Posted in Lanscape of Loss

The Blanket

“Not to take one’s own suffering seriously, to make light of it, or even laugh at it, is considered good manners in our culture… Many people are proud of their lack of sensitivity toward their own fate and above all their own childhood.”
~Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge

visipix.com

I lost my parents when I was 19. It wasn’t a car accident or a plane crash, it was a divorce.

That year psychology was my major, and so I researched the effect of divorce on children. This was a relatively new field in the early 80’s; and when I presented my findings to my sophomore class, I repeated what I had read (instead of what I felt): Older children cope well with divorce.

Since I’d long relied upon my thoughts, instead of feelings, I stuffed my feelings and put my focus on my younger siblings, becoming the guardian of what remained of our family: our history, our traditions, our memories.

My parents moved on–turning their backs on what came before and reinvesting their lives in new relationships–new loves, new family.

My siblings and I were left in a No Man’s Land, highlighted on that first Easter Sunday after the divorce; when each parent thought the other planned to have the kids for dinner (or perhaps didn’t think of us at all.)

We did the divorce-kid shuffle that morning: waking at Mom’s for an Easter Egg hunt and then heading over to Dad’s for a late brunch. Fortunately for them, I did all the driving; so they could avoid any future contact.

In the afternoon, our father quickly ushered us out so that he could rush over to his prospective in-laws for dinner.  We arrived back at home to a surprisingly empty house.

There was no ham in the oven, no Parker rolls, no applesauce with cinnamon, no mash potatoes and peas (that our father had always forced us to combine.)

We had been forgotten–all six of us.

I searched the refrigerator and cupboards for something to approximate an Easter dinner, but came up empty.

The “babies” (who were now actually preschoolers) searched the house for “Mommy,” while the middle two fought over candy. My second-in-command, at the tender age of 16, offered to shoot us all with the toy gun she held pointed at her heart.

I awkwardly called my mother at her future in-laws house, and she quickly abandoned her dinner there, arriving home with a box of frozen chicken from the convenience store.

Things didn’t go well for my mother in her second marriage. Her husband, twenty years her junior, was unfaithful, and she became the parent of two more children in her forties.

Our father, fared better, at least on the outside. He fell in love with a tall, attractive OR nurse (he was a surgeon), and began the jet set life he had never embraced with our petite, down-to-earth mother.

Right away, however, there were fireworks between our father’s girlfriend and his oldest daughters. Once engaged, however, she vowed that she would never let any of us come between them.

These plans were foiled when our own mother began drinking, and the youngest four children moved into my father’s condo, making him a full-time parent instead of an occasional weekend one.  Soon after his wedding, a mansion was built by the bay, and our younger siblings were swallowed up into a new life without the rest of us.

With the family fabric further frayed, I took on the crusade of knitting us back together with great odds–two different households, myself off at school, and the second-in-charge, married, and expecting her own child after two weeks at college.

I did not grasp the concept of “Alpha Female”at the time, but my stepmother meant to keep us apart:

We were to knock before entering “her” home.

We were not to arrive there with friends, uninvited.

We were not included in special family celebrations–our father’s birthday for instance.

We were no longer asked along on family vacations.

There was no room set aside for us in the new house, not a bed, or any form of welcome, not even a photo on the wall.

And we no longer enjoyed free reign over our youngest siblings who we had practically raised, and who had suddenly become exclusively hers. We would need to make an appointment to “have” them for an outing, scheduled well in advance, subject to gross delays and sudden, heart-breaking, cancellations.

Finally, she made it clear that she saw no need for our younger sisters to spend time with what she dismissed as their “half” siblings; and she dismissed all of our efforts to spend time together.

A decade of anguish ensued as I watched everything I knew and loved slip from my hands. My mother, hardly able to hold together the new life she had created, was reluctant to insist on visitation; and in her self-pity preferred to let her daughters enjoy their new, “richer,” lives in coordinating Gap outfits and matching pigtails.

For my father’s part, it seemed to pain him to recall his life with us.  In some corrupted way, we were held accountable for our mother’s shameless relationship with a younger man, and for the new half-siblings we adored, but were supposed to eschew.

He would often explain that we represented the children his new wife would never have with him, and thus our very existence was a source of anguish and pain.

Occasionally, the man who was once our father lavished fatherly affection on us for a single bright moment; but it was always followed by an awkwardness, as if he was embarrassed to love us in the presence of his wife–as if we were his ex-es instead of his daughters.

Once I was married myself, my stepmother refused to accept that I maintained my family name. Maybe she didn’t want to share it with me. I always thought it would have made more sense for my father to have shared hers. He had so little to do with us after the divorce–always following her lead and enjoying life’s special occasions with her family and friends.

To his credit, he did try to include us now and then. “Why don’t you join us,” he’d say, off-handedly, as if he remembered that we had once been connected. Frequently this invitation would be silently rebuked by our stepmother, and we could tell we shouldn’t accept although we felt unable to say why for fear of further alienated ourselves.  Other times, she would be openly rescind the invitation;  and on some occasions, we’d arrive on time, to find that we had been left behind or forgotten altogether.

For years, it was impossible to reach the man who had been our father. Letters or presents sent were never received, and he was rarely available to come to the phone. She would answer and we could never quite figure how to circumvent her. He was busy. They had important, prestigious lives. We were a distraction, an annoyance, a bother. What did we want?

It’s pathetic to admit, but during those years we formed an underground hotline on the man who had been our father. If one of us were to discover him alone, either by phone or in person, we would notify the others immediately, so that they too could grasp at his attention.

“Hey, she’s at the mall for the day,” we’d whisper to each other on the phone, or “She’s at the gym for the morning.” or “Dad’s here at the office, alone!”

A protective layer of scar tissue has formed since this god-awful time two decades ago, but I still feel the pain of my parents divorce and the loss of our family.

It’s as if we were once held in a beautiful blanket, with each parent holding two corners, only to be carelessly dropped. There has been healing for me–for all of us–for sure, but our bottoms are still sore from that fall

We’ve each woven new blankets, my siblings and I–with each other, as we gathered around our mother as she died, and within our own families, who themselves have suffered some of the ravages of infidelity and separation.

As adults, I think we each hold onto a little too tightly to our corners of love and responsibility, not wanting our children or lives to plummet to the ground like we did so long ago.

At forty years old, I’m ready to give it all up–all this tight holding. But I am afraid. If I let go, will we have ever existed?

Kelly Salasin, 2004

Posted in My Bonnie, Pure Love

Josie’s Gift

de la Tour, vispix.com

It seems unfathomable that ten years have passed without telling about the gift that made such a difference in the year I lost my mother. I must have made mention of it in some piece, but I cannot place it, and certainly it deserves its own work of attention, especially at the tenth anniversary.

That December I lived in a big drafty house atop a hill with a view of distant mountains, open to winds and the long dark nights of a New England winter.  It was the following year that I would have pneumonia; but it was this year that I clearly recall the chill–inside.

Of my seven siblings, only one lived nearby, while the others were strewn across the country from California to Florida to New Jersey. In the vacuum of loss, the separation was excruciating. Despite the presence of my newborn son, the anguish of missing my mother overtook me as I approached her Christmas birthday.

Michelle sent us each a glass globes with painted angels, nestled in felt boxes; and I mailed out collections of music to soothe our souls; but it was the gift that came from Josie that made all the difference.

Josie didn’t know my mother, and she hardly knew me. In fact, she was the bosom buddy of my stepmother who now had little to do with the 6 difficult daughters she inherited from my parents divorce–let alone the extraneous brother and sister who sprung from my mother’s “affair” and her second marriage.

There was hardly a time when we were all under one roof–it wasn’t tolerated–until the morning of my mother’s funeral.  Then all allegiances were set aside and the 8 of us became one.  To hell with step-parents and divorce and half-status siblings, we were all Bonnie’s children.

That Christmas, Josie sent gifts to each of our children, especially the new baby. I received a clothes line fashioned out of garland, lit up by lights, and adorned with outfits, and onesies, and blankets, and socks, and tiny bears of different colors.

But it was the set of candles and the brass candle snuffer, adorned with dangling glass beads, tucked into a crimson bag of satin that deeply touched my soul.  For I discovered that Josie had sent these to each of Bonnie’s children… like my mother would have done.

I watch the smoke spiral out of the brass cap in the hand of my baby who is now ten, begging for the pleasure of extinguishing each candle–in an act that rekindles  the exquisite blessing of Josie’s Gift.

Kelly Salasin, December 2010

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, My Bonnie

My Stupid Mother

I always forget that the fact that my mother is dead might upset me on Mothers Day.  At first, I have this guilty pleasure that I don’t have any responsibilities. (No cards to buy, no flowers to send, no calls to make.) Then I remember I have a stepmom and a mother-in-law, and the weight begins to shape, particularly as I consider myself as a mother too–How do I want to celebrate?  What if no one else does?  Should I plan something?  Should I give tips?  Hints?  Should I let it go?

I get pissed off when I click on a Facebook article, entitled, The Best Mothers Day Gift is a Mother, after I discover that it’s written by someone like me–without a mother–who makes everyone else feel bad because they don’t appreciate their own moms who are still around.

So with stinging tears, I decide to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, and encourage people to bash their mothers if it makes them feel better.

So even though my mother is dead and this is terribly taboo, I’ll jump first…

~

My mother was stupid.

She was also the kind of person that people came to with their problems. Her unique perspective softened any angst, opening hearts and minds to new possibilities.

Wise counsel was Bonnie’s gift of spirit–besides being a prolific child-bearer–9 children over twenty years.

How then could she be so stupid when it came to living her own life?

Bonnie found herself pregnant after a summer fling with a lifeguard. She painfully gave up her first-born to adoption, only to find herself pregnant again in less than a year–with me–followed by marriage to a really intense guy who was still in college, with years of schooling ahead of him.

She continued to have children while he made his way through his undergraduate degree (child #3), medical school (#4), his internship, and his residency (#5.) We survived on cases of hospital Similac. My mother chose something stronger.

I was in the fifth grade when the fighting began, and a year later, my father introduced me to something new, the term: Alcoholic. Another year and another move, and my mother rebounded–giving up the bottle for two more babies (#6 & 7.)

Her drinking slowly resurfaced around the time I went off to college. One of my high school buddies stayed behind and my mom and he fell in love and made another baby (#8.)

My parents divorced. My mother gave birth to her last child (#9) while her twenty-something husband began cheating on her. Her drinking spun out of control.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. My mother was the poster child.

Year after year, she watched as our lifestyles diminished, while our surgeon father’s exponentially expanded. “I should have just stayed with your father so that you girls would have what you deserve,” she’d say. (She never cared too much for things herself.)

I never accepted her apologies–doing so would mean opening up to all that was hurt and angry and sad inside of me; and I was afraid that she was too fragile for that.

When her drinking became a threat to the safety of the children, our family was torn apart.  The newest siblings (with their own father) stayed behind while the rest of my siblings went to live with my dad and his fiance. Sending your own children off to live with a man you can’t stand who is about to marry a 27-year-old who didn’t want to mother his cheating ex-wife’s 6 daughters was the height of my mother’s stupidity.

Macke/detail visipix.com

Later she died of cancer, at a very young age. 57. That was stupid too. Now there were all these wounded children who were orphaned.  Many of them claimed that I raised them. There are no words to explain how that  grieves me.

Bonnie has been dead for 8 years now, so I tell her to her face, with tears streaming down mine:

You were stupid, Mom! What were you thinking!”

She sits beside my writing desk as my muse.

Whenever she’d complain about all the demands on her, a handful of children closing in around her tiny frame, I’d say, “Why did you have all these children!”

But actually, she rarely complained. She just trudged along, offering wise counsel to anyone who needed it and making the most of the life she created–faults and all.

Ten years before she died, she gave up the bottle for AA, and so she spent the last years of her life, mostly alone, as she had always been, but sober, and profoundly present, and helping others in the program.

Despite the ravages of life around me, it was my her steady heart and soft spirit that sustained me, and sustains me still, through my own mistakes and stupidity.

She is and will always be, one of my greatest loves, stupidity and all.

Happy Mothers Day again, Mom.  You always said that once I had children of my own, it was “my” Mothers Day, but I can’t stop celebrating the gift of you!

(Kelly Salasin, 2008)

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, My Bonnie, Poetry

Love’s Hiding Place

In tippy-toed embraces

and

arched-neck kisses

I learned

about Love

from

my

Mommy

& Daddy


But

Love was Lost

when they Divorced

Turning Numb

and Cold

and Hiding its Face

among the stars


I never thought to

see Love again

Never wanted to


Yet to my unabashed

Surprise

It reappeared

Many years later

when I myself

was a Mommy

tippy-toe kissing a Dad


I found it

 

in the strangest place…

Hiding

in the

Spoon-Cuddling nap

of my Father

& stepMother


Who would have thought

that it’d be there

just waiting

for me

to notice…


As I grew older

Love was less shy

about showing itself to me:


Once

it was

so Bold

& Brazen

it made me cry,


As I watched my “stepFather”

hold my mother’s hand

while she died

Kelly Salasin