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.