The Pivotal Years of Momentous Change

Carol A. Hand

After I posted my last essay, I realized that I forgot to mention my gratitude to a dear friend, Cheryl Bates. She reviewed various drafts of the play (You Wouldn’t Want To Hear My Story) and gave me very helpful feedback and suggestions. Although she took a hiatus as my blog partner to focus on her work as an assistant professor, we still talk and exchange emails. She has often helped review some of the odd things I write. Some were refined and published on my blog as a result of her feedback, and some remained as unfinished fragments that were revisited and sometimes woven into later posts.

blog picture

Photo: Dr. Cheryl A. Bates

Although I have always had special friends wherever I found myself, I noticed how they dissolved over time when I took on new responsibilities and moved to new places. The threads that connected us gradually frayed as our lives and work took different directions. Although fond memories often remain, holding onto the past is something I do mostly in my thoughts to make sense of the present and reflect on the future. My friendship with Cheryl is unique because it was forged and strengthened by facing challenges together as allies during a year of momentous transitions for both of us. The year 2010 was a time of life-changing events.

I often ponder the old adage: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

The saying helps me look back at a life of many moves from many different perspectives. Honestly, I do wish I had purged a lot more of my furniture, files, and mementos when I made my last move. But I did leave all of my dear friends behind as I have been doing since I made my first pivotal move at the age of 12. While my parents and brother settled into their new home, I spent the summer of transition with my grandmother on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. My summer experiences and the shock of entering my new home just as school began influenced my lifetime far more profoundly than I realized at the time. I learned that for some people, like my grandmother, growing up in adversity doesn’t necessarily make one kinder or wiser. Sometimes, people are too wounded to care about themselves or others.

family 1959 2

Photo: My Mother and Me (at home in NJ) – 1959

My transitional summer from childhood to womanhood was spent in the company of an abusive alcoholic. My grandmother’s abuse was different than my father’s physical beatings. I had learned to endure physical abuse by using my mind to focus on other things so intently that I was oblivious to pain.

Taller and thinner than many of my Ojibwe relatives, I felt like an awkward giant. Bespectacled from the age of eight, I was used to being called “four-eyes.” I suspect my grandmother could read my awkwardness and insecurity. That may have triggered her abuse – cruelty that cut deeply. At least a hundred times a day, I was wounded anew each time she ranted about how ugly I was. She ranted in private and in public at every opportunity.

family 1959 3

Photo: My Mother and Me (outside our home in NJ) – 1959

Now, I wonder if perhaps her cruelty was due to jealousy. She was a gifted hair stylist and beautician. (It’s not a gift I inherited.) And as a young girl, she was stunningly beautiful. But age and hard living had taken their toll – makeup and hair dye couldn’t erase the effects.

Agnes and sisters

Photo: My Grandmother and Her Sisters (my grandmother is the one on the right)

Every evening after my grandmother closed her beauty salon, she dragged me along as she made the rounds to local taverns, drinking up what she earned each day. She dressed me up in clothes way too old for a twelve year old, with make-up and carefully coifed hair. Older men tried to pick me up as they laughingly referred to my grandmother as “Black Agnes.” Next, she started accusing me of stealing her money and sleeping with men. I begged my Aunt and Uncle to let me stay with them when my grandmother kicked me out. They did take me in.

And then, the summer came to an end. I moved to my new home where I didn’t know anyone, shredded with self-doubt and internalized shame. My new school was three to five years behind my old school in every subject – reading, math, and even home-ec. Hoping to end it all, I downed a huge bottle of aspirin. But my mother, a nurse, found me too soon. (I’ve been allergic to aspirin ever since.)

Surviving wasn’t easy, and I didn’t really try. The only real friends I had for the five years I was in my new temporary home were the elders who lived in the nursing home my mother owned and administered. I learned about grieving over loss and death from them at an early age as my older friends healed and went home, or had health setbacks and moved to hospitals or died. When I headed off to college, there were really no friends I would miss and I had no intentions of returning when I finished school. My yearbook and mementos were recycled decades ago, and I’ve never seriously considered visiting the town or attending a high school reunion.

mom and me off to college

Photo: My Mother and Me (on my way back to college after spring break) – 1966

In a strange sense, I realize my grandmother had given me a gift. I accepted the fact that I was unattractive and decided that was okay. I was smart, charming when I wanted to be, and multi-talented. And I learned I could survive without approval from others. But these gifts also came with costs – some obvious, and some that have waited decades to be understood.

I began to understand some of the hidden gifts and costs in 2010. It’s the year I split with my partner of 35-plus years. He finally had a decent paying job after 20 years so he could afford to support himself. My mother died that year after 13 years of progressive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her death was a blessing. Her suffering ended and she was finally at peace.  I still miss her and grieve because of the hard times she lived through, but these old photos brought back healing memories. Without the ongoing challenge of figuring out how to cover the costs of her care, I could contemplate the possibility of retirement. After one last ugly battle against institutional discrimination targeted toward vulnerable students and colleagues, I did decide to retire at the end of the academic year (2010-2011), a lot earlier than originally planned. It was obvious that academia was not going to change for the better given the cast of characters in power who allowed these abuses to continue – and continue – and continue – despite the best of my efforts. I guess that’s something else my grandmother taught me. Hurt people hurt people and sometimes people are just too deeply wounded to heal.

Cheryl and I shared the battle and its aftermath, and I will be forever grateful for the friendship that we developed. We left at the same time. One of us moved a little to the northwest (me), and the other, to the southeast, one to retirement, and the other to another position in academia (Cheryl). We both left our other friends behind.

Battle weary, I sold my house (well actually, Wells Fargo really owned it and charged me most of my salary to live there). I moved closer to my family to see if I could be the kind of grandmother I wished I had had so long ago.

288739_251502248221224_100000843525245_703533_1556408388_o

Photo: My Grandchildren and Me – Summer 2011

Only time will tell if I succeed, but that extra furniture I moved continues to provide a place for my daughter and grandchildren to share meals, sleep, play, and teach me new things.

Dear Cheryl, I apologize for forgetting to mention your invaluable help. Please know that I am grateful for your continuing friendship, your honest feedback, and your presence in my life.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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24 Responses to The Pivotal Years of Momentous Change

  1. “Hurt people hurt people and sometimes people are just too deeply wounded to heal.” I believe this to be true, also. My experiences with people that seem to always be unhappy and full of hate lead me to believe they’ve had some troubling experiences that they cannot shake off and are projecting it onto others.

    You’ve certainly had a rough childhood and my heart goes out to you and is aching while reading this post. Really sad that you went through this but you have endured and come out the other side a bright shining light of love, compassion, and strength. I’m sure you are a tremendous grandmother/mother. ((HUGS)) and Blessings, dear!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. desilef says:

    This is so sad. I’m glad Cheryl Bates is in your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Diane. It may sound strange, but I’m grateful for the challenges that forced me to understand suffering – it helped me develop compassion and the tenacity to do what I could to do what I could to address injustice.

      Like

  3. smilecalm says:

    endearing reflection, Carol!
    happy to know her
    and you, better 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mandy says:

    Your amazing strength and tenacity is revealed here, Carol. It makes me admire you even more than I already did, and I’ve read pieces by Cheryl, too, and can see why your special connection will endure a lifetime. You are both amazing wonderful women! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My childhood was also affected by alcoholism and I identify strongly with the situation you describe.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The trials of your childhood, as hard and sad as they were, only contributed to making you the greatly compassionate person and teacher you are. Your grandmother was a very sad person but you know her story was similar to many First peoples. I can see resemblance of you in her. And I trust that you know you are beautiful glowing from inside out. Thanks for sharing so freely of your life.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. dolphin says:

    You have more kindred spirits among you than you probably know. This is not a Native thing — but also amongst European heritage, as well. They are just better at hiding it, I guess. I don’t know what to make of those that are cruel. The only thing people can control is their reactions to what happens to them…some learn empathy. Others learn better ways of being more cruel. I wish I could say that I understood it. I don’t. It seems that the wounded who go on to feed the Light are magnets for the wounded who are bound and determined to feed the Dark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dolphin, thank you for your comments, and for sharing such profound insights! “It seems that the wounded who go on to feed the Light are magnets for the wounded who are bound and determined to feed the Dark.” That certainly appears to be true in my experience. But I don’t have any answers for the why questions you raised 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • dolphin says:

        Perhaps “magnet” is the wrong word choice, and “target” would be the better description? Being made seriously ill by heavy metal poisoning made me extremely vulnerable. I have seen a side of people that I did not know existed– this is not to say that I didn’t know they were cruel. But people sense when you’re vulnerable, and use it to their advantage. Injury to the soul.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. hsampson says:

    Hello Carol I just nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award.
    Don´t worry you don´t have to accept the award or do anything, this is just my way to tell you THANK YOU, I admire your work and I am grateful to you for sharing and teaching me so much!
    Check it out here: http://wp.me/p5trJ-ss
    And once again, thank you for blogging!!!
    Your friend always,
    Hector Sampson

    Liked by 1 person

  9. mytiturk says:

    This and your later post reveal a beauty of soul that shines on the pages and in the photo of you with your beautiful gr,ands. Your negative self-image as a youth was something real to you and deeply felt. More of an awkwardness perhaps because of cruelty and suffering that got passed around. Looks like you refused to imitate your tormentors. The road less traveled? We raised four whose multicultural experiences made them especially wise and resistant to the road more traveled – giving in to the pressure to “side” with one group or another? It is a brave path. Your own suffering surprised and moved me deeply. You are a more beautiful person, outside and in, because of the response you chose.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: The Symbolic Importance of Names – Writing 101 | Voices from the Margins

  11. Carol, I wish I had read this before commenting elsewhere. Anything awful I’ve ever encountered, seems trivial in comparison to your experiences. Amazing that you have come through all this in your wise and deep loving way,with such a heart to help others! Thank-you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate your compassionate words, Hildegard. It’s strange. Just yesterday I remembered what I did to stay aware of the world when I lived in an old rented farm house in central Illinois many years ago. We didn’t have a tv, or radio reception, and my partner needed the one secondhand car we owned to get to work. I was isolated – my nearest friends were many miles away. I decided to cut illustrations from a book with National Geographic pictures of people who were living in extreme poverty around the world. I taped them to the walls of my bedroom. It was the last thing I saw before I went to sleep and the first site I saw when awaking. We didn’t have much, but we lived in luxury when compared to others in the world.

      I remembered those pictures yesterday, and the more recent images of Palestine, Syria, and refugees who’ve lost everything walking through the rain to find sanctuary somewhere in Europe. The past challenges I lived through seem so trivial in comparison. Perhaps I needed those experiences to learn compassion and courage…

      I thank you for your thoughtful comments and kindness ❤

      Liked by 2 people

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