Stuck In The Middle

Me and my mom, Christmas, early '80s.

Me and mom, Christmas, 1981.

So at last I am making real progress on the book. But it’s been an interesting struggle, and not one for the faint of heart.

When I wrote Falling Apart In One Piece, I was constantly asked “Was it cathartic to write?” My answer always was: No, it was cathartic to live. And that was true, an experience of sorting and learning and letting go, which I captured in the book. But it was all done for me by the time I sat down to write it.

This book that I am working on is about my complex, boundary-less relationship with my mother, the mighty Sharon Lee Wiley Morrison. It’s a book I probably started writing in my head when I was nine or ten years old. And a book I will never stop living.

Throwing myself back in time to the incredibly intense, heartbreaking stuff I went through with my family is… humbling, to say the least. I am nowhere near catharsis yet. The letters my mother and I wrote each other take my breath away and make me ache for my 16-, 19-, 23-year-old self, being so big and strong to try to carry her. I am feeling years of sadness I never gave myself permission to feel when I was living those moments. I had to be solid and together enough to carry us both. But looking back as an adult and a mother of a child…. It’s like being on a carousel: I see glimpses of things that look familiar, but it’s all whizzing by in disorienting flashes of color and time. I emerge from the reading dizzy and a little lost. What year is it now? Am I in high school? College? Am I depressed? Sad? Failing at life? Oh, no. I’m here. I’m fine. I’m in my home. My adult home. My haven, the safe place I finally made for myself only after my parents died and I could finally stop running at full speed to save her — or, later, forgive myself for not saving her. For deciding instead to save myself.

I don’t do pity. My mother was an iron fist in a velvet glove and taught me to be formidable, strong, never to buckle in the face of a challenge. So to suddenly ache for the little-girl me and all she had to be completely undoes the critical promise I made to myself: the idea that I was handling it. I was coping with it. I was going to overcome it and not let my father’s rage and my mother’s depression and hopelessness undo me. I was not going to let my parents’ mutual dependence on me as a go-between in their marriage make me weak and hurt. I was big enough, smart enough, wise enough to exist for their needs and problems, and help them out, and simultaneously forgive them.

I thought I was brave. I never knew I was also kind of tragic. That’s what I see in my brave-faced notes to myself and my mother. That’s what’s hidden between the lines of my occasionally high-risk behavior (wrecking my parents’ car before I had a license, having a boozy party at my next-door-neighbor’s house thinking my parents wouldn’t notice and more and more) and bottomless need to seek out other people’s pain. I fed on pain, annealed myself to it, to teach myself I could handle it, all of it, and make it not hurt.

I didn’t exactly know that that was my story.

And I also don’t think I fully realized that writing my mother’s story meant that I would also be telling my story. My whole entire story. Everything about how I became me.

The theme of the book I am writing is about the malleability of identity—how we make ourselves up, sometimes anew every day; and the immutability of family—all that we can’t escape, no matter how much we try to bury or overcome it.

I thought that was my mother’s story, she who was airbrushing away her coal-holler past and instead building a beautiful sandcastle in the air of for herself, where she was Southern royalty, and had lived out all her dreams (sometimes through her daughter)—instead of being held back by the darkness of her childhood and the failures of fate, family and feminism to save her.

But turns out, it’s my story, too. How I made myself up in the chaos of my home, fed by the bottomless love of my mother but made querulous by her pain. And as much as I promised myself I would leave my family behind and not be wounded by them—because to be wounded by them would mean acknowledging that they hurt me—here I am, having to acknowledge it. To myself. The rest of the world probably already knew this. But 47 years of almost constant thinking and sorting about my childhood and my mother’s grief and pain and how that all added up to me…. I am only now able to see that yes, I made it, as I promised myself—but I am not unscathed.

Nor should I be.

The sweet and heavy immutability of family… it lies within us all, whispering a story into our ears and hearts—and not caring if it’s different from the story we told ourselves to survive.


About stacy

I am a writer, author, mother, former magazine editor (last at Redbook), optimist, and, above all, a searcher. I'm still searching for whom I'm really meant to be, after a series of very jarring losses. Since then I've been trying to figure out what's next. Or, in other words, how to fill in the blanks.
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25 Responses to Stuck In The Middle

  1. Rita says:

    The immutability of family. You’ve just named my biggest worry for my daughter, who is very much like the young woman I imagine you to have been. Even though she is much aware of the ways in which our family drama is likely to affect her, I am seeing that that knowledge is not enough to innoculate her. I think your book will be important for readers such as she. Can’t wait to read it.

    • stacy says:

      Knowledge does not inoculate, no. But it helps, a lot. So does therapy and having a family that can talk about what is hard. You’re not a closed book, Rita, and that will help her a lot. xoxo

  2. Lindsey says:

    This takes my breath away, Stacy. I cannot wait to read this book. xox

  3. Melissa says:

    Precise, candid, evocative, compelling. Always beautiful. xo

  4. alexandra says:

    I need your words. If only you knew how you became my friend before I knew you, through Falling Apart in One Piece.

  5. Deb Rox says:

    I, too, need this book. This is going to be well met. That last line is everything.

  6. Debbie says:

    “Falling Apart in One Piece” was the book that really pulled together so many pieces of my marriage/separation/divorce. I am willing to wager that your upcoming book will do the same for the pieces of my own childhood/mother-daughter relationship/family dynamics. Can you write faster please?!?!? Hugs and love, Deb xoxo

    • stacy says:

      Debbie, thank you. It truly is comments like yours that keep me going through the slog!! It’s an honor to be a part of your learning and living. xo

  7. Rita Arens says:

    Deb & I were talking about pain on the phone yesterday and I promised I would write the post about enduring it that I have not yet written. But I will. And then I’ll come back here and tell it because I thought of you, as well.

  8. Julie Ross Godar says:

    This hit me hard. And your writing is focused and beautiful. I can hear your flow.

    Also, I love that your mom is reading Ngaio Marsh in that photo.

    • stacy says:

      Thank you, Julie. Means a lot coming from you. And of course you would somehow zero in on the miniscule type on her book in the photo. I LOVE that you did that. xo

  9. D. A. Wolf says:

    So glad you’re making progress. This is the sort of process that is not linear, whether writing is involved or not. Many of us will relate to the fact that we cannot escape family even when they’re gone. Your story will help us understand our own.

    Nor can we escape history, which is something that I’m learning.

    I suppose it’s what we do with those issues and the awareness that we can’t simply walk away from him. But that certainly sounds easier than it actually is to do.


    • stacy says:

      Wolfie, yes, the weight of family, of history. Everything is always brand-new in our society, and yet… that can’t be true. History matters. My younger self thought it utterly didn’t — but of course that’s what I thought then. xo

  10. Trish Sammer says:

    How did you know that this was exactly what I needed to read this morning? Thank you.

    Add me to the chorus of “can’t wait to read this book.”

  11. stacy says:

    Thank you, Trish. I’m glad it registered for you. And yes, I’ll need the chorus. Sometimes when I’m writing my story I think “Why the hell do I think this will be interesting to anyone?” So the reminders from all of you… they give me courage and feed my will. xo

    • Trish Sammer says:

      Mothers and daughters … and family. So complicated. I’m interested. I’m listening. And I think I actually NEED to hear other people’s stories to make some sense of my own.

      Consider this a nudge from the universe. Write on, lady.

  12. Michelle says:

    “For deciding instead to save myself.”
    This line, coupled with the preceding “forgive myself for not saving her” has brought me to tears of recognition and relief. Yes. A resounding YES. And thank you. Now hurry up and finish this book because I am one of many who desperately need to read your words.

  13. Michelle says:

    Also, xo because the above sounds a little harsh and I mean only love and gratitude.

    • stacy says:

      Michelle, nope! I totally read your comment the way you intended. Thank you for your affirmation. And yes, I am hurrying on the book. I can’t wait to finally be on the other side of it. : )

  14. Em Gee says:

    I simply cannot wait to read this book, too. Although, I might find that I’m like your mom in this story. We try to show our brave faces for our kids but we have little fissures all over, trying to hold things together while keeping to ourselves in a private pain, searching for someone we trust with whom to comiserate, often inappropriately, often only in our kids because they are so much a part of our identity as mothers. I’m probably way off, but your account of her seems familiar from her end.

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