I am currently overseas visiting my daughter and her family. I came to attend the birth of my 2nd grandson and to help out, and here I’ve been for more than 5 weeks, with one more to go. I’ve been cocooned in our close world here of: birthing and all the drama, magic and change that brings. Our daily routine of driving to preschool, cleaning, shopping, taking long walks, playing with my amazing three-and-a-half-year-old grandson at the park, cooking, bedtime routines, reading, too little sleep and repeat. Day in and day out. It’s heavenly and draining all at the same time.
The day I left home, I learned that an essay I submitted to the annual Whatcom Writes competition, part of a county-wide book group event, was selected for inclusion in their annual collection. This year’s book selection was Timothy Egan’s book The Big Burn, which inspired the theme “Hindsight.” All essays selected will be part of an anthology on the theme.
I’m so honored to be included in this collection, with other writers who I admire and respect; it’s something I’ve aspired to try for several years. As part of this group, this past week and this weekend, I would have been reading my essay aloud at our local book store, Village Books. However, our delicious grandson came two weeks late, and I was unable to get home in time. I’m sharing it here for the first time. Per the rules of the competition, submissions could not be published elsewhere until after the competition.
Needless to say, it’s a deeply personal piece, and while part of me cringes knowing it will be read by so many people–– this is also why I write: to share and connect. I am not the only person who experienced a challenging family history. I’m not the only child who saw their parents divorce, and behave badly, or who was taken by one parent from the other parent. I’m not the only child who felt lost and broken, and who carried that into adulthood. In sharing my own story, I hope others recognize some facet of their own story and relate to mine. I hope that connections can be made through writing. I cringe and I celebrate, knowing this piece is out in the world. I’m proud of this work and so amazed and happy to have had it chosen for Whatcom Writes. I welcome honest feedback in the comments.
A Daughter’s Tale
If hindsight could change the course of a life, my father might still be alive. He would be an incredible grandfather to my three children, just as he was a loving father to my siblings and me. He would be madly in love with his only great-grandson, because that boy is the light of my life. He would be anticipating the birth of a second great-grandson and joking about how my daughter, his granddaughter, will lose her heart to these two boys.
If all the things I now know about child abuse, divorce and dysfunction, about parents who steal children and lie to them, and how what we understand as children is colored by all the things we do to survive–– if all of this hindsight could change the course of my life, I would be a very different woman today.
When I was nine years old, my mother kidnapped my younger sister, brother and I and took us from California to Massachusetts. She told us it was a surprise, and we couldn’t tell our dad, who had been caring for us for a year and half, after they separated and she abandoned us. That’s a mouthful. It’s a lot of dysfunction. Is it any wonder that at nine years old I quickly learned to believe the lies and twisted explanations fed to me?
Small children do what is needed to feel secure. As a Social Worker I witnessed the most horribly abused children plead to be reunited with parents who hurt them. I will never forget an eight-year-old girl who had to be restrained, as she fought to get back to the father who molested her and then locked her in a burning house. That’s how determined children can be to cling to parents, however bad the situation might be.
Our mother abandoned us and disappeared for a year and a half. We didn’t see her or hear anything from her for that entire period. She left us alone in our apartment. I was seven, my brother five, and our sister fifteen months old. Dad showed up as I fretfully tried to change my baby sister’s diaper, and worried that we were out of cereal. Those memories haunted me for years, even when I couldn’t find the context. No one knows how long we were alone there. His family quickly circled the wagons and wrapped us up in a world where we were fed healthy meals, dressed in clean, age-appropriate clothing and sent to school with homemade lunches. It was a world where every Sunday night included The Magical World of Disney and we felt loved and safe at all times.
But our mother was gone. I remember lying awake many nights fearful and anxious, sure that there was a monster under the bed I shared with my brother. Hindsight tells me I must have wondered where my mother went and why she left us. I remember sitting on the curb outside our house, and watching, and watching, and watching some more. Hindsight: when is she coming back? Doesn’t she love us anymore?
However, when she did return and asked to spend a weekend with us, despite my happiness I also felt wary and suspicious of the boxes in her small apartment, after our father hesitantly left us there on a Friday afternoon. I remember feeling a knot in my stomach when she took us to the airport on Saturday morning. I’d never been on a plane, so I was excited. But I also knew we were going to the Ice Capades on Sunday; how would we get back in time? The thick, sticky ball of fear that would live in me for most of my life formed that day.
Ensconced in a new house with my mother’s family, and fed a steady stream of lies about my father, I learned to push down my fears, my questions or doubts. I learned not to trust my gut. I felt helpless to change all of the crazy things happening in my life, and eventually figured it was easier to pretend nothing was wrong. Despite my visceral memories of my father’s love, it was easier to accept Mom’s version of the truth, than to hold tight to my own knowledge and suffer the pain of his loss. At nine years old I learned quickly to believe whatever story kept me fed and cared for.
I cried each night under my covers, afraid to invoke my mother’s resentment or anger. With hindsight I can see my young mind recognized her insecurity and instability even if I didn’t have adult terms for either. My brother and I knew our father loved us, even if she cast doubt. We recognized that crossing the country with no clothes, or any of our toys or belongings, did not constitute the vacation she claimed it was. When our father didn’t call we knew something was amiss. We knew he loved us more than any thing. But I pushed it all down.
It took my father nearly six months to locate us. By then I’d given up on truth, and believed he didn’t want us anymore. Why else hadn’t we heard from him; why hadn’t he come to take us home? Almost a year after she took us, my mother told us our father was coming to visit. I daydreamed and wished that they were getting back together, and we could all be reunited. I couldn’t wait to see Dad again; it was all I thought about for weeks.
My father was thirty-three years old when he was killed in a car accident–– two weeks before we were supposed to see him again. That day is seared in me as the day I swallowed truth and hope and knew I was on my own.
Hindsight is not always twenty-twenty; on the contrary, it can be entirely myopic. As the eldest child of two people who married too young and split when I was seven, I knew helping with housework and going along with whatever my mother told us, was the safest approach after our father died. I was her partner; there was no veering from the script. As an adult, I didn’t look back and see all the obvious truths. Instead, I clung to the safe story my young mind had used to cope; I only accepted hindsight that fit that version of the truth–– a story that made sense of the inconceivable.
With only my mother’s stories in my head, I believed my father hadn’t really taken care of us. I accepted that he wasn’t a good father. I forgot she abandoned us. I buried it so deep I had only dreams about living with Dad. That’s what I did to survive: I forgot key, essential truths, so I wouldn’t be swallowed by my grief and rage. I forgot key things so I wouldn’t feel like I’d helped kill my father. After all, if we’d been with him he wouldn’t have been at that intersection; he would have been home with us. My ten-year-old reasoning stayed with me for decades.
However, this entire story comes together through hindsight. As I grew up and began to question missing links, I began to see things I’d never understood. I got a Masters in Social Work and began to understand the impact of childhood trauma. Most importantly, my father’s family finally filled in the blanks.
My father’s two sisters always assumed I remembered the facts. They didn’t understand why I saw Mom through rose colored glasses and was critical of my father, but they didn’t want to rock that boat. When the truth finally came out, forty years later, the facts collided with all of my previous beliefs, and I finally started down a road to healing and reconciliation.
By then both of my parents were dead; there were no witnesses to set the record straight. My aunts only knew a few critical pieces of the story. However, when I heard the truth I recognized it immediately. It fit with all of the things I’d tried to make sense of all of my life–– all the things I’d pushed down and buried.
Hindsight has finally freed me to love a father who made us his life’s focus. I know he didn’t give us away, or abandon us. He fought to get us back until the day he died. Hindsight has freed me to see that my mother was a broken woman who had her own demons. She did her best, even if it wasn’t the best for us. I can now see that a deep seeded fear of abandonment has been my rudder for far too long.
If hindsight could change the course of a life, my father would probably have still died in 1973, when I was ten years old. But I could have lived my life secure in the fact that he loved me, and I was important to him. Looking back, it was all there; I just couldn’t see it. Sometimes, hindsight is everything.
For my father who in spirit and in flesh always loved me. For my mother, who did her best.
* * *
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Dawn, you are an exceptional writer. Each piece I read has me totally intrigued.
Robin, that is so incredibly kind of you. It means so much. Thanks for taking the time to read my work! xo
Mazel tov! Double whammy– a new grandson and publication! Great! You must be getting quite proficient in Hebrew being there for so long. xo
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Thanks so much Lisa! the first is much more exciting than the 2nd, but I feel pretty great about both. As for my proficiency with Hebrew…. um, nope. But my grandson is quite good at English now! 😉 xo
Congratulations Dawn!! On your new baby grandson and your beautifully written piece being honored in this way! >
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Thanks so much dear one! JUST today I was thinking of how to get a message of to you. Can’t phone from here or text (I use WhatsApp, if you’re on there), but wanted to share photos with you! You’ve been much on my mind as I walk and think, think and walk. Thanks for your support and love. I’ll call when I get home and the jet lag has passed.
Dawn, this was supremely well written. Real. Engaging. Truth.
As someone who knows childhood trauma and works with children who’d been traumatized (and their parents, who often carry their own burdens), I too recognize truth when it is there. And this rings deep and clear and oh-so-important.
I’m sorry for all the hardship you’d endured. I hope you feel immensely proud of the person you’d become, and of the insight you’ve been able to seek and find.
And, yes, I think many will relate — if not in exact detail, then in the feeling-sense of truth, lies, confusion, and survival — to how children do what they must do to get by and feel whatever love they can make, no matter how contrary the circumstance.
We cannot live otherwise.
Histories differ, but the experience of helpless childhood and the need to bury parts of one’s own experience in order to endure what otherwise will be too painful to understand, is something I – and I’m sure many others – understand.
So glad this was accepted for publication! It well should!
Hugs if they are welcome,
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Na’ama, thank you so much for your very kind, and meaningful praise. I appreciate your perspective as I know you have tremendous experience in the field. I have written several blog posts about my childhood and aspects of it, but this recognition is very meaningful for me, as I really respect the folks who contribute. I know my work was up against equally excellent writing! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment; it much appreciated. Todah Ribah!
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You are most welcome, Dawn.
Crazy making realities make a big chunk of childhood hardship for many. Helplessness and dependency are interwoven for too many children, and the adaptations are always painful, if only for what they require a child to shed, ignore, repress, forget, pretend, abandon, lose.
I’m so glad you wrote this, and shared this. I have me a feeling you could have some seriously meaningful chats, one of those days, and in the meanwhile – hugs and kudos to you! Na’ama
As a social worker who worked with abused kids for many years, I believe my own childhood experiences did indeed lead to many meaningful conversations. Now, I’m working on myself. I’m glad there is much more awareness about these kinds of things today, then there were when I was a kid. Grateful for the work you do, Na’ama!
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Yes, one’s history can become an asset — not that I’d recommend that as a path, but since we cannot change what happened, only how we respond and react to it and what we do WITH it, there can be aspects of one’s own insight that can become helpful in helping others.
Working on one-self is an integral part of being healthy and of not falling into pockets of unprocessed history. Good for you. I think some of us who work with those who experience adversity, do well to keep a good eye on our own needs, whatever form that takes through life. Good for you.
And … thank you. Life led me to what I do now, and while I wouldn’t advocate some parts of history as the way to go about it, I am grateful for the opportunities I’d had and the lessons I’ve been able to glean from both harder and gentler ones.
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Thank you for sharing your story. Painful but beautiful. Written with great wisdom.
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Thanks so much Marian. I really respect and appreciate your feedback. Loved your piece, but no place to leave a comment. Such a powerful story! I’m honored to be in such great company.
Dawn – what a whirlwind of emotions. New precious grandson #2, and your writing selected by Whatcom Writes! You write with such insight about your growth from the trauma and pain of your childhood. Truly visceral and compelling.
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Thanks so much Kimber! It has indeed been an eventful few months. I have had some very inspiring encouragement from some editors and agents. I’m just marching forward, trying to keep my focus. Thanks for your feedback and support.
WOW! I’m so impressed by the way you wrote your story. I am so sorry you had to wait so long to finally know the truth. You and I are the same age and my parents split when I was 8 months old because my mother had been unfaithful. My father disappeared from my life until I was 7. It has taken me years to find out the “truth” and there are still pieces missing. I try not to dwell on it because it will change the relationship I have with both of them now and we can’t change the past in any event. But I still find that I use the past when I think of things or try to figure out decisions.
I was a psychology major in college the first go-a-round and I still use it to justify human behavior. This has helped me a great deal in completing my Business Degree now. Sometimes if I can get to the “why” someone does something, it is easier for me to get past it or forgive the behavior. When I can’t figure out the why or justify it somehow, it will haunt me. It also makes me a very effective communicator and friend because I have learned to read between the lines.
Congratulations on getting your piece published. I am very proud for you! You are an excellent story teller and deserve the inclusion of your essay. Well done! ❤
…and congrats on your new grandson! 😉
Courtney, thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. I appreciate you sharing your story; again, connection is what it’s all about when it comes to my writing. I’m touched that my story resonated for you, and had meaning. Sounds like you have a story there too; there are so many of us who do! Thanks so much for sharing, and for taking the time to appreciate my work; it means a lot. 🙂
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I love you my friend.
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I love you right back, dear one. 143
Congratulations on both fronts! Such a brave and beautiful piece (and that new grand baby? Delicious!) xo
Thanks Jen. It was powerful putting it down, and sending it out there. And yes, the yumminess is unbelievable! I will be so sad to leave both of them, but after 6 weeks, I can’t wait to get back to my life! Thanks for reading. xo
Hey lady! This is a voice from your blogging past. It’s Lisa LaBute. Somehow your post found its way to my email, even though I haven’t been on WordPress for years… Coincidence? I think not. I read your beautiful words and of course I was so touched. You always inspired me with your writing. Such a gift! Wow. I’m so happy for you.
If you remember, we have MUCH in common, so reading this was A LOT for me. Very therapeutic. Your insights are spot on, per usual.
But the similarities apparently don’t end with our pasts. It seems our present situations are quite similar, as well. I have a three-year-old grandson, too. (My daughter, Lily, lives in Victoria, British Columbia, which feels like a million miles away.) More to say on that topic… But here’s the clincher, and why I feel your post found its way to my email… Ready? I’m looking at houses in your area! I’m thinking it might be a great solution for my current situation, which has become somewhat unbearable. Anyway, my email is Leelabute@gmail.com. I would love to correspond with you, Dawn. No pressure. None. I know you literally have your hands full! I’m just struck by the timing of all this. I’ve had you on my mind, and then this…
Be well. Be safe.
“A gripping life”
Wow, wow, wow! It’s so great to hear from you, Lisa! I thought you were gone forever. I go to Victoria all the time, so my area is definitely a great option for you, if you want to be in the states but get there easily. There are a few towns closer to the border, but none of them offer as much as our hometown. There’s also an enormous need here for your professional skills, if you’re still working? I’ll email you, and we can start a discussion…
Thanks for your kind feedback on my essay. It was scary sending it out there, but I guess I’ve been hinting at this story for some time. It is powerful to see it published.
Again, GREAT hearing from you! xo
By the way… I tried to post a comment and it disappeared, so I wrote another one. If you get two similar comments from me, you’ll know what happened.
I only saw one very kind, thoughtful comment. Thanks Lisa! Really great to hear from you again. xo
Oh my heart. The journey you’ve taken, and the healing you’re doing. Being abandoned and then believing you were abandoned again. Yes, that will do a number on a person. You’ve woven your story so beautifully. Congratulations on your well earned honor. And congratulations on grandson #2. You’re missing a few winter snowy, icy storms, so best you’re where you are.
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Thanks so much, Susan. Your warmth always comes through, and is so appreciated. It’s all a journey, right? I still have a lot of personal work to do, but this has been freeing, if not painful as well.
I am not looking forward to the cold! It’s been in the 70s much of my visit here, with plenty of cold (it’s relative) days, and now lots of rain… which they need! It will all be dry and hot, soon enough!
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You continue to inspire me with your candid words and fierce courage in your vulnerability. The growth that was illustrated in this piece could be a lesson to many. The answers aren’t always instant and I am so glad that you finally have found them for yourself and the peace that you deserve. Congratulations on the contest win and the birth of your grandson. xo
Thanks so much Jackie. You are alway so supportive and encouraging; I’m always so grateful for that! Interesting: the answers have only created new issues to work through, but still so much clearer than the nagging feelings and crazy dreams that plagued me for years. The answers were the next steps toward true healing. In the almost 3 years since I learned the truth, I feel a weight lifting… even if I can’t change things that matters so much. Thanks again, Jackie! xo
Heartache reading this… and also joy (at your work being honored).
I can’t read this without tears for the little girl I remember so well. I couldn’t understand back then. But I wish I could go back and wrap that little red-haired girl in the warmth of eternal friendship. Then dance for joy with the incredible woman she’s become – for so many reasons. 143💗
Well my dear friend, you have done all of that for nearly 50 years now! Isn’t that something magical! You have always wrapped me in your warmth and friendship, and it has always meant so much. We have danced more times than I can remember… I think that, is everything. 143 dear one.
I was a little taken off guard to the story although I knew it very well before reading it. It’s a true story if anyone is unsure. I can’t speak for others involved but can only say that in hindsight, I wish I had never boarded that plane. I wish I had never let go of my father’s hand that day. I wish this story was just that….a story. It’s not and I did let go of my father’s hand and I did board that plane. Our lives would never be the same again.
I love you Scott. Thanks for reading. xo
Oh Scotty… it’s been so many years. Hugs to you, too. 💗
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I do love your writing! Raw, descriptive, your truth. I’m glad you got recognized with a award! It’s interesting to be at an age when there is such curiosity about our childhoods, and no way to really check it out. I’m glad your aunts and uncles shared stories. It inspires me to tell my nieces and nephews what my understandings of family dynamics have been. Love you and hope to connect when you’ve recovered from traveling and settled back in.
Thanks so much Heidi! I have always had really good relationships with my nieces and nephews, and all of them know that I deal in the truth… depending on their ages, of course. I do not want to live my life with any more lies. I look forward to catching up soon; same place, same seats! 😉