Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Personal History Revisited

It's as clear as yesterday: I was treading gingerly over an icy sidewalk as a fierce wind pierced through all my layers of clothing, chilling me to the marrow of my bones. And, as I was shivering, I was worrying -- worrying about money and whether I would be able to manage the increased tuition, whether I would be able to get a job in my chosen profession. I was worried about men -- why they valued me as a friend, but rarely romantically, whether I would find love, whether I would ever marry. So many uncertainties, so many possibilities -- both positive and dire. And I remember clenching my chattering teeth and muttering at that moment, when I was struggling to put myself through Northwestern University with ever-increasing tuition and never-quite-enough financial aid: "I will never, never forget how hard this was. Ever..."

And I haven't. Yet when I think back on that time of my life, I also think of the wonderful aspects of my college experience: the unforgettable lessons learned, both inside and outside the classroom; having a community of friends, all bright and motivated with youthful hopes and dreams; a supple, slim, pain-free young body; the limitless possibilities for the future -- that I read as uncertainty then, as opportunity now.

How often do we see the past in a new way -- not forgetting the past as we once experienced it, but now reviewing it through the prism of life experience?

How often have you given quiet thanks for an experience or a relationship that once troubled you?

How often have you viewed a period of your personal history that once felt confusing or unfair or even catastrophic as a valuable growth experience, a time in the continuum of your life that now makes sense, neatly fitting into the puzzle of your personal development?

How often have you looked back with love instead of old anger?

Not long ago, my brother Mike and I were talking about my memoir in progress -- a complicated tale of horror and humor and fear and love, the story, through my eyes, of our often -- but not unrelentingly -- horrific childhood.

"I just hope you will be able to convey the whole story," he said, cuddling his infant son Henry with a tenderness he rarely experienced in his own childhood. "I hope it won't look like our childhood was relentlessly horrible and scary, even though much of it was. I hope you'll be able to express the nuances, the other aspects, that also shaped our lives -- like the laughter, the fun, the poetry, the love..."

And, yes, that's the challenge of telling the tale of our growing up: remembering what was wonderful as well as what was terrible, the laughter as well as the fear, recreating the delicate balance of both that made our lives -- then and now -- unique.

Sometimes new views of the past come with changes in the present: a new understanding and appreciation for our parents when we become parents ourselves; a pure love and nostalgia for parents and other loved ones once we have lost them and are no longer dealing with the daily reality of the complicated people they once were; a warm look back at a time that was pivotal to our present -- a job that felt hard and unrewarding then but that was a vital step to professional growth or a relationship that seemed a failure that now looks like an important life lesson or turning point.

"Would you really want to have grown up in a different family?" my brother was asking me. "Would you want to have a different history? Be someone else?"

He kissed his smiling baby son and added  "I wouldn't."

I looked tenderly at this man, once an abused child, and marveled at the resilience of the human spirit and the value of time and personal growth in making sense of what once was and what is in our lives today.

The value of perspective, the seasoning of our views and emotions with the years of experience that life brings, is inestimable in helping us to see all the colors and shadings in the complicated rainbow of our lives.


  1. Time and distance often burnish our pasts with a more pleasant patina. I'm glad for that, and like your brother, I am thankful for what I've been through, good and bad, because it's made me who I am.

    Great piece.

  2. When we look at our pass childhood memories we often look at them with a child's point of view I think.

    For example, when I was doing a regression into my childhood exercise to try to remember if my dad loved me. I never remember being told that he loved me. He came home from a hard day's work, tired with his ears ringing with the sound of the sawmill where he worked and we were told to be very quiet. But when my guide asked if I was loved, I had to seriously think very hard about this.

    After a while I deducted that my dad must have loved me because I remember as a small child that I was unconsolable when my mother had gone to my grandmother, three miles away to give birth to her new baby. It felt like an eternity and I felt a desperate anxiety that I would never see my mother again. i was too young to understand that she would come back. He carried me three miles on his back, on his shoulders and in his arms to rejoin me with my mother. Another incident that I was told as a child was that my dad raised me up high without a diaper on and I pooped in his hands, so I deducted that he must have loved me to carry me and to lift me high in his hands. This was seen through an adult eyes at this point. I felt very loved despite the show of love. My dad was a good dad.

    Sorry for my long comment.


  3. Your posts are always thoughtful and insightful! Yes, indeed, looking back with new lenses allows us to see everybody as complex beings, products of their own history and their own wills. Writing forces us to re-evaluate so many things.

  4. Looking back with an adult's understanding can help us be more forgiving of the faults of our parents. My granddaughter is pretty upset right now with Santa. He did not bring her the electronic game system that she wanted. She is insisting that she didn't receive anything for Christmas. Her parents are trying to limit her exposure to certain technologies. I hope when she looks back at this Christmas she will remember the love and family and even the non-techno gifts and not just that it was the Christmas that she didn't get any gifts. Memory isn't always a reflection of what actually happened.

  5. Thank you for giving us this perspective on life and memory. I was especially struck by the way you related the time you spent in college. Those years were very much a time of trials and tribulation, but as one looks back, one does gain a different perspective. I learn so much from you and from your readers also. There are so many wise women out there. Thankfully, I am able to connect to you wisdom through your insightful blog.

  6. I have many nice memories growing up.
    My parents were very strict.
    After I grew up I saw them in a different light. They were not people who knew everything like I thought they did but people full of insecurities just like every one else.
    There are no guarantees in life. You win some and you lose some but the important thing is to make the best of what you do have. :)
    Nice post Kathy:)

  7. Kathy, I can't begin to tell you how much I respect and admire both you and your brother. That's a tough while back then and to have the grace to open yourself to a different perspective is truly a gift. I so agree with all the others who praise your insightful outlook. It's precious and I hope you hold onto that forever.

  8. And yet not everyone is as resilient as your brother, and I wonder why that is. I suppose it may be one or more of many possibilities - perhaps their abuse was even more severe or prolonged, or they had no events or people to counterbalance the negative, or they had a different spirit - unable to bounce back as well, even from lesser hurts, or never learned to understand themselves or the circumstances in which they were brought up, or ... or ... or.

    It's sad to see someone who cannot move forward as an adult because of what happened to him/her as a child or teen. And a good feeling to see someone who has been able to find a way to cope and thrive.

  9. Once I started doing genealogy I realized the circumstances of my mother's life made her unable to love unconditionally. She was a conscientious woman, but she didn't have the experience herself as a child to be able to pass it on.

    I didn't unearth the missing pieces until after my mother's death. I would like to have talked to her about her own mother, and her grandmother and grandfather, and her great grandmother. She probably wouldn't have been interested, as she was afraid of so many things and didn't like to think about them. But you never know.

  10. Thank you so much for your kind and warm comment on my post.. It's so comforting to receive words like that in difficult times, so thank you.

  11. Dear Kathy, your posting so reflects my own thoughts as I've tried to write an on-line memoir on my first blog. I've written of some hard things that happened, but I also want to write about the good things, the kind and gentle experiences, that have formed me into the person I am today. Just as your brother, as he held his child, said.

    I've been away from reading and commenting on blogs for about six weeks. So I've missed all you've shared during that time. If there are some posts you'd especially like me to read, please put their URLs in an e-mail to me or insert them in a comment box on my blog.

    And Kathy, I read a posting today that a blogging friend suggested to me and I think you'd find it especially interesting as you write your own memoir. Here's the URL for it:


  12. Wow this post really struck a deep cord with me and thinking of my past. I have always admired you and your brother for exceling in life after the abusive childhood.
    I wish that I had let go of my childhood and the sad memories earlier in life.
    Only now can I look back and understand better my Mother and how she treated me.
    Being able to come by here and read your writing has always been a huge Blessing to me. I hope you know how much you have touched my life with your writing.

    Much love

  13. Can't beat aging for wisdom, can you? How many times have I said the things my mom did when the boys were growing up. I hated them at the time, and now I know exactly why she said them and how important it was to pass it to another generation. How many times have I looked back on the greatest struggles in my life and discovered what I learned. You're right, Kathy -- so is Mike. And you are so wise to remind us, for as we go through challenges -- and we will always go through challenges -- we must find the good, the lesson, the big "get" from the whole thing. There almost always is one. We just need to be aware and find it.

  14. Kathy, at age 69 I have come to realize that most of us come from dysfunctional families. I no longer carry angry thoughts with me although I have or had enough of them to bring me down to the floor or sink me into the sea. Things just were. I now have other things to worry about, most specifically my scoliotic spine, which seems to be twisting more and more with time.. ~Lorna