For the Women Who Were Silenced...And For My Father

A few months ago I traveled to upstate New York with my parents.  Just me and them.  It may be the only time in my life that I have spent a couple of days that way – without children or siblings or my husband or any other extended family. 
 
It was October and that wasn’t an accident.  I now live in southern California and my heart still longs for fall, which has been my favorite season for about as long as I can remember.   I’m not one of those people who moved to La-La-Land and can’t imagine ever leaving.  As much as I appreciate the ease of almost-always-70-degrees-and-sunny, I miss the seasons.  I miss the contrast of the challenge of winter’s cold and the hope of spring’s blossoms.  I feel ungrounded and confused.  Somehow without roots, without a way to orient myself throughout the year.  (Though admittedly as an Artic Blast hits the Midwest and Northeast this week, I’m not minding CA all that much!) 
 
Both of my parents grew up in New York State and I was born there, but never really lived there year-round – unless you count our three years at West Point, the U.S. military academy. We were “summer people.”  Lake people. 
 
My brother, sister, cousins and I went to spend the summer running around with a level of unscheduled freedom and independence that was rare during our school-year lives. So, I feel somehow rooted in the region and in New York – especially upstate—even though I’m very aware that I have no right to claim it as my home given my seasonal returns.  Military “brat” that I am, it is as much home as any I have had.
 
My mother really did grow up “upstate” in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  Her childhood was spent in little tiny towns where my grandfather pastored tiny little churches and my grandmother baked amazing cookies and pies and led the family, and the church, singing old hymns in harmony.  Before that my great-grandfather had a farm with a beautiful old farmhouse.  My impression is that he didn’t do so well as a farmer, but it must be that someone before him was pretty prosperous because my great, great, grandmother ordered her furniture from New York City, so the story goes. 
 
In any case, when my mom was about 15, someone in the family left my grandfather $10,000 and, poor as he was as a small-town pastor, he was able to buy a tiny cottage on Seneca Lake.  It had light orange metal kitchen cabinets that my grandmother fell in love with as soon as she peeked through the window.  My parents sold “the Cottage” a few years ago.  I still miss those cabinets.
 
My dad grew up near “the city” – in Yonkers.  His dad took the train into Manhattan each day to work at Avon.  His mom, a graduate of Wellesley, didn’t work outside of the home. 
 
He tells of summers taking the sleeper train from Yonkers to the North country – even farther into upstate New York than where my mother lived – almost to Canada.  He and his siblings would get in their pajamas and get on the train at night and wake up the next morning at “the Lake” – Black Lake, New York, a small lake in the Thousand Islands region, that had its own collection of little tiny islands, a couple of which were owned by members of my family.  I was the seventh generation of the family to visit there, if I remember correctly.  A number of the men in my great-grandfather’s generation were lawyers, I think.  They worked in “the city “and traveled upstate on the weekends in the summer.  The women-and-children stayed at The Lake all summer.  In some cases, with servants.
 
All of that is to say that in being with my parents in upstate New York in the fall, I was in some sense returning to my story.  My roots.  The story of my ancestors.
 
I wasn’t sure how it would go. 
 
My parents are great people.  Kind and loving.  But as I’ve grown in my awareness of white privilege and white supremacy and the fundamentally racist and sexist social structures that have surrounded me my whole life – as they do all of us—I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable at the Lake.  And in Christianity.  And, since both “the Lake” and Christianity are central to my parents’ lives – often with my parents as well.
 
As a white person, a European American, I haven’t known what to do with the shame I feel about the privilege I have because of my skin color and heritage.  I haven’t known what to do with the shame I feel around the actions of “my people” throughout history.  And the ways I know my own action, or inaction, continues to cause suffering in the lives of brown and black people – whether I am conscious of my choices or not. 
 
As a woman, I haven’t known how to process the anger and grief I’ve felt as I see how I have inhaled messages about myself that have kept me small, contained, and silent in ways that my brother was not.  And then to see how that was true for other women in my dad’s family – wealthy and privileged as many of them were.  And for other women in the Christian church.  I haven’t known how to claim my strength, my capability as a leader, without offending or causing division in my family where gender roles have been pretty clear, and “ugly” emotions not so welcome.
 
There’s lots to talk about here – and lots more for me to work through. 
 
But for today I want to share just one important break-through moment that I experienced on this trip. I hope it will help you on your journey.  It’s similar to what I wrote about in relation to Thanksgiving – a bit of a theme I’m exploring these days. 
 
I can hold it all.  So can you.  
 
I can love the beauty of the Lake, how it taught me to dance in the wind, to love woods, fox, mink, and deer, the reflection of light on water, the smell of pine needles and the feeling of gliding gracefully through the lake, held up, surrounded, strong…alone in all the best ways, and yet not left alone.
 
I can deeply love and respect my father.  A white man who has experienced pretty much all of the privileges our culture has to offer, and can’t quite see it, through he’s at least willing to try.  A man who experienced great grief at the loss of his older brother (and best friend) and his much-loved little brother, and at missing the birth of his first child – all because of the war in Vietnam, in which he fought because he actually believes in honor and sacrifice.  He’s a West Point grad.  He's a man of integrity and faith.  He’s also a bit of a poet.  He gave me a core sense of safety growing up.  And he’s adjusted and supported me as best he could in this life he does not understand – my life married to a Black man, living in big cities, leaving my kids to go to work instead of staying home with them full-time, and not so Christian anymore. 
 
And I can feel anger and grief about the women who have been silenced on the very same land where my father ran free, where he became strong as they weakened.  I can feel discouraged as I see so many of my female cousins follow a path similar to that of my great-grandmother who left law school in the early 20th century just because she got married.  Why is it that some many of us girls just happened to end up being the ones who chose smaller careers, or no career, while our husbands worked?  I know that we didn’t make those choices in a vacuum.  We weren’t entirely free to choose despite our privilege (and for those cousins who may read this I do also recognize that even within our family there are varying degrees of privilege at work – and my story is not the story of all of us.)
 
I can learn to hold the reality that if my ancestors had had brown or black skin, we would not have this beautiful lake property.  In fact, even the idea of “owning” land is one that European Americans brought here. And I don’t know what to do about that.  I remember talking to my father years ago, when I was not yet out on my own, about the cottage that my mother’s family had and how it was built on Native American land, Cayuga Nation land, I think. 

My connection to that land matters deeply to me, too, as does my mother’s story and our visits to some of the places that were important to parts of her childhood – visits that were also a part of this trip, but are a story for another time.
 
What matters to this story is the question that arose for me so many years ago - about this piece of land I loved so much.  As I shared with my father my angst about the reality that we had property that had been unfairly attained by our ancestors, he asked me (as I remember it) what I wanted to do about the situation, “Should we give them the Cottage?  Give it back?” he asked.  I remember clearly the answer I felt. “Yes, we should.”  But, oh, I knew that would break my heart.   And I wasn’t sure it would solve the problem either. 
 
We didn't give the Cottage to the Cayuga Nation.  And I’ve kinda been stuck in that place for years.  Between the rock and the hard place, as they say.  Do what’s right and give up all that I love – or stay silent, avoiding the questions, hiding from the pain, stuck in powerlessness and shame. 
 
I know my shame isn’t helpful, and I’m not yet sure what to replace it with.  But I also know that I must somehow reconcile these pieces of my life— of who I am, who my family is, who we are as a nation. 
 
I must see what is messy and imperfect, flat-out wrong and unfair.  I must also learn to love and honor the good that is always hidden in the midst of it all.  I must see the good and the evil intertwined and hold it all. 
 
Because otherwise there is no healing.
 
Just seeing the evil and the suffering is not enough.  Anger alone – though amazing, good and necessary—is not enough. 
 
When I visited The Lake in October—without the crowds of summer people—I did a Celtic Christian practice called “walking the rounds” (lately connecting with Celtic Christianity is a way I’m reclaiming a bit of my heritage, which seems to be an important part of this journey for me.)  I walked all around the property as an embodied sort of prayer.  And I honored my ancestors – with all their privilege and pain, and all their goodness and all their blindspots.  I walked for the suffering and for the joys of that land. 
 
I walked for the women who were silenced.  And for my father.
 
We can do this.  Amazing ones.  We can feel all the feelings.  The pain and the joy.  And we can find ways to move forward to bring healing to ourselves and others. 
 
If my story resonates with you, I hope you’ll share it with someone else who might be on this journey too. 

If you're reading it on Facebook or because it was forwarded to you by someone else, I hope you'll consider signing up to get Thriving Thursdays each week.  (You'll also get my free guide - Six Ways to Go From Surviving the Day to Loving Life.)

And let me know who you want to walk for.  Let’s do it together.
 
Here’s to thriving.  And equity.
 
With much love,
 
P.S. Please also consider joining Dr. Amanda Kemp for How to Transform your Conversations about Racism  on February 11.