A Billet-Doux to My Siblings, 2004

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Dear Gordon (Larry) and Marian, Carleen, Liz (Betty), and Claudia,

My writing began with “Queen Bee.” When I shared it with each of you, it gave us a connection we hadn’t had. I also read it to our cousin Marceline whom I’d met at a Chatfield 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. Carleen and Liz, your anger with Mother had been so intractable, and my own experience of her difficult, that I thought perhaps Marceline was mixing her up with someone else.

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.

Clemens siblings: Carleen, Gordon (Larry), Catherine (Cathy), Liz (Betty), Claudia, 1993

Clemens siblings: Carleen, Gordon (Larry), Catherine (Cathy), Liz (Betty), Claudia, 1993

Four generations—brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren—sat in a double circle in my living room. I asked everyone in turn to say 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. Everyone thought my writings were funny, except you, Gordon—you weren’t so sure—but you had a different family life 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 stashed for years in your garages, attics, and closets. My own memories and assumptions are cluttered in between.

Clemens siblings, Sonora, California, 1950 L-R: Carleen, Claudia, Cathy (Catherine) in middle, Betty (Liz), Larry (Gordon)

Clemens siblings, Sonora, California, 1950
Carleen, Claudia, Cathy (Catherine) in middle, Betty (Liz), Larry (Gordon)

Relieved when I got your first responses to my draft, Carleen, Liz, Claudia, and Marian, you all said, “I laughed, then I cried, then I laughed some more.” I worried what you would say, Gordon. Until you’d read my first draft, 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 received your edited copy, I was afraid to unseal the manila envelope. I circled 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 take anything out, except where I wrote that you had hunted for frogs, informing me that you had NEVER hunted for frogs. I also laughed when I saw you crossed out all the swear words. And I want to thank you for your generosity in allowing me to print something so personal as your diary; it tied the story together.  I love you, I love that you are my brother, and I appreciate your support in writing our stories.

Marian, you’ve been a huge buttress, reading drafts 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 your kindness and patience. You soften my edges, reminding me by your example of another way to be. I love you dearly.

Carleen, thank you for being our mother when Mom was unable, 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 not for you. Thank you. I am grateful for the woman you are, and I love you with all my being.

Liz, thanks 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. “Riddled with errors, as usual,” you’d quip. Your memory, knowledge, and stand for the truth make a difference. I’m also grateful you’re still speaking to me after I decided, against your request, to include some painful things that 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 had the closest connection with Mom (actually, you were the only one with the fortitude to listen to her), so you have memories the rest of us lack. I laugh each time we talk, and 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 would be a few vignettes has turned into this memoir, reaching back through our generations and growing into a body of work. I wrote it for you, and I wrote it for me. It gave me a place to say what I wanted to say, it brought me clarity and tenderness as I witnessed my childhood, and it brought me back to myself. 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 “Cathy” Frances (Clemens) Sevenau,
                                     Carl & Babe’s youngest child

Stephanie Moore

P.S. Writing a book is not a solitary event, and this one would never have emerged without my friend and teacher, Stephanie Moore. Years ago she taught me to dance, today she is teaching me to write. Thanks to my Monday night writing class who gives me their attention and feedback a page and a half at a time. And thank you to my brother, sisters, and a few friends who so generously read my drafts, helped me arrange and rearrange this book so it’s not so confusing, editing my commentary, encouraging me, and nudging me to get to the point.

I also thank my other mentors in their general order of appearance in my life:

My ex-husband, who allows me to wrestle with my resentment on a regular basis and who affords me his ankle to chew on so my sons’ ankles get a rest; and my sons who offer me the constant opportunity to keep my mouth shut, which I seldom take.

Jerry Silver, my group therapist, who told me I had choices and I told him if I made those choices people would get mad at me, to which he replied, “So?”

My friends, Charlie Price and PJ Tyler, who believe in me and see me bigger than I ever see myself.

My broker, Art Fichtenberg, who taught me about real estate and cautioned me about throwing kerosene on a small campfire.

Peter Fairfield, who asserted that we choose our parents and I fell off his acupuncture table, laughing.

Rita George, the first person who told me there might be something happening on another level and I might want to pay attention and listen and I said, “Huh?”

Justin Sterling, who clarified in The Women’s Weekend why I was not in a long-term, committed relationship with a man, and who made me seriously question if it was worth all the effort.

Michael Naumer, my teacher, who had me turn my pointed index finger gently around to myself, without breaking it, to see my part; who had me see that things aren’t happening to me, but that they are happening for me; and reminded me that people are miraculous surprises.

Kris Saks, who brought home three lessons: the distinction of inner resources vs the resources of others, the fallout when entitlement trumps integrity, and the Fourth Law of Karma.

Gary Ruiz, who shiatsus me back into my body, listens to me, and who thinks I’m funny.

Shauna Wilson, who counseled me that my anger was so deep I wasn’t even able to tap into it. Now if she’d asked me about my resentment…

Dennis Mead-Shikaley who, in his radical coaching workshop, helped me leave my father’s house.

Ulrika Engman, my yoga teacher, who quieted my mind and loosened my body and cheered me on until I could touch my toes.

Connie Kaplan, who said I incarnated in the field of resistance and I said like that is supposed to be news that isn’t obvious to the whole planet? She said, not that kind of resistance. That I am like a resistor in electricity: when people meet me, their lives take a different direction.

Charlie Bloom, who informed me that I make a difference by being simply who I am and I still find it difficult that it is that easy.

My grandson, who reminds me to have FUUUN and say SUUURE; who shows me how I could have done a few things differently with my sons, but that as his Oma, I do just fine.

And last, Karla McLaren, who in her course Emotional Genius showed up as my mother, opening wounds and emotions in me that were buried and scarred over long ago. Due to her course, I wrote “Queen Bee,” and (my tongue is bleeding here) I thank her.

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Comments

  1. Susan Dalberg says:

    This is one of the pieces you shared with me even before you published your book. I knew I loved you at the very beginning. Your sense of humor, your acceptance that others don’t see the same things from the same set of eyes, but love each other in spite of those differences, all appealed greatly to me. Having come from a similar environment, with a sibling who also thought I was nuts, made me laugh when I realized I wasn’t the only one as I read your sharing experience. I have kept the “genealogy tour” (transcript) you made with your brother and sister-in-law and whenever I need a belly laugh, I drag that one out and relieve whatever tragedy I’m going through. Thank you, dear friend, for being an inspiration and source of smiles for so many of us.

  2. I love the specific way you thanked your brother and sisters and then all the others, Catherine. So full and generous and particular. I aspire to do this so well as you. xo Carole

  3. What a ride Catherine. A cleansing of the soul and opening of the heart. Totally enjoyed every sentence. Please never stop writing.

    • Linda and Carole, I’m grateful to have both you and Carole as soul sisters. I feel seen, acknowledged, and cared for by both of you. MWUAH! (that’s the sound of a kiss)

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