May 06 2009
Last night I had a dream that I was at my grandmother Signe’s house with my husband Tom. She wasn’t home. Tom and I were in her bedroom, laying on her bed, talking. I was feeling scared that my grandmother would come home and find us on her bed; I was afraid she might think we had been “doing it”.
Suddenly, I heard her enter the house, walking quickly down the hall towards us. Startled, we guiltily jumped out of bed. I tried to smooth the covers but they got caught on me and instead I pulled them off. Busted! She stood at the doorway looking at us. She was not smiling. I told her, “We weren’t doing anything.” I knew she wouldn’t believe me. I felt a sense of shame, like I was bad and had done something wrong.
My grandmother Signe (long deceased) has been in my consciousness lately; I’ve been writing a story about her and her mother, my great-grandmother, Johanna. The story is focused mainly on Johanna. There is an intriguing family mystery involving her. She came to the United States in 1881 from Sweden, a pretty young girl in her mid twenties, and worked as head laundress at the Vanderbilt mansion in New York. She became pregnant out of wedlock and family rumor has it that the father was possibly one of the Vanderbilt sons. (This has never been confirmed.)
Johanna moved away and gave birth to the baby, my grandmother Signe. She lived in secrecy about who the father was. In those days there was a great stigma about having a child out of wedlock. I’ve been wondering lately, is there a legacy of shame in my family that got passed down either genetically or behaviorally or both? I know that my mother had a shame-based attitude. I have also felt the terrible weight of shame in my life; as a teenager I became deeply depressed and suicidal, feeling that I was bad, and that I would never be loved. Shame is more than the feeling that we’ve done something wrong; it is the feeling that we are something wrong.
As I’m exploring this, I’m wondering if an inherent imprint of shame around sexuality could have been one of the factors in my having uterine cancer? My mother also had uterine cancer. It is not unreasonable to think that blocked energy in a part of our body makes that part susceptible to disease.
Sometimes I imagine that I am helping to heal this ancestral legacy of shame. Maybe the work that my ancestors didn’t finish, I can help finish; as if I am in a relay race, carrying the baton forward. Carl Jung has written about this: “I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.”
I awoke from a dream 20 years ago with these words resounding in my mind, “All you have to do in your whole life is to love yourself. That is all you have to do.” The shame and deep depression that I’ve felt in my life have galvanized me over the years to focus on learning to love myself, every square inch of me, the inside and the outside, the upside and the downside. I feel like I have made great strides in that direction. In the past I often felt the impulse to hide myself, as if to conceal my imagined ugliness. I now feel compelled to reveal myself, to be completely open, honest, transparent, and self-accepting.
My great-grandmother Johanna had tremendous strength and courage to sail to a foreign land, to have a child out of wedlock, and to keep and raise that child. I like to think that strength and courage are also part of our family heritage. Two psychics have told me that my grandfather Charles (Signe’s husband) is nearby and is sending me love. It is comforting to think that I am being watched over. As I carry the baton forward, facing, revealing, and loving all of who I am, I imagine my ancestors cheering me on from the sidelines.
Do you have a family legacy? How is your amazing relay race going?