Overcoming Adversity – Part Five

I remember reading something in a blog recently that sparked reflections that went underground while I reviewed and graded a seemingly never-ending stream of student papers. Sadly, I can’t remember which blog inspired me now that I have a moment to think before the next stream of papers arrives.

The simple statement in the blog post, “the word ‘mother’ is a verb,” came to mind this morning. “Yes, I can relate to that,” I thought. Perhaps that is one of the crucial dimensions of what it means to be a mother, “to mother,” but I think there’s something more that goes beyond a simple state of giving birth to new life, a deeper sense of connectedness to the responsibility one feels for the well-being of others. Not only one’s own children. “To mother” may also lead to the realization that the well-being of one’s own children is inextricably connected to the well-being of all other children and to the well-being of the world as a whole.

Years ago, I saw a greeting card that crystalized what it felt like to me to be a mother, auntie, or grandmother.

“To have a child is to decide to have your heart forever walk around outside your body”

For so many women, though, motherhood may not be a choice. It may also be an overwhelming responsibility for women without the support of others, perhaps especially so for those in cultures that are unable or unwilling to assure healthy environments for mothers and children – access to clean water, clean air to breathe, respectful treatment of women and children, safe and adequate shelter, good nutrition, help with child care, and education that supports the development of practical skills, compassion for others, creativity, and critical thinking.

My mother was faced with a most difficult choice. She had to decide whether to remain in an abusive relationship or give up the right to raise her two young children.

Following is the fifth part of the story of her life that describes her brief escape from abuse and the decision she felt forced to make because of circumstances beyond her control.

***

Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs

Part Five

In Search of Safety

Norma’s early married years were very difficult. She was far from family and home. During her time in Chicago, she had the support and friendship of colleagues she met during nursing school, and help from her sister/cousin, Hazel, who lived in Chicago. Hazel had taken Norma in during part of Norma’s high school years. Relatives from her reservation and other community members often traveled there to visit her as well.

New Jersey was a different story on many levels. There were no relatives, few Ojibwe community members who visited, and no Native American connections. Norma was alone. Wes’ relatives were geographically close, but were culturally worlds apart from Norma’s Ojibwe family.

I never heard her speak of them, although I can remember my own childhood impressions. Wes’ family was of English descent, and his father and grandfather had in fact descended from their position in England. As Wes told the story, although I’m not sure it’s accurate, his grandfather was the youngest son of an aristocratic family who, under the tradition of primogeniture, needed to make his own way in the world without land or money from his family. He came to America, and his son, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Sr., learned to be a master plumber. Wes was the second born in a family of nine children. His own mother died after the birth of her seventh child when he was still a little boy. His father remarried and had two more children. Wes often spoke about how his stepmother kept the food pantry locked, securing the key on her apron ties.

Aunt Margaret & Grandpa


I remember my grandfather’s house. I found it amazing years later when I learned he was a plumber who worked in New York’s skyscrapers – there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet would only flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Wes’ younger brother lived in the house, while Wes’ father lived on the second floor of a shed that we referred to as the “bird house.” Goats lived on the first floor, and hundreds of birds – finches, canaries, and parakeets, flew free in my grandfather’s living space. I can still remember the smell of the house and the shed! I can also remember the reserve and the dour demeanor of my father’s family, and the absence of laughter in their homes. I can only imagine how a young woman far from her home felt in their presence. I wonder how an Ojibwe woman who had been socialized to believe that white society was superior to her own made sense of the lifestyle and homes of Wes’ family – conditions that were similar to those of the Appalachian families I encountered in Kentucky (many named Coombs) decades later.

Wes suffered from serious depression and a quick, violent temper – in part from an abusive childhood compounded by untreated emotional trauma from his years in the marines and his war experiences in the South Pacific. In his pain and insecurity, he hurt the person he loved most with angry outbursts and degrading comments. Before they had children, Norma had her work as a nurse to give her life meaning and balance. This changed when her daughter and son were born. As a young mother who needed to work, she feared for her children’s well-being and grew weary of being degraded. She sought the advice of lawyers and priests, only to be told to be a good wife, to turn the other cheek. She stood the loneliness, fear, and abuse as long as she could.

 

Allendale House, 1949

I remember coming into the Allendale house one day as a very little child. My mother was at work and one of the neighbors must have been watching my brother, Bobby, and me. I decided to run home and discovered that the back door that led into the kitchen, the door that we always used, was locked. No one answered my knocking although I knew that my father was home. I decided to try the front door and it was unlocked. When I entered the house, I smelled something really odd. The door to the kitchen was locked from the inside, and a towel was rolled up to block the opening at the bottom. I was worried, although I do not remember what I did. I believe that I ran next door to ask my neighbors for help. I later learned that my father had turned on the gas in the oven after blowing out the pilot light in an attempt to commit suicide.

 

 

Perhaps this was the event that forced Norma to leave. After Bobby’s first birthday, she packed up one day while Wes was at work and boarded a train headed for the southwest with her two little children. I can remember the long train ride. It was a new, exciting experience. It seemed that we traveled for days, sleeping in our seats. Our first stop was somewhere in Texas. We lived on the first floor of a converted two-story house. Norma worked and tried to find child care.

Soon, we were traveling again. We lived in a trailer in a small town in New Mexico. Agnes came to help as a babysitter while Norma worked. I remember this as a very small town with a quiet, sand-covered road. The yard surrounding our trailer had a trellis with lovely morning glories. It was not long before we were on the move again, this time headed for Lac du Flambeau, Norma’s childhood home. As we traveled, I learned from my grandmother, Agnes, that Wes had tracked us down in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He tracked us down in Lac du Flambeau as well. By this time, at the age of 4 ½, I knew that my mother wanted to be free of fear and abuse. Wes threatened to take my brother and me if she did not return to New Jersey with him, and he promised to make sure that she never saw us again.

I remember the scene in the parking lot in front of my grandmother’s house and beauty shop. Wes’ cold anger and determination to have his own way. Norma’s tears and pleas as she tried to protect herself and her children. I wanted to save Norma from the hurt, and ran up to Wes and kicked him in the leg and told him how mean he was, how much I hated him for how he treated my mother. Who knows. Perhaps this small gesture helped provide some protection for Norma, some recognition for Wes that his behavior was unacceptable even in the eyes of a child, and the courage for Norma to sacrifice her own safety in order to watch over her son and daughter.

The trip back to Allendale is long forgotten for me. The depth of sadness I felt was more than I could bear, so I stopped eating. I became so weak that is was hard for me to walk. But for a kind neighbor who gave me a reason to live, I may well have died before the age of 5. I know Norma’s heart was heavy as she watched me fade away while she struggled with her own deep sadness.

Yet, we all survived. In time, we found a way to live in relative peace for awhile. Norma had her work as a nurse in a doctor’s office and then in a nursing home. Bobby and I had school and our friends. Wes had his job and family.






19 thoughts on “Overcoming Adversity – Part Five

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  1. The quote from the card–“To have a child is to decide to have your heart forever walk around outside your body”–expresses well what it means to be a mother.
    Yes, we survive our broken homes, yet the emotional scars remain. My mother endured her abusive relationship with our father until we were old enough to find jobs and take care of ourselves. Then she left Guyana to start a new life in the United States.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for sharing a little about your experiences, Rosaliene, along with your important insights. You reminded me of a Hemingway quote – “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” We are both fortunate that our mothers were survivors. They taught us well… 💜

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Such a beautiful post and a moving story Carol. It’s so important to recognise the deep strength, resilience and courage people had to face their adversities, but also to soften and allow deep forgiveness and healing from these experiences, so we can change future generations from experiencing the same. 💕🌈 love and light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful, lovely comments, Karen. My daughter and nephew sometimes ask me about the past. Sharing an updated version of their family history is something I can do for them and their children. Sending love and light to you, too. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Carol, I can hardly find words. I know this terror. I was a child that lived with lots of fear. You’re an amazing story teller. I suppose writing about this is helpful. I’ve considered doing it myself. Sending love and peace to you, dear Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Carrie. Originally, I wrote this story and put together photos to help my mother remember when she was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. It helped me, and I think it helped my nephew. It took almost a decade for my brother to ask for a copy. I think he discarded the one I shared with him when I wrote it.

      Now, I want to fill in the missing pieces while I still can. It is healing to see the words on paper. What I’m left with is gratitude for the many things I learned from these experiences that I might never have learned otherwise.

      Something I’ve learned about healing historical trauma is the need for traumatized communities to turn and face it by understanding history on a deeper level. I think it works for at least some individuals, too.

      Sending gratitude and love to you, Carrie. I am deeply grateful for your always kind and supportive comments. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh Carol…so beautifully stated. I recall in a previous post you wrote that you put this together with pictures for her.

        I have had a sense that writing all or parts of my experiences would be healing. It’s what I encourage clients to do…write to get out what is inside so that you have it (through expression and observation) and it no longer has you as it continues to fester and twist and burn inside.

        Although I’ve journaled for years, I’ve not gone back to write about those old memories and experiences. Although I feel they have been healed, reading this made me think I may need to do some writing. Thank you so much. I feel as if the time is coming when I’ll be writing some of my stories. I’m deeply grateful for you dear Carol. 💜

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Time travel is an interesting journey. We may relive painful memories and messy emotions, but we often learn to see what we gained from the experiences in new ways. Sending hugs and love to you, dear Carrie. May the journey help you see the amazing person you have become. 💜

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and lovely comments, dear Takami. Looking back, I can see and relive the sorrow, but also recognize the strengths and resilience that might not have been discovered otherwise.

      It is a precious gift to see the world through the wise and loving presence that focuses your camera lens. Sending gratitude and blessings. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello, Carol. Your post drew my attention, to the fact that, even in today’s modern world, things are far from fair and a long way from being perfect. From what I can gather from your posts, Your Mom’s endurance, and hard work, through what must have been tough and demanding times was not in vain. Thank you for sharing your memories with us.
    Take care,

    Mick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful, lovely comments, Mick. I don’t think my mother ever realized how unique and amazing she was. She was a gifted nurse, astute business administrator, humble, and kind.

      Like

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