For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
During the six weeks leading up to our move from Plainfield, I kept a countdown both on my bedroom calendar and in my butterfly-adorned diary. Even back then I was a passionate journaler, but I held back in what I wrote. A few years earlier, my older sister ripped all the pages out of my diary and posted them on the refrigerator to get me in trouble (I said some not-so-nice things about my mother). Years later, when I started blogging, I though of it as a form of “posting my own diary on the refrigerator,” but this time about the thoughts I chose to share–and not ones about lamenting the daily life of a 5th grader. It’s the harder stories, the ones that I fear will somehow come back to get me, that I hesitate before writing. And yet, if this birthday challenge has taught me one thing, it’s that these are just stories. They are not my current reality. Still, our pasts can drive our decisions and mold our views of the world in ways we don’t even recognize. When I finally started seeing a therapist in college, it was like wearing glasses for the first time.
My issue now is that I don’t have the words to tell these stories, to really do them justice. So where do you start?
I recently read a book about tackling a memoir when you’re addressing traumatic events. One of the book’s main suggestions was exploring vivid, sense memories–the specific feeling of holding on to something, of smelling something, of hearing a loud noise. Putting yourself back in these moments can unlock other vivid images that may make been blocked out before. This has really helped me get started.
Strangely enough, moving backwards in my story has been easier than trying to figure out where to begin. And so I find myself thinking a lot about the day we moved. It was July 16th, 1998, a day after we had driven the cats up to our new house in Highland Lakes, NJ. I consider the 15th to be my true independence day, but hadn’t expected it to be so. As I counted the days down in my diary, I imagined our freedom from this God-forsaken town as a time of celebration, joy and excitement. But when the day came, we were all too tired to accept this chapter switch in our lives as a moment of celebration. It’s like watching a house of bad memories burn to the ground and instead of dancing on its ashes, you only have the energy to turn your back and walk away. When I tell this story to Ben, he often brings up Jenny throwing rocks at her house in Forest Gump.
But as a kid, I was irrationally attached to inanimate objects, and instead of rejoicing our final day, I felt ashamed and guilty that we were leaving a place behind without making some sort of peace. I honestly believed that we were somehow allowing another family to pick up the curse that was ingrained in the property, in the walls, in the foundation.
My grandmother allowed us to financially pull off this move, in a time of complete desperation to get out–after four years of trying to sell the house. The neighborhood around us literally disintegrated as the days went on. Our new home was tucked in the private (I mean, barely any street signs at the time) town of Highland Lakes. I went from car alarms and people yelling in the streets to the sound of a bullfrog near my bedroom window.
The oddest memory I have is the last time I stood in my bedroom. I remember looking at it, cleared out, the only room I ever remember living in. I poked around to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, and found this weird piece of art I had made once out of a plank of wood, some glitter paint, and a whole bunch of sequins. I was in a rush and decided I didn’t want to grab it on this run, because I didn’t have room to carry it. But I would definitely come back to get it later. I also tried desperately to get the sticker stars off my bedroom ceiling since they had always been one of my favorite parts about that space. I got them from Liberty Science Center years earlier, and when we put them on the ceiling, the N’s in Ginny always looked like H’s. So really, it said, GIHHY for many years. It was a joke with myself that I wanted to bring along with me. But these little paper stickers had melded into the paint long, long ago, and there was no way they’d come off without bringing the paint with it. So I gave up mid-G and accepted they would have to stay for the next person. I always assumed they were painted over.
Later in the day, after I took that first trip up to Highland Lakes with a car full of last-minute piles, my mom asked me if I wanted to go back to say goodbye to the house. I said no. It was enough. I could close that door now. A big formal goodbye was not going to do anything for me, though little did I know, it would take years to even wrap my head around truly moving on.
For a while, I tried to pretend that I was a separate girl in a separate life, as if Plainfield was a memory of a movie I once saw, instead of 11 actual years. But I wavered between this and the extreme guilt that I had left my house, the physical structure itself, to weather the town by itself. And you know what is super weird? I felt terrible that I never went back for that odd piece of art in my bedroom closet. I felt like I had given up, abandoned it, diminished its importance.
Ben recently asked me why I had the urge to someday write my childhood story and share it publicly, opposed to just writing it for me. And I think I know part of the answer. Because when we’re young, some people use their role as an audience member to defend their acceptance of the moment. For years, my mother’s students and parents’ friends, and I think even once a policeman, would turn to me and say, “And one day you’re going to write a book about all this, right?” Because to me, I was the outsider somehow, even if I really wasn’t. And so finding a way to do this story justice is not leaving the piece of art in the closet, it’s not ignoring the memories that I tucked away for retelling. I need to be free of them.