I’m starting to crack open my journals to find the things I know I want to share and it is reminding me of so many things I haven’t thought about in quite a while. They don’t cut me like they did in the past but it is quite the experience to find them now and realize how so many of these things I’ve carried so heavily in my past seem like distant memories as I read about them. I am certain I will always have the scars and some of them will itch once in a while but I am feeling my load lightened as I unpack these boxes of hurt and shame within me, process their contents and then leave them behind.
As you travel along on your journey, be sure not to box things up and carry them forward with you. It is so easy to do this; to suppress the pain, anger shame and other negative emotions and just carry on. But when we do, we carry them with us and each box we gather and carry becomes a weight that makes the steep parts of the paths in front of us that much harder. I’ve found that many of the oldest boxes that I’ve discovered buried the deepest within me and have always felt so big and heavy because I was a child when I boxed them up. So I’ve carried this child size pain and shame so heavily within me for most of my life. Oh the energy I’ve wasted working through life itself with this extra weight on me that could have been unpacked and resolved so much sooner.
In following this analogy of boxes, there is a box of hurt, shame and confusion that I have carried since childhood that has never become buried because I’ve been adding to it fairly regularly for most of my life right up until recently. This box is my “Taylor family” box – a box representing my mom’s very large, very loud and very dysfunctional extended family. My Grandma Taylor died only three months ago and with her death I consider myself no longer in any way related to the family. But I get ahead of myself. Let me give you the full story so that I may unpack this big heavy box and you’ll understand another building block in my foundation; it being so fundamental not only from the impact on my life but in its impact on my mom’s life in making her the mother she was to me.
My Grandpa Taylor was one of several brothers born into a poor family in a rural county seat smack dab in the center of the U.S. Working for most of his life in custodial positions, he was a simple man and, from what I was told once but have never verified, was the only one of his brothers to never go to prison. At a young age he married my mom’s mother and they had two children, my mom and her older brother. Sadly my mom’s mom died at the age of 21 from ovarian cancer only 9 months after my mom was born (making my existent in this world somewhat of a miracle, actually, if you think about it) and she and her brother were sent to live with their paternal grandparents for several years. Although older and poor, these grandparents provided a good childhood for for my mom during those years and as I was growing up she spoke of that time fondly.
When my mom was around 7 or 9 years old, my grandpa met and married the woman I grew up to know as Grandma Taylor. Eighteen years old and raised in an orphanage, she was only a little over ten years older than my mom when she became her stepmother. Wanting his family to be back together, my grandpa sent for my mom and her brother; taking my mom away from the only home she had ever known and setting up what became one of the pivotal dynamics in creating the mother who raised me. Grandma Taylor, as I have always known her, has always been kind and loving but when my mom was growing up grandma was a very poor and very young new wife with two stepchildren and quickly became pregnant with what would be the first of several more children. The orphanage had not prepared her for being a young wife and mother to so many children and she struggled in those early years. I have been given some details that I won’t share with you here but suffice it to say my mother was physically abused and was forced to forego school activities and ignore her schoolwork in order to help with the care and feeding of her multiple younger siblings (5 or 6, I believe but I’m not sure) that started to pour into the family one to two years apart.
It is my understanding that my mom’s family was one of the poorest in the county and my mom often told stories of having to use an outhouse, not having running water and not being able to bathe or launder her clothing. When I was growing up she was adamant about having a clean house because she had grown up in a dirty one and once, after bringing home a cockroach in a paper shopping bag and seeing it run from the bag and under the kitchen sink, mom spent hours pulling almost everything out of the kitchen and searching until she found it and killed it – her determination fueled by her determination to never live with bugs again. Growing up she had been embarrassed to be part of a family that was known to be low class, loud, dirty and what I’m pretty sure she considered to be “white trash.” The Taylor family wasn’t well educated within those two generations and my mom always seemed to carry an insecurity about having struggled in school due to her home life and her lifelong struggle to read and write quickly (my sister and I, after remembering how she would practice writing, realized later she was probably dyslexic). After graduating from high school, Mom met and married our biological father who was from a well-known and respected farming family in a neighboring town in the same county. My sister and I were born shorty afterwards.
Throughout my childhood, I remember my mom always being very critical of her family and her expectations for my being “good” were especially high anytime we were around them. Having “married up” into what my mom considered a better family than the Taylors, Mom expected my sister and I to be models of a higher class and upbringing in their presence – an attitude she took with them as well. By this time the family had grown exponentially and my mom’s many siblings had many children and I would watch my mom’s many nieces and nephews chase each other, play and have so much fun at family events. They were all well acquainted and very close because their families spent a lot of time together. But for the annual Christmas parties and 4th of July picnics that we joined them as a family, we were dressed in pressed and spotless pastel dresses, stockings or lacy socks and would have pin curls set in our hair. And throughout the family gatherings, we were expected to sit in a chair, to look pretty and to be well behaved. This wasn’t difficult for my quiet natured older sister who reminded my mom so much of our father’s family. But it was always so hard for me not to do the wrong things or say the wrong things when I was surrounded by loud, sweaty and hyper cousins that were so much like me.
No matter how hard I tried, I always ended up acting like the Taylor that I very much was and my mom would find me running in my dirty lace cuffed socks, sweaty and with my pin curls melted and sticking to my neck. The ride home from every Taylor family get together was a ride filled with me being shamed and told about how grandly I had failed in being good. I am sure, from me having shared what I’ve shared so far, that you have already seen what it took until just this year for me to realize. My mom, in telling me I reminded her of herself, was telling me I reminded her of the Taylors. And in telling me to be “good,” she was telling me not to act like a Taylor. It was, I see now, an expectation I would never have been able to meet, no matter how hard I tried.
Down the road, as a working single mom, Mom would need to find a place for me to go during the summers and I would sometimes have extended visits with one of my mom’s sisters so that I wasn’t left at home alone. (An aside: I was not allowed by my mom to call her sisters and brothers my aunts and uncles because according her they weren’t mine they were hers. Also, I wasn’t allowed to stay at home because it was always assumed I would get into trouble and by this age, I usually did because I was pretty messed up kid.) The sister I spent the most time with had an obnoxious horrible husband and had two children; a boy a year or two younger than me and a girl a few years younger than him. My memories of these visits are vague and I specifically recall little about them other than I can remember the layout of the house and have strangely vivid flashes of some of my experiences there (almost like still of a picture caught by camera flashes).
At some point during my summer stays at my mom’s sister’s house (when I was between 5 and 12 years old, I believe) I started performing fellatio on my cousin and can vaguely remember at least two times this happened but I feel certain there were more. For many years I carried this around within myself as part of my being bad and thought it was proof that I was dirty from the very beginning. Although I was a young child myself when this happened, I thought it meant I was dirty and perverted and the knowledge of what I had done was never suppressed but actively haunted me through my youth and most of my adult life. When I became pregnant with my first child, I remember worrying about becoming a mother because I was a pervert and might hurt my own baby. It was a fear that disappeared as soon as I looked at my daughter after she was born and realized that my maternal instincts were on point, that I could never hurt a child.
Even with my maternal instincts reassuring me that my “perverted” years were behind me, the memories of what I had done to my younger cousin when we were children followed me around and needled me until I was close to 40 years old and I finally confessed this biggest secret to Dr. Mary. I screamed after I told her; terrified at having taken the secret out of its safe place inside of me and placed it out in the room where someone else could hear it. As is always the case when an adult shares the childhood secret that has been needling away at the soul throughout life, my doctor helped me see the childhood event in a whole new light. She told me that no child inherently knows how to perform fellatio and that at sometime at a young age I was taught by someone much older that I; that I was acting out as a result of what I had been taught by trying to teach it to my cousin.
Hearing this and letting this sink in was liberating to the young me who had grown up feeling so dirty and spoiled but at the same time I felt so suddenly angry in realizing that at some point when I was very young an adult had made me feel that way. Dr. Mary and I discussed whether I wanted to try and work through the suppressed memories and see if I could recover the abuse and abuser but I decided against it. Just seeing my biggest dirtiest childhood secret in a different light and learning I wasn’t inherently bad like I always felt was the trauma release I needed and given the timing and the location of my acting out, I already suspected who it was that had given me that trauma. A couple years later, as I was helping at the sale to liquidate my grandparent’s home and assets after they were moved to an assisted living facility, my mom’s sister with whom I was spending those summer weeks as a child was also there with her obnoxious horrible husband. He was being his usual verbally abusive self to her and another of the sisters commented on how disliked he was and how he had molested at least two of the youngest of the sisters when they were growing up. In that moment my suspicions were confirmed and I started working on the puzzle of why no one had every confronted him and why he was still accepted in the family. I have never solved that puzzle.
By the time 2013 came around, I hadn’t seen or spoken to the Taylors in a couple of years and assumed my relationship with them was the same awkward one it had always been. Attending a local festival near my hometown with my new boyfriend’s daughter-in-law, we were walking along the sidewalk looking for a place to sit to watch the upcoming parade when I spotted a large group of my mom’s family (at least 20-30 of them, as is their norm for doing anything) standing together on the sidewalk across from us. Seeing the opportunity to show off how important I was to a bunch of people and how pleased they would be to see me (admittedly a selfish and self-serving impetus), I said “Hey! There is my family! Let’s go over there with them” despite not having much to do with them for quite a while but still expecting the generous and warm reception I was accustomed to receiving from the Taylor family on the rare occasion when I did see them.
After crossing the street, we approached a group of my mom’s nieces first. I thought at first they did not see me approach as they seemed to close into a circle as if talking about or looking at something and so I stood there waiting for them to finish. After I had stood there for a bit without them taking notice of me, I turned and looked over toward where the rest of the family was standing and saw several of them looking at me but turn their gaze and even turn around and present their backs to me when they noticed me looking their way. Still wanting to believe they just didn’t recognize me, I tried getting a couple of them to speak to me but they refused to even look at me and finally I just walked away. I was humiliated, crushed and devastated. My boyfriend’s daughter-in-law, following along and not sure what she had just witnessed asked me, “Do they know they are your family?”
As soon as I had some privacy, I called my sister and told her what had happened. Despite living out of state and not caring for most of the Taylors much herself, she had maintained contact with some of the cousins and reached out to ask why I had received such a cold reception. It was then that I learned I had been accused of stealing a substantial amount of money from my grandparents. Having recently moved to a town close enough to visit them regularly at their assisted living facility, I had started spending quite a bit of time with them. Since I hadn’t been allowed to be close to them growing up, I enjoyed talking to them and hearing stories I had never heard before about my family and its history. I would sometimes stay for hours just looking at pictures and listening to my grandma talk about the rest of the family; often thinking about how I had always wanted to be a part of their tight knit family and hoping maybe I could reconnect with some of them and become more involved. I would usually give Grandma $20 or $50 each time I visited because she told me she liked to have a little cash on her for when others might need it and I knew it made her feel good to be able to help other people out. In a lifetime of not really feeling good about myself and having lost my very special paternal grandmother several years before, finding a relationship with grandma had become a lifeline for me when I really needed it because she truly loved me and demonstrated her loved for me openly and generously each time I was there.
My kind and terminally joyful grandma wearing the scarf I crocheted for her and smiling like she always did.
Learning that my very soul-mending visits with grandma had been turned into an accusation of theft and a public shunning by the family sent me reeling – yet once more I let my guard down thinking it was okay to feel safe, to think I might be wanted and might belong, to think I was good and to believe someone else thought I was good and to be reminded yet again that I was not good and I was not welcome, that I’d never belong and I never would. That when I’ve done no wrong, I’m wrong because I am bad and I had been reminded. I was crushed but I was also angry and I called my mom that evening. I told her what had happened, what I had been accused of and that her family was “dead to me.” I told her that I knew it wouldn’t mean anything to her but that I wanted her to know that her own family was slandering me and I would never forgive them. She didn’t seem too upset or surprised. She listened to what I said and then just moved on to another random topic and then we hung up and never discussed it again after that. Mom continued to celebrate the holidays with her family and I continued to ignore her and deny their existence in the world until 2016 when Mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer and placed in the local nursing home to die.
I’m not sure what experience you may have with terminal care but one of the ways the dying accept their death is through denial. It is cognitive dissonance in its utmost – a denial so deep the person discusses their terminal diagnosis with the doctor who prescribes physical therapy to make their time remaining as comfortable as possible and then they immediately start talking about how the physical therapy is going to help in recovery for a faster release and return home and to normal life. Even as she had a palliative port in her abdominal wall to occasionally drain the ascites that would otherwise press on her diaphragm and prevent her from being able to breathe, Mom was determined to get better.
When I spoke to a hospice worker about her seeming to not understand she was dying he told me that some people just can’t handle knowing what they know and their mind just finds away around the truth each time they encounter it. In these cases, he told me, it feels like to us who will be left behind that the dying need to understand and accept they are dying so they can give us the kind of ending and closure we need from them before they leave but that they don’t owe us anything. He explained that it is selfish to ask our loved ones to die the way we need them to and that in the interest of giving her the kind of support she needed, the best thing to do was to let Mom believe whatever she needed to believe while her life slipped away from her. So I did.
My mom, ever the one to live in denial, refused to acknowledge she was dying right up until the day she slipped into a coma and died. And proud to the point of pretending, throughout her dying days she didn’t want anyone see her while she was feeling so sick and in a hospital bed so she didn’t allow many visitors – asking me to turn away one of her sisters at the door and telling another on the phone that she was feeling stronger every day and there was no need to fly home from California to see her. On the couple of occasions she was feeling well enough to have visitors, I had to help her get dressed, fix herself up and get seated into a rocker recliner next to her hospital bed where she remained throughout the visit and only allowed the tears and pain to break through the facade after the too long visit had ended.
The privilege of seeing her vulnerable and being trusted and allowed to be with her and take care of her while she was going through it all was not lost on me. And I was frequently reminded, under no uncertain terms, that this trust was based upon her expectation I tell no one “her business” and allow her to share what she wanted to share with everyone else. I knew that if I were to break that trust, I would also be turned away at the door and my chance to say goodbye to my mom would be gone with no chance at getting it back. So I kept her secrets from everyone, including her, and I turned people away at the door even as they yelled at me and accused me of having less than moral reasons for doing so. And when she died only six weeks after her diagnosis and being admitted, besides my sister and I and my children she had only received her older brother and his wife, her sister and her creepy husband and one close friend as visitors. Everyone else was kept out and left to assume I was the reason they were unable to say goodbye. This did not go over well with the Taylors.
When deciding the funeral arrangements, my sister and I couldn’t remember all of her brother and sister’s names and how to spell them so we decided just to list ourselves and our children as her survivors. This did not go over well with the Taylors.
Instead of a funeral we held a celebration of life and from her 43 years working at the local bank, there was a large turnout from the community and Mom’s entire Taylor family also attended – speaking to my sister but ignoring me with the exception of my creepy uncle who followed me around trying to talk to me throughout the entire time. My sister and I decided we just wanted to mingle and speak to whoever we chose. This meant there wouldn’t be a receiving line for the family and took away Mom’s siblings chances to announce themselves as family. This did not go over well with the Taylors.
And since she was being cremated and buried on top of her mother who had died when she was an infant, we had it listed that there would be a private interment for Mom at a later date. A couple of months later we had her buried when her headstone was set because the headstone guy said he could do both at the same time for one charge and we figured “Why not?” since my sister was in town and wouldn’t have to make a return trip that way. So Mom’s ashes were buried without us planning ahead of time and there was no invitation given for others to be there. This did not go over well with the Taylors.
And of course, as I’m guessing you may have already figured out, when these many things didn’t go over well with the Taylors, they didn’t spend a lot of time considering why things might have happened the way they did, or attempting to reach out and ask, or even considering the possibility my sister might be helping in making these decisions since she lives out of state. You see, it was so much easier to assume I wanted to keep Mom from them as she died, that I wanted her all to myself in her obituary and burial and that I took a seat at her celebration of life just so they couldn’t stand up. It’s amazing to me how such a large group of people can convince themselves to collectively make so many assumptions and be so wrong about so many things without even a single one of them ever reaching out even once to ask questions or to complain about these horrible things they think are being done to them. Instead they chose to feed their group think and to feel the target and victims of someone who doesn’t even care where they are standing much less attempt to aim toward them.
Following mom’s death, I continued to visit grandma frequently and during one particularly poignant visit she cried and confessed that she had beat my mom when she was younger. Recognizing these beatings had been a big part of creating the mother who had raised me, I forgave Grandma for it and told her she didn’t need to carry the guilt anymore. It was a really redeeming moment and it was the first and only time I saw my grandma cry. A couple of times during our visits one of the sisters would show up and see me there and would make a dramatic show of their disapproval but I tried to let it slide off my back without letting it sink in and never let it keep me away.
The last time I visited grandma about a month before she had died, I had sent her flowers from the local flower shop only a couple of days before and noticed they weren’t in her room. Thinking they hadn’t been delivered as I expected, I asked if she had received them and she said “They [the sisters] said they needed to out in the dining room where everyone could see them. I don’t know why I couldn’t keep them in here, they were so pretty! But I got to keep the card that came with them.” It took a couple of therapy sessions for me to get past the anger from the fact that not only was I unwelcome in a family that was still accepting a man who had molested at least two of the women in the family, but even pretty flowers weren’t allowed in my grandma’s room if they were sent by me. That is a very bitter kind of rejection to swallow.
As Mom’s estate administrator, my sister was sorting through her paperwork a few weeks after her death and came across some old copies of my grandparent’s bank statements. On them my mom had carefully marked each one of the many withdrawals one of her sisters had been making from the account back in 2012 and 2013… as she stole my grandparent’s money! At first I was angry Mom had proof of my innocence but didn’t clear my name with her family while she still had the chance but I’ve let that anger go. Because I finally realized that now I know Mom checked and found me honest and maybe, dare I hope, even a little…good?
Well that’s the Taylor family box emptied and unloaded from my soul and my journey. What a good feeling to finally be lightening my load instead of adding to it. I have already decided which box will be unpacked next and I will start preparing now. This next one is a doozie.