Riding The Memory Train To Destinations You Can’t Forget

I am ten and sitting quietly having learned the reality of the physical threat implied in my stepfather’s words that, ” Children should be seen and not heard. ” Safe for the moment and out of reach of the driver, I choose my side of the car because I have learned that although my mother’s hands are capable of causing physical pain, they are attached to arms too short to reach me if I stay pressed close to the door.

My sister claims her regular space on the right side of the backseat in the only car we own and I am surprised when my mother turns slightly and reaches back from the passenger seat to give me a paperback copy of a book I will come to treasure. Setting out on a long car trip once again, moving as we have so many times before, it doesn’t take more than a page or two for me to disappear into Judy’s Journey, a story published in 1947 that reveals what it’s like to be ten year-old Judy, the daughter of a migrant farm worker.

Some books stay with you all your life and even if you no longer have the book in your hand, the story never leaves you. I saved my copy of Judy’s Journey after our move from California when I was partway through my fifth year of school. Back home again in Georgia where I’d been born, I found myself confused by many of my subjects as the American school curriculum varied from the east to west coast.

While I may have struggled through some of my classes, I excelled at reading and lost myself in the school library and books wherever I could find them. Beaten into silent submission at home through both psychological and physical blows, I longed for the safety of someone else’s life and found them in books about other children.

My mother came from a family of readers and writers, and books were always among the gifts I received from my extended family on birthdays and at Christmas. I had acquired a good number of them by the time I was able to escape from my mother’s house at fourteen when I made my last childhood move into safety of my dad and stepmother’s home.

My mother would not allow me to take my books and they were left behind with my childhood things after she decided that I could only take my clothing and gifts that my father had given me.

I remember how sad I felt seeing my fourteen years of living packed into only two or three boxes when they arrived by bus a few weeks later.

My books from childhood were marked as mine by my name written in varying degrees of penmanship. Some had Elizabeth in the adult script of my grandparents and great-aunt, while others were identified by a more childish scrawl and dated from when I first began to write my name.

With two sisters still with my mother, my books bypassed my sister Margaret who at twelve was too old to be interested in many of them and went straight into the hands of my four-year old sister Pam who later claimed them completely by scratching through my name and adding her own. It would be many years before I saw my mother, my sisters, or my books again.

Judy’s Journey disappeared somewhere along the way like many other things from my past, but the memory of the story made me talk about it at times and one Christmas, I found a used copy under the tree, a gift from a friend who understood its significance.

I didn’t begin this post to write about this topic. I’d intended to carry on from yesterday’s post about books and libraries before it took off in its own direction. Memories are like a train with multiple destinations and today’s post is an example of all the directions one story can go especially when writing about it.

John came into my studio space about a week ago and said that he thought I needed to write my story. I told him that memoirs were filling the shelves of bookstores everywhere and people were beginning to write disparaging reviews about those who spilled their secrets in a book for all to see. I added that there were many stories out there like mine and why add one more to the mix. I said I was bored with it most days and imagined others might be as well.

I went on to say that there were parts he did not know and more still that the people involved might not want shared, but he reminded me that it is my story and said quietly that he thought it would be good for me, and to think first about myself in the writing process and not worry about the rest.

Yesterday, I was reading what this gifted writer said here about how writing heals and intellectually I know she’s right. I’m sure John is on to something as well, knowing me as he does.

It’s always bothered me seeing my name replaced in books that had been mine, so much so that I don’t have those books with me anymore. I offered them to my daughter in case she has children one day, although she might rather have new books than those with such a sad history. I mean really, how would she explain that to her children …

I wondered what my sister Pam thought as she was too young to remember me when I left. Did they bother to explain the name already in the books or did they say, ” Just scratch it out and put your own in there.”

I thought about what my sister Margaret said about how they never said my name in the house after I left, how my mother and stepfather if pressed by situation would only refer to me as, ” The one who left,” which made me sad on earlier reflection, but now feels more like the name you might give warrior who was brave enough to leave on a vision quest.

As to healing through writing my story, I thought I had done most of that by talking with two remarkable women I’ve mentioned before, but perhaps writing my story rather than telling it might be a good next step whether anyone ever reads it but me.

Time now for she who has been called, ” The One Who Left ” to go out for some sunshine and exercise. Having worked on the past a good bit today, it’s time now to work on my body.

14 thoughts on “Riding The Memory Train To Destinations You Can’t Forget

  1. We all have a part of our lives that is acutely painful and we all deal with it in differing ways, what works for one person may not work for another.

    A voice is heard when it needs to be and by the person it needs to be heard by, your voice, your story may only ever be written by you to only be heard by you but it’s legacy may be to help heal others.

    Only you can decide what you want to do, healing is a very personal thing. I have come to realise that for all the questions that I want answers to, I know that there will still be many more that are never answered and I have to accept that. This revelation has been a long time coming.

    I know that somewhere in her life your mother has been so damaged by something that made her treat you the way that she did, and that is her pain, the way that she treated you was extreme and you may never know why.

    Allow yourself to heal and move forward, allow the past to be and take comfort from the joy that you have now, don’t allow your past to determine your present as painful as it was. It has made you into the special human being that you are.
    Often where we feel we are heading is not necessarily where life takes us, your writing today may have begun in one direction but it has truly taken a route all of it’s own, your voice needed to be heard.

  2. How sorry I am to hear the angst of your childhood in this post, Elizabeth. Hearing your words (in your blog posts past) now tells me you have managed to not let that determine the kind of woman you have become and I hope you feel a sense of pride in that.

    I am also from a family of readers and have two sisters. Names were scratched out in our family too, not because we “left” but from a more base greed. But the book I am happiest to own is a copy of Heidi my aunts owned (three names had been inscribed in it and my 8 year old signature is the last!). It is literally falling apart but I value it more for their inscriptions anyway.

    Having gone thru what you did makes your words all the more real and poignant. Like all good southern writers!

  3. I have to agree with John, write your story and don’t worry about the rest. What you shared today is beautiful and powerful, and healing. I know there are tons of memoirs out there, but if you write because you have a story that needs to be told then that story will find its audience. I’m interested. I’ll keep reading.

  4. Wow, I have so, so many thoughts about this. I don’t want this to sound patronizing but I am a hugger and want to give you a hug, not in feeling sorry for you but as a friend alongside you. I came from a divorced/step family situation and now am a step-mom myself (I have lots to say on this topic). I completely agree with John on this one..Write, write, write and from the heart. Yes, there are tons of memoirs out there but only you have the voice and experience of your memories and moments…like blogging, you put your voice/words out there and they will touch the people they are meant to touch, inspire, and help to heal.

    I see the strong, passionate, compassionate woman you are on your blog and why keep it to yourself (that is unless you want to). Parts of your story may be scathing, but they actually happened and I don’t see that you would wield your story in revenge…it doesn’t seem to be how you are…much like your post, it is honest and poignant. Thank you, as always, for the heart you share.

  5. You need to see your own story, Elizabeth, as you say, no matter if no one else does. Seeing is not the same as talking and hearing. Reading the words will go into your psyche in a different way.

    The story is already telling itself. All you have to do is be ready with the writing hand (ink or keybaord) and take dictation. Putting it out there for the universe top read? Entirely different question. Does not preclude the need to write it anyway..(“Go!” ?)

  6. As someone who came from an abusive household (dad and stepdad) I can very strongly identify with you about books being a place of refuge and strength.

    Books saved my life — they gave me a place to retreat to when the pain was overwhelming, when I didn’t understand what I had done to deserve what was being done.

    If you need to write to understand your journey then do it.

  7. I was just reading today (a volunteer job for Reach Out and Read) in a clinic to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday and the man beside me said he read Dick and Jane when he was young and I said I remember Tip and Mitten. I think you are a great writer – it seems to flow and easy to read and although you had rough times you even write well about that. I like to blog but don’t have so much to say – I think it’s fun to post pictures and make them on picnik.com. I took the Divine Plumbline class recently which helps me to deal with issues in the past and present.

  8. I woke up very early , as I couldn’t sleep, lots on my mind .. mulling over how my son cannot see his children .. she is stopping him .. because of her boyfriend .. .. It is my sons birthday today and he is so sad .. ..

    I cannot begin to imagine your thoughts at the time of going to your dads and step-mum .. escaping as you say. But having to leave behind the one thing that gave you a little bit of safety …makes me cry now .. I hope that your life was so much happier with your dad and stepmum.

    Sending you a big hug from Oxfordshire …you are one remarkable lady take care x

  9. Just wanted to be clear – I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your story into public view – only that it was not the same thing as writing it for only your own eyes to see. Writing your story doesn’t commit you to *any* other step, including publishing more publically if you choose to keep it for your eyes only.

    And the reason I talked about you seeing your story, is that you are (amongst other senses) clearly a very visual person, and I think there will be nuances as you read your story back or perhaps even as John reads it to you should you ask him to, nuances that strike you, nuances you did not even realise were there as you wrote them.

    This is a project that will mine deeply. But if you find yourself daunted by the task, reluctant to jump into this often dark hole of things past, remind yourself that there are many around you to support you; and that what one can understand is easier to come to terms with emotionally, easier to simply accept, even if it’s a chunk of actions that are totally illogical and incomprehensible. (Have had to do a lot of that myself in the last few years, and can attest to the theory bearing out in fact!)

    Hugs to you! xx

  10. Your story is a special one in many ways…………and I can imagine it would definitely be of great interest to many, me included. I say write Elizabeth. You have proved by your amazing blog that you are a prolific writer. With John beside you, encouraging and proof reading, what more do you need? Go for it – I’ll be waiting for publication day and promise to review it for sure!

    Love ya – Mary

  11. You wanted to write about the book but the story turned out to be about you, that is because the story itself was ready to be told and shared. You are so lucky to have John who understands.
    I know how it is we begin saying something and the words just take over it turns out to be something totally different.

    Just let your words decide what they wish to say, whatever comes from the heart will touch hearts, it cannot fail. Yours words will find many echoes as there will be people who will be able to identify with them from those who read.
    I know I read spell bound and I can say it is just a very short summary. There is much much more that you need to say. say it as your heart demands.

  12. I went back and read the old post about your mother. I can’t imagine. My father was verbally abusive and a dictator but he also had our backs.

    Write your story. Write it for yourself.

  13. Write it. It’s your history. I would give anything to read a bio by my relatives. Do it for your family that is not even born yet as well as for yourself.

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