Epilogue to Behind These Doors

Revelations and 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. Was she a good mother? No. Did I love her? No, I can’t say they I did. I’m not that big.

Carl John Clemens 10-7-67I got 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, 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 suppose I turned out as well as I have because I had other good mothers throughout my life—sisters and friends and lovers who filled that mothering gap for me. It pays to be adoptable.

Noreen ClemensIn 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 and work, and now, 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 no longer matters. Mom didn’t set out to make our lives miserable; it wasn’t about us. I finally can accept my mother as she was—her long familiar discord, her cacophony of complaining, moaning, and groaning have softened to a euphony of healing. She 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 Mom’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 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, Chamberlins, Clemens, and Hoys—departed long ago. I met their descendants, cousins who gave me letters, pictures, and anecdotes that wove our familial lines and generations together. I brought my mother and father onto the same page. And there I met my self. What a congregation! I have fallen in love with my family with the writing of this memoir. I’d always said that if it had been up to me, I’d have kept us all together. Well, I’ve done that—and then some.

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  1. Through tracing family lines, I connected with Raymond LaFray, then Lizzy Bowman, first cousins it turns out (their mothers were sisters), who hadn’t seen one another since their grandfather’s funeral (Frank E. Kirby) in 1959. One of the gifts of genealogy is kin coming together; numerous family members have reunited or resumed relationships via me poking around! I’m delighted to be the connecting link:

    Dear Catherine, While reading your recent “Epilogue,” I thought about how close Lizzy and I have become and that you made this possible. Ever since you told me about her and that first multi-hour phone call, we’ve hit it off like long lost friends. I visited her a year ago, and would have gone this past fall as well, but health issues kept me here. We connect often, by phone or email, on all sorts of matters, family, politics, etc., like two peas in a pod. I am deeply indebted to you and very grateful. Raymond

    Catherine, It’s interesting how as I look back on life, how one small incident, past meeting, or new information received can change the entire course of one or more individuals, or heck even bigger! You became that catalyst for Raymond and I. How thankful we both are. We have a very small family, only the four cousins left. Ray and I have been enjoying a family connection that’s been missing for a long time. He’s like a brother to me now. We are two peas in a pod! And all because of you! Gracias! Lizzy

  2. Doug Hill says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your book, your essays, your insights. I’m surprised that Sevenau (the male) doesn’t appear–as well as being the father (I assume) of your two wonderful sons, he must have had some big influence on your life, at least for awhile. Perhaps too raw to write about?

    • No, I have stories I could write about my kids’ dad but he’s still alive, and, we’re on good terms. We were only married for five years and now divorced over forty. Sometimes being vague is simply better.

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