So that happened.

No disrespect to Tolstoy, but I rather suspect most unhappy families exhibit as much banal similarity as happy ones. Grief and violence and thwarted desire and trauma echo down from one generation to the next. (And the next, and often the next beyond that.) While each scar scripts a unique memory, whether on body or mind, in the end they are all the story of some love failed. Of some child unprotected.

My father visited me recently, ending a long estrangement. We had not seen each other in over a year, nor spoken during much of that time, by my choice. I set my expectations for this reunion low enough to be sure I could call it successful in the end, almost without regard for anything he might say or do.

And then he surprised me.

It was brief, our moment of connection. But it was also full of possibility. Dare I even say: of hope.



He tells me he remembers a certain angry night,
and how he turned in silence to ascend the stairs.
He does not remember how he descended again 15 minutes later
nor the screaming hours that followed.
I tell him I have never not remembered.

Even our shared history is not shared.

He claims words:
For myself, I am letting words go.
I have let go of family.
Let go of love.
I want to let it all be simply as it is. To let go of expectation.
The future I want will not be found in words.

Perhaps in bodies?—
the clasp of arms, the head cradled on a shoulder—
but even in sobbing my frame does not release distrust.

What makes forgiveness?
At this distance, which of us am I asking myself to forgive?
He haunts the halls within me still, perhaps always,
ghosts of all the fathers he has been
to all the daughters I once was, and perhaps remain.

We have a moment. We watch it pass.

It takes effort to remember: I cannot save him from himself.
Only can, here in the eventual, save myself.
When next we speak, I hear it in his voice:
his head sinking again beneath peaking waves,
so certain the shadow he sees in the depths is my body
drowning. He dives to my imagined rescue
so certain this time, surely this time
he can breathe beneath the sea.
And the past can be revived
and be made—finally—

Enough. Forever enough.
I will no longer wait (Ophelia below his waters)
pretending his heroism alone must secure my survival.
I would leave in the past the moments when he broke my heart
my whole self shattered like a mirror dropped from the great height
of his insistence.
I prefer to hold our future, uncharted by dreams
his or mine:
a blank map extending whitely in all directions.

Perhaps this too is love.
Perhaps it always was.

March, 1973
March, 1973

5 thoughts on “So that happened.

  1. Have you ever posted a comment, only to say moments later: “Oh crap, I hope those words come across as they were intended.”?


    1. While I can’t guarantee that I take them *precisely* as you meant, I very much appreciate everything you’ve said, and the thoughtfulness with which you say it. I’d like to discuss with you more at some point–this adds so many layers to things I already have been planning to follow up with you about. (I’ll be in touch soon to ask about getting your email address.)


  2. A flutter of responses….. The pain this brings to the surface, like dross floating above something being refined below, remains all to familiar to me. All MY anger were vain attempts to control the small others (and their mother) in my life when the only one I could control was, in fact, out of control, totally. Why the need to control? Why the fear that emerged as anger seeking to control? Sadly, it may come down simply to this: if I can’t control myself, maybe I’ll feel better if I can control them.

    Segue…I learned something over these past weeks (frightening in its possible explanations) as my internship forced me to look far more deeply into myself than I thought I ever wanted. It might have implications for you, or not. We were asked to write out genographs (a fancy word for family trees) and then to respond, verbally and with our peers present, to a variety of thought-provoking questions regarding how those who’d gone before left footprints in our own lives.

    I listened as one after the other listed the generations that preceded them: parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. I listened as family themes, beliefs, values, stories, sayings, etc, were discussed as they descended (or ascended) and influenced the generations. When my turn came, I listed my parents (and siblings, forgot about that) and my grandparents. It was not until that moment that I realized this: except for the one grandmother who lived briefly with us when I was 7 or 8, I don’t even know their first names, let alone anything substantive about their lives or the lives of those who came before.

    As I pondered this I came to another realization: I have no memory of special family traditions, of stories that filtered down from one generation to the next, of family sayings that survived like, “You know, your grandfather/mother always used to say….” Nothing, no memories, no values, no heritage…except perhaps for the secret ones passed down unconsciously. Why are the majority of my very few memories of childhood and adolescence the bad ones, the hurtful ones, the shaming and embarrassing ones? Hell if I know. Why did some of my uncles distance themselves from this family as soon as they could? I have no idea. But I confess it worries me.

    Why did I need to control my sons when they were so, so little, to the point that others commented on it? Why did I choose anger and abusive words to control them as they grew up? Why did it take me so damn long to understand that I was out of control myself?

    But, a mystery: why have they forgiven me? Why and how have they chosen to overlook (?) or lived beyond those willful deeds done in ignorance. They remember them, all too well, yet they’ve been able to get past them. It appears I carry far more scars from those years than do they. I watch them with their own children now. I see they’ve learned new ways, better ways, healthier ways to engage with their children.

    I guess this is one of the reasons I believe in grace, in being the recipient of something I absolutely do not deserve and certainly haven’t earned. And I believe in mercy, in not getting why I do truly deserve. I once thought that unconditional love worked only in one direction, parent to child. I discovered I was wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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