ASSIGNMENT FROM THE SOUL FACTORY
When my third marriage ended in 1978, I immediately salvaged my family name and began a journal. I never kept journals during the marriages. Like silence and speech, marriage and private thought could not coexist—not because I feared someone would read my words without permission, but because I feared hearing my own voice.
Many writers have relied on journals and letters to help them to experiment with ideas, to communicate their feelings, to find their voice. Writer and activist, Terry Tempest Williams, asks, “What needs to be counted on to have a voice? Courage. Anger. Love. Something to say; someone to listen.” By midlife, I had most of those ingredients. What I needed was someone to listen. In my maternal aunt Ruth, I found that person.
Ruth’s life, or as much as I knew of it at the time, was anything but conventional, and it fueled my imagination. She had gone to China in 1938 as a Catholic nun just as the Japanese were invading the country. She was in her early twenties. Two years later she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Central China. While in the camp she met a Canadian Jesuit priest, and they fell in love and stayed in love although they remained in their respective religious communities. After the war Ruth spent most of her life in Central America. She spoke fluent Spanish and was often in countries that were fighting dangerous “dirty wars”—Guatemala, Honduras. Her theology was liberationist, her politics were radical, her mind and heart were wide open. Ruth was the perfect subject for an aspiring writer.
Ruth and I began to correspond when I was in midlife, and she was in her early elderhood. Twenty-five years apart in age, my aunt and I could not have been more different. We were kin, but also kindred spirits, both of us outliers in our families. She was a nun, living a vowed life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I had already broken my marriage vows, and was uninterested in poverty or obedience—chastity being long since out of the question. It is hard to fathom the flame that kindled in our hearts. In writing to Ruth, I had found someone to listen and I was gaining a voice, and in writing to me, Ruth found a willing confidant. But letters not only reveal, they can also conceal. It took a few years of construction to trust the bridge of words to hold my full weight.
In 1984, after an increasingly intimate correspondence, I sent a letter saying I felt inspired to write a book about her life. My request was full of hubris. At the time, I had not written anything except school papers and letters, much less had anything published. As a newly minted feminist, I was driven by a desire to lift the ordinary women in my family out of the ditch of obscurity. More hubris. I assumed these women needed lifting. No one had ever asked me for such a favor. Ruth never agreed or disagreed with my project, but during a two-week visit with her in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, she unpacked her stories and I scribbled them into my journal.
Ruth died in 2003 at the age of eighty-eight. A shoebox held her earthly possessions. In 2005, a few years after she died, I finally got around to writing Ruth’s story. Now I was a writer, even a published writer. The fact that I had never written a piece of fiction did not appear to me to be an obstacle. I was seduced by the idea of fiction; thought it would give me artistic freedom. Several years and a lot of work later, my editor said, no dice. “I don’t know what makes this woman tick.” Whoops! Then my agent said, “Patricia, this is your story—and it is a spiritual memoir.” Yikes! Sometimes writing fiction is a way to avoid writing a memoir.
By the time I made the switch from fiction to memoir, Ruth had been dead for ten years. But I had the access code to the blood bank: two hundred pages of her handwritten letters, which could transfuse her back to life. Her letters were written in cheap ball-point on thin blue airmail paper and onionskin, they were sent from Wisconsin, Germany, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua, carried by courier if local mail service proved unpredictable. She never typed. I eventually did. The letters arrived at my various California addresses—Venice Beach, Palo Alto and Oakland—and later Maine. With the exception of the few I copied, my letters were not saved.
Since the book had now turned into a memoir of our relationship, I had to exhume the woman I was during our letter-writing years (1978–1990). My copious journals from that time were the raw footage of my midlife, my Gray’s Anatomy. Underline raw. The bridge my aunt and I built with words on paper carried us across the abyss of my midlife and her early elderhood. How flimsy these words on paper—how strong the handhold they provided.
I never wrote the book I envisioned in 1984. I felt like Motherlines was an assignment from the soul factory. Otherwise, why would I have committed so much time and energy to it? Personal will and ambition has its limitations. The memoir was in service to something larger. I hope my original intention of lifting my female lineage out of the ditch of obscurity has been met. I hope I have done the women, including myself, justice. I add the memoir to the greater narrative being told of women’s lives. But there is more to it than altruism. I quote William Blake: “If a fool persists in her folly, she will become wise.” I have taken liberties with Blake’s gender but not with his message. In my persistence, I hope I have gained a grain of wisdom.