by Cameron Gearen
I am the person who stays in touch for over 40 years. I'm the one with my mother's wedding dress in my basement, the keeper of three generations of family photos. I'm the friend who will sing at your wedding or your funeral; I'll track you down after 30 years and take you to coffee. I can let things and people go when it's necessary, but I attach deeply and like I mean it.
In my childhood, I suffered abuse at the hands of my biological father; I didn't remember it until I was 38. Even when I didn't "know" about the abuse, a part of me knew. How else to explain my compulsions to disprove or offset the rotten part of my life by compulsively creating traditions that I hoped would keep me from the pain lurking just below the surface? It worked for a while. I married early, thinking that I could make a new start by making a new family.
My husband's family was big on holiday traditions and I embraced them all. The same acts in the same order every Christmas Eve, every Christmas Day. Always the same electric candles in the window, special foods on a schedule. Always the flocking on the Christmas tree.
I didn't do things in ones.
I worked hard to find the right rental cabin and then, when I found it, I wanted to go there with my husband and daughters every summer. We slept on the sleeping porch and, in the morning, the call of the loons woke us from the right-there lake while the children slept on upstairs. I fantasized about buying it should the owners die. I fingered the antique pitchers as if they were my own.
If I took my female writer friends to my in-laws' summer home, I wanted to do it once a year, same group, cementing. If we only did it once, it seemed like a mistake, not something you could make a banner about.
For over 10 years, friends invited my family of four to their lake cottage over the Fourth of July weekend. As lovely as it was (the porch, the paddle boat, the dock, our conversation), equally important to me was that it was a repeating event. It tethered me. Even the year my husband was out of the country or my daughter was at camp, I went. Tradition.
What makes a tradition? Doing something the same way twice? Five times? I became a connoisseur of repetition and an expert on the meaningful people and places in my life. I could hike through the woods to the point on my in-laws' property with my eyes closed, I had worn that path so many times. I knew where the fallen trees were that one should step over.
I can see why an abused child would wish for mastery. Keep things (everything but the abuse) the same and I will take comfort in the sameness, because there is too much change and chaos and threat in the (not-yet-remembered) abuse.
One summer, the last, as it turned out, of my 20-year marriage, we lived within walking distance of Lake Michigan. On the broiling July nights, all four of us walked the five blocks to the water, jumped off the rocks, and swam in the refreshing lake as the fireflies came out. We brought the dog and she swam too. Then we grabbed our towels and t-shirts and walked back home. Tradition forged. Brain pathway repaired.
The first flashback exploded into my life nine years ago, with many more to come. Merely a year later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment was a mastectomy, chemo, and six years of unpleasant pills. My emotional house was stripped down to the rafters.
Read more: My Fake Boob: A Love/Hate Relationship
And when my husband of 20 years left, even the rafters collapsed.
I built that veneer brick by brick for almost 40 years and I mistook it for an edifice. Then it came tumbling down and nothing but rubble ringed my feet. When I asked one doctor why victims often remember repressed abuse in middle age, he said simply "Fatigue." And I get that: What an effort it was for me to keep lifting those bricks of traditions higher and higher, to keep the memories at bay.
When the structure crumbled, when the rafters fell, I lost my feeling of safety. I lost what I thought I knew about myself, my childhood and my family. I lost my community and a (literal) house I loved when we moved. I lost the garden I had built with my husband from a patch of dirt. I lost the "bubble" in which I had lived wherein I believed I would not face a life-threatening illness. I lost my hair temporarily. I lost my eyebrows permanently. I lost 50 pounds while doing chemo. I lost a breast through mastectomy. I lost a great deal of sleep. I lost my financial security once my husband left and we had two households in Chicago and not enough resources to cover them. I felt picked clean, like a bone left in the sun. I was light and frighteningly empty. I had created this family, this world. I had worked so hard to make a structure and, in one morning or in nine years, depending how you count it, it was gone. Now I had to face everything the bricks and careful traditions had been keeping me from.
That first winter on my own after my husband left, with my children at my place only half the time, I don't think I believed there would be new traditions. I couldn't see what they would be like, the new ones. I remember my friends took me in for Christmas day and Christmas Eve and I felt like a refugee in my own country. I knew what the holiday was about, but I didn't know this woman sitting there flanked by friends, pining for her children.
And then. Time.
I rented a different apartment, moved. As a housewarming gift, my sister-in-law gave me a gift card to a yoga studio that she chose online. I screwed up my courage and went to a first class: yoga was not a first for me, but this place and this teacher were. Before class was over, my teacher told me she loved me and I was hooked. A tradition was born. I kept coming back.
Here's something I learned: real stability comes from deep inside your muscle and bones, your blood. I learned that it's not about the rental cabin and the loons and the sleeping porch but about how we treat each other there, or anywhere else. As the layers got stripped away, as that house-of-myself was stripped back to the joists, I noticed that I myself was standing there. And as I made more gestures like the one I made when I tried a new yoga studio, I found out who and what I wanted to be connected to.
We all have our places and people we like. We don't have time to try a new gym every time we want to work out. Even those who feel they are extremely spontaneous still have routines that comfort them and streamline daily life.
That impulse that made me collect traditions — even if it does arise from the abused little girl gathering big leaves around her to try to create a shelter from the rain — it has also fed some of my better qualities. I am fiercely loyal. I have staying power. I don't give up. I am honest and, when I love, it's solid.
My new traditions are small ones. Just two weeks ago, I wandered with my dog onto the grounds of a mansion here that is owned by the park district. We lingered by the koi pond, where I had to keep the dog from wading in. Walking there and back, I played a podcast through my earbuds. The next night, when I set out to walk the dog, we ended up there again. And the next. It's a tiny choice, and it doesn't have to stay. But for right now, it's a tradition, and one that I love.
Sitting on my friend M's porch and drinking coffee while talking with her is a new and wonderful tradition for me. New and old — the porch is new, but I've known M for 40 years. Reconnecting to some places I have loved for a long time has also helped me find tradition-hood. A beach where the sand is squeaky and hot, where the black stones are flat, a beach I've been going to since I was probably seven.
This summer, my daughters and I found a new-to-us ice cream place and we love it. We like the tiny storefront and the long line down the block of flip-flopped kids straight from the pool. Even if we don't do it next year, we can say, Remember that summer we went to Hole in the Wall? Just as we say, Remember that summer we swam in the lake after dinner every day? Remember?
In seven years, all your cells regenerate. In nine years, my work, health, healing, marriage, and home have all changed much more than I wished them to. I learned to spend 90 percent of my time by myself — and to like it. I carry the Christmas tree up the stairs in December, wrap it in a new-to-us pink strand of lights, and I carry it down again when the special day is over. With the walls and rafters stripped away, I have become more deeply who I am: a person who stops to chat with her neighbors, who shows up when she's needed, who has a complicated history, who loves to think and talk and write and read and sing. A fierce and paying-attention mother, one who fiercely loves her girls.
As the door to my new house-of-self opened, I saw myself there. I held out a hand to myself, and I took it. No longer do I anxiously build the edifice with traditions that are bricks. I can be comfortable anywhere in this house, now that I have myself.
Cameron Gearen’s book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out in early 2016 from Shearsman Press. Her short fiction and nonfiction is up at The Easy Chair podcast. She recently launched a project, #onmyown, on her blog: text and photos celebrating solitude and singlehood. You can read it at camazon.tumblr.com. She works as a freelance writer and college counselor in the Chicago area, where she lives with her two teenaged daughters and her dog, Roxy. Her YA novel is currently with an agent.