This morning I was in my hot tub before the sun rose. I think I woke the birds from yodeling to the last visible star among the cotton batting of clouds. Why was I singing? Because I’m still exulting in a letter I received this week from my third grade “spelling and word study” teacher at the Chapin School. She had seen me on CBS Sunday Morning, and read my book. Her words evoked a memory as distant as the lone star, but her story illustrates how children can absorb distorted reflections of themselves that sometimes last for the rest of our lives. I came close. Excerpts from the letter below are shared with her permission:
I happened to see Charles Osgood’s CBS Sunday Morning show a few weeks ago, and to my surprise and delight, I saw your segment. I immediately ordered your memoir and have just finished it. Do you remember third grade in 1961 at Chapin School? I was Miss Hamlin then and had you in a “spelling and word study” class.
I wept through much of your beautifully written memoir. I knew you were shy, but to me that was endearing. Knowing now why really saddens me. I had no idea you were dyslexic—I don’t think anyone knew then how to deal with it, but I feel I let you down. I can see why your “mum” took you out of Chapin and Brearley. How wonderful the North Country School was for you, and what a triumph your journey has been!
As you see, I have enclosed a copy of a drawing of your pony Tiny Tim that you gave me in 1961. I want to keep this original, but I am sending the originals of two poems; though not signed, I am sure you wrote them. After reading your book, I am even surer of it. Am I right?
Your spelling may not have been correct, but your phonetics certainly was! To me your creativity at nine was astounding and has certainly proven more so now! The poems included in the memoir were awesome. I hope you will have an edition of all of your poetry published. If so, you might want to include these very early ones.
You wrote that being the last of six children made you feel so alone and starved for love and attention. One of the very special memories in my life was in March of 1961, and it was also an occasion that I feel validated your parents’ love for you. Your mother had invited 23 of your classmates and me to come on a Friday afternoon in March to celebrate your ninth birthday. I arrived by taxi with my present, an Origami paper folding kit. The taxi driver called to me as I started toward the entrance, saying that was the service entrance and I needed to go up the stairs to the main entrance!! Thus, the beginning of my afternoon at the Rockefellers!!!
We went into the living room, where your mother had hidden peanuts behind those museum art works and among all the priceless artifacts! Whoever found the most got a prize. After other fun games we went downstairs to the dining room where the table was set for 23 children with me at the head! Your mother and also your father, instead of sitting down with us, helped serve the meal. I’m sure it was your menu selection, for large silver trays of hotdogs, green peas, and spaghetti were served; then came dessert of birthday cake and a large silver punch bowl with many different flavored scoops of ice cream.
I still have the little white poodle marionette you gave me as a party favor! An appropriate individualized gift was given to each child, too. I was moved by the down-to-earth out pouring of love and care shown by your parents that day, and I’m so glad that now, through your long courageous journey, you have finally realized you are and were loved.
. . . .
If I had a wish to place upon a star, surely the message from this story would be on top of my list.
Early on I got my messages as mixed up as my spelling. At age nine I still spelled “Mummy” with only one “m’ in the middle. My siblings, who each suffered in their own ways from scarcity of attention—confusing attention for love—convinced me that my mother didn’t love me. Their truth was no more certain than a star dipping behind a cloud, but Miss Hamlin’s letter has proved to me that my mother’s love was, and is, as sure as the morning star.
Next time you doubt how much or whether you are loved, look up at the sky. Each star is a symbol of love. See it, winking at you.
• What stories have you told yourself that you might want to question? (In other words, how did you adapt from your true self as a child to stay safe in your family? And how does that continue to influence how you are now?)
• How have they served you? (It’s important to acknowledge their value, for they likely protected you, and are probably useful in forming your purpose in life. For example, my worry about my mother’s love kept me striving for connection.)
• What is your new story? (Who would you rather be?)
I’m in the middle of reading your book (I never want it to end) and have such feelings of love for you and a powerful recognition, as well. By that I mean, I feel like you’re a dear friend of mine, sharing our deepest and vulnerable selves with one another. We are similar in many, many ways.
I have so connected to the spiritual “bent” in your writing. It is not simply a memoir to prove something or to stroke an ego, but to share with your readers and the world how to make sense of situations and how to come through challenges in an ever-more expanded way. This is what my life has been about for the past 25 years. Deep soul searching, staying in my integrity, discovering the blessing in every challenge, loving even those who have hurt me.
Talk about community! You, my dear, have created that for me with your honest and open sharings. Thank you so much!
Dear Mary, Your words touch me very deeply. Thank you for your openness and vulnerability; for having the courage to write what is in your heart. This is the biggest gift anyone can give. I hope you can give as much to yourself. Self-care is at least as important for natural “givers” as it is for others. Keep your well full. I suspect it already is. A cyber hug to you!
Dear Mary, Thank you for joining my virtual community! Your warm words mean a great deal to me. I can feel your friendship even though we’ve never met and I thank you for it. When it comes to the level of feelings, we are all the same. Everyone knows at least some of the following list of: shyness, loneliness, sadness, anger, joy, fear, love, and gratitude. This is only a partial list, but when we dare to share whatever feeling at this level, we are speaking the universal language of the heart.
May you be filled with the presence of community and the love of friendship.
Dear Eileen, I am Nell Jefferson’s daughter, Nell Fredericksen, and I just wanted to let you know how much fun Mom has had reconnecting with you, and how much fun we have had as she shares it all with us. Love your blog! Your warm and open responses to her communications have meant so much to her, so thank you!
Dear Nell Fredericksen, Thank you so much for writing and sharing your and your mother’s responses. Her letter has been by my side since I received it. Honestly, I feel such a gift in this connection, and I look forward to meeting you some day. I can sense that “the apple has not fallen far from the tree.” Blessings to you both.
Dear Eileen, Your facility with words and your gentle, real interest in healing and authenic living are so refreshing, refreshing to the soul. I am a wife and mother, a caregiver for my elderly father, and am in the midst of finishing up a year of clinical pastoral education and prn hospice chaplaincy. That is to say – sadly – I have not been able to make time to read your book yet.
Your blogs, however, are the perfect length for this phase of my life, and I enjoy them so very much. As a chaplain, I coordinate spiritual and emotional care for people in transition and health crisis. It is very necessary for me to “fill my cup” on a regular basis, to stay grounded in myself while being open to people from many different belief and faith backgrounds. Your writing has been truly nourishing to me.
I cannot wait to read your book and learn about your life’s journey. It seems to me from your blog that you have done some very deep work. I am very interested to know the books you have valued and with whom you have studied and worked in gaining such a solid, healthful life philosophy. I imagine much of it comes from within you as well. Thank you for the work you do. You provide a much needed role model for honoring ourselves and being in relationship.
Dear Jane, Thank you so much for your warm and kind words. I’m heartened to learn that my blog has been helpful to you, as I’ve never written blog posts before my book. It’s nice to have short pieces to read, especially when you are so busy. You especially have a lot on your plate at both ends of the spectrum and the middle. Therefore, you especially must make time for that cup of tea or bath before bedtime – with candles! You nourish me just in your response, so don’t forget number one.
A book I am loving right now is the “Anam Cara” (soul relationship) by John O’Donohue. I think you will enjoy his deep spiritual connection to nature and to all sentient beings. I also have enjoyed “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown, about the strength of vulnerability. I hope you find in them both nourishment and inspiration.