Just a week or so ago, my husband and I went to visit with my aunt and uncle who live just south of the state line in Georgia.
My uncle is the last living relative of the nuclear family my dad grew up within: my grandfather, (my dad’s step-father) Pa Phy; grandmother, Granny Marie; my dad; and my dad’s younger brother, Mike, who passed away last year from cancer. In addition, my great grandmother, Granny Scudgins and great grandfather, Papa were an intrinsic part of this nuclear family.
Dad has three brothers and two sisters in Florida, whom I love and a couple of whom I am in contact with via social media and the occasional phone call. However, he did not grow up there, and though we would see them during those times we moved to Florida from this area, back and forth, much of my childhood before age thirteen was spent with the family here. I can remember several holidays, many weekend visits, and sometimes my family even lived with my Granny Marie and Pa Phy when we fell on hard times.
I enjoyed visiting with my uncle. Though he and my dad are different, the familiarity of his presence, our collective experiences and memories in the same family, and his undying devotion to my aunt are all pleasant to soak up once in a while. Being around them is like cuddling up in your favorite pajama’s, wearing those comfortable old shoes, or that feeling you get when you finally come home and you can relax and be yourself. They married when I was nine years old, almost forty years ago. They make me laugh—a lot. They remind me that there was a time, long before life happened, that I was a happy little girl.
The last time I saw my aunt and uncle, aside from their supportive appearance at my father-in-law’s visitation services at the funeral home in April, John and I went down there one time last year to eat and visit. Before that, we saw Uncle Steve at our wedding when he gave me away. We saw both of them at my Uncle Mike’s funeral a month before the wedding. I saw them a couple of times on my own, especially when my aunt’s dad was in the hospital. Yes, we only visited them one time last year together for social reasons aside from funerals or weddings. When I realized this I was profoundly sad.
Uncle Steve told us a lot of stories last weekend. One such story was about a trip that all of us took together in a station wagon. I was about a year-and-a-half old. My baby sister, Karen, was about six months old. Daddy and Pa took turns driving, while mom took care of us and Granny talked. Uncle Steve and Uncle Mike were in the very back. He recalled how we had all gone together to see a college football game—Georgia and Florida I think—a bowl game in January and therefore, cold outside. My sister cried the entire trip down to the game in Florida, and my Uncle Mike had some wretched gas, so Uncle Steve regaled us with his bleeding ears and his little brother’s flatulence. When he begged for someone to roll a window down, Granny and Momma quickly vetoed that option because it was cold out and the babies, my sister and I, would get sick.
As he was telling this story, he laughed until he cried, and then I said, “So, Karen cried a lot.”
Nodding vehemently, Uncle Steve said, “Oh yeah, she cried ALL the time. But you didn’t. You were a happy baby.”
I listened to this with disbelief.
After our visit, I thought about that story and of course, I began to think about when and where I had lost that happy persona along the way. If I could pinpoint the exact moment, if there is such a thing, I would say it was when my mom left for a few months when I was ten years old. When mom and dad reunited we moved to Hixson, I was molested by the neighbor, we moved to Chickamauga, mom and dad got a divorce, Dad left and moved to Florida, we moved to Florida…and well, I guess you can see where this is going.
Now, it’s important to understand that I have not been unhappy most of my life, but I have to say that there have been fewer happy times than unhappy ones. It just seemed that life kind of kicked me in the shins and then the stomach and said, “Let’s see how tough you are.” Life did this many, many times.
I used to think I was born a somber, less-than-satisfied-with-life, serious thinker. According to my uncle, I was born happy. Who would have thought? I certainly did not think so. I can remember my dad teasing me about how I would “brood” in my room or take off to the woods with my dog and ride my bike, or take my notebook and write. My mother often proclaimed that I was a sourpuss and “crazy” and needed someone to examine my head. Geez. That’s horrible to read, now that I’ve written it, but it’s true. Obviously, this brooding, crazy, self-possessed child they had was a “happy baby” and “happy little girl” at one time. They could have been mystified as to what happened to her. Or, they may have felt guilty. Who knows?
After many years of disappointment, failure, and attempts to make myself feel whole and happy, a feeling I barely recall having much of, I found that happiness lies within. Whatever innate ability I had to be a happy girl was easily called upon, nurtured and given room to grow when I decided to do it. However, I am not so naïve as to believe that our circumstances and our environment, as well as the way people we care for treat us—has nothing to do with our lack of—or abundance, of happiness, either.
My take on it? I think we need A LOT of both.
We need to dig deep and find that innocence again, and that child who could grin stupidly for photos and not give one damn that we had peanut butter or chocolate all over our faces. We need to give that child permission to be vulnerable again, even though we know without a doubt that people are going to hurt us. And yes, they will hurt us. I can guaran-damn-tee you, people will keep hurting you. That is not a cynical statement. That is a fact. We need to embrace that inner “goober” and awkwardness and just let ourselves…just be. We need to love ourselves. Not in a narcissistic, self-centered way but in a healthy, kind way that lets us be ourselves without fear of retribution or embarrassment.
We also need to surround ourselves with people who love us unconditionally. Without this, we cannot achieve the external portion our happiness requires. We are only able to operate from the internal component of our happiness, and this leaves us at a disadvantage. In order to surround ourselves with unconditional love, people who are there for us, we also have to risk being hurt in the process and know that it’s okay, because even though we hurt one another, we love one another more than the pain. The caveat here is, if someone is toxic and harmful to us and brings us to a bitter, self-loathing, angry place—it’s time to change our external lives to cut those kinds of people out. Some people will say they care for us, but that only goes as far as their acceptance of us. If we don’t act according to their expectations, they withdraw their “love.” This is not love. This is manipulation. At the very least, it’s superficial and fickle.
So, to be happy, one must embrace the inner child and surround oneself with unconditional love.
Sounds easy, huh?
There have been some magical times in my life when it wasn’t an effort to be happy. As Uncle Steve said, I was a happy baby and little girl. Another time I can recall is when I had my kids. Despite any circumstances surrounding the births of my four children, those little human beings gave me more happiness than anything on this earth. Conversely, those little human beings grew up and some have brought me much pain, too. Like I said, people will still hurt us. That’s part of living.
Knowing the difference between those who hurt us but also love us, and those who hurt us because they enjoy it—that is also a key to happiness.
Another time of complete and utter happiness I recall is around the time I met my husband. Before I met him, even though I was living with my aunt and uncle and out of work (for that moment), I was happy. I had decided to come home, back to where I was born, and try to live a life that would align with my true self—a thinker, a poet, a writer, a sensitive creature who had a lot of love to give. My expectations had nothing to do with finding that right guy or getting married or even the perfect job. I was living with two people who loved me unconditionally, and I was giving myself permission to love myself and be happy with me.
John came along while I was feeling good about myself and the inner happiness was apparent on the outside. His love and devotion gave me that external component, and the magic was astounding. I didn’t think I could ever love, or be loved, by someone the way John has loved me or I have loved him.
When your own parents have abandoned you, abused or neglected you, ridiculed you for being different, happiness is hard to come by. When your hopes and dreams are dashed by that well-intentioned relationship or marriage and your kids turn against you, it’s almost impossible to feel good inside. When people you care for turn on you on a whim, or whatever anger they have harbored and not talked with you about, it kind of takes the wind out of your sails. People we love pass away and we experience profound grief. Our dog or cat dies and we feel something in our heart will never be the same. Your best friend suddenly stops talking to you and won’t return your calls. Your sister or brother gets mad at you or your spouse. You get laid off or lose your job. Sometimes, you lose everything—your life as you knew it—your job, home, relationship and sense of self all smashed to smithereens.
Some people can bounce back after any or all such circumstances. They seem to have an innate resiliency they draw upon. Others are not so fortunate. It takes much more effort for us to hold our heads up when we want to give up. Depression rears its ugly, dark head. Hopelessness can set in.
I’ve been there, in all of its hideous darkness and pain, more times than I care to admit.
However, one thing that can trump it all is the act of losing heart.
Once we lose heart, we lose everything. We are no longer able to draw on any residual strength or happiness within, and we are unable to truly connect and trust others outside ourselves. It is at this point when we give up. We feel we cannot rely on someone else to love us unconditionally, or to protect us, or to accept us for who we are—warts and all. We don’t even want to try.
I’m digging deep. Knowledge that I have been in worse places, despite my current state of deep sadness, keeps me shoveling. Somewhere down inside there is that happy little Kimmie. She likes to laugh and sing, dance and dream. She loves words and she loves to write. She loves art, music, kids, basketball, puppies, kittens, and chocolate. She likes to take life on and push the envelope. She believes in miracles. She believes in love. She loves her kids so damn much it can hurt sometimes. She loves her husband just as much.
She keeps telling herself, “Don’t lose heart.”
I hope she makes it.
May 7, 2015