When I started the process of writing about what was happening in my life, I really could not do it. It is not that I cannot write – I trained as an academic historian, and have taught basic composition and analytical writing to high school students for years. I started and stopped…made a time line…I just could not make myself approach my feelings about my marital disaster. I finally realized that I had been trained to never write anything more controversial than a grocery list or calendar post.
For five generations of women in my family, our first learned mantra has been “Don’t write it down – it only leads to trouble”. This belief (habit, family truism…) was a result of the volatile nature and expressive written style of my maternal great-grandmother. Born in 1898, she lived and maintained a prolific correspondence until her death in 1994. For her time, her life was unusual – while she married young and raised 4 children, she also sent two daughters to college in 1920s Texas, and managed to own a successful tailor shop from the ’20s through the ’50s. Throughout my childhood, the arrival of one of her letters from Texas resulted in trepidation, since the contents usually induced shock and then a flurry of family phone calls. While she occasionally commented on local or even national events, the bulk of her letters were always devoted to her feelings about whatever family member had managed to touch off her ire, hurt her feelings, wound her pride, or otherwise cause a negative emotional response. While she also passed on happy news – weddings, babies, etc. – even this news generally had a filter of negative emotion. Every letter created a storm of family controversy, with the “loved” one who received the incendiary letter rushing to Mama’s defense, the “guilty” one hastening to defend him or herself, and the remainder of the family falling in on one side or the other. Tempers would flare, harsh words would be exchanged, and siblings or cousins or even parents and children would stop speaking. Eventually, “Mama” would weigh in, expressing bewilderment. As it turned out, those incendiary letters were first drafts written in the heat of the moment to the person most likely to be sympathetic. The writing served as a purging mechanism, and by the time the letter was read by its recipient, “Mama” had regained her equilibrium and forgotten all about her comments. Unfortunately, her family was not as quick to recover. Thomason and Anderson descendants spread from East Texas to Southern Oregon are still holding grudges for things that happened before Sputnik – some even before the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918!
Letter writing helped her avoid counseling, anti-depressants and arrest for most of a century. Her daughters, however, passed on the family mantra to their daughters who passed it on to their daughters, who are now passing it on to their daughters, as I have to my own: “Don’t write it down, it will only cause trouble!” After almost fifty years of living by this advice, I am now trying to follow the advice of my counselor, who insists that I must “WRITE IT ALL DOWN” as a way of sorting through the confusion and purging negative emotion…oh, the irony! I have a feeling that this may be one of the most difficult journeys I have undertaken, since I will be attempting to overcome the ingrained beliefs of a lifetime, while examining feelings and thoughts I have attempted to lock neatly in a box ….