A FINE COAT (10/20/2021)
I’ve been struggling over what to write next now that my memoir is essentially finished. For years I was not really sure who I was. I’ve become reborn every 20 years to start a brand-new life. Maybe that should be the topic but, for the record, I’d like not to start again when I’m 80. My latest rebirth was wonderful and rewarding but also extremely hard. It was also the most radical of them all so far, and I am still reeling after 7 years.
I’ve worn my independence like a warm coat, keeping me safe and protecting me from the elements, but it was not easy to come by. For the first 20 years of my life, I was completely under the thumb of my parents. I was only allowed my own thoughts because I mostly kept them to myself. I never shopped for my own clothes or even chose what outfit to wear until I moved out. This may seem unbelievable to you, but my mother had an iron fist, and my dad had a leather belt. When I was a younger teen, I finally ran from him, when he whipped out his belt. I called from the neighbor’s house threatening to tell everyone in town about the beatings if he ever hit me again. An influential figure in town, he stopped, but my mother’s techniques were harder to deal with. When I had my own apartment, she found out that my lock was broken and started driving to my home early in the morning and walking into my bedroom, where I was asleep with my boyfriend, to be sure I got to work on time. That was one of the biggest reasons I left Connecticut and never looked back – My first rebirth.
For the next 20 years, I was with my husband, traveling around the country via thumb then, once we had children, in a variety of vehicles. Those were wild and crazy days and very hard. He was the first person who saw me for who I was and truly loved me. As much as he loved me though, he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his own violent and nightmarish childhood. He was often angry and mostly focused that anger at me. When he did aim it at our children, I got in the way, deflecting away from them and onto me instead. I fought with him constantly, trying to maintain a sense of myself, trying to hold on to that coat of independence, trying to survive. He threw things and raged, frightening us all. Like so many abused women, I felt trapped and ashamed. But, I had also grown up in a similar environment, so it felt normal. I thought this was what relationships were about, passion and brutality. I remember going to a counselor who referred to me as a battered wife. “No,” I said, “He’s never hit me.” She sighed and explained that there were so many forms of abuse, and, at that moment, I realized that I’d been battered my entire life.
When I finally left that situation, it was in large part due to the help of a couple of friends who had been watching me slowly fade and whither. I left with my 3-year-old son and a couple of suitcases, leaving my older son with his dad, hoping they would bond and aware that he was starting to treat me the same way that his dad had modeled for him. By the time I finally left, I wanted nothing to remind me of my time spent with Paul. I just wanted out and, it felt like if I didn’t get out immediately, I might never be able to leave. Over the next few years, I did go back and take some household things and items we had accumulated together. One of the hardest things about that leaving was the reaction of others. Everyone loved Paul and only saw his public side, the happy-go-lucky joker who would give you the shirt off his back. And, he really was a great guy. Once we weren’t living together, we became very close friends. He even lived in my house for a few days while he was dying.
Hoping to start this new life single, I kept to myself, declining invitations to go out dancing with friends. However, a friend brought my next lover over to jam one night, and that was another beginning. I thought this man was the love of my life. He was angry but never aimed it at me. I overlooked his bullying and stubbornness because it was less than I had been living with, and I still believed that all relationships were stormy. This was a calmer storm and definitely full of passion – for about a year. Then, things started cooling off. Eventually, the anger started being directed at me, then 20 years later, after making too many excuses, I finally left.
Now, here I am again. This time I didn’t leave things behind. This was partly because I was left to pack up and clean alone, even though we were both moving out. The landlady was a friend, and I didn’t want to leave her with our mess. I also didn’t want to leave with nothing again. So I packed and purged, crying my way through it all. I had accumulated too much stuff. I raised three children and a grandchild, had housed all three of my children during their childhoods and for varying amounts of time as adults and even housed their partners and children. Everyone left things behind for me to deal with. I even had some of Paul’s things, including his ashes.
Once again, another 20 years later, I embarked on another new adventure. I was without children in my home for the first time in 40 years. Two of my three children and two of my three grandchildren had moved away soon, and I was partially estranged from my third child. Once again, after resolving to stay single, which I can’t seem to pull off, I fell in love and moved in with that new love. He took me in with all of my past possessions and emotional baggage. He is patient, encouraging and supportive. He doesn’t insist on trying to change me or have me think his thoughts. He is interested in what I think. He isn’t an angry man. He is entertained by my quirkiness instead of being disgusted or aggravated by it. He wants to help me and care for me. He is the first person to insist on carrying my heavy bags instead of watching me struggle under the weight of them or yell at me because I’m not keeping up. He is even reluctant to make suggestions lest he seem critical or pushy. And, after all this time, I am still on guard. The past is hard to put behind me.
At sixty-eight years of age, I finally know who I am and what I want. I was given time and a wonderful space in which to heal. I feel as though I went on a retreat for the first couple of years living here, retreating into myself to try to find solace and understanding for all I have been through in my lifetime. Then the pandemic came, allowing me to spend copious amounts of time at home. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t rushing around going to event after event and working too many hours. Although, I no longer feel actively afraid, I often try to explain to people that I am akin to a rabbit, always on guard and ready to flee at the slightest hint of danger.
Over the last decade, I’ve been trying to let go of physical things, kitchen things that can be replaced if I move out again, clothes I don’t wear, books I’ll never read, linens, all the things I had for running a household, even some of my furniture. But I can’t seem to let go of my old wool coat. It occasionally grows mold and hangs in my closet endlessly too frayed and worn with the sleeves a little short for me. It doesn’t have any real significance that I can think of, but I can’t seem to let it go. When I consider giving it up, my heart feels like it is ripping in two. It’s just a coat, but it’s a fine old coat that still has many years of warmth in it. Maybe it’s a symbol of that independence I have struggled to maintain and have so often left behind. Maybe this time I can hold on to it. And maybe someday I’ll happily pass my coat on to another who needs it.