You’ve probably heard the saying, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” One of my secrets is that my family was often homeless. It happened for a short time when I was eight years old. Then we lived in a cabin with limited utilities for most of seven years. During that time, we took our weekly showers at the state park. In my mid and late teens, we moved from campsite to campsite to motel and to cabin without any power or running water.
As I am writing my memoir of those years, I am struck by our resilience and our ability to ignore the fact we were homeless. We were more depressed over not going to school, so despite all the chaos, we never called ourselves homeless. My mom used to say she couldn’t wait until we lived like normal people. Not having real beds or a place to call home was hard, but the one thing my siblings and I longed for most was friends. We didn’t go to school so we only had each other and we missed the socialization and community of going to school.
My youngest siblings had at best a third grade education, but they only attended one year of formal school for first grade. At least I got to the sixth grade before my parents pulled us out of school. We are all good readers because of my second grade teacher who let me read all the way to the fifth grade readers. I learned so much from her that I eagerly taught each of my siblings to read before they even got to school because I was good at it and I loved reading so much.
The state of Washington had a law for kids between eight and fifteen to be in school. We were told my parents could be arrested and put in jail and we might get farmed out to foster homes if we were seen. We were told to hide below the car windows if we drove somewhere during school hours. We had to hide in the woods or the shed when someone came to our cabin or house. I lived in fear and dread of being caught.
All of this hiding and the loss of community and relationships further isolated our family. No one knew if we were belted, no one checked to make sure we had an education, no one realized we were homeless. The worst part about all of this is we could not speak about these things.
Meanwhile we were told Jesus could come at any time so we needed to perfect our characters to be accepted by God or we would burn in the lake of fire. The cognitive dissonance I felt, still brings a tear to my eyes today. In my heart, I just knew I was lost because I was a fake and a liar telling people I was home-schooled, lying to bill collectors and hiding in a shed.
Whenever the world events inspired my dad to warn us about being ready for Jesus to come, I laid awake at night begging Jesus to forgive me, but doubted that he would. As I grew up and left home, these doubts still terrorized my soul. My dad referred to grace as cheap grace, so I had no faith in the grace that calmed others. I still feared for my life and carried the dread of Jesus coming far into my adulthood.
One day a film adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew began to change my picture of God. Every time I watched Bruce Marchiano’s portrayal of Jesus, I wept for the dawning realization that Jesus must surely love and forgive me. This drove me to share as much as I could of God’s love with others. It gave me great comfort to know that Jesus was homeless too. It felt like Jesus wrapped his arms around me and said, “I understand how that felt to not know where to lay your head or whether you would be safe.”
But the journey was not over yet, I had more to learn about God and little by little God brought seminars and people into my life to show me deeper truths about him and I began to trust God more with each paradigm shift. Sadly, it began to separate me from my parents. I eventually had to fire their version of Jesus to embrace the Jesus I was getting to know.
As the years go by, I’m learning more about the true Jesus and I am no longer afraid of God. The saddest thing for me is that out of my own family–my only peer group growing up, I have almost nothing in common when it comes to talking about God. Some reject God altogether, others follow and agree with whoever they are with at the time and seem not to do their own thinking. My parents, as far as representing God to us have epically failed because they refuse to acknowledge the wrongs of the past which would allow us all to move forward in truth and love.
Even in adulthood, we were discouraged from talking about being homeless, beaten with the belt and our loss of education. One of my siblings tried to speak of it in our twenties, but became the scapegoat where they had once been the golden child. Then, as I woke up in my mid-forties and realized the inability to speak of our secrets and pain had damaged me, I spoke up and became the scapegoat.
I am writing memoir today because this is history–my history. I ignored the first twenty years of my life for the second twenty and woke up in great despair for swallowing all those secrets. The only way to find relief and live a wholehearted life is to tell the stories that make up my life.
“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them.
During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything?
The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important.
It says: ‘I was here. I may be sold tomorrow.
But you know I was here.”
Those who are perhaps not awake might say, “Forget the past and move onto the future.” But for me, the future is clearer when I can acknowledge my past. Maybe that’s because I am still the little girl beaten, the homeless big sister trying to comfort my mom and encouraged my siblings while we sleep on hard floors and eat m and ms for breakfast. I am still the teenage girl who weeps for friends and thrills to read novels which were taken away from her. I am still the young woman inside who determined never to let anyone control my life again. Anne Lamott is right when she says, “I am all the ages I have ever been.”
We can tell people what they want to hear, but when we are alone with the mirror, we have no choice but to tell ourselves the truth or die. I choose truth and life. It gives me great joy to know that Jesus is the Truth and he always supports those who tell the truth and he stands on the side of the truth.
Did you grow up with secrets?
Is it hard to tell the truth?
Will your family members openly discuss the past today?