In 2018 and 19, I worked with Writing It Real member Marilea C. Rabasa consulting on a second memoir she was compelled to write and wanted very much to get right. She wasn’t happy with the way it was unwinding and together we began the journey of finding a structure for the work that could accommodate the mission she was on in writing it—to tell a family story of addiction but not to write that addiction was what defined her life.
“I wonder if you have thought of telling your story in linked vignettes–titles like Herkimer, Corky, Lake Massapoag,” Marilea remembers me saying, “and in each story finding a way to show the family life undercut by alcoholism, the love and the difficulty.” I had extracted recurring and/or significant characters and locations in the manuscript and thought that could provide, in short segments, a route for the story and its themes. I directed her to reading the work of Abigail Thomas, Jim Heynen and Kim Stafford as models of how this is done and Marilea calls those models “good stuff.”
The finished, published memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation has won several awards: 2020 Best Book Awards Winner in Health: Addiction & Recovery; 2020 International Book Awards Finalist in Health: Addiction & Recovery; and it made the Long List of the Chanticleer International Book Awards.
This month, Marilea shares five pages from early in the memoir as they provide a good illustration of how the structure works.
She explains this selection:
My journey began as a child lost in a family consumed by alcoholism. Through the years I became a mother, a divorcee, a teacher, a writer, and a grandmother. The following linked vignettes illustrate in chilling detail how I viewed my world as a daughter in my dysfunctional family. From this limited childhood vision, my world grew bigger very quickly through travel and other experiences. But through it all, through seventy years of a truly extraordinary life, I have remained a substance abuser, coping with my life as do many (unrecovered) adult children.
It’s been a search for understanding and clarification, a way to reconcile my beginnings with who I am today. Every day when I wake up, I’m grateful for another day to try and make the most of my life. How did I get here? This is an addiction story with a happy ending.
From Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation
by Marilea C. Rabasa
My desk looks out over Saratoga Passage, a narrow body of water between Camano Island and Whidbey Island, two of the many landmasses dotting Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest.
A table lamp stands between two framed eight by ten photographs: on the left side, a color portrait of my three children taken at J. C. Penney’s one Christmas in Miami in 1984; on the right side a black and white 1951 photograph of my Aunt Dodie and Uncle Geo’s triumphant walk down the wedding aisle. She was my father’s middle sister, and she had the most stunning smile. In the foreground of the picture there I was at the end of a pew, three years old, wearing tiny white gloves, my eyes as big as saucers, wondering how I was going to get out of there.
After the ceremony, I anxiously looked around for my brother. Bill was my one comfort—Bill and all our cats and dogs. They tell me he doted on me. Family photos in my albums confirm this. Mary Lee, a toddler in a bathing suit, at the beach on Long Island and brother Bill all smiles as we strain to see the camera, hot summer sun in our faces. What fun we were having building castles in the sand. Ten years older than me, he would go away to boarding school before I was five.
More black and white snapshots call out to me, one with 1950 written at the top. It shows me at two-years-old on Christmas morning nestled in Bill’s lap, cooing over my new doll. Our sister Lucy sits next to him, also holding a doll, looking at us.
Another black and white picture speaks to me. It’s a lovely portrait of my family before I came along—Mother and Daddy, Bill at eight and Lucy at three. Mother is a stunning woman, smiling next to Daddy, himself a handsome charmer. My sister sports lots of bouncy waves on her head to match her happy mood in that picture.
When I was born two years later, there were no more formal family portraits.
There were fulfilling family occasions recorded on film and I’m glad to have them in a faded, grainy archive: weddings, holidays, graduations, and other milestones.
But the photographs are revealing. In my family people didn’t talk about feelings; that’s just the way we were. These picture albums help me recall events and my feelings attached to them.
“Mary, go outside and play. I need to lie down for a while,” Mother pleaded, on the verge of tears. Click went the door latch, the red light as I approached her bedroom telling me to stop, turn around, and look elsewhere for attention. Bill was gone except for summers and holidays. Lucy was out with her friends or at ballet practice. Daddy as usual was in the basement. I was eight years old and lonely.
Much of the time that house felt like a vacuum after an implosion, with people pretending that everything was fine. On holidays, grownups walked around with drinks in their hands. I remember a big strange-looking bottle with red lines near the kitchen sink. But the rest of the year though I didn’t see it sitting there, I didn’t think things were fine.
Shut out again from being with my mother, I stopped off in the kitchen for some of her delicious apple pie and a glass of milk on my way to Daddy’s basement.
“Daddy, can I come down and help you?” I called to him in the basement, my plaintive tone echoing off the damp walls of the basement.
Sure, come on down. You can help me glue these parts together, I imagined he’d say. I floated down the steps until his harsh tone startled me.
Halfway down the stairs, my heart sank.
“Not now. Go check on your mother.” He sounded tense and angry, in no mood for an intrusion. That’s what I felt like in his and in my whole family’s life—an intrusion.
“She’s in bed. Told me to go outside,” I responded, the wind knocked out of me by a man who preferred to be doing something else.
“Do what your mother told you,” he barked, uninterested in haggling with me.
What was he doing down there all the time? Why wasn’t I welcome to join him? I could smell the mustiness on the old cement walls. Some of the boulders that protruded were moss-covered, with spiders lurking in dark corners.
I longed to be closer to my father, often stationing myself on the stairs leading into the cellar, hoping to catch him on the way up. Perched, little bird that I was, with a broken wing.
Daddy, I wanted to call out, I broke my wing. Can you help me?
Sometimes my imaginary friend and I played tic-tac-toe on those dusty stairs, and even kicked pebbles down, but nothing worked to get his attention.
On that cold and windy day, I went back upstairs, found my coat and stomped out the door, sobbing and indignant.
Nature was my welcoming refuge. It was all around me, and embraced me just as I was. Sometimes nature was dangerous, but I was drawn to it.
Hurricanes had always fascinated me, how they had the power to change the landscape. I felt excited at the end of every summer wishing the powerful winds would blow the deadwood away and the world would start over fresh and new.
Hurricane Carol swept through southeastern Massachusetts in August of 1954. Ignoring my mother’s warning, I ran out to the street where a huge tree had fallen down and was blocking traffic. Reaching up in the air I grabbed at leaves the wind had prematurely separated from their branches.
Dancing around the street, I kept wishing the wind would carry me away and put me down, like it had Dorothy, far away from Kansas.
Whether it was thirty degrees with two feet of snow on the ground or ninety degrees and humid, I learned to fashion a life for myself outdoors, usually in the woods.
Areas hollowed out by the wind became the rooms in my make-believe home fashioned on tree stumps and big granite boulders. Draping an old, tattered sheet over a low horizontal branch, I cut squares in it to make windows. Bits and pieces in the garage that had been left for the dump found new purpose in my imaginary home. Rusty tin cans, smashed under my feet, became ashtrays. An oversized bottle turned into a lamp. A couple of old crates became chairs. A broken old radio left near the brook added a nice touch to the kitchen table, itself a small scrap of plywood. Playing out my fantasies was a favorite pastime.
Inside the house, there was no escape. My family had moved into a converted schoolhouse in Massachusetts when I was six months old. There were four bedrooms upstairs, and since I was just a baby, my parents gave me the littlest one, the size of a large, walk-in closet. As I grew, I felt terrible resentment towards my sister Lucy not only because she had been awarded the room with a window facing the lake and was a graceful dancing student but because she was so much closer than I to our father. Still, I tried tagging along with her, though I felt she didn’t want me around.
One day I snuck into her room while Daddy was working in the basement and Mom was napping across the hall. I could do anything! I started by smashing one of her ballerina statues on the floor.
I looked at all her ballet costumes and pretty pink tutus. My sister was such a star, but I wanted attention too. I gazed at the perfumes and talcum powder on her dressing table. Just for a little while I can be a princess too.
She had a growing collection of Joyce shoes, all carefully lined up in her closet. I just wanted to wear them in her room for a few minutes. I hoped that by putting on her shoes her magic would rub off on me. Maybe my parents would love me as much as they loved her.
I shuffled around, but they were swimming on me as I struggled to keep them on my feet. So I gave up and put them back in her closet. Lucy would be home soon and my princess time was running out. As I heard her approaching the stairs, I returned to my place in the corners of the house. Lucy went right into her closet. I hadn’t been careful to put the shoes back where they’d been neatly placed.
Why had I been so careless?
Exploding out of her room, Lucy confronted, not me, but our mother, who was awake by then, about my latest theft. Tears streaming down her face, she implored:
“Mother, Mary has been in my closet. She took my favorite shoes again. And she
smashed my favorite ballerina on the floor. You always let her get away with this. Please do something this time!”
“Lucy, you’re the older of the two of you. You do something.”
What could my sister do? There was no justice to be found in our house.
Hiding in my little room with the door closed, I listened to my mother and sister. Eventually I left and went outside to my woods home. There I performed a mock trial:
Using one of my father’s hammers, I banged my pretend gavel on a big granite boulder.
“You know why you were bad, Mary,” bellowed the judge. “You went into Lucy’s room without permission. You wore her shoes. And you broke her statue. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I just wanted to feel special. I thought if I put on her shoes I’d feel special like she is. And I’m sorry I broke the ballet statue, but I’m so angry. Daddy loves her more than me!”
“That’s not an excuse, Mary. There is no excuse for what you did.”
“But I just wanted to get her attention!” I cried, breaking out in sobs.
The judge thundered back at me, unmoved, “You are guilty of jealousy and theft.” Guilty, guilty, guilty…
Unable to convince the judge of my innocence, I went back inside the house, ran to my room and slammed the door.
But I wasn’t punished.
Guilty, guilty, guilty… those words buried themselves in a pocket next to my heart. And there they remained, like a ship’s anchor, weighing me down, for the rest of my life.
Mother busied herself making dinner and my sister remained in her room. Invisible walls, unaddressed resentments, perpetual isolation.
I learned from a very early age a terrible lesson: I could get away with things. If I were sneaky enough, or had enough enablers around me, my behaviors might yield no consequences. With no one slapping my wrist, the naughtiness continued. And my frustration and anger continued to chip away at my self-confidence and cloak itself in chronic depression.
I wasn’t always a brat, though. Mother wrote in her diary dated 2/26/56:
“L and M quarreled and I smacked them both. L stayed in her room and sulked. After a while M went into the kitchen, got out a plate of cookies and poured a glass of milk. She carried up the cookies and on the way said to me, ‘I’m going to take these cookies up to Lucy and make her feel better.’”
Hugo, our mixed breed German shepherd, was warmhearted but not too bright. He acted like cats were dogs and slept with them in the big rocker on the side porch. One spring, our over-breeding cat, Herkimer, had just had her umpteenth litter and the kittens were all nursing on the rocker. I came downstairs in the morning and couldn’t wait to check on my new playmates. Two of them were flattened like pancakes. It was a frightful sight and, as if to wipe it from my mind, I carried them out to the meadow to bury with a trowel.
Herkimer didn’t seem to notice.
I had nowhere to go with my feelings. There was no place to express them safely in my family. But Mom liked it when we appreciated her cooking.
Herkimer and my mother had a lot in common. Both of them were overburdened by their circumstances and probably had too many children. Mom wasn’t particularly sympathetic about Herkie’s dead babies, either.
“Oh, she’ll have another litter next spring, Mary; you can be sure of that,” she assured me, serving breakfast as I came inside, wiping my eyes. “Come sit down. Your eggs will get cold.”
Thank you, Marilea, for sharing your story. It is a pleasure to have helped you along the way and to witness your tenacity in sticking to the project. I know this approach in vignettes will inspire many Writing It Real members who are striving to find ways to present memoir material. And, of course, congratulations on the awards and recognition.