Most people are tense at the beginning of their first psychotherapy session and Felicity was no exception. After introducing herself she sat down and took charge. “Please don’t interrupt me while I tell you this,” she directed. Puzzled, I nodded in agreement, withheld comment, and picked up my notepad. A thin woman, almost wiry, she was dressed tidily in a gray tailored skirt, simple white blouse, and short tailored hair-do. Taking a flowered handkerchief from the purse in her lap, she blew her nose nervously and began. The story she told could serve as a summary of all the emotional wounds that can be possibly suffered in this life.
An isolated, introverted only child, Felicity was mistreated, battered, and neglected for many years by both parents. She described how scornful humiliation alternated with neglect and how she was often treated as if she didn’t exist. When she was a young adult there had been several hospitalizations and suicide gestures. Surprisingly, as an adult she had ultimately learned to function reasonably well in her outer life, though she was still quite depressed and in constant inner turmoil. Ultimately, she arrived at my doorstep still tormented with shame, depression and, low self-esteem resulting from the wounds of her experiences.
Her grim story brought me near to tears. I was astounded at her immense bravery and tenacity in the face of such adversity. Despite her severe psychological wounding, she had never given up her search for wholeness.
As she finished, she nodded that I could speak. Deeply touched by what I had heard, I blurted out, somewhat unprofessionally, “Felicity, from what you’ve told me you are entitled to be crazy, or dead—or both. Why aren’t you?”
She burst into tears at my question. Then a wistful smile crept over her face. Wiping her eyes thoughtfully and blowing her nose again, she began her underlying, true, story:
I was about eight years old. We lived in a small Missouri River town near Omaha. They never missed me in the evenings during the summer, so I began to sneak out of the house. I was a runty little thing back then, but strong, and I took to climbing out my bedroom window and down the drainpipe, like Huck Finn. I’d be gone for hours roaming around in the dark, chasing fireflies in the humid nights and watching clouds dance with the moon. I got a little peace that way at least.
On one of my wanderings that summer I ran into Mrs. Jones. She lived up the street near the top of the hill in an old bungalow, not too far from our place. I don’t recall how I met her, but of an evening I would wander up to see her. She was an old widow lady, and always wore a flowered apron. To this day I love such aprons. Often we sat together out in the dark on her squeaky wooden porch swing watching the fireflies and listening to the cicadas. She was a large plump woman and I would snuggle up to her softness as we talked; it was so comforting. We would sit and visit—I don’t even remember what about—and she would listen.
Felicity paused for emphasis and repeated:
She would listen.
Often, she told me stories, too. Sometimes we would have lemonade and cookies; sometimes we would just sit in the dark together, saying nothing, listening to the night. I still remember her soft voice and the slow creaking of the swing.
The next year my parents moved us to the city and I never saw her again. I didn’t even get to thank her or tell her goodbye. I tried to find her again after I grew up but she had disappeared like some fleeting Angel.
She’s why I’m still alive.
The course our therapy work needed to take was evident. There was no need to review her many traumas, she knew them well enough. We had to bring her back to Mrs. Jones and those evenings on the porch swing. She needed to return to that bright island of simple respect, attentiveness, and unconditional caring that nourished and fed her soul, and indeed had saved her. Through Mrs. Jones, Felicity had kept hope alive. It was time to cultivate the seeds that had been planted during their brief relationship, and to reclaim and to build upon Mrs. Jones’s invaluable gifts of hope and respect—to capitalize on the sustaining memory of these gifts and bring them forward into the present.
The first therapy sessions with Felicity took place just as I had begun writing about Grandpa. Her soul-filled explorations during our meetings led me to see Grandpa and his stories in a whole new light.
The evening after first meeting with Felicity, I was going over my notes about Grandpa and was struck by the parallels between Felicity and Mrs. Jones and Grandpa and myself. Astounded, I realized that Grandpa was my equivalent to Mrs. Jones.
My own wounding, while sufficient, was mild compared with Felicity’s, yet the remedy for me also came from a wise old person who listened and had stories to tell. As I reviewed my sketchy notes they began to bloom, as do those capsules from Japan which blossom into pretty little red and pink flowers when put in water. Rough scribblings evolved into entire chapters; I was amazed and delighted to realize that each story contained informal lessons on how to tend to and nurture the soul. I had no idea of their hidden depth when I first began writing the stories. Felicity’s story opened my eyes and demonstrated the power a sustaining image can have in one’s life. I think I benefited from our work together nearly as much as Felicity.
The earth is your mother,
she holds you.
The sky is your father,
he protects you.
Rainbow is your sister,
she loves you.
The winds are your brothers,
they sing to you.
We are together always
We are together always.
There never was a time
was not so.
—Leslie Marmon Silko