I have always liked reading memoirs. I like knowing the inner workings of someone’s mind and life. I suppose that’s partially why I became a psychotherapist. I learned that you never know what’s really going on for someone on the inside based on their outward appearances. You never know on the surface what is happening layers deep. Memoirs can provide insight and depths of truth and that is appealing to me.

Over the years I’ve been told numerous times that I should write a book about my life to which I always laugh and say “who would read it?” Now I have a better understanding of marketing and promotion. My story of growing up Mennonite in “Amish country” and then living in the big cities of Boston and Seattle is definitely a unique one. Then add the brushes (some more than brushes) I’ve had with famous or well-known people and you have layers of intrigue and excitement for sure. After recently reading the memoirs, Educated and An Amish Girl in Manhattan, (as I’ve written about in a post Down Time – Productive After All), I’ve been reflecting on how my religious upbringing has impacted me. Being back here longer than I anticipated, (initially due to covid), has required me to marinate a bit longer in this culture and I’m reminded of some of the glaring and subtle effects of growing up in a religious home – a Mennonite one, in particular.

Sometimes I pinch myself, “how is it I’ve been back here for almost six years?” I moved back as my mother’s health was declining. Having been away for 32 years, I wanted to spend time with her before her time expired. I am grateful for the 2 1/2 years we were given. (My Mother’s Passing…) As many of you close to me know, ours was not an easy relationship, but we certainly loved each other deeply. She had many good traits that I remember fondly and as some close to me have said over the years, some that are living out in me. It’s fair to say that she subconsciously projected feelings about herself onto me, her only daughter. Sadly, I’m not sure that she liked herself very much. She didn’t like to talk about those kinds of things and it was difficult for her to put her feelings into words. As often happens when we don’t/can’t articulate thoughts and feelings, we act them out instead – sometimes through hurtful words and behaviors. There was a lot of that happening in my family, often cloaked in humor.

The longer I’m back here, the more I appreciate how much my mother must have struggled growing up the way she did. On one hand she had a strict code by which she had to live including rigid rules around how she was to dress. This included wearing a covering (or “spaghetti strainer”) on the crown of her head at all times (other than bedtime and washing.) Some of the stories she told me hurt my heart to hear. She shared that she had rheumatic fever in fifth grade and had to quarantine in her bedroom, and bed, for months. She remembered starting to feel better and looking forward to being up and about again. Up until that point she had been able to dress pretty much like most other girls her age. Then one day she woke up to a plain dress hanging on the door. Her mother must have hung it there while she was asleep. She realized she was at the age where she would have to start dressing like a conservative Mennonite girl, where every detail down to whether or not to have a seam down the back of her stockings (nylons) would be scrutinized. Farewell to ruffles or bows or pretty patterns.

Dressing the way we like is a form of self-expression and that was now thwarted. And, on the other hand, her father lived life in a drastically different way. He had become an alcoholic. He owned a used car lot and garage located on the other side of their yard. It was a place where a lot of wheeling and dealing took place as well as a lot of drinking and gambling. This went on for years. I have vague recollections of the dark and dingy walls of his garage with a mattress on the floor in the back. I guess it was there in case they were too drunk to go anywhere, although my little girl memory is that one of his buddies was pretty much living back there. But what most stood out to me about that place was all the calendars of naked women hanging on the walls. I didn’t have any kind of compartment in which to file that. Over the years we heard harrowing tales of some of her dad’s behaviors while drunk but I won’t go into them here. These had to be complicated and confusing atmospheres in which to be raised. Being able to make sense of and to integrate these two extreme worlds when nothing was discussed out loud, seems an impossibility.

Anyone who has grown up in a home with alcoholism knows that there are certain unspoken rules: denial, don’t talk about what’s really going on, and shame. I have come to see many parallels with those rules in very religious homes too. How difficult it must’ve been for mother to grow up in an alcoholic and extremely religious home. She learned to deny or minimize what was really happening, to not talk about it, and she felt mounds of shame as she knew on a cellular level that things weren’t quite right but wasn’t allowed to talk about them. Oh, how she must’ve suffered internally.

Fortunately, my mother was pretty smart and ever since she was a little girl she wanted to be a nurse. That was not a common path to take in her community and I think it speaks to her smarts and agency that she went to nursing school and become an RN. Subsequently, working at hospitals gave her contact with outside systems and she saw other ways of thinking and being which I think was a saving grace for her. She eventually stopped wearing her covering and started getting stylish cuts and perms. She started dressing more like her peers. She eventually left my dad which is another story for another day and a painful one every which way you look at it, for both of them. Through that act, she was no longer welcome at her church. I remember she and my dad being very involved in that Mennonite Church that we attended for most of my life and she had some really good friends there. They didn’t officially shun or excommunicate her, they just stopped talking to her. Nobody said anything and she received no support is how I remember it playing out.

When I moved back six years ago, mother was in her 80’s and lived on a personal care unit at a Presbyterian Home. She didn’t tell any of her friends there that she had been a Mennonite and she didn’t want us to say anything either. She still had a lot of bad feelings about it and some shame. I wish she would’ve been open to therapy and could’ve reconciled some of her pain so she could’ve experienced some healing and resolve. In terms of her faith, she never stopped believing in God and heaven and hell, and although she carried more guilt than anyone should have to, she was still hoping to get into heaven.

When I started writing this the other day, I thought I was going to be the star of my story and so am surprised how it veered into a slice of my mother’s life. As I contemplate writing a memoir, I realize I can’t write my story without sharing some of hers. Our stories, hers and mine, are inextricably intertwined. Understanding her story better helps me make sense of mine, at least some of my feelings and behaviors towards her, like the fierce loyalty I felt for her and my deep desire to be connected to her even in the years when it really wasn’t very good for me. I’m not sure how I might’ve navigated that time differently. It was intensely trying for sure. I’m just glad our story together here on earth ended the way it did. I’m grateful for those last couple of years with her. A lot of healing took place between us and I’m carrying around a lot less guilt than I would’ve had I not come back. While I no longer believe in heaven and hell, I believe she’s in a really nice place surrounded by love.

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