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 Per the rules of the competition, submissions could not be published elsewhere until after the competition.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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