Lessons in Accessorizing: A Childhood Traumedy

Milford Creek Lane was a straight, flat stretch of middle-class Georgian suburbia. The blue ranch house I called home sat about a quarter mile from the stop sign at the end of the street. During the school year, I walked that route twice a day to catch the bus in the morning and return home in the afternoon.

One morning in early winter, my breath clung to the frigid air in front of me as I walked—the grass still turgid and shimmering with overnight frost. I wore a navy wool coat and scratchy black gloves. On top of the gloves, I wore my newest prized position: a real, grown-up ring.

I had told my mother I wanted a real ring, and for reasons I’ll never understand, she allowed me this indulgence. She took me to Uptons department store where I peered in to the jewelry case on my tip toes. I picked out a small gold ring with a marquise amethyst and the tiniest of diamonds lacing over it.

The next day, I was so eager to show off my new ring, I couldn’t bear to cover it with a glove. So my eight-year-old genius decided to wear the ring on top.

When I arrived at the stop sign that morning, my fellow bus riders gathered in a loose mosh pit on the sidewalk. Older children and troubled children and stranger children all intimidated me, so I kept to myself.

I shoved my hands in my coat pockets and felt a wad of cloth. Pulling it out, I recognized my other pair of gloves. Not only did this set better match my coat, it also had sparkles woven in the fabric, giving it all the softness of a Brillo Pad.

Without a moment of hesitation, I peeled off my black gloves and put on the newfound haute couture pair instead.

I sat in my fourth-grade desk at school for no more than 10 minutes that day before the revelation occurred: my fingers were bare. The ring was gone.

Dread rose in my chest as my child-brain backtracked through the morning and realized the ring had popped off at the bus stop when I switched the gloves.

It could be anywhere now. It could have rolled into the sewer. It could be caught up in the blades of a lawnmower—yes, even in the winter! It could have been carried off in the talons of an eagle, swallowed by a jewelry-eating dog, found and kept by a vicious neighbor with excellent taste in rings.

My mother would never buy me another ring again. She might never buy me anything at all! I’d probably never have another valuable possession for the rest of my life. I hadn’t deserved the ring, and now I’d lost it in my first 24 hours of ownership. The thought of having to tell my mom what I’d done twisted my stomach in knots. Laying my head on the cool faux-wood of my desk, I tried not to cry or panic or simply bust through the school exit and sprint all the way home to look for it.

My nerves turned to nausea as the day ached on. Every bump and turn and squealing first-grader on the excruciating bus ride home forced my stomach farther up into my throat. As the yellow behemoth rounded the last turn to get to our stop, my entire body tensed.

By requirement only, I waited until the screeching brakes came to a complete halt before bolting to the front. I arrived at the door as it opened casually via accordion fold with its customary whoosh of air.

Darting out, I launched for the spot where I was standing when I switched gloves. I flung myself on the ground—aware of how strange I might look yet not caring in the least—and smooshed my hands frantically into the grass hoping to feel the hard metal against my soft palms.

Nothing. Nothing but cold dirt.

And then, amid my panic and dismay and guilt and terror and disappointment, I saw a glint of gold hope among the sullen green. I crawled over on my hands and knees.

There it was. Unscathed. Unaware of the anguish I’d endured over the past six hours. Bathing in the sunshine, just waiting for me to come home.

Even though I haven’t worn rings over my gloves since, I still don’t trust myself with valuable jewelry.

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The Spirituality of Raspberries

My dad once told me, while looking up at the tops of the Georgia pines in our front yard, that the green-on-blue combination of trees against sky is proof of God’s existence. He said it could not possibly have happened by coincidence.

It’s too thoughtful. Too beautiful. Too perfect.

Raspberries are my proof. If you’ve ever picked one off a wild bush in summertime and plucked it in your mouth, you know: something like that doesn’t just happen. It’s intended.

I’m sure my dad would agree.

From a young age, Dad raised me to experience the world around me. He showed me how to appreciate the smell of snowfall. To love the constricted feeling in my lungs when I breathe in my first blast of winter air each year. He offered me the bird names. The bird songs.

Because of him, I can tell you the difference between a blue jay and a bluebird and an indigo bunting. And what the temperature high is for Anchorage, Alaska on any given day.

As we chat on the phone during my commute, Dad asks how the jonquils he planted at my first home are doing. Have they come up yet? And he’ll make an extra call in the evening just to tell me to go outside and look at the full moon. Does it look as yellow in Charleston as it does here?

Because of him, I love the warmth of a fire. The sound of fat raindrops pounding a tool shed. The soul-cleansing that is wading chest-deep in a clear stream. The subtle sweetness of nectar from a honeysuckle flower. The intricacy and wonder of seashells.

Of his two daughters, I’m the baby. I’m the carefree spirit. I’m the keeper of the bird songs.

In my 30 years, he’s shaped the gentlest corners of my being. He’s molded me into someone who laments the passing of orchids. Someone who stops halfway through her run to take in a marsh view or a fading sunset or a grazing deer. Someone who’s thankful for every clear starry night, every low-hanging moon, every first frost, every last jonquil. Someone who can’t imagine seeing the world without her father’s eyes.

Someone who finds faith in the treetops. And raspberries fresh off the bush.

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love means never having to say you’re sorry

The summer semester before my senior year in college I took a course called Sociology in Film. That’s where I was first introduced to Love Story, a 1970s romantic drama about two college co-eds falling in love. I don’t remember many specifics from the movie, but what I do remember is a line from the closing scene. The main character tells his estranged father: “Love…love means never having to say you’re sorry!”

And that line plagued me for years. Because to me, it didn’t make any sense.

I.

Growing up I was a momma’s girl. I bonded with my mom from a young age, considered her one of my best friends throughout my adolescence and even into my 20s.

But that relationship wasn’t without turmoil. Mom suffered from depression. And when it swept up over her—all sudden and ferocious and overpowering—she’d shut herself in her room for days at a time.

In a deeply personal letter she wrote my sister and me when we were teenagers, she apologized for all those dark moments.

And I need to say I’m sorry I couldn’t be all those things that babies and toddlers’ walking falling legs desire… I’m sorry I could only be me and half the time I had no clue who that “me” even was.

That was my mother. She was the first love of my life. And this was not our only “I’m sorry.”

II.

Then there was First David. He was the boy I fell irrevocably in love with in the way only a sixteen-year-old heart knows how to do. He was the boy who promised me the world and the stars and forever. He was the boy I let have every part of me. And then he got drunk and stole those same intimate parts away from other girls on the side.

For six years First David and I bobbed and wove inside our ring of relationship. We threw punches and jabs like prizefighters—always waiting for a bell that was never going to ring. Each round ended with no victor, but plenty of apologies.

That was the second love of my life. “I’m sorry” was sewn into its seams.

III.

Later I found Second David. A quick-tempered Oklahoma transplant with a spotted past, Second David was a challenge in the same way growing a garden on a patch of earth that gets too much direct sunlight is a challenge. He was defiant and obstinate and volatile, but I loved him just the same.

Five years later, we’re still together. And more impressively, still happy. That’s not to say it’s all roses and rainbows these days. We have plenty of hunker-down, fist-shaking, voice-trembling fights. But when they’re over, we look each other in the eye and say we’re sorry.

That was the third love of my life. And “I’m sorry” helps us keep it together.

This is why the line from Love Story haunted me for so long, why it didn’t make sense through the lens of my first three loves.

IV.

But then there’s also my fourth love, my Amy.

When I was in college, I got back together with First David after one of his many infidelity escapades. Knowing none of my friends would support my decision, I lied about it. I lied about where I was going and who I was seeing and what I was doing.

After a few weeks, the buried truth bubbled its way to the surface, leaving all my poor choices and deceit fully exposed. Some of my friends shunned me; some yelled at me; some stopped talking to me.

But not Amy.

Amy had been my closest companion since middle school. We met in sixth grade but didn’t really hit it off until seventh. By the end of eighth, we were inseparable. Our friendship survived high school—even with her as a popular cheerleader and me as a reclusive nerd—, dorming together our freshman year of college, and the many years of self-discovery that followed. We never had a single fight, an argument, or even a tough moment of differing opinions.

When I tried to apologize to her for lying about reuniting with First David, she cut me off before the words could even begin to come out of my mouth.

“You don’t have to say it,” she said with empathy and kindness. “I already know.”

<3.

Looking back on it now, I realize that never having to say “I’m sorry” isn’t about not screwing up. It isn’t about loving someone so much that you never hurt them, that you never let them down. It’s about understanding someone enough, trusting someone enough, loving someone enough, that those explanations are simply not needed.

Love is real. It’s flawed. There are mess-ups and break-ups and make-ups. Some loves need apologies. And that’s okay.

But the fourth love of my life was different.  The fourth love of my life was Amy. And thanks to her, the words from Love Story finally make sense.

 

This piece was crafted as part of YeahWrite.me‘s Summer Series Silver Lounge. Thank you to three incredible bloggers (Meg of Pigspittle, Ohio, Tienne of The Silver Leaf Journal, and Rowan of Textwall) who provided invaluable feedback and pushed this post–and this blogger–to a stronger place.

baptized in grief

Circular Congregational Church Charleston SC by Steven Hyatt-13-L

I used to go to church all the time. Sunday school. Sunday service. Luncheons. Wednesday night supper. Choir practice. Youth group. I drank holy water growing up the way I drink red wine today.

But until this past Monday–Memorial Day–I hadn’t been to church since my Mother’s funeral in December. Not for Christmas. Not for Easter. Not for Ash Wednesday. Or Good Friday. Or Bad Fridays. Or any damn Sunday in between.

But on Monday, at 2:30 in the afternoon, I found myself on a wooden pew of the Circular Congregational Church in downtown Charleston.

I was there for a free concert, part of an annual performing arts festival. The Festival Singers, an a Capella group from Georgia, were scheduled to perform.

The sanctuary filled quickly with locals and tourists and family members and friends. The pews groaned beneath our weight. Bearing all the burdens we didn’t even know we carried.

Arriving early to ensure I could find a seat, I waited. Filled my lungs with deep, tense breaths. I steadied my trembling hands by clutching the purse in my lap. I told myself I could make it.

I held it together through the powerful opening number. Through the Funeral Ikos, devastating as the words were. Through the Polish folk songs from the Holocaust. Through the African spirituals. I held it together through the standing ovation. I heaved a relieved sigh, undetected among the thunderous applause; I was going to make it.

Then the music director turned to the audience. It is tradition, he explained, to end the show with Amazing Grace.

And that’s when I felt my chest swell. Like a raging river was rising up inside of me. And the beat of my heart matched the pace of those waters crashing against my rib cage. A dull, familiar throb pounded at my breastbone, just beneath my collar.

Because that’s where I carry my grief, my guilt, my pain.

A tall, slender soprano stepped forward to lead with a solo. Her voice cut through the humid Lowcountry air with piercing clarity and precision and ease.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see. 

My river found its way to the surface. Slipping down my cheeks in quick, sloppy tears. I struggled not let out an audible cry. Not to visibly shake.

But I did nothing to stop those tears from coming.

I cried for my love-hate relationship with religion. For needing it now more than ever, while feeling it slip further and further away.

I cried for my own wretch of a soul. Wading blindly through the waters of doubt and grief. No grace in sight to save me.

And though it should have been a day when I cried for those who gave their lives for this country, I cried instead for the woman who gave life to me.

As that unwavering soprano voice soared along the arches in that sacred space, I let the words wash over me.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares

I have already come.

‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home.

I let the tears take with them even the smallest salty portion of my sorrow.

That moment of release was all the grace I needed.

 

Photo Credit: “Circular Congregational Church Charleston SC” by Steven Hyatt, available for purchase at The Churches of the World

a little sh*t goes a long way

I pet sat for my dad last week while he was in Alaska. He has three dogs: a decrepit beagle, a mutt that suffers from OCD, and a bulldog puppy.

During the day, I made every attempt to work remotely in between cleaning up messes the oldest one let slip and retrieving lost tennis balls for the OCD one and removing the world’s friendliest bulldog from my lap.

Each moment was truly an adventure.

One day about halfway through my stay, during the middle of a conference call, the pack began barking in deafening unison. I exited the house into the backyard, apologizing the whole way to my colleagues on the other end of the line, who had all stopped mid-discussion from the shrill disturbance.

Once outside, I began pacing the cold, wet patio as we wrapped up the call. At one point, I approached the patio’s edge and saw what at first looked like a dog toy discarded on the ground.

It was not a toy.

It was a chipmunk.

And it was not in good shape.

And by not in good shape, I mean it was dead.

Being the skittish young woman I am–the kind who would rather drown a roach in aerosol hairspray than attempt to hit it with a shoe–I screamed. I waited until I hung up the phone, of course. And then let out a rapid series of staccato yelps.

At this point, the bulldog, who had followed me outside, also discovered the chipmunk. And I knew I couldn’t just leave it there.

I grabbed two nearby buckets, normally kept for poop scooping, and proceeded to try to collect the lifeless body into one of them using the other one as a makeshift sort of shovel, letting out more of my quick-fire screams every time I made any sort of progress, and apologizing out loud to little Alvin or Simon or whoever it was the whole time.

Eventually I managed to get it into a bucket. Thinking that was going to be the hardest part of the ordeal, I began searching for the best place along the fence to throw it over. (My dad’s house is next to an undeveloped swampy area on one side, in case you’re wondering if I was going to throw the corpse into a neighbor’s yard.)

Holding the bucket as far away from me as my arms would allow, and at shoulder height so I could not accidentally glance inside, I proceeded to walk down the yard’s typically innocuous incline toward the fence. It had been raining all week and with the bucket distracting me from the ground below, I never saw the thick pile of wet dog shit waiting for my foot’s impending arrival.

I stepped in it. And I mean I stepped aaaaallllll in it.

My feet immediately slipped out from under me. And in what had to have been the longest tenth of a second in my life, I fell on my ass, sending the poor deceased chipmunk sailing through the air.

It was then, while sitting on the ground covered in shit from my knees to my bum, and next to the corpse of that dead chipmunk, that I had a moment of gratitude.

For me, finding a dead chipmunk is a bad day. Finding a dead chipmunk and then having to dispose of it is a very bad day.

Finding a dead chipmunk and having to dispose of it and then sliding to the ground in a pile of wet dog shit while simultaneously launching the chipmunk through the air? Now that’s just funny.

So I l picked up my pooper-scooper-turned-chipmunk-hearse and laughed that little critter all the way to the other side of the fence.

I guess on some bad days, what you really need is a little more shit.

 

lessons over coffee

espresso pouring into white mug

When I first moved to Charleston after graduating college, I took an unpaid internship for a small advertising agency. To make ends meet, I worked nights at a coffee shop.

That particular coffee shop was situated between an organic food supermarket, a yoga studio, and a day spa. So I never quite understood why it became the gathering spot for members of a local AA support group, consisting mostly of rough-edged men, many of whom were warring with addictions to drugs much heavier than alcohol.

Each evening, among our customers sporting yoga pants and toting canvas grocery bags, the AA crowd gathered on our patio. They smoked cigarettes and slurped coffee and tipped with heavy hands.

There were those who had been sober for longer than I’d been alive. And white-knuckling twenty-somethings just trying to survive rehabilitation by holding their breath. More than once our tip jar was stolen by customers who’d relapsed. One night a regular was found on the steps of the neighboring public library, dead from an apparent overdose.

Some of them opened up to me, their cheerful night-time barista with no lifelong struggles to overcome, no scars on her arms worth hiding. Over the sounds of steaming milk and singer-songwriter tunes, I heard stories of triumph and failure; I witnessed victory and defeat firsthand.

One of my daily encounters was with a man named Damon. He had eyes as stormy as swirling shots of espresso and a jagged voice. His skin was tanned and calloused and thick from years in the sun and bad decisions and worse consequences. I longed to peel back all his layers and see what stories lived inside.

It took months to win him over, but eventually, he let me in. I went from serving him coffee over the counter to bringing it to him at the end of my shift. We discovered each other in between sips of iced americanos.

Damon was the first man I connected to after the conclusion of a painful six-year relationship, the majority of which was spent struggling to get out of it, only to fall back in. I realize now it was my own sort of addiction.

Even though my time with Damon only lasted a few weeks, he restored a confidence in me that was shaken by countless infidelities. He assured me my lack of scars didn’t make me lackluster.

We talked every day until one day we just didn’t. And one day became two. And two became three. When I finally heard from him, he confessed that he’d messed up and had a beer.

I suspected it was probably more than that.

Damon continued to spiral in the only way an addict knows how–down and quickly and out of control–by lying and stealing his way to oblivion until he was finally arrested. And that’s how it ended.

I’ve now hung up my green apron for good, but I miss serving coffee to all those warriors. I miss seeing the fight in their eyes.  I miss the connection I had with Damon.

Thinking back, I wish I could have done something to return the favor for the way he filled up my rehabilitating heart  that spring. For making me see that some scars are beneath the surface, addictions take many forms, and not all support groups are held in Sunday school classrooms. For helping me break free from my own struggles, even as he was sinking back into his.

And most of all, for showing me how to love not in spite of flaws, but because of them.

 

Photo credit: LaurenLemons via Etsy

 

the lost and the found

St. Anthony of Padua
St. Anthony of Padua

 

Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please look all around.
Something is missing that needs to be found.

Those are the words my mother would recite every time something was lost in our household. Except she’d replace the “something” with the name of the misplaced item: my homework, a favorite pair of shoes, or most often, the car keys. She’d finish off the request with a triumphant “Thank you, Saint Anthony,” always confident in her faithful patron saint of lost things.

Saint Anthony usually pulled through for her, too. With the exception of her engagement ring – and I’m sure he did his best with that one – I can’t remember a single time the requested item wasn’t found. And believe me when I tell you, we kept the poor guy busy.

Maybe it’s because my mom was such a spiritually keen woman. She was on a first-name basis with many saints and angels. Or maybe she just had that mother’s instinct, the sixth sense of knowing where something was without ever having seen it.

“That’s what mothers are for!” she would have sung at me upon finding something I’d lost. I’d just shake my head in disbelief, dumbfounded by her mom-magic.

The trouble is that not all lost things are meant to be found. And the thing I’ve lost now is my mother. Despite my prayers, all the patron saints and angels in heaven cannot help me.

When I was younger, mom once asked that if something was ever to happen to her, would I want her to come back as a shooting star or a rainbow? Perhaps even a budding rose? A question to which I’m pretty sure I responded that coming back from the dead in any form was going to scare the shit out of me, and she should probably just rest in peace.

So I guess you’d call it ironic that just four months after her death, I find myself constantly concentrating on the night sky, hoping to spot even the faintest star taking a dive.

Thus far, I haven’t seen one. Some nights I can’t see any stars at all.

But there are other times when I sense her presence without the help of stars and rainbows and fresh blooms. Like when I walk into a cafe that’s playing Paul Simon’s Graceland on repeat. Or when I find an old photo of her that’s fallen down the side of the fridge. Or even last night, when I grabbed a novel from my bedside table, hoping to finish it off before falling asleep, and in the final pages, it quotes the prayer to Saint Anthony.

And in those moments, I’m flooded with memories of her. Memories I’d completely forgotten. Memories worth more than shoes and homework and engagement rings and everything she and I have ever lost combined.

I have to believe it’s because of her. That somewhere not-so-far away, my mom is still calling on her old friend to find the things I’ve lost.

So thank you, Saint Anthony, for bringing her back to me.