Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 3)


It feels like I’ve barely survived a natural disaster of calamitous proportions, seeking refuge from bitter winds, torrential rain, plummeting temperatures. My house a shelter, the last safe place. Although I’ve never been directly affected by hurricane winds and flooding or had my house crumble in front of me, I imagine those shattering situations to be better than what’s happening right now, regardless of how soft my couch feels, how lovely the vacations, or beautiful the view. All I’ve ever wanted is to go through life’s ups and downs with the person I love. I imagine we could get through anything, even a natural disaster, holding on to each other and our children but that is no longer the case for me.

It’s supposed to be us taking on the world, not us taking on us, as it’s been all too often in my life. The person who promised to hold my heart, and I his, changed his mind and got on the last flight out. I am left holding onto everything we built together – except his business but he credits only himself in that endeavor. I am ever grateful for the life we chose together and all that has been bestowed to me but I would trade it all to joyously raise my girls with the man I love and who truly loves me.

My parents were divorced. It was my dad who got full custody of my younger brother and me when I was almost five. The actual event was barely a drizzle raining down from Seattle skies. It wasn’t their divorce per se, but the constant drip of stress and smaller traumas that slowly poisoned my childhood, eighteen years summed up with one word.

For my generation, whose childhood spanned the 1970s and 80s, divorce is hardly remarkable. It happens so often; forty to fifty percent of couples break apart, a number that rose exponentially from less than twenty percent in the 1950s. Divorce is old news, hardly worth mentioning anymore. From the outside it’s just a light dusting of snow on the lowland hills, only a change in seasons – short-lived and life resumes once everyone is settled. “When are you going to move on, Janna, it’s over,” said one of my closest friends at the time, like I had food poisoning six months ago and keep making myself sick for attention. What? Although well-meaning, I’m sure, my friend’s comment speaks to our collective naivety of what it means to be forcefully extricated from the life you live, and imagined you’d live until your time here on earth is done. In the game of Life, you go back at least twenty spaces. I don’t have to choose my career path again, thankfully I took the college route, and I already have three pink pegs in my blue car, but I do have to go back too many spaces to be counted as a mere setback.

To say divorce is unremarkable negates the impact it has on one million kids per year whose parents try to start life over, ending their connection to each other and often times to their family. If it’s your parents, your kids, your life, it’s shattering. Many times, the parent who doesn’t have custody feels the immediate heartbreak most acutely, the children not quite aware of what’s happening and the parent with custody can briefly forget within the routines of parenting, respite from the ache. A lack of awareness is a blessing and a curse. In my case, it was my mom who was pushed out and then gave up on being a parent to look for solace in new bonds and a new life free of guilt and shame and loneliness. But in most cases at that time and now, it’s the dad who is kicked out of the tribe – first in moving away from the family and then by emotional bitterness setting him up for failure in holding the connection to his children. Ultimately it’s the child, millions of kids, it was me, and now my three girls who lose the most.

We all have the one thing we say we will NEVER do, ever. We will do whatever it takes to avoid this horrible thing we experienced as a child. We will bound to the top of snow-covered mountains or crawl through a waterless desert, navigate the greatest storm in a rowboat but we will never let this one thing happen. This was my thing – never, never, never will I get divorced and put my kids in a situation where they question the love of either of their parents, where they have to grow up faster than they are supposed to. “Really, God? This is where I am going? This path right here despite it all?” I look up into the gray clouds to ask these questions daily. I am incredulous. My only solace is that maybe within our one tragic-awful-catastrophic-heart-shattering-calamitous-no-way-never thing is where we ultimately find wisdom, acceptance of life and ourselves, grace. Even so, it doesn’t seem fair but who am I to argue? I have to concede that this life is my life and, yes, I must move on as best as I can.

When I was young I felt responsible to hold onto my dad, my only available parent, but I was just a kid. Our deepest need is to be attached, to belong. The only power I had was to sit quietly and wait for him to hold on to me until I couldn’t wait anymore, I had to grow up despite the conditions. This one gut-wrenching year when my own marriage fell apart gave me the gift to go back in time to parent myself through my dad’s three divorces and loss of his fourth wife from cancer, to give myself what I’d desperately needed as a kid – to be held onto by both parents. This time I did have the power to change the trajectory for my girls. I had the power to hold them close so they didn’t have to choose to hold on to their parents or to grow up – two essential imperatives hardwired from the beginning and should never be mutually exclusive. It was my responsibility to hold onto my girls, and despite every raw instinct to keep them safe from the person who was hurting me more than I thought possible, it was my responsibility to keep them connected to their dad. No one, not even me, can replace a parent.



Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 2)


“Mommy? Where are you? Can I go outside?” I yell not knowing exactly where she is.

“Yes, Daddy is in the garage,” she yells back from my baby brother’s closet-like bedroom at the top of the stairs. “Make sure you tell him you’re out there.” I don’t stop for shoes or a coat and fly through the screen door holding Suzie by her black hair, eyes opening and closing as we go. Slam! The door’s springs stretch and contract behind me; our Doberman, Frieda with her taped up ears, is trapped inside, foiled again. She whines as she watches me run free. Outside is my favorite place. The sun makes me feel warm and safe on the inside. I skip over to my swingset I got for Christmas; I can feel the ends of my pigtails bounce on my ears to the rhythm of my steps. “You sit right here, Suzie. I’ll be right here on the swing. You watch me, okay?” Suzie sits in the grass and I sit on the swing’s white seat, hold on tight to the chains like my daddy told me, and start to pump my legs up and down, leaning back and then forward. The red and yellow striped poles blur as I go faster and higher into the puffy marshmallow clouds above me. I pump my legs straight and then bent as I lean my whole self back holding the chains as tight as I can, and then forward again. The swingset leans backward and forward with me, small mounds of dirt pop up with each sway of the swing until I’m going as high as the chains allow and then I pretend I’m flying, soaring between pink puffs of cotton candy until I’m dizzy. I hold my legs above the ground waiting for the swing to slow down to a gentle rock and I skid my feet to slow myself enough to jump off. I j-u-m-p and land in the worn grass. I grab Suzie to wander around the yard. What should we do next?

Our yard looks like a park, every shade of green and yellow in all the patches of grass, evergreen and maple trees, and the late-summer leaves, with a little white house dropped right into the middle like a cherry on top of pistachio ice cream. To my almost five-year-old self, the front of the house is a football field with a holly tree bigger than our house separating our yard from Benson Highway, where cars and trucks go by in streaks of color. Along each side of our little white house are fruit trees – apples, plums, cherries, and pears – perfect for climbing way up high or having a snack while admiring the view. I don’t know about any other kids or houses nearby because it seems to me, we live high on top of one of the white clouds I fly through when I’m on my swing.

I decide to find Daddy in the garage behind the house. I follow the rock path across the backyard to the little crumpled house overgrown with ivy and blackberries, where he works on his racing jeep and motorcycle. I walk carefully so I don’t step on a bee or a rock or a stick with my bare feet. Dandelions grow alongside the house and I stop to pick a bouquet – four bright yellow flowers and one wisp ready for my wish to come true. My nana likes to hold the sun-colored flowers under my chin and asks if I like butter. She says I do. The big door is open but I can’t see him in the sunlight flickering through the dirty window. “Daddy?”

“Yeah,” his deep voice grumbles from inside the engine of the navy blue jeep, his black, wavy hair hidden behind the propped-up hood. He likes it here. He comes to the garage when he’s not at work. I walk around and stand by his Levi’s so I can see what he’s looking at, but I can’t quite reach to see over the top.

“What are you doing?” I ask trying to get him to do something else, something with me.

“What?” he says buying some time. He flicks his cigarette and places it back between his lips, smoke drifts around him like a magical wall, translucent but I can’t bring myself to reach through it.

“What are you doing? I want to show you something,” I say again with more urgency.

“I’m busy right now, Janna,” he tells me still looking into the black hole with a tool in his hand, cigarette barely hanging on to its ashes. His hands are always dirty even though he tries to wash them. He has a scrubber but it doesn’t work very well. The jeep is his favorite, but I like it when he gives me rides on his motorcycle. He says that’s the only way I’d fall asleep when I was a baby. I really like to ride on the front, my hair whipping my face, going fast and then slowing down. My daddy can do anything, I think as I look all the way up to his shoulders.

“I have a bouquet for you,” I say handing him the buttery bouquet, but he doesn’t stop looking into the jeep.

“Go play,” he says. Suzie and I go back outside with the flowers. I hold up the wisp, make a wish, take a deep breath, and blow as hard as I can. All the seeds with their own small parachutes fly through the air to unknown destinations. I’m sure my wishes will come true.

We walk around to the front yard past the fruit trees to the holly tree. I sit next to the road and put my fingers on the pokey leaves, counting the cars going by, One…two…three…four. I remember I’m not supposed to go by the road, but I like to watch the cars and trucks go by. I’m not right next to the road like I was when I got in trouble last time. This makes me think I should do something else. I have an idea! I grab Suzie and I run as fast as I can to the sandbox my dad built for me in the shady part of the yard.

From inside my imaginary house in the sand, I can see the last rays of sun behind the garage where my dad is still bent over his jeep, the house, where my mom is busy with Jeffrey, in a full bright spotlight of the last of the afternoon sun; I can see my swingset, and even some of the fruit trees in the front yard. My toes squish into the cool sand and I scoop up big handfuls and let it sift through my fingers. Birds flit from one tree to the next calling out to each other in glee of the abundance of the season. I get a bucket to fill with water from the hose. The sound of the water as it hits the bucket, shhhhhhhhhh, makes me feel like I jumped into Nana and Papa’s swimming pool on a hot day; my daddy always there to catch me in the splash. I put my hand under the stream of cold water and lift the hose up so I can take a drink, water spraying all over my eyelashes and shorts and feet. I step through the mud and turn off the water spigot. The bucket, filled a little too much, is too heavy to pick up so I drag it back over to the sandbox, water sloshing out, watering the parched summer grass. I’m going to make mud pies for Suzie. It’s her birthday. I look up from the slopping bucket and spy big, juicy blackberries growing along the fence line; hundreds of them hanging off of spiky vines. The smell so sweet, mixed in with pine needles, over-ripened fruit fallen to the ground, and the dryness of the only couple months of the year with no rain. Those will be perfect! I’ll make a blackberry pie like Mommy and Grandma make. I get right to work picking (and eating) and picking for my pie plate. Once I have giant mound of berries, I start mashing and squishing and crushing them with my hands until they jiggle as one solid mass. I always choose blackberry pie for my birthday. I carefully take the pie to the base of the big tree with the giant leaves, the oven, and put the pie down to bake while I go back to playing in the sandy mud.

The sun is down and it’s getting dark. I get up and try to get the sand off. Uh Oh! Blackberry juice covers the entire front of my white t-shirt and daisy-printed shorts. I’m going to be in so much trouble, I think. The lights are on in the house; the quiet sounds of nighttime fill the air. I grab Suzie and walk carefully to the back door to see if I can safely make it inside to change my clothes before anyone notices. Frieda is at the door to greet me. I sneak in as quietly as I can but the door squeaks as always. I take off my shirt and shorts, and ball them up, blackberry stains hidden for now. I stuff them as far down in the hamper by the washing machine as I can get them and run upstairs to my bedroom as fast as I can, muddy footprints trail behind. My bed is really big and almost fills up the entire room; the dresser with my shirts and pajamas and pants folded neatly in the drawers is squeezed on the side. I made it! I take out one of my nightgowns to put it on and go to the mint-colored bathroom to wash my hands and face. I take out my pigtails to brush my hair and look in the mirror to inspect. Besides a few pieces of mud stuck in my light brown hair and my permanently purple hands, I look okay. I did it! I smile to myself, feeling proud. I pass my brother playing in his crib on my way downstairs to find Mommy. I hear her in the kitchen making dinner, the spoon scraping the bottom of the pot as she stirs. “What are you making?” I ask her hiding my fists behind me.

I don’t know my parent’s marriage is about to abruptly end or even what that meant. For the record, I don’t think they knew what it meant or where these decisions would take them either…

Life at the Speed of Life

Harbor 2

This week I had two of my three girls home for Spring Break. Since they were tiny, we have always traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho to catch the end of ski season and the beginnings of spring in the Rocky Mountains. However, this year is the first year our family of five is a family of four and we are all feeling less like butterflies and more like a caterpillars ensconced in chrysalis. Staying home was a chance to do life at the speed of life.

My younger girls are what I call Pioneer Girls (my preteen is a pioneer-girl-in-training, I call her my book girl) because they like to get their hands dirty and would prefer anything that has to do with real life than the entertainment most kids would go for. We had a ball sewing blankets and pillows, baking, gardening, cleaning our house, bike rides to the park, play dates with friends, and a few movies thrown in for extra snuggling on the couch after sleeping in and hanging out in our PJs for at least half the day. It was balm to my soul. It was life at the speed of life for all of us.

This year has been one of the most difficult (okay, actually the MOST difficult) years of my life, but at the same time has been the most peaceful, filled with extraordinary ordinary moments that have changed my perspective on life forever. Instead of breakneck speed of shuttling three kids to, well, everywhere, traveling and keeping everyone in a family of five happy (not easy when one was hell bent on being unhappy), our lives have now become grounded in our tranquil home with candles, flowers, flute music, healing crystals and art, lots of art. Sometimes the activity schedule gets disregarded, school breaks are spent at home and our lives are now filled with color, kindness and love.

The vibration of life has changed dramatically. I am noticing all that is quiet and lovely. When you slow life down to quiet, your inner self can come out of your head and you notice all the people who are doing the same ordinary, beautiful things you are: taking their kids to school, going to work, the grocery store, walking their dog, planting flowers, reading the newspaper, helping their parents or grandparents, nursing a hurt knee or teaching a child how to ride a bike or fix a flat tire. You revel in small conversations with the woman at the check out counter or the veterinarian or the man helping you at Home Depot. Kind people living life at the speed of life, who go home to their families, make dinner, go through the mail, let down their shields in the only real place that any of us can; at home, our sanctuary.