Reclaiming Faith- My Childhood Companion

I wrote this a while ago and just discovered it in my draft file. As I reclaim spirit in my life and strive to heal physically, it is especially important to recognize the faith that has always been with me. 

I am a Christian. I am also a survivor.

My adoptive mother and brother were heinously abused by my adoptive father for more than a decade of my childhood. I lived in a secret turmoil that I was not allowed to share. Fear tucked me in at night, and the shining reality of stress woke me every morning.

I was the older sibling, the responsible one, in-charge, and overwrought with a deep need to save my family. I spent every waking hour wondering which path would secure our safety. I worried until my stomach burned with ulcers. I ached with every bruised lip and broken bone my loved ones suffered. I lived a self-imposed world of escape plans, daring rescues, and invisible castles with locks galore. I spent every non-school moment creating realities and wishing so hard, that I spoke those wishes in my sleep.

Yet, inblogj6 all that tumult and pain, I never once felt I was fighting alone.

When people hear the story of my childhood, they ask me why I am not more damaged. I often credit the strong genes I inherited from my biological/first family. I have a fortitude forged of hearty Newfoundlanders, and fight born of West Virginia mountain people who were soldiers even when there was no war.

Yesterday, when I heard Trisha Yearwood sing Oscar Hammerstein’s song ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in a Fox television production of The Passion, I recognized a gentle dreamer sitting by my childhood side, watching over every plan I penned in my hidden notebooks. I felt the sweet embrace of my miraculous companion and knew that every hopeful word I wrote was his to share.

I felt the presence of spirit as a child. I  called it my guardian angel. Today, I wonder how any abused child finds a way to believe they are watched over? I was optimistic when optimism was not an option. I believed we would survive when survival was impossible. I held steady in my plans, hopes, and dreams of escape when escape seemed the last thing we might accomplish. I saw riches where there was only want.

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of the lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

I was too young to know the source of the light that carried me through.

Now, at fifty-something, I know that I never walked alone.

Blessings for light and healing,

V.L. Brunskill

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Jekyll Island Club Resort – A Writer Retreats

Last week, I retreated to Jekyll Island Club Resort where I completed my book about growing up in an abusive home, having a transgender father who hid his truth until he reached his seventies, and finding a way to forgive her and myself.  I had planned to share a pictorial of my writing residency and not get too wordy. However, when I opened WordPress this morning, I found a draft of this blog entry. So it is with gratitude beyond measure that I share my Jekyll retreat.

There is grace in an ancient oak tree, creaking entry doors, and floors so old they weep and moan as you pass over them. I arrived at Jekyll Island Club to find myself housed at Crane Cottage in a room with a majestic view of the Intracoastal waterway and a courtyard garden. Spiral stairs led to my room at the end of the hall where inside a jetted bath, and comfy-as-a-cloud bed awaited me.

Dinner in the Grand Dining Room found me alone in the front dining room and waited on by Ola, who works three jobs and still finds time to smile. At least when she’s not sad, which she had been of late. She lost her son last year and can’t seem to get over it. Can anyone ever get over losing a child? We agreed no one could, or should.

After dinner, I headed to one of my favorite spots at the resort, the rocking porch. Newly decorated with comfy wicker seating, the club has moved its famous white rocking chairs forward to give guests a better view of the spectacular sunset.

There, I met six-year-old Sarah, whose family was visiting Jekyll to celebrate her 7th birthday. An only child, like my now 19-year-old, Sarah told me she did not like Junie B Jones books, and that she liked St.Simons Island better than Jekyll for its restaurants and for visiting friends (who she called family). What a joy it was to recall my daughter at Sarah’s age as we watched bats spin through the night nibbling up pesky insects. Sarah was sure that at any moment the bats would dive into the pool for a tasty beverage.

Back in my room, I contemplated the story at hand. The one that had given me hives (literally). The one that Ola said must be written for all the “hiders and heartache” in the world. Contemplating Ola’s wisdom and the task of completing the second draft of my story, I stepped out on the balcony amid a cacophony of cicadas. There in the grass, nearly camouflaged by a massive oak,  meandered a mama deer and her fawn. I watched them munch on the lawn or whatever they found so delicious, and quieted my breathing for fear I might rush them from their meal.

For the next three days, I saw less of Jekyll. Immersed in my luxurious room, I wrote for seven hours one day and eleven the next. As I hit save on the completed book and headed to the balcony for a private toast, the phone rang.

It was my mother, and she was sobbing. My dear Aunt Shelley had died. A cherished friend of our family for 40+years, Shelley and her husband Ronnie, were the rescuers of my childhood. Celebration turned to sorrow in an instant.

While I will mourn my Aunt Shelley for all my earthly years, I find some solace in the fact that she will live on in the pages I completed at Jekyll. She was there in good times and bad. Mostly bad, when she would stop whatever she was doing to come and get my brother and me. When Dad had Mom committed to an asylum after he beat her into delirium, I called Aunt Shelley. When the parents in my life could not parent, I lifted the phone to dial her number.

Transgressions in Rouge is complete. Aunt Shelley is gone.

My writing residency at Jekyll Island was a bucolic, heartbreaking slice of life. The whims of fate are fickle. But in the end, all that matters is that we love deeply and share our stories.

Blessings and heartfelt thanks to the Jekyll Island Club Resort,

V.L.

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Sibling Bonds- Formed in the Belly of The Beast

I had a surprise visit from my baby brother over the weekend. Spurred by a recent health diagnosis that is not life-threatening but is life-altering, my brother decided I needed some cheering up. So he hopped on his motorcycle for the five-hour trek from North Carolina to Savannah. It was the best gift I’ve received in some time, for along with the familiarity of family, his visit gave me a new insight into suffering.

As most of you know, my memoir Transgressions in Rouge in almost complete. I’ve been working on it for eighteen months. It’s the story of my adopted father who beat, blamed and denied our family without remorse. It is the story of the family secret that made fists fly and turned suppressed identity into constant rage. My father Joe became Joann in her late seventies and died on the very spot where I had planned to kill her. His gender was my family’s albatross.

But, was it also a gift?

My brother’s surprise visit convinced me it might be. Re-framing the darkness of our childhood in the calm of sibling care, I found a long overlooked purpose for our suffering. In addition to a life estranged, the evil of my childhood gave me a life attached.

As I chatted with my brother about work, health, life’s struggles and triumphs, I found myself listening. I mean the most beautiful kind of hearing; an audio experience that transports one from inner ramblings and into the cosmos of another. I find that of all the people in my life; I listen to my brother best. Mostly because once upon a time, the ability to sense his state of mind and body was essential to avoiding death.

This weekend, I rode the waves of our conversation keenly. My brother’s presence calmed me. He was aware that it would. To have my brother nearby enveloped me in the same peaceful state I felt at ten years old, sitting behind my bedroom door, peeking through the crack, on guard for Dad’s approach.

Sibling love, when born of shared experience and years living under the same roof is a powerful bond. No other relationship can compete with the sharing of childhood wishes, secrets, survival tactics. We never have to explain the past. We know its scars and escape routes. Adopted from two different families, we are closer than any siblings I’ve met. Like Sully’s Hudson survivors, we faced what we knew was the end and survived.

Thank you, Rob, for visiting and for reminding me that sometimes suffering breeds miracles.

V.L.

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Battered not Broken (How ‘Jane Eyre’ Saved Me)

Tucked away in the functional ruins of a dilapidated motel room, my adoptive mother, brother and I spent 62 nights huddled on a queen-size bed, watching sitcom reruns. A donated black and white television, thread-bare throw rug, and mildew covered window shade decorated our shelter abode. Outside our room, beyond the shiny mansions and pristine beaches of South Hampton New York, a monster lurked, waiting to hurt us.

In each room of the one story dwelling, resided a victim of domestic abuse. Some women were burned, some children black & blue. All of us were frightened and finally free. Most of us came from suburban homes with shiny kitchens, large playrooms and green landscapes.  We were African American, White, Hispanic and Asian. Abusers, I discovered at eleven years old, did not discriminate.

Days at the shelter were filled with fun activities for the younger children. Coloring contests, and trips to the playground transformed wide-eyed fright into the delightful laughter of freedom. Lifting the spirits of broken children was the task of shelter volunteers, and they undertook our sorrowful cases with the same gentle touch one might use to mend the broken wing of a sparrow. Children, who had left behind every precious belonging of childhood; pretty pink tutus, shiny yellow Tonka trucks, beloved story books- flourished in the safety of our secret shelter.

I was the oldest motel child. The glee exhibited by the younger children pleased me, but I was not a participant. Daily responsibility for protecting my family from constant abuse had made me older than my years. I spent unstructured days at the shelter watching television, and playing Andy Gibb records on my portable record player. Three records, and a plastic turntable were all I had salvaged from my lacy pink bedroom.

That summer fell into a humdrum routine. Despite having escaped the calloused fists of my father, I spent every afternoon standing guard in the rusty mental chair outside our room. I never took my eyes off the road, for I was sure that his truck would reappear, and re-ignite our nightmare.

That summer would have remained stagnant and useless, had no one observed or intervened. I had no idea that an angel watched my afternoon shifts as family sentinel.  During the second week at the shelter, the angel approached me. She pulled a chair close to mine, and sheltering her eyes from the sun, stared down the gravel drive.

“Hi”, she said, “I’m Lisa. What’cha looking for?”

I eyed the pretty, dark-haired woman with cautious curiosity. “Just making sure,” I answered respectfully. It was essential that I not be rude, or say anything that might get us kicked out of the shelter. We had no place else to go.

“Where are Mom and Peter?” she asked.

I was anxious, thinking that she would tell me the monster had located us. “Mom’s taking her GED course, and Peter went with the other counselors to the playground.”

A cloud of dust rose in the wake of a passing car, and I shuddered at the idea of being left alone. I asked, “They OK?”

Lisa smiled and I relaxed. Putting her hand on mine, she said, “They’re fine. You are safe now Vicki. Want to talk in the office for a bit. It’s awful hot out here.”

I followed Lisa to the makeshift office. She offered me a cola and I drank it down too quickly, burping out loud and apologizing. Lisa let out a belly laugh, and I found myself smiling for the first time in years.

Lisa and I talked for an hour that day, and nearly every day after. We talked about the abuse, my family’s brave escape, the newfound opportunities my mother would have due to the high school diploma she was earning. Lisa told me about college, and explained that she was a volunteer and had seen many families leave the shelter to create wonderful lives.  She asked me what I liked to do, and I told her about my record albums, and that I had read every romance novel in the stash of paperbacks in the motel laundry.

Lisa made me her summer companion. I met her fiancé at a dinner prepared for me at her apartment. The normal tones with which they communicated were foreign and when they hugged, I thought I would die of embarrassment.

Lisa taught me to view our shelter stay as a stepping stone to happiness.  Our daily conversations cast me as a survivor, rather than a victim. She said that I was strong, and that I should be proud of how well I had cared for my family. She told me that I would be a great woman someday, and that I would be the best kind of Mom when I grew up, because I had learned compassion. Lisa’s keen listening skills, simple words of encouragement, and rosy outlook altered the path of my life.

One day, after I plopped down on the couch of the cool, welcoming office, she smiled and said, “I have something for you.” From her purse she pulled a slightly worn paperback and handed it to me. A sad looking woman wearing a bonnet and gown stared at me from the cover.

“It is Jane Eyre,” she said, “and this was my first copy. I think you’ll like it better than those romance novels.”jane-eyre

I flipped through the pages. Miniscule print, and more words than I had ever read in a single book made the book seem daunting. Because I had grown to trust Lisa more than anyone before her, I accepted the gift and read Jane Eyre every night.  The book accompanied me on afternoon watches. My rusty perch no longer a dreaded guard post, had morphed into the hopeful place where I awaited Lisa’s arrival.

In the precious pages of Jane Eyre, I learned that survival takes on many forms, and that suffering did not have to be a lifelong curse. I learned that adversity could be overcome. Lisa’s gift gave me a newfound freedom to view myself, not as a lonely victim, but as a formidable resident of a world fraught with women who suffered and survived. Lisa, my kind, generous volunteer unlocked a lifelong love of literature, and turned my shelter summer into a lesson of love.

I never saw Lisa again after my mother earned her GED, and found a job. We moved from the shelter to an apartment at the end of that summer. Autumn arrived, along with new schools, new friends and a peaceful knowing that like Jane Eyre, I would survive.

This story is for Lisa, and all the volunteers who give hope to the hopeless, and love to the unloved. They are angels, every one.

Blessings for angels to guide you,

V.L. Brunskill
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A Eulogy for my Adoptive Father: Be Yourself that Others Do Not Suffer

Today is my adoptive father’s funeral. An accident on an icy stoop felled the man whose powerful fists took down so many perceived enemies. The man I called father by fate died in the exact spot where (as a frightened child) I had hoped to kill him.

A miserable man, who adopted my brother and I as infants and beat the pulp out of our family for twelve years, Jo lived his early life in fearful, homophobic agony. The secret in his soul stuck to everything he touched, like a spider web dipped in poison, the sinewy string of being his child was agony.  My brother and I lived every day of our childhood as if it would be our last. The Suffolk County police knew us by name.

One night as his heavy work boots soundebeyoud on the front steps, I sat with his rifle in my hands, thinking of giving him a final bloody greeting at the front door where he ultimately died. I was eleven years old and although prayers had failed to save us, I could not kill him.

Ultimately, our freedom came from begging our mother to leave. Jo said he would kill us if we left, and so we fled to a shelter for battered families.  At the time, I had no idea what fueled the monster’s rage.

Later, as an adult, I discovered that he was gender tortured. He was a woman trapped in a man’s body. Rather than deal with this conundrum, he punished others for his maleness. He beat unwary salesmen and process servers on that same stoop where he died. His big calloused work hands and boots beat everyone down. Broken inside, he sought to destroy the world that had delivered him damaged into its unfair folds.

The man that I was assigned as father kept our childhood house, while my mother worked three jobs to keep us housed in one crumbling apartment after another. When Welfare questioned his ability to pay more than $30 a month for his two children, he would quit his  job as an iron worker, so he could claim he was unemployed.  After the investigation, he would return to work.

As occasional weekend guests in our childhood home (part of his legal  visitations) we eyed his well-stocked pantry with hungry envy. In our apartment, food was sparse, and often donated for our consumption. When questioned, Jo claimed our mother was spending too much. It was not his problem.

His first wife and child escaped too, leaving behind a upstate house, running far away and changing their names due to abuse. Once it was revealed that the ex-wife would get half the money for a co-owned property, he sold it for taxes so she would not profit.

This week, as I sought to do what I felt was honorable, I reached out to his family to inform them of the death, only to discover that Jo had sizzled every connection. His  demeanor left a legacy of disgust. No one could find a kind word to say about her.

Yes, her. Jo underwent the knife and became a woman during the last decade. By all accounts becoming a kind, lonely old woman. He attended American Legion events and based on the few comments on his death announcement ended life as a “nice” person.

She befriended a lovely woman named Grace, who she left as executor of our childhood home and his precious things. Grace grieves a sensitive and kind woman.

While Jo’s gender change was a surprise, most of his family accepted it. It was not his/her gender, but personality that pushed everyone away. Today’s funeral will be filled by people who never knew the iron worker, the system cheater, the child abuser, the man who beat my mother until she bled.

The lesson of Jo’s life is acceptance without punishment.

Embrace who you are meant to be, early, before you hurt anyone.
Accept yourself, so you can live in peace with others.

I hope you have found peace “kind woman”.

I forgive you.

V.L.

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Waving Backwards, a Savannah novel (SYP Publishing)
Imagine not knowing who you are,
until you find yourself in a statue 800-miles from home.

COMING TO A BOOKSTORE NEAR YOU JULY 2015