First steps

by Jennifer on May 5, 2008

The road was paved and marbled with cracks and patched potholes, like many farm roads. The edges crumbled and fell away in chunks of asphalt. The blacktop road, we called it, though it was really closer to gray.

On its way south, the road caught the end of our long driveway, making a T of our drive. Across from our driveway, there was a field, fenced in and usually fallow. And in one corner of the T, there was a small and spooky cemetery. It was easily forgotten until I waited to board the school bus or, like that day, when I turned toward the river and it was on my left, its old and weathered headstones shadowed by the spruce trees that rose up among them.

On this day, just ten minutes before, I had done something that until then I had never ventured. I asked Sue if it would be all right for me to take a walk down to another cemetery a mile or so away, the one where her father (my step-grandfather), was buried. It was a lie, my request. I knew she was more likely to give her permission if I declared the cemetery as my destination instead of the river, which was another quarter of a mile past it.

I had learned to lie years before, to protect myself and my siblings, but this lie was significant because I was mature enough to look down through a scope and aim for a tender place. As I knew she would be, Sue was touched that I wanted to visit her father’s grave. I think she even hugged me.

It was a magnificent lie.

I was 16 or 17, I think, and this would be my first walk alone beyond the end of our driveway. We had walked down to the river as a family before, but this was a brand of independence that I had never tested. Would she have said yes, had I asked earlier, at 14 or 15? Who knows. I doubt it. But she had loved her father more than anyone, I think, and was devastated by his death. On the day of his funeral, she spent a good part of the day throwing up, though she may have been drunk, a possibility that was startling to me (given the strict religious atmosphere of our house) when I overheard her two sisters speculating on it.

I had loved him, too, and missed the time we spent together when I was younger, hanging out with him in his workshop where he made birdhouses and shelled the walnuts that we collected together from the side of the road. None of this stopped me from trading on his memory. Self-preservation is a powerful force, stronger at times than love or memory, even. I regret the lie, but I don’t regret what it accomplished. I tell myself that this distinction is possible.

And there’s this. It didn’t occur to me until I was much older to consider how Sue’s parents had shaped the person she became. A lot of her history is still unknown, more and more of it lost as people die or forget or choose not to remember. Or to tell.

That walk was exhilarating. It wasn’t for exercise–which seems to be the only reason I take walks these days, with a bottle of water in hand and a step counter attached to my waist. This walk was pure. It was escape. It was my feet taking some of their first unwatched, unchoreographed steps. It was freedom, different from my time at school, out of her watch, or on overnight school camping trips. Those activities were sanctioned, with permission slips and supervision.

Yes, this one had required permission, too. But I had purchased her approval with a lie, which by that time I saw as fair trade. It was familiar currency in our house–only this time I dictated the terms of the transaction.

That walk was my first lesson in something else. On that day–as I walked over one hill and then the next, down the long slope to the stop sign, as I turned east and passed the cemetery on my right, as I dangled my feet over the edge of the slab across the Finley River–I accomplished something important, pivotal even, though I didn’t know it just then.

It would be a few more years before I would use the truth with even more force, toward a purpose that should have come much sooner and at the hands of responsible adults.

But on that day, with one lie and two miles worth of steps, I began to learn that I had the power to leave.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Brenda May 5, 2008 at 10:15 am

That’s the thing about children in abusive settings of any kind. They don’t know they can leave. They don’t know what else is out there, and they are afraid of it, I guess. Not coming from that, I don’t know, but I’ve always seen that in any situation, children (and adults at times), put up with way more than anyone should, and I have to think it’s because they don’t really know there is something else better. At least within their accessibility. Maybe I’m totally wrong about this because it didn’t happen to me. But there were people in similar times in my life that were horrible to me, and it didn’t bother me that much (my husband might disagree) because I COULD get away. But when it’s in your home, where do you go?

I personally am not a proponent of lying, but also firmly believe there is a time and place for everything. There are God-sanctioned lies in the Bible (think of Rahab and the spies). We have in us the need to survive, and if a lie (or thousands of them) is what it takes, then so be it. I applaud it. It’s not as if Sue never lied to and about you.

And I cannot stop myself from commenting on the Finley River! It brings to mind another Biblical reference–Namaan washing in the Jordan. A nasty, filthy river, but it brought cleansing and hope to you.

I’m glad you lied. Did you even stop by the cemetary to look? I never have. And maybe Sue did love her father more than anyone else, but I won’t go into my opinions of that other than to say I saw some very inappropriate behavior toward him from all adults in close proximity in his later years. Thank God there are other kinds of love than hers.

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Mrs. Chili May 5, 2008 at 12:00 pm

Jennifer, this is staggeringly beautiful.

As someone with a similar history, I very much appreciate the message of this post. I didn’t come to the idea that I could leave on my own – I needed someone to take me by the shoulders and shake me to make sure I heard that the life that I was living wasn’t normal and that I didn’t deserve to be treated the way I was. I needed someone to prop me up and point my feet in the right direction, but once I learned that I COULD go, I DID go (I even hired a lawyer and was emancipated).

Your prose is gorgeous and your story is genuine. We are sisters, you and I….

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Daryl E May 5, 2008 at 1:00 pm

Strong is always the impression I get when I read one of your backstories yet I know that wasnt true then, it sure is today.

You write in such a way that I was there with you and I too hope you finish the book.

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Jennifer Harvey May 5, 2008 at 1:49 pm

Daryl, I definitely was not strong then, but I think I am now. I know I prefer the truth, for sure. Thank you for your kind words.

Jane, thank you. My cousin Brenda said the same thing about a week ago, about a book, so to hear you all echoing the same idea gives me something to think about.

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Just Jamie May 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm

Jennifer, the beauty and honesty in your words, the way a story unfolds slowly, like a blanket being laid out under a tree… the way you show and not tell, the way you bring me back for more … you have a gift. So glad to have found you. Keep going.

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cce May 5, 2008 at 4:52 pm

“I was mature enough to look down through a scope and aim for a tender place.” – this is just one example of what makes this a very accomplished bit of writing. I’m standing up and applauding. Jennifer, your aim is true!

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tysdaddy May 5, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Jennifer,

Nice memoir. You take us to the river with you, dragging us along, and we experience the thrill of getting away with deception.

There are layers and layers here, and you peel them beautifully.

Brian

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the mama bird diaries May 5, 2008 at 6:23 pm

What a beautiful ending.. the power to leave.

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Suzanne May 5, 2008 at 7:25 pm

I loved your imagery to create a sense of place. I was right there with you on the road. This is one of the best posts you’ve written, I’ve got to agree with everyone else this is publication worthy.

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Lisa Milton May 5, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Spot on. Wow.

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Hatchet May 5, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Siiiiigh!

That’s me with my chin in my hands in awe. Your writing unfolds like a tightly closed flower and is so powerful. Painful and powerful. And true.

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Minnesota Matron May 5, 2008 at 9:19 pm

Can I just be on my knees? Staggering.

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Jennifer Harvey May 5, 2008 at 9:27 pm

I’m going to respond to all your comments by email now. Thank you, everyone.

xoxo

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Carolyn May 5, 2008 at 9:53 pm

Beautiful writing, as usual. You have a gift for imagery and storytelling. Get yer book written girl!

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Attila the Mom May 5, 2008 at 10:16 pm

Aw, Jennifer this was a lovely and powerful piece of writing…

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JCK May 5, 2008 at 10:50 pm

What strikes me about this beautiful piece are two things: 1)how OLD you were before you were allowed to take that walk and 2) how powerful that must have been to realize that someday you could leave.

Love the images, Jennifer.

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DP May 6, 2008 at 4:53 am

I’m familiar with a little girl just like that – me! I grew up with both of my parents. They stayed married for 32 years, but when my father (who was high on prescription morphine) tried to kill me, my mother and I left. Then I left her house a year later and went off to live with my sister. I had far more freedom then. I still remember the first time I was allowed to take a walk away from everyone else. It was liberating.

I love your writing, Jennifer, which is why I come back again and again. Keep going!

Peace – D

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Treasia May 6, 2008 at 6:51 am

Beautifully written and so sad all at the same time. My heart aches for you for what you have gone through. It was a wonderful lie as it made you realize you could take those first steps towards your freedom.

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AMomTwoBoys May 6, 2008 at 7:10 am

Good lord, you make me embarassed about the crap I write! :0)

I’m with everyone else on this…I’d buy it!

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melissa May 6, 2008 at 7:21 am

Seriously, you have a literary agent by now, right?
I only wish I could write so beautifully on a good day when I’ve had 8 hours straight to work on a paragraph. You are incredible.

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Kellan May 6, 2008 at 8:33 am

I loved this (as usual) and I especially loved that last line. Sometimes when I read a really great “last line” I wonder if the author had the “last line” first (as I sometimes do) and worked her way back in her story from there. I followed your footsteps in th is story – I sat by the river with you!

Have a good day – Kellan

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we_be_toys May 6, 2008 at 9:28 am

Wow! That was wonderful to read – don’t stop now!
I admit, I was wanting to stop off at the cemetery and look at the stones, but you took me even further. I hated that it ended. More! More!

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chanda (bea) May 6, 2008 at 10:04 am

Wow! I just linked over from Tap Dancing. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about your writting from we_be_toys, and she wasn’t kidding. Im blown away. Now I have the enviable delight to go back and read your archives.

This will be a delightful distraction from throwning food at my face at night! 🙂

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SteveCinNM May 6, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Whoa.

I read your blog when I can, and sometimes I have just a few minutes. But when I saw the title of this post, I had to stop and take a mental seat. Something important was coming. In fact I stared at that title, soaking it in, almost afraid to read on.

“First Steps” — whoa.

This was more than just a story about an event in your life; I sensed that through this post you (the current you) were taking some important first steps… nothing to be breezed through or taken lightly. Gathering my strength, I pulled my eyes down to the opening words and dove in.

Amazing. As Ten Bears said in the movie, Outlaw Josey Wales, “…there is iron in your words of life” for all to see.

Whoa.

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Jenn @ Juggling Life May 7, 2008 at 7:29 am

I cannot compliment you more than those who have gotten her before me.

Your words are powerful and stunning and they touch my soul.

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HRH May 7, 2008 at 7:29 pm

Ditto on all the above. Beautiful words coming from such ugliness. It is difficult and scrumptious to read.

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Tootsie Farklepants May 7, 2008 at 9:37 pm

I also have to agree with what everyone has already said. It’s difficult to read even though it is captivating.

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Emily R May 11, 2008 at 5:42 pm

How does a child learn that she has that power? I never learned it — my sister did it for me. I lied for survival, but to seize that kind of power for yourself is amazing.

Emily Rs last blog post..Happy Alternative Mother’s Day

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