I used to be afraid of my father, a shadow almost, eluding our sight; the way his presence dogged our steps, remaining off and to the right, perhaps left of our substantial selves, how dark he was, obtuse, his figure ducking and bobbing, a sudden jab struck out of nowhere, a jagged lightning bolt or a dull thud from behind; we could not predict, just knew the blow would come, but glancing, it was always glancing, the way a shadow approaches, looms, then falls away.
In the dry June warmth of the Arizona desert, on a solo trip to the Grand Canyon, the shadows are giant sized, moving slowly across the rock face as the sun travels through the afternoon. It’s hard for me to fathom that this opening was carved largely by water, eroded, pathways worn by its unrelenting journey over hard-packed earth unable to absorb it. I squint in the brightness, put on sunglasses so I can better see the layers that represent time, life unfolding over eons in just this present moment. Schist, granite, limestone, shale, quartzite, sandstone, and more limestone, stacked in desert colors yet formed by water.
I imagine ancestors between the layers, solidified fossils embedded in sediment, folded back into the earth as if by a giant spatula; recall the bible verse of my childhood:
For dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return. Genesis 3:19
Back in my motel room that night, I dream of my father. We are going somewhere, driving the winding canyon roads. He is at the wheel and seems anxious, perturbed, looking for the right direction. This way, he says, making a sudden turn, and then we are falling, dropping over the Grand Canyon, its width and breadth spread around and below us and there is no way back. As in the way of dreams, the vehicle has disappeared and we fall through open air, above the gaping canyon. I am holding my father’s hand and in a little while, I let go. The air lifts me slightly, and I am buoyed, as though I might fly.
Dust captured in limestone, sandstone, quartzite, shale, all the way down to granite and schist. I unearth fossils, using pencils, pens, a keyboard, rather than picks, shovels, or trowels, digging and scraping through layers to reveal petrified forms, which crumble with each stroke, each letter writ.
I thought his secret would kill me. My father was discovered molesting a family member, a child, a girl, thirteen. I was thirty when I learned about it, just four months sober and my world had already been destroyed – the world I thought I knew – because I had recently found out, they told me in rehab; I admitted, yes, I might be an alcoholic, thirty years old, and now two more worlds collided – the one I thought I grew up in and the one where my father is a predator and it did not compute and so I got sick with the flu, which forced me to lie on the couch for weeks. I couldn’t move. I was so sick I didn’t drink, which was a fucking miracle.
In the dream, my father took a wrong turn. In the dream, he didn’t mean to. But it didn’t matter what he meant to do or not do. Now we were falling and there was no going back. I lifted my arms like wings.
The National Park Service signs tell me the Grand Canyon contains an amazing array of rock formations, a profusion of fossils hidden within, marine fossils, like crinoids, brachiopods, and sponges and layers containing terrestrial fossils with leaf and dragonfly wing impressions, footprints of scorpions, centipedes, and reptiles.
Ancient fossils are preserved in the rock layers and range from algal mats and microfossils from Precambrian Time, 1,200 million to 740 million years ago, to a multitude of body and trace fossils from the Paleozoic Era 525-270 million years ago.
Older than the oldest known dinosaurs, the signs say. I follow the trail along the canyon.
Cormorants fly overhead in sudden swoops, close then far. The sound their wings make whispers the secret of origins. Standing at the edge, I am startled, duck, assure my footing on the slippery rock.
That pivotal year, the year I turned thirty, all the things I always knew but didn’t know I knew came true and, already shattered, I was, never will be, the same and neither, ever, will be my sisters or my brother. Or my mother, who couldn’t face the lie of their life, and so we all remain frozen, stuck, like flies in amber resin, our broken hearts pinned like butterflies to the wall of their secrets built with layers of sediment like religion, God, we are the chosen few, and no one, not one of us, can disassemble that great wall except one perhaps, and she will not take the fall, cannot, because there are too many secrets.
Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Matthew 23:32 (KJV)
Repetition is only part of this constellation of material.
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” Exodus 20:5 (KJV)
Collecting endlessly in time.
I cup my hands around my mouth, call after the cormorants, “Where?”
My voice echoes back in circles, like a small pebble thrown in a pond.
. . “…ere?”
All of me and the story of generations, from marine to terrestrial life, lie at my feet. Surely, if we come from somewhere, the mystery is held in rock,
. layers of time sifting down,
. to bring me here, standing at this precipice,
. this great rending of earth and…
. . sky, shades and colors of air filling in,
an abyss of emptiness, yawning at my feet, above my head, all around me.
Vertigo seizes. Will I fall?
But no, this sky is a meadow, a meadow of being.
I will not fall, but I may leap.
I used to be afraid of going to hell.
The water the dinosaurs drank millions of years ago is the same water that falls as rain today. Water is so much a part of me that I don’t recognize thirst. The ancestors are my veins. I swim their waterways, like so much flotsam, unwashed. And so the sins of the fathers and the legacy of all women came down upon me, a girl.
The girl they made.
Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” -Genesis 3:13 (KJV)
At fifteen I shook my fist at the sky, defied the God I was raised with and by. How can this be a choice? I shouted to the gathering storm clouds.
Here at the edge of the Grand Canyon, the wind speaks a language I can’t decipher, strain to hear. I recognize syllables and tone, a distant memory of my first and earliest tongue, hear the ancestors echo in decibels of air rushing through the canal of my ears until they find the small beads, rub them together, speak, “Balance.”
My religious training taught me to turn the other cheek, to judge not, lest I be judged.
We shared a birthday and the year we turned eleven, David, my friend from church, was killed in traffic on his go-cart. I asked my mother if David went to heaven. She told me he squeaked in by virtue of his youth. She did not say, but I guessed I would not be so lucky. I envied him.
I had been taught that at age twelve I would be responsible for the state of my soul, that I must be about my Heavenly Father’s business by then. At the dime store after swimming at the public pool, it was easy to sneak a candy bar under the bathing cap I wore and saunter out the door. I knew it was wrong. Still, I compulsively stole. I was running out of time. Soon, I would be held accountable before God, should I steal any more candy after my twelfth birthday.
And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast…And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? Luke 2:42 – 49. (KJV)
I was taught a religion of exclusivity. Only those who professed in the Truth – a cult dating back to the turn of the century, its roots in Ireland – would know salvation and even then, they could only be sure of it after death. At ten years old, I buried my head in my pillow, stifling sobs as I cried for the heathen neighbors.
Visit the sites of the ancestors. You will find nothing but memory –traces, for mirror displacements were dismantled…the reflective light has been erased.
They vanished strangely. Surely, they wait between layers of stone and sediment, quiet, they anticipate excavation, the sifting of sand and time.
I used to be afraid of being female.
People are stuck, each in ossified, conditioned views of life, of each other.
The very timbre of their voices is dismantling and heartbreaking.
Does history repeat itself? Another layer floats, dust forming, water finds its way under, around, and through, carving a record, ancient hieroglyphs waiting for touch.
My great grandmother read tea leaves and when my father asked her to show him how, she said, “You’d have to sell your soul to the devil.”
“You were born without a soul,” he told me, when I confronted him about the incest. “You’re just like your great grandmother.”
And so, a designated witch, even if I wanted to drown, I couldn’t.
Comes down through the blood
Line, spilling beneath the doorways,
The bloom of it: like octopus ink.
My father taught me how to play chess. I caught on quickly, but I don’t remember ever winning. He took me and my siblings to the library weekly. We checked out stacks of books. He didn’t pay any attention to our choices. I felt rich. I felt blessed.
My father lay prone on our couch, reading his books. I stretched out nearby, reading mine. We ate popcorn in the dim light of my mother’s Early American lamps.
One year, when I was eleven, I got a tape recorder for Christmas, even though in our religion we didn’t celebrate Christmas and this was the first year we had ever received gifts. I pretended to be a radio announcer:
I turned the tape recorder on, held up the microphone to interview my father.
“This is KIMN,” I announced.
He didn’t miss a beat, mimicked the soft lyric twang of my grandparents’ southern accent, though he was not born in Kentucky, as they had been. He pretended to be Hank Williams. So I requested some music.
“Your cheating heart,” he sang. “Will tell on you.”
Generational trauma and the experiences of our ancestors overlay our lives, like sediment, one after the other. I think of the anatomy illustrations in an encyclopedia from my childhood, how each one adds another dimension to the original layer.
By National Institutes of Health – http://commonfund.nih.gov/epigenomics/figure.aspx, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9789221
The Greek root of “gen” means “birth, race, kind, production, and formation. From this come eugenics, genocide, genesis, and genetics. Our very formation, epigenetics tells us, is altered by the experience of the generations that preceded us. The nature versus nurture argument, concerned with whether behavior is a product of genetics or learned, is obsolete in light of epigenetics.
No one knows exactly how the Grand Canyon was formed: by water, volcano, time, changing climate, the variations in the orbit of the earth.
There is no “blank slate,” rather a palimpsest of rock, sediment on sediment, each overwriting the last, yet leaving tracks, like fossils.
Our skin, body, and breath are slate.
No matter how hard you rub, traces remain.
For the first eight years of my life, I traveled every Sunday by car with my parents and siblings from Joliet to my grandparents’ farm near Seneca for Sunday dinner. The farmhouse was brick, surrounded by a patch of trees in what was mostly flat horizon, fields of corn and wheat. A generous circular driveway encompassed both the farmhouse and the barn.
The farmhouse yard was gated and just inside the gate that led to the backdoor and the kitchen, there was a water pump and a tin cup. That fresh, cold water out of the pump was one of my great childhood pleasures. I drank deeply.
My grandmother’s garden was lined with sunflowers; their faces followed the sun as it moved above and across the horizon. Like sentinels, they guarded the corn, the peas, the tomatoes, all the vegetables, the flowers, and, I believed, me.
What’s encouraging about epigenetic change is that it works both ways. An environmental condition may be reversed when environmental conditions change again. I was raised by teetotalers but learned there was alcoholism on both sides of the family. In treatment for addiction, I was told I would not have to change much. Just my life.
The work of generations opens before me; my eyes scan the sky, drop to the ribbon of water below. From my perch, this overview of eons of time etched by water, I see my three decades of addiction recovery are wafer thin, meager.
Here in the seeming emptiness of rock, of desert-like fauna and flora, I learn that 75 species of mammals, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, 25 species of fish, and over 300 species of birds exist. I am a speck on their horizon.
A chipmunk skitters by.
My grandparents migrated from Eastern Kentucky to Illinois during the Great Depression. Though I only knew them from the one farm which remained their abode my first eight years, they were transients. They farmed in exchange for both a share of the crop and their keep.
The light breeze in the slippery elms and white oak that surrounded the farmhouse tickled and lifted my long hair, which Grandma combed into braids on each side of my head, like ladders.
“Here chick chick,” Grandma crooned and tossed the corn I had helped her shuck to the chickens from the lap of her apron, clucking at them with her tongue.
As a small child, I collected eggs beside her; their warmth still lingers in my memory, the scent of the chicken coop, wood shavings and manure.
My grandmother, the tea leaf reader’s daughter, raised chickens and harvested their eggs for “pin money.” The garden, chickens, the one cow, and the hogs provided sustenance. Horses pulled my grandfather’s plow through the fields before the advent of the tractor.
Ancestral traumas are the inexpressible stories, the unacknowledged events that we carry in our bones. As a small child, I sensed them all around me. The narrative of untold trauma in my family, as in any family, found expression in myriad ways. My body was its canvas, my spine the poem. Carried inside, the ancestral story expressed in the form of addiction, sometimes violence, visited upon one’s self or other bodies, violence and shame.
When I got sober in 1984, I began to catch glimpses of the ghost of my maternal grandmother. She was an alcoholic and died young of alcohol related issues. I imagined I saw her driving a car, in line at the DMV, or just around the corner of a supermarket aisle, pushing a cart, her heart wet with rage, offering me illicit berries. Take them, she raged at me. Escape!
My father warned me after church one day. “They were wild,” he said, referring to his maternal lineage, “It’s in our blood.”
Of course, it’s carried in the blood. Drink of my blood. Eat of my flesh. Haven’t we always known this?
My great-uncle killed a man, allegedly in self-defense. It is the 21st century world of the internet, and I look up the case online, where I find a record of my great-uncle’s appeal to the Court of Appeals of Kentucky in Grayson County in The Southwestern reporter, Volume 241. The appeal is denied. It is dated May 30, 1922.
The court record claims my great-uncle and his victim had in their possession “…a bottle of whiskey from which each member of the party took one or more drinks…” Uncle Riley took offense. He shot a man, presumably in the back. The court record does not match the family claim of “self-defense.”
I used to be afraid of nothing. Whiskey made me brave, or maybe stupid.
My father played music. He could play the guitar, the violin, and the piano. He played by ear and he also sang. I loved the sound of his music. I thought he was handsome.
His music nurtured me, as neither he nor my mother knew how; its rhythms, the varied tones, spoke to me of love; they soothed me. I felt each note, the twang of a chord, the sound of my father’s voice, deep inside my small hollowed chest.
My father’s victim, I learned, was eleven when he began molesting her. It went on for several years. Was his predilection a biological mechanism? An epigenetic impulse? What switched it on in my father? The victim’s mother told no one except her own therapist, who reported my father to the police. He spent a night in jail. Alone, the victim and her mother went through the ensuing court process. It was kept a secret from the rest of the family. My mother told them they had ruined her life.
When the victim’s mother finally told me, it was three years past and in response to a remark I made in passing, about my father. “I think he’s evil,” I said, surprised at the words in my mouth.
That comment, she later told me, is why she decided to share their secret. To tell me about my father and what he had done.
When I was ten and snooping underneath the bathroom sink, I found some intriguing paperback books shoved beneath the pipes and pulled them out to read. As a result of my parents’ fundamentalist Christian beliefs, I grew up without television, wasn’t allowed to go to the movie theatre, a roller skating rink, or even to join the Girl Scouts. Sex was never discussed with me and I did not know what I was reading.
The plotline of the books I pulled out from under our suburban bathroom sink turned out to be pedophilia. The girls in the pornographic stories happened to be about my age. The words made my legs twitch, my stomach hollow. I could barely catch my breath. And that was my introduction to sex.
The farm was our paradise. My siblings and I, and often cousins, had the run of the place. We climbed up to the loft in the barn and swung down by a rope, landing in soft hay. We watched Pa slop the hogs or milk the cow. Sometimes, although we were forbidden, we went to the grain silo, which was in the middle of a field.
We had been warned to stay away from it, never to play there. But we went anyway and climbed the stairs leading to the top of the silo, entered a small opening and jumped into the endless grain in which we could have, we were told, sunk and suffocated. It happened to other children.
The grain felt silky smooth against our skin, like sweet pebbles; its texture filled a need in us. We let ourselves sink into its perfect granular roundness, rolled and splayed in it. Ours was not an affectionate family. In the grain silo, we felt held by what might kill us.
History does not repeat itself.
Repetition is only part of this constellation of material.
Collecting endlessly in time.
In treatment for alcoholism and addiction, it was my turn one day to sit in a circle and share my story. I did not know my father’s secret then. It was four months before I would learn it. But something in me always knew.
The rehab counselor put an imaginary version of my father in a chair, told me to address him.
“How can you live with yourself?” I said to the chair.
“Why?” the counselor prodded, “What did he do?”
I didn’t know, but my body did. My hands shook and my eyes burned with unwept words.
How to begin again? I begin like this. I do not buy – will not purchase – bricks or mortar with which to build a lie, a life, an anything. I know now that to begin begins, not in grit, rock ground to dust and formed then made hard with the application of heat, but in water, or oil, or rain, or snow. To begin must be fluid. There needs to be a current, movement, somewhere to go, anywhere, but stay out of the sediment and mud, the reeds and dead frogs and all the twigs and fallen leaves.
Surface instead and gulp the new fallen air.
Refuse to assemble a life.
I am a dowser walking slowly over the area, seeking water. The pull of the water witching switch is so strong that the bark twists in my hands.
I used to be afraid of my father.
Now I am afraid of the dark. Yes, all forms of it. The literal cold dark of a January night. Long northern winters. Down beneath the tides and surface of the ocean. My own black heart, its musty hateful corners.
I am afraid of the absence of light more than anything.
I take the road west from the Grand Canyon, west and on through desert. The road trip is supposed to free me, the wind in my hair. I am traveling the American West, leaving my ancestral past behind me.
The highway is like a race track without guardrails. Open canyons and sky surround me and, repeatedly, as I crest one summit after another, the earth drops away. Any one of these edges of road could be the one that crumbles beneath the wheels, sending me and the car I’m driving tumbling off the track, into air and nothingness.
The wheels, however, always find purchase, grip the ground, the asphalt solid, seemingly permanent and the car stays on the road. But in the mirror of my mind, like in the dream, I fall, along with my father.
Again and again, I fall, holding his hand. Again and again, I let go.