Roberta Branca

Archive for the ‘Private Musings Gone Public’ Category

Finding peace within by making peace outside

In Friendship, Private Musings Gone Public on December 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

This year has been one of making peace and refurbishing broken bonds. I have been making connections with people I had cut myself off from, or been cut off from, for decades. This Christmas season, I spoke by phone with an old friend who I’d feuded with years ago. First came the unbidden realization that I wanted to connect with this person. The angst about whether they would want to talk to me, or that the conversation might be difficult or awkward, simply was relieved from me. Somehow, I found the will to accept whatever consequences came from reaching out.

If this person, who was very dear and very close to me through our difficult adolescence, had chosen not to talk to me or had met my overture with silence, I was at peace with that. If they responded with acceptance and a mutual desire to renew our friendship, so much the better. But I held no preconceived expectations and it made all the difference. The words I needed just came to me as we talked; I had no plans ahead of time.

The issues that once divided us were substantive and real, but I can see now that my responses to them at the time lacked compassion and love, and respect for our friendship. Ironically what had festered inside me for a long time leading up to our final “break up” was the sense that the special bonds of our friendship were weakened by events that now seem like a normal part of growing up and breaking away. Yet when I was put to the true test, I did not factor that special relationship into my calculated decisions. I did not look at the full picture of the place my friend was in emotionally, even when she pleaded with me to do so. I responded with a 20-year temper tantrum, yet she responded to my overture with simple joy. What a blessing.

This morning I feel that I have washed myself clean of this cluttered past, like I can stop punishing myself in small ways and take care of me and connect to the world without falling apart. More importantly, I have the capacity to be a friend on whatever terms are available between us and I don’t need to direct those terms or have a road map handed to me.

This friend and I have decided on a specific form of contact: snail mail! I will send her a card so that she will have my return address, and the card will have my email address so that she can send me her email address — this was the product of a spontaneous plan that precluded having time to simply exchange addresses over the phone. I think the reality is that we were simply making a commitment to a “step two” in our contact chain.

Since I am airing my private affairs in public, I cannot let an opportunity pass to portray how bullying in our culture played a role in this friendship. We have many things in common: quiet natures, reading, writing — we would have found each other’s friendship regardless of our social or familial situations. But it has to be said that bullying from some peers also bound us together, sometimes too tightly for either of us to breathe. My friend and others in our circle recognized before I did the need to branch out to make connections separate from each other; as we grew up and our peers did the same, each of us found some connections that were the products of our own efforts rather than our group. I told myself at the time that I understood and respected this new reality, but in truth I rebelled in a vengeful way. I once believed that we were “destined” to be friends forever. The truth is the friendship is and was a garden and it was up to me to tend it, guard over it, and make it  a safe place to return to when the day’s travels were over.

Today I have cleared away the frost from that garden to find that my friend has been doing the same; we may have been hoeing and plowing in separate patches of the field, but the seeds are in place for wild flowers to grow.

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Twelve Days Without a Mother

In Family, Private Musings Gone Public on March 23, 2011 at 5:42 am

In the twelve days since my mother died, I have learned that my mother was greater than just the sum of her parts. She wasn’t simply a mother of eight children; she was a mother eight times over, playing a unique role in the lives of each of us whom she gave birth to.

This revelation began to dawn on me when my father asked me to write a memorial booklet for the funeral, containing memories from each of the eight siblings. It grew to include most of the grandchildren, and all of the husbands, wives and partners. I learned many things I hadn’t known. She made Easter outfits and other clothing for the older children. Like me, she loved Janis Joplin. Yet she died without either of us knowing we both admired the same artist. She gave my sister her first set of oil paints.

The revelations continued as we all gathered to hear her final wishes. First, there was The Secret. We all knew there was something in my mother’s family past that she did not want to talk about. I began to get an inkling about it years ago when a family friend with a penchant for genealogy “discovered” that my mother’s father had been married before and had children from that first marriage. I knew just from the look on my mother’s face when he told her that this wasn’t new information to her. I also knew without asking that she was not going to talk about it.

So over the years I played a game with myself: what was The Secret? Had her mother and father had an affair? Had her father gone back to his first wife, or had he really died when she was ten? Finally, my father felt we could all handle the truth: her father had never divorced his first wife, and her parents had never been married but had lived happily for ten short years before her father killed himself during the Great Depression.

After this revelation it was time to decide, as a group, how to dispense with all the possessions my mother had brought into the marriage and many others she’d acquired along the way. I learned as much about my father as my mother in this process, because it soon became clear that there is a stark difference between what my mother is willing to save and what my father is willing to keep around in what is now his home.

Ironically I have become the keeper of my mother’s sewing machine, sewing baskets, and all the sewing notions. I say ironic because I don’t exactly sew myself. I mend things. Sometimes I mend the same garment four or five times before finally releasing it from my misery. So I can never acquire too much thread, needles, and buttons. I have a book called Sewing For Dummies that I have consulted more than once to find just the right stitch for a new mending job.

If my brother hadn’t told me my mother used to make clothes for the children I would have completely misunderstood the wealth of sewing equipment I inherited. While I was growing up, my mother earned a college degree at the age of 49; worked as a substitute teacher, an Avon salesperson, and a secretary. She took us to plays and concerts and the beaches on Cape Cod. She did not sew, although she did teach me how to use a sewing machine. I now know that her lack of sewing activity was due only to the amount of time devoted to doing everything else. By the time she retired, arthritis was gripping her hands. It was only when I started sorting through her sewing basket that I understood that she was giving something up by not sewing.

At least 25 pairs of knitting needles. Lace basting fabric in pastel hues, jewel tones, and earth tones. A wooden tool for pressing creases. A metal board with magnetic tape stuck to it. Boxes and bags of  buttons. The button collection I can understand; you have to buy a set of 20 randomly-matched buttons just to find one that you can use. You don’t part with buttons without a fight.

It took me a couple of hours to go through each item in the three-tiered, double-sided sewing basket. During that time, I thought about how my sister had told me that she serviced the sewing machine six years earlier at my mother’s request. My father joked at the time that my mother would never use the machine, and when I heard the story I thought my mother was like me. Prone to starting things without finishing them. I think now that there was more to it than that. As I sorted through the sewing collection, I thought of a woman who made suits for her children, collected seam-basting fabrics, and acquired exotic wooden implements for making creases. I think my mother had the sewing machine serviced with every intention of going back to her projects, but her arthritis had other ideas.

I think about this seamstress-mother as I twirl a silver ring with rhinestone “diamonds” around and around on my finger. I think about the woman who collected so much jewelry that her three daughters grew bleary-eyed trying to sort through it all on one too-short afternoon. I think about what different people my parents are and were. My mother saving everything from sewing notions down to a Red Cross certification card my brother earned when he was twelve. My father urging us to take everything away, from that Red Cross card to framed pictures of ourselves.

My parents argued a lot over things. I used to think it was just marriage-fatigue, but in some ways it was the essence of their differences. My father wasn’t just griping about clutter; he really, really doesn’t like clutter. My mother wasn’t just carping about discarded bits and bobs out of routine; she really, really, needed to know the things she valued were somewhere safe even if it was hard for others to see the value.

During the last twelve days, I have thought a lot about my mother’s love of color, her loud and hearty laugh, and the deep sense of shame that seemed to simmer beneath the surface in every interaction. Now that I have learned the likely source of that shame — her unmarried parents — I am both saddened and awed by the burden she kept to herself in an age where most people probably wouldn’t give two hoots who her parents were or what they did or didn’t do.

As the days turn into months and years, I know I will have many more insights about my mother and her relationship to her. It seems like there could never have been enough time to truly know my mother in the way she deserved to be known. But perhaps it is not too late to learn a few things about myself.

My Dog Won’t Shut Up

In Private Musings Gone Public on January 26, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Don’t get me wrong. I love my dog. He’s a beauty, a tri-color-headed-white Sheltie. Much to tall and barrel-chested to be a purebred, but we were told by the shelter he is a purebred nonetheless.

He’s very affectionate, curling up with us on the couch, giving kisses, and jumping up to be petted. He does tend to do these things to excess, but considering Shelties are supposedly not very affectionate it’s a blessing that we were very enthusiastic about when we got him.

Over time, he’s learned the commands heel, down, come, and sit. Then there is the one command he has learned only selectively: “Quiet.” Specifically, he barks continually whenever I walk him. He barks on his way down the stairs. He barks as soon as he gets outside, perhaps to announce his presence to the world.

If the world doesn’t detect his presence on the first bark, there is a loooong 20-minute interval in which the world will find it out. Put simply, he barks and barks and barks. After ten months as his owner, there is a certain amount of shame in not being able to control his barking. True, he was an adult when we got him and it is harder to change the behaviors of an adult dog.

But he’s changed some of his barking behavior when he’s with Brendan. He will walk calmly down the stairs and remain calm if they don’t run into anybody.

Nobody can stop him if he sees another person, dog, cat, car, or butterfly. There’s some solace for me in the fact that barking is very much part of his nature.

Still . . . my dog won’t shut up.