on handwritten letters and the fissures in self-reliance

Last week I received a handwritten letter, four pages long, in a cursive genetically kin to all the women in my line. Despite writing quite a few of these missives myself in the last two decades, I cannot remember the last time I got a handwritten letter.

I have savored this one for days. The three-holed, blue-lined white notebook paper bends beneath the weight of the letters, capturing pauses and indecision, excitement and memories in black ink and the colloquial language of home. Via the reassuring paper medium that marked the happy start of every new school year for me, I can smell a newly cut watermelon, taste a warm just-picked fig, feel the smooth orange skin of a persimmon from high in the tree across the road from my grandparents’ home. The rustle of the paper when lifted lets me hear us all singing old-timey gospel in four-part harmonies on somebody’s front porch after sundown, a flat-picked guitar working up the beat and twenty pairs of feet tapping out the rhythm on the tired wooden planks.

The sentences from one side of that treasured paper press hard against the other, like the stories we would all be telling (simultaneously) were we in the same room and not already singing or praying. (Some of our prayers, of course, had stories also built into them, not just for God’s edification but usually one or the other of us, whichever one had most recently done wrong.) I can have this irreplaceable gift because my cousin, from whom I have been distant since a small dustup over religion and truth after my mother’s death in 2010, took the time to sit down and write a letter to me in her own hand.

Mama (on left) and her twin sister

Mama (on left) and her twin sister

Our mothers were identical twins, my cousin and I the first child of each, and their deaths hit us both equally hard. As the oldest sibling in each of our remaining tribes, we grieved these two foundational women in our own ways, telling the stories that helped us make sense of the loss. Now here’s the nub: most of my family are southerners to the bone and you won’t catch one of them speaking ill of the dead, even when there’s nothing else to say, but I am not that southern, never have been. I persist in remembering the grim and inexplicable right alongside the good: this is, in fact, what I value most about anybody: that they are whole humans and not just one skewed set of traits. I don’t know anyone, myself included, who doesn’t have equal potential for great good and great evil. I don’t know anyone who turns out mostly good and honorable in the long run who didn’t struggle a while to figure out how to get there, either. Most of us carry all within and it’s a tossup each day what gets let loose. I like flawed people. What other sorts are there? I mean no disrespect, but I don’t want to tell just part of the story for anyone I love as fiercely as I do my kin: I want to tell all I can remember, no holds barred, for anything less lets eternity creep in too soon. The world kills us all in the end: yes, I know this: I just aim to give it a run for its money on my way to that line, to lob word and meaning and memory cannonballs into the throat of the abyss just as long as I can.

I am also not cut out for anybody else’s notion of a god and especially not the one in charge of the church of my childhood. From the age of five on, I had questions nobody there could or would answer, which boded well for exactly no one, but then some of its members (including a minister and his wife) helped to abduct and harm my children when they (and I, too, to be blunt) were young, and that settled the religion question for me once and for all time. There are some good people in that church—this cousin has always been one of them (and many years ago got the front screen door of her house rattled some by the men looking to find and force me back to my abusive first husband, solely because they thought she might know where I was)—but I’m not ever going to pass for one of the redeemed in their midst. I have serious issues with any god that lets meanness pass as righteous or vile doers as tares that must remain in the field (wholly unimpeded) till god, in his own good time, sees fit to run the bush-hog.

Equally to the point, perhaps, I can’t get on the right side of these churched: I wear short sleeves, short hair, and trousers in public; I do my praying solely in private; and I will never bow down to a deity that has all power and refuses to fix nearly everything that’s most wrong with the world. I respect other people’s faiths—I genuinely do and try hard not to cross up with people in their own spaces—but anybody who walks into my neck of the woods has to agree that I have a right here to be exactly who I am, say precisely what I feel needs to be said, and live it out as I alone see fit. We can disagree, yes, and I will change when proven wrong and apologize if needed (lord knows I do this plenty!), but nobody has a right to tell me to speak only their truths in my corner.

Disagreements in our families, however, were rugged things, severing ties for years sometimes. You didn’t even have to say something for that to happen either, because the church set the terms of all doings and brooked no argument (or reasoning or logic or independent thought, for that matter). Half the time I got in trouble for just looking as if I disagreed with whatever was being said. The other half I probably earned, for ample cause. The women in our line were an especial trial to me, and I returned the favor with every cell of my being most days. Part of the time I tried very hard to get along with them; the rest of the time it was all-out war of the variety that drew what I disliked most: they disapproved, tut-tutted, punished, prayed for and talked about me, and I got more obstinate and withdrawn every year.

Here’s the thing, though. You can’t win with an obstinate, silent person. No matter what you do to them, you can’t win. You might control every single aspect of them in reality, but you don’t have what really counts. My mother and her sister and I were like fire and ice. Periodically we would grow tired of the struggle or glance over and remember that we were, indeed, genuinely fond of one another and for good cause, and we’d take a brief respite. Then it was on again.

Fortunately for us both, my aunt and I had an unexpected moment of rapprochement right before her death, one that gentled and transformed our previous anger toward one another—laying it bare and showing its relevance and how necessary it was for helping each of us to be who we needed to be while also playing our indispensable role in helping the other to get there without blinkers—but there was no such miracle with my mother and me before hers. She liked this girl cousin better than me all my life, and took to taking the time to make the point repeatedly in her last decade: calling me on the phone to say things like “Oh, I’m trying to get her to write a book. She’s the best writer I have ever read in my life! What a success she would be if she would just publish it. Nobody writes that well anymore.” (Having never once complimented my writing.) And “You know, she does better in college than anyone I’ve known. I am so proud of her.” (College was considered a sin by the churched when I first enrolled, years before this cousin did. Given that she was one of the saved, college became a blessing and honor. Just not mine.) And “She is such a good mother to those children. I’ve never seen anyone do a better job of it. And successful at her career, too.”

No matter how well a child can carry on her sinful behaviors, a parent’s approval still matters. When my mother made a point of calling me to tell me these things, her voice had a steely tone to whatever small talk she was using to get to the main point. I knew what was coming from word one. That’s how attuned an oldest daughter can get to a parent with whom she is ever at odds and a disappointment, an embarrassment even. (I’d divorced the man who abused me and then married again. More than once, though only the one time was enough to put me in “double marriage,” one of the church’s cardinal sins. So I was irretrievably bound for hell, and nothing else really mattered.) These little accounts of my cousin, from the woman I couldn’t get to approve of me no matter what, hit like heat-seeking missiles. The small person in me always wanted to crawl in a hole—from my harried grad-student, single-mom, no-security-but-what-you-your-lonesome-self-can-wring-from-things life—and never see daylight again after these calls.

The woman in me from my line of women? Stuck out my chin, propped it up on my fists (or the damn floor) when needed, and wished my cousin well and lots of success: nary a word otherwise slipped my lips to my mother in part because that would’ve let on about my hole-crawling side (which neither of us would’ve found attractive, but one of us might have enjoyed more than the other). And in part because the stubborn in me didn’t want to let her know I felt anything anymore. Besides, I said over and over inside my own head afterward, I’m not going to get anywhere decent by wishing someone else ill. Mean thoughts might rub off on my life, and isn’t my road hard enough already? (It’s as if I was Hitler in a previous life, I used to think. The conditions of my existence warrant such a notion, play to it even: put karma up for consideration no matter how unchurched I might be. Seriously: one of my favorite professors in grad school once called me Job!) I can’t afford more meanness in my life, just can’t. And I said this all long enough and fervently enough that I genuinely did wish my cousin well. In everything. (She’s actually a really neat person, and only a total knucklehead could wish someone like that ill.)

At my mother’s funeral, I hugged my cousin and hoped for some meaningful family to materialize. At first it seemed likely. We shared some photos and stories, connected on Facebook and spanned the distance with happy memories and talk of some sort of reunion. But I remember our mothers whole: like their own mother and her sister and their mother before them all, these women are HUGE in my life, staggeringly lovely and ferocious and witty and strong. They lived hard lives in outsized ways, making most of the women I have encountered since (including myself) seem pale and tepid by comparison. Next to their astonishing graces, though, strides the sort of lady who can verbally stab you in the back one minute and the very next draw out the butcher knife and wipe your dripping blood off on the hem of her A-line skirt, while asking sweetly and sincerely if you’d like a sprig of fresh mint in your julep. These are not women to be trifled with. Compared to them I am now—and have always been—three shades of a sappy wimp. Once in a rare while, from grade school to the present, I’ve managed to get as effective as they were in dealing with knuckleheads or bullies, but most of the time I am a pale excuse for their descendant. (Though I must say that turning 50 has upped my resolve to be more like them and less like me for my final years, and I am working hard—with some notable successes thus far—to get there.) I said something along these lines on Facebook while everybody else was remembering only the cooking and the sayings and so forth one time, though, and the religious de-friending sparks flew, and I found myself disconnected from family even in this limited space. Usually I ponder departures and, whenever possible, get around to asking people about them. Not this time. So be, I thought, and went on.

After our dustup, distance seemed the better part of whatever cowardly valor I might conjure up. I missed this woman cousin, just a few years older than me and my mother’s confidante in her final years. Heck, I missed them all: we are a funny bunch, with quick wits and keen radars for the quirky and unstable parts of ordinary days, and I have laughed till I cried nearly every time I’ve ever been around her (even when things were not at all objectively funny). But I’m tired of religion and cleaning things up so other people can stomach them and my mother is dead so why on earth should I have to keep doing it to keep the ever-retreating peace now? Can my generation not just evolve a smidgen beyond the ways things have always been done? So I set off on my own and told myself it was better this way, and for a while, on most days at least, it actually was.

Years ago, though, this cousin had compiled a recipe book of all our favorite family recipes and sent me a copy: I was so thankful and said so, but never was that book more used than after my mother died. There were a few missing lines (in the original recipes) and once in a while I’d think I should call Mama up and ask if she knew what might work there, but Mama, of course, after May of 2010, was gone. So I’d consider briefly calling this cousin—she and I, after all, being girls and such ought to have some usable insights into the recipes that formed the comestible spines of our families—but pride or stubbornness or something else unnamed always had me at the door: so I made do and improvised on the cooking just as I’ve done with everything else in my whole life. My family belongs to their God; I don’t. There’s no middle ground and bridges can’t be built steady over brimstone: I know, because I have tried. So I stay off to myself and have even come to see that as wise.

Then a few weeks ago, abruptly staring my own mortality in the face and finding my self-reliant self a little over-much, I began collecting all the images of our shared pasts, transferring 8-millimeter films to DVDs, scanning photos, and recording stories and sayings. This would go to my brother and sister, their children and mine, and our dad. It’s not a close family—thousands of miles apart and 90 percent not on speaking terms with somebody else 95 percent of the time was the way it worked while Mama was alive and now that she’s gone we’re just plain distant. That’s our family line, intensified by religion: hot with it even, but the roots go back deeper than that. Into some backwoods Scots Irish patterns, I suspect.

We had one great-uncle who fell out with our grandfather on the other side (Baptist, which Mama’s side counted as straight sinners) before I was born and at Pappaw’s funeral, I heard four of his children repeat this story with easy laughter and no little pride: ‘Those two old coots didn’t speak again to the grave. Fell out over something nobody could remember—even them—and stopped speaking then and there. Lived right down the road from each other and never once said one more word. They didn’t even look at each other. Same as their daddy and his brother before them.’

I was young then and grieving my grandfather and asked my parents about it. I don’t remember what they said, so it didn’t help. I asked my grieving grandmother, too, one day, and she said something along the lines of ‘They just didn’t have any use for each other anymore.’ The next time I saw my great-uncle, I also asked him. He waved his hand and grunted, then walked out into the yard and handed me something to eat. I remember it as a pear, off the tall tree in his yard, but it might’ve been something else: a fresh ear of corn, maybe, or even a peach. Once he cracked open a handful of newly fallen pecans and pieced out each half for me as we sat on the edge of his porch in the sunshine. We probably didn’t exchange 50 words in my whole life, but this grand uncle’d always been good to me, finding his daddy’s fiddle in the attic and letting me have it to fix up and play, thoughtful things like that. He’d been good to his wife, too, who had a stroke when I was little and then she laid up in the bed in their house unable to move one eyelash for many years until she finally died. What would make two brothers not able to comfort one another over big troubles like that? We’re rarely at a loss for words in my family. Why couldn’t they find some and just let them lie in between the troubles? Bridges for crossing over?

‘Words can’t fix things,’ my father once said, curtly. That was the last time I asked about our family’s tendency to just leave people while they’re still alive. I vowed I’d never do it, that was all, and went about getting strong enough that I could follow through on my vow.

Self-reliance, Emerson should really have said, is a beauty of a trait and a curse of epic proportions. When we make do too long on our own, we forget that having the assistance and company of others (without having to pay them) is part of being human: it humbles us, brings us down to size, keeps us from getting overwrought about the solitude that succors the lone little soul well until one day the refuge strangles its only occupant, and the fight of every cell is for existence and connection and the right to be wrong and wronged by imperfect beings and to love and be loved by them, too. I’ve been disowned so many times now that I’ve learned how to be alone. I even like it. It saves me a good deal of money and travel hassles on holidays, for one thing. But as I packaged our family movies for my siblings, something kicked at the feed trough in my brain hard enough to cut into my rut. I hunted up the last email I’d gotten with my cousin in the cc line and sent a message along asking if she’d like a copy, too. And when she said yes and filled me in a bit on her family (a remarkably loving, non-disowning group of folks, by the way, most of whom attend my parent’s church every week that rolls in), I sent one to her.

Getting a handwritten letter, though? That I wasn’t expecting. She’d tucked in her family’s home videos and a slew of photos and extra copies of the cookbooks for my children, too—every last thing a greater treasure to me than could be all the crown jewels of all the heads of states ever. I’ve pored over and copied and saved them in four places. I’ll print out and hang some as well. But it’s the letter that I keep coming back to. That breaks into my habits. Sticks a long, pearl-headed hat pen into my pride’s noggin. (Emerson, of course, would’ve understood this clear to the bone, and I have given him short shrift above by suggesting otherwise even for a moment.)

I am gathering my pen and ink (actual pen and actual bottle of ink), my onionskin paper, my linen envelopes, and my thoughts, for I intend to answer this letter with all the heart I can muster. No, wait. I’ll leave those treasured tools aside—purchased years ago for a life I’ve never had and likely never will—and pull out the last stack of ruled notebook paper I bought for myself in a back-to-school moment the autumn after I’d finished the last year of school I will ever attempt. Three-holed, blue-lined, plain white paper: the same as the pages she used. Grace cometh in the morning, somebody once said or sung, and I feel it hovering o’er us already. It is in her letter. Can it also be in mine?

My cousin is the teen seated third from the right; I am the white-headbanded and -collared child next to her.

My cousin is the graceful and lovely teen seated third from the right; I am the white-headbanded and -collared child next to her. Our expressions suggest that someone had just said something slightly across the regular line to our left. Likely my Uncle Pete (Ellis for a given name), who’s sipping the sinful coffee that neither of us could have in that house (I got it from my grandpa on the Baptist side pretty regularly, though, which may account for at least some of how I got along with the other side’s church). From Uncle Pete I gathered a good deal of my strength and more than a few of my methods—and expletives and colorful metaphors—for resisting the churched, too. He was a real  hellion and proud of it. Would god I had a smidgen of that in me!


  1. Amy Butler Greenfield

    I know I keep saying this, Hannah, but this is just beautiful. I like to remember people whole, too. What I get stuck on, as a writer and as a person, is when and where and in what context I do that, and when I just keep silent. Hard for me to find clearcut answers there. But hearing you muse on these things has started my day off right. I feel like I’ve just had a handwritten letter from you myself, or a kitchen-table conversation.

    1. nyalawest

      Yes, Amy, that’s the nub of it, I think, trying to navigate how, where, when, for and about whom, why, and to what hoped-for end we write about whole people–whew. It’s rugged. I think Alice Munro’s way–of putting every last thing (except a couple stories) into fiction is probably wisest, but I’m pretty sure that the people who see themselves in her stories may not think it’s any better. I’ve done so much memoir that the all-fiction option isn’t open to me anymore. I’m also not sure I would want that. At least in memoir my stories are rooted in my perceptions, my experiences, my hopes and disappointments and whatever lessons I can glean–which lets other people have wholenesses that I may not even be able to capture. (I’m going to have to write a book about my mother and her sister, though, in order to make sure that the beautiful parts of them get honored and told. What they struggled through and for to leave something of value? Stops my own heart in its tracks sometimes.)

      Always, of course, no matter how much I dislike cleaning things up, I still do it. Regularly. I take especial care to not mention the most ugly things, the worst of the violence, for example, or actions so gruesome that I felt nearly disembodied when they occurred. These I hold within, wrestling with them, fighting hard to smith them into something of value that can come from me. (I think this is why I play piano, for example, or knit and sew and paint, for these are definitely places where the hardest and unspeakable stuff goes for expression.)

      I love that you see this medium as a handwritten letter or a conversation across a kitchen table! I also feel that when I read your blog entries. Isn’t now a perplexing, but incredible time to be alive and privileged enough to have access to such things?! I skyped with my granddaughter this weekend and thought, for probably the nth time, how lovely these technologies are for connections. I wonder what my parents’ and their parents’ lives might’ve been like, had they had some of these ways of keeping in touch.

  2. Amy Butler Greenfield

    So good to hear your thoughts on this. Fiction’s where a lot of my stuff goes, but you’re right in saying that’s not an easy answer. And yes, I wrestle with the worst stuff alone, trying somehow to be honest about it but not be drowned by it, either – which is a struggle in and of itself. And sometimes the only place to put all that is music or tears or a long, long walk.

    Longing for an honest-to-goodness kitchen-table conversation with you about all this, and other things, too! But very grateful we can sit together at this great table in the ether, too.

    1. nyalawest

      We shall have that talk at the table, my friend. We shall! Good lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise? (Or even, I believe and so hope, if it does.) I love fiction’s possibilities for truth and find it possible to tell far more of it there, but have come full circle with myself in somehow knowing at a very deep level that I must also speak (question, mull, reflect on and wrestle with) it in genres like this one which hold open a space for our memoirs (which draw upon our memories and imaginations in a different manner). Though that’s a hindsight sort of thing for sure: I’ve gone round and round about doing this PLS sequel as creative nonfiction: it would be SO much easier to write! In some ways. In others, perhaps impossible. 🙂

      Interestingly enough, a few people down through the years (with no personal investment or connection to my narrated life) have made demeaning remarks to me about the fact that my first book was a memoir; it seems that some academics in particular consider that not “real writing” in the way that literary fiction or nonfiction might be. I look at them perplexed (still) and think about the incredible work—and intellectual, ethical, moral, social, and feral lone-being challenges—involved in telling any true story ever, and I do not understand the disdain. I’ve heard from enough readers to know it is not shared by many and, for every one who might feel that, many more find succor in hearing someone try to put such matters in words. We hear ourselves, I think, in someone else’s stories, no? Their struggles become capacious enough to hold our own in the embrace of one who understands, one who has ‘been there’ (even though it may be a very different ‘there’ entirely), doesn’t it?

      The main thing, I believe, is not to be cruel or to deliberately harm someone and to get around as soon as you can in the tale to giving some voice to their sides of things, to your own blindspots, to include enough contradictory and paradoxical information (e.g. some church members behave nothing like the ones who harmed us, even though they go there every week) that any reader can begin to unravel their threads, too, and see beyond the writer’s ability to see—both on the way through and now. When this begins to happen, then I start to discover more of it myself, too. Far more than I was privy to in the pell-mell of it all!

      Thanks so much for stopping by my ‘table’. I’ll put on the pot for tea. There’s a class-five gale outside today: you could get here in a jiffy, if you could just get that to hold steady from your shores to our’n. Grin. I’m guessing the ether will have to do for a while!

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