Archive for June, 2013

posted by Amy on Jun 21

In one of my seminary classes last fall we had a mini writing lesson. A published author spoke to us about writing, and took us through an exercise. I wrote “The Reservoir” in that class.

She said it’s good to talk about past events–trauma, suffering, grief, and the like, but she advised us against giving too many specifics. She said most people are now aware of child abuse and family violence. Excessive description can distract from the theme or message of the piece. It can also be excessively attention-seeking or self-aggrandizing. It’s hard to avoid taking a victim position.

I agree with that advice, to a point. In Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Alice Miller details how what she calls “poisonous pedagogy” numbs children to their honest feelings and memories, and eliminates their ability to feel outraged by how they were treated. This system of “child rearing” is so effective, most of the people who were abused as children do not know that what they experienced actually was abuse. In order for them to heal and to begin to break the intergenerational cycle of violence, it is imperative that they become able to name the evil that was done to them, but I don’t think it’s possible to do that unless someone witnesses to similar offenses. It will mean nothing to them unless there are enough details for them to relate. Even then, denial is such a powerful force that very few people will get the message anyway. It’s far too easy to stay detached, putting oneself in a different category. Other people abuse their children. Other women were date raped. Other families experience incest. Not me. Not my parents. Not my kids. One of my best examples of the power of denial was a woman I knew slightly who used to beat her toddler with wooden spoons, and had broken two of them on his little body before he reached the age of two. She told me she volunteered as a counselor in a child abuse prevention program. She was completely unconscious of her own abusiveness.

Some of my disclosures inevitably implicate other people, some of whom are still alive. Disclosure also involves interpretations with which others strongly disagree. Finally, it exposes me to judgments about my own mental stability and psychological health. I am aware of these risks, and I am constantly mulling over how to balance competing interests and concerns against my desire to share what I have learned in hopes that somebody will benefit. I work out a lot of that balancing in private journals, or in unpublished blog posts. After awhile, with much thought, prayer, and editing, I sometimes go public.

I have been meeting with a few other people about once a week for mutual support and companionship on our roads to recovery. On April 7 I sent the group a link to one of my blog posts. One person responded, “You are a brilliant writer. I hope you can publish your blogs for more to read and find solace.”

We don’t live only for ourselves.

Not only that, but you are only as sick as your secrets, and there really are no secrets.

posted by Amy on Jun 14

Last Wednesday I flew to Denver. Thursday evening we picked up a Chrysler Town & Country. It turned out that two people who had planned to come couldn’t make it, leaving only five for the trip, but the minivan was the perfect road trip vehicle for that size group. We were able to fold down 1/3 of the far-back seat and put an ice chest there. Then whoever sat in back had the job of “Supply Sargent,” passing out beverages and snacks.

The youngest member of the group had an 11 pm indoor soccer game to play before we could leave Thursday night. (They lost, but they did score one goal). We hit the road at about 12:30, with Soccer Man driving. The minivan had a DVD player with fold-down screens like in a bus or airplane. During the day Friday we watched Blazing Saddles, Robin Hood–Men in Tights, and Airplane.

We drove straight through to Rohnert Park, CA, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. We had oranges and granola bars for breakfast, and gas station coffee. We made sandwiches at another refueling stop, and ate them in the gas station parking lot. The distance is about 1500 miles, and we made it in 21 hours. Of the five people on the trip, only one had not been available to pick up the car and become an authorized driver. The sun was still up when we arrived, and we had a decent amount of time to sleep Friday night.

Another family member flew from Austin to Berkeley earlier in the week. She has a friend who’s studying at the GTU, and who scored an impressive and enviable internship at Glide United Methodist Church in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, and she spent a couple of days with her. Perhaps I’ll invite the GTU  friend to write a guest post about Glide. But I digress.

The missing family member called me at 6 am Saturday because we had not yet formulated a plan to get her to the picnic. I know nothing about the Bay Area, but Google told me I could get there and back in 110 minutes, so I told her I’d come get her. After a couple of cups of the free (awful) motel coffee I hit the road.

The minivan had Sirius radio. While I was driving and reading the directions I had written down I decided to turn on the radio. More or less unthinkingly, I hit “70s Radio.” One forgettable song ended, and then “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas came on. As I was singing along with the chorus I burst into tears.

Carry on my wayward son/There’ll be peace when you are done/Lay your weary head to rest/Don’t you cry no more

Oh, God. Yes. Finally. I had not yet cried for Ross. I wasn’t bawling hard enough to have to pull over, but there they were, the tears that I needed to start shedding. For losing him so many years ago when he chose not to have anything to do with me, never answering my letters, never so much as sending me a birthday card. For not having had an adult relationship with him. For his untimely death two weeks before his 61st birthday. For his kids, my niece and nephew, who I barely knew. For all the stories he could have told and didn’t. For the best friend I had as I was growing up, who knew everything about our childhood and who was an ally and confidant. For the love that I know he had deep inside for our parents and grandparents, for his sisters and brother, for his son and daughter. For the wasted talent and broken dreams.

We went to Costco for party food, beverages, and flowers, then headed to our reserved picnic area at Lake Sonoma. It took two tries to find the exact spot. As we were unloading the food and beverages I heard a voice behind me say, “Need some help with that?” It was my cousin Charles, who I had not seen in many, many years. He had ridden his Harley up from Atascadero (about 300 miles) and camped there the night before.

The picnic was great. My nephew brought his older son and his girlfriend. My niece brought fresh oysters, which her brother cooked on the grill. He also grilled chicken, and it was perfect. There was plenty of food, and we just kept eating and talking. The Millennials spent time talking, retrieving lost Frisbee golf discs, and then playing Frisbee golf.

Some of us spoke. I told everyone I had brought them together for selfish reasons, because people mourn in community. I talked a bit about my brother, and I told the story how “Carry On Wayward Son” had dropped in my lap that morning, a song that so perfectly captured Ross–his love of music, especially rock & roll with guitar, and his waywardness. I had planned to play the song on my son’s iPhone, but reception was terrible out there. Instead I sang the chorus a capella, and my younger brother joined in.

There was a lot of pain, and it didn’t all get resolved. I didn’t expect it to. The picnic area was nowhere near the lake, but it was nice. It was hot–triple digits–but a steady breeze kept the air moving and we had shade. I showed a slide show of semi-random family pictures, some designed to show how Ross had influenced his nieces and nephews without even trying. My mother’s 81-year old cousin, who is impossibly spry (he bicycles and folk dances regularly, and has kept his boyish figure), took my ten year old great nephew under his wing and kept him busy and happy.

I passed out some cuttings of a philodendron I’ve had since 1976, the year my mother died. It is a scion of a plant she had in her house in North Boulder. She had it by the fireplace, and its long, strong vines and dinner plate sized leaves extended up one side of the fireplace, across the huge chimney, and down the other side. It’s nowhere near that impressive anymore, but maybe someone else will do better.

We stayed from noon until almost 8, the time the park closed. We arranged to meet the next morning for brunch, which was excellent. Most of us went out together Saturday night–my two nieces and I to a wine bar in Santa Rosa, the younger men to who-knows-where. At the brunch I read a poem my sister had written for the occasion. I had meant to do that Saturday, but forgot. It was a really good poem, and prophetic. A blessing and benediction.

After brunch Sunday we posed for group pictures and pledged to stay in touch. The Denver group headed back to Denver, with stops to see the beach and tour the Jelly Belly Factory. Ross’s daughter took me and her cousin back to her apartment, where my friend who lives on a houseboat in Vallejo picked me up. The cousin spent the night (I think) and then headed back to Austin the next day.

I arrived back in Boston on Thursday, eight days after setting out.

Brian Doyle says, “Without stories we are mammals with weapons.” I had been apprehensive about the gathering. Would people talk? Would they like each other? Would they think it was worth it? There were many stories told, including alternate versions of the same event. My brother, it turns out, was a liar.

I wanted to reclaim Ross for the McElheny/Gagos/Redfield diaspora. I wanted to make a point about the finitude of all of us. The next big family gathering could well be another wake/funeral/memorial service. It probably will. For all his many faults and failings, Ross wanted to be a good dad, and he did a better job than our father did. Little by little, a generation at a time, a family’s story can change for the better. And if you take crazy road trips and spend two or three days in close quarters, you just might get to know each other better and grow in love, affection, and respect.


posted by Amy on Jun 3

I just got back from a trip to Ireland. When I landed at Shannon Airport on May 18 I noticed they were promoting something called The Gathering Ireland 2013. It’s a year-long celebration of the Irish, framed as outreach to the 70 million people worldwide who are of Irish heritage.

I first encountered the term “Irish Diaspora” in a book I saw on the sale rack at a bookstore. The author said that there are certain traits and characteristics of Irish people that persist down through generations, even with no contact with the Old Country. I saw people in Ireland who looked just like people I know back home. And I could pass for Irish, at least until I open my mouth. At one pub a woman who was sharing our table as we listened to a father and son play and sing told me she thought I was the boy’s mother. In addition to physical types, well-known Irish characteristics, especially musicality and “the gift of gab,” appear in the Irish diaspora worldwide.

That kind of relatedness is even stronger in families. When my uncle Bob died I went to Austin for the memorial service. Afterwards my aunt (my father’s sister), her sons, and I went out for a drink. As we were laughing and talking, the youngest one said, “You fit right into this family.” I reminded him that I was family.

Most people choose spouses who are like the people who raised them. The habits of mind, mannerisms, gestures, attitudes and values of siblings are all shaped in the same nature/nurture nexus. So their children will have a great deal in common with their first cousins, whether they ever knew each other or not. About 14 years ago I took my son Ben to California for the wedding of my brother’s stepdaughter Lisa. Ben enjoyed hanging out with his cousins, and found they had much in common.

When I found out Ross was seriously ill I contacted as many family members as I had email addresses for, and asked them to reach out to him. I also asked them to pass the information on to others, and to give me email addresses and mailing addresses for the people whose information I didn’t have. Then when I found out he had died I decided we’d do some kind of memorial gathering on June 8. I sent everyone a “save the date” email on April 27, and asked them let others know about the gathering.

Wednesday morning I’m going to fly to Denver. On Thursday I’m renting a minivan, and six other people will join me in a road trip to Sonoma County. Saturday we’re going to spend the day at a lake, eating, talking, playing near the water, and whatever else happens. Honestly I’m a little nervous about it. This is what I said about it in a group email that I sent on June 1:

While I intend it to be primarily for fun, fellowship, and creating new, happy memories and new bonds among living family members, it’s also meant to be a send-off for Ross. He loved music, the outdoors, cookouts, joking and laughing, and water. I want to have some kind of ceremony at the lakeshore after dark, perhaps with luminaria, candles, or just flashlights. I still like the idea of a Viking ship model to which we can set fire, but I’m not sure where I’ll get one before I leave Boston Wednesday morning. Origami cranes and other animals might be nice. Paper airplanes. Or a little temporary mausoleum made of sand, to which we each add a special rock. Please bring something that reflects your love for our family—a poem, a story, or some kind of talisman, or just love in general—love of life, or appreciation for the gift of life.

As usual, I asked that recipients forward the email. This time I named specific people to whom I wanted it sent. I ended the email by saying, “I know you might be thinking this is just too awkward. You’ve never met most of the people on the distribution list, let alone the ones I named in the preceding paragraph. Relax. You’d be amazed how much we have in common just because we are related. It’ll be a blast. We’ll be talking about it for years.”

The next morning I woke up to an email from Aunt Harriet, my mother’s eldest sister, that said:

Howdy Amy,

If I didn’t “know better”, I’d say this shindig is designed, in part, to assuage guilty consciences. But – I’d never say it!

Ken’s comment: Under NO circumstances would he attend an event of this nature, for an unknown relative. His opinion pretty much reflects mine. Which must mean we raised him properly.

(You’ll get some preaching practice – which probably is good.)

Oh yes, be sure to avoid salmonella poisoning.

(You have my permission to read the above contribution, should you wish to do so.)

Have “fun . . . “

I’ll snail mail your letter and this response to Laura, who’ll be upset that I voiced my rude opinion.


(Ken is her son, the eldest of my generation on the Gagos side, and Laura is the third-eldest sister, who was always one of my favorite aunts, and with whom I communicate frequently.)

That’s Harriet for you. When I told her (in a group email) that I had been diagnosed with cancer she responded, not with sympathy or compassion or interest about my treatment or prognosis, but with the observation that I was sure to get chemobrain and the doctors wouldn’t warn me about that.

My mother told me Harriet had always walked on the other side of the street from her parents and three sisters. She was the most Armenian-looking of the four sisters, short and swarthy with a prominent, hooked nose. Mom once told me that she (Mom) had finally come to understand that Harriet had a massive inferiority complex. Mom might have been trying to help me understand my own sister, but it was also a partial explanation for why she and Harriet had a strained, distant relationship.

Here’s how I answered Harriet’s email:

Dear Aunt Harriet,

You and Ross have a lot in common; both keeping yourselves aloof from the rest of the family. I’ve seen you a total of twice in my 59 years on this planet. I’ve seen your son once. The first time I saw you it was just your head poking out your front door, chatting with my mom while we were in California visiting relatives. You didn’t come over to the car to greet us, or invite us in after our long trip. Maybe you and he share some kind of mutant family-despising gene.

Tell me more. Why do you suppose anyone would have a guilty conscience about Ross? And what makes you think I’m going to preach?

You and your well-brought-up offspring have fun too, Auntie.


I don’t blame Harriet for being the way she is. She can’t help it. As another cherished aunt often says, people like Harriet are “more to be pitied than scorned.” But she’s wrong about Ross being unknown. He’s permanently a member of the “McElheny/Gagos Family Diaspora,” and he’s known and loved. Maybe she’s the one with the guilty conscience.

It does not appear to have crossed her mind that my own health status is a powerful motivator here. I am living on borrowed time. (We all are, of course. Cancer just makes it harder for me to forget that fact.) Right now I have the energy and strength to organize a gathering of this nature, so I’m doing it. I want to spread as much love and light as I can before I die. I want to meet my niece and nephew, and hug them and laugh with them. I want to do all I can to get the Millennials in our family together.

A family is an ongoing story, with a past, a present, and a future. Even if there has been abuse, rage, bitterness, abandonment and dysfunction in the past, the story can begin to be more about love and hope and solidarity. There’s no need to deny anything, or sugarcoat, or erase anything that happened in the past. It just needs to be put in context. Ross belongs to us, despite his attempts to leave and his wife’s attempts to keep him to herself. And just as a human being’s character changes over time, getting worse or better depending on the choices that are made and the habits that are formed or broken, the character of a family can change too. All we have to do is choose life.

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