Memoir: Helena Writes #44--Part 2, On the departure from one's parents

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 44th post, Helena tells the second part of her March story of adolescent rebellion. Enjoy!


What is the real story?

Since March and the writing of Part One of this story, I have been pondering Part Two. What is the story? I asked myself. I thought it was one thing, but it is another. 

I thought the story was the encounter with my mother. It was intense—an expression of my rage—unmitigated. I lunged at her when she mocked me. But that, I realized, is out of date. A long-ago weather system we lived in then. Why make my mother and I so small, when that isn’t the truth?

I remembered two images that captivated me: one, a photo of a statue of the Buddha, eyes closed in deep recollection. Behind the statue is a backdrop, a painting of the Buddha, eyes open, much larger than the statue.

The second image is one of the Crucifixion. The cross itself is an image of a Great Father, encompassing the broken body of The Crucified. I realized I recalled those images because they tell the real story of what happened in my family that day.

My parents were both gone by the time I was 26. My father, 10 years after the coming of the monkey. My mother, a year and a half later.

As my father grew sicker, the love in me for him bloomed, unimpeded, knowing he was leaving. I only knew this underneath, I couldn’t have admitted it to myself. The knowing lived in the ground of the innocence of such loss. I’d lost my grandfather, but my father was immortal. My love for him yearned to penetrate his sadness. I remember playing cards with him at the table in my parents’ kitchen when I visited one afternoon. I can see his beautiful green eyes; my sister inherited eyes like his. The rims of my father’s eyes were red. We played the only card game I ever have known, Casino. He wouldn’t meet my gaze. I realize now he couldn’t have borne to acknowledge the truth to me, he loved me so much. He loved life. And we were a family, after all, that communicated our passion through anger.

Then he was gone.

My mother was lost without my father. He was her North Star. He had been that for all of us, the backdrop to the image of the broken family. The ground, the open-eyed Buddha behind the little statue with its eyes closed.

After he died I moved in a miasma, an ambience of grief I couldn’t grasp. At 27 I sunk, a depression that was a descent, not into hell, but into what I realized much later was an enlightenment that would take me years to understand, to digest, to grow the muscles to bear, and still find joy. But at 27, light was darkness. The power of the grieving was the evidence of the size of my love for my parents. I was stunned by it, penetrated to the core of my being. We’d been in the midst of a raging storm. Then it was suddenly over. I was left with their absence, having not yet grown a presence of my own. 

The void that was left to me opened over long years. It contained a revelation. I learned slowly, it was not too late for us. Years of internal work, the grief pushed me to its labor, and I discovered a secret: I could find them. Lost though they were, we could find each other. Year by year the storm opened into sky, the sky to the solar system, then the cosmos.

That was the real story. Love doesn’t die. I re-entered our lives, the way one enters a dream to write about it, to see the substance of what’s there. I am still writing about it. It is the gist of this story.

The monkey, part 2

But the monkey, I can’t forget the monkey’s eyes. That’s where I was at the end of Part One. I sent the story to my daughter. She couldn’t bear it. She rescues animals.

I have grown raw, too, to the reality of animal pain. But then I was too self-absorbed to feel for the monkey’s situation. It was only as I wrote the piece in March that I began to connect to what I had participated in. I am so grateful that my sister, Jolene, had moved out before my reckless purchase.

When my sister was 10 years old, she got up from her seat in the darkened Carroll movie theater and walked the 15 blocks home. My parents had taken us, that Saturday afternoon, to see the movie Fury about a black stallion. The memory of the film is mostly gone, which tells me I was relaxed, lost in the film, the four of us sitting together. But Fury was mistreated; I will spare myself and the reader here. That is not what woke me into the vivid state where memories form, pictures seared into the soul. It was my sister’s silently getting up from her seat, walking up the aisle and out of the theater door, the flash, the sudden glare from the street, that cast light on the pain of the horse. My sister could not bear it, as my daughter couldn’t bear my story about the monkey. I was much slower to develop compassion.

The Carroll Theater was in Brooklyn, where, in 1951, a 10-year-old could walk safely home. How did my parents take her leaving? They let her go. My mother didn’t follow my sister to find out what was wrong, or walk with her to help my sister in her suffering. It was a family sealed shut. Drama was our expression of what roiled beneath, and beneath that, was the love that drove it.

Feeling the pain of animals was the destiny that impelled my sister early out of our house and into the world. My sister was so wide open to the pain of animals and all suffering that it was years before I could begin to understand what I was seeing in her, and in her discomfort in the world. Jolene was fierce. Her anguish was the force that carried her to law school, to found the Animal Law department at Pace University. It drove her to work without being paid, to found organizations that still exist, to fund lawyers to represent and defend the rights of animals. Animal Law was marginal in my sister’s lifetime. But she was a pioneer. Animal Law and the recognition of the sentience of animals is more mainstream now, because our consciousness is growing. There is the hope.  

As the little spider monkey haunted me when I wrote in March, an anguish I will bear because I’ve discovered myself in the writing, the scene in the Carroll movie theater—my parents and I remaining after my sister left, will stay with me now. I will ponder it, and I will likely write about it somewhere, but not yet. Because I want to understand my parents, whatever the cost. It can’t alter my compassion for them anymore, I’ve gone too far in that work. And I have those images of the Buddha, and the broken Christ, and the ground of that holds them, and holds us all.

So I’ll ponder and lose nothing, and hope to gain the understanding of my family’s humanity. That understanding is a help when I look out at the world. That’s why I write. 

What did you think of this continuation of Helena’s story from March? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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