Category Archives: motherhood

An Open Door

A couple weeks ago, my husband stopped me in the hallway at the school where we teach to tell me that he wasn’t receiving an employment contract for the upcoming academic year. By extension that meant I wouldn’t receive a contract either; we came to the school as a package deal and will leave as one, too. As a part-time Humanities faculty member, I was already keenly aware of my expendability. My husband’s news, however, came as a surprise. I felt like throwing up, but I did what an adult does: I pasted a smile on my face, returned to my class, and finished out the day’s work. Then I drank the weekend away.

Unemployment is a stress in itself, but, at a boarding school, it carries an additional wallop: eviction. We live in a faculty house and must vacate it, and our positions, by June 15. My family has four months to figure out many things: where we will work, where our children will attend school, where we are going to live, and what steps will cause the least damage to us as individuals and to our family unit.

My husband and I waited a week before telling the kids. Though it would have been easier to bear the heartache and spare them, we didn’t want to risk them hearing the news from one of the other faculty members or their children. (In this small community, news travels fast.) My son was four when we started working at the school, and my daughter stood as tall as my knees. This is the only home the kids have known. They cried, we cried, and we all went to bed with nine years of memories to either mourn or savor. When we woke up the following morning, we watched the sun rise into a crisp blue sky.

I will not miss this job. It has demanded my creativity and sapped my patience. It has killed my love for young adult literature. I may miss the unique relationships I’ve built with young learners, but I won’t miss the grading, the superfluous, unproductive faculty “workshops,” or the hours of planning. This job has always been a job, not a calling, and I accept its end for the possibilities and potential it unleashes.

I feel buoyant, despite the chaos. This experience is an open door. I intend to walk through it with my head held high.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Curses and Choices

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Now that both my parents have passed on, I find myself drawn to the histories they left behind. I am learning that what I thought was my story represents a small part of a much bigger family narrative, which I am compelled to document in order to understand. I recently heard that I may have the opportunity to visit my place of birth for the first time this spring via a service trip through the school where I work. If there are connections to make, I must uncover them now and share my parents’ stories so that they do not die with me.

* * * * *

My mother defected from her native Ukraine to Uganda in 1971. She was 31. She and my sister, then almost four, moved in with my sister’s father, N. Together, the small common law family relocated to an outlying town near Arusha, Tanzania, in December of that year. While N (whom my mother refers to strictly by last name in her journals) began to carouse and spend increasingly more time away from home, my mother befriended the neighbors and sought solace from her loneliness among their company.

The friendship initially bolstered my mother’s spirits. She writes in her journal of joyful early encounters with her neighbors, a married couple also new to the area. But soon, there are hints of unwelcome advances that she cannot bring herself to elaborate upon even in her own writing. It was the wife, not the husband, who tried to seduce my mother: first with words (“You like your body, don’t you? I like mine too”); then with “no good pictures” and movies (margin notes, scribbled over and crossed through, say “porno”); finally, physically locking herself and my mother in the neighbors’ bedroom at night. To my mother, the daughter of an Eastern Orthodox upbringing, the insinuation of sexual impropriety, especially with someone of her own sex, must have scandalized her. “I must confess I never even thought about love [emphasis hers] with another woman. For me she was just a very good friend and I was very devoted to her and her husband as well.”

When my mother resisted the woman’s sexual overtures, the woman, whom I’ll call W, threatened her with dark magic (such as mind control and the ability to “spiritually perform abortion”). My mother notes a strange abdominal pain, cured by the recommended insertion of an egg-shaped sac filled with something like “decaying grass.” She confronts W, at the time her best friend, standing outside a bathroom doorway, manually rewinding a cassette tape backwards, as if, according to Mom, conducting some sort of psychological manipulation. My mother began to behave strangely in W’s company. “I did not give a thought that time, that it was actually somebody’s wish to make me a fool and crazy like in people’s eyes,” she writes. “I did not suspect that somebody was watching me and actually I was already possessed by that time.” Mom’s journals document mental ‘conversations’ with W, and dissociative lapses where she felt that someone was using her body and speaking through her. “I was not in my mind, was obeying them in everything like a small child, whatever they wanted me to eat or to drink.”

Mom later speculates that W drugged or hypnotized her, but, regardless, my mother fell into a cycle of self-fulfilling despair over life’s disappointments that would plague her until her death. “When she said, ‘If you don’t love me, you will be in trouble… and it might be for the rest of your life,’ she knew what she was talking about. And her promise became true.”

My mother left Africa convinced that she’d been cursed by her best friend and next door neighbor.

*

Misfortune followed when Mom met my father in 1975. They dated and moved in together after a brief courtship, and I was born soon after. Dad “became completely another man” before my arrival. “It was like a devil changed him completely.” In this part of Mom’s journal, W transforms into a witch, bent on keeping my mother miserable. “I had to lose not only Jon [my father], but my own motherland, my family and friends, and everything I’ve achieved in my life, just because of revenge of one crazy woman-witch… for her own skin and security she put me into this butchery… to lose everything, as she told me that I will.”

Mom walked out of the maternity home, a single woman with a howling, red-faced infant swaddled in wool and a sullen ten-year-old daughter whose father had forsaken her for a new family of his own.

*

Letters exchanged between my father and his parents reveal they were very unhappy with the choice, however temporary, he’d made in Mom. They looked at her and saw – not incorrectly – a deeply troubled woman. My grandmother especially disliked Mom. (She likened her to a parasite.) And yet my grandparents rallied to sponsor us all – my mother, my sister, and me – until we became American citizens, paying hefty application fees to international welfare organizations in the process of relocating us to the States. My father was, according to various letters and journal entries, hands-off in my early childhood; it was his parents who invested in our future, despite their disgrace over their son’s unwedded pursuits. They also cared for me while Mom worked and became my beloved surrogate parents.

Moving across the Atlantic to Boise, Idaho, mitigated Mom’s compulsion somewhat, though my mother continued to hear W’s voice in her head. At my mother’s first job in the States: “When I got my first salary, here [W] started to demand from me to buy gifts for her, it was like she was inside me, looking by my own eyes, watching me, knowing everything what I was doing, talking with me…” Mom held (and was soon fired from) a number of bank jobs in the Boise area, where we lived in my grandparents’ fourplex. (My mother bitterly notes that she had to pay rent to Dad’s family for this ‘privilege’.)

Several factors informed my mother’s experience as a single parent and immigrant. She did not drive, which, in 1980s Boise, was social suicide. (Mom writes how it embarrassed her to be seen walking everywhere.) She had a limited grasp of spoken English, despite a written aptitude. One can imagine there was not a huge community of Ukrainian immigrants to befriend. Nearing her 40s, she had never used a computer and often notes her frustration with learning new technologies. She also felt demeaned by her co-workers and struggled to conceal her emotions. Despite a laundry list of hurdles, she continued to attribute her experiences to W’s ‘control’. “My head was always spinning around like in… a magic hellish circle; I felt it every minute, something was holding me alone by myself, somebody did not want me to get friendly with people around… Sometimes I was even saying some things that I never wanted to say… it was like somebody talking by my mouth.”

*

My paternal grandparents lived and worked in East Africa for most of their adult lives, serving in various capacities for the Lutheran Mission. My grandfather, a practicing physician, documented in his memoirs his continued exasperation with the patients he encountered who believed, despite all appearances otherwise, that they’d been cursed. My dad and grandfather both address the prevalence of bewitching and magic – uchawi – they observed around them at the time. My grandparents did not believe in curses. They believed in God. So, naturally, when confronted with my mother’s conviction that a curse had ruined her life, they questioned the stability of Mom’s mental state.

They tried to help her anyway. They brought her to church services, where she received counsel and prayed for God’s mercy. In a letter from my grandfather: “She decided to go to communion on her own… in so doing she made a public confession of her faith and there was no lack of evidence that she received joy in this fellowship. It meant something special to her and it will bring continued release from her past burdens as she continues on.” By 1980, even my grandmother had softened a bit: “When one has been wounded many times by many different people the healing takes time, and patience, and she is one of these… After these months with us we have healed many smaller wounds, but the mind is still without peace… it needs to come soon, or her mind will crack.” I hope that eventually Mom saw my grandparents as benefactors, rather than participants in her affliction.

At times, my sister and I perpetuated the curse. “Last night was awful, my eyes never hurt more. I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep till almost 5 a.m. I slept for a couple hours and at 7 Julia woke me up asking for breakfast.” (I was five.) Mom developed insomnia in Boise. It would allow her three to four hours of sleep per night for the remaining 32 years of her life, less still as my sister and I became adolescents and tested our own boundaries. Growing up, I remember thinking that adult-onset insomnia was Mom’s real curse, the actual reason she never felt right, though I never dared tell her that.

I cannot confirm or deny my mother’s beliefs beyond her written legacy. The perceived curse was simply part of who Mom was – the foundation of our story, a dark, lurid fixture in the imagination – as was the woman who issued it. It’s impossible to approximate the extent that this belief affected the choices Mom made or the interpretation of the consequences that followed them. The human mind is powerful. I know she believed the curse was real, and used it as a lens through which she construed all things. It is clear from my mother’s journals that she believed the curse would end with her; that she alone was chosen to suffer the sustained abuse of an aging woman halfway across the world. Whatever it was – curse, choice, or something complicated in-between – I hope that Mom is finally free from her torment.

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© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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#nofilter

IMG_0261_3Rory, sometimes I sneak into your bedroom and cuddle with your Puppet Eeyore. I inhale his fading, bedraggled fur and imagine when you were just born, when your fingers first grasped Eeyore’s right ear. You had curly black hair then. Each night as you slept, you sloughed away a fine, downy line from the back of your head. This left you with a bald patch. I can’t remember when your hair became flaxen and smooth, but I promise that you were the most adorable bald person I’ve ever known.

*

We named you after the Aurora Borealis, a phenomenon I’ve long wished to see. I saw your name everywhere as you grew inside me: on billboards, clothing tags, toys, magazines…. Graceful Dawn in Latin, I believe that you are an emissary from some celestial plane infinitely lovelier than this one.

*

You recently adopted a kitten. You cried tears of joy after we brought her home. Though you wanted to name her Snowball, I convinced you that Ginger better matched her personality. Vocal, she mews at every provocation; feisty, she lunges at your worm-like toes, scrambles to wrestle our sausage fingers. Her tufted fur and proto-Persian markings render us willing servants. If you continue to care for her as thoughtfully as you have so far, the Ginger Era may turn out to be an excellent totalitarian regime.

*

Your grandmother once expressed alarm about my anti-doll philosophy. She worried that it would deprive you of the opportunity to learn and develop a sense of nurturing. If she could see you with Ginger – her tiny body tucked into the crook of your pillow, your tender ministrations to the purring dictator in your bed – her fear would be allayed.

*

Last night, we walked the town streets discussing art and owls. The power had gone out and we felt restless. You wore your Tae Kwon Do suit underneath your blue fleece parka, a black kitten cap pulled snugly over your ears. We spotted an owl, perched high in a pine tree as the evening sky faded, and watched it for several minutes before it flew away. Rain fell on our heads. We hastened back home. Though we’d only been outside for a little while, covering perhaps eight blocks distance, gratitude alighted in my heart.

*

Over the summer, I found a photo of myself that I hadn’t ever seen. Someone – my dad, maybe – had taken it at Yellowstone National Park when I was eight, just a little older than you are now. The girl in the photo is a riot of 80s fashion crimes. She has buckteeth and awkwardly long legs. She’s laughing. I gasped. How long has it been since I’ve smiled so freely? My wish for you is that you never confront the realization that you can’t remember your last true smile.

So many fashion crimes, so little time...

*

Please forgive me when I am too pensive. You’re growing up so quickly in a world that frightens me. I did not grow up in a generation of self-photographers and videographers. I knew cherry bombs, not photo bombs. I chose with whom I would confide my mistakes and regrets. I underappreciated my control over the contents of my life.

*

When I turned 11 and began developing physically, I begged my mother to buy me a training bra. She did not. The boys at school peered through my shirtsleeves, snickering. In the Christmas show, they caroled about my “chestnuts.” The cruelest tormenters were not boys, however. They were the girls who lived in Seagate. Though my mom eventually realized my need for coverage, the damage had been done. I still remember everything about those girls. I pray that mean girls will not exist in your world. But if they do, trust that I will fight on your side… and punch throats if necessary.

*

Each morning, I paint on the color that time washes from my face. I remember my mother’s pale oleander lips and begin to understand her dependence on lipstick. Did I appreciate my smile when I was younger? Did I ever look in the mirror and think anything other than This is as good as it’s going to get? I sprinted into adulthood, only to learn that there is no race and certainly no finish line. Savor your bright vitality while you can. Wear loud clothes, experiment with your hair, sing at full volume. You’ll grow up all too soon.

*

I am biased. When it comes to you, there is only radiant pride. I can’t protect you from missteps or the wounds left by others, although I would if I could. I can only remind you that I love you. I am your biggest fan. Please, dear Rory, as you grow, be brave, be fierce, and let your every smile reveal the light in your soul.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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