I sensed we were both nervous the first day we met in June of 1995, my new therapist and I, and that homely human detail was endearing and oddly comforting. I was early and she was late, which would become a consistent inconsistency. She’d quite commonly run overtime on her previous appointment or even be altogether late when I was the first person on the schedule. I smile about it now, but I did not find it amusing at the time. Back then I was rigidly, obsessively 15 minutes early and she was unpredictably tardy, and this was like a glacier wearing down a mountain, for although my anxiety about abandonment was regularly triggered, she always showed up eventually, and that—beyond my conscious understanding—was teaching me to soften and trust.
We were both a little socially awkward in the beginning, Gail Lerner-Connaghan and I, and that was also endearing, but mildly disconcerting. We were each slightly gawky and bumbling, hesitant and off-footed in our conversational timing. Or maybe she was just an excellent mirror for my own perceived inadequacies and my overamped nervous system. Whatever the case, she was imperfectly perfect for me, enough to keep me coming back. Thank heaven.
And speaking of late, I wasn’t able to attend her memorial service on short notice last week. I’d only heard news of her death the night before and had several commitments for compassionate listening sessions at my peer support practice the next day, a priority I know she’d understand. I remember saying to her when I was nearing 40, “I guess I am a late bloomer” and she said, “That’s better than not blooming at all.” I did not truly bloom until almost 60, and that’s what I was doing during her funeral, blooming on my own belated schedule. Her death was unexpected—not on anyone’s schedule—her heart suddenly done with life. So much for schedules. Let us bloom while we may. And let us honor our love and grief with stories. This is mine.
Gail and I met at first in a bright room in an old bungalow in Kansas City’s Brookside district, and to this day my sense memory of that office iconically represents what a healing space should aim to be—cozy, embracing, lively, colorful, comforting, safe—and my arrangement of my peer support practice space at Insight, I just realized, is informed by that memorable first experience of entering into a healing relationship.
I was discomfited when Gail announced within the first year of our time together that she’d be moving to a different office, for although the new location was much more convenient to my home, the upheaval tapped into my core wound and initially produced a wall of inner resistance splashed with bright anxiety. I still felt fragile and uncertain, thinking the place itself had much to do with my sense of safety in doing the deep work required to uncover my wholeness, but again, as with her lateness, Gail’s tendency to move around and regularly rearrange her office spaces became part of my healing. I learned I could feel safe apart from outer circumstances. This I now identify as a core aspect of cultivating resilience.
She explained she was a nurse specializing in mental health and had worked for a time in various psychiatric facilities. Gail’s mix of credentials was immensely reassuring, for it seemed to promise practical, pragmatic support for me as a whole person, and indeed, she was attentive to me in a holistic way, with gentle awareness of how disintegrated I was in body, mind and spirit. Despite her background in more or less traditional psychiatric settings, however, she did not bring the trappings of “the system” into her practice. She didn’t use clinical language or labels. She never suggested medication. Her manner and language did not give me the impression she perceived me as ill or doomed to a diagnosis. If anything, she rather quickly gave me the feeling my maladaptive responses to my life circumstances were understandable and my current trajectory hopeful.
After enduring many years of wariness and judgment around my sexuality, I found Gail’s nonchalant acceptance completely disarming, and her authority as a medical professional gave instant credence to her blithe pronouncement that she thought all human beings are basically bisexual and we each have unique conditioning and preferences. That was it. We were done with that topic being even the least bit controversial. There was never so much as an iota of judgment or pathologizing, only deep compassion for how my sexuality was misunderstood and condemned elsewhere—but never in her presence.
Of all her traits, Gail’s ability to climb up to meet me in the intensely analytical and intellectual fortress in which I had taken refuge from my disowned feelings was absolutely essential. If she had not met my complex obsessions and perseverations with keen interest and bright curiosity—obviously seeming to follow my mental meanderings and even relish and be amused by them—I have no doubt I would never have stayed the course. I had often felt misunderstood, shamed, and dismissed for the way I saw the world and processed my experiences, and if she had given me the slightest hint of those old reaction patterns, I would have defaulted to my familiar flight mode. I understand now, almost twenty-five years later, that what she offered was the subtle but essential gift of authentic presence and attunement. Like a warm person in a safe car picking up a scared and shivering hitchhiker, she offered my nervous system a gentler ride than its usual herky-jerky dysregulation, and every week (and sometimes, in crisis, twice a week) for the next five years, I got to practice and relearn the lost magical arts of co-regulation and safe engagement.
So hungry was I for what Gail offered—compassionate listening—I came to each session with a written agenda of what I wanted to address. I did not have insurance that covered psychotherapy, so I was paying out of pocket and wanted to make sure to get my money’s worth. That makes me smile too. Bless my heart. I had such a backlog of untold stories and unfelt feelings, I was like an emotional impoundment reservoir in flood stage needing to be emptied one bucket at a time. It was damn hard labor for me, that much I know, and Gail was willing to meet each bucket with full attention, which is what I craved as urgently as food or water.
Incidentally, I went into debt for the sake of my emotional liberation, and it remains miraculous to consider I willingly made such an investment in myself in advance of actually feeling worthy. If I think of all the other ways I’ve allocated $22,000+ in my lifetime, there is now not a single doubt my years with Gail were by far the most beneficial investment of capital. It seems important to divulge that, because my self-esteem was so low and my insecurity so high at the time, paying for someone to listen to me afforded an essential measure of autonomy and dignity. I didn’t at first feel worthy of that kind of listening except by paying for it, but ultimately that quality of listening helped me heal enough to believe I and my stories and feelings mattered.
The closest I could ever come to pinning down any type of guiding framework she might be using in her practice turned out to be the first model I ever studied as a teenager trying to understand my family’s dynamics—transactional analysis—and that was a reassuring piece of common ground, but this was only ever a capacious container leaving lots of room for me to wander. In fact, I do not recall Gail ever being particularly directive, in large part, I suppose, because I was so driven in my own right. It did not take long for me to begin designing my own therapy homework, and she was gracious and secure enough to give me free rein up to a point, and even laud me for my initiative. At the same time, however, I imagine she was skillful enough to see how my shame-based perfectionism was flogging me onward, and she gently intervened at key junctures to assure that my recovery would not be simply a bright facade constructed overtop an unsafe structure.
In particular, I recall her persistence in repeatedly inviting me back to areas I’d try to bridge over or detour around. Healthy personal boundaries. Unacknowledged anger. Complicated grief. Rampant shame. Self-neglect. I don’t know how many times she must have asked me if I’d care to take part in an evening class she taught on codependency. Zillions of times. It wasn’t the topic so much as the idea of being part of a group that deterred me. A combination of introversion and chronic shame kept me wary and hesitant for over a year. I finally sighed and said a reluctant “yes.” And that changed so much in my self-image and world view, as I’m sure she knew it would.
Gail seemed the soul of patience on this and other topics. As often as necessary she assured me I was lovable, that I wouldn’t fall apart if I let myself feel my painful backlog of repressed emotions, that my injuries were legitimate and deep, that what had happened to me was a tragedy. She wept quietly at times as I told certain parts of my story. In fact, she cried over my losses before I could. She showed me what it was like to be freely connected to feelings. I watched with wariness and concern, fearing we would both get in some kind of trouble for making too much of my plight. And perhaps sensing that, she recommended Alice Miller’s classic book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” and there I read the news that true healing comes only when we are able to have compassion for our own dilemma. Gail showed me what empathy might look like long before I was capable on my own. She was trauma-informed decades before that became a buzzword.
Her professional boundaries seemed a bit strict and cold at times, but I think in retrospect that was only because I had practically none of my own. As a mental health support provider now myself, I note her tight-rope walking skill as exceptional, for she meted out a stabilizing mix of structure and warmth, limits and possibilities. I was embarrassed to admit I did not know the rudiments of social hugging and was afraid of doing it wrong. I told her I wasn’t sure if there was a rule or a signal for which shoulder you pointed your head toward. She met this admission with great sensitivity and offered me several hundred opportunities to practice, which were expanded exponentially in the group she enticed me to join.
Early in our work together Gail asked me a pivotal question: “What is your support network like?” I had no idea what she was even talking about. In my insecurity, mistrust and careful self-containment, I had largely avoided the vulnerability of seeking out close friends. Her question initially aroused frustration and fear, and I made some kind of sarcastic retort about needing the name and address of the store where one could acquire a support system. She laughed. She had a laugh like a non-toxic spiritual solvent. She’d chuckle, her eyes sparkling, and my wariness or resistance would tend to dissolve. She never shamed or scolded, although she could be stern or even fierce. With regard to joining a group, she gently nudged, guided, and invited until I was ready to begin a long and still ongoing journey out of isolation and into interdependence.
Often I read to her from my journal, and there is no greater gift she could have given me than this steady and healing attention to my innermost thoughts. She tilted her head, adjusted her gaze, and leaned slightly toward me with avid absorption. This was the purest antidote to what had caused my wounding. I didn’t have these words for it at the time, but one of the most staggering dimensions of grief surrounding my mother’s early dying was the loss of a dependably attuned listener, someone who kept the bond of loving attention from being broken, who found me interesting, valid, even delightful. Gail returned that lost treasure to me. Of all her legacies, this is the one that brings me the greatest joy to pass on to others, for I know exactly how powerful an offering it is.
I found her open-minded and innovative. I believe she was one of the first certified practitioners of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), an early tool in the emerging field of somatic processing for traumatic memories. Whether it was the technique that worked or the fact I trusted her enough to reveal distressing and painful recollections, I can attest to the fact I began to experience gradual relief from my crippling post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Anger was my last frontier, and Gail knew it. I believe she had to be more persistent in getting me to face this forbidden emotion than any other. I was a fan of forgiveness and she stood firm in her stance that forgiving isn’t always the answer, and certainly not before a person is able to genuinely experience their own outrage. I was terrified of my suppressed anger for so many reasons, yet it was, I now understand, a key to protection and restoration, and I will be forever grateful to Gail for her wisdom and dogged insistence on me confronting this perceived enemy and learning anger is instead a valuable ally.
The day I finally said yes to her unflagging invitations to feel my anger is seared in my memory more deeply than any other aspect of my therapeutic experience. This, above all other risky emotional adventures, is the one that depended most on her ability to hold a safe container for me. I have no idea if this kind of work is orthodox or controversial. I only know the day I finally agreed to go into a tucked-away back room and get down on my knees with a mat and bataka—safe tools designed for cathartic anger release—was exhaustingly transformational. She knelt next to me in comforting proximity, and when I had finished spending my painful pennies of saved-up rage, she put her arms around my shaking shoulders and didn’t seem to care that I was sobbing and sniffling all over her good blouse. To do this emotional work, I had to release my rigid control and elaborate defenses, and that was only possible after hours and hours—and years—of patient bond formation and trust cultivation.
I keep wanting to say “the most healing thing was…” and name some particular gift or quality. The reality is, everything Gail offered me was, in its day and time, the absolutely most healing thing.
As I began to delve into the wrenching, long-deferred, and complicated grief of losing my mom at age 3, Gail beautifully honored the validity of my unpredictable and painful process, despite it being more than thirty years delayed. She introduced me to the beautiful Jewish mourning ritual—yahrzeit, meaning “year time”—as a way to honor my grief anniversary on June 4 each year. She introduced me to the Mourner’s Kaddish and was an active participant in many of my creative grief rituals, including helping me start an annual Motherless Daughters Day Circle of Remembrance in Kansas City and even continuing it after I moved away; encouraging me to launch a self-help group for motherless daughters; and connecting me to supportive resources for honoring and processing grief.
At some point it started becoming more clear we were cohorts learning from one another. Gail’s mother Patricia, who had the same name as my dead mom, was still alive at the time, but since Pat was a motherless daughter, Gail began describing herself at our gatherings as the daughter of a motherless daughter. I have a hunch the evident impact of my early mother loss deepened Gail’s understanding and compassion for her own mom’s struggles—some of which were similar to mine—as well as greater insight and compassion into how generational trauma may have impacted her own challenges.
Here again, Gail’s open-mindedness, flexibility, security, and willingness to innovate allowed expansion of the container of our relationship so I could grow into fuller stature and gradually into a more collegial relationship. We spoke at times of collaborating on a workbook based on my creative therapy homework and healing rituals. We agreed together—after I’d successfully made a major transition out of a difficult relationship in 2000—that I was ready for something like a therapy graduation. That, too, was a skillful movement in my ongoing work, for it gave me practice in internalizing my newfound sense of self apart from her stabilizing influence. I still needed to learn to trust my instincts and intuition more fully, and I could not functionally accomplish that while dependent on her for approval and validation each week.
If memory serves, I did need to call on her for support during a couple periods of discombobulation in the first year or two after the transition, but otherwise we became fond acquaintances who met for coffee or lunch every so often, even a few times after I moved out of the Kansas City area. In recent years our contact dwindled to sporadic email updates every few years, and I was especially proud to let her know about my new certification as a peer specialist and the launch of my private practice in 2015—my proudest blooming. We were warmly supportive and encouraging of one another, and I was blessed with deeper glimpses into her vulnerabilities and challenges as well. By knowing her better outside our earlier therapeutic connection, I understood that a confidante does not need to fix or save, be super-human or perfect to practice offering life-altering supportive listening, and this is an awareness I carry forward into my peer support relationships.
Every time I wrote to share an update, I thanked Gail for facilitating my healing. In one reply she offered this tender validation: “what i love about you—one thing—is that you keep going. i was an important catalyst, yes. you, my dear, are an inspiration.”
As shocking and temporarily destabilizing as it has been to my inner firmament to learn of Gail’s sudden death, her unexpected departure cracked open a treasure chest containing a surprisingly balanced mix of grief and gratitude. There is so much to miss—her solid, reassuring presence in the world, whether I saw her or not—and so much to celebrate of what she made possible for me. Her departure somehow shines a brighter spotlight on the exponential impact of her gifts. She helped me begin recovering my selfhood, my belonging, and my vitality. No accounting method in the universe can measure the worth of that.
There is, in my estimation, no other relationship in the world quite like a well-matched, firmly-founded therapeutic connection. It is disciplined, yet deep, and immensely sacred in its way. It has a dependable rhythm, offering consistency and fostering trust. It is not equal or balanced, per se, but perhaps that is what is most needed for someone like me who was well-defended and accomplished at hiding behind a shield of competency and self-containment—I needed the initial one-sidedness to overcome my hesitancy and reveal my enormous hunger to be heard without judgment. The pace and intensity of change and growth I experienced in over five years of therapy is unmatched elsewhere in my life, and the disconcerting hocus-pocus of my radical metamorphosis required an excellent interpretive guide, regular reorientation, and stable grounding. I needed someone to care enough to want to know who I was so I could learn to know and love myself. I can think of no more precious gift.
I like the word “grok” from Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” to describe the essence of what Gail offered me. It’s a fictional Martian word with many nuances that can be summarized as “to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with.” Definitions of “grok” in the book include “to drink” and “to love” and “to understand.” Gail actively grokked me—seemingly imbibed and digested my story and my essence—and I had never before felt that known and accepted, except perhaps as a little girl by my mom. I thrived like an autumn gentian in the hospitable sun of Gail’s curiosity and compassion. I dared to reveal myself despite my pervasive and paralyzing fears and misgivings, and the more she accurately and lovingly reflected me back to myself, the more I beheld and believed my true eternal wholeness hidden beneath a cloak of temporal brokenness.
This late-blooming flower of myself and my ongoing growth, these sweet blossoms of love and remembrance, dear Gail, are for you and because of you. Thank you. I love you.
Gail helped keep the Motherless Daughters Day ritual alive for almost a decade after I moved away. In 2008 she officially became a motherless daughter herself. (Photo, 2012)
Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide, and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neuroscience, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.
–Mark Wolynn | It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (2016, Penguin Books)
REFLECTIONS ON A MYSTERY
This seems a poignant starting point—a juxtaposition of black-and-white photographs of two important women in my life. In these images they are about the same age, nearing 28. The first is my father’s mother Pauline with her husband Henry on their wedding day in 1933—one of the earliest photos I’ve seen of her—a new beginning that is simultaneously a late blooming. The second is of my mother Pat and me in 1961—one of the last photos I have of her, and of us together—and her life is nearing an end, although she doesn’t know it yet.
These are my kinswomen. Putting the three of us back in proximity is a strange comfort to me because I can’t actually remember us all together. I think we visited the farm as a family in 1959 and 1961, but those memories are locked in unlabeled boxes in the part of my attic to which I have not found a key.
After my mom died when I was three, my grandma was a significant part of my bedrock of belonging. Then, after Pauline died when I was twelve, I felt further uprooted and ungrounded in ways I could not express or explain.
Both these beloved women have grandchildren they never lived to meet. Each of them represent for me an air of mystery, hints of untold stories and unfinished business, and a legacy of loss. And these two influential, pivotal women in my motherline—unrelated to one another by blood—are also my most symbolic icons of nurturing and connection, even though they have been gone for much more of my life than they were here. Still, they live in and through me.
To Pat and Pauline I like to imagine I was something like kismet, their special portion, their awaited and anticipated fate and providence embodied. Both had been surrounded by brothers and short on sisters—my mom was the only girl; my grandma lost two of her three sisters by 18, one before she was born. Grandma had three living older brothers, three younger brothers she helped to raise, and then three sons. If nothing else, I am aware of being a fulfillment of her longing for a kinswoman to love and protect. She used to drive me crazy the way she bundled me up to go outside on the farm—handmade mittens on a long string that snaked through the sleeves of my jacket, my hood tied so tightly it pinched my chin, and for good measure, one of her own liniment-scented scarves swathing my head and neck—as if layers and layers could keep me safe from some unspoken danger. I felt more annoyed and hindered than precious, but looking back now, I understand more of what motivated her to swaddle me so securely, and I feel how dearly she loved me, without words.
I am well aware what I write here about Grandma must be classified as creative non-fiction. I take what facts I have, correlate them to memories and family stories, and then add my intuition and speculation. What I notice is as much a function of my own perspective as it is of her characteristics and qualities. The primary focal lens is my own bias, so I acknowledge there’s a possibility I’m projecting my own loneliness and search for belonging onto her story. There’s at least also a chance I’m tapping into a legitimate dimension of her experience, telling some of the story for which she did not have words. At the very least, I am shining a light into the family Rumpelkammer—German for junk closet—the mysterious place at Grandma’s house where you could find everything from toys to Christmas gifts to the carpet sweeper to the rollaway bed upon which I slept as a small child.
Marva Lee under one of Pauline’s quilts on the rollaway bed, 1962
There is no better mode for telling these stories than in patchwork fashion—like one of Pauline’s quilts—with the patches arranged more by fit, feel and intuition than by any linear or logical scheme. I sit surrounded by figurative scraps of fabrics from my ancestors’ lives and my own, searching for significance and patterns. This is soul-level memory-quilting. I sort the pieces by heart.
Pauline was 53 when I was born in that advantageous position of first grandchild. And it’s a girl! You can see how she feels about this by the way she’s squeezing the living daylights out of me as an infant in one of our first photographs together. A new creation. Flesh of her flesh. A granddaughter. We would be lively and magnetic compass points for each other for only a dozen years, yet she has remained a powerful lodestone for me lifelong. We didn’t know it in the beginning, of course, but I would also be in a unique position to understand and carry forward the stories. And the sorrow.
I imagine Pauline being thrilled to get a photo of her firstborn holding his firstborn. It would be eight months before she got to meet the little girl who first made her a grandmother.
After my mom died, Grandma’s potent but silent empathy was like a flash flood warning. I sensed this. We were in a club of two. She would look at me and cry briefly with a confusing grimace of helpless tenderness. Other times she’d be as hard, flat and no-nonsense as a cast iron skillet. I sensed a tension of overwhelming feelings mixed with uptightness and inhibition—Grandma seemed sometimes too emotional to speak. Verklemmt. Too locked up to open. I’d sit next to her in church and become aware of some barely perceptible shift in her inner weather. Looking over and up to that beloved round face, I’d see tears streaming down her cheeks and she’d take back the cloth hankie she’d cleverly made into a little, imaginary swaddled baby for me to play with, unfurling it to wipe her tears.
A few times I asked what made her cry, but I eventually learned not to inquire. Feelings, I am guessing, were not something she had the luxury of admitting or the freedom or finesse to express directly. The most I ever got out of her was that she was feeling a little “tough,” which, for a native German speaker may have translated across to schwer—difficult, heavy, hard—or schwierig—challenging, trying, vexed. So, perhaps, as she had seen modeled by her stoic parents, she turned her emotions inward, eventually converting them into aches and pains and other wordless cries for help.
Grandma, I am listening now.
SOW WITH TEARS
I had no idea until recently just how much wordless sorrow must have been held behind my grandmother’s emotional dam. “She never talked about that,” my dad said repeatedly as I asked about details of the six family deaths she experienced by young adulthood. Some significant life events I mentioned even seemed a surprise to him, for example, that she had an older sister named Maria who died at 22 just two months after their mother died at 55. What a crappy year 1924 turned out to be for Pauline, as 1962 would be for me, the years of losing moms and sisters.
The same German inscription is on both her mother Justina’s grave (who died in late March of 1924), and her sister Maria’s (who died in the last week of May, 1924), both in the Ebenezer Cemetery near New Leipzig, North Dakota, Psalm 126:5—Die mit tränen säen werden mit freuden ernten—Those who sow with tears will reap with joy. Werden is a powerful verb expressing future tense in German. It means not only will, but carries a dynamic nuance of becoming, turning into, going to be—a suggestion of metamorphosis—which fits with this gardening or farming metaphor which must have seemed particularly apt for these two uprooted women born on the hilly plains of the northern Black Sea region of Eastern Europe and buried on the rolling plains of North Dakota. You may be planting tears, promised their German Bible, but someday you will harvest joy. Someday. Or so they must have hoped.
Looking back twenty-two years before her untimely death to discover the beginnings of the American story, I find my great grandmother Justina accompanying her husband Daniel, his parents and extended family, 5,000 or more miles by land and ocean, and reluctantly leaving her own family behind, as well as the graves of two babies, Adolph, who lived not quite a year (but whose name was recycled for the next male baby, who happened to be born on exactly the same day, January 23) and Heinrich, who didn’t live even a month.
Change was in the air in 1902 and the Sprengers and others in their party were among a wave of thousands of ethnic Germans exiting Russian-held Bessarabia in 1902, their timing both prudent and fortuitous. When earlier generations of the family moved from Germany to South Russia in the early 1800s, they had been enticed and welcomed, promised they could speak their own language, practice their religion and be exempt from taxes and military service. Gradually these promises were broken, and especially after the military service exemption was revoked and a series of famines led to increasing hardship, the families began to migrate to North America. No matter what challenges they ended up facing in America, their choice to leave prior to the first World War turns out to have been almost certainly a mercy for the Sprengers and their extended family and friends, as Germans who remained in Russia lost their land and were threatened with mass evacuation to Siberia.
In 1902 the Sprenger family sold everything (except for “four big wool sacks per family, which included bedding…feather quilts, four blankets and pillows”) to afford a trip that began on May 2 and took forty-four days, including multiple wagon rides, two ships, and five trains—from Bessarabia (now Moldova) and across what is now the Ukraine, through Poland to the north coast and across the Baltic Sea, through the Kiel Canal and across the North Sea to Hull, England to Liverpool, from there across the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec, and then to Winnipeg. There were over ninety in the traveling party and not a soul spoke English. At Winnipeg the travelers parted ways, with some electing to stay in Canada while the Sprengers headed toward a German settlement in southwest North Dakota, which had only been a state for just over a dozen years.
My great grandparents, Daniel & Justina (Pahl) Sprenger, married in 1889 in Bessarabia
At 33, Justina had five children to care for on this tumultuous journey—Christian (12), Mathilda (7), Adolph (5), Bertha (2), and Maria (8 months). She wasn’t keen on immigrating, as Mathilda recalled later, and she was quite lonesome and unhappy on the unfamiliar new continent so far from her roots and family. The first few years on Antelope Creek near Leipzig, North Dakota seemed to have been quite dismal, harsh and fraught with difficulty. It can get up into the triple digit temperatures in summer and down to -50°F in winter in a part of the country known for extremes, a sharp contrast to the considerably milder climate with which they were familiar in South Russia. On the northern Great Plains there were few trees for shade, shelter or fuel. They lived in a 16-foot X 28-foot house—a family of seven in space barely bigger than my two-room efficiency apartment—purchased from some folks wanting to head westward to more temperate climes and prospects for prosperity in Washington State. Daniel bought the place lock, stock and barrel—80 fenced acres with a house, granary and barn built out of rocks with mud and sod roofs, three cows, one old wagon, two beds, a table, an old stove and a cook stove. After buying a horse elsewhere, the Sprengers were out of money. Aunt Mathilda mentions an interesting housekeeping detail: “We used to have to sprinkle water on the dirt floors to make it nice, especially for Sundays.”
The red dot on the 1893 North Dakota map shows where the Sprengers settled in 1902
DER HERR HAT’S GEGEBEN
Here seems a potent portal through which to enter into Justina’s world. In January of 1903 she became pregnant with the first Sprenger to be born in America. They’d arrived the previous June, too late to put in any crops. Still, she was with child and trying to feed her other five offspring on milk, eggs, bread, jelly and jackrabbit, as the story goes. What happened next must have seemed like a cruel and unbearable trade-off. During their first full calendar year in a new country, Justina and Daniel’s son August was born in mid-September, and just before Christmas 3-year-old Bertha died from pneumonia.
Perhaps as these two events were noted in the family records Daniel might also have turned to Job 1:21 for ballast, a verse familiar to me from my father’s stories of how his family responded to tribulation—Der HERR hat’s gegeben, der HERR hat’s genommen; der Name des HERRN sei gelobt—The LORD hath given it, the LORD hath taken it; the name of the LORD be praised.
I cannot begin to adequately imagine the upheaval, deprivation and uncertainty of these early years. It takes time to set down roots and learn the ways of a new land and climate. Daniel would have been scrabbling to beat the odds as a farmer in an area less fertile than the one where he’d learned farming. Justina would perhaps have questioned the decision again and again as she struggled with homesickness and grief.
And then in the autumn of 1905, into this determined, hardworking and perhaps understandably dour and occasionally disappointed family of German-speaking immigrants, a little girl named Emma Pauline was born, a child who would end up having a mischievous eye-twinkle, remarkable persistence, a big heart, and a wonderful sense of humor. As Grandma used to tell it, there were already too many Emmas in the extended family, so she chose to go by Pauline. She told this in such a way I have always wondered if the choice stood out as something of a pinnacle of personal power in a life that otherwise looked to be sheerly at the mercy of happenstance and the inscrutable wills of her earthly and heavenly fathers.
Family records indicate that between 1890 and 1911 Justina gave birth to twelve children in stairstep fashion: 1890, 1893, 1895, 1897, 1898, 1900, 1903, 1905, 1907, 1909, and 1911. Pauline was on the ninth stair down, and like the others, she would not have been the baby of the family for very long, as Daniel was born a couple weeks after her second birthday, then John, and finally Arthur, when Justina was 42. How in the world, I wonder, could you ever feel particularly special or even closely noticed in the midst of so many siblings? Would you have a voice? Would you know you mattered? Would you have what you needed to flourish?
When I say my grandma’s name, Pauline, I wonder if her mother was giving a little nod to her maiden name, Pahl. What, I found myself wondering, became of Justina’s parents and extended family left behind in Bessarabia? The only mention I can find is in a 1943 letter from Pauline’s oldest brother Christian to his son Ernest, mentioning his grandfather Johann “Hans” Pahl as having been born in 1833 and dying in South Russia in 1917, and of his grandmother, also named Justina like her daughter, having died in 1911, as far as he can recall. I try to imagine Justina Sprenger, having recently given birth to her twelfth and final child, hearing that her mother had died thousands of miles away. They had not seen each other for almost a decade by then. Sow with tears.
“In the beginning there were only a very few ranchers along the rivers and a lonely homesteader once in a while and a sod shack near some creek—and the only panorama a homesteader could see those days was the rolling prairies, a few herds of cattle and bunches of antelope roaming about—and old Mr. Coyote would furnish the evening’s entertainment,” recalled one writer looking back at the early days in the vicinity of where the Sprengers moved in 1902.
The Sprenger homestead was initially quite near the town of Leipzig (founded in 1895), a growing nucleus of German-speaking immigrants with a population of close to a hundred by 1910, at which time two major railroad lines extended westward across the state and missed the town by eleven miles. In response to opportunity, the town and its businesses—buildings and all, including a flour mill—packed up and moved southwest to a new townsite, New Leipzig, leaving the Sprengers and their neighbors behind. Another town sprang up on the railroad line about six miles straight south of the Sprengers around the same time, Elgin, and this would be the nearest source of supplies. In those early horse-powered days, the difference between one mile to town and six would have been quite significant,
Daniel Sprenger homestead, 1918 plat map
Sometime in 1922, when my grandmother Pauline was 16, her mother became ill and never recovered. With her two older sisters already married, Pauline would have been the only logical person left at home to provide care for her ailing mother and three younger brothers. As Justina’s illness and debility progressed—and almost certainly deepened her homesickness, sadness and regret at leaving her own family behind in Bessarabia—her husband Daniel, concerned about Justina’s swollen, infected breast, drove his wife 80 miles to the hospital in Bismarck in his first automobile, a 1914 REO Touring Car. The doctor said there was nothing to be done, and Daniel brought Justina back home to the farm on Antelope Creek to die.
Her five children still at home to witness her decline close at hand were 21, 18, 14, 13 and 11. I find it challenging to accurately imagine the toll Justina’s extended illness of two years would take on the family, especially on Pauline as a caregiver for her mother and younger brothers, as well as for the household in general. Her death would perhaps have brought a confusing mix of relief and grief, the dark pall of her disappointment and suffering finally lifted, replaced by the irrevocable finality of her absence. At 18 my grandmother was motherless.
Just two months after Justina died on March 27, 1924 at age 55, there would be another family funeral. The sister closest to Pauline in age, Maria, whose first child had been born the previous September, died on May 23 at age 22. I have a photocopy of an image from Maria’s funeral in the yard of her childhood home, the casket on a bier near the house, perhaps on the leeward side, everyone still in overcoats and hats on a chilly North Dakota spring day, no leaves yet on the trees. There is about this image for me an extraordinary poignance and pathos, a sense of stunned solemnity and disbelief, an air of resignation. Maria’s obituary, which a friend helped me translate from German, alludes to her suffering for about a year (from what is not specified), that she sought the help of the best doctors in the state, but “since her dear mother died in March, it seemed that to her, through this loss, all ties to life dissolved.”
Maria Sprenger Hintz’s funeral at the home place, two months after her mother’s, May 1924
Maria was the baby of the family when the Sprengers immigrated, not quite nine months old on the stressful journey in 1902. She would perhaps have been most attuned to her mother’s distress at having to bid a painful farewell to her family in Bessarabia. When Maria was two, her brother August was born and the sister the next step up from her, three-year-old Bertha, died. Although Maria would not have comprehended all the traumas of her early life, including having a mother who was sad and homesick, Maria was almost certainly deeply affected. Many years later, sometime about midway through her first pregnancy in 1923, she began feeling unwell. Her own mother was sick at the same time, so perhaps there was increased distress at not having Justina in good health and available to help her through this major life transition and its apparent complications. Although her son Raymond was born healthy in September, Maria did not rebound. Her son was about 8 months old when she died. Two years later his father Robert died also, leaving Raymond an orphan who was raised by his paternal grandparents.
I think of my grandma as I walk myself through this tragic timeline. Did Pauline at 18 perhaps hold her infant nephew in her arms at the funeral of his mama, the sister closest to her in age? Did she wonder what would become of the poor babe? Did this moment echo in the secret halls of grief nearly forty years later when a very similar story played out with her daughter-in-law, my mom? In a letter to family in 1963, Pauline used a phrase that seems to me to echo back to this sad juncture in her life with a sense of resignation: “I am sure you will miss her a lot, but that’s the way of life.” Sow with tears.
By the time Pauline’s mother and sister died, Leipzig would already have been something of a ghost town—except for a school, church and perhaps a small general store—so other supplies would have had to come from Elgin or New Leipzig, which probably meant they did not get to town very often. By then Pauline was the only female left in the household, the nearest neighbor nearly a mile away, and the lack of womanly companionship a theme that would repeat throughout her life like a sad refrain.
Yes, there were undoubtedly extended family gatherings and a sister and sisters-in-law not too far away. Likely they saw each other at church on Sundays. There was a growing passel of nephews and nieces in her older siblings’ families, and she is remember fondly as Aunt Pauline or Aunt Pauli, but still, as the years went by after her mother’s death and Pauline was still at home keeping house for her father and brothers and helping out with farm work as needed, she must at times have felt as if her own future and fulfillment had been indefinitely deferred.
AFTER THE WORLD CHANGED
For a window into Pauline’s circumstances as a young adult, imagine the household six years down the road at the time of the 1930 U.S. Census: her father Daniel (59), listed as a widower, living with his American-born adult children August (26), Pauline (24), John (21) and Arthur (18). Her next younger brother, Daniel, Jr.—whom she had helped raise after her mother got sick—had died of tuberculosis in 1928, a footnote about which I can find very little, although it would surely have been devastating to lose yet another close family member, especially one who had been entrusted to her care. By this point, five of the twelve Sprenger children had died, three as infants and toddlers, two as adults.
Although Daniel, Sr. seems to have continued acquiring land in this hilly, semi-arid part of North Dakota, the prospects from a social point of view must have at times seemed dim for the remnants of this family still trying to make a good-enough life in America nearly thirty years after immigrating. I wonder if perhaps the accumulated stress of the family after uprooting and resettling—perhaps especially the apparent disappointment and depression of Justina, followed by her early death—made a lasting impact on these children born in North Dakota, leaving them more in survival mode than with adequate psychosocial resources to go forth and thrive. Although I am focusing on my foremothers here, it’s worth noting that my great grandfather Daniel’s history of emotional loss also plays into the pattern of unspoken grief. Of his parent’s twelve children, only half lived to adulthood. In fact, he was born surrounded by death—the sister born just before him, Julie, lived only a week, and the brother born after him, Jacob, lived less than a year, dying when Daniel was three.
In the 1930 census, Daniel and his three sons are listed as “farmer” and “farm laborers.” My 24-year-old grandma’s occupation is listed as “none,” although there is a “yes” by employment. She would almost certainly have played a vital role as “woman of the house” and been expected to stand in for her dead mother in many household functions, having responsibilities without much authority, as she had since 16.
Hidden in the folds of this narrative is a wrinkle, an historically minor, yet poignant footnote that alters the story I’ve had in my head over the years. Let’s rewind to the summer of 1925, just over a year after his wife Justina died, when Daniel remarried to a 50-year-old woman named Margaret Penkendorf, who would presumably have taken the household reins from Pauline after she’d held them for nigh on three years, starting during her mother’s illness. Whether this was at first a relief or a threat is hard to say. I cannot even begin to imagine the possible tensions, power struggles, and conflicted feelings among the new “stepmother” and her husband’s “children”—ages 21 to 13—and she had at least seven living children of her own at the time, some of whom would presumably have joined the expanded family. Were it not for this intriguing notation, I would have little to go on: “It is said that Groszvater Daniel‘s children were unhappy with their stepmother…[and] the marriage was soon dissolved. She died February 26, 1927.” Whatever “dissolved” means—whether an actual divorce or a separation of households—and whatever “soon” may indicate, certainly Daniel’s choice added to the ongoing upheaval of his family. Contemplating this shortest of stories, I get a mental picture of a rollercoaster ratcheting noisily up a steep incline and then plummeting, swerving, and coming to a stop, with the riders disembarking in a discombobulated daze. I see Pauline in particular, perhaps staggering a bit, and then heading back to the kitchen, as I so often watched her do, to set the world right with the yeast of labor that enabled her to rise again and again.
As my dad says, she didn’t talk much about her early losses and difficulties. But there is one story that stands out still in his memory. Years after it happened she spoke to her sons of helping with the farm work during harvest in the days before tractors, perhaps to impress on them how easy they had it by comparison. Her job was to run the grain header, which was pushed from the rear by four to six horses, with the operator on a platform above the steering wheel behind the horses. The “steering wheel” was a lever grasped and maneuvered between the thighs of the operator—in this case my sturdy but not-very-long-of-leg grandmother—who told of the painful bruises and raw chafing on her inner thighs. Steering was done with the legs to keep the hands free for managing the reins, and the job required attention to multiple tasks at once so as not to miss any of the precious grain. Here is a graphically contradictory echo of the Psalm 126 promise—she harvested, not in joy, but in pain. For some reason she was comfortable sharing this surprisingly intimate story of a physical hurt with her young sons, but avoided speaking of emotional pain, a pattern of emotional repression and somatic expression that repeated for the rest of her life.
Threshing crew similar to the one on which Grandma worked as a header operator (Google)
Five years after the ill-conceived union with Margaret, my great grandfather Daniel found another marriage prospect, and by all accounts a better one, so on Valentine’s Day in 1930, Pauline, still living at home, got another stepmother, 62-year-old Gertrude Reich. They would have shared a home for over three years, and it seems this alliance was more amicable. Grandsons who later came to stay with Groszvater Daniel and Groszmutter Gertrude describe her as “a grand and good lady” and “a wonderful cook.” Perhaps she was a welcome counterbalance to her new husband. My dad characterizes Daniel as “an austere soul,” recalling that “no one was allowed to talk or laugh at the table.” He remembers that as the explanation for why his Uncle Art, the youngest of the Sprenger kids, always ate wordlessly, hunched over his plate.
Still, for Pauline, accommodating her father’s new wife, sharing living spaces and negotiating routines and responsibilities would almost certainly have been an adjustment—and by then she was likely too old to relate to Gertrude as a stepmother—although I imagine perhaps some kindly nurturing and sharing of the household burdens may have been welcome. At almost 25, I suspect Pauline was also aware of dancing near the imaginary line between being a marriageable young woman and eine alte Jungfer, an “old maid” or “spinster.”
As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the earliest photographs I’ve seen of my Grandma is on her wedding day on September 23, 1933, a week before her 28th birthday, standing outside on a breezy day in a plain-as-salt white dress and black shoes that look a little tight. In my imagination this is the juncture at which she was conjured up out of thin air in her rightful place next to my Grandpa Henry, but excavating deeply enough to uncover the back story has added much more emotional texture and spiritual dimension to my conscious awareness of Pauline than I could have imagined possible. She has been my grandma since 1959, but I was not ready until now to reckon with the half-century of living that happened before she entered my universe, nor to grapple with how her death increased my own wordless sorrow.
How in the 70,000+ square miles of great rolling plains and glacial potholes of the North Dakota prairie, I marvel, could two persons so pivotal to my own story cross paths, especially given their lack of proximity? Henry and Pauline grew up nearly 200 miles apart—more than half the length of the state—which in those days was quite a distance. Truly their meeting seems improbable.
The sow with tears theme fits here too, because it was pain and illness that dug the furrows and planted the first seeds. In the early 1930s, Henry Weigelt was in the hospital in Fargo—about 200 miles from home—with crippling rheumatoid arthritis at age 27 or so. In a bed near him was a young fellow about his age named August Sprenger, who was closer to 300 miles from home. I don’t know why Grandma Pauline’s next older brother was in the hospital, but I am grateful that after they’d gotten to know each other a bit, August said to Henry Weigelt, “Say! I have a sister back home you need to meet.”
I am always compelled by these sacred pinpoints upon which pivot the chancy likelihood of one’s own existence. And upon such pinheads I suspect angels dance and maybe even hoot and giggle. I don’t know any details of my grandparents’ courtship. I only know they found each other, and I have every reason to believe they were both deeply, if quietly, grateful for Divine Providence. I know I am.
Henry & Pauline (Sprenger) Weigelt in 1933 and 1970
HENRY, HENRY, HENRY
I love that my grandparents found each other against the odds. Decades after their marriage during the Great Depression, on September 23, 1933, and years after raising three sons of her own, Pauline still doodled her husband’s name on scratch paper and in cookbooks. Henry. Henry Weigelt. Henry F. Weigelt. And Mrs. Henry Weigelt. This is to me the dearest little clue to how glad and grateful she felt to have finally found someone with whom to make her own family. That, and my iconic memory of them taking a nap side by side on a double bed in their tiny farmhouse bedroom under a patchwork quilt made from heavy, dark fabrics like Grandpa’s old suits—more practical than beautiful—still holding hands, at least in private, after more than three decades of marriage. Peeking in at them surreptitiously, I felt as safe and rooted as I can ever recall feeling, knowing this simple, sturdy, quiet, earthy love was part of their legacy to me.
My grandparents started late and set a different pace than their own parents, which must have been a relief, especially to Grandma. She had three sons in seven years—four years between Morris and Allen, and three between Allen and Lewis. I’ve heard she was disappointed not to have had at least one daughter for company and help in the house, but thank goodness Uncle Lewis was willing to be her sidekick in the kitchen, and thanks to that, I still get Pfeffernüsse cookies from her recipe every Christmas.
Henry & Pauline Weigelt family in 1943 (Lewis, Morris, Allen) and 1958 (Morris, Lewis, Allen)
Still, there were hardships, as is inescapable in farm life. They picked a challenging time economically to be getting started, and they lived a couple of different places, working for others, before they moved in late 1938 to the farm I remember and love, where Lewis and his wife Judy still live. The land had been homesteaded by Henry’s parents, Ludwig and Annie Weigelt, but, as was common during the Depression, the Federal Land Bank foreclosed on the loan. Henry found a way to rent the farm with an option to buy, and through hard work and astute management, he was able to purchase the land back from the Federal Land Bank for $2,500.
As Henry and Pauline were starting to get settled on the farm—between the births of their second and third sons—Grandma’s father Daniel died in August of 1940 at age 69. By then he had 40 grandchildren, of whom my father was one. Dad was a few months shy of turning six and recalls feeling overwhelmed and scared at the large gathering. And no wonder! Daniel’s obituary says, “The church building was unable to hold the large number of friends who gathered that day to attend the funeral.” Grandma would have been about to turn 35 at this major life transition point. In a family photo taken at the time, the siblings are conveniently posed with the three oldest—born in Bessarabia—in the front row in birth order, and the four American-born siblings also in birth order in the back. Because of this research, I am more keenly aware of the names of the five who are missing. Pauline is the only one with a slight suggestion of a smile.
Farming is a gamble requiring optimism, realism, faith and obstinance. Drought, heatwaves, hail, frigid winters when you have to dig a tunnel to the barn to milk the cows, the vagaries of crop and milk prices, all of these were, to my grandparents, familiar but persistent stressors. All chores had to get done, all hands were needed, and a smaller family meant fewer hands. I grew up watching Grandma circle here and there as necessary between kitchen, garden, milk barn, hog barn, chicken coops, granary and fields. I saw her in dresses in the house and overalls in the barn.
I imagine I have Pauline in part to thank that my father in turn raised me without prescribed gender roles or limitations. And there are some tender spots to be found in the story here, too, as it was passed down to me. Her sons, I think, were a bit embarrassed by their mother. They did not perceive her as pretty or feminine. There are jokes about her size and her sturdy footwear. My dad told me when I was a young girl, in an almost apologetic way, that I would “never be pretty, because you are a Weigelt.” But, he assured me, I could hope to be a beautiful person. Nowhere in Pauline’s history do I see a space in which she might have had the luxury or even a model for cultivating feminine charms and aspirations toward beauty. From nearly the very beginning of her life, practicality, functionality and necessity would have been valued more highly than beauty.
As a child I did not measure my Grandma against any external standards. As far as I knew, she was the epitome of what a grandmother should be. She loved me in a way no one else seemed to or could after my mother died in 1962. And I did not know at the time it was because she understood my sorrow better than anyone else in my life.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DECISION
I perfected the art of the sideways gaze in part because my Grandma Pauline did not prefer to be directly regarded with the intensity of my childish curiosity—it made her nervous, she said. I learned a lot about her by watching out of the corner of my eye. It occurs to me now I have learned to take a similarly oblique approach to looking at my own history, especially the most painful parts. That is clearly part of this family legacy, passed down to me through multiple generations, including my father. Only recently did he reveal his only frame of reference for how to handle grief when his wife died at 28 was gleaned from his experiences on the farm with livestock. You cut your losses and moved on. No sense dwelling on what can’t be changed. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Metabolizing undigested grief has been a significant focus of my inner work over the last twenty years, although I did not have the words for it until recently. The more grief I consciously digest, the less my body needs to speak the language of my ancestors—telling the saddest stories in backaches, stomachaches, compromised immunity, canker sores, constipation, anxiety, fatigue, obesity, insomnia, depression, addiction.
I composed nearly this entire narrative—including the ending—before circling back to enter the most potent portal where Grandma’s sorrows and mine commingle so dangerously. I wrote the redemptive portions first, as is my way.
My dad Morris & mom Pat met at Northwestern Nazarene College in Idaho and married in 1955
When my mom Pat became ill in early 1962 while pregnant with my sister Faye Anne, we lived in Connecticut nearly 1,400 miles from my mom’s parents in Minnesota and 1,700 miles from my dad’s in North Dakota. After the baby was born in mid-April, when it quickly became clear my mom had an inoperable and fatal tumor, major decisions had to be confronted.
My Somerville grandparents had the means to travel and be part of the final discussions. The Weigelts were not so fortunate. From a distance Pauline and Henry made the same selfless offer the Somervilles did: rather than split up the little girls, what if they came to live with one or the other set of grandparents? I don’t envy anyone this wrenching decision and I refuse to second-guess it. Our parents saw drawbacks, limitations and hazards to having either set of parents—who were all in their mid- to late 50s—take over our long-term rearing. In the end, Dad did not see how he could possibly handle losing all of us at once, so my parents decided I would stay with him and they accepted my Uncle Ken and Aunt Masue’s offer to adopt newborn Faye Anne. Both sets of grandparents, I believe, struggled with understanding and accepting the final decision.
No one could have anticipated that Masue would be afraid to let any of us see Faye Anne in the years to come, so Pauline never got to meet her second granddaughter, who was nine when Grandma died in 1971. Only now, as I gather the threads of Pauline’s history of loss and grief, can I properly understand just how grievous this must have been for her. Only recently did I learn that Pauline never forgave my Dad for splitting us up. And when I asked my sister if she’d ever heard this, she shared that many years later, on her own deathbed, her adoptive mother Masue asked Faye Anne’s forgiveness for never letting her meet her grandmother Pauline. This unspoken sorrow and misunderstanding still lives in our bellies and bones, the women who were once little girls whose futures hung on a decision made in a time of unbearable anguish.
There must have been so many emotional echos caroming around in Grandma’s heart in 1962. My mother’s exploratory surgery that revealed no reason for hope, as Pauline’s own mother’s trip to Bismarck had some 40 years earlier. The death of a young mother leaving small children behind, as her sister Maria’s had in 1924. The loss of her own siblings. These factors would have influenced her dismay at the decision. How, she must have wondered, could you choose to split up the two little girls when she would have been so glad to take them both?
Marva Lee holding new baby sister Faye Anne in April 1962.
LIGHTNING AS A TALISMAN
This is the complex emotional atmosphere in which I landed in June of 1962 after my mother’s death. My infant sister had already been whisked away to her new home in Oregon in May. My own emotions must have been wildly confused, my insecurities rampant. Everything had changed suddenly. I traveled with my Dad to Minnesota for my mom’s memorial service in her home church in Brainerd. No one remembers whether I actually attended the service. I recall orange sherbet ice cream, the Mississippi River home where my Somerville grandparents lived, and scattershot impressions of the bewildering emotions of my caregivers. Then I was taken to the farm in North Dakota to stay while my dad left on a multi-week “grief tour” by bus to visit college and seminary friends who might help him process his loss and prepare to move on.
It would be many years before I understood just how devastating and heartbreaking the spring of 1962 must have been in our family. Grandma’s brother John died at 53 on May 3. Then, on May 31, my grandpa’s brother Bill died of heart failure at 57. Next, on June 4, my 28-year-old mother died. In barely a month, three close family members died “before their time,” leaving a haphazardly plowed field of grief. Sow with tears.
No one could have imagined our 1961 visit would be the last time the Weigelts saw my mom Pat
Staying with Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Lewis for over a month after my mom died—undoubtedly mystified and stricken by the sudden disappearance of my mom, dad and new sister—I must have leaned heavily on Grandma Pauline’s presence for solace and orientation. I imagine this is when she became embedded in my heart as a lodestone, that compass magnet to guide mariners, literally a way-stone. Not all iron oxide is magnetized like this; it’s speculated that a cataclysmic event such as a lightning strike is what causes the magnetism. As a metaphor, it’s close to perfect. For years lightning has been one of my symbolic amulets. I have lived virtually my entire life knowing lightning can strike at any moment. I also know you can live through a strike, and it can make a compass of what’s left.
Uncle Lewis, who was 20 at the time of my mom’s death, saved a story for me from my stay on the farm in June of 1962. One day I had crawled up on the chair by the telephone, the one Grandma leaned her foot upon while eavesdropping on party-line phone calls. He found me there and asked what I was doing. “I don’t feel good and I need to call my daddy,” I told him. Trying to jolly me up and calm me down, he assured me being sick was nothing to worry about. I’d feel better in no time. “Well,” I told him poignantly, “My mommy got sick and she didn’t get better.” I am grateful for this window into my own distress during that tumultuous time.
Marva Lee & Grandma, 1962. First Christmas without Mom.
I would be back on the farm again at Christmas that year as my Dad and I made strategic visits to first the Somervilles and then the Weigelts. I could not have understood what was happening. At a week or two away from turning four, I would have sensed but not known what to make of the strange, prickly tensions and still-raw sorrows ricocheting around the rooms as he came seeking a blessing. He’d met someone—a woman from New Jersey named Eula-Adine Winget—and hoped to remarry. What did they think? Grandma’s mind might have wildly teeter-tottered between memories of the dreaded Margaret Penkendorf and the beloved Gertrude Reich.
The Weigelts would not get to meet their new daughter-in-law Eula-Adine until after the wedding, the logistics and economics of the farming life again preventing them from being present at major turning points in Morris’s life.
Although I didn’t put the pieces together until just a few years back, I was on the farm again for an extended stay when they married the following June, in 1963. I was puzzled by why I couldn’t remember anything about the wedding, wondering if I had blocked the memories. When I asked, I learned there were a variety of reasons it was more convenient for me to stay for a bit with each set of grandparents. My dad’s middle brother, Uncle Allen, was able to get a pass from the military and fly with me to Minnesota to visit the Somervilles, who in turn drove me 320 miles to the farm in North Dakota. As far as I know, this may have been the last time these two couples saw each other, the end of an era of being related by marriage a scant seven years.
Henry Weigelt, Harold & Norva Somerville, Marva Lee, 1963
A letter preserved from that time offers a little hint as to how Pauline felt about having me around in the summer of 1963: “Sure is quiet around here now with Marva Lee gone.” I cry as I type this. After my mom died, my grandma offered something I had a hard time accessing elsewhere—a dependable sense of being treasured, of legitimacy and guaranteed belonging. I knew in my very cells how she felt about me. It was as sure as her daily bread rising under embroidered tea towels in the warmth of her kitchen. Little else in my life felt as certain as that after 1962.
I can scarcely imagine how big an adjustment it was for each of us in 1963: the grandparents meeting their new daughter-in-law; me getting used to a new mom and she to me; Eula-Adine, a New Jersey native, visiting North Dakota for the first time right after her honeymoon.
As I parallel my narrative with Grandma’s all these many years after the fact, with the benefit of deeper wisdom and maturity, and as I am but six years short of being the same age as Pauline was when she died, I am in a pivotal position to relate to both of us as little girls, young women, maturing memory-keepers, and more deeply than ever, as kinswomen. While working on this project, I’ve had to pause often, and in those pauses I peeled potatoes, cooked, washed dishes, did laundry, sang hymns she loved, spoke the names of her loved ones, conjured up the ghosts of our dead. The sorrow is no less potent for the passage of time. In fact, some of it I am encountering more directly and rawly than ever before. I do this for both of us.
Her losses and mine converge much as the Heart River in North Dakota near where she was born pours into the Missouri River near which I was born. It all gathers in my emotional sea and I realize it’s possible I am feeling for both of us, metabolizing the sorrow she had no permissible way to express. I could not possibly have understood how much we had in common. But my heart knew. And now I know why.
By our next visit to the farm there was a new granddaughter to meet, LaDeana Frances Weigelt, 1964. Lewis, Henry (w/LaDeana), Pauline, Morris & Marva Lee.
SOMETHING I THREW TOGETHER
So, I think, little wonder the grandma I recall was at times a woman of sorrow and few words—a tear-sower. But she was also a woman of practical jokes and barely-repressed, snorting mirth, not to mention probably millions of cookies and thousands of loaves of bread, caramel rolls and küchen, and let’s just say, roughly—with a minimum of three meals a day (and not counting field lunches) from about 16 when Pauline’s mother Justina fell ill until close to her own death fifty years later at 66—she must have cooked something like at least 54,000 meals.
Pauline is remembered for her industry, her hospitality, her humor, and her pain. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll hear she could work circles around “any man” or “ten men.” She was famous for her cooking and baking, often cramming the table with platters and bowls brimming with meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables from her own garden, gutschmecksel (German slang for a “good tasting” salad with fruit, whipped cream, mini-marshmallows and such), three kinds of pickles, freshly-baked bread with just-churned butter and homemade jam, and of course, dessert, and then describing the feast with a twinkle in her squinty blue-gray eyes, as “just something I threw together.” When the meal was ready, she’d yell out the same phrase bellowed in the barn twice a day before milking—“Get in your stalls!” At the end my Grandpa Henry would lean back and say, with a twinkle in his own eyes, “Why, I filled up on those few bites just like I’d had a big meal!”
Henry, Pauline & Tony the dog at milking time, 1967. This is how they are etched in my memory.
As a child I got confused a little by the humor as well as by how many meals there were a day—coffee and a bite of something before morning milking; a full breakfast after; the main dinner at noon; often a “lunch” in mid-afternoon, especially during harvest time; an evening supper; and later, after all the dishes were done, Grandma would get out pails of ice cream and an assortment of cookies. She even put plates of chocolate chip cookies on the breakfast table. I often ate far too much and regretted it, especially in the early years right after my mom died, when I was using food perhaps the same way Grandma did, as a love substitute, distress-damper and feeling-muffler, which invariably backfired on me.
Pauline, as many people remember and remark, knew how to get silly and loved humorous stories and jokes, pranks and puns. She showed up at the new pastor’s house with freshly-butchered poultry, declaring she had “some chickens who want to enter the ministry.” She put on a cancan slip over her dress and posed in the yard for a photo. She mimicked and poked fun, tricked and snickered, her whole body convulsing with what looked like mirth. And yet, as a little girl I could still sense behind the comedy the flickering, ghostly shadows of unspoken grief and unnamed pain, both emotional and physical. Sitting near her and feeling the telltale shaking, I learned to check her face, because she was as apt to be crying as laughing. Her emotions were often mixed and even contradictory.
I remember standing on a chair next to the counter drying dishes while she washed frenetically, probably exhausted and ready to get as fast as possible to the brief rest period that everyone took after dinner. I tried to hand back a plate, pointing out she’d missed a spot. As a sensitive child, I was thoroughly flummoxed by her response, which I now understand was probably an incongruent mix of anger and shame with a thin veneer of humor. In a tone midway between joke and jibe, she roughly pushed my hand and the proffered plate back to me with this memorable retort: “The wiper is supposed to get off what the washer missed.” And that, as best I can tell, is what I’m still trying to do at a psychospiritual level half a century later.
Pauline did not mind making a spectacle of herself, especially if she made you laugh!
THE NAMELESS WEIGHT
To me my grandma was spectacularly singular and special, but I don’t think she ever felt that way, and understandably so. As the ninth of twelve children and the one woman left to tend first her father and brothers and then her husband and sons, it is little wonder she was humble and self-effacing, needy, strong, hungry, busy, funny, sad, stubborn, and mostly silent about her losses and disappointments. The thing I knew as a little girl, and even more so now as a woman nearing the age at which my beloved grandmother died, is that her hidden hurts were nonetheless quite palpable to me. Her silence did not spare her descendants. It simply gave us a load to carry that had no name.
I pause to observe here that most of my memories of Grandma—except for when I visited in June of 1962 and 1963 by myself at ages 3 and 4—were when she was hustling and bustling to accommodate and entertain a houseful of company. I wonder about Pauline in between. Did we mostly see her “company” face? I gather from stories and comments she was probably quite lonely on the farm, especially as the men spent so much time out doing the heavy farm labor while she did the cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry, and chicken chores by herself. I know the sight of the dust cloud from the mail person’s vehicle stopping by the mailbox an eighth of a mile away was a major social highlight of the day, kindling a little flame of anticipation that someone may have written with news. I also know going to the Church of the Nazarene six miles southeast in Fessenden on Sundays and Wednesdays was a priority and a primary source of community.
Aerial view of the Weigelt farm, 1948
In the meantime, her best bet for day to day connectivity was the dial telephone on an eight-party line that replaced the old “crank and holler” phone by the mid-1950s. Back then I think it was more or less assumed that any conversation might be eavesdropped upon by anyone on the line. A subsidiary listener might even suddenly interject an opinion or exclamation. It was in some regards the social media platform of the day, the freshest source of news both bad and good, a way to know—across the distances between rural neighbors—who might need help and support.
Here’s my favorite example. The day my dad called home to tell his mom his young wife had died, Grandma was home alone. Grandpa Henry was out of state at his brother Bill‘s funeral. Her youngest son Lewis was in town. When the call came in, Inez Wiese was listening in. As soon as Pauline hung up, Inez called another neighbor, Elvina, and they agreed Pauline should not be alone. Since Inez’s husband had gone to town with their car, she fired up the old truck used to haul water and roared over to pick up Elvina. Lewis remembers arriving home at noon to find the water truck outside the house and the three women inside grieving the death of my 28-year-old mom. In times of tragedy, the women gathered.
Still, I imagine Pauline was often lonely, maybe not lonely for company, but a longing for likeminded companionship and tender solicitude and nurturing, as she had been since age 11 when her oldest sister Mathilda left home to marry in 1916…and again when her grandmother Sprenger died the next year…and then, when her only other sister Maria left home to get married in 1922, just as their mother became bedridden, leaving Pauline as primary caregiver for Justina and three younger brothers…and after both Justina and Maria died within two months of one another in 1924, Pauline was increasingly alone, lonely, and without a confidante. Marrying Henry and having her own family would have been a blessing and a solace, but her isolation was still quite profound, at least emotionally.
This is what I as a little girl sensed in her, an unspoken hunger that her tableful of delicious food could never fill. I’m not sure how she would feel about me finding words for the weight and the hunger all these years later. Shy, embarrassed, reluctant, self-conscious. Conflicted. Secretly relieved?
Perhaps, I find myself speculating, Pauline and I are more alike than different, and no one in the family knew quite what to do with either of us.
STIRRING THE MEMORY POT
Sifting and sorting through old sense memories as if shuffling a stack of mental photos, I encounter evidence in Pauline of a certain tension, almost an armoring. She was stout, fleshy and rounded, yet not soft, relaxed or yielding. There was almost a rigidity, as if she were locked in an invisible suit of armor. You could see it in the way she sat on the couch, how she held her purse, the way she carried the scrap bucket to the chickens, her gait as she walked or climbed stairs, and her stiff posture even when stretched out on the bed to rest. She couldn’t touch her toes from a standing position. She couldn’t jump and get both feet off the ground at the same time. Try as I might to snuggle up to her, she was not particularly cozy or nurturing. There was a sense of remoteness and protection, perhaps even a self-conscious awkwardness.
It’s harder for me to access clear memories of her voice, but what I seem to recall is a sense of strain, hoarseness, or rustiness, a lack of range in pitch and tone, and a minimum of subtlety and shading in inflection. Thinking of her calling me in from across the farmyard—Mar-va Lee!—there was perhaps also a challenge with sustaining volume and projection; her voice would almost seem to break at times. And, all told, it was far closer to harsh than to soothing. I don’t remember her being a good singer. All this adds up to what I now reinterpret as a lack of prosody—that pleasant variability in vocal rhythm and intonation that the ear and nervous system perceive similarly to someone reading a poem, those gently variable vocal patterns that let children (and adults) know the person speaking is well-regulated and safe.
And then there was her face. I found her at times quite hard to read, like she was wearing a mask. There could be a noticeable flatness and lack of expression. She had a wonderful grin and a twinkle in her eyes when she was in a playful mood, but her day-to-day smile played at the corners of her mouth rather than taking over her face. I also remember something on the order of involuntary grimaces and other expressions that may well have signaled pain, but whether that was emotional or physical in origin—or perhaps both at once—is impossible to say.
The intriguing composition of this 1969 photo tells such a story of the contrasts between my dad’s past on the farm and his newly-attained doctoral degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. My grandparents’ impassive faces hide any hint of how they may be feeling.
I awakened from a deep sleep very early in the morning to write this—at what on the farm was close to time for morning milking. I am surprised by the richness of detail I find when I employ the long-handled spoon of recall to reach to the bottom of my stockpot of memories. I obviously paid quite close attention to her. She has been gone since 1971, but not at all forgotten. After my mom died, Pauline was the kinswoman I knew the best and saw the most, although that was usually only once a year. I hope she had some sense of how much I needed her and watched her with eyes of love.
As best I can tell, with the benefit of historical hindsight, my great grandmother, Justina Pahl Sprenger, sowed a fair amount of sadness in her abbreviated life and some of her children inevitably harvested the crop and sowed their own. My great grandfather, Daniel Sprenger, although well respected, seems to have had an iron hand without the grace of a velvet glove. The habit and enforcement of repression, of discouraging laughter and talking at the table, of using hard work as the antidote to emotional pain, of weathering adversity without words, would eventually yield a joyless harvest.
With the exception of Maria, who was less than a year old when they immigrated and who died at 22, there is a marked difference in the pattern of the Sprenger kids born in Bessarabia who made it to adulthood and were gone from home by the time their mother died. Christ, Mathilda and Adolph all married in their early to mid-twenties, had large families of 11-14 children, and lived to 76, 90 and 85.
The outcomes for the five American-born Sprengers still living at home when their mother became ill tell a different story. Generally speaking, these offspring were slow to leave the nest, late to marry, and had significantly smaller families than the one into which they were born. Three died relatively young: Daniel at 22, John at 53, Pauline at 66. John, who was 13 when his mom got sick and 15 when she died, is remembered as struggling with depression and having difficulty coping with the demands of adult life. John did not marry until he was 37, then quickly started a family, as if making up for lost time. He died just shy of 16 years of marriage after a brief illness signaled by severe headaches, leaving behind a wife and five children ages 1 to 12.
The remaining Sprenger siblings at brother John’s funeral in May 1962
Of that generation of Sprengers, only August left North Dakota. His biography shows a pattern of moving fairly often, trying different jobs and enterprises, and struggling to find his niche. I am fascinated that the first child born in the new country turned out to be a wanderer. Of these post-immigration children, Arthur, the youngest, who stayed on the home place for most of his life and perhaps in some respects had the least upheaval and the greatest support, lived the longest of the five, to the relatively ripe age of 87.
I suspect, as I learn more about intergenerational trauma and epigenetic legacy, that I too—along with other descendants—still reap those old seeds of disappointment, unexpressed distress, and uncomposted sorrows. Prolonged exposure to adversity is now increasingly well understood as having a causal relationship to chronic illness of the sorts that Grandma experienced, as well as to mental health challenges like depression and addiction.
I remember Grandma regularly using stomach remedies—some kind of wintergreen digestive syrup taken with a spoonful of sugar, and rolls and rolls of Tums and Rolaids—as well as daily application of liniments and rubs like Mentholatum. She braided her hair and wrapped it tightly around her head, bound herself up in layers of clothes, stout hose and sturdy shoes. She tried every whichaway to hold herself in and soothe her discomfort. Modern trauma theory helps me add a dimension to my understanding. The titles and subtitles of books recently added to my library tell an interesting tale: The body keeps the score (van der Kolk); how your biography becomes your biology (Nakazawa); when the body says no: the hidden cost of stress (Maté).
“Certain traits—otherwise known as coping styles—magnify the risk for illness by increasing the likelihood of chronic stress,” writes Gabor Maté. “Common to them all is a diminished capacity for emotional communication. Emotional experiences are translated into potentially damaging biological events when human beings are prevented from learning how to express their feelings effectively. That learning occurs—or fails to occur—during childhood. The way people grow up shapes their relationship with their own bodies and psyches.”
As best I can tell, Pauline’s body started saying no in the 1940s. She and Grandpa both regularly sought help from the local Hexenschüss, a literal German word for witch and the family’s colloquial term for chiropractor. She also traveled 80 miles round trip to consult occasionally with an alternative healthcare person—perhaps an iridologist—who would look into her eyes and make recommendations for treatment. Lewis recalls she had a hysterectomy in the 1940s. My dad remembers her having a couple more surgeries in the 1950s when he was in college, one for gall bladder.
Her letters leave little clues: “I am not much good for traveling…I always get sick to travel…I haven’t been go anywheres because I still have a bad cold and awful cough and my chest is sore to wish you was here to wash the dishes for me.” Feeling sick, feeling “tough,” suffering aches and pains, having a bellyache, all of these seemed to me to be part of who my grandma was, part of the natural landscape of her life. Something in her was broken and in pain. My dad has spoken of this over the years as seeming to him and others like some form of hypochondria. According to him she could summon up chest pains on demand when thwarted, up to and including a trip to the hospital. While I can certainly understand why it looked like that to him and to others, and while she may indeed have utilized symptoms to manipulate others, I think it highly likely she also suffered some form of stress-triggered autoimmune disorder such as fibromyalgia, something understood much better now, but which back then might have looked like someone crying wolf again and again.
After a while, I imagine some of those close to her probably tuned out and minimized her physical complaints, right up until the point she was diagnosed with a rapidly-metastasizing cancer that infiltrated the very marrow of her bones in 1971. The daughter of one of Grandma’s local friends recalls: “About your grandma being hypochondriac, I remember my Mom telling me some didn’t quite believe she was having so much pain. Mom said, ‘I don’t have pain and I believe Pauline really is having bad pain.’ My folks took your grandmother to Minneapolis shortly after that to find out she had bone cancer. Ask anyone with bone cancer, her pain was real.” Like her mother before her, and mine, Pauline was told there was nothing to be done to prolong her life, and she went home to wait for death.
I LOVE ALL THE TIME
Pauline was 66 when she died. In a little notebook I carried around in 6th and 7th grade in case inspiration for a poem needed to be written down, Grandma scribbled a note not long before she died. At the time I don’t think I could bear to take in the implications, but now I’m so glad I have it: “Goodbye till we meet again but who knows when that will be we never know what’s ahead of us. We love you all. I love little I love big I love all the time no matter how big you are.” I clearly remember standing beside her that day as she thought and wrote.
Grandma and Grandpa moved off the farm and into town in 1969, to a little house by the railroad tracks. It discombobulated me to see her in the new context, inexplicably reduced and diminished. I remember doing the classic penny-on-the-railroad-track trick and waiting for the train to pass so I could go looking for the penny. I’m pretty sure I still have that flattened and distorted penny somewhere among my treasures. Now it seems like a symbol of how I secretly felt as my kinswoman lay dying. The last time I saw her was in the summer of 1971. She was confined to bed at home by then, and it seemed odd, upside-down, and profoundly distressing to witness my grandma so weak and still. In the past, even when she felt poorly, she kept moving. If nothing else, she’d sew aprons or do some mending while resting. Her energy had always been palpable, restless, almost frenetic. This time it was clear she hadn’t the strength or will to sustain her coping props of keeping busy, providing nourishment, helping, and joking.
My brother Gerhard was born in March and Grandma Pauline got to meet him before she died
My last remembered conversation with her was, in my recollection after the fact, a private rite of passage. We were alone in her bedroom and I was next to the bed, the afternoon sunlight muted by one of those yellowing roller shades on a spring-loaded wooden rod, so startling when tugged on by a curious child, so that ever after the rapid recoil of the shade feels inherent in the window dressing itself. I had just gotten my first bra earlier that summer, and Pauline noticed. I can’t remember at all what we were talking about, but she suddenly reached up and put her whole hand on one of my nascent and tender breast-buds through shirt and padded training bra. “What do you want to wear one of them things for?” she demanded in her gruff voice.
That’s all I remember. My grandma’s earthy, intimate gesture. The last recollected words, common as Dakota dirt. A backhanded acknowledgment of my impending womanhood. Perhaps a caution not to get too caught in the trap of female restraint, as she herself often wore a man’s ribbed, sleeveless undershirt instead of a bra in the years I knew her. I was thoroughly embarrassed, of course, and self-conscious, but there was something else—a bittersweet wash of unspoken emotion—the whole-body sense of familiarity—knowing and being known by someone who felt free to touch me in that way. As a mother might.
I’ve belatedly discovered some puzzle pieces lying around for almost 50 years waiting for me to put them together. After visiting my Grandma Pauline for the last time in the summer of 1971, I got to go for a fairly rare visit with my Somerville grandparents in Minnesota. I presume they had been briefed by my dad that Grandma Weigelt did not have long to live. In the almost ten years since our mother’s death, I had never seen my sister Faye Anne again. That summer, thanks to some subterfuge and collusion between my Uncle Ken and Grandma Somerville, and obviously against her adoptive mother’s preferences, Faye Anne and I got to meet. As best I can understand, Masue feared that if we ever saw Faye Anne again, we would try to take her back.
It’s hard to know what all went on behind the scenes to make this possible, but once Grandma Norva got the two sisters back together again, she spiffed us up and headed off with us to a professional portrait photographer. With the benefit of hindsight, I strongly suspect part of her agenda was to make sure that Grandma Weigelt got to see the picture of her granddaughters together before she died. I later remember seeing this photograph at my Weigelt grandparents’ home—perhaps even when we went back for Grandma’s funeral—but never knew how it got there, and didn’t ask, because by then I had been conditioned to keep silence on the topic of the earlier part of my life.
What a year 1971 must have been for me—my little brother was born, my grandma was dying, and I finally got to see my little sister again—the year I was 12 and biologically became a young woman, the year an invisible torch passed from my grandmother’s hand to mine.
The last time I’d seen Faye Anne she was barely a month old. We were 12 and 9 when we met in the summer of 1971.
In recent years I’ve noticed a recurring pattern. Sometime in the fall, often in October, I’ve had catastrophic back problems, usually my lower back. My spine has been known to go out of alignment so severely I cannot get comfortable in any position. I can’t stand up straight or sit without pain or even find ease in a reclining position. In wondering if there is a historical origin for this sudden loss of support in pelvis and hips, I’ve speculated it might date to 1965 when we moved several times and I went to multiple schools in the fall of the year. I never thought until just now that October of 1971 is just as likely a culprit for this seasonal somatic expression of distress and an acting out of the loss of fundamental support.
I remember we were already on our way to North Dakota by car in early October, having heard that Grandma was nearing the end of her life. I recall the booth at the 4B’s restaurant in Miles City, Montana where we’d stopped for breakfast—the garishly decorated interior, the cheeriness of the waitresses, the unnatural glare of the overhead lights as I watched my father walk back from the phone booth. I could tell by his face and his posture before he even said the words. “She’s gone.”
Recounting this narrative at 60, I cry more now than I may ever have felt free to before, acknowledging a loss so fundamental as to kick out a cornerstone of my already-tilted foundation. The person most likely to have understood how that felt for me is the person who died when I was 12, and whose own grandmother also died when she was a 12-year-old girl like me. My grandma would have understood, but she was gone.
ECHOES OF DISTRESS
Perhaps it is from around this time in our lives, in the aftermath of Grandma’s death, that I can fit a memory of feeling frustrated with my dad, Pauline’s oldest son. I knew he was sad, and with good reason, but he also seemed locked up in logic and a steel restraint as tight as any bank vault. “It’s okay to cry,” I remember telling him earnestly, hoping to find the combination to the lock that would let us grieve together.
Our temperaments have long been markedly divergent, my dad’s and mine, and I’ve wondered sometimes if I may symbolize to him something like a ticking emotional time-bomb—my sensitivity, empathy, and emotional expressiveness a potential danger to his preferred coping style. In marching on stoically after his wife’s death, letting go reluctantly of an infant daughter, boxing up the life we knew and moving on—no longer mentioning the names of the missing—Morris was following in his mother’s footsteps. Being left with a tender-hearted three-year-old in his care might have been a comfort, but I am aware I was also perhaps a potent reminder and a possible risk to his survival strategy.
Years later we compared our Myers-Briggs types and both said aha for our own unique reasons. The only trait we share is our introversion. Every other aspect of how we prefer to gather information, how we perceive and process, and how we organize our lives, are opposite. “You people drive me crazy,” I remember him saying at the time in a playful manner, and while I took that in the spirit I believe it was meant, I also walked away having sympathy for both of us and a new understanding of why we were so functionally mismatched for grieving our shared losses together. For the sake of survival and connection, I tried very hard to accommodate myself to his preferences, but that only ended up deepening my confused sense of lost identity. I lost my mother, my sister, the family I had known, and then, in trying to meet expectations in my new family, I lost myself.
As I’ve walked compassionately through Pauline’s history, I’ve heard numerous parallel reverberations and echoes of distress across the generations: migrations, families separated by great distances, homesickness, early deaths, mothers who became ill and did not recover, young children left motherless, work as the antidote to sadness, silence as the response to loss, and a functional difficulty with digesting sorrow.
As I study more and more about how trauma is passed along, I understand that revisiting and exploring more deeply in each of my grandparents’ and parents’ stories as I have done here with Pauline will help me understand my own challenging trajectory. “Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution,” writes Mark Wolynn in It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. “That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain.”
As I speculated earlier, perhaps my kinswoman and I had more in common than we would ever get the opportunity to discover in person. Still, I feel her with me in a great many ways: not being able to cook small quantities of anything, showing people you care by tending the kitchen as a center of the universe, being tenderhearted, and looking quite a bit like her as I age.
Kinswomen: Pauline at 57 (1962) and Marva at 58 (2017)
Not altogether surprisingly, I started feeling a little “tough” while working on this project. My old back and neck problems flared up and I had several different permutations of digestive discomfort. Then I manifested symptoms of a virus that affected my throat, which suddenly reminded me of getting laryngitis from time to time as a child and young adult—literally losing my ability to speak.
Slathering Vick’s VapoRub on my neck and chest, I had a sudden series of teary flashbacks from across more than half a century—sights, scents, touch, sense memories—of Grandma Pauline and my dad. I realize I have never been without a jar of mentholated ointment in my medicine chest in my entire life. In my mind’s eye I can see the familiar blue Vick’s jar on my dad’s nightstand or the green Mentholatum tub on my grandma’s dresser. After my mom died, I think menthol became the signature scent of love.
As I dug up these historical details, I felt mental, physical and emotional distress. In the past this would have sent me running for distraction, but this time I encouraged myself to face the facts and feelings together—not just my own, but those of previous generations. As I held presence for my own distress—and for our family’s collective grief—I also felt deepening understanding, compassion and resolution.
I relate a great deal to something else Mark Wolynn says in the book: “In many ways, healing from trauma is akin to creating a poem. Both require the right timing, the right words, and the right image. When these elements align, something meaningful is set into motion that can be felt in the body.”
Remember the little poem notebook I mentioned carrying around in the early 1970s? That would be one of my saving graces, the irresistible impulse to understand myself and find words to creatively capture and convey my feelings and experiences, even when it did not feel welcome or safe to speak or feel out loud.
For whatever combination of mysterious factors come into play here, I feel a purposefulness in who I am and how I navigate the task of recovery. I am the daughter of these silent and sometime sorrowful souls, and I am compelled to speak so we all may heal.
What I couldn’t have understood while I was growing up—nor would I be capable of fathoming for many decades—was that my grandmother’s and father’s unspoken passing on of the code of silence around loss and grief would have a profound effect on the weight of the wordless load I bore. Only now do I begin to grasp that I carried not only my own pain, but a portion of theirs, and not just in my own psyche, but deep in my biology.
I always knew my mom had died and I’d had a sister who’d been given away, but I interpreted all the silence on these topics to mean they must be of little actual consequence and I had obviously overinflated their significance in the privacy of my heart. I eventually convinced myself it must be no big deal and shouldn’t even matter.
By the time I figured out otherwise at 36, I was deep in the throes of destructive addictions which began at a very young age as a way to self-medicate what I now know were post-traumatic stress symptoms and complicated grief. On my first visit to my therapist in 1995, I mentioned these losses in a casually off-handed manner. “I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything,” I remember saying self-consciously and a bit warily, “but my mom died when I was three-and-a-half.”
Saying those words aloud 33 years after the fact would be the beginning of a bumpy healing journey to recover from an enormous, but mostly invisible emotional disability. When my therapist later said, with tears in her eyes, “What happened to you was a tragedy,” I sat in mute skepticism. Surely she was exaggerating or overreacting. It was so long ago, I thought, and of little significance. This is what I had interpreted the silence to mean. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. As I gradually thawed my frozen feelings and reclaimed my lost grief, I began to come back to life.
This photograph from 1962 offers a tiny clue to the distress I felt after my mom’s death
A decade and a half earlier, in his late 40s, my dad had his own day of reckoning with the long-term impact of the family pattern of suppressing grief with stoicism and hard work. He has been quite open about his coping strategies breaking down rather dramatically as he approached the 20-year anniversary of his wife’s death. This is his story to tell, not mine, but I want to express my profound appreciation that when I needed his assistance to break the silence and reconnect me to my lost beginnings, Dad was willing.
I can’t help but wonder what Pauline would make of the fact I earn a modest living now by listening to people talk about the kinds of hurts, losses, griefs and confusion she seemingly felt constrained from discussing. I am aware as I listen compassionately—with no sadness off-limits and no burden too great to unload with love—that I am offering others the opportunity to break the generational chain of silent suffering, and as we do this together, I continue to feel increasingly free.
One of my greatest privileges is to finally have ready access to my emotions, so that now, as I listen to other frozen humans unemotionally reciting the details of their tragic narratives, I can sit and weep with compassion as my therapist once did for me. Sometimes they look at me in disconcerted wonder and say, “Wow. No one ever cried about that before.” And I know that in my tears is a gentle solvent that has the potential to begin dissolving the bars on an invisible prison cell or the links in the chain of pain.
BRINGING IN THE SHEAVES
I grew up singing a song that harkens to the Bible verse on my Great Grandmother Justina’s grave. My grandmother sang it too. Perhaps we even sang it sitting side by side on one of the pews towards the front of the Fessenden Church of the Nazarene. It’s a lilting and uplifting song that emphasizes the far side of “sow with tears, reap with joy.”
I can well imagine my foremothers assuming that “reap with joy” must be a promise and hope deferred until after life was over, when earthly labor was ended and the heavenly reward was finally achieved—by dying. I presume that’s why the verse was an epitaph.
I grew up singing many songs that emphasized the same message: this world is not my home, I’m only passing through…I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, in that bright land where we’ll never grow old…we’ll understand it better by and by…in the sweet by and by.
This song which comes to mind now as a way of characterizing my place in a multigenerational narrative promises that “we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.” There are layers of significance for me in these lyrics. For one, these women and their stories are my sheaves—like the bundles of wheat gathered as my grandma drove the reaper in the late 1920s—a harvest for me of both pain and joy, a harvest of heritage—my legacy.
For another, I have the resources to accomplish what Justina and Pauline did not have the leisure or capacity to do. In more than one sense I can say I was born to do this work, not only because the legacy of trauma was passed down to me, but also because, from what I’ve read about how epigenetic inheritance works, I have traits like resilience that developed as a direct result of multigenerational adversity.
Many factors came into play to bring me to this harvest. Because my father left the farm and went to college… because of modern technology… because humans and cultures keep evolving… because my accumulated sorrow was too much to carry… because I am who I am and feel the call to consciousness and healing… for all of these reasons, I am in a unique position to bring in the ancient family sheaves and process the harvest consciously—sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, rising, proofing, baking, eating and digesting the grief on behalf of past and future generations. And, lo and behold, what I find is that my capacity to do all this brings me both nourishment and joy.
The message of hope I seek to embody is that it is possible to recover from trauma, to make conscious the unspoken family burdens, to bring compassion and healing to multigenerational patterns, to honor the hardships and grief, and to feel and sustain joy now—in daily life—precisely because I am willing to confront the sorrows.
In my very being—as I weep and laugh, leaven and rise—I am the promised harvest of the grandmothers.
The Gleaners by James Harwood
As I sought to find words for this family harvest, I was also keenly aware of present and future generations. Counting the three granddaughters who arrived after her death, Pauline had six granddaughters and three grandsons. She always wished for a girl, and there’s a mystical sense in which her sowing this seed of longing continues to bear fruit. She now has eleven great granddaughters and three great grandsons. This story is also for them, and for all of us who are still reaping what was sown in the generations before us.
Pauline seemed overall to be so careful or economical with her expressions in photographs. I put them all together to try to figure out which one showed the most emotion. What do you think?
Special thanks to Morris Weigelt, LaDeana Hillier, Lewis and Judy Weigelt, Ashley Weigelt, Maridel Hoover Sprenger, Ernest Sprenger, Elizabeth Wilson Winterbone, Melanie Krehbiel and Gertrud Mueller Nelson for stories, photos, translation and genealogical resources.
There is an elegantly simple adobe home full of soft, nurturing curves and light-filled rooms tucked away in the high desert of northern New Mexico—a womb with a view. I came here for my 50th birthday and have returned again for my 60th. These are my reflections on those two milestones in my life and what has unfolded between them. May my words reveal more than conceal the truth. May I keep being born right up to the crowning moment of my death.
The semi-circular, sunken sunroom is based on a kiva at Chaco Canyon
PART 1: BIRTH OF INSIGHT
When I first came here to the Carson National Forest for a month in 2009 in honor of reaching 50, my ranch life out on the Kansas tallgrass prairie far from town and society—to which I’d leapt at age 45 after more than two decades in the city—was already what most people would think of as a retreat, so why would I need to withdraw further?
I named that time out of time a personal sabbatical (from Hebrew shabbat or sabbath, literally a ceasing or rest from work, or a break). What I sought, without having words for it, was something on the order of a birthing chamber in which to labor and midwife what I sensed as an impending birth of insight.
Having unconsciously used the words birth of insight just now, it seems timely to mention I had a visionary meditation during that sojourn in which I pictured a design so intriguing I rendered it as a computer drawing, labeled it “Spiral Eye” and filed it away. I saw the image in my mind’s eye while meditating on the edge of a mesa above the sacred springs at Ojo Caliente, at the site of Posi-Ouinge, the Greenness Pueblo of the Tewa, dating to the 13th century. I saw myself in an ancient no-time making pottery and painting this innovative design, a departure from traditional symbolism, a controversial breakthrough.
The outlines of some of the pueblo buildings are still visible on Google Earth mapping
Six years later, after I took peer support training and was thinking of starting a private practice, I knew immediately I already had the logo for what would become Insight.
Part of what I want to shine a light upon with this observation is that there is often a foresight in insight that feels significant at the time, but does not flower until later. In this case, if someone had said, you will need this as a logo for a business you’ll create 6 years in the future, I would have been utterly bewildered. Nothing was in place except this spiral eye design—I’d never heard of peer support, I had no training, I did not live in an area with enough population density or demand to support such a service, nor did I yet have sufficient self-insight to be supportive to others seeking insight. Nothing was ready but an eye symbol composed of two separate spirals. A seed of what was to come, but as yet totally obscured in the creative womb.
What I was yearning to birth in 2009 was an integrated awareness—a felt sense—that we mortals are more than we seem, that the world itself is more than what we see with our outer eyes, and that my conscious labors over the previous 15 years to individuate more fully were leading inevitably to the awareness that I am indivisible—and so are we. In other words, I was ready to release my hard-won and tenacious grasp on my precious individuality in order to consciously experience non-duality. I could easily toy with the notion intellectually, and there were plenty of mystical writers who affirmed my assumptions, but what I craved and sought was a palpable embodiment of universal oneness. That is what I came here to midwife in January ten years ago. Transcendence.
The truth I did not admit aloud then is I was grappling with a secret grief. From the outside my life looked exotic, daring, perhaps even idyllic. But I’d taken a big risk and had a major disappointment and I felt reluctant to speak of it for a number of reasons. Falling back on old patterns, I elected to cope with it privately, to accommodate and adjust to the limitations of my circumstances, but at least the path I picked was a step toward healthier coping mechanisms, even if it was still a bit of a sidestep. I chose to focus on my spiritual practices, my personal growth and my nature writing. My grief and isolation invited me to turn inward toward my spirit and outward to nature. Coming here alone was part of that journey, a mix of reflecting in solitude while also choosing to believe I was participating in a larger mystery. I assumed my challenge held meaning.
Trauma—the way of the wound—can catapult us into states of transcendent awareness, as first happened to me when I was about 13, but I’ve since learned that unless a person anchors oneness firmly in healthy individuality, there is a high likelihood of uneven development (sometimes called spiritual bypass) and rather a thin line between, as transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof put it, spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency. I’d had plenty of emergencies already; I was in search of sustainable emergence.
PART 2: HIGH COUNTRY OF THE MIND
While I was abiding in the high desert in 2009 I read books like Ken Wilber’s The Integral Vision, listened to lectures by Alan Watts, and walked at least 75 miles in 35 days, venturing farther and further each day, aspiring to greater heights in both physical and spiritual elevations. I practiced meditation more strategically and sustainedly than ever before, determined to have a breakthrough. I was graced with stunning, improbable visitations and heady revelations in nature.
I was disciplined, austere, ascetic, diligent, earnest, quiet, measured, mostly solitary—an apprentice to the Mysteries. Looking back, I can see a tremendous amount of effort and intent, a laboring and pushing. My left brain still dominated and I willed myself to understand what seemed beyond me, not yet realizing my right brain must be invited to come into equal yoke in order to get me where I instinctively longed to go—home to wholeness.
I remember feeling tremendously frustrated at the tyranny of my rigidly linear-logical style of processing and my stubbornly earthy, grounded and rigid pragmatism. I longed to set my Inner Mystic free. I recall absurdly crouching in an awkward half-headstand in a closet in front of a full-length mirror, writing with my non-dominant hand while looking at the words upside down and backwards in the mirror. I figured this was something like a reversal of my conditioning, an attempt to destabilize my world view. I purposely set out to throw myself off balance and perhaps catch myself off-guard. My carefully-crafted defense system was mostly impenetrable, even to me.
In retrospect, I can observe I was creatively midwifing my own ongoing birth—a lifelong process, I now understand—and in particular I was ending 50 years of defining myself by reference almost exclusively to other humans and the relentless drive for a secure relationship and for the first time entering with conscious awareness into the territory of Self. The small “s” self is ego-driven and ego-defined, comparative, evaluative, well-defended, seeking to accommodate or dominate in order to belong. The capital “S” self is robustly ensouled, recognizing its innate belonging in something much larger, and standing beyond accepted beliefs, social mores and club rules for admittance. As I practiced toggling between these two states, I was, without knowing it, at the physiological level, also rewiring my brain and learning to regulate my nervous system. I was practicing being more fully, vulnerably human, letting myself know what it felt like to consciously inhabit my own body.
What better way to integrate this multi-level restoration than to hike miles every day in unknown territory, on roads and trails blanketed in snow, alone for all but a couple weekend visits from friends and loved ones, solitary for days on end except for a far-wandering, oft-disappearing, and intrepid role-model of a dog named Alice. I had entered a domain whose name I first encountered in the 1970s—“In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty…” wrote Robert M. Pirsig titillatingly in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—and 30 years after highlighting these lines I finally felt myself gradually getting more comfortable and embracing my unknowing, moving by infinitesimal increments from either/or to both/and in the high country of the mind, sometimes known locally as Paradox.
During the last week of my stay I chose to make a visible sign of my relinquishment of external identity and cut off my long, thick hair—first in foot-long, graying-brown hanks and then down to bare scalp with a razor. Afterwards, I went to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente—hot eye—baptized and blessed myself, and returned somewhat self-consciously—and fundamentally changed—to my small rural community in Kansas.
Within two years I would hardly know myself from what I had been, for everything had been turned inside out. There is a path of self-knowing that is an unknowing of what you thought you knew, and that was the trail I took, whether I understood it or not. It is the willingness to follow an unmarked path that leads into uncharted territory. No one else can tell you where you are, so learning to trust yourself is essential.
I know all this mostly in hindsight, looking back from 10 years down a winding road from mountain to prairie.
PART 3: ALL OF THE ABOVE
So here I am again, a decade later, back in this same welcoming birth chamber. It is natural to ponder what has changed and what has not, yet at the same time I made a promise to myself: “I will not evaluate you, my dear.” That’s the only way my soul will agree to show up.
The bedrooms are round and metaphorically womb-like
I think the biggest revelation I’ve had in the intervening years between 50 and 60 is that solitary bliss is possible, lovely, euphoric, and even addicting, but choosing to jump back into mud-messy, glorious, consternating, exhilarating embodiment and tying something like a sturdy anchor around all that heavenly-mindedness so it’s of some earthly good, that’s the path that beckoned me.
I’m enough of an introvert, both by nature and as a coping mechanism to deal with feeling for much of my life unworthy to belong, that wandering off into the high country and never returning was admittedly a temptation. The deeper work, I realized about halfway through the decade, is to practice immanent transcendence—achingly human, thrillingly holy, a walking paradox. Deeply entered and questioned, either/or dissolves and expands into all of the above.
If I’d stayed off the map and kept myself set apart, there is a pivotal dilemma I would have sidestepped instead of healed. That’s what I meant earlier by spiritual bypass. Toxic shame, in order to be resolved and disarmed, must be brought out into the light of relationships. Theories of oneness and transcendence must be tested in the hot soup-kitchen of community, in the bubbling broth, on the hot burner, at the common table.
I think there was a motivation, ten years ago, to overcome and transcend my grief—to get to a high enough plane spiritually to walk above the everyday shit. What I’ve realized since is that it’s much more of a worthy challenge for me to walk smack-dab in the middle of the daily doo-doo and practice knowing I can be resilient no matter what arises or what I may step in. So instead of rising above, I’ve chosen to jump in, abide, simmer and steep.
I am much less careful, calculating and controlling than I was at 50. I am more trusting, more spontaneous, more flexible now. More roomy, more forgiving, more surrendered. Far more vulnerably and meaningfully connected to others of my kind.
PART 4: I AM WILLING
As I’ve attained each decade birthday from 30 onward, I’ve expressed amazement at still being alive. This perhaps seems strange only to those who’ve not experienced an early-dying parent. My mother departed at 28, so in my psyche was a little ticking alarm clock or time-bomb I unconsciously assumed would go off at a similar age.
At 30 I was surprised and, frankly, flummoxed. What now? I wondered, lacking a natural will to live. By 40 I’d been forced to face that lack and do something about it, so while I was still surprised and a bit ambivalent, I was at least healed enough to be curious how far past the deadline I might actually make it. At 50 I could honestly say, “Well, I’ll be darned, let’s celebrate!”
When I was here in 2009, I was still tiptoeing a bit as if on thin ice, watching my weight and my steps, testing gingerly, struggling with believing life really did want to hold me.
That’s a huge change in the last ten years. I’ve stopped being so careful. I’ve gained heft and girth and let myself take up more space in lots of different ways. However long I do actually live, I am now determined to live simply but luxuriously, plainly but elegantly, creatively, daringly, heartfully, trusting my full weight—including my idealistic expectations—onto the surface of my days.
So, here is 60, no less a surprise than 30, but more welcomed, remarked upon, marveled over and embraced with joie d’ vivre, a lusty chortle, and an ebullient toast to whatever comes next. And it’s not exactly that I have a stronger will to live—because believe me when I say I could happily wander off to the next adventure any old time—but that I am willing to live.
I feel I would like to say that again because it still seems like a bit of a miracle to this long-time, between-worlds grief-walker: I am willing to live.
Intriguingly, the more earthily, vulnerably human I allow myself to become, the more clear is my cosmic heritage. I don’t have to follow a host of rigid rules and practices and devotions to know this. It’s the gentle buoying I feel when I am most mortal that reassures me of my true birthright.
This is a gift, not just of getting older, but of ripening. This is self couched firmly in Self, the ephemeral inextricably intertwined and nestled yin-yang fashion into the eternal. So, it isn’t troubling to me that I am aging—although it’s admittedly fascinating to watch—because it isn’t my youth or superiority that will be my saving grace, it’s my agelessness and ordinariness, my clay-footed stumbling and wonder, and perhaps above all, it is that I have morphed my fierce will into a yielded willingness. And that takes me right back to how I feel about life now, from my root to my crown—I am willing.
The hot tub is a new addition since my last visit—perfect for birthing
PART 5: PIXELS IN THE FACE OF GOD
The one single external factor altering me perhaps more than any other in the last ten years comes to center stage for notice here in this isolated geographical area especially. Later in the year I turned 50, after my life-altering time here, I joined this thing called Facebook. At first it was no big deal, just a way to keep track of nephew and nieces. Then I found some old friends. Then I said, “Wow, a lot of these posts are really light and snacky. I wonder what would happen if I started leading with some chewy main-dish content.” So I started serving up some chunky nutrition, just to see what might happen. And that decision changed my life.
For a number of years I insisted on having no social media “friends” who were not also personal acquaintances. That kept me at about 60 friends. Then one day I asked myself why. And now I have well over a thousand friends and—thanks to blowing a dandelion horn—more than 15,000 followers. Social media has shaped me, my attention span, my focus, my habits, my writing. It has given me a way to offer myself to the world a paragraph at a time. And, let’s face it, it’s compulsive. So it’s fabulous and expanding and troubling all at once.
Something else to notice: when I set up my profile in 2009, I wrote under “religious views” an idea I borrowed from Rob Brezsny—the world will be at peace when there are 6.7 billion different faiths. And now, just a decade later, the world population is 7.7 billion. A billion more living persons on Spaceship Earth in just ten years. Holy shit. It is still as quiet and peaceful here in this earthy adobe womb as ever, but I am nonetheless discomfited. In my heart and in my gut I know this rate of planetary population growth is not sustainable. The earth’s population the year I was born was 2.9 billion. The planet’s carrying capacity is speculated to be 9 or 10 billion.
I ponder matters like this and they inevitably lead me back to where I started ten years ago: to grief, to individuation and oneness, to paradox, to both/and. There are more of us here—more bodies and presumably more souls—with the capacity to express and reflect divine creativity. It was here in the mountains of New Mexico I hit upon the metaphor of pixels to capture the idea of Oneness. If we believe we are made in God’s image, we must also consider that each of us is a unique pixel in that image. If we would truly look upon the face of the Divine, no one can be excluded. No one can be left out of the One. I recall exactly where I was on the snowy road the day in January 2009 I realized that.
This is close to where I received the pixel metaphor in 2009
PART 6: LOVE IS LOOKING FOR YOU
You may ask if I know more now than I knew ten years ago. The answer is a clear “no.” I know much, much less now than I thought I knew then. But I know new things. If there is one secret I have to offer, one new insight I was missing back when I turned 50 here northwest of the little village of El Rito, it is that, no matter who or where you are, Love is looking for you right now.
Love is not waiting and holding back until you achieve one more goal or institute one more practice or lose one more pound or earn one more dollar. Love wants you right now, as is. Unconditionally. I am not speaking of some off-the-charts love from another human being, although I’ve learned that’s a possibility. I am not alluding to some apex of far-off, out-there holy love that will be yours if you follow all the rules and devotional guidelines. I am telling you your invitation and potential to love and accept yourself as you are in this moment is the secret of well-being.
I found that if I could open my eyes to see the love in me, suddenly I saw it everywhere.
Love met me where I was, not on the highest mountain of spiritual achievement, but in the depths of grief, in the midst of utter uncertainty, at the heart of unchartable flux, when least expected. Love, I discovered, is what I have been all along. Love is what God is. Love really is the undergirding of the created universe. But again, this isn’t flashy, movie-magic love. This is earthy, gritty, unglorious, stippled, dappled, everyday love, the Love that sustains.
I have learned in the last ten years that if I am willing to meet the ordinary with curiosity and compassion, the extraordinary will reveal itself. I have learned to abide with what arises. To give my feelings a safe home. To welcome them, rock them, walk with them. To not quail and turn back. To be the one person who will never abandon me.
I am learning to consciously write, edit and illustrate my own narrative. To fashion art out of it. To render it in song. To tell it in a thousand different ways, the tragic and the glorious—they are all true. The more heroic, the better. And I am learning to ground my story and my living to earth, and in such a way that it leads me to heaven. Not later, after I die, but now. I followed my own mundane, daily, simple threads and they led me to a little child-sized door in my heart, so tiny I can’t squeeze through with all my adult baggage. And there it is within me, as ever-new and ancient as eternity—heaven.
This is the biggest change since I was here last—I know my intellect and effort can’t get me where I want to go. But my heart knows the way. My heart is the way.
I feel the urge to circle back to shaving my head in 2009. As I write this, I am sitting very near where I sat a decade ago as a local woman cut off my long hair in this spacious room fashioned after a sacred kiva at Chaco Canyon. In my early 40s I’d seen a still photo of a long-haired, sultry, self-assured Colleen Dewhurst at age 50 in the 1972 movie, “The Cowboys,” and I said to myself at the time, “I want to be that sexy when I’m 50.” So I started growing out my hair, the one aspect of my physical self upon which I’d by far received the most compliments in my life. In electing to release that major symbol of outward attractiveness, I was choosing to rely on a deeper beauty to carry me. I still recall how chancy that felt at the time. And how significant.
Afterwards, when I’d tell the tale of relinquishing my hair, listeners often wanted to know if I sent it to Locks of Love. I did some research at the time and learned this most visible processor of donated hair to make wigs for chemo patients did not want gray hair. There were heart-wrenching tales of hair donations coming in the front door and going right out the back into a dumpster. I did a bit more research and found another option. Someone had considered how spilled oil clings devastatingly well to the fur and feathers of wild creatures and reasoned that mats made of clean human and pet hair could be used to contain and soak up oil spills. So that’s where I sent my salt-and-pepper hair, to soak up oil spills.
Make of that what you will, but to me it seems a decent enough metaphor for how the many beliefs, assumptions, efforts, achievements, machinations, defenses, losses, and shames I’ve cut out and surrendered in the last couple decades have been wonderfully effective at soaking up and containing the emotional and spiritual oil spills of my life. The vast ocean of the Self supports abundant life. I’m swimming in a sea of love.
That love, I want you to know, is not theoretical or idealistically mystical or pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. That’s perhaps the most radical difference between Marva at 50 and 60. Back then I was still living in the wound of shame and unworthiness. I longed to belong, to participate, to securely attach, and to enter into the flow of love, but I had for so long used self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-containment as defense mechanisms, I did not know how to become permeable to love, to allow it to alter me, to trust I was worthy.
I now understand that worthiness and love don’t even belong in the same sentence together except insofar as that is the best way to describe the distorted thinking that characterized one of my deepest wounds. I did not understand until recently that my early developmental traumas profoundly compromised my ability to safely engage with others. The only way to repair this damage and distortion is to practice trusting and connecting. That’s what the intertwining spiral eye came to represent, the vulnerability and power of seeing and being seen, reflecting one another, practicing safe engagement one conversation at a time, learning to trust, loving and being loved.
I love for a living now. The more souls crossing the threshold at Insight, the more wholeness is uncovered in me, because each one is a part of me coming home to be welcomed, accepted and healed. Healing means a return to wholeness. Healing means holy. Love humbles as much as exalts. I am proof it is never to late to learn.
Self-birthing is a curious phenomenon. I have been intrigued with this idea since years ago I read Erich Fromm’s wisdom that life is a continual process of giving birth to ourselves and we each have the potential to be fully born by the time we die, although most individuals, he observed rather pessimistically, “die before they are born.”
Perhaps because I lost my mother at such an early age, and because I’ve had powerful dreams of helping my own mother give birth to me—essentially midwifing at my own nativity—it is a wonderfully poetic resolution for a motherless daughter to consider that she is both the mother and the child. For anyone who’s lost a mother early or whose mother was for any number of reasons unable to be attuned, attentive, and well-regulated, it is hopeful to consider that the process is not over yet.
Trying to give birth to one’s true self is often confusing and disordered. The stages are not predictable. We dilate and then suddenly shrink. We push, rest, stop. We can seemingly spend uncomfortable decades in a constricting birth canal—in between—not ready. We spend years learning the art of breath. We may not see much for all our labors. So much that’s happening is out of sight. Or we may birth many, many iterations of ourselves, which is confusing for loved ones who wish we would stay the same.
Above all, to accomplish this remarkable feat of humanness, we must push against something: rules, roles, expectations, assumptions, obligations, relationships. We must gradually become more comfortable with discomfort, more patient with the flex and flux of our own unpredictability, our own not-yetness, which is really an ever-becomingness. I acknowledge that others have been hurt by my pushing. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. I accept that I have been similarly wounded by others. I am learning to see that with love and forgiveness as the honor it truly is, to be a doula even in the midst of a mess. I have yet to see a pain-free self-birth.
This process is not all that much about pushing. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned since I was last here. I am gestating. Waiting. Dilating. Trusting. Surrendering to the Mystery.
I started getting excited a couple days after Christmas. I’d applied for a $500 flash grant and felt a surge of buoyancy when the foundation’s director messaged me to see if I’d received her email. Why would she be anxious about getting in touch if I wasn’t the winner?! As I waited for her to try sending the email again, my confidence and anticipation intensified. When I finally uncovered the notification where it had gotten waylaid by junk mail filters, I was darn near giddy with glee. The subject line read “Marva, you are our December grant winner!”
Half a second later I went into shock as I read the first paragraph and began plummeting down an emotional avalanche. “Congratulations! You have won a micro-grant in the amount of $55.” What the hey?! Did they forget a zero? Is this a typo?
As I processed my disappointment, I went back to the website, which clearly referred to $500 grants. Then I tracked down the Call for Submissions and found a key statement: “The amount depends on the final balance in our account on December 22.” I remembered reading this sentence through my inner optimist’s rosy lenses and interpreting it as implying I might very well get MORE than $500!
As I digested the news, I zipped through a micro-version of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), as I think we all do when we are caught by surprise. Writing this post is my way of working through the last two stages.
What’s most amazing is not that I managed within an hour of receiving the news to write a gracious reply with a request for clarification of the award amount, but that I allowed myself to raise my expectations that high in the first place.
You see, many years ago—as a young child—I taught myself to lower my expectations as a technique for preventing disappointment. Can anyone out there relate to that?
By 6th grade I was adept at lowering my expectations
I employed that tool for 30 years or more before waking up and noticing a persistent pattern: no matter how low I dropped my expectations, people and situations still disappointed me. I finally figured out the reason: what I expected most strongly was that I would be disappointed. And I was, again and again and again.
By bracing myself for the worst, I left little if any room in my world for lovely surprises and happy outcomes. And, in fact, when circumstances seemed to be going well, I invariably had the shadowy suspicion that at any moment someone would announce there had been a mistake! I vividly recall sitting on my couch in an extraordinary new living space about 15 years ago and having a panic seize my heart as I imagined a knock on my front door with this news: I’m sorry, but you don’t deserve this.
For decades I was trapped in the dark clutches of my lower brain’s natural bias toward noticing the negative, a throwback to hunter/gatherer ancestors who presumably had little time to stop and smell the wild roses because they needed to be alert for saber-toothed cats and other potentially-deadly dangers. All these millennia later we can still find ourselves stuck with choosing from the primitive brain’s limited menu of options: fight, flight, freeze.
The good news is that humans have the power to consciously overwrite this old program and move from the dingy, danger-filled basement of the lower brain to a roomier, lighter apartment upstairs in the front of the brain. Decision-making works differently in the penthouse, with time to pause and consider before responding. There is a really wise and creative Upstairs Committee always available for consultation, and I love learning how to tap their ingenuity.
Which leads me back to the disappointing news that I’d received a $55 grant instead of a $500 grant. With a panoramic view of options from the comfy couch in my sunny mental apartment I could actually watch the incoming information arrive in the basement and provoke a rapid anger-fear-despair routine. But because of the hard work I’ve done to install strong stairs and a speedy elevator, the data and emotions arrived fairly quickly up in the mental penthouse where I could take a deep breath and respond more constructively with the help of the Upstairs Committee.
Down in the Doom Room I heard the usual commotion: I never win anything. Why even bother? I might as well tell them to keep their money. People are so misleading; this is probably some kind of scam. You can’t trust the Internet. What was I thinking? Why did I even waste my time? I should have known this was too good to be true.
Up in my higher mind there was a much different set of options under discussion: Maybe it’s a typo; I could write to express my confusion and request clarification. I’ll be able to cover this month’s electric bill at Insight with that money. I am so glad I can consciously choose to be gracious and grateful instead of defaulting to anger and defeat. This could be a good illustration for a blog post!
For the skeptics—what good are great expectations? You only got $55—I have some important news: a day or two after I applied for the grant I received an unexpected check for $500. I’ll just leave you to ponder that along with the reminder that my initial expectation was that I might very well get MORE than $500!
I have a confession to make. I specified that this initiative was aimed at feeling better. I said, and I quote: I am not weighing or measuring myself, counting calories or measuring portions. The first part of that idealistic statement ended up being untrue.
Here’s how the process unfolded. I felt proud of myself as I set up the Fitbit goals. I didn’t want this to be some crazy, unachievable or hard-driving effort I would soon drop in discouragement. Accordingly, I lowered the suggested daily goal from 10,000 steps to 8,000 and told myself that would be plenty good enough for starters. I found out by gentle experience that on the days when I did no intentional walking, my daily steps were as low as 3,000. Rationalizing from that baseline, my goal seemed a significant improvement over the sedentary sluggishness of the last few years—progress without being punitive.
As I was setting up the Fitbit software program, I came to the section in which I was asked to input my current weight and my goal. I put in the somewhat alarming (to me) figure from the last time I’d weighed myself, and then entered a goal to lose 33 pounds because I liked the number. All this seemed quite theoretical…just filling in the blanks to get started toward my overarching intention to get back into better condition and start feeling more fit and energetic.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I started having lots of fun feedback right away. How beautiful that my body responded to such a modest investment! My resting heart rate lowered. My zest came zipping back. The step-tracking strategy did indeed motivate me to get out on the street even after dark so as to meet the day’s target. Wow!
And then…and then…well, I succumbed to the urge to get on the scale and see what kind of progress I’d made. Shit! I weighed more than the estimate I’d entered into the Fitbit program weeks earlier. Even though my body and mind felt much better, the scale screamed F-A-I-L in a loud and mocking voice.
Because I’d written a blog post about my lofty intentions to avoid weighing and measuring my body, I felt as if I was secretly letting all of you down. But that didn’t stop me from weighing myself compulsively a couple weeks later! The figure was exactly the same!!!!!
This seems nearly impossible and more like an object lesson from my higher self than anything, as if the scale conspired to send me back to the refuge of my original, beautiful intention: to not hate, reject, or punitively try to control any part of myself, but to instead be filled with a deep and radiant desire to be my best self.
I choose again and again—as many times as necessary—to trust how I feel over what scales and measuring tapes might indicate. I feel SO much better physically! I feel stronger and more lithe, lighter on my feet and lighter of heart, both physically and emotionally.
Although I am over 250 miles down the road, in some ways I am back where I started, returning home to the goal of learning to love and accept myself with honesty and compassion. Confessing my frailty is part of that, so thanks for listening!
For most of my life I’ve thought I was bigger and heavier than I actually am. I can look at pictures from each of the last five decades and see now that I was never the size I thought I was. In fact, I was considerably smaller. Now that I am heavier than I have ever been in my life, I’ve finally had a breakthrough in understanding.
I know I cannot depend on how I see myself in the mirror or the plate glass store windows. I finally recognize the fickle unreliability of my own perceptions. I know I cannot use my physical self-image as a motivation for change because it will always tell me I have missed the mark.
I know for a fact I felt fat when this picture was taken in the early 1980s.
Like many others, I have tried a variety of diet and fitness programs over the years to whip myself into shape after I crossed a certain line known only by me, an arbitrarily-shifting standard. There’s no question I can control my weight. I’ve lost the same pounds over and over again through calorie counting, portion control, exercise, herbs, even amphetamines. I have starved, denied, punished and shamed myself. When I finally paused to wonder why the weight always returns, I realized my body was asking me for something. Like maybe—at the very least—a willingness to listen and a little kindness and appreciation.
My body started changing more dramatically than usual about four years ago. Many persons in the second half of life will understand, especially women who, like me, quit smoking in their 40s and are now post-menopausal. Anyone who has suddenly gone from active to sedentary or experienced a season of loss and grief will know what I’m talking about. Persons who are trauma survivors and utilized food or other substances to self-soothe will also relate. For me, all of these factors combined and conspired simultaneously to translate themselves into a 30-pound love note from my soul.
For the first time in my life, I responded with compassion. I stopped punitively weighing myself. I ceased self-denial and revisited my beliefs about food. I didn’t swing into action to take control. I started observing how my perception of my body could change quite markedly from day to day or even between morning and evening. I asked why I was never satisfied with myself and what impact that might have on my physical container.
From the outside I’m guessing it may have looked like I had indulged in that folly we whisper about behind our hands: oh, my! She’s really let herself go. Or so I imagine in my insecure, judging, body-shaming mode. But in a newly-emerging aspect of my psyche, I was literally embodying something quite different: I was challenging myself to accept my form exactly as it was, precisely as it had expressed itself.
As I sat with that idea—and sat and sat and sat, seemingly immobilized in some way I can’t explain, a formerly super-active person suddenly shockingly sedentary, sitting still, and uncomfortably, at that—I began to wonder. I watched my feelings arise with as much mindfulness as possible. I appreciate Dr. Daniel Siegel’s acronym for the kind of mindfulness I was led to practice about my body—COAL—curiosity, openness, acceptance and love.
Acronym by Dan Siegel, watercolor by Elizabeth Winterbone
This process of raising awareness and aiming toward self-acceptance has lasted close to two years, 700+ days of unpredictable emotional rollercoasters and perceptual funhouse mirrors—days of love and days of loathing—until finally I realized what I’d been missing. Those pounds kept coming back over the years to ask for acceptance. They wanted me to stop throwing myself under the bus of external opinion and impossible ideals. They invited me to love my softness and roundedness. They offered repeated chances to embrace myself unconditionally. They asked me to surrender into a full trust of my whole self.
Instead of obsessing with external standards of physical beauty and acceptability, I began offering my body gratitude for its amazing resilience and service over the last 56 years. I began looking at myself in the mirror and saying I love you.
The eventual reward for my willingness to listen to my body and offer it unconditional acceptance came suddenly as a clearer awareness of how I was feeling physically. I could notice that my several years of sitting still had affected my fitness. I suddenly wanted to feel better, more lively and energetic. I felt the urge to move. A high school friend inspired me to get a fitness tracker. I’ve always loved biofeedback and friendly competition with myself. Suddenly I was running up the stairs to my apartment multiple times a day to get my heart rate into the cardio zone, walking instead of driving to the grocery store, and finding reasons to run errands on foot. I am doing this with great joy and playfulness.
Here is the radical difference from past self-improvement efforts. There will be no before and after pictures; this is not about how I look. I am not weighing or measuring myself, counting calories or measuring portions. I am listening to my body’s intuitive guidance. I am trusting its wisdom. Finally. I am not hating, rejecting, or punitively trying to control any part of myself, I am filled with a deep and radiant desire to be my best self.
I am motivated by love instead of fear, and I believe that will make all the difference.
My bottom line is that I value myself and others for who we are, not what we possess or our annual salaries. I believe we are all absolutely equally worthy of respect, love and self-actualization.
At my first full-time job in 1980 my time was valued at $3.10/hour, the minimum wage. That is when I became officially indoctrinated into the culture of never-enough-money-or-time, although I’d certainly been exposed to the idea as a child. I watched my father collapse in exhaustion on the couch after work. I heard my mother say “we can’t afford it.” From both of them I learned the refrain, “there’s not enough time.”
Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money
This year I made a pivotal decision. I mentally, emotionally and spiritually began tipping a fat, longstanding sacred cow—I ceased thinking of time as money. I stopped running U.S. Economics, Version 2015 as my default program. I dared to hope the world might value what I felt most passionate about giving: myself, my insight, my caring. I had the audacity to believe there was enough of everything: time, money, love.
A friend offered a transformational idea: exchange an hour of time at my new peer support venture for whatever a client makes per hour. This effectively kicked the cornerstone out of the conceptual structure upon which I had built many of my life’s assumptions. Suddenly my wage had nothing to do with my value; it became simply a logical, agreed-upon rate of exchange for two people with needs to meet.
Since I was offering to build peer relationships in which equality is a central value, the formula made beautiful sense. Still, I watched a few peers struggle with the concept. Some seemed to feel embarrassed by how little they were paid. A few said, “I know your time is worth more than this.” Sometimes I tried to gently explain, but it was hard to effectively communicate that I no longer looked at time or money that way.
Some peers cannot pay me at all. Others can afford $50, $100 or even $200. Most pay $15-$25. I have been appreciative and hopeful. I am getting comfortable accepting whatever is offered and throwing it in my grandfather’s old cigar box until banking day. I do not adjust my attention or scale my services based on the amount of the payment. Most of the time I can hold my vision that it will all balance out.
I was feeling pretty darn proud of my transformation until this week I tried to experimentally flip the concept in the other direction and uncovered something important hiding in the shadows of my psyche. I was inspired to ask a highly-paid professional if she would be willing to donate her time to me, a seemingly audacious request according to my old mindset. What emboldened me to ask is my firsthand experience of how rewarding it is to freely give my time and talents to persons who cannot otherwise afford what I have to offer. I needed, but did not have the means to pay for this person’s services.
I am deeply grateful she agreed, not only because my needs will be met, but because the situation brought my own hidden unworthiness into the light. Part of the agreement is that I fill out an application for assistance, providing documentation to prove that I was needy, which felt in that moment like the opposite of being worthy. There in black-and-white were all the assessments that hooked me straight back into the economic program I’d recently sought to uninstall. According to that model, I am living well below the federal poverty line this year, earning more like what I did in 1980.
Immediately upon confronting this mundane, scarcity-focused data, I temporarily lost my bold magic-mindedness. Anyone who has ever wholeheartedly practiced living by faith instead of fear will recognize this pitfall. Don’t look down is damn good advice. Filling out that form was the equivalent of looking down.
For a couple of days I struggled emotionally. I felt alone and adrift with no wind in my spiritual sails. Lurking in the depths and rocking my idealistic ship were old feelings of discouragement and unworthiness. After grappling with my beliefs, thoughts and feelings over the last few days, however, and continuing to feel so inspired and purposeful as I met with peers at Insight, something beautiful surfaced in my fertile psyche.
I started imagining a worldwide gathering—my neighbors, my fellow Americans, all the humans on the planet—in which every last one of us appeared as an infant or toddler. No adults whatsoever. I asked myself how I could possibly walk through that undulating mass of playing, laughing, crying, curious, unique, expectant, needy, lovable children and guess at or assign value or worth, higher and lower salaries, different social classes. I asked how I could dare to hold myself in lower or higher esteem than anyone else. And I couldn’t. I could not.
Next I pictured myself plopped down in a bizarre scene of impending, potentially world-ending doom, stuck in a storm or bomb shelter with the Koch Brothers, Alice Walton and Donald Trump. I looked around and asked myself which would be more valuable in the moment—their money or my inner peace? In that scenario I could easily see my own net worth through a different lens. Or put another way, my own net worthiness. My bottom line is that I value myself and others for who we are, not what we possess or our annual salaries.
I believe we are all absolutely equally worthy of respect, love and self-actualization. While it is unlikely that I can (or would care to) singlehandedly revamp a deteriorating and unbalanced economic system, I can continue to step aside from it and invest my own values and ideals into building something new and more sustainable. The obvious place to begin is upon a fresh foundation. I’ll start with the assumption that everyone on the planet has the same net worthiness, that time does not equal money, and that there is enough of everything that makes life worth our wholehearted investment.
Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, 2012