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the need for connections
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and the least recognized need of the human soul.
On a return trip to my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, after a thirty-five-year absence, I stood on my street, before the house my father had built, and thought: What if suddenly I could not remember where I was born or where I had lived as a child? What if I had forgotten my father's name, or my mother's, or my brother's, or my grandparents' and aunts' and uncles' and cousins' names? Would I be the same person? No: Because I wouldn't have a story to tell. For story is part of my soul, and I would have lost part of my soul.
Although "most of us know the parents or grandparents we come from, we go back much further," says V. S. Naipaul in A Way in the World. "We go all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings." Of this essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote in the sixteenth century: "What a wonderful thing it is that that drop of seed from which we are produced bears in itself the impressions, not only of the bodily shape, but of the thoughts and inclinations of our fathers!"
Yet that secure sense of personal history is not a given in all families. Indeed, some children grow up unaware of the long invisible thread binding them to others, while many others grow up merely unappreciative. A few, sadly, have good reason to reject their family ties altogether, leaving an inner hole that is difficult tofill up, even over a lifetime.
How blessed I feel, then, when I say that my own parents and grandparents are so deeply a part of me that I can't even conceive of life without them. I grew up in a good home, in an atmosphere of confidence and harmony, surrounded by people who had a sound sense of what is worthwhile in life, who didn't just talk about the moral and religious life, but practiced it.
Within me to this day are resonances of the loving, vibrant, affirming, reassuring voices of my parents two of the most moral people I have ever known. My brother and I carried from our childhood the certainty that there was nothing that they would deny us if we needed it. Somehow we knew that in their spirits was always the desire for our own well-being, and when we had success, they cheered inside themselves without even having to summon it up or create it.
I am convinced that without their gentle but consistent prodding and entire devotion neither my brother nor I would be where we are today in our respective careers and personal lives. Our parents and grandparents have been at the heart of everything we have done. They taught us to believe in ourselves. And they made it possible for us to pass their legacy of love along to our own families, with the hope that our children's children will feel the touch of ancestors unseen but ever present in spirit.
* * *
For us, as I'm sure for many others, possessions help keep a person's memory alive: This rocker was grandmother's, that cornet was left by grandfather. Each year as Christmas fast approaches, however, a certain photograph haunts me and captures my imagination.
The house at 93 Walnut Hill was a large one even by present standards; to a child it seemed less like a house than a city. My Christmas Eve memories are the product of steep stairs, lamp-lit rooms, upstairs whispers, closets explored in solitude, distant noises of creaking floors and gurgling pipes, and the sounds of a gentle wind under the tiles.
My maternal grandfather, Frank Bachelder, always dressed in much the same way: a dark blue cardigan, unbuttoned; trousers of thickish gray flannel; an open-necked white shirt; black walking shoes; a visor pulled down over his forehead. I rarely saw him without a cigar, and I grew to love the aroma. My grandmother, Gertrude, a stout confident woman approaching eighty in my remembered image, wore a patterned blue dress, gray sweater, and low-heeled shoes buckled across the top. My grandparents were true New Englanders, sentimental and traditional, wise and utterly honest, easily moved both to irony and to tenderness. She was hard of hearing; he was not.
That Christmas Eve we sat round the kitchen table. Out came the cards and cribbage board, black from years of use. Smudge Face, the ginger-colored cat, sat on a high footstool and watched as if hoping for a wrong move.
"Your deal, Grandpa!" I yelled.
"I'm not deaf!" he said, for perhaps the hundredth time in my life. Often, of course, he just let it ride, depending on how he felt.
"Right, now my play!" I yelled again.
This time he let it ride: Grandma was handing him a glass of milk and two molasses cookies (called "Monkey cookies") at that moment. Later, each of us Mom and Dad, my brother Glenn and I, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Katie was allowed to open just one gift.
The bedroom I slept in once belonged to my Aunt Myrtle. It was high ceilinged and very dark; bookshelves stuffed full lined the walls, and a slightly dusty smell was reminiscent of a secondhand bookshop. Pictures of my own making or cut from brightly-colored Christmas catalogs were taped to the walls.
I loved the view from the thinly frosted window. Through the spindly trees I could see the snow on the crest of the hill, sparkling like diamonds; then below it the winding road lined with houses at some points and deserted at others; and here and there a dark and deep patch of woodland, and beyond, the railroad tracks. The sound of a train whistle at night still conjures up those evenings from my boyhood.
How many Christmas Eves had I spent in that bed, intent on my dreamgame, which absorbed the entire landscape: the quiet house, the trees, the snow, the tracks in the distance? I firmly believed that I heard reindeer hooves on the roof. Was that a rustle? A footstep? A whisper?
It is clear that at this time the all-important formative years of six, seven, and eight I was living (as C. S. Lewis, my favorite author at the time, wrote) "almost entirely in my imagination; or at least ... the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else." Yet, as did Lewis, I still experience times when there suddenly arise in me "without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries," the memories of those Christmas Eves on Walnut Hill.
And so perhaps you can understand why I had to return, and why it was hard to leave. So many years had passed since our family left Amherst for Indiana and, later, for California. Yet during that summer weekend I found with little trouble my childhood home and schools, and, in nearby Orange, the houses and graves of my grandparents and my Aunt Myrtle, who had recently passed away and was buried next to her parents in the cemetery behind the local library. To me these people to whom I am genetically and spiritually tied will always be a symbol for everything that is good: hardworking, honest, strong willed, uncomplaining, with a faith that was the essential underpinning of their lives.
I also located the church of my childhood: the flagstone gray First Congregational Church on Main Street in Amherst, just east of the town square and across the street from the house where poet Emily Dickinson once lived.
A side door was ajar, so I slipped in, found my way easily to the sanctuary, which was empty, and sat down in the sixth-row aisle seat where as a child I had many times sat next to my mother and revisited that comfortable sensation I'd always had when I was next to her singing hymns, that feeling of being safe.
The silence of the church was itself a sound: low and steady, sheltering and restorative, and I realized in an instant that I had never stopped missing this dimly remembered sanctuary.
Graham Greene wrote that "there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." For me, I believe that occurred in 1952, when I was five years old and listening to the voice of the pastor as he baptized my brother, Glenn. My mother had written his words down for me, as she did every Sunday, to help me recreate at home what I had experienced in church. As the pastor spoke his blessing, I first felt the tug on my spirit that would eventually grow into my own fully realized faith.
"There's an inner child of the past in all of us," he had said. "And baptism stirs that child, and we remember that we are children of God and belong to Him, and we reach out for the Heavenly Father."
That scene typifies many of the things I have always loved about Massachusetts: its charm, its peacefulness, the way its people embody a certain tenderness for life, but most of all its rich history, its deep culture backed up by so many years of personal memories. We cannot go home again. But we can return in our hearts, and we can take from home the best of what we have learned and experienced, and build from there.
The last evening of my visit to Amherst I spent at a memorable and at moments tearful dinner with Stashya, the widow of one of my uncles. As I drove away the next day I became aware of a powerful longing to turn back the calendar to the 1950s and return with my family to the house on Walnut Hill. It still stands, much as I remembered it. I could see a light shining from behind the front room curtain, but no one was at home.
In my mind and heart, however, someone will always be "at home" there, for that sense of security and acceptance can withstand time far better than can clapboards or bricks and mortar. If we build the emotional foundation of our families on solid ground, then the relationships that frame and finish the structure cannot help but be solid too. The materials are love and nurturance, time and attention, patience and guidance. It is difficult work that sometimes saps our resources and tests our strength, but the end result is well worth it: a family in the true sense of the word, a psychic "place" where a child can safely grow.
* * *
While I can always remember "home" with this sense of warmth and welcome, some of my friends have no desire to recall their own childhoods; indeed, if they could, they would erase them from their memories altogether. Such an impulse may avoid pain, but only temporarily.
"From the point of view of the soul, it's not good to let go of the past," Thomas Moore reminds us in Soul Mates. "Better to revisit its painful and pleasurable moments, thus keeping ourselves intact, full, and nourished within." However much pain it causes, we must put together the severed pieces or we will forever be hampered in our efforts to get on with the business of living.
Just as I continue to carry the strength imparted to me by a solid family upbringing, those less fortunate individuals carry with them the jumble of emotions that accompany neglected or abused childhoods. And just as I am sustained by the love my parents gave me, they are plagued by the absence of parental love when they needed it most. They may be able to suppress the memories but more insidious is the sense of loss.
I am reminded of Sara (as I'll call her here). We were friends in elementary school, then parted, only to meet again by chance at Purdue University, where we were both English majors. As I became reacquainted with Sara I grew to appreciate her as a confident, bold young woman who seemed to have an unusually clear view of her future. Snapshots from that time reveal her with the sort of gentle, intelligent face we expect to see in wise, kind teachers, reflecting an unselfishness and patient endurance. She had that wonderful combination of quiet charm and good manners that made you feel she really wanted to talk to you. Indeed, there was something about her pale blue eyes, as they looked out from behind her gold, wire-rimmed glasses, that suggested she took in everything she saw.
Beneath that warm exterior, however, I sensed a secret sorrow: the ghosts of regrets, perhaps, or the shadows of some deep longing. Erich Fromm has written wisely that our most basic fear is the threat of being separated from other humans. The first separation from caregivers in infancy, for example, creates fear and sadness in babies and is at the very root of all later anxiety and sorrow in adulthood. I'm certain that this is in part what the English poet William Wordsworth had in mind when he wrote of "the still, sad music of humanity." I now know that it is this feeling of detachment from others that I sensed in Sara.
My intuition was confirmed several years later when she told me how she had awakened one morning to hear herself chanting over and over: "I pray, Lord, that you will watch us. I pray, Lord, that you will protect us." She had been saying the words in a dream in which she and an unidentified child were visiting a prison, apparently waiting, leaning against the wall of a small room. A man, whose face she could not see, entered rather ominously garbed in a dark, ankle-length wool coat. She understood him to be the warden. Suddenly she realized there was a lockdown in the prison because inmates had revolted, and she and the child were trapped in the room with other strangers. Vainly seeking a way out, she went to a window through which she glimpsed a grassy field where a few people stood. When she turned back to the cell itself, everyone seemed to have escaped except the child and herself.
Then the scene switched. Now she was seated at a table, eating; it was the dining room in her childhood home, but the uncomfortable, trapped, and threatened feeling she'd experienced in the prison cell was the same. Other people including a dark-clad figure to her left and a woman to her right were waiting for her to do or say something, as if she would be in trouble if she did not speak. Sara felt compelled to ask the woman two questions: "Which is the nurturer? Which is the traitor here?" She spoke softly, almost without moving her lips, so that no one else would hear. She had a powerful feeling that she should be very careful; it was dangerous to say or ask too much. Then she started chanting the words that woke her, "I pray, Lord, that you will watch us. I pray, Lord, that you will protect us."
A year of therapy helped her to identify the figure in the wool coat in the prison cell and the same figure at the dinner table: It was her father. The woman at the table was her mother: passive, submissive. And the feelings of danger, entrapment, and betrayal began to make sense to Sara.
"There is a part of me that has always felt very, very sad," she confided to me one day after class, "and now I know why. It is a core of sadness that I experience when I realize what is missing from my childhood. All my life I've been yearning for what is out of reach. Here I am, twenty-one years old, and yet there is a part of me that is not whole, that cries out just like a child for the Mommy and Daddy I didn't ever have."
The young child, vulnerable as it is, needs nurturance and protection and looks to the only people it can its parents to supply them. When parents are unavailable or unresponsive, the results can be devastating.
"One day through my bedroom window I saw a father holding his daughter's hand," Sara said, "and my heart sank." She had never known the warmth and protection such a simple gesture suggests.
Rather than disappearing as the child matures, this universal and natural need for affinity and affection remains, and can become a festering wound if, as in Sara's case, it is not attended to. In other words, we never outgrow that childhood need if it is unmet in the first place, and the emptiness in our soul allows many destructive emotions to rush in. Sara's dream helped her see that she was full of anger, and when she felt anger, she felt fear, and she wanted to withdraw or escape from that emotional prison. She said she sometimes imagined ending her life, to join the people on the green field beyond the window of her cell. Through that fantasy she could confront the menace and resentment she felt, express her helplessness, and "get even" with her father and avenge his brutal treatment.
"I remember the times he would come into my bedroom, pull off his belt, slam the windows closed so the neighbors wouldn't hear, and begin to hit me across my legs. It was physical pain, but more than that. He was hitting me in anger and frustration. What had I done? Horsed around when I was supposed to be in bed? Talked through the wall with my sister when we should have been asleep? Not done a chore? And Mom was in the background, watching, saying only, 'Allan! That's enough!' And he would yell, 'Jen, stay out of this!'
"Then he would leave, slamming the door, and I'd be left to sob, then rage into my pillow. I wanted to get back at him, but I couldn't."
A child whose need for tenderness is met by cruelty feels not just afraid and confused, but powerless. Parents in healthy families encourage their children to express their emotions in positive ways; they talk with their kids rather than merely talking to them, and, more important still, they listen. But those lines of communication so vital to a child's emotional development are cut off in toxic family environments like Sara's, and the child is left with a tidal wave of emotions he or she has no means to cope with.
One time, Sara said, she scratched her initials into the bedroom windowsill with a nail file, a kind of silent but lasting rebellion. Often when her father fell ill or injured himself, a part of her smiled while another part felt guilty over the smile. Many times after being punished she would have to sit at the dining room table for dinner, with his terrifying presence not far away.
"I couldn't look my father in the eyes," she said. "I just looked down at my plate, in tears and shame, and tried to eat. And there were few if any words from him: no reassurance, no cuddling, no healing process. Nothing. And just thinking of that now makes me very sad and I wish I could climb into his lap and cry for an hour without fear of belittlement or rejection."
Those feelings of entrapment, betrayal, and frustration followed her until her dream made her begin to confront them.
After graduation in 1969, Sara and I went our separate ways. I moved to California and we corresponded occasionally. In 1979, a year before she died of pneumonia, Sara wrote, "I realized I had suffered a loss but had never grieved that loss. I had to experience the anger, the sadness, the disappointment first, then I could forgive, then I could let go of my anger. 'If I want certainty in my path,' said St. John of the Cross, 'I must walk in darkness.' And so I have.
"God calls us to forgive, meaning to cancel the debt we are owed. I came to a point when I realized I didn't have to collect the debt, that God will take care of it. I know I can no longer collect the debt I was owed, so I just wrote it off. I never really reconciled with my father, but that's okay I understand, and I appreciate, and I've forgiven."
* * *
Sara's example, as much as anyone's, has helped me to understand how vital a healthy family environment is to every child, and how pervasive and lasting the effects of bad parenting can be. It has also taught me to value what my own family gave me all the more. Loving and caring parents speed us on our life's journey; they show us what we can and should be.
For all of us are here, in this world, because and only because of our parents, and their parents, and their parents, as far back as we can trace, and even further. We did nothing to earn our life; we did nothing to deserve it. It is a gift through the marvelous miracle of our parents and of God.
And that has led me to understand more deeply why I am so ambitious, so driven. And why so much of what I have done in my life has been in the hope of evoking my parents' pride. It is to be worthy. It is to honor them.
* * *
Two individuals, two families, two journeys: so different in outcome, in experience. Indeed, loving and giving are what connect us to other human beings, and connection is a need that resides at our deepest core. And the strength and quality of that connection reverberates for better or worse through our own lives and the ties we forge.
Excerpted from Faith in the Family by DALE SALWAK. Copyright © 2001 by Dale Salwak. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.