We tell them to find and connect with, each other.
January 7, 2021
If I told you when I was eighteen, my mom, my little brother and sister, and I moved from Troy, Tennessee, to Chicago, you would know a fact about my family. Still, you wouldn’t know me.
But you might know me a little better if I told you that my mom and I were packing up, once again, without talking about why we were leaving another home in the middle of the night. My little brother and sister were sleeping, and my older sister was away at college.
Years of silence and pent-up frustration prompted me to scream, “What the hell is going on? Where is dad? Why isn’t he here helping?”
She finally told me the truth. Dad was in Vegas trying to win enough so we wouldn’t have to leave in the middle of the night.
My dad was a dreamer, a schmoozer, and a gambler. To support his family, he drove a taxi in Anchorage, Alaska. We lived there before it was a state because he said it had “possibilities.”
He gambled wherever we were. He was a radio preacher and used car salesman in Tennessee, sold exercise bikes in Burlington, Iowa, and drove a juice delivery truck or a taxi in any one of numerous return stays in Chicago.
I’m not sure what he did in Gulfport, Illinois. It was a tiny town on the Mississippi River that was, at some point, washed away in a flood. I was only five and all I remember is that we had an outhouse, it was hot in the attic where I slept with my older sister, and we made lots of trips back to Chicago.
My mom’s parents, Gangi and Papa, had a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a six-flat on Elmdale Avenue, a street in Rogers Park, a middle-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.
Growing up, Elmdale and my grandparents were home base. When anything went wrong, which ultimately was every time we moved away, we returned to Elmdale. They always found room to fit us all in.
I spent my growing up years waiting to leave wherever I was. Waiting to be told we were going to have an adventure and go somewhere new. And no, we couldn’t tell our new-found friends goodbye.
Occasionally we stayed in one place for a few years. That was a teaser. Because, ultimately, we always left. Dad owed somebody something that he didn’t plan to pay back. If someone mom knew and cared about had supported his current scheme, mom would pay them back from the next town from her earnings as a waitress.
Years later, mom explained that it never occurred to her she didn’t have to follow him. At that point, I grew up to the reality that our parents aren’t perfect, and yet they do the best they can with what they were given. And somehow we must make our peace with that.
I learned how to fit in almost anywhere. Not visible enough to attract negative attention, but enough to be accepted as part of a group. I learned to pretend to be comfortable in any situation. In reality, I was uncomfortable almost all the time.
The world was an unpredictable, scary place. I had to be on my guard.
That has been both my greatest strength and greatest weakness.
As a strength, I can fit in almost anywhere. I fine-tuned interpersonal skills by learning to read people and situations to be prepared for anything.
As a weakness, I had to unlearn wearing a mask and learn what it meant to be authentic, and God forbid, vulnerable. That has been the primary task of my adult life. That journey has been both painful and rich beyond my wildest dreams.
I tell this story to share a bit of myself, my life, that you don’t see by looking at my clothes, home, career, or physical body.
Compelling writing is about telling stories. Art in any form is about telling stories. We share the deepest parts of ourselves so that we can connect.
We lay our hearts and souls bare to know and better understand ourselves and find kindred spirits. The world is less scary and lonely when we face it together with others who have shed their protective shells and stand tall in their tender woundedness.
Writing, like any art, is meant to move us. But more importantly, to connect us. Yes, we want to inform or convince, but we must find the commonalities and places we share to connect.
I write to get honest with myself about who I am, what shaped the person I’ve become, and ensure I don’t get lazy or complacent about what I have left to do.
Stories make lives and relationships more vibrant. If you want to learn about yourself, write your story. If you want to learn about someone else, ask about theirs.
I’ve only just begun to tell my story. I hope you’ll tell yours.