care/of

My journey through abandonment to living with abandon opens with a stack of sympathy cards.

Photo by Ranurte on Unsplash

In the days that followed my father’s death, my grandma presented to us a stack of cards she had assembled on her kitchen table, many addressed to my mom, c/o my grandparents. I remember asking my grandma what “c/o” meant — we had learned how to address letters at school, but I hadn’t seen that extra line before. She explained that it meant “care of” and was used when the sender didn’t have an address, or when the recipient was temporarily residing somewhere. These were sympathy cards, and during those lonely, bewildering days, that phrase brought me comfort: care/of. Sheltered by my grandparents in their warm, yellow house. Grandpa would always correct me and say the house was “gold.” He was right.

My grandparents’ house would remain my c/o address for years to come. It was where I felt the most loved, had the most fun, learned life skills, like how to make dumplings and give quality hugs and kisses (“like you mean it,” my grandma would say). As the small children of a single mom who had to transform overnight from homemaker to breadwinner, we spent many nights and weekends c/o Bill and Helen, treated with buttery popcorn and rainbow sherbet in the evenings as we watched TV, usually detective shows like “Hunter”, “Hill Street Blues,” and “Hart to Hart,” but sometimes movie specials and often Westerns, my grandpa’s favorite. My grandpa loved John Wayne, but my grandma loved all the movies. She had this giant almanac with short film reviews that she kept near where she sat that she would consult before watching. She’d take me to the movies, too, and must’ve had good taste — the two films I remember seeing with her most vividly were “Raising Arizona” and “Seven.” It seems I’ve always been a Coen Brothers and David Fincher fan. Thanks, Grandma.

My brother (l) and I (r) trying out disguises at Grandma and Grandpa’s gold house.

Before my father’s suicide, I didn’t need a c/o. I had my parents and I had God. But Dad triggered a string of abandonments and losses: of self, of God, and of trust that everything would be OK, that I would be taken care of.

The church wouldn’t bury him, and as far as I was concerned, the God they taught me about wouldn’t allow such a horrible thing to happen to a little girl who loved Sunday School and always said her prayers. So, I became an angry little half-orphaned atheist who stopped saying grace and started looking after herself. If Jesus really loved me like the song said, he had a strange way of showing it. Dad, too. Forsaken by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The only thing I really believed in was me. I had to create a life for myself, by myself, or risk calamity. By ten years old, I had my career mapped out and a strategy to get there. My plans were ambitious, too: I was going to become the first woman President of the United States of America, after serving in the Senate. But first I would go to Princeton and either Harvard or Georgetown Law to become an attorney, then a judge. I would spend hours at the library, building a dossier of schools filled with facts like notable alumni, admissions requirements and costs, and immersed myself in my education, so I could get the grades I needed to get out of my circumstances and into my life.

My independence was in response to my life circumstances, but my identity was forged by pop-culture feminism. The hard work and sacrifice of the seventies got us the Equal Rights Amendment, but the 80’s gave us Day to Night Barbie , with her pink power suit that reversed into a glittery evening look and a briefcase that held a calculator, purse, and two pairs of shoes. “We can work from nine to five, then change for an evening with Ken,” the jaunty jingle goes, closing with: “We girls can do anything, right Barbie?Sisters are doing it for themselves indeed! At nine years old, the die was cast — I would rely on no man — no one — to get the love, admiration, and worthiness I longed for.

I didn’t run for President, but I did my best to be the best Day to Night Barbie I could, quickly climbing the corporate ladder, and becoming more successful than I could have imagined. But I struggled in my relationships, hampered by strong, unmet emotional needs, unrealistic expectations, undefined sense of self, and an overwhelming deficit of self-worth. I wanted to be swept off my feet, but was too fearful of being dropped to let relationships breathe, expand, and develop. I wasn’t looking for love, I was looking for victory — to prove I could “have it all” — a great career and a beautiful family; all while wearing heels and size-two pink power suits.

I was living someone else’s dream, so it was not mine to manifest. As I’ve sought to understand who I truly am, I’ve marveled at how challenging it is to differentiate our dreams and values from those that have been consciously or subconsciously planted by others, be they people (families), events (trauma), or culture (mass media/religion/consumerism). Much of my identity came from outside forces, not from within my heart. My expedition to find what is true has been underway for decades, but I’ve only recently hit pay dirt. It took stepping outside of my professional identity — to awaken from that dream — to get acquainted with who I am when no one is watching, to do what I want when nothing is required; to separate the gold from the pyrite and embrace all the riches in my life that were always there.

The facts of my story never changed, it was my framing of them that did, alongside a strong dose willingness to let go of the illusion of control and surrender to the belief that I will be taken care of. When I look around me — present, past, and future — all I see is abundance: of love, blessings, beauty, wealth, and health, housed in golden light, in care of the Divine.

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