It’s starting to feel like a long time that I’ve been alive. When I was born thirty years ago – though if we’re being precise, it was 33 years, in 1981 – my mother was 30 herself. She was a single mom and we moved in with my Grandma Ada Grace, mother of eight and schoolteacher again. Again, because Ada went back to teaching shortly before her husband Duncan Cameron, my mom’s beloved father, died of brain cancer at age 53, in 1971.
Nine years before that, my mom was a little girl of twelve leaving Escanaba, MI, to put down roots with her family in Greenville, MI, where I mostly grew up.
Some years before that, before her birth in 1950, my mom was only a hoped-for daughter, existing in the future of Duncan and Ada’s growing brood. They’d begun their family in World War II with three sons who saw little of their father at first, because when he wasn’t able to be with my grandmother, he was off somewhere fighting and experiencing stories he’d never tell, and getting what turned into brain cancer.
Before that, in the war years of the ‘40s, this country was still able to rally around a common good, and get it together to save metal and fuel so the soldiers overseas had what they needed to fight a clear and true evil that was trying to take over everything.
Before that, things are quite fuzzy because the primary sources in my life, the ones who are left, don’t speak much of those days, the Depression days of emerging efficiencies and still lots of people growing their own produce and learning to sew.
Before that – not long before that – women had just got the vote and found it difficult to be more than teachers, nurses, and secretaries. That world is unimaginable to me now, here in these United States, even though the same world exists today for millions of women. It’s just that they live elsewhere, six to twelve time zones away. They live under cover, under secrets, under the control of the power hungry, and they are stronger than I can ever imagine, and braver than I can ever believe.
My grandmother bore eight children, and when her husband Duncan died, half their brood was still at home, all the ones after my fourth-born mother. When my Grandpa Duncan died, their youngest child was twelve.
What did my Grandma Ada feel, think, and say, when this happened? We know what she did: she kept teaching, and she somehow scraped them by. They had the house and plenty of space and it was walking distance to school, and people didn’t need all the stuff of today, the stuff that keeps us working and driving, preoccupied and indoors.
Was she grateful that she could teach in the 1970’s, given that the last time she taught, she’d had to keep it secret that she’d married my grandfather? (In the 1930s, a married woman in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a pregnancy waiting to happen, and the teaching contracts prohibited marriage.) Did she think on those years ago, or did she wonder only about the now, about her new responsibilities as head of the household, and which bill would be highest that month?
How much and how deeply did she miss her “Dunc,” the man she loved ‘til her death, at age 91, in the same big house he bought them in little Greenville, in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan?
When I was small, that house was everyone’s rock, all us cousins who visited in the summers, the fruit of Duncan and Ada’s eight. My grandmother decorated in green, blue, and brown – drab Nixon florals that didn’t get anyone too excited, but which also weathered the years. My grandfather was a handsome man, I could see from his portrait hung above a green leather chair, and I thought of it always as his chair. I would go and sit beneath him and feel love emanating from above and from my grandmother, on the sofa across from me, where she watched TV after reading to me and bringing me soup.
Did my grandmother ever wish for early death, to see her Dunc again? Or did she wish against Fate, that he could meet all of us grandchildren who came after he passed, and it was most of us?
She loved us enough for both of them, making us meat pasties from scratch, sloppy Joes and potato salad, foods I loved, even though she said she couldn’t cook. She shooed us out to play and there was that one time – the only time I can recall – when she was cross with us. It was for fighting and being unkind. A clump of us sat in front of the TV, sniping away until she said, “You stop that, you kids! I’m tired of you being mean to each other.”
Did Ada think at night of her Dunc? Did she think of when she would see him again? Because she had her own kind of faith, in the Episcopals and the Democrats, and the notion that the poor deserved some help. She’d lived in a world where everyone was poor, and it was no one’s fault, not due to anyone’s being lazy. To the contrary, in her world, everyone had worked hard and still: poverty.
My Grandma Ada waited to see Duncan and talked more about him as she aged, spending 30 and then 40 years without him in that big house, making us food and shooing us outside. After my cousins and I grew up, she cooked for only herself, loading oatmeal with prunes, bananas, and nuts each morning. She liked ice cream and always had Tin Roof in her freezer, and she was never afraid to eat ice cream with you. She never called anyone fat, except herself, and not very often, because she wasn’t.
I inherited these gifts from my grandma: four metal mixing bowls, a serving tray engraved with a map of the world, an embroidered jewelry box, a diorama of her first-grade classroom that the other teachers made for her retirement.
And the priceless ones: Thrift. Hope. Love.
With thanks to Mary Cameron Mitchell for fact-checking this updated post. Mary writes: “Fact check #1. My dad died in 1971 at age 53. My mother had gone back to teaching before they knew he was ill. There was a teacher shortage and my dad encouraged Ada to apply. Fact check #2. Ada wasn’t fired from her first teaching job for getting married or being pregnant. The contract stipulated that marriage would result in a termination of her job.”
Jewelry box, serving tray, mixing bowls | photo by CE Cameron
Back by popular demand for 1 day only. FREE Kindle version giveaway, Braver Than You Believe, on Saturday November 23, 2013.
Two names appear on the cover of Braver Than You Believe… but so many other people contributed. Here’s the start to a long, long list of thank-yous.
First, a huge thank-you to all our “beta readers” whose feedback polished our book to a shine:
These dearly loved ones were there at critical moments (that is, last-minute and impromptu) with wisdom and tech support:
Mark and Mary Mitchell
I owe special gratitude to BACCA Literary for their encouragement of the project from the beginning, and for nuggets of brilliance such as suggesting we use different fonts to help readers track the ladies:
Thank you to the inspirational members of Skyline Harmony Chorus – whose music and companionship after my own divorce helped me to become stronger and braver.
Thank you to Jean Cooper for her careful copy-edits.
And, most recently, thank you to my brother Brandon Clahassey for thoughts on next steps in marketing and online sales.
Sunday, June 23, is International Widows’ Day. This day of recognition was initiated by the Loomba Foundation in 2011 because around the world, widows are subject to discrimination, marginalization, and even violence. International Widows’ Day was established and ratified by the UN to raise awareness of this issue and to encourage societies to respect, support and care for widows.
I will never forget the shock I felt after watching Zorba the Greek (spoiler alert). I’d always heard good things about the classic film…but never once did I hear that it portrayed a town’s dramatic execution of a widow who wasn’t “behaving herself.”
Here in the United States, we don’t stone or starve widows. But attitudes are another thing. In our upcoming book, Braver Than You Believe, one of the most powerful scenes unfolds when the main character Samantha runs into an acquaintance. After asking how Sam, a recent widow, is doing, and hearing about how Sam goes out once per week to let off steam, the woman bizarrely tells her, “Some people are jealous of your lifestyle, you know. Doing whatever you want. You don’t have to answer to anyone.”
Sam is shocked and hurt, on top of wondering what type of lifestyle it is, exactly, that widows lead. Her friends – divorcees and widows alike – tell her to brush it off. But the scene lingered for me long after reading it. I too wondered what could be attractive about the lifestyle of a widow. Lonely. Possibly a single parent. Especially for younger widows – no peer group. Filled with grief, which I would argue, on the basis of no data, is the most draining emotion. Sounds great!
When a person is sick, we can empathize to some degree, because we have all been ill. When a person stubs her toe – again, we can probably recall a bodily pain and know what that feels like. But when a person loses her love, her partner, and her helpmate – it is so difficult to really know what that’s like, unless we have experienced the same extreme loss.
Having been divorced myself before age 30, I remember an instant “wall of alienation” that went up between me and my friends. Thankfully, 99% of my friends climbed over the wall and kept right on being friends with me. But at times it was tough to find common ground with even to my closest pals. They were re-doing their houses, when I was dividing up the household. They started having babies, when I was finalizing divorce papers. And no young married person wants to be reminded either that a) marriages end or b) spouses die. DEEEE-pressing!
In the years since I got divorced, I’ve encountered many people who have gone through “stuff.” (This is an appropriate place for a swear word, but I’ll refrain). This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gotten divorced or had their life partner die on them, but maybe they had a major health problem. Maybe they lost a parent. Maybe they’ve volunteered for the poor or sick.
Going through “stuff” is part of life. And it does help a person develop empathy, but it’s not enough. For me, I had to process and process and PROCESS the pain. I had to work through it, not shove it under the rug, which our society seems so good at telling us to do. All problems should be solved in 30 minutes of sitcom, right? Or else there’s something wrong with us…
Maybe more than any other group, people who have lost a spouse realize that some problems will never be solved. They can only be dealt with, accommodated, and accepted. Acceptance is difficult. Pretending the problem isn’t there or that other people got a better deal out of life may seem emotionally easier. But it’s not necessarily the healthiest approach, long-term.
Acceptance of the hardest truths takes work. But as the women in Braver Than You Believe learn after a year of sharing their sorrows, the work is worth it. The work of admitting their vulnerability, mistakes, and true feelings makes them stronger than they seem…smarter than they think…braver than they believe. Said Christopher Robin to Pooh!
Sue (the character Samantha’s) take~ read more at http://griefbusters.wordpress.com: What I think happens is that people who are in a marriage or life that is unhappy or stagnant see everything through that lens. Maybe the woman felt jealous because all she could see was that a widow does not have a man dictating her life. If a person is feeling trapped in her marriage, the freedom of no husband may seem carefree. Yet the complete opposite is true for a new widow. I felt paralyzed with fear many nights, worrying how I would be able to raise 3 kids all by myself. Only then did I realize how much my husband had been my partner and teammate. So going out once a week – the target of the woman’s comment – gave me a few hours off from 24/7 grief and anxiety that would have sent me into a deep depression.
I can’t remember when I learned that my birthday, March 8, falls on International Women’s Day. I must have been pretty small, and I recall thinking, “Huh. That’s cool. I should do something to celebrate.”
Then two decades went by. Today, my 32nd birthday, was the first birthday I celebrated IWD in any meaningful way. It turns out that today, March 8, 2013, marks 100 years since the occasion was moved to the date of March 8 following the 1913 late February event.
IWD emerged between 1908 and 1913 following unprecedented tumult in societies around the world. Sound familiar? Today feels much the same, though for educated women like myself living in modernized societies, I don’t deal with life-or-death working conditions. I have the right to vote. Though I love and want to share my life with a particular wonderful man, I am beholden to none. And though it seems a precarious freedom at times in the South, my value to my community does not depend on my capacity to bear children.
Today, I’m mindful that many women around the world live in deplorable conditions, are subject to the whims of violent or controlling men, or lack basic human rights. I recognize that the challenges in my world are more spiritual than physical in nature. Compared to what other women of our world face, it seems a privilege that the challenges in my particular world include figuring out whom to love and how best to love them.
Three years ago, in the spring of 2010, my three-year marriage was about to unravel. By September, I was living alone. It was the most emotionally difficult time of my life. Then in December, I met a friend of a friend who wanted to write a book. It would be based on a year of emails among six women who had lost a spouse either to sudden death or to divorce after an affair.
This meeting changed my life.
I became the editor of the book, and over the next two years, I worked in the evenings and on weekends to turn over 103,000 words of emails into a 75,000-word narrative non-fiction story of hope and healing after loss. Through the process, I gained confidence. As my heart steadied, I slowly “grew into” myself while I enjoyed a special window into the journey of these six brave people.
As a newly single woman, I read about other women – single mothers – who were making it on their own. Their struggles were not mine exactly – for example, I don’t have children. But their heartache was familiar, along with their desire to love and live fully. Like me, they were women emerging from a great loss into their stronger, deeper selves. In that way, they were the same as all of us, male or female, or “prefer not to say.” We are all hurtling through this world, hurting each other and ourselves, wondering how to do better.
We are all trying, really, really hard.
Today – March 8, International Women’s Day – our book is complete. It’s a story by women, about women, for women whose hearts may be hurting and whose feet sometimes have trouble finding the path. Today, Sue Mangum and I are ready to begin sharing her dream…our book…and six true stories with the world.
Happy Birthday, International Women’s Day! This one’s for you.
In memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, on Friday, December 14, 2012.
It’s humbling to try to write anything as a response to an event like the Connecticut school shooting. It’s a reminder of just how inadequate words can be.
After something horrific happens, whatever we feel is our truth. All feelings are a certain kind of very fleeting truth. Since Friday, I have felt deeply sad, a sort of a grief though I didn’t know any of the dead. I’ve also felt fear, anger, and again, sadness.
Fear is an emotion designed to helps us avoid future pain. It leads us to close down, to escape, to batten for another blow. Some people will feel fear and want to stay home, stay in, stay away. Others will feel fear and want to buy a weapon. Still others will want to ban future weapons sales, or even confiscate the weapons that are already owned. Fear makes us want to control.
Anger is an emotion that compels us to act, to protect and to defend ourselves. Some people will feel angry and lash out at the shooter, the community, the NRA, the lack of mental health care in this country, the government, the President. Those feeling angry will want to do something with their anger. Angry people arm themselves, protest and threaten, or blame. Angry people sign internet petitions and write their Congressperson or Senator.
Grief means that something sacred and dear has been lost. We will grieve and our grief will be overwhelming. We will feel helpless, hopeless. We will want to do something to prevent ourselves and others from future grief. We will want to give up. Those who are grieving will not be able to think clearly or concentrate until their grief has dulled. For their grief will never pass, but only dull. The grieving need our support and our love. They don’t need our fear or our anger.
After something horrific happens, whatever we do is our choice. In our choices we reveal, or obscure, our humanity.
I agree with Liza Long, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” who wrote that more than anything else, we need a conversation. A conversation with those who become so angry or so scared that the only thing that makes sense to them is destroying life, their own or others’. A conversation with those who are caring for the scared and angry. We need a conversation with those who own guns out of fear and those who train their children to use them out of fear.
After all this carnage, it might help to talk to one another using kind words. It might help to acknowledge that some people only feel safe if they own a gun. Then we must decide together how to make sure that everyone actually is safe.
It might help to look at the data, to learn about the places in the world that are most safe and those that are the least safe. To see how many weapons exist in each of those places and how the laws in the safe places deal with weapons and how the humans in those safe places deal with each other.
Fear, anger, and grief don’t lend themselves to conversation. But I have to believe that we can learn to acknowledge our emotions and then make humane choices. We can choose to talk, and choose not to fight, because we are human beings.
We can look at the facts and the deaths. We can accept each other’s deep emotions and say: I understand. Like you, I also feel pain and anger, grief and fear. Like you, I have felt lost and I have felt loss.
Like you, I want this to change. I hope for this to change.
Hope means that we trust in a promise, or at least, that we would like to trust. We feel hope when a way opens that seemed closed and when either the rock or the hard place gives way. We feel hope when the angry and fearful voices, the voices that are inside all of us, are heard, acknowledged, and so can finally be quiet.
We feel hope when our fears are no longer ignored.
I’m reminded of the words of non-fiction authors Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy in their story of a journey after grief. They wrote of little children, the voices of our children, the voices of all of us:
Now that you’ve seen my suffering, now that you know about me, what will you do?
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
This book by a widowed mother of four who becomes a chaplain for search and rescue missions is a soothing read even if you can’t exactly relate. Her voice is sincere, thoughtful, and humane. The scene that touched me most was when she counseled a man whose sister had committed suicide by taking barbiturates and walking into the cold woods. The dead woman’s minister had told her that all suicides go to hell. When her brother expressed distress about this, Chaplain Kate responded, “The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day in the freezing rain to find your sister. They would have walked for the rest of the week. And if there is one thing I am sure of, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.” She went on to assure him that his sister is safe, forgiven and “free at last from all her pain.” (p. 112).
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
People keep giving me Anne Fadiman books as gifts, so I must be making it clear that I like to read well-researched writing that still manages to be personal and creative. About the joys and quirks of being a book-lover, there are lots of obscure yet entertaining tidbits in here. I most enjoyed the essay about carnal versus courtly lovers of books, who are distinguished most starkly by whether or not one would ever lay a book face down on its spine. I also learned some new sesquipedalians that made me realize my goals are to have a diapason, adapertile jars, and a team of agathodemons looking out for me.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The title of this book, first published in 1949, is meant not to denigrate but to honestly represent how women were viewed at the time: as an imperfect version of the prototypical human specimen, the male. In her introduction, she asks “Are there women, really?” And certainly, decades of health and psychology research that included only male (and white, Anglo-Saxon, educated, i.e., WEIRD) subjects, would seem to indicate that for many scholars in the early 20th century, the answer was a bizarre “no.”
Side note: In Ex Libris (see above), Anne Fadiman points out in her chapter on “True Womanhood,” noting that “…although my father and E. B. White were not misogynists, they didn’t really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot.” (p. 76).
I’m through the chapter on biology and found it a helpful reminder of the physical and physiological limitations of female-hood. S. d B.’s prose reminds me that while women’s moods and anxieties help define our daily experience as more variable than a man’s, this does not define us, our humanity, or our possibilities. Rather, I’m striving, as I read this book, and as I grow into myself (to quote a dear friend), to accept the ups and downs of my emotional brain, and to use these experience to become more compassionate and present with myself and with others.