Writing Family Secrets

When I began memoir writing I had no intention of chronicling my family’s drinking, or mine, for that matter. I wrote because my new doctor led a program in expressive writing. He said writing would cure my chronic pain. He was the last stop on an exhaustive trip that was going nowhere, so I took a chance. He was right.

As a kid, I was singled out to write the all-school letters; thank you notes to the local bakery for Christmas cookies and expressions of sympathy to teachers who had a death in the family. Once I wrote a note in French to the French teacher congratulating her on retirement. Every year I’d write an official letter to the president inviting him to visit our school.

When my sixth-grade class was assigned to write about our Thanksgiving vacation, I wrote that my family’s leftovers were wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator where they’d stay until the smell got so bad someone would finally throw out the rotten food. Until I retired, that was the only time I wrote anything revealing about my family.

But looking back now, I’m starting to understand why so much of my memoir-writing includes stories about alcoholism. Bonnie Carlson, author of the novel Radical Acceptance, says retirement liberated her to be open about her recovery from alcoholism; she didn’t have to worry about the stigma at work.The stigma of alcoholism at work never worried me, but retirement did free me to write fearlessly about consequential decisions resulting from alcoholism and mental illness. Shame broke like a water balloon all over my writing, and dissipated into my own edited words. I’ve dared readers to accept the chaos of my family’s alcoholic life. More than that, I’ve added my own voice to the truth-telling writers of recovery whose stories help explode the stigma.

Frank McCourt’s powerful language forces us to relive his impoverished and loveless childhood in Angela’s Ashes. It’s quite a feat to write about his alcoholic father with forgiving humor. Pete Hamill in A Drinking Life, Mary Carr in The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life all give us stories of violent alcoholic behavior that make me wonder how they ever managed to get out alive, much less write about it.

“Write what you know” is attributed to Mark Twain. But I could quote all my school teachers saying it. I’ve always known it doesn’t mean to write descriptions of my school 9EC7F9F3-1257-4DA2-9AD7-FD17975A7022_4_5005_croom or home or even all the gory details about my parent’s drinking. It means to write that I wished my mother was more like I-Love-Lucy or that on most mornings I put my finger under her nose to test for life.

Writing like that was forbidden when I was a child, as were any vocal or facial expressions of the fear, the self-pity, the distress. Those emotions settled in my soft tissue and came out to physically torment me in my fifties.

James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer of writing therapy, hitches recovery from the health aftershocks of secrets to expressive writing. Expressive writing reveals feelings through events, memories, objects, or people. It’s not so much what happened as how you feel about what happened or is happening. It’s that all-important question we hate to hear from a therapist, “how did that make you feel?”

Eyeballing your feelings in your own writing can be unpredictably gut punching. It’s a fast-acting treatment though, this bibiliotherapy, a painkiller and a healer.

O Vanished Bethlehem

O Vanished Bethlehem

In the 1950s nuns and priests filled the air with Jesus stories. As soon as we stepped on the threshold of our first grade classroom, we were required to memorize lessons from the Baltimore Catechism, the defunct and now-discredited school text of the Catholic religion.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 75: Q. On what day was Jesus born?  A. Jesus was born on Christmas day in a stable at Bethlehem.

The first town I’d ever heard about other than where I lived and where my relatives lived was Bethlehem. As a child, I dreamed of living in the inn next to that stable where Jesus was born. I longed to be with the donkeys and the sheep and the three kings on their camels. I really wanted to ride those camels. When we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem I pictured a serene knob of a place full of kind and loving people ready to temper my fears and fortify my hopes.

A classmate once showed us a tiny glass vial of soil her grandmother had brought back from Bethlehem. She said it was blessed by the Pope, adding gold-plated authenticity to its importance. This was my first inkling that Jesus’ birthplace still existed and that I might be able to go there myself someday. 

Nearby Jerusalem?  It was never on my wish list. Memorization of passages about Jesus’ suffering there left me repulsed by any thoughts of visiting Jerusalem.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 371:  Q. When did Our Lord suffer the “bloody sweat”?  A. Our Lord suffered the “bloody sweat” while drops of blood came forth from every pore of His body, during His agony in the Garden of Olives, near Jerusalem.

Bethlehem was the object of my affection. The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square sits on top of a grotto, the Holy Crypt, where Jesus lay swaddled. This birthplace is disputed from time to time, but as a child my enthusiasm never waned. I wanted to see Bethlehem.

Two Palestinian refugee camps arose in Bethlehem in 1949 after the Palestine PartitionDheisheh-a-Palestinian-refugee-camp-685x1024 drove Arab families from their homes. Six generations later they’ve not been allowed to return. Armed Israeli forces frequently raid the camps on the pretext of searching for “wanted” Palestinians. Young Palestinians exact revenge and risk their lives with the most ancient of weapons—rocks. 

When Israel took Bethlehem from the Arabs after the Six-Day War in 1967, I thought Bethlehem would be destroyed forever. But all the wars, terrorist bombings, intifadas and violent protests didn’t stop grandmothers from visiting the Little Lord Jesus’ birthplace and bringing home souvenir vials of sacred dirt. I had high hopes I’d visit someday.

Israel relinquished Bethlehem to the Palestinians in 1995, promptly erecting a wall cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. Palestinians are restricted from entering Jerusalem. Israelis are barred from entering Bethlehem.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 259:  Q. What other effects followed from the sin of our first parents? A. Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.

A few weeks ago, on January 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. Abbas informed Putin the U.S. can no longer play a role in the Middle East peace process. Seven days later Donald Trump announced his anti-Palestinian “Deal of the Century” for the Middle East. Bethlehem erupted in a “day of rage”.

Baltimore Catechism Lesson 1155:  Q. What are dreams and why is it forbidden to believe in them? A. Dreams are the thoughts we have in sleep, when our will is unable to guide them. It is forbidden to believe in them, because they are often ridiculous, unreasonable, or wicked, and are not governed by either reason or faith.

They say tourists get into and out of Bethlehem safely. But fear invades my deep and dreamless sleep. Thoughts of seeing Bethlehem have matured into my childhood imaginings.

And my dreams have gone the way of the Baltimore Catechism. 

Vanished. 

Irish Buffet

Irish Buffet

A Hero’s Kitchen

I have no memory of my mother’s cooking before she left my father. After their Midwest life of drunken brawls, evictions and midnight moves, she relocated my sisters and me to the unfamiliar Jersey Shore as we approached adolescence.

The kitchen appeared to be an afterthought in our new four bedroom stucco: four corner doors led to the living room, the backyard, the driveway and the dining room. The backyard door swung open and shut on one side of the stove. The fridge sat on the other side, leaving no wiggle room between it and the stove, it and the living room door. It’s as if no one was expected to cook in there.

In an attempt to provide a semblance of order in her new-found single motherdom, Agnes sat her four daughters down to a gourmet dinner every night. Chopping and mixing occurred on the space between the stovetop burners or on the drain area of the sink opposite the stove. An unspoken rule kept food preparation away from the dining room table.

Agnes insisted my sisters and I learn to use the pressure cooker she’d acquired to whip up potato salad in the summer and mashed potatoes in the winter. After the lid blew off and the contents hit the ceiling, I never went near it again. Her recipe for pressure cooker spaghetti sauce required bunches of fresh basil, and Agnes could only find that at the summer farm stand. I don’t know how much the recipe called for, but she dropped so images-1 2much of it into the tomato sauce it came out like basil stew, delicious over spaghetti but awkward to twirl around a fork.

She thought gourmet cooking meant stirring wine into every dish, usually at the last minute. That way the alcohol wouldn’t cook off. She added wine to chile con carne, shrimp newburg, chicken a la king, beef stroganoff and all au jus sauces. My sisters and I exchanged glances when dinner guests remarked on the richness of the sauce. We’d dare not say anything about Agnes’ cuisine, especially the wine additive, for fear of her embarrassing reprisals like, “what do you know about cooking?”

Agnes cherished continental dining. We sat down to dinner around 8:30 depending on how long she stretched the cocktail hour. My sisters and I fought every night about whose turn it was to clean up. We were so tired by the end of dinner we often left dirty dishes piled in the sink. No one ever took the garbage out. Two or three grocery bags full of empty beer cans continually took up precious kitchen floor space. A friend once referred to the sight of it as an “Irish buffet” which Agnes thought hilarious.

As her alcoholism progressed, Agnes’ dinner-table attempt at a normal life fell by the wayside. But for a few brief years, in that tiny trashy kitchen, Agnes was a culinary hero.

 

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

 Part 1 Skateboarding

In high school a new boy arrived at the Jersey Shore from California with a skateboard. Someone made them for all of us using old roller skates and plywood. We skateboarded Skateboarding in New York City, 1960s (19)downhill in forbidden cemeteries until dark. It was the 1960s. Skateboards were outlawed, not because they were dangerous but because they were unknown, not a part of the mainstream and somehow subversive. We hid them in car trunks and behind
old tires in the garage. None of us had standard-issue parents so we formed our own family. Our family stuck together, laughed a lot and listened to each other. The police chased us out of the graveyards, creating a deeper bond of secrecy and protection. We vowed to call each other, not our parents, if we ended up in the police station. Later on, one did, with a bale of marijuana. He didn’t call. He went to jail. Another drank too many beers, drove himself  into a telephone pole and died.

Part 2  Abortion

I thought I should have an abortion. The boy I loved said I had to decide on my own. If I kept the baby we’d marry. If not, he’d never be able to see me again. How could a 20-year-old college student know that? He had more confidence than I, seemed less emotional, but had the same love for beer and the beach and rock & roll. She wasn’t hard to find, this illegal woman in Newark, NJ. When you reached a certain age in the ‘60s, everybody knew someone who knew someone. I drove alone.The three-story house had a small front porch. I climbed the wooden stairs, knocked on the rattling screen door. She answered and asked my name. Nothing came into my mind. Nothing came out of my mouth. She suggested I come back when I’m ready, but “don’t wait too long.” I drove to the boy and we started a family.

Part 3  Jesus

The poet pastor wandered around church saying hello to people with his Shrek voice, usually on his way to and from the courtyard. Sneaking cigarettes. I saw him frequently at the bar in a neighborhood restaurant. Sneaking scotch. As a former drinker and smoker myself, I had th-2a familial attachment to him. When a spiritual crisis befell me, I found him outside, lurking among the Gothic arches of the colonnade. I told him I have  something serious to discuss.  

“Sure, how ‘bout this afternoon?”

Tears got in the way of explaining myself any further until later, in his office. 

“I don’t believe in the Resurrection anymore,” I confessed.  

“Huh? Most people don’t even think about this stuff, Rrregan,” he confessed.  

“Do I have to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian?” I asked.  

“Well, it’s the main tenet of our faith,” I thought he exclaimed, but he probably just said.  

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Wait it out!” He definitely exclaimed.

“You will always be in the church family no matter what you believe. Just. Wait. It. Out.”