Eleven years ago, when my grandmother June was in the hospital, dying from emphysema and a massive heart attack, Mama and I started going through her closet to see what she and I should hold onto and what we should let go of as we let go of her.
The first hour of our digging was all familiar territory. Clothes. Nursing school books. Junk she’d bought while trying to earn a visit and giant cardboard check from Ed McMahon: pens, flashlights, calculators, etc. Shoes. Notebooks from nursing school with her neat and elegant cursive handwriting.
Then, as if we’d reached into June’s version of Narnia, we found an unfamiliar box. In it were sloppily scribbled letters addressed to June in Montgomery, Nashville, and New Orleans with various dates from 1948 to 1955.
As nosy as Mama and I both were and as often as we’d both explored the contents of that closet as children and adults, we’d never run across this box before nor another one we later found in the cedar chest we unfortunately had to destroy to get into.
There were letters from Lib, her cousin/BFF Susie, and her nursing school BFF Wanda and those were interesting but none were as interesting as the other letters we found.
Love letters. Letters asking where she learned to kiss like she did. Asking her to move to Italy and meet Mom and Papa. Letters that read “I’d love to take you and those lips on a slow boat to China.”
And these were not letters from one man over a seven-year period.
These were letters from several men. A couple of photographs were saved of very handsome men in uniforms.
Mama and I inherited our love for military men from June, for sure.
We saw a side of June we never knew existed because she’d been shamed into forgetting and silencing her: charming, vibrant, flirty, romantic, and playful. The pictures of herself she’d most certainly sent copies of to these men oozed in her charm, confidence, and sexuality. She knew exactly what she was doing.
The only part that never went away was her sass, but all of that illumination that once existed dimmed significantly after an unplanned pregnancy and adoption.
As I transcribed those letters for Mama, me, and maybe a possible book in the future, I thought about my own life and self and questioned how much of me was me and how much was the me I was forced to be.
I questioned my own illumination and darkness. My own playfulness and sass and sullenness and quiet. My own sexuality and morals.
If I dug deeply into my own closet – in this case, my true identity and intuition – what would be in that box I have hidden where not even I can find it immediately? Do I want to know? Do I want others to know?
What keeps me from looking, discovering it, and opening it? Why do I keep ignoring it or pushing it further into the dark, dusty corner?
What am I so afraid or maybe ashamed to find?
The critical voices growing up are part of the answer, but they don’t always explain it because I don’t always let them win. Occasionally, a burst of courage sneaks out.
I moved three hours from home to go to college and sang in a talent show (Shania Twain’s “The Woman in Me”) in an ugly sweater and with my eyes tightly shut.
I danced in a belly dance student show with more of my belly I was comfortable exposing for 100+ people to see.
I let a man I’d just met the day before kiss me, my first kiss ever at 28, and sleep – just sleep – next to me, and I allowed myself to get to know and love him and allowed him to do the same when I had never felt comfortable or trusting enough before.
And to get to those last two points, I uprooted my whole life, quit a secure government job, sold all but what fit in my 2005 Toyota Corolla, saved $3K, left an awesome roommate and best friend, retired from being everyone’s caretaker but my own, and moved from Montgomery, Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia.
Still, these are things I have done and experienced. They have, most certainly, shaped me, but what part of me wanted those things to happen? How do those experiences explain me? How do they add to or subtract from my identity and story? How are they crucial to my story and character?
What have I, like June, allowed others to rob me of or suppress me from with their criticism, disappointment, obligations, and shame? Where have I silenced and suppressed myself?
To begin to figure this all out, I have to start with the identities I have been concrete in most of my life. (The question marks come with the identities put upon me and ones I’m currently challenging myself to question):
- Sister/Maternal figure.
- Fat. (But currently a “smaller” fat.).
- Voracious reader.
- Weather geek.
- Highly-sensitive, empathetic, outgoing introvert. (INFP/INFJ, depending on the day.)
These are the major points, but each can be broken down, which I intend to do.
I’ve spent so much of my life wondering how I appear to others. If I’m caring, smart, funny, kind, tough, pretty, friendly enough. If I’m too much or not enough. If I’m a bitch or a pushover. If I’m genuine or a fraud.
I have spent the last 8 years of my life – since I moved to Georgia and Illinois – wondering how I can be wholly myself and adequate enough for me.
Sometimes I stray from this and get too swept up in who I think others want me to be, as I did for about the first half of my relationship with John (and not because he wanted or forced me to, but of my own volition and insecurities).
However, I know myself well enough to know that when I lose my focus on my relationship with myself, desires, and voice, my illumination flickers and dims and I feel lost and anxious.
Someone once told me, or I read somewhere, that the only relationship we have that spans our entire lives is with ourselves. No matter what we do, we cannot escape ourselves – our minds, our bodies, our strengths and weaknesses.
We can abandon, reject, abuse, isolate, neglect, and hate ourselves. We can allow others to influence, control, and abuse us. There are temporary escapes and addictions. Mine are food, music, writing, books, and always waiting for the other shoe to drop and the shit to hit the fan.
I want to have healthy relationships with others so I have to start with myself. And that’s what this is all about: pulling out that box, wiping and blowing off the dust, pulling back the flaps, and pulling out what is inside. A big part of this is accepting both what I like and don’t like and not trying to be perfect in any capacity.
I want to know me as intimately as possible and allow others to see me not for any accolades or recognition but because I believe I am but one important piece of this puzzle of humanity, one story in the giant, infinite history of this vast universe.
I want to be secure in this relationship and story and stop allowing fear of rejection, abandonment, criticism, shame, or neglect to steal my vibrancy. I want to be proud of my story – the good, bad, and ugly – and proud to tell it.
I am currently obsessed with the Broadway show, “Waitress,” based on the movie I love, with songs written by my favorite female singer/songwriter, Sara Bareilles.
These lyrics from the first song of the show fit this journey so accurately that I have to share them as the outré to this intro:
Everyone wants to know what’s inside
And I always tell them but I
Feel more than words can say
You wanna know what’s inside?
Simple question, so then what’s the answer?