STORY

Our Stories Are Light And We Need to Tell Them

It doesn’t matter as much what Maria’s family thinks, but the fact that despite what her uncle did to her when she was twelve, she found the guts to tell her story.

It wasn’t easy. She told me how her father accused her of being a liar and her mother called her trouble-maker. Her abuser flat out denied what he had done. Her sisters accused her of thinking she was special. “Why didn’t he do anything to us, why are you so special?”

Photo by Toni Oprea on Unsplash

Maria stuck with her story even though no one else wanted to listen. She felt very lonely as she grew older and distanced herself from her family as soon as she became an adult. The pain of not being supported and believed affected her marriage and even her ability to find a career. When she became pregnant, she even questioned her ability to love her child. This is what sometimes happens when someone grows up in a family lacking respect and honesty.

When her baby girl was three months old, Maria had an epiphany. She looked at her daughter sleeping peacefully, trusting her as the mother to care for her. Maria realized she was the one to lead the way and protect her daughter. That’s when she decided to tell her story to someone who might listen. She stared with her husband. Then she found a counselor. Next, she found a woman’s support group where she told her story.

That day, the first time Maria told her story to a group of women, was the day she knew she was finally healing. Other women came up to her and told her how brave she was and how they had suffered a similar situation. One woman even thanked her for telling her story so she could find the courage to tell hers. This is what happens when we tell our stories, we illuminate the path for someone else.

The narcissist will say you’re telling your story to get attention or revenge. This is because that’s how an abuser thinks. Most empaths don’t think like the narcissist and that’s how they were able to use us in the first place—because we care about people and have real hearts that can be broken.

I’ve even had to deal with this in my own life. Long before my memoir was published, family members accused me of lying and embellishing. One said all I wanted was attention. Someone else said, “She just wants to be popular.” The truth is I have always had a few true friends. I don’t need attention and I have no dreams of being popular. What I wanted was to stop hiding the truth of my life. I wanted to live free and stop feeling ashamed for my father’s choices.

So if you are like Maria and me, and someone made fun of you for telling the truth of what happened to you, take a moment and think about those crazy accusations. Listen hard! Each of these accusations is a form of gaslighting. They say it to make you feel you are somehow flawed for wanting to be whole. For wanting to share what happened to you. They want you to think you don’t deserve to use your voice.

When my book was finally published, the first thing I thought was no one can take away my voice now!

We tell our stories to let our voices be heard.

We tell our stories to refute the lies the narcissist used to silence us.

We tell our stories because we had good times as well as bad times and they all formed the person we are today.

We tell our stories to light the way for others who are struggling to give them hope.

We tell our stories because every time we tell it, every time we share a book, every time we sign our names, we are reminded that this is our story and we are free!

If you’re working on your memoir, keep in mind, that writing and publishing will change your life—it might not make you rich, it might never be read by the narcissist, it might never make you famous—but you don’t need all these things to be free. Freedom comes with living authentically.

This change I’m talking about is an internal change. Since I published my book Chasing Eden a Memoir, I not only sleep better but I lost 45 lbs! This was due to an internal change—I stopped eating my pain. I finally spoke my truth and became free! And it’s just as true for you!

Peace and freedom!

PS I’ve been signing copies of my book all week for readers. If you’d like an autographed copy, I still have a few left at $20 per book or 2 books for $30 with free shipping. This is a good time to order if you want it before Christmas. Just send me a message and we can work it out.

And you can always order online here.

NARCISSIST

How to Survive Mourning the Living Dead

What would you do if I invited you to a funeral without a casket? You’d probably assume the dead had been cremated, right? But what if I told you they were still alive? You might even think of calling the police because you’re afraid I’m going to “off” somebody Godfather style. Of course, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. The point I’m making is that thousands of people mourn their family members every week — yet the people they mourn are still alive. These living dead are narcissistic people, who for one reason or another have made it nearly impossible to have a relationship with them.

living dead, narcissist, narcissism, narcissistic abuse, mourning, littleredsurvivor.com
Photo by Peyman Naderi on Unsplash

Whether you’re dealing with a narcissist shunning you, or choose to go no contact, chances are you’re mourning someone who is still alive. They might be an engulfing narcissist who tells you what to wear and eat and who to date. Such controllers force survivors to sing the words to that old Billy Joel song, “This is my life, leave me alone,” to reinforce their boundaries. Or they could be a covert narcissist who won’t make public waves, but will wait until your back is turned to twist the knife in — unless you meet their expectations. Either way, how much fun are these people to be around?

People who have never had to deal with narcissistic abusers have no clue what the rest of us have survived. We mourn what is missing because everyone wants to have parents who love them unconditionally. Everyone wants their siblings to be an understanding circle of love and affection. When our friends seem to have wonderful family relationships, it’s painful to realize we don’t have a family to rely on.

Sometimes we blame ourselves, but the truth is narcissistic people aren’t emotionally honest with us. There is a reason for the gap between us. Often it’s due to the narcissist saying “my way or the highway” or always having to be right. Some people care more about being in control than being in a relationship.

The narcissist treats us as if we are dead because they don’t want to be responsible for their behavior. Meanwhile, we who have empathy, mourn the loss of the relationship. We both might mourn, but the narcissist mourns the things we are no longer doing stuff for them, while we mourn the fantasy parent or sibling we wish we had.

Wishing for a narcissist to change will only drag out the pain. Waiting for the narcissist’s approval is asking for more abuse. We can dance through hoops like a Cirque du Soleil artist and bring gifts like the Magi until one day we discover we’ve wasted our lives by waiting for a flicker of approval from a narcissist who refuses to grant it.

Of course, we don’t wear black all the time, but on every birthday and holiday, a shadow passes over our hearts to remind us somewhere in the world, there is a shell of a human being we once loved. We mourn them because our minds continue to play tricks on us. What if I called? What if I showed up? What if they actually care? What if they want to apologize? All of these what-ifs get our hopes up, and sometimes, we listen and follow these cues — only to discover nothing has changed. We’ve groveled for nothing, then we are left wondering why am I so broken? Why did I let myself get tricked again? Why do I feel so unworthy of love whenever I encounter the narcissist?

It’s not worth it. If someone wants to be your friend, they’ll call you or text you or show up at your door because friendship is a two-way street. Of course, an engulfing narc will also do these things but in a pushy and controlling manner. Most of us can tell the difference between the narcissist abuser and a true friend who show up–not to push, but to be available. To say, “I care, happy birthday, I hope you are well, I thought of you, do you wanna go out for coffee?”

For those who have been ignored by a narcissist, it’s hard to know where you stand. When you go months without hearing from them on special days, you can be sure you are standing on the outside of the family circle looking in. Such discoveries can be as painful for an empath as if the person we once loved has really died — only worse. Worse because mourning the living dead gives us no closure. We don’t want them to die because that means we’ll lose the hope of ever reconciling with them again.

At the same time, we mourn them every holiday and every time we think about them and realize they are no longer a part of our life. They are alive, yet dead. Dead to honesty. Dead to empathy. Dead to any ability to have an equal relationship. Dead and beyond caring about how their victims feel. Mourning leaves us with no choice, but to become even stronger survivors — survivors who look death in the face every time we think of our family members. Survivors who are in a constant state of mourning the living dead.

Some liken the narcissist to a vampire. They’ll suck you dry until you feel like an empty shell. That’s because narcissism is contagious. Flying monkeys and the golden child are susceptible to becoming narcissists themselves. Victims who only partially wake up will continue to be victims over and over again. For some, the charade of pretending to be family brings more than one kind of death — the death of the living narc and the death of the living victim. “If you can’t lick ’em, join them” is a dangerous game. We might grieve the living dead so much that we forget to live.

A sibling once told me, “We will never be able to live until our parents are dead.” I cried because I didn’t want my parents to die, but I wanted to live. Recently my friend’s narcissistic mother died after years of estrangement. She said, “I grieved her loss years ago, today I grieve what could have been.” A mutual friend replied, “This profound statement beautifully articulates what we all are going through or will go through when our absent parents pass.”

It wasn’t long after “the great divorce” in my family. I hadn’t opened windows or showered or done the dishes or even looked at Facebook. I was too depressed. As an Enneagram Two, I felt I had poured myself out like a drink offering for my family — except I wasn’t Jesus, and I had no clue how to rise again.

I got a phone call, then a knock at my door. I ignored both. It was a sweet church lady named Mary Lou. She was a little older than my parents. She was always so upbeat; I wondered what she could want, but my house was a mess. The dishes were stacked up around the sink. The sofa had clothes on it that needed to be folded. The blinds were still shut because I was too tired to open them. Mary Lou left a voice message. “Cherie, I know you’re in there, and I am going to stay out here and even sleep in my car if I have to until you open that door.”

I couldn’t leave a nearly eighty-year-old woman outside in the cold for hours. I felt like crap, my house was a mess, but what could I do? I went to the door and cracked it open just enough to let in the light. Mary Lou came swooshing in, smelling like lilacs and dressed like a hyacinth. She opened my windows bringing blinding rays of sunshine and sparkles into the room. I still had bedhead, and the house smelled like the cat box needed changing, but Mary Lou’s hug and empathetic understanding brought the resurrection to my living death. She was the hands and feet of Jesus to me. She allowed me to mourn, but most importantly, she taught me to rise.

Mary Lou had spent her life with a man who for decades had not helped her with the housework or gone to church with her or even given her sex or affection. Her husband had lived many years without getting out of his bed while his muscles wasted away from a debilitating disease. Mary Lou, in essence, had mourned the living every day for forty years. She never gave up because she knew the value of the man she married. She loved him and he loved her. This wasn’t what they had planned, but it was all they had —  plus love. Her example of unconditional love is the opposite of narcissism. For decades Mary Lou continued to care for someone who could never meet some of her needs, but he was there for her in heart and spirit. Mary Lou and her husband knew love. They knew how to suck the marrow out of life and a marriage that many would have abandoned.

What Mary Lou taught me that day is if you want to live, you need to gravitate toward the light. Jesus once told someone to “let the dead bury the dead.” It’s okay to mourn our losses, but keep moving toward the light. Where there is light and love, there is life.

STORY

Why I Had to Write My Memoir — Even if it Makes Some People Mad

A memoir is conceived when the truth can no longer be ignored. The erasure of truth started decades ago in my childhood — one little lie at a time. I’ve always been aware of these lies, but the price of admittance to the family circle was to keep my mouth shut and not rock the boat.

As I grew older, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable with the stories I’d been repeating to keep my parents happy. Some of these lies seemed practical like lying to the bill collectors. One of the biggest lies was telling people that I was being homeschooled when my parents never bought one book.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

It started when I was thirteen and it was against the law for kids my age to not be in school. I was told God would rather have me tell this “white” lie than have my parents put in jail for not giving me an education. Church people thought it was wonderful that my parents were homeschooling me — and the reason they believed this was because I was becoming a good liar. Lying to church people was one thing, but I was also taught to lie to my grandparents. Whenever telling the truth was inconvenient, I was coached to tell a lie in a convincing way by my parents.

As you can imagine these lies felt suffocating at first — but after lying for several years it got easier. If it was an issue I didn’t care much about I said whatever I was told to say and forgot about it. But when it came to things that mattered to my teenaged soul, I grew more and more frustrated.

I hated pretending I had books to study from when they never bought one textbook. I resented lying to my grandparents that I didn’t have church clothes because my parents didn’t want me to go to church with them. And worst of all, it felt creepy to tell people I was fine while I was dying inside for lack of friends and an education.

You would think I would have stopped lying as soon as I left home. I wanted to tell my truth to the world, but in order to keep my welcome at the family circle, I had to continue lying about some things as if I was still living at home. Keeping up appearances is a priority in narcissistic families and this often means lots of unethical behavior.

When we left home and reached our twenties, my siblings and I rarely spoke about the abuses we suffered in our childhood — even when my parents weren’t in the room. This was in part because we were still young and trying to understand what happened in our family — why were we so different from other families? The second reason is that our parents triangulated with us against each other. This left us not trusting each other when we could have been allies and shown more support for each other.

As in most narcissistic families with several children, our roles changed according to our parents’ needs. When we were kids, my brother was the golden child (the one who could do nothing wrong in the eyes of the parents) but when he became an adult and decided he was an atheist, he became the scapegoat. He didn’t deserve either of these roles. Another sister was often the scapegoat as a child — this was terribly unfair to her, but back then I had no understanding to help my siblings — I couldn’t even help myself.

All of these strained family dynamics had me repeating my parents’ lies for far into my adulthood. The worst part was I rarely thought of some statements as lies even as I continued to repeat them. I didn’t actively make up new lies — I just didn’t replace the ones I’d been told to use as a teenager.

My husband once said he married me because I was the scariest, honest person he’d ever met. But my parents’ lies were so embedded into my psyche that I continued to repeat them without thinking. My desire to be authentic had always been there, but the older I got, the more I woke up to the discrepancies between the stories I’d been told to tell and the truth as I saw it.

Then one day I met a new friend who asked where I went to high school and I repeated the same lie my parents had given me thirty years before. It was the age-old lie that I’d been homeschooled. I can’t begin to tell you how many people seemed to get warm fuzzies whenever I told that lie. Some of them even said, “Well, if our kids turn out like you, then we must be doing the right thing.” To justify telling this lie, I’d added one line to fill out the truth. I’d end by saying, “But my parents forgot to buy the books.” People usually laughed when I said it, but I wasn’t joking.

That’s how the conversation went that day and when I got home I felt this sickening feeling like I was fake. It was like I’d awakened out of deep sleep from some dreaded nightmare. I’d recently learned about natural laws like karma or sowing and reaping as the Bible calls it and I didn’t want to reap lies anymore.

At home, I stared at myself in the mirror, then yelled. “Why can’t you just be yourself?” The answer was that I would lose my parents’ approval if I began to tell the truth. At the same time, I’d begin to realize that lying hurts the liar — sometimes more than those who are being lied to.

The next day, when another friend invited me out to lunch, I decided to tell her the unvarnished truth — how I wasn’t homeschooled — but I’d been taught to tell people this lie. It felt good to be straight up honest about my family for once in my life.

She told me about The Glass Castle a memoir written by Jeannette Walls. When I read the book I was blown away by Walls’ ability to write the truth in love. That’s when I decided to tell my own story.

After this encounter, I think I went through a phase of telling too many people way too much. Nobody got mad at me, but I think a few wondered about me. I had hidden so much for so long that whenever I met someone new, I gave them more of an information dump than they needed to know. It took me some time to temper telling the necessary truth without verbally swamping people with my stories. Every time I told my stories, I was reminding myself that I was free to tell the truth and I didn’t have to hide anymore. In time, I realized not everyone I meet needs to hear my story.

It took seven years to write my memoir. I’m not embarrassed about how long it took. Jeannette Walls said it took her five years to write hers. Dealing with complex family histories requires time to decipher the patterns and understand what happened.

At the same time, there’s rarely a good excuse for lying. Adam and Eve were created to be naked and unashamed in the Garden. It was only after they stopped being honest with themselves and God that they became ashamed and hid. Lies bring shame. Telling the truth heals us and restores our freedom.

My book is finally finished! Most people who have read it feel it is a beautiful story and it has even been compared to Educated by Tara Westover. The best part of this for me is that I can truly say my life is like an open book. I don’t need to apologize or explain my idiosyncrasies any more — and I don’t need to tell all my stories in person. Sometimes I just tell people to read the book.

Peace and freedom!

Cherilyn

P.S. If you haven’t read Chasing Eden yet, you can get your copy by clicking on this picture

STORY

Candy Communion

Hi Friends,
 
Here is an excerpt from my newly released Memoir Chasing Eden:

Momma hated going to the laundromat, but I loved it. Dirty clothes gave us an excuse to get out of the motel room and talk by ourselves for a couple of hours with no Daddy to interrupt, no younger kids to discipline, and no household tasks to distract her. Helping Momma with the laundry gave me a weekly opportunity to have her undivided attention and talk about my teenage dreams while she seemed willing to listen.

Laundromats were also a great place to go people-watching. I liked to analyze everything from their style of clothing to the kind of cars people drove. It might’ve been the stories I told myself, but it seemed like most people were living more exciting lives than I was. Momma wasn’t beyond people watching herself, but whenever my staring distracted me from doing my chores, she’d accuse me of “spacing out,” and threaten to bring my sister next time.

One spring day in 1982 began like every other laundry day. Daddy drove us through the Seattle fog and parked our yellow Ford van in front of the glass doors so we could haul our nine garbage bags of dirty laundry inside. He gave Momma a twenty-dollar bill for the quarter machine before buying a newspaper and going back to the car to read it.

Momma went to make quarters, while I rushed to spread the laundry across an entire row of washers to claim our territory. I dreaded opening the bags, knowing at least one of them would include the rotten stench of dirty socks–so I held my breath and started filling washers as fast as I could. When I paused to catch my breath, my eyes traveled around the room, checking out the stories of the day.

A bearded man read a hunting magazine while his wife pushed a cart full of clothes to the dryers. A little girl in pigtails was throwing a tantrum and begging her mother for candy. Then I saw her–a teenage girl about my age, stacking t-shirts into a laundry basket. I didn’t mean to stare, but I couldn’t help it. It’d been months since I’d spoken to a girl my age.

She wore a short, feathered haircut, designer jeans, and a red peasant blouse. Hanging from her neck swung a gold heart on a chain. Next to her purse sat a small transistor radio. I could faintly hear the voice of Juice Newton singing, “Angel of the Morning.” On top of her jeans sat an oval key-chain. I squinted to read the words, “Green River Community College.” It wasn’t her clothes or tousled hairstyle, and it wasn’t the radio—although I could only dream of rocking out freely. The truth was this girl had everything I’d ever wanted and probably a boyfriend too, but the thing I envied the most was her key-chain. It symbolized freedom to drive, go to school, and make friends.

It wasn’t her fault she was living a charmed life, and I didn’t wish to steal anything from her. I would’ve flashed her a smile if she’d looked my way, but she never even glanced toward my ragged skirt and faded blouse. It was apparent she had friends to see and places to go. She set her radio on the top of her clean laundry and strategically balanced the basket on her hip. As she passed through the glass doors, I went to the window to see what kind of car she drove. She set the basket down next to a gold Trans Am and unlocked the driver’s door.

A thud distracted me when a small, brown bird crashed into the glass window on the other side and fell to the sidewalk below. I decided to step outside and see if I could help it, but I looked back when I heard the girl shut her door and start the engine. She adjusted the rearview mirror and paused for a second. I wondered whether she noticed me staring. Without signaling, she pulled out into the traffic, while I watched her golden form fade into the Seattle mist.

The sparrow looked so out of place lying on the concrete. I hoped she wasn’t dead. When I touched her, she opened her eyes, fluttered her wings, and flew straight up, disappearing into the clouds. I went back inside to the flickering fluorescent light, hoping Momma hadn’t noticed I was gone. But it was too late. I found her shaking her head.

“Cherie, where have you been? Maybe I should bring Mara next time.”

Momma spoke in staccato-like tones as though we were dealing with an emergency. She gave me a handful of quarters. I went back to loading the machines until I felt a sharp stab at my waist. I reached inside my skirt to re-hook the safety pin holding my underwear together. Then ignoring the musty odor of mildewed towels, I became a machine myself—one washer filled, soap dispensed, quarters fed, and on to the next–until all nine began to vibrate and hum while they shook the dirt out of our clothes.

After I slid the quarters into the last machine, my feet seemed glued to the avocado-colored carpet. For a moment, I thought it was sticky. I could see where someone had spilled their soda, but as I forced myself to move past the stain, I realized it was something more. I’d been vaguely aware that I’d been old enough to leave home since my last birthday–but I couldn’t figure out how to separate from my family. For over a year, my parents had been telling me they’d help me as soon as we got settled, but we’d been living in a motel for months.

The girl my age had slapped my face with the brutal truth that it was too late to catch up to my peers. As my brain strained to accept this reality, I sat down in an orange melamine chair and forced myself to breathe. I imagined her dancing and laughing with her friends, while I was stuck in another universe, sorting my siblings’ dirty laundry. I wondered how I could get from my planet to hers.

When the washers quit spinning, Momma washed her hands and began to load the wet clothes into the dryers. My job was to drop quarters into each machine and turn the dial. Our task complete, we counted the extra coins to see how much we had left for the candy machine.
Every Friday afternoon, Momma and I savored chocolate while we meditated on the colorful clothes swirling in the dryers like a row of kaleidoscopes. In this noisy place, without upsetting Daddy, we discussed our dream to live in a house like normal people. This ritual was our liturgy, the candy our sacrament–and our hopes ascended like prayers, fulfilling this weekly communion between mother and daughter.

As I munched on the candy, I made small talk with Momma. I told her about the bird so she wouldn’t wonder what I was doing outside the building. I never mentioned the girl until I realized it was time to unload the dryers. I felt a rising panic when I realized we might not talk alone for another week. I couched my words carefully knowing any discussion about my lack of education or loneliness got on her nerves.

“I wish I had a friend my age.” Even before the words left my mouth, I realized I’d made a mistake, and I knew what she’d say. Momma had been lonely with only one sister, so she’d planned a family of four kids to give me more siblings. I rephrased my words, “I’m grateful for my siblings, but I want to go to school and have friends like the kids on TV. I feel so far behind all the people my age that I’m afraid I’ll never catch up.” I tried to keep my throat from cracking to sound as calm as possible, but speaking the truth out loud caused my voice to shake against my will.

Momma rolled her eyes. “I hope you’re not complaining about not going to school again. We’ve discussed this before. For one thing, TV isn’t real life. And for another, I went to an academy, and believe me; school is not all it’s cracked up to be. If watching TV gives you a bad attitude, maybe you should stop watching it.”

I started to say it wasn’t the TV, but before I could finish, Momma gathered up the detergent and bleach and headed for the door. She waved for Daddy to come and help us carry out the clean clothes. Once we’d loaded the laundry into the back seat, I slumped against a clean garbage bag full of warm towels and inhaled the scent of hot plastic.

Daddy, sensing I was upset about something, looked at me through the rearview mirror.
“What’s going on?”

I was afraid I’d blurt out what was on my mind, so I turned toward the window to avoid eye contact. “Nothing. I’m just depressed about not going to school.”

Daddy drove the few blocks to the motel in silence, then blew through his lips as he turned onto the asphalt parking lot. “Cherie, when are you going to stop living in the past? We can’t do anything about last year. Give me a break. I’m trying to get us back to Montana as soon as the next car sells.”

He’d been saying this for months. I knew complaining about it wouldn’t solve my problem. As soon as the car stopped, I grabbed a bag of laundry and hauled it across the threshold of the motel door, past the tiny kitchenette, and into the crowded bedroom I shared with my three younger siblings. Sorting through the bag, I pulled out my blouses and tossed them into the worn cardboard box I used as a dresser.

The younger kids were watching the Brady Bunch–the one where Marcia broke her nose on a football. With the bluish light from the TV flashing on the wall, I wadded up a faded gold bedspread and placed two flat, lumpy pillows in front of it on the bed. Crossing my legs, I positioned myself against the headboard, with the bedding supporting my back. My parents had tried everything to stop me from rocking, but this was one of those days I couldn’t help myself. The girl at the laundromat had stirred my deepest dreams, and I was trying to remember what made me forget them.

Shutting my eyes to escape the flicker of the TV, the faint smell of dead mouse, and the sounds of Marcia and Greg yelling at each other, I started to rock back and forth. But just as I entered an altered, dream-like state and began to escape my body, Abby’s voice sucked me back into the room.

“Cherie, can you play Monopoly with me?”

I opened my eyes to see my twelve-year-old sister standing in front of me with a fist full of colored bills. I usually loved playing with her, but at the moment, I was sick of watching fake families on TV and playing games with counterfeit money. Abby still had the luxury of childhood for a few more years and had no clue how far we’d drifted off course.

I shook my head, “No, I’m tired.” The tone of my voice warned her to leave me alone.

For years, faces and places had spun around me like a revolving door, while my own life seemed to be standing still. I was caught up in some nebulous land between childhood and adulthood where birthdays stacked up but the years never seemed to make a difference or bring any new accomplishments. My peers were celebrating life with their friends, while my father’s choices had sequestered me inside a motel prison, with little to do but laundry and watching reruns on TV.

Daddy often said, “Don’t worry about an education–Jesus will come before you grow up.” But either he or Jesus had screwed up because time was running out and I was stuck in limbo–somewhere between reality and the end of the world. Was life meant to be this way, or was our family an exception because Daddy couldn’t figure out where to settle and make a living? And if Daddy couldn’t make his dreams come true, how could I?

Any discussion about my dreams and fears exasperated my parents. Daddy got angry when I remembered the things he hoped I’d forget, and Momma got frustrated when I spoke the truth about things she chose to ignore. I needed to understand how I had ended up in this predicament, but since they wouldn’t talk about it, I had no choice but to escape my body through rocking. So I closed my eyes, resumed my rhythm, and conjured up my elephant memory. I soon forgot I was sitting on a sagging mattress in a dark motel room and my mind fled the stale air, while I traveled back in time to find the truth.

Like what you just read?

This is the first chapter of my memoir Chasing Eden. It’s an indie book published by myself and it’s one month old this week. I call it “the little book that could” because it stayed #1 on the Amazon Teen and Young Adult Bestseller for New Releases for 3-1/2 weeks. And even though it’s dropped down, it has at least fifty reviews–many with five stars. I get emails every day from people telling me what a joy it’s been for them to read it.

Here’s what people are saying about Chasing Eden A Memoir:

“Spellbinding and inspiring. I couldn’t put it down.”-Kathleen Clem, MD, FACEP

“Clough’s story has the tension and energy to motivate staying up late to repeatedly promise oneself, “I will read just one more chapter.” -Cynthia Rempel Zirkwitz

“As someone who is obsessed with memoir, I can say this one stands with the best. Readers will see similarities to the narcissistic fathers in both Educated and The Glass Castle but this in no way makes Cherilyn’s story predictable. I was glued to my seat, fingernails dug in, going from tears of frustration and gasps of shock to being so angry that I wanted to throw my iPad across the room. However, and delightfully so, there were also enough laughs and beautiful moments to get me through the saga of neglect and abuse.” –Jeannie Robinson

About finding your voice and speaking your truth, despite the potentially eternal consequences of doing so. –Sharon Esteves

“This is a book about the power of hope. While trapped in its pages, I laughed, cried, and dreamt too. I loved its genuine plot, rich descriptions, and lovable characters…Chasing Eden will captivate you and inspire you all the way through! -Karina Bresla

“It is a story that is both heartbreaking and inspiring; told in such a kind and gracious manner that it stays with you long after the final page. Highly recommended!”Barbara Womack

Clough unrolls a tapestry of survival, not a rose-tinted triumph, and it is finally this fidelity to what we all experience in the mixed bag of our own family dynamics that lends Clough’s account its impact. For readers who’ve appreciated the introspection of Educated, Clough adds another voice for those listening and trying to understand the way in which extremist beliefs are lived out in family life. –Shelley Weaver

Chasing Eden, a sensitively written memoir set in the cage of religious fundamentalism, captures the confusing nuances of childhood abuse. You can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste one little girl’s gradual awakening, but Clough creates space for her family members’ complexities and motivations as well. In the pages of this story, readers will discover insights for their own awakenings and be led a step further into the light of healing.  -Natalie Hoffman, Author of Is It Just Me?

*****

Many common threads run through our childhood stories–especially those of us raised by controlling parents, and yet, each story, yours and mine are unique–so unique they are different from the stories of our siblings. And each one is just as important as the other.

I’ve set the ebook so anyone can afford it because I believe stories teach us about hope and healing. If you’re writing a memoir, I wish you blessings as you write. Your story matters just as much as mine. We need all of our messy stories to heal the world.

Peace and freedom!

Cherilyn

SCAPEGOAT

Narcissism and the Sound of Silence

Silence is an old friend to me.

Sometimes silence is enough to rip your hair out. Photo by Charlie Howell on Unsplash

I first met silence when I was one week old. I don’t remember it of course, but my parents told this story to me so many times, I’ve memorized it. As a sanguine baby, I was alone in my crib, crying for someone to hang out with me, but my parents decided I’d recently had a bottle, had my diaper changed and was without a fever, so they decided to spank me to teach me not to be spoiled.

A few years ago, a young family in our church invited me over to their house when their newborn baby girl was only one week old. They asked if I would like to hold her. As I admired her delicate fingers, elfin ears, and tiny mouth, I couldn’t imagine spanking her for crying. My parents thought they’d met my needs, but they’d ignored my emotional needs to meet their own for the sound of silence.

What kind of person hits a baby? Photo by Irina Murza on Unsplash

And it wasn’t the last time. The belting, the yelling, and psychological gaslighting have always been offset by the sound of silence throughout my childhood. When I disobeyed, when beatings were not enough, the silence took over to set my place in this relationship. Silence happened to the extent I wasn’t allowed to go to high school. When I cried for lack of socialization and education, I was yelled at, belted then shunned with the sound of silence.

Throughout all of this, I was continually dancing on hot coals to meet my parents’ needs, trying to make them happy, hoping they would be proud of me so that we could have a relationship based on mutual love and respect. No matter what they did to me, I apologized and complied to their wishes because my own will was beaten out of me. Even as an adult, I didn’t speak of this childhood abuse to anyone — not even my husband. When my brother spoke out in our early twenties, he was shunned as the family scapegoat. I am ashamed to say; I too took up the oath of silence.

Silence leads to loneliness. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Once while I lived in Louisiana, far from my native Pacific Northwest. I had sacrificed and loaned my father money to fix a car. When one of my sisters called to tell me, he had used the money for something else; I called to confront him. He refused to discuss it with me and asked to speak to my husband instead. I left the speakerphone on so I could hear what he was saying. He told my husband I was a liar and that I made up stuff about my childhood and they’d been trying to figure out a way to let him know this in the seven years since he’d married me. Then he said, “She’ll wonder what we’re talking about, so let’s tell her it’s about the game.”

I interrupted him to say, “You don’t have to do that, Daddy, you’re on the speakerphone.” He hung up and there it was again, the sound of silence. It was from his side, not mine. I wailed at the top of my lungs in devastation to realize my Daddy, the one I loved, would betray me in such a manner. And no, I hadn’t told my husband about all the belting and moving and not going to high school. I’d been taught by my parents to keep the family secrets, and so I had lived in silence — sometimes to protect them and sometimes to protect my mind because it was just too painful to remember. And then there was the shame of having a father who didn’t provide or allow me to go to school who beat me with a belt and who told me to be perfect before Jesus came or I would die in a lake of fire. All this was too much, and so I had submitted to the silence.

When my father lied and hung up that day, I realized my silence was making me complicit in my parents’ abuse and lies. That unless I told my story, the truth would be lost forever. I started by telling my husband all the things I was told never to repeat. Silence had almost stolen my voice.

Silence had almost stolen my voice. Photo by Zack Minor on Unsplash

A year later, I moved closer to my family. One day my father yelled at me and raised his hand to me in my own home. My husband jumped up to protect me, but he didn’t need to. I was finally coming into my voice and finding my boundaries, and I shouted, “Don’t you ever raise your hand or voice to me again and get the fuck out of my house.”

My father went to the car while my mother yelled, “Jesus is coming!”

I replied, “Who cares if Jesus is coming if we can’t treat each other with respect.”

My father honked from the driveway, and I remembered we were having a birthday party for my brother that evening, so I ran out and knelt in the gravel, begging my father to stay for my brother’s birthday. He ignored me as if he was deaf. He stared straight out the windshield until my mom got in the car and he drove away. This time the silence lasted for four months.

I called him from a pay phone. Photo by Bart Anestin on Unsplash

I broke the silence. We were driving one Saturday afternoon, and I saw something my father would like, and so I stopped at a phone booth — you know one of those where you can talk for four minutes if you put in four quarters. My dad answered and said he was thinking about calling me. He apologized for every time he ever raised his voice or hit me. I accepted that apology and to this day don’t hold any of this — even the silence against him. I love my dad no matter what, but it’s still complicated.

It’s complicated because when one of my siblings went through a divorce, the entire family wrote to the judge to say my former in-law was a lousy parent. I disagreed and refused to vote the family party line. I chose to write a letter affirming this parent instead. Once again, my telling the truth brought the sound of silence.

For ten years now, I’ve been met with silence over and over from my aging parents, from my siblings, and even from some of the next generation — kids who have never received anything but love and presents from me. They have no real clue what happened. Despite my attempts to reach out or send birthday gifts, the sound of silence prevails. Despite all the love I’ve poured into my family for decades, most of my family members would talk about me before they speak to me. Silence is the curse of narcissism after triangulation, gossip and lies destroy relationships.

Despite the silent treatment, I kept offering olive branches. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Some people tell me that they don’t love their narc parents, but only feel sorry for them. Well, I love my parents. I accept they aren’t perfect — who is? But I must live authentically. Silence is only one of the curses of having a narcissistic parent. They like to conquer by dividing — always pitting their children against each other to manipulate them into saying and doing what they want. Narcissistic parents can’t allow their children to connect or even find their voices because it threatens their ego. And so the silence grows, causing whoever is the designated scapegoat to walk alone. I am taking my turn, but I am not the only one who has been scapegoated. And thus the sound of silence is a curse that keeps perpetuating itself.

The Silence of Narcissism separates survivors from each other. Photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

Silence, like a cancer, grows and not even death can change this silence. It’s the silence of narcissism. I’ve always been struggling to keep my boundaries and have a relationship with my parents. Tired of groveling, I finally went to counseling. Once I discovered the traits of narcissism, I began to see the big picture, and I realized my parents hadn’t changed much since I was born. Unless I meet my parents’ needs, unless I agree with them, unless I silence my voice and ignore my story, then I will be met by the sound of silence from the people who brought me into this world. But their silence can no longer force my silence. I have found my voice, and I refuse to be silent ever again.

My voice will not be silenced ever again. Photo by João Silas on Unsplash
STORY

How My Childhood Fear of Fire Empowered Me to Write My Memoir

One of the first stories my mom ever told me was of her waking up to discover that our clothes hanging over the woodstove had caught fire, blocking our exit from the Alaska cabin we lived in when I was two. If she hadn’t awakened, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Thus began my early childhood fear of fire. A year later, when my mom burned some cardboard angels in the backyard trash barrel, my fears increased. If angels could burn, so could I. My little heart raced in terror whenever I saw a flame. With such a powerful foe as fire, I wondered how could I ever stay safe?

My night terrors included dreams of fire and when the gas furnace glowed with its blue flame in the next house we lived in, I woke my parents every time the furnace flickered on.

As I grew older and we moved from place to place, I began to see fire as my friend. When I lived without electricity, fire kept me warm. When I was hungry, fire cooked my food. When it was dark, fire gave me light. When I was afraid of wild animals, fire provided me with security.

Despite my initial dread of flames, I learned to build a hot fire with lots of kindling and tell stories around it as my father and grandmother did. Fire, which was once the reason for my nightmares, became a soothing friend which warmed me, nourished me, entertained me and protected me.

It’s often this way when we experience fear. At first, fear often keeps us from exploring our options. But once we’ve been thrown into the fire, we learn to live with the consequences of our choices and sometimes the choices of others. We might be afraid we can’t take the heat, but the secret to sanity is finding a way to survive the fire and use it as a resource without allowing it to consume us.

I’ve been told writing a childhood memoir is a lot like playing with fire. They warned my parents probably won’t enjoy reading it and my siblings will have seen things differently due to age and personality differences. I believe this is true, but the question is who am I writing this memoir for? I was warned that I might get burned. In my case, dealing with narcissistic family members had burned me anyway, and most of my family hasn’t had a relationship with me for nearly ten years.

And when it came down to who I am writing for, I realized it is first for my inner child — the little girl who endured the abuse and moving and lack of friends and education. I wrote to let her know everything will be all right in the end. Then I realized I am not the only one who has had a childhood of moving, neglect, and abuse. There are thousands of people who have suffered even more than I have. They need to know they can be okay too.

So I took a chance and decided to walk across hot coals to take the journey of remembering my own life events. It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I’ve been able to enter the flames of the past and endure the burns of family members’ accusations for writing my story and now I’ve been able to rise up out of the ashes. You’ve heard of a victory march, well writing memoir is a victory write!

A beta reader who read my book just sent me this note:

“I just finished your book. It was so hard to stop reading it! I love love love your story! Your guts! Your superpowers! Your heart! Your desire to speak the truth! To get freedom! You are an inspiration! I laughed and cried and dreamt with you! I hadn’t read such a captivating story for very long!”

Then she went on to say,

“Your family can’t take this away from you, no one can. It’s your truth and yours alone to tell!”

This is the truth for me and for you too — if you are thinking of writing your own story. The hardest thing I ever did was face my fears and realize these painful events could also bring healing to me and others who have lived through an abusive childhood. And it is just as true for you!

I’m so glad I faced the fire and wrote about it!

Chasing Eden A Memoir will be out on Amazon next month!

You can also check it out on Goodreads.

I’m so excited to share it with you!

STORY

What if Your Family Doesn’t Want You to Tell Your Story?

You survived a hard childhood or a crazy marriage or got kidnapped by Oompa Loompas, and now you want to write a memoir about it. Some of your biggest obstacles are family members. Aunt Tilly accuses you of not honoring your parents and your kid sister is calling you a liar. What to do?

Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash
Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Let’s start with honor. The fifth commandment says to “honor your father and mother so your days will be long upon the land the Lord gives you.” Even non-religious people use the word honor. The big buzz phrase in the blockbuster movie Gladiator was, “Strength and honor.” I think it’s fair to say if you’re thinking of writing a memoir, you’ll definitely need strength and honor to finish the task.

You’ll need clarity and emotional strength so you can focus on why you want to tell this story. No one else gets to call this shot. Only you can decide the why of what you write. Your task is to remain curious and honest to facilitate your understanding of events.

Once you begin writing your story, you can tell it with honor because honor shares the same root word with honesty and there can be no honor without honesty. Allow me to repeat this very vital truth — there can be NO honor without honesty. It doesn’t matter if your father hid under the porch drunk as a skunk and made you lie to the bill collectors. To tell your story, you will have to utilize honesty to give honor to it, and that honesty includes what it was like for you as a child lying to the authorities and giving at least some honor to your father’s story which most likely involves his struggle with alcohol.

Relatives often accuse writers of trying to hurt everyone by “making up stories to get even.” It’s a lame argument. First of all, you didn’t make up the events of your childhood — your parents’ choices and other factors did. Plus, if you really wanted to make up a story, it would be soooo much easier to write a novel. You’d have a lot more fun with no one complaining about your manuscript. The third reason this accusation is bogus is it would be insane to write a book just to get even–despite what the spiteful sisters say. If you were a vindictive person, you might try suing people instead; it involves a lot less personal bleeding on the page, and you can hide behind a lawyer.

People write a memoir because they want to understand what happened in their own lives or they’ve got secrets they need to get off their chest. It takes strength to break open the secret vault of stories that nobody wants to talk about. If your life intersects with these stories, they are public domain as long as you are sharing from your perspective.

Perspective is an import factor in honor. If four people standing on different corners witness the same traffic accident, they will each give a unique report because they saw it through their lens. It’s the same with family stories. Perspectives can be due to birth order, age, time and place.

While each person in the family has the rights to their version of the story, some people wish to shut others up, and that’s not fair. As I told my sister, you have the right to tell your story, and I won’t put you down for it. Will this give her permission to write about what an awful monster I am? Even if she decides to lie? Or if she becomes mentally unglued in the telling and veers from the path of honesty and honor? She’s still free to tell her side of the story. It will be up to the readers to decide if she is engaging with honesty. Credibility is a factor for all of us who tell our stories.

There’s also a certain dishonor you’ll find when you’ve grown up in a narcissistic family. This is where the narcissist recruits flying monkeys and scapegoats you for telling the truth. It’s a game you can never win because you will never get the approval of the narcissist or the flying monkeys if they want to cover up their behavior. Being scapegoated is like a permanent shunning, so if that happens then, it just makes you all the more free to tell your messy, crazy family stories. Just keep in mind narcissistic people are the most litigious people in the world so do yourself a favor and use pseudonyms and make it clear you are only sharing your experience and not claiming to assign motives to someone else’s story.

When it comes to honoring, it’s import to tell the best version of the truth we can find. It’s honorable to acknowledge your alcoholic father was also a loving dad when he was sober who taught you many good things. This is also why it’s honorable to allow your little sister who can’t remember this incident to tell her side of the story about her wonderful sober father because he began to go to AA before she was old enough to know about the secret benders he went on while she was still in diapers.

So let’s get this straight. When you tell your story, you aren’t telling your sister’s story or your father’s story or the gospel truth in any way. As a matter of fact, even the gospels don’t agree on everything; this has been stated as proof of their credibility because four witnesses saw four versions of what happened.

When your relatives fight over the family stories, it simply means their arguing over which version they believe is the best and since everyone has their own script, they might call yours a lie. Your job, should you accept it, is to tell your own story and engage it with curiosity, strength, and honor and ignore the critics. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It’s not the critics who count.”

FLYING MONKEYS

A Flying Monkey by Any Other Name is Still a Frickin’ Flying Monkey

When one of my sisters informed me she’s not a “winged monkey,” I laughed. I told her I could tell she’d been talking about me because the only other person who’s ever used that term is my other sister. 

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The term flying monkey comes from the movie The Wizard of Oz. The reason my sisters were confused is that we didn’t get to watch The Wizard of Oz while we were kids because our mother didn’t allow us to watch movies with witches. As a matter of fact, I just watched it for the first time last month. I also came to the conclusion there are much worse things than the make-believe witches and flying monkeys in Oz. The true tragedies are narcissistic people and the people who act as their flying monkeys in real life. Such characters don’t wear costumes, so it’s easy to get caught off guard.

Every once in awhile someone new to these terms says, “Why do we have to put people in boxes?” Well, if you don’t want to be labeled as a jerk, then don’t act like a jerk, but once someone acts like a jerk, does it really matter what box we put them in? I mean a jerk by any other name, is still a jerk, right? It’s the same thing with a flying monkey.

There’s a good reason we use these labels. The only way you can get from victim to survivor to thriver is to recognize abusive behavior for what it is.

To come to terms with evil in one’s parentage
is perhaps the most difficult
and painful
psychological task
a human being can be called on to face.

Most fail and so remain its victims.
Those who fully succeed in developing
the necessary searing vision 
are those who are able to name it.
-M. Scott Peck

We don’t label the people, we label the behavior. We use these terms because they help survivors recognize what’s happening. The first step toward healing from narcissistic abuse is to recognize it. Unfortunately, it took years for many of us to figure out what was going on. We were told we were the problem and once we understand the gaslighting label, we begin to see how gaslighting reprograms our minds to think we are the problem.

If you are the scapegoat, chances are someone taught you that you were responsible for the family problems, but that’s a lie. For one thing, there is never just one person at fault for everyone’s issues. This is why scapegoating is a group delusion. It allows family members to blame one person while not taking responsibility for their own role.

Do you like being labeled as a scapegoat? Probably not, but it gives you a reference to help you understand what’s happening. It is not you, it’s the narcissist and his/her flying monkeys who have all gathered together to triangulate and talk about you and then decided to blame you so they can distract themselves from the real problem–which is often their lack of empathy or desire to control others.

Flying monkeys aren’t always evil, some are naive and might have good intentions, but they don’t have a clue about narcissism and since they aren’t the target, they wonder what all the fuss is about. The reason we refer to some people as flying monkeys isn’t to label the innocent or even the manipulative people we love. Remember we use the label not for the person–but for the behavior.

These labels help us see these damaging behaviors for what they are and allow us to stop expecting different behavior from someone who has harmed us in the past and will probably harm us again if given the chance.

A mouse was warned about a cat who’d been tied up in his own lair by some other mice, but when he went to visit the cat, he found a very friendly cat. The mouse figured someone had mistaken this cat’s character for someone else’s and the cat convinced him to untie him. “But not yet,’ said the mouse, I need to go back and talk to the committee. I’ll be back on Thursday.” When the mouse turned to leave the cat ate his tail and said, “See you, Thursday!”  The truth is, a cat’s lair is never going to be a safe place for a mouse.  And it is always the cat’s nature to eat mice.

A narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist. There is no other name for someone who lacks empathy for how they treat other people. If a narcissistic parent wants to stop being called narcissistic, they can apologize sincerely and start listening to their adult children without judging or controlling them. I’m willing to bet a truly narcissistic person won’t even consider doing these things. They are right in their opinion and everyone else is wrong. You can’t reason with unreasonable people. Once a mind is made up all you can do is damage control. You can say thus far and no more and walk away.

These labels are not perfect, but they are tools to help us figure out what’s going on. People who talk about us behind our backs and carry messages from the narcissist are simply acting like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. They might mean well, but in any event, they are acting as a flying monkey. And if they continue to talk about us and tear us down behind our backs they might even be worse than a flying monkey–they might even be a narcissist.

The good news is that not everyone is a narcissist or flying monkey. The world is full of empathetic and kind-hearted people who don’t assume the worst of us and would rather talk to our face than behind our backs. It might take a little time, but you’ll eventually find your tribe and the place where you belong. And this will happen all the sooner if you keep your head on and remember there are evil people who will wish you harm so the best thing you can do is walk away from them.

STORY

Cookie Angel

When my teacher asked what I could bring for the Christmas party,
I remembered Momma and Daddy arguing over grocery money,
so I whispered that we didn’t have much money for food.

Image by Cherilyn Clough

He patted my shoulder, winked at me and said, “Then you just bring ketchup.” He probably assumed we had ketchup in our refrigerator and was doing me a favor by telling me to bring something we already had. He didn’t know the three foods Momma never brought into our house were meat, eggs, and ketchup.

When Momma went to the store later that week, I went along and checked out the price of ketchup. I was relieved to discover it cost 19 cents. I waited until Momma got to the pickle aisle to say, “I’m supposed to bring ketchup to the school Christmas party.”

Momma’s nose wrinkled up like she smelled something sour. I got the feeling she couldn’t be more disgusted if I were responsible for bringing a roasted pig.

“Ketchup is made from rotten tomatoes and vinegar. Why would you sign up for something so unhealthy?”

“I don’t know. Everyone has to bring something.”

“Well, that’s ridiculous. You’re not taking ketchup. We don’t even eat ketchup. If the school wants ketchup, let someone else bring it.”

“But Momma, I have to bring something.”

“Well, it’s not going to be ketchup. Maybe you should just skip the party. It’s not an actual school day anyway.”

“But I have to go to the party! All my friends will be there!”

I tried to hold back the tears because I knew Momma didn’t like public scenes, but my eyes watered anyway.

Momma grabbed my arm and spoke sternly, “Look, if you can’t be mature about this maybe you need to wait in the car with Daddy.”

When I got back to the car, Daddy listened to my side of the story and said, “We’ll discuss when Momma gets back.” Then he went back to reading his newspaper.

And that’s how my entire family sat in the dark parking lot of the grocery store debating whether we should use our last dollar to buy ketchup. If this had happened in Sequim, I wouldn’t have cared, but I finally had friends, and I was determined to go to the party. I made my case by describing the humiliation of going to the party empty-handed. It was bad enough to tell the teacher we didn’t have much food, but if the other kids saw me coming to the party with nothing, then everyone would know I was poor.

Momma had only one dollar and fifteen cents left in her purse. If I bought the ketchup, she’d be down to less than a dollar. Daddy was more sympathetic than Momma, and after some negotiation, they agreed I could go in the store and buy the ketchup. It was a hollow victory because I felt terrible for robbing Momma of her last grocery dollar. At the same time, I had to attend the party, or never be seen at school again.

My hand shook as I handed the dollar bill to the cashier. It was a relief to hide the bottle of ketchup inside a brown paper bag, but even then, I was afraid every person I passed on the way to the car, could see how selfish I was for buying it.

As I lay on my bunk that night, I remembered how Momma once bought an entire box of Peppermint Patties for me to hand out on my birthday. A case of candy cost a lot more than a bottle of ketchup, so why was Momma so resentful about me spending nineteen cents to attend a party? I felt like I was worth less than a bottle of ketchup. Had she stopped loving me?

When Mara turned out the light, I smothered my face in my pillow so she couldn’t hear me cry and asked God why he sent me to a poor family. As I lay there crying, our cat, Cubby came to me and gently put her paw on my face as if she was trying to comfort me. Grandma told me how Jesus loves us through our kitties. It felt like a sign. I reached out and cradled her soft body in my arms. She touched her nose to mine and soothed me with her purr until I fell asleep.

The next morning, I took the bottle of ketchup to school, placed it on the table and never saw it again. I was looking around for my friends when something else on the table caught my eye. In the center of the table, arranged on a fancy platter, was an entire choir of cookie angels. Their golden forms were exquisitely decorated with jewel-toned royal icing, and their colored robes glowed like lights on a Christmas tree. They reminded me of a picture from a children’s fantasy book.

Momma had trained me to recognize foods containing eggs at every potluck or party. I knew most cookies–unless we made them, had eggs in them. I was pretty sure these cookies had both eggs and butter—two taboos, but I was mesmerized by their beauty. I couldn’t stop staring at one purple robed angel. I wondered what it would be like to taste her dainty foot. I must’ve licked my lips because a kind-faced older woman came up to me and said, “Go ahead and taste one–I made them for a girl just like you.”

I looked behind me to see if she was speaking to someone else, but no one was there. Then I quickly scanned the room to make sure Mara wasn’t watching before reaching out my hand. The angel was too beautiful to eat, so I held her up to my nose and took a whiff of her vanilla scented yellow curls. The idea of eating such a lovely cookie felt like a crime. I was afraid to taste her because of the eggs, but I couldn’t take her home because I knew if Momma saw her, she would end up in the garbage.

The nice lady was staring me as if she was waiting for me to taste the angel. To be polite, I cautiously bit off one shoe. The texture was flaky and slightly salty, but my tongue danced at the mouth-watering sweetness. I decided to eat the other foot too. Before I knew it, I’d swallowed the angel up to her waist. I thought of the song, “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor,” only, in this case, I was doing the swallowing. Her purple robe felt soft to my lips and sweet on my tongue. I wondered if this was what manna tastes like–if so, I could eat it every day and never complain.

The cookie angel was more than a snack. She transformed me from feeling like a girl who was less than a bottle of ketchup, into someone worthy of eating the most beautiful angel I’d ever seen. When I went home, I kept my secret. Like Momma said, “What people don’t know, won’t hurt them.” I took stock in my eleven-year-old wisdom and decided one bottle of ketchup is worth the entrance to a party. One kind friend is worth more than a school of unfriendly faces. One warm cat is worth more than a thousand blankets, and one beautiful cookie is worth more than a whole table full of food that doesn’t shine.

PS If you would like to make your own cookies here is the recipe.

 

STORY

The Worst Thanksgiving Ever

If anyone ever tries to tell you Thanksgiving
is all about the food,

don’t you dare believe them.

roya-ann-miller-200123-unsplash
Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

It’s been twenty years this month, but I’ll never forget my worst Thanksgiving dinner ever and the lessons learned. After living in another state for several years, my husband and I had moved back to the Northwest and were excited to host Thanksgiving dinner for my family. We eagerly decorated our house with Christmas lights, planned the menu, made place cards and invited everyone. I was still young and naïve and dreamed of a perfect family dinner.

My parents raised us to be oscillating vegetarians; we were vegan for six months, then we went back to eating sour cream and ice cream, before switching back to vegan again. Even though my childhood diet changed, two things were consistent; my parents never had an egg in the house, and we always broke the vegan rule during the holidays because our favorite recipes all contained dairy.

While I was planning my family’s favorite dishes, I discovered two of my siblings wouldn’t make it. I’d remained a vegetarian, but two of my siblings had started their own traditions with turkey and decided not to join us that year. I understood their absence because in our family it’s essential not to break the rules. There was shame surrounding the eating of a turkey. My brother was the first to break with all our family traditions, and when certain family members ate dinner at his house one year, they complained about the smell of baking turkey making them sick. I think the holidays should be more about sharing time with family, than what we eat, but I didn’t make the rules in this family as I was about to be reminded.

So despite missing two of my siblings, it still looked like we were going to have a good ol’ vegetarian Thanksgiving. We were renting an old farmhouse with a leaky oven and no dishwasher, but my heart soared in anticipation of creating a delicious dinner for my parents and my remaining sister.

I got up at five in the morning on Wednesday to begin the long process of making seitan or gluten steaks. For those who’ve never made this fake meat substitute, let me just say it’s an arduous process. First, you make a thick dough out of gluten flour, then you slice it into strips and boil them. After they cool, you bread and fry the “steaks.” Then you sauté lots of onions and mushrooms and add with sour cream to make a thick gravy and bake all of it in the oven until it browns. No, it’s not that healthy, and it’s certainly not vegan or gluten-free, but this was my mom’s signature dish for holiday meals while I was growing up. I’m pretty skilled at making gluten, but the process takes hours–especially if you’re cooking for a crowd.

Next, I rolled out two crusts for the pumpkin pies and made the filling–just like Mom always did, using the recipe from Libby’s pumpkin label. Then I made ambrosia—a fruit salad with marshmallows, sour cream, pineapple bits, and maraschino cherries. To keep my husband happy, I made his favorite vegetarian stuffing, then I baked the sweet potatoes, cutting them up and spreading butter and brown sugar on them. The last thing I did was peel and cut up a large pot of potatoes. I covered them with water and struggled to find a place for them in the fridge. Finally, everything was prepped for the morning when I planned to make some homemade dinner rolls.

I was on my feet all day, first with cooking, then washing dishes for hours without a dishwasher. After mopping the floor and putting away all the dishes, I sat down to rest my painful feet and aching back and noticed it was eight o’clock at night. That’s when I picked up the phone to call my mom.

She told me she and my dad had been thinking about their diet and had decided to go vegan that year. I didn’t know what to say, what I wanted to say was, “After all these years of oscillating back and forth, can’t you just wait one more day?” It wasn’t like the concept of being a vegan was new to any of us. She went on to explain how she had “experimented” and she and my dad planned to eat her non-dairy gluten steaks. Exhausted from all my hard work, I felt like crying. I’d slaved away all day making food for her that she wasn’t going to eat. I felt like she’d kicked me in the stomach. It seemed she was more interested in controlling what we ate, than seeing each other. No matter how hard I worked, my offerings were never good enough.

After my mom hung up, I didn’t have any time to tell my husband what she said, because I got a call from my sister. She too had decided to go vegan, and she was bringing a vegan pumpkin pie and vegan potatoes. Her voice faded in and out, while I silently screamed in my psyche. Apparently, she and my mom had been in communication with each other long enough to coordinate their vegan food, but neither had the consideration to inform me as the hostess to tell me the menu had changed.

When I hung up, I burst into tears. All my intentions of having a wonderful dinner with my family had evaporated. All of my hard work was unappreciated by them. I knew it wasn’t my cooking, because no one in my family has ever called me a bad cook–besides I was using my mom’s recipes. And if they told me they wanted to go vegan, I could have found a way to adjust my cooking.

Love and empathy from my husband along with a good night’s rest revived me. I got up the next morning, determined to make something my family might enjoy and made homemade dinner rolls from scratch. If only I could go back in time to talk with my younger self, I’d ask her WHY her self-esteem was so caught up in cooking food to get her family’s approval.

The guests arrived while my dinner rolls were still baking. Without asking, someone moved my rolls to the top shelf to fit their casserole in the oven. When my rolls burned, I couldn’t hide my feelings; tears streamed down my face while I vulnerably told my family how much it hurt that no one informed me of their secret agenda. There was silence for about a minute; then my dad told me to stop being so sensitive before he asked someone to pass him the vegan casserole.

I have no idea how I got through that meal. After everyone left, my husband and I went for a walk. He was angry at my parents’ lack of respect. He said he was through having them over to our house and he wouldn’t put up with them again. I started to cry. I had no other parents to compare them with, and I wanted to have a relationship with them. He said they didn’t know what a relationship was. I cried harder, while he yelled louder. He said, “No one but your family can make you so miserable. Why do you even want to spend time with them?”

For years I’d been in the habit of defending my parents for everything from their beating me with a belt to not teaching me how to drive and not allowing me a high school education. I told him it was because I loved them and maybe he didn’t know what love was. He said, “Yeah? Well, I love you, but your family has put a noose around our necks. It’s like they’re pulling us into the undertow of the river.”

We both stared at the Columbia River flowing next to us. Then he said, “I won’t stand by and watch while they abuse you, so you’ll just have to choose between your family or me.”

I screamed back, “I can’t do that. How can you ask me to do that?”

To emphasize he was serious, he threw his keys into the river.

There was a moment of silence as we both realized we were locked out of our house and car. Too sad to talk on the way home, we trudged back to the house in silence, where we sat down on the front porch. We lived in a tiny town with no locksmith, so we decided to break down the back door to get inside the house–where, thank goodness, I had an extra set of keys.

We stared at our messy kitchen filled with extra food. Then we each cut a huge slice of pumpkin pie and loaded it up with vanilla bean ice cream and cool whip and sat down in peace with each other to eat it. It was the most decadent and delicious pie I’ve ever tasted because that was the day I chose my husband, my best friend, the one who loves me.

So if anyone ever tries to tell you Thanksgiving is all about the food, don’t you dare believe them; sure, some people will try to make it about the food, but it’s really about love, respect, and gratitude. Without these ingredients, you might as well be serving cardboard.