I’m home alone in the kitchen with the oven on and sipping my second cup of coffee while reading a book I picked up at the library yesterday -- Crazy in the Kitchen by Louise DeSalvo. While in the library I hurriedly grabbed several books without really reading the covers and not once glancing at the first pages like I normally do because my partner, Dan, was downstairs waiting for me. Of all the books I checked out, that one I thought was going to be the one for Dan because I just knew it must be written by a famous TV chef with loads of Italian recipes inside.
It was not at all that kind of book. Instead it is a memoir of sorts about a woman’s discovery of her family’s past and how it has shaped her into who she was at the time of the writing. It is a very hard read for me. Sometimes I read through tears. I even had to stop reading so I could coin my own sentences to make sense of my own family history and why I am today who I am.
But, I really don’t know who that is. Here’s what I do know. Like Louise DeSalvo the women in my family were abused verbally, sexually, and physically on my mother’s side. I don’t know much about my father’s side, and what little I do know about my mother’s is mostly violence, betrayal, and worthlessness. I had no idea how much of that I carried until a few years ago. I thought I had skipped the abuse that women in my family had experienced. I hadn’t been raped or beaten. I had a father who adored me, but I also have no memories until I was five and very few until I was in 6th grade.
Here’s what else I know: I was raised in an environment where it was okay for my brothers to belittle, disrespect, and treat a girl as worthless. And then there was my father who put me on a pedestal. I was raised in the south by a father who was around marginally because his job was to work to provide for his family. He did his job, and when he was at home he poured himself a drink before anything else. He put his head in a book or a newspaper crossword puzzle more than having a conversation. My father wanted to escape, and he taught me well. I read incessantly. I feel naked if there’s not a pile of books beside my bed. My father was a genius, a valedictorian in his high school class who won a four-year scholarship to Notre Dame, but only got to complete a few semesters before being drafted and heading into the midst of WWII.
My father never spoke a word of his time in the army. He wouldn’t eat chocolate because it was in his k-rations. He had his wool uniform, a German rifle with bayonet and Nazi flag with a bullet hole in it, a purple heart, his honorable discharge papers, and a book about his battalion. They were all out in the garage hidden away until my mother decided to clear out the clutter.
I really don’t know much about my parents’ past. I don’t know much about their parents’ lives. I did find out that my mother was an “oops” child and her siblings were many years older than her, but still young enough for her brother to abuse her, her Methodist minister father and his brothers to violently, verbally, emotionally, sexually, and physically abuse her and her sister. I know that her father had raped her older sister, but when my aunt was to testify against her father in court, she had already been removed from the county by the family. The father, my grandfather, went about his preaching and torturing instead of going to jail.
My mother ran away as a teenager, changed her name, and married thinking she would escape her father. That plan failed. He found her and beat her and took her back home. At one point he even tried to run her over with her car when she tried to escape his grasp. She told me how she rolled her body stiff as a sausage under the car so that the wheels wouldn’t hit her. I was a teenager in my bedroom doing my algebra at my desk, my mother on the floor with her legs curled up to her chin when she told me this story. She told me more like those as if she were telling me about a movie she’d just seen on TV.
I was raised by a very strong, courageous woman who had no self-worth. She could fight any hidden dragon for her children, but wouldn’t lift a hand to defend herself. This, she taught me well.
I have a daughter, a very strong, courageous woman who has been handed down a legacy of women struggling with their own self-worth. I hate that. I despise that. I feel it in me erupting like spewing lava, hot and intense. It is a black, dirty and sometimes horrifying darkness that I have buried deep within that is no longer willing to stay put, and unfortunately I have taught her well.
We live many states away from each other, but after talking to her on the phone yesterday and hearing what she’s been struggling with, I realized again how similar our journeys are still. When I think of her I feel this enormous strength build up in me to do whatever it takes to break the cycle we women have been perpetuating. When I was 21 years old, I dove easily into a marriage where the husband’s happiness was everything. It wasn’t until decades into the marriage that I was asked what I wanted, what would make me happy. I was stumped. I had never once asked myself that, and the person asking that time was my builder wondering if I wanted ceramic tile or granite for a kitchen backsplash. It altered my thinking so much that eventually I could no longer stay in a marriage where I didn’t matter.
Even though I’ve been on my own for years now, I still feel like an infant in the world. I still imagine and re-imagine how to configure myself, my thoughts, and how I show up. I find myself going deep into the muck, where the thoughts are so shitty that I can’t even speak. I feel the generations of self-loathing spiral up and out, and after each infiltration into the darkness I emerge quite a bit cleaner and clearer. But the muck is expensive. It costs a lot to carry such venom within. It’s so heavy I become immobile. I retreat so I don’t infect anyone else. And, finally when I emerge I feel as if I’m a phoenix rising out of the ashes.
I had just emerged from one of those times the day I called my daughter, returning her call. She, too, had had similar experiences. I trust that hers are lighter than mine because she’s who she is, because she’s more in tuned, more conscious, and more flexible. But, mostly I believe that because I want to. I have to. The thought of my daughter going through what I put myself through is almost more than I can handle. The tiger within me stretches to heights high enough to destroy anything that keeps her from being her magnificent self.
However, yesterday she admitted (as she has before – she is this smart!) that her difficulties lie within herself. Oh, fuck it to hell… Our problems, the women’s legacy of self-unworthiness, is a fuckin’ inside job. It’s not about money, colleagues, work, relationships with others, where we live, or anything but how we think. She said that she’d told her fiancé that she wanted to leave, go somewhere else, but she couldn’t leave those who count on her. And besides, she’d be taking her problems with her because everything she was struggling with was in her thoughts, not in any situation.
I listened to her words like I have all her life – the wise old soul that she has always been – and the tiger within me laid back down. There was nothing “out there” to vanquish. By changing how we thought, by seeking peace within, we’d change our world. I already knew this, and she knew I already knew this, but hearing it again from a soul that I have infinite love for opened my heart even more. It’s not the stories of our pasts that make us who we are; it’s how we perceive those circumstances and allow them to form our beliefs and behavior.
What the stories have done for me is soften me about my feelings for my mother and my grandmother. I truly believe they did the best they could with what that had at the time. And what they had was pretty darn piss poor when it came to model examples of standing up for themselves. I don’t have to leave that as a legacy or even acknowledge it as what they’ve left for me. I too can change my perception and truly see them as they were – strong, beautiful women courageous in some of the toughest circumstances who not only survived, but they thrived. They loved. They created families who loved and respected them. They made a mark worthy of remembrance, because every single time they were knocked down they got back up. Every. Single. Time.
Now, that’s a legacy worth remembering.