The Language of Flowers

Self-therapy has been… interesting. Since ditching my therapist several years ago and going it on my own, I’ve tried different things. Reading, posting, and commenting on subreddits that have to do with borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and emotional incest. I keep a rather extensive journal that grows weekly, sometimes daily. I try to read books, articles, and papers on the above topics. It’s a lot. But it’s helping me work though my cognitive dissonance, anger, sadness, confusion, and frustration without vomiting it all over my loved ones. Oh, and? As you guys have read, I blog.

A little over two years ago, I got my one and only tattoo. It’s a Queen Anne’s lace blossom with words from my father’s last letter to me. Queen Anne’s lace grows rampant on my grandparents’ farm in Lewisburg and, I later found out, it represents sanctuary.

Yes, flowers have a language.

Back before texting, emails, phone calls, and letters, if you wanted to communicate with someone without letting the entire town know what you were thinking, you would communicate with flowers. Clearly, yes, I’ve read WAY too many Regency-era romance novels. But I LOVE the fact that one could reply to a proposal of marriage with either a bouquet of apple blossoms — I prefer you before all — or yellow carnations — disdain! With this interest of mine, I decided to combine the language of flowers with a bit of self-therapy.

My mother isn’t getting any younger. Someday, sooner rather than later, she will be gone from this Earth. But, since we no longer have contact with one another, I have no clue what her end-of-life plans are. I don’t know who she will leave her belongings to, which person in her life will take care of her final wishes, or if I will even be alerted that she’s gone. No clue. And, honestly? I’m at peace with that. When my Aunt Allegra passed away three years ago, I was a basket case. The separation from my mother was fresh and Aunt Allegra and Mom had been close at one time. As I mourned my aunt, I also mourned my mother.

Even though I have no idea of my mother’s final plans, I’ve tried to imagine what I would do if, or when, I receive a phone call, “Your mother is gone. What’s next?” I haven’t answered all of those questions, but I think I’ve figured out the flowers, thanks to those pesky Victorians and their need for subtle communication.

It was not easy finding all of these flowers. Honestly, I scoured the local craft stores and then ended up ordering most of these online because, sadly, Michael’s doesn’t really carry lots of bittersweet. Not only that, but I’m not the best “floral arranger.” I’m kind of bad at it. But, hey, this isn’t art, it’s therapy.

I’m sure you’re wondering, “Heather! What are these flowers — and garlic — and what do they mean?” Well, from the top, and left to right, here you go:

Striped carnation – No
Bittersweet – Truth
Christmas rose – Tranquilize my anxiety
Azalea – Take care of yourself
Red Rose – Love
Sweet pea – Goodbye
Lavender Heather – Solitude
Forget-me-not – Memories
Queen Anne’s lace – Sanctuary
White rosebuds – Girlhood
White Heather – Protection
Cattails – Peace
Garlic – Courage and strength

That’s a lot, I know. But, essentially, these flowers form a letter, a message, that I wish I could tell my mother, that she would hear and understand, and get.

Mom,
I love you. I never stopped loving you. But, I needed to begin taking care of myself and I had to protect myself from your mental illness. It took a lot of courage and strength for me to step away from you and live my life on a separate path. As a young girl, I needed love, sanctuary, and truth. I know you loved me, in your own way. But it wasn’t a healthy love. And that love came at a price — my safe space came with lies. My memories are a dichotomy of happiness and anger, love and hate, truth and lies. Oh, so many lies. And now that I’m grown, I’ve had to reconcile the actual truth with your truth. I get now why my life has always been full of anxiety. But now, I am taking care of myself, I am at peace with my decision, and my mind is calm. I have found my sanctuary. I have both good and bad memories of you. The good memories give me happiness and the bad memories help me understand how not to be to those around me. I hope in your life without me that you are taking care of yourself, that you have peace, that you have good memories, and that you have love.

Goodbye,

Heather

And so, here is the finished bouquet. That floral letter to my mother that I will someday leave on her final resting place. But, for now, I will look at it each day and remember why she is no longer in my life.

Home*

This is going to be a really heavy post. It may have to be a two-parter. Or a several-parter. I don’t know. We’ll just see how it goes.

I’ve done quite a lot of navel-gazing these last three-and-a-half years. It’s not hard when there’s a pandemic, the kids are at school 40 hours a week, and all the house chores are finished. When I cut off contact with my mother, it felt like a death and the first thing I did was make an appointment with a therapist and begin counseling. My old therapist had taken a leave from work due to health reasons and she suggested someone new. Michelle was nice, effusive, and helpful, but then after six months, she uttered the words I did not want to hear.

“Someday, when you re-establish a relationship with your mother…”

You know, how when you watch Scooby-Doo, and Scoobs and Shaggy are running away from the scary ghost or monster, and they start backpedaling, and their legs just turn into blurry circles? My brain was doing that. That simple phrase absolutely terrified me. I felt so healthy, so happy, so relieved to be away from her and now? Now I was supposed to someday talk to her again? Have my boundaries violated again? Feeling less than worthy again? Being used again?

I’m not proud to say it, but I ghosted my therapist and haven’t returned to her since. Or sought any other therapist in the intervening years. Instead, I read. Write. Watch. Absorb.

I found communities online where others went through similar experiences with their parents. I began reading books about parents with borderline personality disorder. And I kept a journal where I would write down what I had learned while also trying to put memories on paper to remind myself, “This is why I no longer talk to Mom. This is why I need to be a separate entity from her.” I wanted to understand myself and her. Why this happened. And try to be self-aware enough that I don’t repeat the “sins of the mother.”

Through all of my reading, something interesting happened about six months ago. While reading yet another post in a borderline personality disorder subreddit where the OP lamented the horrible relationship they had with their mother, they used the term “emotional incest.”

Lord Jesus. Here I am, a native West Virginian who staves off jokes of being married to a cousin by jokingly telling people, “I’m from West Virginia and I did NOT meet my husband at a family reunion,” and I find out I may have been a victim of emotional, or covert, incest.

IN.CEST. Y’all.

*Sigh*

In the simplest of terms, emotional incest is when a parent uses one of their children as an emotional spouse. There is no physical relationship. No actual sex or rape or molestation. It’s all emotional. Mental. The parent “parentifies” their child. They expect their child to provide them with the emotional support a spouse would normally give. The more I began to read up on emotional and covert incest, the more I realized that I wasn’t just my mother’s daughter. I was my mother’s completely and utterly enmeshed spouse. For well over 40 years.

It’s really hard to wrap my head around. This little-talked about type of emotional abuse is damaging to a child and when I started learning more about it, I realized that ohmygodthey’retalkingaboutme. The invasive parent in this type of relationship is enmeshed with their child in order to meet their own needs that are not being met in their adult relationship. Meanwhile, the child is often treated as “all good” and is favored to the exclusion of other children or, in my case, the other spouse. The needs of the child to develop as an individual, to make mistakes, to receive structure and discipline, are neglected because, surprise surprise, it’s all about the parent here. I’m supposed to make her happy not the other way around. As the invasive parent turns to the child for their emotional needs, the left-out spouse is shut out of this exclusive bond and may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms (in my dad’s case… FOOD) in order to deal with his or her unhappy home life.

Yeah. It’s a lot to take in.

And then? I started reading up on the behavioral signs that could point to someone having been a victim of this type of abuse.

People-pleaser (Oh. All day. Every day.)
A need to be invisible (I HATE. DESPISE. Talking about myself. I don’t like “tooting” my own horn. I hate writing this fucking post, tbh.)
Self-advocacy is nonexistent (Yep yep. Don’t like asking for stuff.)
Difficulty understanding and finding yourself (This. ALL of this.)
Inability to share authentic feelings with others (If I share my true feelings with you, you’ll turn on me like Mom did.)
Can’t say no (See number one.)
A reduced sense of significance (I don’t matter because I never mattered. Only she mattered.)
Very judgmental of others (I won’t say it to your face, but I’m judging you. Because I had to judge her and her moods and make sure she was always happy. And I hate that about myself.)
Attracted on some level to narcissistic people (I have a trail of narcissistic people who used to be friends but I gradually became self-aware of them and quietly said good-bye.)
An unrealistic view of what a family should look like (It’s taken me 26 years to figure out what a family is supposed to be. Thank goodness they all stuck around long enough.)
Anger and rage toward the enmeshed parent (I can’t even describe in simple words my incandescent rage toward her that I have kept bottled up inside otherwise for many years. If quiet rage was punishable, I’d be in prison.)

Yep. I just ticked right on down that list. Every. Single. One.

When your mother tells you, as a teenager, that she hasn’t had sex with your father since 1982…
When your mother tells you, as a kid, that her father abused her, sexually propositioned her, that she married your father to get away from her family…
When you later discover that those are all lies and that she’s told you all of that so that she guarantees she’s the only person left in your life and you have no choice BUT to turn to her for emotional support…When your mother expects you to call her, every day, without fail, and is cold to you when you don’t…
When your mother bitches to you about anything and everything your father does, no matter how big or small, and makes fun of what he does and who he is…
When she wants to be included in everything you do and say with your friends…
When she gets offended that you don’t like the same things she likes…
When she makes you feel guilty for taking time to yourself, even if it’s a one hour nap, and yet berates you for not spending enough time away from your husband and children to be with her…

I could go on and on and on. But I think I’m probably boring you with the details.

On the flip side of all of this is my father. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m now pretty pissed with him. Why didn’t he stand up for me? Why didn’t he tell his wife, “Hey, this is wrong!” I realize that he, too, was pretty damaged, but dammit it’s been 24 year since he died and I’m angry. And I can’t yell at him. And I’m feeling guilty because I’m feeling angry.

I don’t know why my mother was like this. Was it her own mother? Was it environment? DNA? Was it a random aberration? Like, she was raised just fine and turned out this way just because? Was she enmeshed with her mom because her mom was enmeshed with her mom… because some great-great-greatx10 grandmother started the whole generational shit show? Did Mom marry my dad on a whim, figured out she didn’t love him, and took the chickenshit way out by enmeshing me instead of divorcing him? I don’t know. And I refuse to get the solid answers I need because it would mean talking to her. And I will not sacrifice my well-being in order to do that.

One of the many videos I’ve watched from licensed therapists who talk about this condition mentioned that in order to repair the damage done by emotional incest, one must establish boundaries, advocate for yourself, parent your children the opposite way you were parented, yada, yada. But one item on the list is, “Talk about it and share your story.”

So. Here I am. Sharing it.

Hi. My name is Heather and I was a victim of emotional incest.

*The title of this post is taken from the title of the titular X-Files episode “Home” where Mulder and Scully discover the Peacock family who practice extreme inbreeding. I don’t know. I love the X-Files and I thought, “Why not name this post after an episode that involves incest?” My brain isn’t right, y’all.

When I Die…*

… don’t put me in a box.

Definitely don’t leave me out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the occasional funeral director and bird for company.

And please, don’t ever come visit me. You have a life to live. People to love. Desires to fulfill.

Don’t remember me by driving by my cemetery and guiltily thinking, “Oh, yeah. I haven’t taken flowers to Heather. I need to do that,” and then promptly forgetting as your brain fills with that day’s to do list.

What I don’t want you to do is contribute to a death industry that’s more retail than respect. Don’t waste money on a coffin that’s just going to dent in as soon as the first shovel-full of dirt is heaped on it. Don’t stare at an urn on a shelf that is never dusted because it creeps you out. Don’t stick a bunch of roses in the ground that will just wilt by day’s end. And definitely DO NOT waste good money on “perpetual care.”

Don’t you dare save my phone number in your contacts list. What’s the point? I’m not going to pick up when you call and eventually, the mailbox will just get full. Don’t text me, either. That’s just creepy as fuck.

Don’t keep me on your social media “friends” list. Really. Not like I’m going to be ranting about the latest political nonsense when I’m gone. I’ll have more important things to worry about. Like, galaxies, my next life, how to walk through walls. If you stay connected with me on social media, then you’ll feel obligated to post there on my birthday, deathday, and any time you see the color purple pop up in your life. That’s just too damned much commitment.

Here’s what you need to do, instead.

Go pour yourself a cup of dark roast coffee with lots of sweetener and half-and-half. And if you hate coffee, that’s fine. Just hold the mug and warm up your hands.

Turn on the television and watch a TV show about serial killers. Or, just have it turned on for background noise.

Plant some flowers in your front yard. I don’t care what color. Just water them when it’s hot and throw some MiracleGro on that shit every two weeks and it will look a. mazing.

Listen to some loud, alternative 80s music in your car. I don’t care if you like it or not. Just turn that shit up and let the Depeche Mode wash over you.

Read a ghost story or ten. And if that creeps you out, read it in broad daylight.

Kiss your child on the forehead and give them a hug. And while you do it, awkwardly sniff their head. Because it’s your job to embarrass them.

Wear something purple. And if you’re a guy worried about your masculinity, then make sure said purple is lavender.

Decorate your home with pictures of your loved ones. No, that doesn’t include George Clooney or Kim Kardashian. Yes, that includes Henry Cavill.

Embrace the awesomeness of Halloween. Eat a piece of candy or wear a Michael Myers mask or hang up a black and orange wreath. I don’t care. Just keep that spookiness in your heart year-round.

Eat a huge hunk of chocolate. Like the size of your head huge.

Donate to a homeless shelter. Or pass out underwear and socks to unsheltered homeless. Tell them that you care about them and that they matter.

Pay for a child’s school lunch. Because you know there are kids out there who are hungry and that shit isn’t right.

Cheer on a marching band at a football game. Because they go out there and give it their all with minimal recognition. It will make their day if you stand up and holler like a blithering idiot.

Give the gift of creativity to someone in your life who loves to draw/sew/paint/sculpt/play music. Seriously. Randomly show up at your friend’s house with a fistful of paint brushes. They will go ape shit.

Sit in a sunbeam. Take a nap while you do it. You’ll thank me for it.

Go love on your cat or dog. Tell them they’re a good boy/girl. Because they are.

Curl up under a blanket and re-read your favorite book for the 90th time. Books are our friends and it’s OK to revisit an old friend.

Sit on the beach and listen to the waves. Turn the radio off. Why on earth would you listen to music at the beach? The only music you need is the water. And have a beer while you’re doing it. Corona Light with a lime wedge. And bury your feet in the sand. And apply sunscreen early and often.

Watch the rain and listen to the thunder and wait patiently for the sun to return. Because you need the rainy days to appreciate the sunny ones.

Go running. The distance doesn’t matter. Three feet or three miles. Just get your heart rate up.

Do one or more of those things. THOSE are the moments when you will feel close to me again. Otherwise? You’re just wasting your time.

* No, I’m not dying. Well, not today anyway. I’m still alive and kicking and not sick. It’s just that this last year has me thinking rather morbidly and I just had to light a candle for an old friend who has been taken off life support thanks to COVID-19. I feel like I needed to get this out there. Thanks for reading.

Déjà Poo

Maggie’s face says it all.

I fell asleep last night before midnight. I can remember a time when it was imperative that I stay up all night to ring in the new year. Now?

I couldn’t care less.

My soul is tired, y’all.

I know, I know. Someone out there is going to start gesturing at their computer screens and shouting, “But you’re an atheist! How can you believe you have a soul?”

It’s a figure of speech, OK? My soul, personality, emotions, core of my being, heart, prefrontal cortex, just… whatever, alright? It’s all fucking exhausted.

While the world shouts, “FUCK OFF, 2020!” I keep wondering, “What’s going to be so great about 2021?” There’s still a pandemic. Vaccines aren’t being administered as quickly as they should. There are still assholes refusing to wear masks and gathering in large groups putting the rest of us at risk and whining about vaccines being a government plot to track us with RFID chips all while watching flat-earth videos on their iPhones that alert cell towers as to their exact locations at all hours of the day and night. Politicians are still in the game of running the show not because they want to make the world a better place but because they like the attention and power. Left or right? Liberal or conservative? Centrist or extreme? What does it matter? The people who should be running the show are too smart to be politicians. We’re all still at home and going to be for the foreseeable future. There’s no change, all monotony, no inspiration. Eating is a chore and so is showering, writing, taekwondo, cross-stitching, playing the piano… all of it.

By staying in place, not moving, I have lost my way.

I take anti-depressants and if it wasn’t for my daily dose of Zoloft, I would probably be a nervous wreck, shivering in a corner and lashing out at my loved ones. As it is, I’m pleasant on the outside and slowly withering away on the inside.

I’m so very sad. Just… indescribably sad. I’m trying really hard to keep it together for my family. My friends. To just be a person who isn’t a raging basket case. But I’m exhausted by nothing changing and everything changing.

Three of my favorite people are gone. Forever. Each time I step outside my house I feel like people are meaner. Nastier. Because of that, I don’t want to leave. But if I don’t get out of this house soon, I may just go crazy.

My life is like constantly-flipping coin. Heads or tails? Tails or heads? I don’t know.

I’ll probably re-organize my office. Buy a new comforter. Try reading a new book. Binge watch another TV show on Netflix. But I know that deep down, those are just temporary fixes. For me, I feel like 2021 is going to be just a repeat of 2020.

And I’m pretty devastated just thinking about it.

Entropy

Charley has been gone for over 28 days. The last time I saw him, hugged him, kissed him, called him “Chuck” was 45 days ago. One week ago yesterday, I drove to Dahlonega to pick up his ashes from the funeral home. No one was there–they were out on a pick-up call–and I had several hours to waste. Tyler encouraged me to drive to Alpenrose, Betty’s and Charley’s house, in Suches and pick up a few things.

I wasn’t ready.

The last time I was alone at that house was July, 2005. I was pregnant with the twins and on limited physical activity. Tyler was going out of town and didn’t want me to be home alone, so he drove me up to the mountains. One morning during my stay, Betty and Charley drove Betty’s mother to Atlanta for a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t tell Betty this at the time, but I spent most of the day driving pell-mell all over those 28-acres on a John Deere Gator. It was sprinkling rain and the power was out thanks to a tropical storm that had moved through the area the night before. I didn’t have anything else to do–no cable, no internet, no power–and I figured limited physical activity included sitting in a Gator and pushing the gas pedal. Of course, when they returned that evening, I was sitting on the couch, “reading” a book, acting like I’d had a boring day at home.

This time, though, they weren’t coming back.

I walked in to this silent, still house. Normally, Betty is at the door, arms open wide, smile even wider, Charley a few feet behind with a welcome grin on his face. This time, the only thing that greeted me was the wind chimes on the back deck, tolling a mournful song each time the wind blew. I slowly started upstairs, making my way to the room where Charley painted, and couldn’t make it. I sat down several steps from the top and just lost it. I joined in on whatever song the wind chimes had composed.

~~~

Entropy, first defined in the 19th century by German physicist Rudolph Clausius, comes from the Greek word for transformation and it is central to the second law of thermodynamics. At its most basic, entropy can be described as the natural tendency of all systems to evolve towards ever-increasing disorder. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Simply put, it’s transformed. But, the quality of the energy decreases and that’s where the second law of thermodynamics comes in to play. It states that as the energy is transformed, more of it is wasted each time. It also states that it’s the natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.

I don’t know what the hell is more disordered than two people you dearly love dying within three weeks of one another.

~~~

After I pulled myself together, I walked into Charley’s art room and took in the chaos around me. Charley’s outlet was oil painting and he could transform a canvas into a gorgeous landscape. The room was covered in oil paintings. Canvases everywhere, full of flowers, waterfalls, trees, landscapes, beaches… you name it. The painting I was there to retrieve was an extremely large canvas depicting the Nā Pali coast of Kaua’i, Hawai’i, for Tyler and I. Charley had never finished it and seeing it there, on his easel, it perfectly depicted a life interrupted. Entropy. Tyler and I had mentioned to our friend, John, that there might be a painting we would want him to finish. But looking at it on that Monday, I wondered if we should just leave it alone. Hang it, unfinished. Or, destroy it. Convert that energy to something else.

~~~

No matter how many people were in the house in Suches, it held laughter. Betty’s loud, boisterous laughs. Charley’s low chuckles. The various high and low, fast and slow titters of whatever family and friends were visiting. It always made me happy, being in that house. Because I was always surrounded by love. With such an uncertain standing in my own family, the mountain home of Betty and Charley Dobson was my safe haven. I could hike the Appalachian Trail, sit at the foot of waterfalls, walk through rhododendron forests, or sit on a thick bed of moss and just listen. And, when I was done recharging, I could walk through the front doors and be unconditionally loved for who I was and am. There were no lies in Suches. No subterfuge. Just pure acceptance.

~~~

The living room was full of boxes, overflowing with photo albums, tchotchkes, books, and what-not. Several years ago, when Betty and her siblings moved their mother to a care home in South Georgia, they emptied her house of her belongings, trying to decide what should go, stay, or be passed on. There had been some minor family strife over it and I remember saying to Betty, “I don’t want anything when you are gone. Because the only thing I’m going to want is you. And I can’t have you. So, I don’t want anything.” I still feel that way. As I walked past those boxes, knowing that the closets of this home were still stuffed full of tangible things, I shook my head at them. I gathered up a few pictures of my three children and saw, sitting off to the side, a set of glass mixing bowls I had bought Betty this past May for Mother’s Day. I cried again and decided to take those. They couldn’t bring Betty back, but maybe they could bring me a smidge closer to her.

~~~

The morning after Charley died, when Tyler returned home, he sat down next to me and told me everything. I held it all in pretty well. I had told the kids and already shed a few tears, but I was doing OK. And then? Tyler handed them to me.

Charley’s old slide rules.

Back before the advent of calculators, slide rules were used by physicists and mathematicians to make complicated calculations. And these slide rules had been used by Charley throughout his high school years, while studying physics at Georgia Tech and when he taught physics at a local college. The slide rules are worn, well-used, and I pretty much lost it. For a physicist, the slide rule was more important than any other tool. Those objects radiated his energy. For a moment, there was no entropy. It was just me and my Chuck.

~~~

I had always told Tyler, “Hey. Many years from now, when you inherit that property, if we end up living there, I’m cool with that. Just give me my DirecTV, decent Internet, and a free weekend each month to go hang with friends, and I can live there.”

Now? That’s happened and far too soon. As I stood in that empty house, full of furniture and memories, silent, with no Betty or Charley to give me their love and support, wisdom and advice, I couldn’t stay any longer. I felt like an interloper. I felt like there was no way I could live up to what they had created. I don’t know what will happen to Alpenrose. But right now? It hurts too much to be there. I drove back down the mountain to Dahlonega, walked in to the funeral home, and cradled the second box full of ashes in as many months. I drove all the way home with my hand on the top of what was left of my dear father-in-law and talked to him.  As the years went by after my father’s and uncle’s deaths, it bothered me more and more that the three months before their ashes were buried, they were hidden behind a door. Charley and Betty are on our side table, in the family room, right in the middle of the most active part of our house, a part of our family until they are scattered in accordance with their wishes. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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.