A Defining Moment

Audio: A Defining Moment * December 1953, San Jose (click arrow to listen)


I don’t remember how I got there or who dropped me off, perhaps Daddy waited in a car across the street, or maybe the family I’d been living with brought me. Who knows? It didn’t really matter; I was coming to live with my mother! I bunny-hopped on her doorstep, the butterflies in my stomach on the wing. Not tall enough to reach the knocker, I rapped twice on the door. She would be so happy to see me!

Noreen ClemensThe front door opened. Standing there, she glanced over my head. She stepped back and let me pass, then closed the door and turned. Picking up my small yellow and white, brown-striped suitcase, I trailed after her.

Working as a cook and housekeeper for two Irish Catholic priests, my mother lived in a small room off the church’s rectory. She led me to the dining room and pointed to a place at the end of the pew against a wall, then disappeared into the kitchen through the white Dutch-door.

Her voice tight, she ordered: “Be quiet and behave,” followed by, “sit there and don’t touch anything.”

With my Naugahyde case deposited on the floor under the pew, I dangled my feet, sitting very still on the hard bench, obediently folding my five-year-old hands in my lap. I studied the red-flocked wallpaper, the tatted doilies, the long rectangular dining table set for two: the wine goblets, silver spoons, the scatter of white plates, linen, crystal, and pewter… all waiting in silence, like me. Wondering how I got there and pretty sure I hadn’t done anything wrong, I’d wait most of my life for her to come back to me. She never did.

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  1. Susan Dalberg says:

    Catherine, how you describe that void is profound! I know how hard it is to put that pain in words; you do it with so few, but they reach out and grab us. We are there with you, in that pew, watching your tiny legs dangle, sharing your combined feelings of hope AND abandonment.

    You certainly are not “removed” from the audience when you write these pages; you suck us right in. The heartache your mother gave you turned out to be a gift for so many of us. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I am so fortunate to have met you! Susan

  2. Jeff Elliot says:

    I’m so grateful you have found a place of “perceived safety” that allows you to share your life experiences with us. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking this moment must have been for your five-year-old self. For me, the simplicity and clarity of your story telling makes the emotional impact all the more powerful. I think I would have crumbled in similar circumstances, but you have somehow used all this to become the remarkable person we all witness today. Continued congratulations and keep the stories coming!!

    • Thank you my friend. Each of us have incidents, those defining moments in our lives where we make a determination as to who we are going to be in the world. This was my earliest one. I came away with: I am that I am alone; I am that I am not cared about; I am that I am lost: I am that I am confused. To the degree then that I felt those things to be true, to that same degree I overcompensate ever after to prove them not to be. I get that I’m deeply cared about by many (it helps to be adoptable). I still get lost but I actually know exactly where I am, and eventually end up where I need to be. To the degree that I’m confused, to that degree I have a well-honed clarity.

      It’s spoken rather oddly: “I am that I am.” That’s because it was our perception of what happened, and what we made it mean; it wasn’t necessarily “true.” The first time I told this story in front of a room full of people, I broke down. After a long time of working with it, I was eventually able to get some distance and see the cosmic beauty of it. That moment in time cemented in me the gifts that I’m meant to give. I wouldn’t be able to show up as I do or be who I am without having experienced it. This is so for each of us. Where we’re the most wounded, we’re the most accomplished. Another way to say it is: the places where we stumble is where we find our gold. I’ve heard hundreds of people’s incidents, and when you hear their stories you “get” them! I think it’s some of the best work out there. That, and the Enneagram.

  3. Janet Sasaki says:

    I wait for each chapter! Enjoying the insight you have for people! Poignant, and nice to see your world! Janet

    • Thanks for following my writing Janet, and for your lovely comments. I appreciate being read, acknowledged, and encouraged. I feel naked at times on Facebook, which is disconcerting. With the book I feel more removed from the audience, where there is somewhat more of perceived safety.

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