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October 11, 2022

Fear, Family, Flowers, Forgiveness, and Freedom

Louise Hay said, “You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Battling with my inner critic has been lifelong and a notable focus of personal growth for me. For some, it seems, this voice of the inner critic is of themselves, for others it is unidentifiable. For me, it speaks in the voice of my maternal grandfather.

I have concluded, during countless hours of contemplation, counseling, and even hypnotherapy,  that out of his own childhood trauma, coupled with time in the Navy starting at barely 17, on the frontlines in WWII under kamikaze attack in the Pacific to Omaha Beach at H hour on D day, and surely other moments that went unsaid, he ruled our family from a place of fear. Fear of failure? Fear of embarrassment? Fear of chaos?  I can only surmise. To me, his fear presented itself in an ultra-conservative, controlling, father-knows-best persona. The utmost respect and fear of him were unspoken family expectations.

My grandfather could cut any member of our family down with a stern look and a few biting words. His tongue lashing was the harshest if he felt his way was being challenged, or if what you valued didn’t fit his narrative.

“An artist?!?! A writer?!?! No one really makes a living as an artist or a writer. You have to think logically about making a living.”

“Why are you wearing all that makeup? Are you trying to look ‘feminacho’?” His own term; a female version of macho. But, the implication was that my need for attention was too great and I looked cheap.

“Stop that crying! You are acting like a baby” I was 3. I WAS a baby, whose toenail had just been ripped half off.

“Anyone who believes that is a goddamned idiot.” Imagine a scenario of any difference in opinion. This was his go-to move to win the argument. It was when his fear roared the loudest.

Sadly the ‘my way or the highway’ wall that he built in front of his fear, and his seeming inability to overcome it in our relationship,  led to my decision to release him from my life when I grew to a place where his harsh judgment and hurtful words driven by his unspoken fears and my fear of his wrath, simply became too much to bear. I made peace with the separation of our lives. It is my hope that he did, too. Nevertheless, his voice remained in my head, harsh and critical, like a repetitive song that I just couldn’t shake.

And yet, this is not where our story ends. I have changed to a different soundtrack. For, I remembered, he was also my Grampa.

My Grampa had a brilliant mind and an impeccable work ethic. He risked his life for his country, and worked hard as a logger in the Maine woods while he used his GI bill to put himself through college.  He did so while providing for his family. He built himself a successful career as a chemist and innovation/design specialist, contributing to projects such as the coating on M&Ms, Polaroid Instamatic film, and the earliest use of holograms as means of security for identification and banking cards. My Grampa lived a disciplined, private life and was wildly creative. He was an enigma.

A ‘get it done/do it yourself’ kind of guy, that was my Grampa. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t design or build when he set his mind to it. He held over 20 patents. He was wonderful with babies and animals. He loved my grandmother tenderly, and deeply. When in his element, he had a great sense of humor, and a warm smile. He taught me how to bait a hook, dig for clams, and seine for silversides on the shores of Massachusetts. He taught our family to have a deep respect, honor, and awe of the natural world.

The use of hand tools, directions on a boat, how to pull a crab trap, filet a fish…how to row myself to shore or conserve my energy and body heat in the water, if needed. All learned from time with my Grampa.

Driving me to school everyday in third grade when my parents were getting divorced, my Grampa practiced my spelling words with me in preparation for the class spelling bee.  Celebrated with me when I took second place. He took numerous photos every holiday and family gathering, lovingly labeling every one with the date and captions of who, when, where and what, in black sharpie and his unmistakably neat, block-lettered print. He helped me get my first car loan when I was a penniless single mom with two children, having saved myself from an abusive relationship. He helped me again when I graduated nursing school but needed a new vehicle before I had built up the means to get one.

It is from these respectable, integrity-filled qualities of my Grampa that I modeled much of my life. I appreciate the quick, easy learning mind with which I was blessed. I have cultivated a strong work ethic. I persevered through struggles to have a decades-long, successful, gratifying nursing career. Through a ‘do it yourself/get it done’ way of living, I taught my children to survive and thrive in the face of adversity. In our family we honor, respect, and value nature all around us. I am a whisperer to babies and animals. With my family we have founded our own traditions, documented in our own way through photos and memories. I have helped others generously, in times of struggle, just as my Grampa did for me.

So now, I am adjusting the reverberations of his impact on my life that rattle around as the voice in my head. I have turned down the volume of the fear and criticism, and found balance with our shared sense of structure and wild creativity. I learned from his confines of rigidity and judgment, and live with my heart wide open and always emotionally available for those I love. I live in acceptance and celebration of others, as they are. Difference in opinion, owning imperfections, and apologies are bearable and welcomed in our family. The challenges my grandfather and I faced in this way, was the fuel that led me to freedom from them. I dare to wrestle in the thick, muddy, emotional spaces of this life, and in the midst of the messiness is where I have found forgiveness.

Mark Twain once said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” From the fragrance shed from violets crushed in this life by the struggles I shared with my Grampa, I have inhaled forgiveness: for my own demons born of, and brought to, this relationship, and for my Grampa for his own.  Forgiveness for allowing myself to be imprinted with only one half of his voice as a toxic inner critic. Forgiveness for allowing myself to internalize the echoes of his fear, and not the songs of his strength and ingenuity. I have learned through this lifelong process that when our lives are connected, even with the truest love and intent, it is impossible to free ourselves from the encumbrance of each other’s choices. Light and darkness resides in every soul, and it is up to each of us to choose which one will lead the way.

So, as I embark on a more disciplined, planned new path, intent to make a living from my creativity, I am telling my inner critic grandfather to approve of me and become my inner Grampa coach.  I shall now welcome his voice and listen to the helpful, constructive commentator, guiding me to practice each day, as we practiced my spelling words a lifetime ago. Maybe this time, together, we’ll come out on top.

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