There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.




18 thoughts on “There but for the grace of

  1. Laura Millsaps says:

    This is some of the work I am doing, and it has me stopped in my tracks, doing any writing. But this. So much of this. These are the hardest things to be brave about.

    • Rita says:

      I cannot tell you how much I have longed to fly to Iowa these past months and sit at that table of yours (any of them) and talk face-to-face. Your words will come back. Thank you for affirming mine.

  2. tina Moore says:

    Hi Rita, I’m sorry about your cousin. Your words as usual are quite poignant and a good reminder of how healing laughter can be. I’m thankful we have reconnected, and I hope you had some laughter over the break!

  3. TD says:

    Rita, I feel that you have done beautiful work here as this was written with love and much respect. It seems to me you have found a part of yourself or a piece of your life puzzle that you have struggled to find in order to heal. I know no one who has gone unscathed.

    You are delicately precise: “Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism.”

    I was taught in my child years to run, to flee, until I had to fight. I had been running all of my life. I did not know that I was running; until one day in my late forties, I just knew and I understood myself as to my why I had been running. Some I’m still terrified, some I’ve forgive to bring peace, and some there are holes, and some there will remain a wall until I am certain that I am indeed safe, and I too learned to laugh within all of the silencing and the silence. I am still breathing.

    Thank you for writing this essay. May we find peace.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, TD. It is so hard, isn’t it, to know when to fight and when to flee? I think there is a third option, the one I learned: hide. It doesn’t bring peace, either. And with no peace, there is no true safety. Not giving up on that, though. I know it’s possible to find.

      • TD says:

        Yes, in my calmer moments I use the third option which is to hide, quietly within my own mind and my own home. I will be with you on the path to find true safety with people and the places that I must go. 😌

  4. Marian says:

    Hugs to you, Rita. My heart is going out to you with this post.
    I’m so sorry about the loss of your cousin, and to know that you’re struggling so these days.
    Much of what you describe is painfully familiar to me — the hamster-wheel questioning, the whywhywhyfuckingwhy bleakness that so often blankets my headspace, sitting nearly-continuously around the edges of everything, dimming even those things that should be joyful. And some of what you’ve said has made me stop and wonder which would be less hard (if you had to pick your poison, as it were) — a mother/grandmother who laughed inappropriately and who utterly failed to take serious things seriously (as adults should), or a mother who rarely ever laughed at all, who took every bloody thing seriously, even the things that were meant to be laughed at. I do think your dad was right — laughter/humour (both the true kind as well as the coping kind) is a valuable life skill. I wonder if that’s something that can be cultivated; as your friend, I dearly wish that you would be able to have laughter in your life (of either sort).
    Marian recently posted…Lessons From My Dutch MotherMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Well, I do remember some therapist somewhere along the line suggesting that I bring more humor into my life. In small ways–just watching funny movies, for example.

      I hope it was clear that I love and admire the women in my family tremendously. They have reserves of strength that I am in awe of. In the years since my grandmother and her sister have been gone, I’ve seen shifts. There is still a lot of laughter, for which I am profoundly grateful, but there has also been more truth-telling. They are made of strong stuff–stronger, I think, than me. And I am grateful that the way in which I grew up does allow me to see (and truly laugh at) the absurdity that is part of so many of our struggles in life.

      If I had to pick my “poison,” I think I would choose the one I got. I am sorry that you didn’t get the same kind. It is never too late, though. Maybe we need to start exchanging lists of humorous movies/TV/books? That could be a start.

      • Marian says:

        It absolutely was clear, in this post, as well as many others, that you love and admire the women in your family, Rita. When I said “inappropriate laughter” and the “failure to take serious things seriously”, I meant as viewed from the child’s perspective. I see my mother’s lack of humour in an entirely different light now that I’m an adult and have a fuller understanding of why she was the way she was.
        Funnily enough, despite being an innately serious and sober child myself, and despite the way I was raised (or, maybe more accurately, in ORDER to spite the way I was raised), I actually AM able to laugh, both at the funny stuff as well as (often inappropriately!) at the non-funny stuff. (Although maybe it’s telling that my laughter nearly always leads to crying; I think I feel things WAY WAY WAY too deeply, which has been a huge problem of late (I recently told my husband and 12-year-old that I think I need to cultivate a Vulcan side; I said it, laughingly, and then dissolved into crying. Gawd.)).

        An exchange of humourous books/tv/movies? I would love that! (Maybe you could do a post on this? A “call” for recommendations in order to get maximum results? I feel like a LOT of us could use this information right now…)
        Related: I know you’ve been struggling to find good books to read, and (although these aren’t technically funny) I SO want you to read Harry Potter! I don’t know what it says about me that I think HP is the cure for everything and that I believe that *no one* should die without having read Harry Potter…but man oh man HP would take your mind off things…
        xo Marian
        Marian recently posted…Lessons From My Dutch MotherMy Profile

  5. Kate says:

    Rita, I’m sorry for the loss of your cousin. I’m sorry for the hardship your family has faced. I’ve come to the conclusion that I either only know people who have some sort of family trauma, or we just all have some. I think it’s probably the latter. I mean, I know SOME people who seem to have a family tree devoid of the pain you describe, but maybe two? And maybe I just don’t know them that well? It makes me sad, that we all walk with these wounds. That we laugh because what else is there to do when you’ve done all you can and can’t cry anymore? .I wonder what my children will say about me and the messy interweavings of their mother and father and aunts and uncles and grandparents and great grandparents. Sometimes, I do wish it was simple.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kate,
      I read this comment last night, and your question has been pinging around in my brain (that messy, cluttered place). I think all families have some kind of pain in them. They come from different sources, and the source of pain probably affects the impacts of it. (Maybe? Maybe not.) In mine, there is addiction and mental illness (and it makes sense that those go hand-in-hand). There’s also varying levels of non-neurotypicalness (yeah, I know that’s not really a word)–both autism (or autistic traits) and intellectual giftedness (which is one of the biggest misnomers I know). Throw in that my grandmother and her siblings were first-generation immigrants, with all the stresses that creates in a family system, and, well…that’s just a lot, especially when you consider how much we, as a society, understood about any of those issues through most of the 20th century. In this piece, though, I was trying to say something specifically about the effects of predatory men. The kind of men who are attracted to vulnerable women. maybe that wasn’t clear enough.

      I think we are right that we all carry wounds, and most of them are hidden. I wish we could all know that and just simply be more kind to each other. I think that would do a lot to ease the suffering in our world.

  6. Kate says:

    I understood about predatory men. I had written a whole other part to my comment that related to that directly but decided to delete it before I hit post – too vitriolic and without any laughter to temper it. I’m tired of men and the world of men and the bitterness that sits in my gut. It’s moments like that when I wish I had a little more laughter.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, me too, Kate. There are men I love with all my heart, but I feel so weary of them as a collective group. And, yes, bitter. It is hard to hold both things–my deep love and deep anger. I think the way to laughter is through the anger/pain, though. Not around it or instead of it.

  7. Stephenie says:

    Rita, I feel like I would like to hug you. And we have not even met! I will make do with sending a mental hug (NOT thoughts and prayers, better than that) to you to say thank you for writing so bravely and with such raw, honest power. I think we can be both very fortunate and very unfortunate at the same time, and even as I say to myself about things stressing me “This is a first-world problem” I can also accept that suffering is truly a universal human condition. But so is joy, when and where we can find it. I sometimes have to make a conscious choice to read only happy-ending stories, to only watch light and funny movies (hard to find!) and to force myself to act silly with my kids even when I feel decidedly un-fun. One of my daughters pointed out that I didn’t laugh that often, and that made me even more sad!
    I feel like your cousin is someone we all could have known. Your honesty is a tribute to her. Thank you for sharing. And sending a hug.
    Stephenie recently posted…Grand MananMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I would take that hug! Especially because it is NOT accompanied by thoughts and prayers. (How did you know that’s one of my pet peeves?) It’s been a while since I tuned into Glennon Doyle, but I will always be grateful for her coining the word “brutiful”–to capture how the most meaningful things in life are so often both beautiful and brutal, both at the same time. Your comment about forcing yourself to act silly reminds me of a day with my daughter I will never forget. I was in the midst of divorcing her dad, and I had just taken her to the library with her brother. We went to a park, where I wanted only to plop on a bench with one of the books I’d just gotten and zone out while they played. Nope. She held my face in my hands, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “Mommy, your inner spirit child wants to come out and play.” Where this came from I’ll never know (that was really not characteristic of my very pragmatic, down-to-earth kid), but I couldn’t refuse that. I put my book down and started running around the play structures with them. When I finally sat down, out of breath and laughing, she said, “See? I told you she wanted to play.” She’ll be home in a few weeks, and we have a good list going of movies we are going to see–all of them light!

      Thank you for your kind words and the virtual hug. Both are so appreciated.

  8. May says:

    My mother , who knew her share of heartache, must have told me a million times during my childhood, Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. When I was a kid I always insisted to her that this statement made no sense. Instead, it is right on the money. I am glad the women in your family were clear on this particular wisdom as well.
    So sorry about the loss of your cousin, and under circumstances that can bring you very little comfort. I hope the writing helps you find a bit of peace.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, May. I think if we could take the best wisdom from the past and merge it with the openness of these times, we could make a lot of progress on a lot of important things. We need to learn how to talk about hard things (rather than hiding or denying them), but also figure out how not to drown in them. I think laughter is a life ring.

      What brings me some comfort is knowing that my cousin isn’t suffering any more. And writing helps, too. Always.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.