Archive for the 'family history' Category

Enough Time

amywink January 9th, 2019

Enough Time

I am gathering
pieces of my mother’s
story, pieces I
did not know,
to join with what
I have long understood,
asking those who saw
at different angle
in different light
in the before
she could not see
herself, changing
by breadth and
reach the story I know
of her,
of myself
beyond her,
her story
before me
beyond me.
All becoming
my story
beyond her
that I will tell
of my own peace,
drawn together in
the illuminating grace
that is remembering.

The Waiting Horses

amywink January 7th, 2019

“You must give up the life you had planned to have the life that is waiting for you.”

~Joseph Campbell

Bracken, Texas.

In 1971, Bracken, Texas was not even a small town, more of a remnant of the German farming settlement whose red and white brick Methodist church had just celebrated its centenary. The steeple could be briefly spied through the fields and hills from the interstate highway. Off the exit, farms whose fields held cattle and often, horses. I, a six-year-old with deep abiding longing for horses, always searched the fields for the horses and was delighted when I spied them among the cows, or better yet, in a herd. The farm-to-market road curved in front of the church and east-facing farmhouse parsonage. From the front porch, a view of the church cemetery, opposite, behind a chain link fence and an arched opening, and beyond that a train track in the distance, that we would watch from the front porch, where we also watched thunderstorms roil and roll over the hills.

This is where my father landed in his last years serving the Methodist church as a minister. It was the seventh or eighth church he had served since his time at Perkins Theological Seminary in the early 1960’s. During that time, he and my mother had begun their family with my brother, born in 1962, and myself born in 1965. I have memories of some of our early homes, mostly punctuated details that remain with me to this day: the moment when I was two and a fire blazed through the backyard and I was left alone in the high chair as everyone ran out to fight the fire (a fire apparently started to burn a building so migrants wouldn’t stop there), the moment with my brother who ran ahead of me and leapt out the front door and over the snake I saw coiled at the doorstep and stopped, the moment I tried to follow my brother’s leap over a prickly pear cactus which I fell right into it instead (I learned to be cautious in following that daring brother); the time I was three and we visited my mother on the grounds of the hospital where she recovered from her first manic episode when she first diagnosed with what was labeled then as manic-depression, now termed bipolar disorder

But it was in Bracken that I began to come to awareness of the world and the beginnings of my self. There, in that rural parsonage and across from the beautiful German church, the continuity of my memory begins to coalesce into a more coherent narrative and I begin the story of my self, aware in the world. I started school at Comal County Elementary and met my first best friend, Sharon, and others I still remember. I spent time in that beautiful empty church listening to my mother practice piano, watching my father preach on Sundays as I occupied myself with coloring while in the pews. My brother taught me to tie the shoelaces of my roller skates as we skated on the sidewalks and volleyball court behind the church’s creaking and spooky Sunday school building, where we sometimes went to get a Coke out of the refrigerator. That volleyball court was also where I also learned to ride a bike.

We walked between the church and parsonage each Sunday and entered the house after to the glorious smell of the roast and baking potatoes my mother had left in the oven while we were at church. In the evenings, we watched the bats emerge from the now famous Bracken bat cave and fly swirling into the night. Looking east, across the rolling landscape we could see the trains and the cemetery where members of the community were laid to rest after their caskets were carried from the church, beginnings and endings right there together, and always the journey between them.

I wrote my first poem sitting on the porch swing near the fig tree that bore the most wondrously sweet fruit each year, and also swarmed with wasps. I started to keep a diary–not much more than drawings and the occasional sentence description of what happened in first grade. I had cats, dogs, and then eventually, the most amazing thing, a pony, who my parents made the wonderful and terrible mistake of buying and bringing into our temporary lives as if we would always be in that country place, as if we would always have the space for the pony they handed their sensitive, poetic, and animal-loving daughter, and a pony I had to give up.

These are the lovely memories of beginning consciousness but they are not the only ones and as much as I love these memories of my beginnings in that country place, I cannot also ignore the endings that happened there. My parents were not suited to the itinerant life of a Methodist minister and “pastor’s wife”, the constant judgmental pressure from the community to behave as they “should” and to make their children behave as they “should.” My father had lost the enjoyment of his work, my mother struggled to find her place while she finished the college degree she’d started at Southwestern ten years previous at Trinity University. The old house I loved, with its wooden floors, high ceilings, wide front porch was in disrepair and would eventually be torn down (much to my horror) to make way for something new and serviceable, and sadly, quite ugly. The school I attended was filled with the children of migrant laborers and farmers and, as effortlessly and strictly as they could, they enforced the racial and class divisions of the day. I wasn’t supposed to touch anyone browner than I and I wasn’t supposed to enjoy their company. I wasn’t supposed to sit laughing with them. I struggled to understand the term “wetback” which was used frequently. I wasn’t supposed to be kind to the little brown boy, Juan, who crushed for me. I wasn’t supposed to like the haphazardly-dressed white boy, John, who handed me a piece of jewelry I later came to understand was a tie clip, that someone suggested he must have stolen. I wasn’t supposed to call my mother Mom at school, but Mrs. Wink instead. The rules were clear. Stop being who you are and be some one else. While I loved school and learning, I began to be punished for speaking out with answers, for reading different assignments in the books, and for being an alert and bright girl, ready with curious questions and wanting answers. As much as I loved school, I was learning also what was not allowed and what happens when a girl is not what she is expected to be. It was not a place for me to grow, it was not the place for my brother to grow, and it wasn’t a place for my parents to grow. We had to leave that life behind and even though it was difficult, we had to start something new. As my parents changed their lives, we changed and we had to move.

I thought of that church last year when someone asked me about where my Dad been a minister. We were standing in the empty sanctuary of my current church, the only church I’ve attended since leaving Bracken in 1972. I had stopped to look at the afternoon light coming through the west-facing stained glass windows and glazing the tops of the pews in gold. I had been (somewhat relentlessly) pursuing a new creative project, gathering the information I needed to make my idea work but the light in the church made me stop and pay attention. I began explain about my memories of the empty church at Bracken, how I loved to be in the empty sanctuary in the quiet opening of the space, how I had loved that country place, the old house with an oval glass door, wood floors, and porch swing, even with its wasps, scorpions, and bats. I was brought back to that sanctuary of memory, like I had come back to the sanctuary I was standing in, and in the colored light of the afternoon, I remembered the beginning of me, that long-ago pony, and the life and the horses that had been waiting for me when I gave up the life I had planned.

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.

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