Who wears the pants?

For most of my adult life, I felt my best wearing jeans. Baggy jeans, fitted jeans, funky jeans. I loved them all. Once I entered the working world and jeans were only okay on Fridays, I still wore pants the majority of the time. From khakis to pants suits, I looked and felt great in pants.

Even when I dressed up, I often wore pants.
Even when I dressed up, I often wore pants.

But one summer, I went to Paris. In preparation, I bought lots of clothes I felt would be comfortable for traveling to and fro and walking the city streets. There wasn’t a dress in the bunch.

It was a family trip – the girl cousins on my dad’s side went. We each brought a large suitcase for the week-long affair. Well, six of us did. The seventh managed to pack everything for the trip in a single carry-on!

We eyed the bag suspiciously, wondering what she brought or what kind of magic rolling she did with her gear. But as the days wore on, it was apparent she brought plenty of clothes, including multiple changes per day.

What was her secret, we wondered.

Dresses!

I took note, and filed it away. Unbeknownst to anyone else, I returned to Georgia and promptly went shopping. Two months later when we gathered again – this time for a family reunion – I traveled a lot lighter. I had dresses! Cousin Big Sister had come to the same revelation, and she also dressed and packed accordingly. Cool, comfortable, flattering, dresses. I loved them, and I loved me in them. I felt free. Sexy.

How did I waste so much time in pants?

Me and one of my newly discovered cousins at the family reunion.
Me at the family reunion wearing a dress! (Hi cousin Shaunda!)

That was 2009. Fast forward to 2014. I’m experiencing my first real winter in years and I don’t have the dresses to match! As the temperatures began to drop, I returned to my trousers. I’ve been wearing jeans and pants the past few weeks and they feel foreign on my body.

Just yesterday I wore slacks – formerly my favorite pair – and the whole day I felt a little off.

I think it’s time to do a little shopping. My birthday is just around the corner…

On family narratives. #NaBloPoMo

The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

This line comes from a recent New York Times piece about the importance of understanding from whence you came.  The more you know about the characters, settings, and other elements that contribute to your life story, the better prepared you are to make intentional choices about your own life.

You can be a more sophisticated author of your life if you have a strong sense of your biography:

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

Both of my parents are deceased, but as child and young adult, I did have a lot of access to family history. We had dinner table conversations as I was growing up, and I spent quite a bit of time around relatives in various cities. I had a good sense of who we were as a family on both sides. But I didn’t find out everything. There are gaps in my knowledge, some of which may never be closed.

Gaps aside, Drs. Duke and Fivush speak about the importance of a more global understanding of the family’s development over time. Specifically they mention three types of narratives:

  • the ascending narrative – think rags to riches, or nothing to something;
  • the descending narrative – we had it all and lost it; and
  • the oscillating narrative – we’ve had good times and bad times, but here we are.

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

What about you? Do you know your family narrative? Do you have a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself?

Excerpts from The Stories That Bind Us.

Unasked. Unanswered. | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy

I met my aunt for dinner this evening and she surprised me with a gift: vintage photographs of my maternal grandparents and parents. I don’t have access to a scanner, or I’d show them to you.

One photo, black and white, features my grandparents, my tiny mom, and her tinier brother. We figured it was from 1944, as there was no newborn sister yet, and the siblings were born almost exactly a year apart. They sat on the grass in front of the house my grandparents built, looking as people often do in older photos – kinda smiling, kinda uncomfortable. It’s one of the few pictures I’ve ever seen of my grandfather. He passed away when I was very young. 

Another photo, color, was taken two decades or so later. Aunt, uncle, grandma, and grandpa are standing on the porch of the same house. Mom and dad are holding center court, sitting on the front steps. My mom was so skinny! She remained small most of her adult life. As an aside, her arms look very toned in this picture. My arms look like that right now…

I see old pictures like this and I am often filled with questions. When did my parents meet? Is it true they only dated 2 weeks before they decided to marry? Why did they elope and keep it a secret for a whole year? What was it like growing up with my grandparents? Five people with one bathroom? Really? Was grandpa a nice man?  What is my birth story? 

My parents are both deceased and there are countless questions I wish I had asked them. They weren’t the kind of people who would randomly sit you down and share a story without provocation. And for whatever reason, it never crossed my mind to ask them while I could.  I have relatives who are gold mines of family knowledge, and I plan to collect oral histories to preserve the family memory. But my parents’ own stories of their lives are forever gone with them.

I Am Love

The official record states May 25, 2003 as the date of death, but I know the truth. My mother took her last breath on May 24th after a heart attack earlier in the day. They thought she would make a full recovery. Doctors admitted her for a couple of days, you know, just for observation. I sat by her bedside that evening as she was supposedly sleeping, but even then I believed she had already slipped into a coma. I chanted nam-myoho-renge-kyo softly. A nurse overheard me and peeped in the room to ask what I was doing.

“I’ve heard of that,” she said. “Tell me more about it.” Just then, my mother sighed, her eyes opened, and the machine monitoring her vitals went haywire with falling digits. The nurse, unsurprisingly concerned about this turn of events, asked me out of the room and quickly urged others inside. I heard an unfamiliar voice announce code blue on the speaker. They were talking about my mother, I thought. I burst into tears. Afraid. Alone.

No one was in the hospital with me that day. My mother had insisted she was fine and didn’t want to needlessly stress anyone. I had told only a couple of friends but she was laughing and alert at the time. I’d told my dad, calming him down when he expressed too much concern. After all, everything was fine. She was admitted, but it was routine, I had told him.

A woman I’d never seen stopped me in the hall. Are you okay? She was worried I would hyperventilate because of the gasping. I mumbled something about my mother coding and miraculously found my way to a phone.

I called my father, barely able to get the words out. My mother stopped breathing, I managed to choke out. Twice, since he couldn’t understand me the first time. He assured me he was on the way. I sat in silence. Crying. Alone. I thought to myself over and over again, I’m all alone. I’m all alone. I’m all alone. I mourned for the husband who didn’t yet exist. For the best friend I couldn’t reach. For anyone who would be there with me so I wouldn’t be. So. Alone.  I remember vowing at the moment, I would not be alone any more. I didn’t have to be, I reasoned. There are people who love me. I just need to connect. To reach out.

That was seven years ago. I think about that moment today because I am anything but alone. I just left my family reunion…I was able to see branches of my family I never knew about and recognize my ancestors’ faces in cousins from all over the country. I paid for nothing – not registration, not traveling, not even coffee and treats while I was there. My family took care of me. All I had to do was reach out and go.

Leaving the closing dinner, I felt full. Loved. People told me they were proud of me and loved me; that my parents would be so proud of me. They encouraged me to continue my journey to finish my PhD and then do whatever I was called to do next. They hugged me tight and long, and kissed me over and over again, wishing me well. Some of them have known one or both of my parents for as long as 40, 50 and in some cases 60 years, and they loved me on their behalf.

I don’t know how or why my life was in such a place as to feel so removed from love, but it was an illusion. The love is always present. It always has been, and it always will be. I was never truly disconnected from spirit, from love. It was up to me to seek it. And in so doing, I found what was always there.