What we give our attention to - stays with us. What we let go of - will let go of us.
My mother's youngest sister died Friday. In January, her oldest sister died. Both deaths rocked my world. My aunts were potent symbols of a childhood world where I felt safe and loved. I was the third grandchild in my mother's large family and the first grandchild in my father's smaller family. In my father's family I was spoiled, no doubt about that. At Christmas, I was showered with presents. My mother's parents couldn't afford to be so generous with things, but they more than made up for it with people. Their house overflowed with people and there were no strangers in that small rural community where my mother grew up. Most people knew my name and, if they didn't, all they had to do was ask my mother's name, and then they knew who I was. I loved that sense of belonging.
I felt safe and loved at my grandparents' houses. My own home was sometimes full of fighting. My parents were young and when I was born my father was patrolling the DMZ in Korea. When he got home, adjusting to each other and a new baby created tension and fighting. The fighting frightened me. And that's why I felt safe with my grandparents.
I loved visiting my father's parents where I was the center of attention. I remember Grandma asking me what I'd like for lunch; I always asked for the same thing: Campbell's Cream of Chicken Soup and a peanut butter sandwich made with Skippy's peanut butter. Afterwards, if I'd been good I could go to the cookie drawer and get a cookie. Sometimes, I spent the night and Grandma would tuck me in and tell me, "Nightie, night." Grandma taught me how to play cards and we played game after game of War. When I turned eight, my grandparents got me a record that played, "Happy Birthday to you/Happy Birthday to you/Happy Birthday, dear Angela/Happy Birthday to you." I still have that record. It's bent after all these years and I have no way to play it, but I keep it in a box with other treasures and sometimes I take it out and think about what it was like to be a beloved grandchild. (photo above, me and my father's mother, circa 1955)
My mother's house was a busier place. I rarely had my grandparents full attention and that was just fine because the house was full of uncles: my mother's four youngest brothers. We sometimes played Chinese checkers together and hung out together and sometimes, because they were teens after all, they loved to tease me. Once my Uncle Sam scared me with a devil's darning needle, a kind of walking stick that was actually harmless. Best of all, was when my uncle Clifton, the tallest of my mother's brothers, would lift me up on his shoulders and I felt like I could touch the sky. (photo: Clifton and me, circa 1962)
When we went to Kentucky, we were "going home," or "down home." My mother took me there for the first time when I was only six weeks old because she wanted her family to see me "real bad." The house was full of people, including my ailing great-grandfather.
We went to Kentucky every summer. My grandparents would be waiting in the front yard when we drove up and my grandmother would always say the same thing, "I looked for y'all to come today," and fold us into her arms. My grandfather was quieter, but, in his own way he welcomed us too. My grandfather died when I was 12 and, after that, us girls slept in grandma's room. I loved her room. It had a screen door that opened onto the front porch and lots of windows and even in the Kentucky heat, it was cool and comfortable. Grandma would tell us stories as we were falling asleep and after her voice stopped, I could hear the whip-poor-will calling from the woods across the road.
On the day we left, Grandma would give my mother a jar of her homemade strawberry jam and they would hug and then we would get in the car and my father would back down their red clay driveway to the road and head north.
What's the take-away from all of this? For me, these good memories gave me something powerful to hold onto. The love I found with my grandparents and my mother's family, helped me weather the terrible times after I lost my daughter. Was my childhood happier than other people experiencing similar trauma? Maybe not. What matters, according to an article in Psychology Today, was what I felt about my childhood. Those happy memories gave me resilience. That reminds me of my Kentucky grandmother and her hollyhocks. Every year, my grandmother would plant flowers and every year her chickens would scratch them out. The only flowers that survived were the hollyhocks. Hollyhocks grew at the back of the house and I can picture them now: resilient flowers that were strong, beautiful, and chicken-proof.
In other ways, however, my childhood was no bed of roses. (More on the vulnerabilities and losses of childhood and how they relate to trauma in my next post.) Meanwhile, here is a song that expresses the bittersweet feeling I have about losing my aunts. Bitter because so many of the people I love are now dead. Sweet because when I hear this bluegrass tune, for a few precious moments I'm back at my grandparents in Kentucky with the television tuned to the Nashville station. Maybe the Grand Ole Opry is on and old-timey music is playing and I'm happy. Those memories are talismans I can hold onto as I keep going, living with PTSD.