For all my readers who struggle with letting themselves have something they love
I can never settle for accepting something, just as it is. I’m compelled to find out the “history” of it. I can’t seem to embrace or comprehend the person, place or thing unless I do. I spend hours and days going down Rabbit Holes of research to come to this understanding. How did this come to be? Perhaps there is some DNA involved; my mother wanted to be a history teacher and never was. I did not know this until years later when she mentioned it as an afterthought. My grandmother had a library full of historical fiction and non-fiction. There was always a book on a table or tucked into a bag of knitting. If I hadn’t wanted to understand my history, I never would have become a social worker.
History was always my highest grade in school. My favorite professor in college was my history teacher, a brilliant woman who I ended up disappointing because I went to graduate school for criminal justice, while she saw me working in a museum or going on for an advanced degree in American Studies. She knew my mind and work so well she recognized the ghostwriting I had done for a friend to earn some cash for the cigarettes and booze that fueled my college career. Early in my second year, I chose history as my major, and at the end of it; I doubled majored and yoked it to sociology. I further disappointed her when I missed receiving the history award at graduation because my acting out behavior caused me to miss the first month of my last semester. I remember her saying, “if it wasn’t for… the award would have been yours. It should have been yours.” While I won the award for sociology, perhaps a more forgiving discipline, I felt nothing at the receipt of it.
While getting my MSW and my Ph.D., I gravitated towards a professor who did historical research and who gained a great deal of attention for her book, tracing the history of women and welfare, a story of regulation that had never been told the way she found it to be. She became a mentor and a dissertation chair. When getting my Ph.D. while wanting to do a historical research dissertation on the history of women in child welfare, after doing a year of research that stimulated and excited me, I canned it. Looking back, this happened after a meeting with my chair where she proclaimed, “Your dissertation will be the, ‘regulating the lives of women’ but for child welfare.” I ended up with a dissertation that was a program evaluation. I disappointed her too. As I look back on my ambivalent relationship with history, it was always tied to the relationships I had with women who also loved it. Relationships, I felt I had to resist in order to be myself. Women who I felt were regulating me. Alongside my ambivalent relationship to history and strong women, is my ambivalent relationship to writing. Perhaps it’s time to look back to find out why.
I’m 68 now. I’ve bought an old house, 1912 to be exact so I could spend my days researching it. What kind of house it is, how it came to be, the history of where I live now, and the history of what was happening then. My new/old house is a transitional Victorian, which means it references some features of the excesses that were part of the Victorian design but transitions into more of a humble and utilitarian Arts and Crafts style. There’s a tower with an octagonal room at the top where I sit and write. As I wait and watch this first year to see what’s already planted before I think about landscape and garden design, I research the history of gardens to imagine what mine may be. I am flooded with memories of the gardens, the fruit trees, and the frogs that were part of the landscape of my grandparents’ home when I was young.
Riding in our blue and white Ford, we would make a turn onto the narrow road where they lived and the lush green, damp darkness formed by the canopy of trees would surround us and cool us down; a refuge from the hot asphalt playground that adjoined our apartment building. There was a gate with a bell and a gravel driveway. We would hop out of the car and ring it to announce our arrival. In front was a stone wall built centuries ago. There were hostas lining a meandering bluestone walk along with bursts of orange tiger lilies. Could this be where my love of the color orange comes from? Perhaps my delight to find hostas already in place in my new/old house?
A farmhouse from the 1800s, my grandparents’ home was set back from the road, and everything about it, both inside and out, referenced history. My grandmother chose arts and crafts style furniture for every room. She covered the beds with quilts and everything in this house had a purpose. They set the kitchen table against a window and had a Peterson’s Guide to Birds sitting on the ledge for easy reference. My grandfather’s watercolors and pen and ink drawings from trips to Europe years ago hung on the wall and there was a room up the narrow stairs and to the left that contained his drafting table and a high stool. Outside in the side yard were chairs he constructed from tree branches. When we started school, we got a small patch of land somewhere on the property that became our very own garden. We could decide what to grow and we had to tend to it when we came up for the weekend. Our chores were garden relevant: we helped our grandmother pick from her cut flower garden to arrange in the vase on the long farmer’s table in the dining room and went with my grandfather to pick vegetables for the meal. I experienced my most happy and cherished childhood times here. It was all over when my grandfather died suddenly and shortly afterward my grandmother sold it all so she could run away and travel the world. The cooling balm of nature was gone, replaced with the relentless heat and sun radiating from the concrete where we lived.
I always admired my grandmother for being such a rebel; doing something most women of her time did not dare to do. I think though as her money ran out, and she miserably rotated between her resentful daughters’ homes (I remember them arguing about who should have her next), I suspect she asked herself if the short-term high of it; the hundreds spent on cosmetics and clothes as she sailed around the world was worth it in the end? I wonder if she had taken up her cello again (she stopped playing during the Great Depression; it had to be sold) after my grandfather died if that could have given her life the meaning she sought through her acquisition of novel things and experiences. Perhaps her music had meant so much to her she could not bear to have it abruptly taken away again. As I write these words, I realize that my new/old house is my way of returning to the place that gave me such joy and that was so abruptly taken from me. This regulation occurred at the hands of another woman and for the first time, I feel a tinge of anger towards my grandmother. I always thought my mother unjust to be so angry at her. Perhaps I can see better why.
It has now become clear that everything I’ve done so far and imagined in my new/old house is in the service of re-creating this magical place where I spent some of the happiest moments of my life. I think all the time about having my granddaughter have them, too. I’ve been getting arts and crafts furniture, a framed blueprint of a garden hanging on a wall. I’m planning for vegetables and cut flowers. I envision meandering walkways with hostas and tiger lilies. Like my grandfather, I have a small room to the left of the stairs where I can practice my craft. My engagement with history returns me to my past. Like my grandmother, an expert knitter, my second best thing is botanical dyes and sewing.
I had a dream last night that I had climbed to the top of a rock formation like those out west with holes to see through, so I could better see an expansive view. When I climbed back down, filled with joy, I find myself abandoned by all the people I was with and the bus that had brought us gone. These are the two choices my family history has left me with. Yesterday I had a huge writing victory (more to be revealed soon). My dream reveals that the things you love the most can be abruptly taken away. And so, not at the hands of another woman, I am the woman who has regulated my writing life; abandoning it through my own will. I have created an ambivalent relationship with writing because I see myself either having it all or losing it all. Being surrounded by family or being abandoned by them. It’s better to not embrace what I love and choose a substitute that would be less important to lose. Starting this blog was the first step to changing my relationship to writing. I lost my way when I let all the shiny newness; the travel, the clothes, the shorter-term gratification be the bigger part of it all; the writing kept disappearing, abandoned, yet always returning.
Buying, rather than renting a home, was a step towards where I live, not being at the mercy of others. Embracing my love of my craft and nature is not being afraid to let that joyful time become part of my life again. The people I have in my life now will not abandon me. I can write essays or I can write a history book if that brings me joy and allows me to practice my craft. The wisdom of age is knowing I am the only woman that can regulate my desire. I am getting to know her better every day and surely can better anticipate her tricks.
What revelation has the wisdom of age brought to you?