My first husband travelled to Japan when I was pregnant with our daughter. When I asked him about his time away, he noted that he had enjoyed the planning more than the trip. And suddenly my life with him made complete sense.
My father’s parents visited from Switzerland twice, during my youth. I suspect it was the second visit, Italian cigarette in hand, when Grossmutti described one of her many stays in hospital during my father’s childhood. She told us of a young Franzili – adding an ending to my father’s name, a curious endearment given what I was soon to take away from her words – walking down the hallway of the hospital, holding the hands of two of his siblings. Weighted.
Both of my grandfathers were abusive alcoholics. Creative men who poured out their art. And rage. My mother once told me the story of sitting on the back step as a child, silently begging her mother – my nana – to stop needling my grandfather so he would not lash out. Helpless.
A theme in my life is that there are themes, subtly revealed from what we know and in the words and stories that are shared with us. People don’t just show you who they are, they tell you. It is as clear as day but never direct.
Last week I attended a free, one day conference on youth and mental illness. The final session was a wrap up panel, with all of the speakers before us and a chance to ask any remaining questions. Someone queried as to the difference between mental and physical illness. A psychologist – whose focus is childhood trauma – put her hand out for the microphone. Without hesitation, with the whole of her being, she stated that mental illness is a construct, and physical illness – including brain illness – is real. And then she spoke again, of trauma. Each day since, I find myself saying, “But . . . ” and then, “Ohhh.”
There is a test you can take – or that can be administered to you – that scores your Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The concept makes me a little ragey because isn’t the whole, greater than the sum of its parts? I think most – if not all – of us experience trauma, and our perception of our experiences counts for so much more in terms of impact than the number and “variety” we have endured.
This past Monday was Family Day in many Canadian provinces. I spent it with my little family – mother, daughter, and two furry creatures – planning the preparation of a stew but distracted by old photos. It was a day of sunlight and CBC was accompanying my distractions. Suddenly I found myself highly attentive to the words of the host, who was urging her listeners to clear the decks as Patrick Stewart was about to narrate the symphonic version of Peter and the Wolf. Perhaps you have read my words of childhood listening? Me as a small ball on the floor, soft, red blanket methodically tucked around so as to secure myself from the wolf who was spinning on the record player as the horn section. This time was different though. I was ready to dance with that wolf if he was up for it. The feeling of the soft, red blanket drifted around me and rose with the music. I was not afraid, not of the sinister story nor the memory of what my childhood was not.
As my daughter joined me in my listening she exclaimed, “Hey! Peter and the Wolf.”