Leaving a piece of your heart in a book…

Leaving a piece of your heart in your book…
     Nineteen years ago, I lost the last member of my childhood family when my brother Steve died.  He was the last person whom I thought shared the lifelong family conspiracy—the plan to shelter and protect my mother. I drowned in grief and aloneness for a while before I decided to write. I found it immediately cathartic to write about my mother— her childhood of extreme poverty, her alcoholic, abusive father, the loss of her older siblings, and her health problems, among other things. I spent years on a chronological biography of her entitled The One Left Behind. I paid for writing workshops and critique groups at a local university where I manipulated pieces of it.  I shared almost completed copies with cousins. Somehow, it didn’t feel quite right. 
     The manuscript sat idyll for a while. Life got in the way with work, two daughters, and a husband. Then I became involved in a group of women who all wrote about how their mothers’ lives affected them. They were also trying to come to an understanding of their mothers. It was wonderful. I studied my mother’s life in more depth. An anthology called Compassionate Journey: Honoring Our Mothers’ Stories came out eventually. I am very proud of my part in it, but I still needed to write more about my mother, particularly for relatives who always had questions.
     My book Gracie & Albert used many parts of my other writings, but in a new way. I wanted to share the story of the courage, love, and determination my mother and father displayed in their challenging lives. I needed to help people realize what they incredibly overcame. A piece of my heart will be in every paperback or ebook version of Gracie & Albert. I hope people understand.

The Relative Taken In

The Relative Taken In

My mother Grace was orphaned at age twelve after pretty much taking care of herself and her little brother Ira John most of that time. At this point, her longtime ill mother Myrabelle was put in a sanitarium because she was totally bedridden. Ira John was grabbed up by a childless, paternal aunt and her husband as a four-year-old boy was just what they wanted. He was just what a maternal uncle without a male heir wanted, too, but the paternal aunt had gotten to him first. No one from either side of the family wanted an almost-grown girl, so Grace waited in an empty house in Windsor for a few days until a young, maternal uncle and his new wife were shamed into going and picking her up as they were childless and had the room. The arrangement didn’t work for somewhat questionable reasons, and Gracie landed at her maternal grandfather’s farm where, ironically, the sonless, maternal uncle lived with four daughters and wife. Both fussed about getting Grace instead of Ira John. Grace spent the rest of her childhood as a maid and caretaker for four, female cousins and the rest of the people on the farm. She knew her place. She was the relative taken in and was to be grateful to have a place to live at all.

The cousins Grace cared for grew to love her and even had their children call her aunt as they became adults with families of their own. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with these people— “cousins” and “aunts” who were actually “second cousins and cousins once removed.” At family gatherings there was always something different about the way my mother and her children were treated. It was hard for me as a young child to figure out.

One Christmas eve at a gathering in this farmhouse where Grace had been taken in, I was a seven year old participating in gift opening from my great aunt and uncle who wanted my brothers and me to call them Me mere and Pa. Always in a resentful tone of voice, my mother had told us to call them Aunt Lucy and Uncle Bill. That noisy evening in this house filled with relatives, my three female “cousins,” about the same age as I was, opened large gift-wrapped boxes that immediately thrilled them with tall, beautifully dressed dollies. I watched anxiously for my turn. I was handed a small package by Aunt Lucy, who walked away casually, not waiting for me to open it. Much to my disappointment, I found my gift was a tiny, bubble-wrapped collection of cheap play cosmetics. I can’t recall what my brothers received as presents. They were older and wise enough not to make a fuss if what they received didn’t match up to their male counterpart. I was not that discreet and voiced my objections to my mother. She shushed me in that whisper growl she used when she herself was also angry about a situation in which she felt she could do nothing. There were many of those occasions when I was a kid.

As if to add insult to injury, one of my “aunts” called all of us “grandchildren” together for a picture in front of the Christmas tree. I was surrounded by my three “cousins” who held their dollies proudly. I was empty-handed. We went back to those gatherings most Christmas eves throughout my childhood. They were the only local family my mother had even though she spent time bitterly complaining about how they had used her as a live-in maid and nanny. I don’t remember where my father would situate himself during these festivities. Perhaps he stayed out in the kitchen talking to the other males not blood-related. He maybe knew his place better than I did. After that Christmas when I was seven, I, too, learned where I stood with these people. I was the daughter of the orphaned relative who was taken in, and I never forgot it.

As a young teenager while helping in the farmhouse kitchen, I told my Aunt Lucy I wasn’t her grandchild and would not call her Me mere after one of her requests for me to do so. I was only five foot one, but Aunt Lucy was a mere four foot eight. I remember being surprised that she looked up at me with a puzzled look after I announced this. Had she not realized how she had treated me so differently than her real granddaughters? I guess, I forgot that I, too, was to be grateful that she and her husband had taken in my mother years ago. Things were rather cool between Aunt Lucy and me after that. She did offer her farmhouse lawn for my wedding ceremony when I was nineteen and once again seemed genuinely shocked that I instead chose to be married on my maid of honor’s side lawn a few miles down the road.

As a young adult, I chose not to stay very close to this part of the family, except for one “cousin” Holly, whom I had been rather fond of. Holly would always try to include me in her family gatherings as she had children herself. She even hosted a baby shower for me when my first daughter arrived shortly my mother died. Cousins on my father’s side had given me a baby shower, and I joked with Holly about how she didn’t want to be outdone by them. She would be the only one to call me about births and deaths, and so forth. Unfortunately, Holly died relatively young of cancer. Several years later at her grandmother’s funeral, Holly’s daughter Becky looked at me and asked if we were actually related. Once again, I was reminded of my place with this crowd. I decided not to go into lengthy details with Becky and instead simply told her, “Not really, dear. Not very close, I guess.” Why burden yet another generation with this sour story?

Did you love your mother?

 

This recent question assaulted me like a slap across the face. I had no answer for the person who asked me. At first I decided that the questioner must have had an unresolved relationship with her own mother to even ask another woman such a thing, but I realized I was only deflecting the issue and needed to think out an answer, if only just for myself. It has taken me some time, thought, and discussion with other women who have had a less than perfect relationship with their mothers for me to come up with a reasonable response. I also started examining other women’s interactions with their mothers who were still living or reflections of women whose mothers were no longer around, particularly those who claimed to have a good relationship. At this point in my life I was able to do this with academic eyes instead of covetous eyes that I used to watch such things through.

I discovered that no two mother/daughter relationships seem alike. There must be many types of love. Some women revere their mothers. They miss their help and guidance if they are gone. They talk about wonderful sacrifices their mothers made for them. Some talk about being best friends with their mother. I hope those women also had best friends their own age. Many spoke of misunderstanding and even anger between their mothers and themselves. Words like disappointment and betrayal started cropping up, too. I had a lovely woman who told me she loved her mother because she thought she had to, but she didn’t like her as a person. I have heard and read accounts of mothers who verbally and physically abuse their daughters. I think back to a former student whose mother not only allowed her boyfriend to sexually abuse her but participated in the abuse herself. With my head swimming in examples of relationships, I decided I needed to look again at mine with my own mother.

A friend recently spoke of self-righteous anger toward her mother. She went on to explain that she now feels she did not have the right to her anger when she considers what her mother had gone through as a child and young woman before having her. That really struck me. I needed to stop and consider that when thinking about my mother who was a survivor of poverty, abuse, and illness. I do also realize that this friend and I are finally at an age where we can be gracious about granting our mothers this kindness and compassion.

If I am asked again, I will know how to answer the question of whether or not I loved my mother. I’m ready now. I only had thirty-two years with her. The last six years were spent in a role reversal forced on us by my mother’s severe illness. When my father died, I became her caretaker. Those years were not pleasant, and it took me some time to get over that. Before that, our relationship was clouded by the understanding that I was always to protect her and keep from her anything that might upset her. My father, brothers, and I did this “dance” around her for as long as I can remember. We also covered for her when she wasn’t well. This was my normal, and I was old enough to spend significant time away from my house before realizing that was not everyone’s family situation. I did love her, though. I even liked her when she was well. She was a bright, caring person. I didn’t like her illness. Her tongue was verbally abusive when she wasn’t well, but she broke the cycle of physical abuse that she had suffered. I have great respect for her for being able to do that. She did very well with the life she was given. I do not miss her at landmark events like births, weddings, and other such things as she openly talked at the end of her life about being too ill to participate in such things. She was ready to go. I am at peace with this and with her memory for the most part.

The Pivotal Generation

The Pivotal Generation

My mother, born in 1924, grew up in the time when she was sexually abused by her alcoholic father and was told to keep quiet about it. If she told anyone, it would bring shame to the family. She suffered severely for holding her feelings inside. Her granddaughters, born in the 1980s, now have come to age in a time when an unwanted pinch, touch, or kiss is reported, and consequences are sometimes paid by the male aggressor. Born in 1952, I am a member of the pivotal generation. I find myself swinging both ways on sexual harassment issues that seem crystal clear to younger women. How can we change societal expectations without doing things like disgracing a former president a year or two before his death? How can we fairly deal with all inappropriate actions reported? Can we agree on a scale of the seriousness of some inappropriate actions versus others? We presently still pick and choose those people who should get away with anything sexually inappropriate or deemed harassment. Most importantly, how can we handle false accusations that make both men and women look bad?

A few years ago, I personally watched a wonderful male teacher get accused of inappropriate touching. A report was made and administration began an investigation, only to have the middle school-aged accuser be overheard giggling and telling friends it never happened. She was just mad at the teacher about the grade she had in his class. All action against the teacher was dropped, but he ended up retiring years before he planned to due to jokes made about him, many from fellow teachers. As many men have found, once accused there is a stain on one’s reputation.

This seems unimportant to many women until they know someone who is falsely accused, and then it becomes more obvious as to why many men in positions of authority are nervous about interacting with female subordinates. Of course, in years past, sometimes women were involved in promoting inappropriate actions by a male boss. As a teacher I once taught at a school with a male principal who would announce at happy hours where many staff were present that female teachers couldn’t leave the bar without kissing him goodbye. Some women would laugh and encourage other women to kiss him. I actually kissed this principal one time before leaving for the evening. I’m ashamed of myself now, but how does one resist something like that without looking like a spoil sport?

I have no big answers. I do think we need to have an understanding of the older generation and their dated ideas of social interactions while reminding them what expectations are now. We need to raise socially conscious boys. The phrase “boys will be boys” needs to be deleted from our minds. I do wonder if every big social pivot like this has been so painful.

Hitting the County Hard!

Hitting the County Hard!

I’m ashamed to admit that I was born, raised, and have always lived in the state of Maine but had never set foot in Aroostook County until recently. A fellow writer scheduled book readings at both University of Fort Kent and University of Presque Isle for us. We would be reading from an anthology Compassionate Journey we are involved in with three other authors. This dear friend lives on the very first mile of Route 1, so I was not just in the county but almost at the very top. It is said that to truly experience a new area well, one has to stay with someone who lives there. This certainly was true of my visit to Fort Kent, Caribou, and Presque Isle. I met wonderful people and had the inside scoop on where to go to see the important things.

McDonald’s is the mecca of Fort Kent for many people, and this is where I met two nice, elderly French gentlemen upon my arrival after a few hours of dodging frost heaves and logging trucks. There were no numbers on the buildings on Main Street making it difficult to find my friend’s apartment, so I stopped in at the infamous fast food place for directions. I was unnerved by the French conversations that filled the air inside the restaurant. When I asked a group of people which of two buildings across the street was number seventy eight, two older gentlemen, both sporting navy blue watch caps at a rakish angle, flanked me and one offered help in broken English. With much effort, I managed to get them to understand what I was looking for. They conferred with one another in French. One of them said the other one would go find out for me. Protests from me about how this wasn’t necessary fell on deaf ears, and the gentleman who remained with me stayed very close, watched out the window, and pointed in a very animated fashion as the other dear man scurried across the street and ran about the two buildings. The investigator finally returned, related his findings in French, and then both men pointed to a building on the right. I thanked them. Later, my friend I was staying with laughed when I related my experience as she thought she knew the two gentlemen who had assisted me so graciously and told me they were indeed very helpful to everyone.

There are gorgeous examples of old architecture in the northern part of Aroostook County, but my favorite ones were the huge, Catholic churches. A beautiful church with a very unique, porous-looking steeple graces Fort Kent just down the street from where I was staying. Others peeked out from small villages as I traveled down Route 1. In Edmundston after I crossed the border into Canada, I was overwhelmed by the stately Church of the Immaculate Conception. With its stone façade and stained glass windows, it played king of the hill and watched over the New Brunswick city elegantly. Its interior was just as breath-taking with gracious statures and pulpits.

Farms dotted Routes 1, 11, and 161 as I traveled around. Too many of them were deserted, though, showing signs of the economic depression of the area. Bright business signs on the roadside made promises of things like fresh baked goods or tasty lunches that couldn’t be kept as the building were closed down. As in other areas of central and northern Maine, here businesses often fail too soon.

Our book readings at the universities were successful. At Fort Kent, young nursing students turned out in great numbers to hear my friend, the director of nursing at UMFK, and me. Our anthology about mother/daughter angst at times seemed to puzzle them, but many stopped by to talk after the program. I learned even Generation Zs have troubles and worries about their mothers, and there is a great need to talk openly about it. Our audience at UMPI was receptive as well. I met wonderful women in their senior years who are brilliant and busy with diverse interests.

One elusive inhabitant of the county absolutely bewitched me with its two, brief appearances. Traveling north on Route 11 after Sherman Mills, Mt. Katahdin made an appearance through the clouds on my left. I stopped at the roadside to take the picture shown with this blog posting. The mountain played peek-a-boo with me again as I was going south on 95. A bit out of Houlton upon seeing a sign for Oakfield, the giant Katahdin suddenly appeared on the horizon of the highway in front of me. It was magnificent. It disappeared quickly not to be seen again for the rest of the drive.

Aroostook County is a beautiful place that is probably just as fun to see when it is not covered with snow as I saw it the first week in April. I’d like to give a shout out to Bogan Books in Fort Kent for promoting our anthology and also to the Swamp Buck, a restaurant and bar with unique décor and good food. All in all, I am glad I finally took the drive up north!

Keeper of His Skis

Keeper of His Skis

The winter of my eighth grade year in junior high, my older brother Steve decided I had become a “couch potato.” I did enjoy coming home from school and having tea in front of soap operas with my mother. She and I saw nothing wrong in our down time routine. Steve did. He had recently taken up skiing while in college. He talked my father into taking me over to Waterville Hardware and purchasing me a ski set—Maverick brand wooden skis with bear claw boot clamps, leather, lace-up boots, and bamboo poles. It was my unwanted gift for the Christmas of 1965.
Right after Christmas, Steve took me to Colby College Ski Slope in Waterville. It was a tiny area with one tee bar ski lift to take people to the top of the hill. We went at night. With my gear on, I struggled to keep up with him as he charged off in front of me toward the tee bar line. Things did not get better once it was our turn to mount the tee bar. I could not get my balance on the tipsy thing and kept knocking both Steve and myself over. The lift operator patiently stopped the tee bar all four times this happened, but unfortunately Steve completely lost his patience after the fourth fiasco and picked me up underneath my armpits, dragged me to one side of the tee bar loading site, and plopped me in a snow pile. I was left there crying as I watched him go up the lift on his own.
Now Steve had a good friend by the name of Pat Roy. Pat was a twin from a large French family in Winslow. For some reason, Pat took it upon himself to comfort and convince me to try the tee bar one more time with him. He actually told me how to stand stiffly and press my feet down as the tee bar pulled us up. At the top, Pat, probably giddy with his success over my brother who was known as a “smartie” in school, also helped me position my skis in a wedge and snow plow down the slope. Steve eventually caught up with me at the end of a successful run down. He didn’t volunteer to take me skiing again on his break from college, and I didn’t ask him to either.
The next year, Steve found college friends to go to Sugarloaf with and my ski equipment collected dust in the shed. The year after that, my sophomore year in high school, I started dating John. He was a skier. I found myself going off to Eaton Mountain in Skowhegan with him and other friends. With babysitting money, I paid for some lessons and actually started enjoying the sport. John was an only child and enjoyed my brother as he got to know him on his school leaves home. My junior year found Steve, John, and I off to Sugarloaf. Sometimes they went without me. If I was included, I banged around on the bunny slope some as Steve and John skied more difficult trails. Steve gave me a faux bunny fur hat for Christmas that year and delighted in calling me a pretty ski bunny even though I showed little potential, according to him.
The next ski season found John and me on the slopes without Steve who had graduated from UMO and moved to Mobile, Alabama to take a job at Scott Paper Company down there. Then came the penniless college years and time after college paying student loans that kept us off the trails. My brother Steve occasionally traveled up to the Scott Paper Research department in Westbrook, Maine and grabbed John for ski trips. I guess it was considered too costly to bother with me on these excursions.
When our daughters turned five and eight, John and I decided to introduce them to skiing at Shawnee Peak. Steve was thrilled. Whenever he could after that, he would combine work trips with ski trips. Our daughters loved his visits. The first thing that had to be done whenever Uncle Steve arrived was to check the ski equipment. Steve’s stuff was stored at our house. One evening I was upstairs in the laundry, probably retrieving last minute necessary clothing for a ski trip, when I heard what sounded like delightful shenanigans downstairs. I looked out an upstairs bedroom window to quite the sight. John, Steve, and the girls had all donned their boots, skis, and poles and tromped out to the backyard via the atrium deck door, without any coats. The ski paraphernalia was almost as important as the skiing itself.
It was not all fun and games skiing with Uncle Steve. To save time he would wear his ski pants in the car on the hour and a half drive to Sunday River from our house in Falmouth, so the girls and I would be shivering and fussing in the back seat. He sent us a lovely fleecy car blanket after that for Christmas. Steve always needed to catch the first chair in the morning which meant getting sleepy, fussy kids going too early even for myself. He skied the last lift up in the afternoon. We still laugh at pictures of the girls sleeping with heads down on tables in the lodge while waiting for him. One year Steve found a colorful Rasta style hat for Keli whom he considered a little tiger on the trails.
In my family, we fondly joked about ABMs or able-bodied men. My father and older brother Wayne were definitely ones. John fit in, too. Steve did not. At five foot ten and 145 pounds, he was the outlier of the crowd. A standing joke between Steve and myself was who weighed more. He was always after me about my chubbiness. Unfortunately, he still did inherit the genetic defect that caused him to have a fatal heart attack at age fifty-two, ABM or not.
Steve’s ski boots were worn in memorial by his niece Keli until Thanksgiving of 2017 when they literally broke open at the toes. She now wears a helmet instead of her colorful Rasta hat, but she still cherishes it. Steve’s skis are mounted on a beam at our Sunday River condo. He always skis with me regardless of what slope I am trying awkwardly to maneuver down. I am, after all, the keeper of his skis.

A Surprise Visit

As cousins living miles apart, Paul and I have a Facebook relationship that has become almost a daily occurrence. Our common denominator was his mother and my cherished Aunt Flippie who passed away a couple summers ago. When she was alive, Paul, his brother, and two sisters seemed somewhat puzzled by the attention Aunt Flippie bestowed on me. Her sister, my mother Grace, had died over thirty years ago, so Aunt Flippie appointed herself my maternal surrogate. She came to help me upon the birth of my second daughter after I experienced a difficult pregnancy. She always sent Christmas gifts to my girls, a bit late just as my mother would have done.
But once Aunt Flippie died, Paul reached out to me in a way that surprised me. Armed with a second cup of coffee and my Lab Rudy busied with a long-lasting chewy bone by my side, I recently perused Facebook. Cousin Paul is in a barbershop quartet. He is a short, round, pretty-faced man in his late sixties. His big, handsome smile almost precedes the rest of him when he appears in person or on screen. As I quickly scrolled my newsfeed that morning, I noticed a video of a performance that Paul was in. Tickled that he had shared it, I pressed the play arrow. It only took seconds for my heart to stop.
“You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips,” crooned the bass singer of the quartet as Paul smiled and swayed next to him.
Then it happened, “And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips,” Paul sang back in his sweet, tenor voice.
I was once again in the shed of our East Winslow, Maine farmhouse which smelled of dust, dirt, and the oil barrel that stood in one corner. And one more thing-cat shit. Even though my mother, armed with a broom, went after any cat she caught turning up in the dirt by that oil barrel; she couldn’t catch them all, and the scent lingered.
I had to hide by the kitchen door. My much older brother Wayne would get angry with me if he caught me spying on him. He was crouched at the top of the steps on the stairs that led up to a loft above the kitchen. An extension cord dangled down from there to a plug that powered his red and black record player. A stack of 45s was piled beside it, but Wayne played one record over and over again-the Righteous Brothers. Wayne was a tiny, pretty-faced teen with a beautiful tenor voice and a handsome smile. He never attempted the bass part of the song, but he would chime in enthusiastically with the tiny blonde Righteous Brother.
I could only watch that video once that morning. Wayne has been gone twenty-three years now, and I’ll be damned if I can even remember the title of that sixties classic that I heard all one summer so long ago.

“Jackknife Fred”

Second Post 10/2/2018 “Jackknife Fred”

This is an except from “Gracie and Albert” where Grace has just been asked by her psychiatrist at Augusta State Hospital if she ever had anyone care for her. Grace tells the doctor of the character who lived in a small shack behind her own humble home in Windsor, Maine in the 1930s:

Grace rustled in the chair she could have fit four of herself in. She looked out the window. She appeared to have no answer. Dr. Knowles noticed her file on the top of his desk. He grabbed it and started to thumb through it. Age had taught him to be patient. He didn’t want to scare this little creature into silence again. When he looked up from his paper, he noticed Grace was studying him with large, childlike, blue eyes. Her left cheek had a nasty, jagged scar. She immediately put her hand to her face and looked down.
They sat quietly for a few more minutes. “Had one person,” Grace said.
“Yes, can you tell me more?”
Grace looked out the window again and let out a small laugh. “Jackknife Fred. He cared about me.”
“Jackknife Fred? What a name!”
Silence filled the office as Grace peered out the window while occasionally glancing at the doctor. Then the story of her childhood friend began to pour out of her.
“Jackknife Fred lived in a shack behind our house in Windsor when I was a kid. Don’t know why he did. Our house weren’t much more ‘n his. I used to go around to the back of our house and run up the path to his abode and bug him.” Gracie suddenly grinned. “Jackknife and I both had scars, see. Jackknife Fred’s scar had always mystified me. It started at the left corner of his mouth, just missing the outer edge of his lips. It ran diagonally over his left cheek to the top of his neck, below his ear, and then shot immediately down toward his shoulder. Usually a shirt collar stopped the study of this fascinating mark, but this was different. Jackknife was busy digging a hole behind his shack one day when I startled him. His shirt lay in a heap behind him.
I said to him, ‘Hey, Jackknife! Lordy, I never realized that goddamned scar of yours went right down to almost your belly bottom! Heavens!’ I stood and admired the line on my favorite neighbor.
Jackknife wiped his face with his free hand and shook his head. ‘Jesus Christ, Miss Murray, you startled me half to death. Don’t you know better than to sneak up on a man like that? You might be sporting a scar yourself, by God.’
‘Already got me a scar, so there!’ I stuck out my left cheek to him with my tongue jammed in it to fully emphasize the mark.
‘So you do.’ Jackknife grinned back at me and rested on his shovel. ‘Can’t remember when that happened. Remind me.’
‘First off, call me Gracie.’
‘I may live in this old shack, but I do have manners. I’ll call you Gracie if I have your permission.’
‘You and me should be on a first name basis, Jackknife. We are good friends.’
‘All right, Gracie. Don’t be telling your mother about this friendship, though. Now what are you doing back here pestering the likes of me? You here to tell me about your scar?’
‘Jackknife, remember I got this scar a couple years ago when the Brann’s damned German Sheperd attacked me on one of my trips to get goat’s milk. ‘Member, I was eight. Ma couldn’t make enough milk for Ira John.’
‘Jesus, I do remember when you got mangled like that. Damned dog was a menace. So you come up here to talk about scars, did you?’
‘Oh, no. Ma says I have to find my father. Why, I don’t know. I certainly don’t miss him, but she seems to think she needs him for something. Jackknife, how did you get your scar? No one seems to know.’
‘How ’bout your old man?’
‘Shit on him,’ I told Jackknife. ‘Ma’s better off without him. Won’t you tell me about that there scar? Please?’
‘For heaven’s sake, child.’
‘Please, with molasses on it?’ I begged him.
Jackknife sat down on the pile of dirt he had created with his digging. I plunked down near him.
‘First things first, little girl. Your father got in a fight last night at a poker game at Chester Whyte’s. Last I saw him, he was sleeping off a few hard whacks to the head he received trying to cheat someone. Well, that and quite a bit of drink in Chester’s barn.’
‘Ayah, Jackknife. Sounds about right. But how ’bout that scar?’
‘I was doing something here, you know.’
‘What?’
‘Digging myself a hole for a new outhouse here.’
‘Most people just clean out the one they got.’
‘Well, Gracie, I ain’t most people,’ Jackknife says back to me.
‘Ma would agree with you on that!’
‘Oh, yeah? Just what does she say about me now?’
‘Ain’t pretty, Jackknife.’
‘Do tell. Tell me anyway, young ‘un.’
‘Ma calls you a foul-mouthed, shady, poker-playing bastard.’
Jackknife Fred looked at the ground then and said, ‘Really?’
‘With a heart of gold, though. Unlike the poker-playing son of a bitch of a drunk she up and married. He takes off for days and don’t worry about us starving or freezing to death. She appreciates you bringing firewood and meat, even if it just be squirrel at times.’ I grinned at him.
A smile broke out across Jackknife’s face. ‘Lord, Gracie, you’re spending way too much time with folks like me. No amount of soap could wash out that mouth of yours!’
‘Don’t care none. You gonna tell me ’bout that scar, or not? That little Christer of a brother of mine is gonna wake up soon from his nap and give Ma trouble. You know Ira John. I don’t have all day.’
‘Then you best off scoot right now to help with Ira John, Missy.’ Jackknife stood back up and fussed with his shovel.
‘Why won’t you tell me?’
‘The story of this here damned scar, Gracie, takes a good hour to tell decently.’
‘Can I come back tomorrow and have you tell it to me?’
‘If I’m here, I’ll gladly tell you.’
‘Promise? Is it the very reason for your name?’
‘Tomorrow, Gracie. I think I hear a commotion coming from your way. Maybe you best get along and let a man finish the work he done cut out for hisself.’
I turned and started down the dirt path to my house but then stopped and looked back. ‘You’ll be seeing me tomorrow, Jackknife.’
‘Okay, little one. Don’t forget to tell your mother about your old man now.’
‘Christ, Jackknife, let’s hope he turns into Rip Van Winkle and gives us a good break without him.'”

“But he didn’t. He came home and wreaked his usual havoc in our house. Ira John and I hid under my bed while he had at my mother. Think he passed out that particular time before he could do her too much harm.” Gracie whispered this last line to Doctor Knowles. She suddenly looked embarrassed and started playing with the tie around her waist.
“What a story teller you are!” Dr. Knowles leaned back in his chair. “Do you know what happened to this Jackknife?”
“Nope. Couple years later Ma took really sick, and my little brother and I were taken by relatives. Well, he was snatched up, and I was passed around to whoever would take me. I asked a couple times about Jackknife, but no one thought I should worry about the likes of him.”

“Writing a Memoir”

September 2018 Writing a Memoir

There are many noble reasons for writing a memoir about an aspect of one’s life—sharing family history for future generations, clarifying familial issues for present relatives, or honoring a lost family member. But the upmost purpose a memoir serves for many of us is to “rip a bandage off a festering wound.” A dear friend gave me that expression, and it certainly fits what I have done for the anthology entitled Compassionate Journey: Honoring Our Mothers’ Stories. This friend would know as she has a similar festering wound herself. I hope reading my essay in the anthology somehow helps her.
The memoir process starts simply for most of us, particularly those who enjoy writing. A death or moving experience encourages us to start jotting down our thoughts about it. It feels good. A few workshops and writing groups later, a memoir starts to take shape. For me, personally, a workshop where the leader asked us to bring a picture of our mother and then prompted us to write about rather provocative subjects really started me down the memoir path. I became completely hooked after gathering with several other women writers who wanted to write poignant essays about their mothers. I spent more than four years meeting regularly with a gathering of specific women. Our project changed over time. It gained honesty and depth. As writers, we all dug deeper and deeper into family history. I sent away for psychiatric hospital records concerning my mother’s stay there over a half century ago. Some writers in the group sought therapy. Others interviewed family members. We all had different ways of pulling forth memories, both good and bad.
Now that the anthology I was involved with is published, I am surprised at my own reaction. Having daydreamed forever of holding a book I was part of in my hands, the anxiety I have felt about sharing it with the world has puzzled me. At first, I felt like a stripper about to disrobe as the book launch date approached. Books have been selling online and from the box in my dining room to friends close by, and I have watched nervously wondering what people’s reactions would be to my essay in the anthology. The reviews are mixed. While many rave about the honesty and courage I have shown in my writing, one or two have wondered how I survived, with one friend spending time at a dinner out gazing at me with confused pity. Some of this has made me feel self-conscious and question why I ever did it in the first place. I pore over the praise blurbs we have received from published, noteworthy authors in the Maine writing community and wonder if my essay stands up to the glorious reviews given by them. Is this all part of the creative process?
Then a friend shared with me that her mother had mental health issues, and she really identified with my essay. Others did, too. The reason for writing this raw story is reinforced for me, and I am glad I wrote it. I even participated in a local television interview and then agonized over how it would be received. The rollercoaster keeps going, but I am staying on it for the ride.
Summer 2018