If It's Not One Thing… It's Your Mother
Lore, Libel & Lies began as a family memoir. When I thought I had it nearly completed I met with an editor who said it was too long, too convoluted and too hard to follow (though she did like my writing). She suggested I cut my mother’s family history (now Lore, Libel & Lies, under the link FAMILY LEGENDS on this site) along with three other family genealogies (which will eventually follow: Clemens, Hoy and Chamberlin lines). What remained was our immediate family memoir, a story starting in Sonora, California, where I was born, and ending in 1968 with the death of my mother. Someday I’ll publish it.
- This is the beginning:
If It’s Not One Thing… It’s Your Mother
A Family Memoir
A letter to my family in 2003 when I thought this book was completed:
To my brother and sisters:
My writing began with “Queen Bee”. When I shared it with each of you a connection took hold that we hadn’t had. Some time later I read it to our cousin Marceline. I’d met her at a Chatfield family reunion a few years back where she told me stories about Mom—how warm, friendly and funny Mother was. It startled me to hear anyone say anything good about Mom, to hear her spoken of in such a friendly fashion. Two of my sister’s anger with Mother had been so intractable, and my own experience of her difficult, that I thought Marceline was mixing her up with someone else in the family. Reconnecting with Marceline a year ago, I invited her and the five of you to my home. I wanted to know more about our mother. Thirty other relatives got wind of the get-together and showed up on my doorstep, arms loaded with food and soft drinks; it turned into a wonderful weeklong party. I pray the rest of the family didn’t take it personally that they weren’t invited—it was meant to be just a small get-together.
Brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, children and grandchildren sat in a double circle in my living room. I asked everyone to introduce themselves as to how they were related to Mom, along with a memory or story of her. That night I wrote the tales told and read them aloud in the morning. You all thought my writings funny, except you Gordon—you weren’t so sure—but you had a different family than we did. Those few tales triggered others, and then others, and when they’d all been written down I had a book. Chronicled throughout are diaries, letters, and clippings from your attics and closets. My own records, memories and assumptions are cluttered in between.
Relieved when I got the responses from my first draft, Carleen, Liz, and Claudia all said, “I laughed, then I cried, then I laughed some more.” I worried what you would say, Gordon. Up until the time you’d read it, you’d only heard what I’d read to you on the phone. I often felt your pursed lips and folded arms over the line. The day I got back your edited copy, I was afraid to unseal the manila envelope, circling it for an hour, tapping it with my fingers each time I walked by the kitchen table, waiting for courage to open it. I didn’t want to risk our relationship—you’re the only brother I have. I cried when your note said my writing impressed you and that you hadn’t known what had happened to all of us after you’d left home. You also didn’t ask me to cross out anything—except where I wrote that you hunted for frogs and you informed me that you NEVER hunted for frogs. I laughed when I saw you crossed out all the swear words. I thank you for your generosity in allowing me to print something so personal as your diary, and for your voluminous genealogy work. Those two pieces tied this story together. I love you, I love that you are my brother, and I appreciate your support in this writing of our stories.
Marian, you have been a huge support, reading drafts, running errands, running around, and running interference. You loved my writing and asked me if I was ever going to write fiction. My brother, your husband, responded with, “She is writing fiction.” What I love the most about you is how kind and patient you are. You bring a softening to my edges, reminding me by your example of another way to be. I love you dearly.
Carleen, I thank you for being our mother when Mom was not able, to not only take us in and provide food and shelter, but to give us love, laughter, attention, and family. Your home and heart were always open, and I might not be here today if it weren’t for you. Thank you. I am grateful for the woman you are, and I love you with all my being.
Liz, thank you for putting up with me on the phone—sometimes two and three times a day—patiently listening, correcting, and making me take out what I made up because I thought it sounded good. “Riddled with errors, as usual,” you’d quip. Your memory, knowledge, and stand for the truth make a difference. I am also grateful you are still speaking to me when I made the decision, against your request, to leave in what happened to you when you were young. I can only trust it was the right decision. I love you. Fiercely.
Claudia, your stories have been the best. You were the one with whom Mom had the closest connection and whom she talked to the most (actually, you were the only one with the fortitude to listen to her) so you have memories we don’t. I laugh so hard each time we talk and feel you touching me, feel your arm around me. I hope I’m not still “nothin’ but trouble” for you with what I’ve written. I love you (and your chocolate chip cookies).
What I thought was to be a few vignettes has transformed into this memoir, reaching back through our generations and growing into a body of work. I wrote it for you. I wrote it for our mother. I wrote it for our father. I wrote it for our ancestors, I wrote it for our grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. I wrote it for our children, and for their children. And I wrote it for me. It gave me a place to say what I wanted to say, it brought me clarity and tenderness in witnessing my childhood, and it brought me back to my self. It also united our family in more ways than just these pages. I’ve always said, “If it had been up to me, I’d have kept the family together.” Well, I’ve done that. And then some.
Catherine Frances “Cathy” Clemens Sevenau (Carl and Babe’s youngest child)
It is said we are formed by the age of three; fortunately I wasn’t raised by my mother until I was five, and then only until I was nine. I figure that’s why I’m not completely neurotic—or dead. I was twenty when she died; I was fifty-three when I began writing about her—the same age she was when she killed herself.
This book began as a few simple stories about my mother and the family. I wanted to know more, which led me to cousins and queries of our ancestry, introducing me to relatives about whom I knew little and predecessors about whom I knew nothing. My mission took on a life of it’s own and grew like Topsy, carting me along the way. Through unions and reunions, through phone calls and e-mails, and through the writing and reading and weaving of our stories, I’ve come to know us. I found my mother wasn’t as out there as I thought—I found her whole family was out there.
I look like my dad; I have his height and chest. My sisters look like Mother; they have her face and hair. But all four of us act just like Mom—likely to have whatever flies into our minds fall right out of our mouths. It causes trouble. A lot. There are resemblances throughout. My great-niece Sarah is a re-incarnation of my great-grandmother Emily. I look at my brother’s wedding photo and I see my son Jon. I study my father’s baby picture and I see my grandson. Aunt Agnes and Sister Ann have Daddy’s laugh and his twinkle in their eyes. Sitting next to my uncle Joe, I feel my dad; Joe looks so much like Daddy, stands and walks and talks like him. I sit close, the sides of our legs pressing so I can feel that father energy I miss so much. Uncle Joe is in his nineties now—my Dad, now gone for twenty some years. I examine my baby pictures; they could be of my brother’s daughter or my own sons. When I search for my mother’s face in my cousins’ I can’t find her—I see my sisters’ faces in them instead.
As I interviewed my relatives I found more questions then answers, which led me to the next person. Then I discovered many of my cousins had little communication with other family members and hadn’t heard from or spoken to one another in years. Relation after relation I listened to had the same story. “We don’t speak.” It was a too familiar echo.
Why don’t we speak to one another? When did it start? I can only go as far back as Emily Hoy, my mother’s grandmother, though I suspect it extends back further than that. Perhaps Emily’s umbrage was passed on through the generations: my grandmother Nellie did not speak to some of her children (or her husband, most of his family, or anyone else that didn’t pass muster); some of her children did not speak to one another; my sister would not speak to our mother, nor to her daughter or our sister. Cousins do not speak to aunts, aunts do not speak to nieces, nieces do not speak to sisters, sisters do not speak to each other. And that’s just on Mother’s side of the family. On my father’s side, Daddy left home not speaking to his mother, nor would he speak to mine after she left us—but that part I get. There are times I don’t have a lot to say to my ex-husband either. The generation beneath me carries on this long-held tradition: two nephews don’t communicate with anyone in the family, some don’t talk to their sister and two nieces and my youngest son do not speak to me (I hold that this is temporary). And then, there are those I do not speak to—my own dis-grace.
We don’t speak to some because we’re mad and we don’t speak to others because we’re hurt. And some we don’t speak to because we plain flat-out don’t like. Some turn their back to punish, others to protect their heart. The women in particular have inherited extremely sharp tongues, which we have little control over. We don’t realize the blisters we cause; we think we’re just saying what is on our mind and then go merrily along our way, leaving strewn bodies in our wake. But there are two sides to every train wreck. What appears to hold true is we’d rather be right than be related. This business of turning our back (maybe that’s it; maybe we misheard that thing about turning the other cheek and our neck got cranked and our body followed the arc) seems endemic throughout the Chatfield, Chamberlin and Clemens’ lines. The Hoys got cranky too, but they handled their relationships a bit differently–they sued each other instead. I suppose that’s one way of working things out.
Is this learned behavior, these resentful relationships we seem to be stuck in like tar babies? Or is it passed on through our cellular membranes? Bad eyes, droopy eyelids, hearing loss, kidney problems, gambling and drinking seem to afflict so many in my family. Why not resentment too? God knows I like to hang onto my share.
Our roots are still here, just unwatered. With some gracious tending, new flowers and leaves might sprout forth. Families are not perfect, but they are ours, and depending how we care for them depends on the shade, fruit, shelter, warmth, medicine, nurturing and poetry they grant us in return. Besides, we may only have this time around to work it out. It would be a shame to waste it.
I’ve fallen in love with this prim, proper, strait-laced, stiff-collared, tight-lipped, tight-fisted, tight-knit, hard-working, church-going, God-fearing, godforsaken, drinking, gambling, cussing, hustling, rustling family. I am a part of it, my roots reaching deep in their rich soil. I belong. I am not alone, not the waif I thought. I am not lost. Okay—so maybe a little confused at times—but not lost. I have found myself. I am home.
Part I: Snapshots of Sonora
Larry, my brother, was under the illusion our mother was a good mother but he had a different childhood than the rest of us. My sisters were convinced she was a bad mother: Carleen complained Mom was thoughtless and self-centered, Betty resented her for abandoning us, and Claudia simply thought she was weak—all of which was true by the way. I was never under the illusion I had a bad mother, I was under the illusion I had the wrong mother, and although I was not under the illusion she loved me, I hoped she might someday.
What follows is from what I’ve been told, what I remember, and what my family claims I’ve made up. Some stories I’ve never told; some I’ve told so many times I can’t remember if they are even true anymore. But do we ever remember what really happened? Certainly we remember our version—and what you believe is true for you—so you better be careful what you believe. And does any of it matter? Not really—only when we make it mean something.
Revelations & Reckonings
My parents were like black and white, like oil and water, like sin and prayer. Daddy, not one to boil over, married a kettle of emotions. If he could have loosened his grip and if Mom hadn’t completely unraveled my childhood might have been different. But it was what it was. Babe was not the mother I wanted but she was the one I got.
I possess the best of my father and the worst of my mother. I have Daddy’s frame and posture. I have Mom’s moles and droopy eyelids. I have his sense of rightness and fairness and goodness—which get me through. I have her vanity, her stinginess and mouthiness—which get me in trouble. I have his common sense, work ethic and reliability, her foolishness, self-absorption and pride. I have his manners, his conduct and character—her resentment, her entitlement and disdain. I have my father’s sociability, my mother’s sarcasm, his loyalty, her indifference, his modesty, her arrogance. I carry his confidence and live with her self-doubt. I have his good intentions and her unattended sorrows. I imagine I turned out as well as I have because I have had many good mothers throughout my life—sisters and friends who filled that mothering gap for me. It pays to be adoptable.
In those five years I lived with my mother, I was raised by omission—by neglect—and neglect doesn’t leave a scar, it leaves a hole. Some say holes are harder to heal. I’ve attempted to fill this hole with shopping, seeking and sushi—with men, with work and with writing. None of these fill it for very long. But time and understanding have helped, transforming this hole into a kind of wholeness—and out of this wholeness—a kind of holiness has emerged. The why of it all longer matters. Mom didn’t set out to make our lives miserable; it wasn’t about us. Her long familiar discord, her cacophony of complaining, moaning and groaning have softened to a euphony of healing. Babe was a woman who simply wanted the same things I want: to be seen and to be heard. Perhaps by writing this memoir I’ve done that for her. And for me.
Over the years some of Mother’s belongings have found their way to me. Her pictures are on my wall and in my photo albums. Her heavy pinking-shears rest in my sewing box. Her cast-iron griddle cooks my grilled cheese sandwiches. Her tiny gold wristwatch with the narrow black band, her Liberty half-dollar necklace from the San Francisco World’s Fair, and her silver charm bracelet crowded with mementos from her life keep my jewelry company. Her mother’s round mirror, reflecting the three of our images in my face, hangs in my bedroom. And way up high on a shelf in my garage stored in an old workman’s aluminum lunch box, I have her metal meat grinder. Where it can’t get me.
I penned the tales my family told me. Inside these narratives I got to know my brother and sisters. I met aunts and uncles and grandparents—Chatfields and Chamberlins and Clemens and Hoys—departed long ago. I met their descendants, cousins who gave me letters and pictures and anecdotes that wove our familial lines and generations together. I brought my mother and father onto the same page. And in the middle of the jumble, I met my self. What a congregation! With the writing of this I have fallen in love with my family, one story at a time.
This tale is a history, a fable, a prayer
of those gone before me, now gathered with care.
The diaries and pictures and letters enclosed
deciphered my kin and what they supposed.
Those who are living—their stories intact,
Those gone before us—who knows what was fact?
I met not the aunts nor uncles you’ll greet
Met not the grandparents whose waltz is complete.
So I presume who they were by looking at me—
our blossoms and thorns twining through this same tree.
Our shadows and secrets for so long passed down,
those thistles and thorns now replaced by a crown.
It was back in the thirties my parents did meet,
then married, had children with ten little feet.
I am the youngest, this teller of tale,
unearthing my family, removing our veil.
I’m descended from Clemens, the kin of my dad
(who married a Chatfield—a girl some thought bad).
I’ve written of both, their histories, their lives,
of Mom’s other husband and Daddy’s three wives.
I wrote of my brother, my sisters and me,
recording our past, with hazed memory.
Futures are clouded by sins of the past
with history rewritten by those who come last.
Through bloodlines, through love, through bad luck and tether,
not matters one whit what binds us together.
Those gone before are a part of us still,
a dram of our blood, a slice of our will.
They watch over us with wonder and trust
and guide us from birth til we too turn to dust.
I know they’ll excuse me—my gaffes and asides,
tis those who are living who might have my hide.
Some snort, some are angry, some threaten, some rear—
some nights I don’t sleep from the scorn that I fear.
But it’s none of my business what they think of me—
I wrote what I deemed in this family tree.
And the end: