Archive for the 'family history' Category

My Mother’s Presence

amywink September 19th, 2018

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

I am in the third year after the death of my mother and I have moved through the first year of astonishment at her death, the second year of learning the difficult consequences of her presence in the relief I feel living my new life, understanding how much she had been in the way (though I know that is not always what she wanted), and forgiving her for that as well. This year, I am remembering and comprehending her own complex story of self, her story with me, and my story without her, even though she is present in me, with me, no more shackles on her feet.

When I returned to church, I came because I missed my mother’s music. She had originally been a Church music major when she entered Southwestern, until she discovered she could major in art. I grew up with her church music and also her art. She worked hard to encourage my creativity and though I remember the moment when I decided I was Not Good at Art–the moment she colored so beautifully the carousel horse in my coloring book. It was so stunning, shaded in lavenders and pinks and I thought, at 5, “I can’t do that.” not at all understanding she had learned to do it, and I was 5. — she didn’t make very many mistakes with my creativity. She remembered that too and stopped coloring for me, even though I kept asking. She taught me to have an artist’s eye, to see things deeply, to understand the symbols of our faith, through the artistry that infuses Christian identity and worship in the presence of the Creating Spirit.

I had not thought about this as much, though I have always known a great deal about art because of her, but this weekend, when I prepared our table for the Bolder than the State of Texas project, I found myself accompanied by my mother as I designed our table. I chose a red ceramic fish we’d had for as long as I can remember, a lovely icthus image for our fishing expedition, to hold our business cards, and then a dish I had made of red and yellow glass, so perfectly reminiscent of Pentecost, when my mother and I had taken a glass fusing class together when I moved home.

We often had a lovely time creating together, as long as I didn’t surpass her skill and trigger her jealousy. I had learned to stop when that happened and move on to another creative outlet, writing, photography, in which she did not excel. That’s also a part of our story together and one I remember even as I also forgive. She needed to be The Best at something, or she often felt The Worst, and that, I know, is a difficult way to be in the world. Our last creative project together was the renovation of our kitchen, and we had a wonderful time selecting everything. I still sit in that kitchen and think of what a good job we did together with it. I enjoy her creative presence as I think on that.

So, in this way, in the things I chose for our table, my mother came to church with me last Sunday, just as I went to church to remember her music. She would have loved the people at First and she also would have loved the stories we are gathering, because she loved storytelling. She handed me the stories of our family, which I keep sharing to put flesh on the names of our ancestors, to remember not just the connections, but who the people were and how the stories we tell about them make us who we are today. She held a long grudge against the Methodist church, and never returned to it. But I am here and she is with me and in remembering, I am also forgiving, in what I think of as the practice of redeeming love.

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.

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Lent: Kansas

amywink March 1st, 2018

Traveling out of those Flint Hills
or through the tall grass prairie
and wheat the landscape
always reminded me
gently, kindly,
of my insignificance,
as if to say
remember
it all matters
so very little,
this trouble
you have now,
breathe instead
and think of
the enduring ways
of time and change.

Yet, for a long time after
my life there ended,
my recurring nightmare
was a quiet dream
of going back,
returning out
of no choice,
back to the place
I had begun to
hollow and fade,
and I would wake,
as if without breath,
in full despair
of that returning.

“Tell me a story”

amywink October 14th, 2017

“Tell me a story”

I watched my mother
once swept away
in the riptide
of her mania,
stories of her life
spilling from her
uncontrolled
without thematic
coherence,
without narrative
continuity
or any patterned
conventions
of oral history
or storytelling.

Desperate, she seemed,
frantic to find
the threads of
meaning and reason
in stories spinning from her,
to do like I was doing
in my own life,
writing and living
my own story.

She kept trying
to create the story
that would carry her
forward into the battles
of her life, like me,
but the distance
between us was
a chasm opening
before me,
wide and deep,
into which we
both might go,
except
in that same
daring leap
the difference
between diving
and falling.

Forgive and Remember

amywink August 25th, 2017

[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13: 6-12

Among the artifacts of my grandmother’s life, my mother and I found one of her high school yearbooks, a mid-1920’s collection of youthful Jazz Age faces living in a Texas oil-field town, about as far from West Egg as anyone might imagine. Yet there, in the curated view of her generation, bound in a single book to commemorate the year, my grandmother the flapper seemed to dance out of the pages, the daring girl ready for adventures beyond the dirt and derricks of her surroundings.

From my vantage point almost three-quarters of a century later, I looked through pages and marveled at the styles, thinking of my grandmother in her girlhood, surrounded by classmates, high school activities, the ubiquitous football coverage. Her girlhood culture, illustrated with photos, stories, jokes, and student drawings, a genial and benign book of high school life in the mid-1920’s. And I keep turning the pages until the page is a rudimentary drawing of a hooded boy, on horseback, staring down a hill at a burning cross and I stop on another reality of my grandmother’s girlhood.

“Maybe it is a joke” my mother sighed, half-heartedly. But of course, we both knew it was not a joke. This is not the moment of our awakening. This is not a revelation.

As much a part of my grandmother’s girlhood as the flapper clothing and oil derricks, the unrepentant image of white supremacy bound in the pages of her high school yearbook reminds us again of what we know.

It is moment of reckoning.

It would be easy enough for me to close the book and let the image fade from my consciousness. I could ignore or deny the weight of it, allow nostalgia to gloss my perspective on my grandmother’s life and separate her from the surrounding culture. The drawing of the hooded boy, looking down on a burning cross makes that impossible.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

I could choose to see history dimly, like a mirror hazed by willful ignorance.
But I want to see completely, as sure as Eve chose to understand the knowledge of good and evil.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

A dear friend once said “I don’t know what I’d do if I found out my ancestors had slaves. I’d just be so ashamed.” I wondered how we could look at our ancestry through such rose-colored glasses. Of course, as a descendant of Russian Jews who arrived after Emancipation, she had that privilege, if few others.

I am four generations from the Confederate soldier my grandmother knew as her grandfather just as I am four generations from the Union soldier whose grandson married her. I know the names of my slaveholding ancestors. I have the photographs. I know the plantation was “lost” in Sherman’s March to the Sea. I know there are African-Americans with whom I share more than one ancestral name.

I do not fool myself with the ignorance that keeps rising in every generation, drawing us back into the primordial sea of our nostalgia before we are pushed further onto shore. I wonder when we will desire the land enough to be redeemed from the sea.

Jack Kornfield writes “extending and receiving forgiveness is essential for redemption from our past. To forgive does not mean we condone the misdeeds of another. We can dedicate ourselves to make sure they never happen again.” We also have to know the past, to understand the complexity of history, to know fully what we remember and what we choose to forget, personally and culturally.

In his poem “[the] north [ern] [of] ireland” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes:

And at the end of the day
the reality is
that whether we
change
or whether we stay
the same

these questions will remain.

Who are we
to be
with one
another

and

How are we
to be
with one
another?

I have to ask myself now the same questions. How are we to be with one another? How do I hold this ugliness in memory along with what beautiful? How do I rejoice in this truth?

Ó Tuama’s only answer is present action:

I wake
You wake
She wakes
He wakes
They wake
We wake and take this troubled beauty forward
.

We wake. We.

We must rejoice in the truth of our waking. We must recognize this troubled beauty of our history. We must reckon with the troubled beauty of our past, dedicated to making sure it never happens again.

John Lewis, interviewed recently by Krista Tippett for OnBeing.org said “You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”

My grandmother was a human being, flawed and wonderful, petty and generous, frightened and brave. She loved and feared. It is my recognition of her complexity, acceptance of her humanity, remembrance of her whole life that allows me to see her face to face, to put away the childish delusion of wistful nostalgia that she might be less complex but also less human, the childish hope that she not contain the “and.” She went into the world and grew. She did not remain bound with the hooded boy looking at the burning cross. She put an end to childish ways. She loved. She opened her life with love, welcoming black, white, gay, straight, Buddhist, Christian into her family. For all her human foibles, she never closed her heart. She never gave up on her own divine spark.

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