Fears, events, prayers (the series)

Fears and events and prayers, Part I

The Prologue (or, a rationalization): I’ve decided it might be helpful for the sake of past and future posts to give you some background about the important characters in my life. After all these years, I feel I can tell my story with some perspective and even a shadow of compassion. The purpose isn’t to make anyone accountable. We’re long past that.

My past influences the themes in my book, so writing about it here is not much different than there, if you subtract the fictionalization (though I do see the distinction). That said, the people in my family have a general and, I think, accurate sense of where they fit into my life. Whether they’re in or they’re out, and for what reasons. In a few cases, it’s been a bit ambiguous over time, but less so in recent years. No one on the perimeter of my life will read this, and if you know me well, you know them already. I’ve changed the names, and I will be as fair as I can–and as brief.

And it comes to you all of a sudden:
That was it! And you arise, for you are
aware of a year in your distant past
with its fears and events and prayers.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

The Beginning

Jennifer and Ducky, 1973, on a visit with our motherThe following is probably true about the genesis of any number of families: When my father met my stepmother, beer played a big part.

It was 1972, and from what I understand, it was impossible to get Coors beer where we lived in southwest Missouri–but you could get it over the border in Kansas. One week, someone made a beer run (my father? a friend?), and that’s how he came to be sitting on the back of his car in our driveway, drinking Coors beer, when she walked by on the way to the pool, wearing a bikini. Not long before, she had moved from Colorado, home of Coors. It was her favorite, and he offered to share.

Even though I know it’s not an original tale, I find it a bit embarrassing that all of the events of the rest of my childhood rested on this rough, elemental moment. Beer, and a bikini. Every other weekend, my dad might have been drinking Schlitz, for all I know. But not that day. Is that all it comes down to? A beer run? A hot day and thirst? One thing done, or not done? I know that’s how it is, but I’m not sure I like it.

The next February, on Valentine’s Day, my father married Sue in the office of a justice of the peace. She wore a blue dress. Sleeveless, polyester, and with a good amount of extra fabric through the middle, to accommodate her 7-months-pregnant belly.

In my next memory of that time, I remember walking down the hall toward her, and calling out her name to ask her a question. I was four years old. She was loading clothes into the washing machine at the end of the hall, and she stopped and turned to face me.

What did you just call me?”

“Sue?” I repeated, my voice uncertain now. The feeling in my gut told me I had done something very wrong.

“You are to call me Mommy. Do you understand?” The look in her eyes was both fierce and cold, a combination not everyone can pull off.


“Yes, what?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

The word felt strange to say, almost like it was nothing. Like a piece of tissue stuck to the roof of my mouth that would disintegrate at any moment. A notion, not even a real word. But no matter how odd it felt to me, or how transient, the word was mine. It did not belong to her, and I didn’t want her to have it.

I had a mommy, already. And Sue was not my mother.

That mommy lived in Kansas, and she wasn’t coming back. By then, I knew that much. Though I hoped. For years, I would hope.

At least a year, and maybe two, had passed since my mother left my father. Since she left my sister and me. We saw her a handful of times before my father married Sue, and would see her again two or three times after. The last time, I was six. (The photo above is of my sister and me on one of our last visits with our mother.)

After that, she stopped visiting. By all accounts, my father and Sue didn’t make it easy for her to see us, or even to talk to us on the phone. My mother told me 16 years later, when we made contact again, that she came to town for my 5th birthday, but wasn’t allowed to see us.

So she did try. And then she didn’t anymore. She went on to have three more children, from two other marriages and another relationship. I think my father told me, though the context of that conversation is a little blurry. (I remember trying to give off an air of interest without showing that I cared about this piece of information.) Was it out of the blue, or was he trying to let us know that she had moved on? That she had other responsibilities now? And other children she didn’t leave behind. Whether he meant it that way (though I believe he did), that was how I understood it.

My siblings, strangers in every way though the same blood ran through us all, became a mystery. To me, their existence was no more solid than a thought or a fluff of dandelion seed floating away from me.

It would be years, decades really, before I would understand all that happened in those early years. Who said what, who did what. Why. The stories would untangle and I would separate them into clear paths. This led to this. And this to that. It would all become clear.

Or it will. Any day now.

You can read the rest of the posts in this series here: Fears and Events and Prayers (the series)

My sister, who you will recognize as Ducky in the comments (and from the photo above), posted this essay today over at Hints and Guesses. She adds her own slant on our stepmother’s nature, and explains a nickname that came to her just this morning.

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Filed under: Uncategorized on February 29th, 2008 | 28 Comments »

Copyright © 2008 Jennifer S. Harvey. The content on these pages is the sole property of the author. Feel free to link to materials on this site, but reproduction of this material in any form requires express written permission. All Rights Reserved.


Fears and events and prayers, Part II

You can read Part I here.

thwrite.jpgThe judge stepped down from the bench and came over to where we stood with our attorney, clustered around a wooden table. The moment was celebratory. He had just approved Sue’s adoption of my sister and me.

“Congratulations,” the judge said as he reached out to shake my hand. “Now she can spank you legally.”

I swear, those were his exact words.

To another family, it would have meant nothing, a joke. But the words burned through me, true and scorching.

Little details about that day stand out. It was in the summer, June 29, and we missed Vacation Bible School to go to court. I carried a crescent-shaped blue and white purse. I was 10. Grown up enough for a purse, I suppose. And grown up enough to know that all the lots had been cast. This, the final one. It could not be undone, and now no one would try. That was maybe the worst of it. The lawyers had met the legal requirement to attempt to contact my mother. Last known address, that sort of thing. My mother never knew about the hearing. She wouldn’t find out until nine years later about the adoption.

I know I smiled that day. Everyone smiled and said how great it was that we were finally a real family. By then, I was well-practiced at getting along, a skill that may be the one thing in my nature that saved me. But inside, everything felt clenched and heavy and wrong. I knew the adoption had little, if anything, to do with love, though I suppose Sue must have told herself it did. Control was the currency in our family, and it annoyed me that we stood there, pretending that we had all chosen this. That this was the dream, and it had come true, and how lucky we were that she wanted to be our mother.

By the time she adopted us, Sue had been our stepmother for six years. Those years unfolded as fast and as slow as any, with seasons and holidays measuring the time. But I took measure in a different way. I don’t remember particular Christmases, and few specific birthdays. I guess those things are hard for anyone to remember, just part of the information that falls away as we get older. But I can tell you what happened in the course of a year when I was 7 or 9 or 12, and the array of punishments that marred and marked those years, and all the others.

Writing this, now, I am uncomfortable saying all that happened, but not because it’s hard to tell it, which it isn’t now. Time has helped that. My struggle is with myself to justify my reasons for telling the story at all. In that discomfort and unease, I know that now is not then. That now I have a voice, a pen, and people who will listen. I’m a reporter, in a sense. But to what end? Where’s the story now? Who does it benefit?

That girl from then hardly exists now. She’s a small thing inside me, cushioned all around by years and uncountable kindnesses. By love. By strength and courage. And even by anger and knots of desire for retribution that come and go like a tide that, thankfully, stays at sea for long stretches of time.

The truth is, then is the only time that telling my story would have made a difference. But it was a different time. Back then, almost nothing happened on the few times that a shadow of suspicion crept out of our house and made its way to the proper agencies. One of which employed my father as a counselor for troubled adolescents and their families.

Irony isn’t a big enough word.

No words are. How do you say, in small words on a page, things so vast and painful?

Should that girl tell about the time she ate her plateful of beets out on the front steps, without silverware, because she used bad manners at the dinner table? “You can eat like the dog if you’re going to act like a dog,” Sue said. Should she tell about the night when she had an accident in the bathtub, and Sue held her head underwater in it? Should she tell about the time when she was five that Sue told her she was going to go live with a different family, and to go pack her suitcase? And that, then, Sue drove her down a long country road and forced her out of the car, leaving that girl standing on the side of the road with a suitcase, wailing and alone and frightened as Sue drove away and out of sight? Is it important to tell about all of the times when food was withheld? (Once, for three days, because I wasn’t weeding the garden fast enough.) Or how my sister and I would count for each other, when Sue would beat us, the number of times the other was struck. It was an important thing to know, and when it’s happening to you, it’s hard to keep track. And there were the raw, whole onions we were made to eat if we told a lie.

(I just realized that in that paragraph I switched from third person to first–I guess that’s a good sign. Of something.)

The fact of it is, it’s all too much to put in one place. Like writing a book with just one chapter. No beginning, middle, or end, because it’s all just middle, with no end in sight, and who can remember the time before it was like this?

Fortunately, as I said, now isn’t then. And there was an end, at least to all of that. My father finally divorced Sue when I was in college. I am no longer afraid of her. If she has any sense, she should be afraid of us, and of what we could say.

There’s one more thing I want to leave with you, something hopeful.

One of the punishments Sue relied on was to strike our hands with a ruler. I’m sure we’ve all heard of someone who has experienced this. It seems to be the stuff of dark Catholic school stories, brought to bear upon little hands by stern nuns.

In our house, there were degrees of this punishment. She used a heavy plastic ruler, which she kept in a pencil cup next to her chair in the living room. (She also kept one on the visor in the car, to extend her reach in case we misbehaved there.)

If we had done something particularly bad, she would strike with the narrow edge of the ruler. There were times when my hands were so bruised that my fingers curled under like a claw and would stay that way for hours. (Bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere good.)

My hands are not pretty. Under any circumstances, they would look nothing more than capable. I don’t have long narrow fingers or nailbeds. These hands have done any number of chores, and I haven’t always taken as good care of them as I should. I do now, and have for the past few years. But they are what they are, and I’m not going to get another pair.

Sometime in late elementary school, I began to pay careful attention to my handwriting. I practiced the Palmer Method, and then took off on my own, pleased with what I could do with a pen and my imagination. I filled pages and pages with uppercase letters, especially W’s, which are still my favorite letter to write. I added swirls and flourishes to the letters, and made them my own. It took a lot of years, but eventually I developed penmanship that I was proud of, and even won a modest award for it a few years ago.

But it wasn’t until I was working on a scene in my book that I recognized the seed of my desire for nice penmanship, and for the hours and hours I spent working on it. It was right there all along, and I would have had to do nothing more than scratch aside a little bit of soil to find it.

In the scene, Eva, the main character, is showing her new calligraphy studio to the housekeeper who has been with the family for years. Here are the few lines that tell it:

Maggie turned and took Eva’s hands in both of her own and held them tight. “You showed her. Do you hear me?” She locked eyes with Eva, an earnest look, damp with tears. “Look at me. You showed her.”

It was the first time Eva recognized the irony in the work she had chosen, how something beautiful flowed from the same hands her mother had beaten. She did not know how she could have missed it.

And that’s really everything, isn’t it? If we are among the many whose parents have failed us, isn’t it up to us to become what we are, who we are meant to be, not because of them, but in spite of them?

I am glad for the moments when I see that, the hard, beautiful truth of it.

When I do, I hold it in my hand like a prized marble, and I go on.


You can read the rest of the posts in this series here: Fears and Events and Prayers (the series)

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Fears and Events and Prayers, Part III

You can read Part I here, and Part II here.

My mother

“I am happy and well. Thanks for asking. And thanks for the pictures, although I’m puzzled as to why you are sending them to me. Unless there’s been a development I’m not aware of, I don’t have a daughter named Jennifer. According to your birth certificate, your mother’s name is Sue…perhaps you should send them to her.”

That was an email from my mother, dated December 2, 2006. She sent it in response to an email from me, in which I attempted to test the waters after we had not spoken for two years. Except for the answer I sent in response to this, and the one she wrote back after, we have not communicated since. Her words closed the door on all the years I had spent trying (and failing) to have a good relationship with her.

When we first reconnected after 14 years apart, I was in college. She visited once, with my two sisters and brother. It was a strange visit, and complex. Joyous, yes. But I remember other things, too. She did things that annoyed me, like laying her right hand on the seat next to her when she drove the car. A silly, small thing that I should not have cared about at all.

What I couldn’t see until later was that my annoyance was nothing more than a product of my anger at her for leaving us when we were so young. Of course, I was happy that we could see each other after all that time, but I remember also feeling jealous of the shorthand that she shared with my sisters and brother, jokes and stories that I didn’t understand. And the glaring truth of it was that they could share that banter because of the years they had together, years I could not claim.

There was a honeymoon period for a while. We wrote dozens of letters over the next few years, and spoke on the phone. But as I learned more about her and began to understand what kind of mother she was to my sisters and brother, it became difficult to keep seeing things as I wanted them to be. Every fantasy I had as a child about a reunion with her, and the relationship that would follow, fell away over time.

As it turned out, I wasn’t exactly the daughter she always imagined, either. I wasn’t always sweet or compliant (though I was those things at times), and I wasn’t willing to blindly accept her version of things. There were three parents in my life, each of them with a different version of events, and it wasn’t an easy thing to throw all of their stories into a pile and sort out what was true.

But it was exhausting, and after a while, I just didn’t care anymore who was to blame for what. I just wanted to get on with things, and try to go forward. There were breaks in the relationship, and then other times when we tried to patch it up again. We both said hard things. We both tried, and we both failed.

After I had children, she visited us several times, when Boy was a toddler, and then after Girl was born. The last time was when Girl turned three.

It was a difficult visit, peppered with arguments. One of her biggest issues with me is that I (and my sister) have not yet gone to court to have Sue’s adoption of us set aside. It is something I want to do, but it will also take some time and money, and there hasn’t been an easy time to move ahead with the process. (We would have to do it in Missouri, where neither of us live now. Never mind that it was an adoption my sister and I never wanted, yet it’s now our responsibility to set it right so that our mother’s name will once again appear on our birth certificates.) So that explains what she meant in the email above about Sue’s name being on my birth certificate.

The morning when I received the email (above), it was a Sunday and I was up early to take my kids to church. I checked my email, and found that one. After I read it, I sat there, stunned and in tears, though I shouldn’t have been all that surprised at her reaction. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t guessed at how it might turn out.

But I hadn’t expected that. Her words were so final, so sharp and specific, pared down to the cruelest thing she could have said. “I don’t have a daughter named Jennifer.”

I called my sister Ducky to read her the email, and while we were on the phone, another call came in. The caller ID showed that it was my cousin B. And because it was early in the morning, and because I knew that her mother had been very close to dying in the last few days, I knew why she was calling. I answered her call and listened to her tell me that her mother had died just 15 minutes before.

My aunt (she was my favorite aunt) had been ill for many years. I won’t go into the details of her struggle, but it left her unable to interact with her family–her husband, her children, and her grandchildren. She would have given anything to have those years to be with them, I know that.

There was such pain and grief in that moment, and utter disbelief and sadness that my own mother would throw away the gift of all the years still ahead of us (and over what?), when my aunt would have celebrated every one of them, if they were hers to have.

That moment will never leave me. Even as a writer, I don’t think I could have imagined an intersection of events quite like that. It broke something in me.

The waste of it. The carelessness. After all this time, I can accept whatever my mother’s feelings are toward me. She has written things that have made it clear enough over the years, how ambiguous those feelings are. But how could she just toss away a chance to know two of her grandchildren, even as their sweet faces looked back at her from my email?

I’ll never understand it.

But it’s not all bad, this story.

The sisters and brother I mentioned? Well, I have a lovely, easy relationship with the oldest of them, my sister W, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. She has two children, a girl and a boy. I have a friendly, though still somewhat unformed, relationship with my other sister, C, who lives on the East Coast and is very smart and accomplished. I haven’t had any kind of relationship with my brother, but neither have W and C in recent years. Who knows how that will go.

But that makes five of us, the children of one mother, and the point is, we’re the heart of this family now. It’s a fragmented, complicated family tree, but it’s up to us to make ourselves important in each other’s lives, no matter how we got here, and we’re on our way to making that happen. It’s not a straight, smooth road, by any means, and I doubt Norman Rockwell will come back from the grave to paint us.

But we’re trying, and I am grateful for all of them.


You can read the rest of the posts in this series here: Fears and Events and Prayers (the series)

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Fears and Events and Prayers, Part IV

Posted By Jennifer Harvey on April 15, 2009 | Edit

You can find Parts I, II and III here.

And so we drove away from the house. I was headed back to college after winter break, and didn’t know that I would never sleep in my old room again. Something big had happened, yes, but I had no solid reason to believe I wasn’t coming back, that I was leaving for good.It wasn’t the first time that things seemed like they had to change, and never did. Why should this time be any different?

Let’s go back to two nights before.

In our house, we said grace before every meal, and before the prayer my brother and I couldn’t stop laughing about something. Of course, it only got worse during the prayer. When one of us got it under control, the other one would lose it. (If you’ve ever tried to stop laughing in the middle of a prayer or church, you know it’s damn near impossible.)

My stepmother, Sue,* cut her prayer short, and in one motion jumped up from the table, grabbed my brother by the upper arm and by his hair and pulled him up out of his chair. She dug her fingers deep into his arm and yanked back his head. She spat words that I can’t remember now.

But I remember what I said and what I did.

Across the table from them, I stood up. My whole body shook with the pulse of adrenalin, but I didn’t yell. I hissed.

Stop it. Let him go. That is not how you should handle things.”

Not eloquent. But those sentences held the force of all the years, of all the pain. It was a moment that took every bit of sixteen years to construct (the number of years my father had been married to her). And the truth is, others have done far braver and harder things to face an abuser. But it was the first time I had ever stood up to her. And by then, I had begun to measure the abyss between what happened in our house and how the rest of the world might see it, the distance between what I had always known and what could be.

She twisted toward me with my brother still in her grip, her eyes narrowed in fury. In hate. But then, with a shove, she let him go.

For the next two days, she ignored me except to snipe “bitch” when I passed by a room where she was. And you know what? I was proud to hear it. Something between us had shifted. The result was seismic, and it changed everything.

When it was time to return to school, she drove me away from that house, to Kansas City where I would meet up with the (lovely, kind) people I lived with at school to ride with them the rest of the way back to Nebraska.

The three hour drive to Kansas City was quiet, except for necessary words, few and flat. Sue didn’t look at me.

The next time I spoke with her, on the phone, she told me I was no longer welcome at home. I was shaken but not exactly heartbroken.

In the next few months, the marriage finally broke apart, in part because of what happened when I was home. The next year at winter break, my sister and I testified in court to help my father get custody of my brother, who was almost 17 by then. Without meaning to, I had left him behind, with a row of fresh bruises and broken skin on his arm where her fingers left their mark. My father was awarded custody, but my brother spent only a few months with him before deciding he wanted to move back home, his decision aided by Sue’s threats to disown him if he did not.

Every time I get within two miles of the house where I grew up, a knot forms in my stomach. I expect that will always be so.

Like a tornado, the past has a way of picking up a person and setting her down in a completely different place.  A couple of days ago, Sue’s name appeared on Facebook on my list of People You May Loathe Know. It was a shock. One of my Sue’s nieces made the connection with her on the site. My first instinct was to  block Sue from being able to see my name or profile, but then my sister said, “I’m not hiding from her.” And I knew I felt the same way.

Writing here about these things has allowed me to release the last of the their power to hurt me. I can’t separate myself from what happened, not entirely, but I have learned to unclench my fists and to let the seeds of anger (I held on for so long) drift away on the wind, to somewhere far from me. Some things, I believe, cannot be forgiven, so this is what I do.

I doubt anything will come of this new development, courtesy of social media. But if it does? Well, let her look around. Let her read here.

Sue never had to feel the force of the justice she deserved, and in any of these stories, I haven’t even told the worst of what she did. It’s not my story to tell. But let her find this indictment.

Let her know that she is judged.


You can read the rest of the posts in this series here: Fears and Events and Prayers (the series)

*not her real name

Copyright © 2008 Jennifer S. Harvey. The content on these pages is the sole property of the author. Feel free to link to materials on this site, but reproduction of this material in any form requires express written permission. All Rights Reserved.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carebearx2m May 1, 2008 at 12:53 pm

I just finished reading this book The Glass Castle: A Memoir By Jeannette Walls

It brought up a lot of issues from my own childhood that I did not even know or acknowledge were still burning me up inside! It really is a great well written an strangely optimistic book. Your blog is awesome!
Thanks for sharing! Carrie


Carolyn May 30, 2008 at 10:00 pm

I’m devouring your writing tonight. I’ve been away, but now I just can’t seem to get enough. More gorgeous essays. Absolutey riviting and heart-wrenching. Your writing is strong and powerful as you put those abused hands to great use. There are many lives who will be touched by your writing, so drop this blog and finish that book. (Well, don’t completely drop the blog, because I’ll miss you, but focus on the book. You know what I mean.) Oh, and can I come on Oprah with you when she selects your book for her club????

Carolyns last blog post..sugar. now with more sugar!


maggie, dammit September 19, 2008 at 3:14 pm

“The fact of it is, it’s all too much to put in one place. Like writing a book with just one chapter. No beginning, middle, or end, because it’s all just middle, with no end in sight, and who can remember the time before it was like this?”

This is a brilliant, brilliant nugget, just one in a stunning series. I’m so glad I’ve found your writing.


Eric Daniel Self December 19, 2008 at 3:44 pm

I will chat you up on this later.


Shaye July 6, 2009 at 9:47 am

I don’t exactly know what to say here, but I just wanted to type something to let you know I was here and that I am reading and listening. I’m so moved and glad David sent me to your “promise” post to begin with. I’m glad you’re putting pen to paper and using those gifted hands of yours to express all that’s in your mind and heart. I’ll be back.



Rachel May 8, 2011 at 10:48 am

*Sigh* hmmm…you make me think of writing again, i created a book of poetry i had planned on trying to publish but it disappeared years ago ~ I’ve thought of a blog or book as well..
Anyway…i read more that u posted years ago & wanted to share my saying….

I live with No Regrets, good or bad – i am who i am today because of what i went through yesterday & i am stronger & smarter because of it. Today i love myself & if the past was changed id be a different person.


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