Vying for Space

Here’s a mini memoir I contributed to The Sitting Room‘s 2014 publication, This Is What a Feminist Looks Like. The question writers were asked to address was, When did you first realize you were a feminist?

Vying for Space
by Laura McHale Holland

Kathy, Mary Ruth and I unwrap Bazooka in the back seat while our father starts up the Ford Galaxy. Feeling lucky that I, the youngest in the family, landed the coveted window spot on the driver’s side, I pop an entire rectangle of gum in my mouth, chomp down, and relish a burst of flavor.

4430261585_20417251dc_z“Give me your wrappers, girls.” Our stepmother cranes backward and extends her arm, palm up.

We crumple the wax papers and drop them one, two, three into her hand. She faces for-ward again. Our father backs down the drive. Excited at the prospect of seeing our grandmother soon, my sisters and I fidget, elbow each other and kick the back of the front seat.

“Stop that!” our father roars. He brakes; we all lurch forward. “Sit still, or you’re going right back in the house. No visiting Gramma today. I’ll count to three: one, two … three.”

We do our best to settle down, careful not to bump each other and set off a fight.
Our father resumes backing out just as our neighbors pull into their driveway. All four family members sit like mannequins in their respective places: father driving, son in front passenger seat, mother and daughter in back.

“That’s creepy—males in front, females in back,” Kathy says.

“They’re so weird,” Mary Ruth says. I bounce up and down in agreement.

“He’s got the right idea, girls,” my father says, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. “You’d just better hope my lovely wife doesn’t have a son someday. She might have to ride in back with you.” He pulls into the street, changes gears and accelerates.

I wince at the thought of a wiggling, squalling male heir in the front next to my father, and a full-grown woman vying for space in back with my sisters and me.

“That’s not funny, Daddy,” Mary Ruth says.

“It wasn’t meant to be.” He chortles, head thrown back.

We three sisters chew our gum in silence. The car crunches over gravel and hits a pot-hole. I kick the front seat right at the small of my father’s back. I kick hard enough to disturb him, but not so hard he won’t conclude the seat was just jostled by the bumpy road.

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Are you a feminist?

(Photo is by Christopher Sessums and used under Creative Commons attribution license. My father’s Galaxy was white and a couple years older than the one pictured.)

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Sometimes

Sometimes
A reflection by Laura with a way cool poem by Moira Kathleen

11.23.versions.photoSometimes I feel like a bloated computer file stuffed with too many variations of the same old story. Other times I’m like a youngster again watching Jiminy Cricket sing When You Wish Upon a Star on the Walt Disney Show. But I wonder whether I’ve been wishing upon the wrong star, chasing something illusive, unattainable.

Typhoons and tornadoes rip across the landscape in far off lands and closer to home. Cars crash. Fires break out, consuming homes in a flash. Any of us could lose everything in an instant, or our lives could dribble away slowly.

I worry about all of this way too much, I know.

imageBut occasionally I’ll do something routine that shifts my perspective—like yesterday, I took a shower, toweled off and rubbed a new brand of vanilla lotion all over my skin. The scent reminded me of a poem my daughter wrote when she was 10 years old.

It was selected for the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans, 1997 edition.

I looked through a book shelf near my bed and found the slender volume. I’d forgotten how wonderful the poem is. I hope I never forget again. It reminds me of the power of giving and receiving everyday, constant love—and what an honor it is to be my daughter’s mom:

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My Mom
By Moira Kathleen Holland

My mom is as beautiful as the sunset
She smells like a bundle of new roses
She loves to garden and write
When I wake up in the morning
she smells like vanilla
My mom has a dancing heart
I love her very much
I think she is a child wrapped
in a grown-up’s body

 

Copyright  ©  2013 by Laura McHale Holland

 

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Song For My Sisters

I’ve been working on a sequel to my childhood memoir, Reversible Skirt; I’ve also started to collect short works for Sisters Born, Sisters Found, an anthology of writings on sisterhood that I’ll be editing and publishing in 2014.

When thinking about the anthology, a song I wrote for my sisters many years ago came to mind. I am considering including it at the end of the anthology and wonder how it comes across without the music. I’ll type in the lyrics below. I’d appreciate it if you’d share your impressions with me.

Song For My Sisters
By Laura McHale Holland

Three little beds made in a row, sun streaming in through our open window
Days of our youth began with me racin’ with you to the kitchen
Where we’d argue over who would get the Wheaties, who would eat the Rice Chex,
who would get the Corn Flakes

Did I tell you then how much I love you, sisters?
You’ve been always in my heart

Three ragged coats hung in the hall, three pairs of boots stood
right underneath them
I walked to school right beside you, children were cruel, called you names, now
All our clothes were second hand, I didn’t understand why it should
make a difference to the others

Did I tell you then how much I love you, sisters?
You’ve been always in my heart

Three teenagers, babysitters, waitresses and ice cream dippers
We bought new clothes, lipstick that glowed, cologne in scents for our earlobes
Rubbing elbows in the hall, each waiting for a call from someone who we hoped
would see our beauty

Did I tell you then how much I love you, sisters?
You’ve been always in my heart

One scholarship, one wedding ring, one Greyhound east, three new
and different lives
Life on my own, sometimes alone, I’d want a home with my sisters
Graduation came so fast, our childhood was past, we’d grown up and we had to
say goodbye now

Did I tell you then how much I love you, sisters?
You’ve been always in my heart

Three woman now stand tall and proud, voicing aloud plans for a saner world
Times have been worse, I’ve bled and hurt, cried in despair, Who will care?
And you’ve come flyin’ to my side, wherever I did hide, and you knew I would do
the same for you

So I’m sayin’ now how much I love you, sisters
You’ll be always in my heart
Yes, I’m sayin’ now how much I love you, sisters
You’ll be always in my heart

Thanks for reading this. For details on the anthology, please visit http://wordforest.com/news-events

This post: Copyright  ©  2013 by Laura McHale Holland
Song was copyrighted in 1978

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It came on the breeze

It Came on the Breeze
By Laura McHale Holland

It came on the breeze, sidled through Gracie’s nose and lodged in her throat. The vibration was ever so slight, just a hint of sensation. She forgot all about it as she spent the day splashing and sunbathing at the community pool with her girlfriends. But when she checked email one last time before bed, her laptop monitor emitted a strong sepia light. Her heart thump thumped. The light dissipated. Her pulse settled down. She went to sleep.

Then, in the night, her world split open to a thundrous sound directly above. She looked up to a wide crack splitting her bedroom ceiling, the attic and roof. From a sepia orb suspended above the house desended thousands of faerie-like beings, each about an inch tall and carrying a harp or flute. They swarmed her, jigged all over her and played melodies reminiscent of ancient folk songs, but more strident, discordant.

Behind Gracie’s bedroom door, her mother’s voice boomed, “Gracie, what’s going on in there? Turn that awful music down!”

At that, her visitors retreated; the crack in Gracie’s universe closed.

“Thank you.” Her mom strode away, satisfied.

Gracie rolled on her side, thinking maybe she’d been dreaming. Then she saw a tiny harp on her pillow. She dropped the harp into a velvet pouch she kept on her headboard. It landed on a ring of fake garnet and gold she’d gotten from a vending machine while shopping with her mom. In her sleep, she dreamed of flying among the stars.

In the morning, she peeked inside the pouch. The ring was gone, but the harp remained. “Gracie, time for breakfast,” her mom called. The voice sounded weak, as though far, far away. Gracie tucked the pouch into her T-shirt pocket. It vibrated every so slightly as she padded toward the kitchen.

 

Photo is from ketrin 1407’s flickr photo stream.

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Smiles

Smiles
By Laura McHale Holland

Boys and girls fill the room with laughter, chatter and shrieks as they race to tables topped with watercolors, chalk and paper. The children, seven to nine years old, sift through the supplies, grabbing some, pushing others away. Their summer camp art teacher suggests they draw a scene from a favorite story. It could be one from a book or one they heard, true or untrue—just a favorite story.

Picture is from dragoart.com.

Chloe giggles with new friends as she begins painting a cloudless blue sky, flowing water, purple and blue rocks, lush green leaves. At the next table, a silent boy concentrates, chalk in hand. The teacher walks around the room, pausing often to offer encouragement as the children work.

As they finish, the children print their names on their pictures and then dash outside to play. Chloe’s picture is a waterfall cascading from a cliff. “This is lovely. What tale is this from?” the teacher asks. “The land behind the waterfall,” Chloe replies. “I don’t know that one. Where did you hear it?” Chloe looks down at her sneakers. “I don’t remember.” Outside, a gaggle of girls calls to Chloe, telling her to hurry up. She skips away.

The teacher steps to the next table as the boy finishes printing D-R-E-W at the bottom of his picture. She picks up the landscape. “This is beautiful; it’s just like Chloe’s.” Chloe is almost at the classroom door. “Wait a minute, Chloe. I want you to see this,” the teacher calls. Chloe walks back toward the table. “What story is this from?” the teacher asks. “The land behind the waterfall,” Drew says. Chloe moves closer to Drew. She smiles. He smiles back.

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A glowing review

I wrote a review yesterday of Rasana Atreya’s novel, and now here’s a review I just received from Michelle and Denise, who run the Families of the Mentally Ill blog. They posted it on their website (http://familiesofthementallyill.com/2012/07/03/book-review-reversible-skirt/), on Amazon and on Smashwords:

Reversible Skirt, by Laura McHale Holland, is a heart-breaking memoir about one young mother’s suicide as seen through the eyes of her youngest child, Laura. A toddler at the time of the tragedy, Laura is initially bewildered by the changes swirling around her family, including the appearance of a new stepmother, who is simply passed off as the same person to the children.

The author has done a masterful job of capturing the thought process of a young child as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her world. The tragic events of the girls’ lives aren’t over, unfortunately. The abuse they experience as they grow and confront of the truth of their mother’s death and their father’s choices can be painful to read. Yet it’s worth persevering, because the book ends with Laura and her sisters finding strength and peace in adulthood.

Reversible Skirt describes a time in our not-too-distant past where mental illness and suicide were swept under the rug. While we have made some gains as a society, the situation will feel familiar to those of us who have lived through mental illness in our own families. What was most intriguing about the book was how the author and her sisters forgave their abusive stepmother after everything she did to them as children. Their ability to survive and recover from their challenging childhoods is uplifting. The capacity they show for forgiveness is truly inspiration.

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The one he always wants to hear

Here’s another moment in the ongoing series of connected episodes that might (with revision) become a short story at some point.

The One He Always Wants to Hear
By Laura McHale Holland

We sit together, the abandoned boy and I, on a bench at the aquarium. He’s never before seen otters cavorting or orange jelly fish drifting through the deep, or sea anemones opening, closing, opening, closing in a rhythm ancient as the earth.

He leans against me and looks up with sad brown eyes. He doesn’t know his father is infamous for slaughter or that his stepdad insisted his pregnant mom leave him behind when the family moved to India. The stepdad said he couldn’t allow the boy’s bad genes to taint his coming child.

He leans in closer to me and asks, “Can we go to the land you came from?”

“We sure can,” I say. “Just close your eyes.”

And I begin the story, the one he always wants to hear, the one about the land behind the waterfall.

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All of the episodes in this series in the order in which they were posted follow:

Back pocket wishes

Cascading to the sea

Right through the heart

Away today?

A dime a dozen

She doesn’t know them

On the seat

A pillar of the community

He needs a friend

Double rainbow

The one he always wants to hear

Give it some time

It gives my life meaning

Smiles

Extenuating circumstances

 The four of us

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A stunning review of Reversible Skirt

I stumbled upon this review of my memoir, Reversible Skirt, on Goodreads. It’s by a member named Ana:

“Reversible Skirt is probably the most honest and gripping memoir I’ve read. McHale Holland is on my top 10 of writers writing today. She’s managed to tell a tragic story fraught with emotion without the poor poor pitiful me some writers might have fallen prey to.”

Bliss.

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On the seat

I’d been picturing this scene but couldn’t get myself to sit down and write it. I finally drafted it today while at Whole Foods after work.

On The Seat
By Laura McHale Holland

Carly and Chloe, a mother and daughter long separated by force, sit on opposite sides of a love seat; they are now separated by choice, a shoebox full of pictures between them.

Carly taps a bare foot on the plush carpet below; Chloe swings her little legs out and back, out and back.

One by one, Carly lifts pictures from the box and tells Chloe stories about them. One by one, she hands the pictures to Chloe, who stacks them on the seat next to the box. Carly talks of birthday cakes, Cabbage Patch dolls, sleepovers, Great America, her grandfather’s 80th birthday, her first crush.

When the box is empty, Chloe picks the pictures one after another from her pile and drops them back into the box. She says solitary words as the pictures drop: closet, dark, bruise, bam, bang, blood, splat, drive, waterfall, beach, puzzle, bye bye. When the box is full again, Carly replaces the lid, puts her hands in her lap, sighs. 

“Again?” Chloe asks. “Of course,” Carly replies. She removes the lid. Chloe inches closer to her on the seat.

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All of the episodes in this series in the order in which they were posted follow:

Back pocket wishes

Cascading to the sea

Right through the heart

Away today?

A dime a dozen

She doesn’t know them

On the seat

A pillar of the community

He needs a friend

Double rainbow

The one he always wants to hear

Give it some time

It gives my life meaning

Smiles

Extenuating circumstances

 The four of us

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Cascading to the sea

This flash relates to “Back Pocket Wishes,” which I posted March 19:

Cascading to the Sea
By Laura McHale Holland

I came from the land behind the waterfall until the drones split ears, hearts, flesh—and washed my tribe away. Except for me. Five years old. I was plucked from a thunder cliff and dropped in a Disney Channel family a continent away.

Now I’m a chameleon handyman, gardener, chauffeur. My boss blackened his whimsey wife’s eye after she locked their daughter in a closet all day. “The brat cries too much,” the wife had said.

I want to pluck that child from the back seat. Take her to the waterfall. But it is now only a memory cascading to the sea. And I need this job. I cannot protect her from her parents approaching the car, let alone the bombs still falling from the sky.

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All of the episodes in this series in the order in which they were posted follow:

Back pocket wishes

Cascading to the sea

Right through the heart

Away today?

A dime a dozen

She doesn’t know them

On the seat

A pillar of the community

He needs a friend

Double rainbow

The one he always wants to hear

Give it some time

It gives my life meaning

Smiles

Extenuating circumstances

 The four of us

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Some thoughts on sisterhood

I’m going to be on a panel at the Women’s PowerStrategy Conference Saturday and even though the panel topic is “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother” (on which I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say, no doubt), I’m preparing a one-page handout about sisterhood (on which I have even more to say). I’m pasting my draft in here and would very much apreciate your feedback.

Some Thoughts on Sisterhood
By Laura McHale Holland
Author of Reversible Skirt, a Memoir

My two sisters are my dearest friends. Over the years, they have cheered me and comforted me through all my triumphs and sorrows. And vice versa. But we weren’t always buddies. Our early years brought us significant heartbreak and abuse that, rather than pull us together, drove us apart. For many long days, nights and years, an ugly current of bitterness ran through our relationships; fights, ridicule and jealousy ruled our world.

Then things changed. Gradually at first, and then more rapidly, we transformed from sniping detractors into enthusiastic fans. And we have been close for so long now, the times of strife among us truly are distant memories. However, countless times people have come up to me, remarked upon the bond my sisters and I share and then looked wistfully as they’ve said something like, “I haven’t spoken to my sister in years. What’s your secret?”

So I’m going to write down ten things my sisters and I, through trial and error, have learned about how to care for each other. I hope these thoughts on sisterhood help others seeking to form a closer bond with their beloved sisters—by blood or otherwise.

Together you and your sisters must:

1. Decide you want to have loving, supportive relationships with each other and commit to taking action to make that happen. It is best for all parties involved to make this decision and commitment. Meaningful progress will be much slower otherwise.

2. Remember that the past is over; there is nothing you can do to change it. So forgive yourself for any harm you may have caused your sisters and forgive your sisters for any harm they may have caused you.

3. Realize that you and your sisters will inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings after you’ve made a commitment to do the opposite. Forgive yourself and your sisters for these blunders as they occur and move on.

4. Focus more on listening than on being heard, and learn to see things from your sisters’ points of view.

5. Do things together that you all enjoy, things that make you all laugh, things that will bring smiles to your faces long afterward.

6. Tell your sisters often how much you love them. Always put your loving connection with one another above all else in the relationships.

7. Notice your sisters’ good qualities and the admirable things they’ve done. Tell them about these things repeatedly—and celebrate them.

8. If you need to complain about one of your sisters, do it with someone outside of the situation. Look for a sympathetic ear, but don’t try to convince the person you are good and your sister is bad.

9. Think about where your sisters need a hand and provide wholehearted, passionate assistance.

10. Be patient. Some struggles we face are life-long. Have high expectations, but don’t give up if your sister falls short. Hold out an encouraging hand.

This is my first stab at sharing this, so I’m bound to have left some things out. I may elaborate on these and provide examples in the future. I will welcome your comments.

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Beyond tomorrow

beyond tomorrow

by laura mchale holland

two dinner plates
two towels in the dryer
two sets of keys
two parents memorizing
one pair of sandals
left behind

one young woman
driving south
dreams burning fears
just beyond tomorrow

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I’m flagging, my friends

When I was a youngster, I used to tear down our block, jump over our neighbor’s small evergreen tree (which grew from about two feet to four feet tall in the years that I did this), run diagonally across our front lawn and then leap over four stairs to our front porch. I did this routinely and with much delight.

One day my foot slipped at the bottom of the stairs, and my knee slammed into the edge of one of the stairs. Actually, it was the top of my tibia that met the stair. The whole knee area was a swollen mess for a while, but eventually it shrank to its normal size, except for a bump on the tibia.

Since then, the bump has caused me no problems unless I try walking on my knees or do some kind of dance activity that uses the knee joint in ways it’s really not supposed to be used. And I went for 49 years without further injury to that spot.

Unfortunately, last month I injured the knee in the very same place. The leg can bear weight, so my doctor deduced no bone is broken. The skin is healing, the swelling is going down, but the joint is not working well yet. The bump on my tibia is a bit larger; the soft tissue around it is stressed. To avoid pain, I have to poke along like my arthritic grandmother used to do.

This has slowed me down more than I would have ever thought. Last week I had oral surgery, too, which has slowed me down as well. Recovery from that is going very well, though. No problems there (except eating is difficult for the time being).

So, my friends, I’m flagging for a bit. I’m of necessity focused on healing. I’m down but not out. I’ll be back to posting soon.

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Guest post at TellTale Souls

I don’t have a story ready this week yet (I’m still thinking over what direction I want to go in this year), but I do have a guest post up at Lynn Henriksen’s TellTale Souls blog. It has to do with mothers, and, well, mothers are what brought us all into this world, and some of us are mothers ourselves, so it’s hard to be neutral on the topic, isn’t it?

I hope my thoughts on my mother and stepmother stimulate you to share your own perspectives.

Here’s the link:

http://telltalesouls.com/blog/extolling-the-virtures-of-mom-in-memoir-not-for-everyone/

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The ice cream vendor’s song

The Ice Cream Vendor’s Song
By Laura McHale Holland

The day his father drove away, Danube watched the Jeep sweep the house, yard and block of laughter as it roared out of the parking place, down the street and around the corner. Danube stayed on the porch as birds burped up grasshoppers in the branches above. He remained as neighborhood friends chased the ice cream vendor’s melody. He stayed on as the sun flung purples and oranges and reds across a gray-blue sky and as crickets sang into the void where his hope had been.

The first few nights after his father drove away, Danube fell asleep outside, and his mom carried him to bed. Then she insisted he come inside for supper, then earlier and earlier, for he had homework to do and chores and a future to build from marathons, tests and kisses year by year.

Now, a father himself, Danube drives a Jeep; he doesn’t know why. And when he visits his mom, he sits on the front porch in the late afternoons, his arm around his son’s shoulders, and he feels melancholy squeeze his heart momentarily, until he takes his child’s hand and runs block to block, chasing the ice cream vendor’s song.

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