quiet days with their parents or close family. I’ve done a little bit of all of the above. I’ve even traveled on my birthday. This year, though, I’m pretty sure I’m done with the whole shebang. Not because of my impending 50th. My age has never bothered me.

And this isn’t a cry for attention. No. I’m Tom Scarbro-done with my birthday.

I don’t want the cake. I don’t want the attention. I’m pretty sure that I want to just be left to my own devices. I’m going to wake up that morning, get out of the house, turn off my phone, and do a few things for me that I enjoy. Then? I’ll get home in time to get the kids off their school bus, fuss at them about homework, put on my green belt and kick a few power bags, and then go to bed.

My mother managed to destroy my 46th birthday, and I allowed that to happen. I sat, staring, at the chocolate cupcake I had purchased for myself, after organizing my family dinner, and listened to her yell at me. I had hoped that 47 would be better, but it really wasn’t. Tyler and I escaped Woodstock for Florida, but he came down with a case of food poisoning. Not his fault, but I was still sad, alone, and watching TV with room service on my birthday wishing I had just stayed home instead of running as far away from my mother as our Skymiles would allow.

There have been other birthdays that weren’t the greatest and I’m pretty sure that’s because social media, television, and movies have made it seem that birthdays need to be huge extravaganzas, full of celebratory noise. Honestly? More often than not? Birthdays are more like Sixteen Candles. Just without the hot guy in the Porsche.

Why am I saying all of this? I guess I just need to publicly put it out there that I don’t expect the fanfare. I’m not going to be secretly angry if the surprise party doesn’t happen. That this isn’t a ploy to get attention. Mainly, I’m writing this so that I don’t have to repeat myself multiple times when I get asked, “So, what are you doing for your birthday?”

My answer will be, “Nothing.” And that won’t be the honest answer. I’ll be doing something. I may go to the shelter and pet cats or wander around antique stores or make my way through Atlanta’s top bakeries. I don’t know. I just know that I will do it alone, without expecting any effort from anyone else. And that’s OK because honestly, that’s the way it should have always been.

The Center of the Universe

I take a lot of shit from my brain.

No, seriously. There are many days when I just wish my mind had an off switch. I guess this is why so many people take drugs, drink copious amounts of alcohol, or end their lives. Those are all temporary and permanent off switches that tell the over-active, nasty parts of our brains to shut the hell up.

My coping mechanism is earbuds, loud music, chocolate, and shitty TV.

And writing.

I’m supposed to be writing a chapter for my second book right now. Instead, I’m whining on the internet about my asshole brain.

One of the “lovely” things about being the child of a borderline personality parent is that you yourself show many borderline traits. It’s how I learned to function in society. Mom blows up at the least little thing? OK, that must be how it goes. So, I blow up at the least little thing. Mom took offense to that person ribbing her good-naturedly? Cool. I’ll do the same. Mom assumes everything is about her? On it. I’ll be the center of the universe, too!

The majority of my life, I’m fairly well balanced. I take my daily Zoloft, I’m a productive member of society, and I read and take to heart the affirmations I have displayed across my bathroom sink:

By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before.

or

What is really hard, and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

then there’s

To be happy, drop the words “if only” and substitute instead the words “next time.”

All really awesome, inspirational stuff. I’ll look at those while putting on mascara and think, Hell, yeah. I’m a neat person. I don’t need to be perfect. I’m an individual who people like and appreciate! LIFE IS AWESOME! I’M A PURPLE-HAIRED GODDESS!

But, then? There are days when several things all happen at once and my borderline tendencies all rear their ugly heads at the same time. I brush my teeth, looking at those quotes and I think the opposite. Oh, yeah, by being myself, I put something in the world for sure. Something annoying that nobody likes. And like I’m ever going to be truly happy. Whatever.

I absolutely despise these days. The slightest cock-eyed look from someone is clearly because of their displeasure over my existence and not because maybe they’re having a bad day due to their own lives. Good constructive criticism is actually the person trying to lord their superior brain and knowledge over me because, clearly, I’m shit and they know it. And my personal favorite is that I can’t take a danged joke for anything. God forbid I laugh at myself.

These are the days when I don’t respond to texts, I don’t look at emails, I stay indoors, and I try to talk to as few people as possible. Because I know it’s a day when I’ve got “Center of the Universe”-itis and the only cure is distance, self-reflection, and corny 80s cop shows.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that if I’m quiet, it’s not you. It’s me. Whoa, Nelly, is it ever me. Slowly, but surely, this upset in our regular programming will go away and we’ll get back to business as usual.

The Five Stages of Mother’s Day

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you may have no idea that we recently celebrated the United States’ version of Mother’s Day. It’s a day of frantic flower deliveries, crowded brunches, gifts of handmade cards, and forced good wishes muttered under surly teen breaths. For some, it’s a day of sadness. If a mother has passed, if a child is lost, or a woman who desperately wants children doesn’t have any, Mother’s Day can be very painful. I remember being part of that latter group, keeping a smiling, brave face on for my own mother and mother-in-law, and then returning home after the obligatory brunch to cry my eyes out.

Grief is a weird, ever-changing emotion. Here in America, where the lifestyle is one of instant gratification mixed with unfailing optimism, grief isn’t really allowed after a certain amount of time. After about a year, people start worrying if you’re still crying over your dead loved one. I remember still being a wreck a year on from Dad’s death and wondering what was wrong with me. Eventually, I learned about the five stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It took me a while, but I eventually accepted Dad’s death, his absence, and the hole he left behind.

I’m currently working on acceptance regarding my relationship with my mother.

Since becoming estranged from her last February–my choice–I have worked through many, many… many emotions. Probably the biggest emotion of all has been guilt.

Guilt that I should be a better daughter, buck up, and deal with the roller coaster of her borderline personality disorder.

Guilt that I didn’t notice her mental issue earlier and try to get her help when she was younger.

Guilt that I believed all of her lies and just swallowed them whole.

Guilt that I existed with her bad choices, made excuses for them, and put my friends and family through the stress of our fractured relationship.

While chewing on the guilt, I’m also working through the five stages of grief. But, rather than grief, I’ve decided for the purpose of this post to call it The Five Stages of Mother’s Day. Because this hasn’t been a 15-month-long process. This has been my life.

~Denial~

When I watched how she treated Dad, her friends, her family, I just assumed that was how everyone was to everyone else. I was a child and didn’t know any different. My parents never hit me or berated me, but my mother berated everyone else. I was a nervous kid, but could never put my finger on why I was this way. Eventually, I grew up just like her. I had a short fuse that would ignite at the slightest provocation. Tyler, the kids, my closest mates, no one was immune. Throughout my childhood, I made all the awful Crayon cards for my mother, school art projects, knick-knacks and such for Mother’s Day. And… she didn’t keep them.

~Anger~

The April after Dad’s death, I returned to West Virginia to bury his ashes and celebrate Mom’s birthday and Easter. After paying for two funerals, four plane tickets, and helping out Mom financially, Tyler and I were cash-strapped. But, I still took her to the mall and bought her a passel of clothes. For Mother’s Day, I sent her a card. I found out from my cousin that my mother was angry that I didn’t get her a gift for the holiday. I explained, exasperated, what I had purchased for her just the month before, and that I couldn’t even really afford that. This was the first time I was really, truly hurt. And pissed.

~Bargaining~

Between 1999 and 2006, I spent every Mother’s Day on pins and needles, making sure she received something that was worthy of her appreciation. Flowers, cards, gifts, didn’t matter. I learned pretty quickly that Mom didn’t want something that she needed. It needed to be some ornament that outwardly showed status. A pricey scarf, teacups, jewelry, purses–I was essentially buying her love. And she ate it up. Because that’s what she wanted. Not thoughtfulness, but fripperies. Once, when I did give her items of usefulness, I found out from a friend that her response to that holiday when asked, “What did you get?”

“Nothing good,” came the reply.

~Depression~

As I became the recipient of the handmade scribbles, elementary school artwork, hugs, and such, I cherished each one. I struggled to find a special place to put each item. Bookshelves became full of hand-drawn pictures and a basket turned into the reservoir of all those precious memories. Meanwhile, I struggled to find the right card to express that I loved my own mother, but when it came to saying, “Thank you.” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t thank her for the depression, anxiety, and constant upset. Finding that “perfect” gift was making sure the gift would pass her inspection and would be appreciated. There was no joy in the selection. No happiness in the forced Mother’s Day lunch conversation. No comfort in the hug. Only stress and sadness.

~Acceptance~

After two Mother’s Days without my own mother, I realize that this is now my life. My mother’s day was a day of hiding out in my basement, cross-stitching and watching true crime shows. The kids came down every now and then to check on me, give me hugs, wish me a happy day, and give me their gifts. They make me whole, give me joy and happiness in their every action. I am so incredibly lucky to have them as my children and I wouldn’t trade them for anyone or anything. But I felt that I had to hide, that I’m a horrible daughter for not calling my mother, texting my friends, calling my grandmother, emailing my relatives. I just couldn’t do it. I put my phone on do not disturb and immersed myself in the counted stitches of my latest project, allowing the tiny embroidery to calm my anxiety. Acceptance will take a really long time–probably years. It’s the stage I’m still working towards. Someday, I’ll be able to face the day knowing that I’m a daughter who told her mother to go away and that that was the right choice.

I wish for my mother comfort. I wish her love and joy with her friends. I wish her peace. But, I need to wish her those things from afar. Our lives are better for it.

Choosing to Transform

Choosing to transform. That is what life is all about! Right, Paige?

When Jarrod started his taekwondo journey several years ago, I was a very naive martial arts mom. I had no idea. I imagined that like anything else, it was one lesson a week and I even thought to myself, “OK. He’ll get his black belt in a couple of years and then we’ll move on to something else.”

Insert picture of martial arts instructors rolling on the floor, laughing out loud.

What I didn’t understand then was that gaining a black belt is only the beginning of one’s martial arts training, not the end. The black belt signifies that that person is finally ready to become a true student of the art, that they have put in the hard work necessary to truly immerse themselves in the finer techniques. It really is a three-dimensional art form. The muscle memory required and the control necessary to perform at a peak level is amazing. And you don’t get there until you earn your first black belt.

Jarrod receiving his second degree, level 4 black belt from Senior Master Bowen, 7th degree black belt.

And I know this because I have now started my own taekwondo journey.

I have not only watched Jarrod for many years now and how he has transformed from an awkward little kid to a controlled martial artist, I have watched other children, teens, adults, and their instructors work toward higher and more difficult goals. And to see their kicks get more precise, their punches more controlled, is incredible. Jarrod is now a second degree, level four black belt and he shows no signs of stopping or slowing down. In fact, he has his eyes on the prize–a high-level black belt and his own taekwondo studio just like his instructor, Ms. Bowen.

Amelia receiving her level 2 green belt from Ms. Bailey, 5th degree black belt.

Meanwhile, Amelia has begun her own martial arts journey. She, too, has watched her brother and although she is a much different martial artist, she is determined to make her own mark in the sport. I watch her make the same mistakes Jarrod made at this early point in his classes and I see her consciously correct herself, working to perfect the movements that will make her a very special martial artist. I love watching Amelia and Jarrod work together, Jarrod giving Amelia pointers and Amelia practicing her form or her one-steps. It warms my heart to see them working together, not against each other as so many siblings do.

As my children took up and perfected this sport, I began exercising in earnest. See, I’m 47 years old now and I can feel my body slowing down, my metabolism working against me, and the aches and pains increasing. It’s frustrating, but I realize that I need to work harder AND smarter to keep myself in shape. Ms. Bowen and Ms. Bailey started a fitness boot camp at the beginning of the school year and even though I found myself most Monday and Wednesday mornings wanting to puke, I could feel my stamina improving. I began running again. Overall, everything is going swimmingly.

My first class was full of black belts and… little old me. Thankfully, they were gentle and encouraging!

Paige is not only a fellow taekwondo mom, she’s also a martial artist herself. She is a student of Ms. Bowen and Ms. Bailey and just received her first degree, level 1 black belt. The day she received her belt, she and Ms. Bailey both nodded toward me in the crowd and after many, many months of waffling, wondering, and stewing, I knew that they had just given me the signs I needed. I took the plunge the next day and started my own martial arts journey.

Many people talk about their 50th birthday in terms of purchases or trips. “I’m saving up for a Corvette!” or “I’m going to go to Bali!” Rather than buying a sports car or going to the end of the Earth, I’ve decided instead to prepare for my 50th a few years early. I want to welcome in my 50th birthday with a black belt around my waist and a new sense of self-respect. I want to face down my 50th by showing my kids that you can choose to transform yourself at any age, at any time, that you don’t have to be young to try something new or different, and that age is just a number and not a state of mind.

I want to prove to myself that through the aches and pains, I can still round kick the crap out of a punching bag.

And so, it is with great personal pride that I announce Bowen’s Tiger Rock’s newest white belt… ME! As Ms. Bowen is fond of saying, “A black belt is just a white belt who never gave up!” Well, this is one white belt who isn’t going to give up, Ms. Bowen! Let’s do this!

I had the honor of receiving my white belt from Ms. Hughes, 4th degree black belt.

Uncle Curtis

At a Charleston Camera Club meeting, circa December, 1993.

I haven’t really ever blogged about my Uncle Curtis. I’ve only ever posted about him a couple of times on social media. He was the inspiration for our cat, Andy’s, name. And next to my parents, he was my closest family member.

My father was the youngest of four. Gladys, the oldest, died at age 7 when she was scalded from water in her mother’s wash tub. She had put her little hands on the sides and tried to lift herself up to see what was inside and the tub tipped and poured scalding hot water all over her. Next, was Uncle Curtis, born in 1922, then Uncle Romie, born in 1926, and finally my father, born in 1931. They were all children of the coal fields, living in Kingston, West Virginia, their father a miner for the Kingston Pocahontas Coal Company. The town originally had a population of about 2,500, had two YMCAs, a theater, bowling alley, and was the last stop on the Paint Creek Branch of the C&O Railroad. Eventually, the mine shut down and everything was removed except for the school, which still stands today but is derelict.

Uncle Curtis attended school until the 11th grade. I know he, his brothers, and parents eventually moved to South Charleston, West Virginia, and built the house on Kentucky Street where I grew up, but I don’t know all of the particulars. What I do know is that he worked as a stock boy for the GC Murphy Company store in downtown South Charleston. He was completely deaf in one ear and only had partial hearing in his other ear, but what he lacked in hearing he made up for in photographs.

He was extremely unobtrusive and could melt into a crowd, old beat up second-hand Nikon in hand, the frayed strap around his neck, ball cap on backwards, and take pictures of anyone and everyone. People were his favorite subject and when I inherited all of his photographs and negatives, I had no clue who was in the photos he took, but they were all so amazing, giving one the impression that the people didn’t even know he was there. Or, at least, didn’t mind. I tried taking up the lens after his death and found that people would spot me, stare, and turn away. I didn’t have the ability to fade into the scenery like Uncle Curtis did. So, instead, I packed up his Nikon and took it to Egypt, where it captured the pyramids, temples, and tombs of that amazing country.

His passion may have been photography, but his love was me, Sarah, Lollie, and Tommy, his nieces and nephew. He never married nor had children of his own, but I know he loved us. Any time I mentioned taking an interest in something, he would truck off to the library, intent on finding out more about that interest which he would then bring up in conversation later on. I remember a happenstance mention by me about watching Wimbledon which led to a his lifelong interest in the sport and you could always find a tennis match blasting from the television in his one-room apartment. In the summer of 1993, I spent ten weeks doing research in the field of space plasma and aeronomics and was actually published. Uncle Curtis was the only member of my family to read that academic paper and ask me questions about it. He had an incredibly curious mind, a sweet personality, an amazing sense of humor, and magnificent fashion sense. Some of my favorite clothes were Christmas and birthday gifts from him that he had picked out.

He died two weeks after my father from, what we can only assume, was a broken heart. Were he still alive, he would have turned 97 this week. He was one of my most favorite people on Earth and I miss him. It has been long past due that I write about him and remember him properly. Love you, Uncle Curtis, and hope you had a wonderful birthday in the great beyond!

The 13th Floor

“What floor are we on, Papa?”

Jarrod stood there, in the elevator, one hand on the door making sure it stayed open, other hand poised over the buttons, index finger extended and ready to press the floor we needed to access for our stay.

“Fourteenth,” Tyler responded.

“Technically,” I replied, “we’re on the 13th floor.”

All three kids looked at me quizzically.

“Well, it’s supposedly bad luck for hotels to have a 13th floor, so if you look on the elevator button panel, there’s a 12th floor and a 14th, but no 13th. Technically, though, the 14th floor is the 13th. So, we’re on the 13th floor.”

“Huh.” Amelia said, “That means that we’re in room 1313 because our room number says 1413 but if the 14th floor is actually the 13th floor, then we’re in the most unlucky room in the building.”

“But, only if you’re a Templar, Amelia.” Heath stated.

“I need a drink.” Tyler muttered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You always told me that you worked the hardest during our summers in Lewisburg. That it was you who did all the canning and the summer garden work around my grandparents’ house. You always made sure to point out that my aunt, your sister, did nothing, that she was lazy and acted like a princess, making sure to do just enough to stay in your father’s good graces and make you look like the bad guy.

Except, that wasn’t it at all. Turns out, you were the daughter who needed reminding that in order to reap your share of the bounty, you needed to sow. You were the one who acted disgruntled every time you were reminded to get up and do your share. Your sister was the one who was always there, ready to throw in a lending hand and willingly do her part. Meanwhile, you did just the absolute minimum while telling everyone the opposite.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“You know what drives me nuts?” Tyler asked one morning, feet propped on the ottoman, enjoying his last few minutes of freedom before work.

“What?” I responded.

“The fact that the Chick-fil-A hash browns box can hold 16 hash browns but they only throw in like 12. Sometimes 10!” He held up the open box to show that he had lined up the offending rounds of browned potatoes with a large space to the left where five hash browns should have been.

“Well,” I looked at him over my reading glasses, “they’re not actually counting them. They just throw handfuls in there. They’re in a hurry because every high schooler in Towne Lake is running there for breakfast in the morning and the crowds are horrendous.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he harrumphed, “if it can hold 16, there should be 16 in here. Bunch of liars.”

“Bless your heart.” I muttered for the 1,000th time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Your father always made fun of anything I ever did.”

“What?!” I exclaimed, not believing I had just heard what she said.

“He did! Any time I made anything, he made fun of it.”

It was the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, always a hard day for me. And now she was remembering him with a lie.

“He did no such thing. He was always proud of everything you did.”

She grumbled under her breath and nothing more was said.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Lying is the worst,” I’ve always said to our children. “Don’t lie to me or to your Papa. We will always tell you the truth. Even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable. We expect the same courtesy from you. If you lie to us, that is worse than anything else you could possibly do. A lie is a betrayal of self and of our ties as a family.”

I try, really hard, to make sure they don’t lie. But, I know they do. It’s in our nature as humans to lie in order to cover our butts.

Did you practice piano? SURE!

Mom face activated. Teenager skulks into the living room and actually practices.

Did you do your homework? UH-HUH!

Mom face re-activated. Pre-teen heavily sighs, picks up his backpack and pulls out his homework folder.

Honestly, though, those lies don’t bother me. It’s the big ones that would kill me. If they ever lied about loving me, I would die, and I know I feel that way because of the lies of my childhood.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I looked into the stands. I stood in the center of the football field, my last band festival as a senior and as drum major. I could see my mother and my father, but not my grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. We were in Lewisburg, at the local high school, where they all lived. But, none of them were there.

As usual.

You chalked it up to none of them liking us, especially me. I got it. I was the weird grandkid. The odd niece. The strange cousin. I was used to it. But it still hurt.

Later, though, I found out that no one was there because you never told them about it. For six years, they asked and you never responded, never let them know. They never saw me out in the middle of the football field. They never witnessed me win a trophy, salute the crowd, or conduct until my arms ached. You purposefully lied to them and removed them from my life. I still can’t discern the reason for it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gaslighting is a term I didn’t hear until I was an adult. According to Psychology Today,

Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.

Gaslighting is lying. It is projecting. It wears you down. It confuses you. It makes you dependent. It makes you feel crazy. It’s manipulation. It’s abuse.

In the above quote, it talks about cult leaders using gaslighting and I remember last year telling Tyler, “I’ve been a member of the Cult of Mom my entire life.” The cognitive dissonance was strong and I had a horrible time reconciling my experiences to what was actually true. I don’t like to throw around PTSD because there are so many people out there who suffer from awful forms of PTSD. Soldiers, physical abuse victims, victims of violent crime, those are the people who have PTSD. But I’ve discovered that my depression and anxiety are milder symptoms of PTSD. Those are my reactions to having been gaslit my whole life. I always wondered why a ringing phone sent me into a state of panic, why an authority figure in my life wanting to talk to me freaked me out, why I was constantly negative about myself and didn’t feel worthy of love or good things.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, but surely, I’m healing. I don’t expect it to happen overnight. It’s been over a year and I realize that I may never be “over” any of it. I’ll just be able to deal with it in a more healthy manner. There are still moments that will make me pause. Like last night, watching a woman out to eat with her mother, having easy conversation and enjoying each other’s company. I know I’ll never have that, and that’s OK. But it still makes me stop, think, remember, mourn, and move on. Each and every time.

My whole life, I lived on the 13th floor. Instinctually, I knew it was the 13th. I could count. But the most important person in my life kept telling me it was the 14th floor. And I gave her the benefit of the doubt. But not any more. I know it was the 13th. I’m proclaiming it was the 13th. She can stay on the 14th floor without me. I’m done.

Cognitive Dissonance, Eggshells, and Guilt

I don’t talk about Mom a lot online. Last year, I posted that we were no longer in contact and I’ve reached out to a few mutual friends to help me keep an eye on her simply because she’s no spring chicken. But, other than that, unless you’re a close friend who I talk to on a regular basis, I’ve been radio-silent.

I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

I’ve spent the last 13 months reading books about borderline personality disorder, subscribing to Facebook and Reddit groups that allow for safe spaces to post about borderline parents, and going to therapy. Well, scratch that. Therapy only lasted six months because my therapist started talking about reconciliation and Christian resource books and talking to my mother again and I tried to put the kibosh on that but she kept saying those words and so I canceled my next appointment and never went back. Yes, I ghosted my therapist. I figured it was for the best. And I’ve been too lazy, and frankly a little scared, to look for another one.

Reconciliation is a no-go for me as there is nothing to reconcile. Living with someone who has borderline personality disorder is about setting boundaries and keeping those boundaries in place. Except, like a toddler, the person with BPD will constantly push those boundaries and you, the loved one, will spend your life walking on eggshells. As reddit user u/NothingIsEverEnough succinctly stated, One book says “stop walking on eggshells”, I immediately called bullshit on it. The book teaches you how to walk on eggshells with lesser damage, but you will walk on eggshells as long as you’re in the relationship.

I’ve walked on eggshells for over four decades and I’m done, ya’ll.

So, instead of therapy, I call Toni, talk to Jodi over our property line, text Stefanie, and drink more coffee.

Yes, Heather, you made the right decision. Toni tells me.
Your mom pinned something on Pinterest, so she’s still alive. Jodi informs me.
I got your back. Just let me know who I need to cut. Stefanie says.
You are amazing and you are so smart and beautiful and talented. Everything you do and say is brilliant and I love you. Coffee will whisper to me.

I know that coffee is lying but three outta four ain’t bad.

I have a notebook that I bought last year that I use as a silent therapist. In it are neatly written pages of memories of my mother’s lies and mental illness. It’s probably not healthy to have it, but whenever I think, Maybe I’m being too harsh. I just need to call her and apologize and not leave her by herself, I just pick up that notebook and re-read it and remember why I have established this No Contact  boundary and why that needs to remain the status quo. I also read it to remind myself that I have borderline personality tendencies and that I need to fight that and not react as a person with BPD would react. Any time I find myself overthinking a situation, misreading a social cue, or worse, splitting, I pick up that notebook to stop it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky nailed it when he said, “I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.”

My goal is to, someday, burn that book and the memories written in it. But not today. Today, I need it.

I guess, through all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is that I’m going to have blog posts that seem to start in the middle of a discussion, that tell a story halfway through. And those are the posts where I’m working through my relationship with my mother, myself, and our shared mental illness. If you don’t want to read those, I totally get it. If you read and have nothing to add, that’s fine. If you read and decide that you have words of wisdom to share with me, by all means do so. I just need a safe space, outside of my notebook to share my life with my mother. I hope you all understand.