By Eleanor Cowan
I picked up my sweet, chubby grandson and cuddled him in my arms. He’d reached up to me and, thrilled to respond, I held him close. But ah, a colorful object on the floor beckoned, and instantly, he wanted down. Wriggling only once and issuing a single sound, he found himself back on the wool carpet crawling towards a plastic lamb-shaped cookie cutter. It claimed his full attention. With no hesitation, he’d signaled his wish and I honored it. Simple as that.
Not so in my childhood.
Responses to me were, “What do you want now?,” “Go away,” “Get lost,” or, “What a pain in the behind.”
So today, to say no when I mean no, or yes when I mean yes, without compromising myself for the sake of offending anyone, is a huge accomplishment. These small triumphs require endless practice for me. I can slip into my need for approval at any surprise moment.
Re-winding to a day in childhood – all dressed in pure white to make my First Communion, I vomited in the bathroom. “Cover her dress!” shouted Mom, who’d spent time and money to get me properly dressed for a religious ceremony with my Grade 3 class.
“I can’t eat it!” I cried, repulsed about eating the body and blood of Christ.
“It’s not really the actual human flesh of Christ,” said Dad. “Well, it is, but only in your mind and heart. And Christ’s flesh isn’t human. The morsel placed on your tongue is just flattened bread, so don’t worry about it,” he added to my confusion.
“And white signifies purity,” said my grandfather, who’d traveled to our city for the special occasion. “Girls need to take their modesty seriously. And don’t worry about feeling love for your Saviour. Just say you do, pray for faith and eventually, the feelings will come.”
I learned compliance. Confused, I acquiesced. I learned to be a fleecy sheep in the obedient herd. I submitted to being shepherded. I trusted rewards would come after I died and went to heaven. A male god would always take care of me if I said I loved him, even though I felt so little, if I received communion regularly, and had pure thoughts. Happiness was assured.
In fact, what did happen was that inside and outside of my family, my innocence was raided by sexual violence. Steadfastly submissive, effectively disassociated from my own instincts and far from reality, I readily agreed that the violence I’d suffered was mostly my fault. I was the one who visited my grandfather after my mother’s suicide. I was the one who raised a glass of beer to my lips at his cozy kitchen table. I was the one who asked to take a nap in the guest room for an hour or so before supper.
“I knew what you were leading up to, you sneaky, slippery lass,” said my grandfather, as I awakened to his hands in my underwear. I was 24. I should have known better.
If I’d been raised in honesty, I’d have known that my grandfather was a sex addict who molested my angry, depressed mother in her youth, and I’d have been warned he’d never leave me alone just because I was his granddaughter. Talking about those secrets would have opened shelves of canned worms. Honest, open discussions might have deterred me from marrying a pedophile, someone who could sense my disassociation, a predator who sniffed my vulnerability and gullibility, a heart-eater who knew how much I wanted my dream of happily-ever-after.
I knew the script. Get married, have a family and everything will be okay. No qualifiers or proof of standards were required by me. No, for me, I was grateful to meet an educated, well-spoken fellow whose swift marriage proposal bypassed the usual tests of time and experience. Grateful to be wanted by a smart, handsome man who assured me that over time, despite my history of sexual abuse and my semi-annual binge drinking, with his and God’s help, I’d indeed prove myself worthy. And so, I married the secret, chronic and unrepentant pedophile who molested first his siblings and then our children.
There was a constant gnawing in my stomach during my marriage, a nameless anxiety and unidentified tension, unease that, gratefully, like a baby’s insistent squall, got louder and louder. Slowly, very slowly, my thoughts, like errant sheep, jumped the fence one by one, and finally revealed to me that I wasn’t happy in my marriage. I was shocked to realize that I didn’t even like my husband. I wanted to be free. I reached out to a friend at my workplace. I’ll always be grateful for her strong encouragement to follow my heart. When I said that I couldn’t tell what my heart was saying, she suggested I listen closely.
“You’ll meet someone,” said Ruth, a wonderful member of my support group for Parents of Sexually Abused Children. “There’s someone else out there for you! It’s going to happen!” she enthused.
“No,” I heard myself reply. “I’m not looking for anyone. I’m reclaiming my own life. I’m on a new adventure now.”
“Is it because you’ve been so disappointed?” she asked, “Is that why you’re steering clear?”
“No. I’m not steering at all. It’s because I’d like to meet the real Eleanor, at long, long last!”
That exchange with Ruth took place twenty-eight years ago. Since then, I’ve been on an incredible adventure – lots of bumps as I trialed and errored my way to honoring my life on an uncharted course.
There are always tiny tests, though, like slender strands of cat hair on my black sweater sleeve.
“Did you like the book, Eleanor?” asked a new friend who gave me a gift copy of a treasured tome, one I quietly planned to donate to a bookstore.
How to word my honesty? “Thank you, Jane. It was so nice of you.”
“Does that mean you didn’t like it? she pressed.
“Well, the fact is, religious books aren’t for me.”
So simple for some. So hard for me. Jane happily reclaimed the book and gave it to a friend who loved it. And, despite our differences, we’re still friendly neighbors.
It was I who tossed that lamb-shaped cookie cutter on the carpet for my darling grandson last week. I don’t use that shape anymore. I live well in my uncertain, unscripted life.
With no guarantees or promises, but far more aware, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.