“Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being.” ― C.G. Jung
I have now written to the conclusion of my new memoir, Mem: Life Lessons I Learned from My Amish Mother. In the next several weeks, I will be reading it for flow, adding more here, and subtracting there. I will also be mindful of the words I use — I want the language to properly convey the insights I have gleaned from my reflections on my journey of healing my relationship with Mem.
Writing this book has been a healing process in itself. I had organized all the letters I kept from Mem ever since I left home, and as many letters as I kept copies of from me to her. Reading them this many years after they were written, and 11 years after Mem’s death, gave me new insights into Mem’s character. I am including many excerpts of her letters in the book, which gives Mem her own voice.
In many ways, I wish I did not feel compelled to write and publish this book. What I am writing will not be welcomed by my siblings. As far as I know, all of them still think of Mem as having been a martyr and a saint, as do many of her other relatives. Because I no longer buy into this myth, they will likely distance themselves from me.
I believe that each of my siblings grew up with a different mother than I did. The reason I say this is because Mem had her favorites and her scapegoats. For some of us, that could shift. For others, it was their fixed role. As long as I believed the myth Mem created — that she was good parent and Datt was the bad one — I stayed on her good side. But I paid dearly for one little criticism or defiance of her.
I often ask myself why I feel compelled to write this book. My life would be so much easier if I didn’t. But for some reason, I know I must do this. Like so many times in my life, I hear Mem saying, “Oh Saloma, why must you always do things the hard way?!” Just like all those other times, I have no answer to this question.
When I shared the first two parts of my introduction, I received exactly the kinds of affirmations that I hoped would come from sharing this part of my life: affirmations, support for the book, and best of all, those of you who can relate to this book in a very personal way. To those of you who have endured abuse, I want to say I am so sorry. And remember, this was not your fault. This is perhaps the most profound discovery in my own healing process. If you hear the messages I have heard — “That was so long ago.” “You need to learn to forgive.” “You should stop thinking about it or talking about it, and bury it forever.” — trust your own experiences and memories and find people to share your story with who will validate them. Trust your own memories. It will help you heal.
You, my dear readers, are the reason why I must press on with this book, even knowing the estrangement it will surely cause from my family. Thank you, thank you, and thank you again.
Here is the last part of my introduction:
Two summers ago, when I found myself confronting my Mem issues, I wrote another letter to her spirit. I poured out my heart and soul in that letter. I didn’t stop until I had written nearly 150 pages. I had intended to continue it, but I stopped when I got to the point in my life when I married David. It’s as if I had now reached safe ground, and there was no need to continue.
That fall I began braiding a rug for a wedding gift for a young friend. I braided it on my front porch until the weather turned cold and then I moved my operation to the third floor of my house. After this rug was completed, I decided to braid two rugs for my front hallway. After those were done, I braided five more.
Through writing and braiding, I was working my way towards forgiving Mem. Forgiveness is a long process for me. Some people feel they can say they forgive and it’s done. I seem to make it so much more complicated than that. I can just hear Mem saying, “Oh Saloma! Why do you always have to do things the hard way?!” I felt I needed to understand where Mem was coming from or what motivated her to do what she did, and I wanted to know that she would not have repeated what she’d done if she had seen her mistakes.
After many hours of braiding and contemplating, I finally realized that I will never know what motivated Mem to treat me the way she did. Nor will I know if she felt remorse for these wrongs. But to continue to harbor resentments would be a burden I no longer wanted to carry.
As I continued practicing the homespun art I’d learned from Mem, it was as though I was braiding together three strands to form forgiveness: honesty, humility, and compassion. I felt that I needed to forgive her for her sake as well as for my own. That makes little sense when I know she is no longer of this world. But here are the thoughts that led me to this conclusion.
When I die, I imagine my spirit will live on in this world as long as there are people with memories of me. If I leave this world without reconciling with people whom I have hurt, it can cause unhealthy attachments that can prevent my soul from advancing. If these people can find it in their hearts to forgive me, my soul will be freed.
Whether I was freeing my spirit, Mem’s spirit, or both of ours, I felt I had let go of the hurt of the past with Mem.
I realized at some point in my musings, that I was the same age when I was braiding all these rugs that Mem had been when I left the Amish for the first time.
I ask myself why I feel compelled to write about Mem if I have truly forgiven her. I don’t know the answer to the question of why I feel compelled. I only know that I do feel compelled. Sometimes writers don’t have a choice but to follow their muse. I am following mine, and trust that I am meant to write this story and that in time I will understand the reasons why.
There was a time when Mem was trying hard to get me to “reconcile” with my older brother. What she really wanted is to get me to submit to his rule in the family. One day, unbeknownst to Mem, David took a little video of her urging me to visit Joe. I am sharing this video for the very first time. I must say, I never knew I could be so timid as I seem to be in this video. My voice is so small…
I realize my timidity is because I could either go along with what seemed like a benign suggestion that I visit Joe, or could be truthful and tell Mem I don’t want to visit Joe, and furthermore I don’t want to be pressured about that, and by the way Joe knows I’m here, so he can come visit if he wants to. I knew the family pressure would be brought to bear if I did this, so I capitulated. I have a close friend who watched this video back then, and she said, “Liar” when she saw me acting the way I did. She did not even know all the dynamics, but she knew I was not being honest — even to myself.