Hurt Lockers

While watching a preview for an upcoming film a few days ago, I heard an actor utter the words, “Everyone has a hurt locker …”. I had heard the term previously only as a movie title from about fifteen years ago that I gave no thought to at all. But in the context of the last few months, the term resonated with me. I immediately dug in the drawer to the pedestal table beside my couch for a pen and jotted it down on a Post-it note. I’ve been thinking about the concept ever since. A hurt locker … a place we store all of our pain from the past. Hmmm …

Back on March 26th, my late Grandma Cartner’s birthday, I published a blog post about a beautiful moment for me, a rare visitation I had recently had from her in a dream. In the post, I tried to convey half of what it felt like to be able to sit again and talk with this lady I idolized in life in that dream. I miss her so much and think and speak about her all the time. Not being able to speak TO her since 1999 is second only to losing my mother in 2001 on the list of things in my own personal hurt locker. I was proud of the finished product when I wrote that blog.

Very shortly after I published it, I received a Messenger message from a cousin who told me the post had hurt, angered, and offended her. I won’t go into the details of her note other than to say it was a personal attack on my character and my motive for writing the blog. The phrase that stunned me the most (and made me think the most) was, “I don’t know why you have to always act to the rest of us as if you were Grandma Cartner’s favorite.”

My very first reaction to the note was to be sheerly dumbfounded, then hurt, then reactive, then understanding, and, finally, forgiving … all in about ten minutes. The old me would have fired off a like missive, giving as good as I had gotten. Instead, I sincerely apologized that my words had hurt her. It was certainly never my intent to do so. Anyone who even halfway knows me knows that my family is the most important thing in the world to me … all of my family. I was taught that by our Grandma Cartner. I was also taught by my mother to “consider the source” of any comment made to me. This “source” was my cousin, who was still deeply grieving the sudden loss of her mother slightly less than a year before. Trust me, I know what that is like. A sudden heart attack took my mother just shy of her sixty-second birthday and a head injury due to a fall took her mother at ninety; neither of us was ready to say goodbye. My heart understood and hurt for her loss as much as anyone’s possibly could.

I followed up my Messenger message apology with a written letter a few days later, further apologizing for the unintended slight she’d felt so deeply. As the days and, now, months have passed with no response to either apology, I have had plenty of time to consider everything her impassioned note said, literally and figuratively. I can’t say I know her as well as I know some of our cousins who were closer both in age and proximity to me growing up, but I think I know her well enough to know that she was coming from a place of grief, hurt, and longing for her own mother. I get that. Her hurt locker is probably filled with a lot of the same things as mine. We have being motherless daughters in common. I’m sure she feels cheated out of precious time with her mother just like I do. I’m sure she has longing for many of the same things I wish I could do again with my mother. I feel sure we have more likeness than disparity in those ways. I’m sure she also misses our Grandma Cartner and our family as it was when she was living. How could she not? We were so blessed then.

Because I know that she does not know me (or my mother or father) well, I forgave immediately some disparaging comments about me and them. But I couldn’t let the comment about thinking I was my Grandma Cartner’s favorite go. That was the most hurtful thing said to me for so many reasons, all based in ignorance of my life story and an apparent lack of insight as to who our grandmother was through and through.

Put very simply, Grandma Cartner was all I had in the way of grandparents.

I was barely five years old when Grandpa Cartner died in a farm accident. To me he is only a Juicy-Fruit scented overall-clad phantom. I would give anything for more memories of the man, but that’s what I am left with. My Grandpa Houpe died five years before I was born, spirited away in his sleep by a massive heart attack at the age of only forty-five.

I can’t even bring myself to call my mother’s mother “Grandma Houpe” because she was never that to me or my brother. My mother’s mother, Jessie Lee Lowtharpe Houpe, lived to be eighty-six. For at least the last thirty-eight years of that lifespan (and all of my life), my mother and her mother did not speak … not one word. Jessie, like some others in the Lowtharpe and Houpe families, suffered from untreated Bipolar Disorder and/or Schizophrenia. Due to their mother’s mental illness, my mother, the middle child of five children, was forced to grow up way too quickly. Luckily for her siblings, she was born a nurturer. She was called upon frequently to step up and take care of them. Her father, who she dearly loved despite some short-comings of his own, was often absent. He was a stained glass artist who crafted beautiful windows for churches all over the Southeast. He traveled extensively to sell, craft, and install those windows. Often left behind to fend for themselves were his children. When my mother was thirteen, she spent her lunch hours at school working in the cafeteria so that her two younger siblings would be allowed to eat lunch in lieu of her wages. Her younger brother and sister lived off and on with my mother and father shortly after they married (at seventeen and eighteen years old) because their home life was simply unbearable. After my mother died, one of her two older sisters told me she felt like her mother had just died. She told me that my mother had done more to take care of her throughout her life than their birth mother ever did.

When I was about five years old, my maternal aunts Linda and Doris (who I was visiting on her farm at the time) decided to take me to meet my “Granny Houpe” at her house in Statesville behind my mother’s back. All I remember is an unfamiliar, scary figure with wild hair and crazy eyes trying to pull me onto her lap while I struggled to get away. My mother was livid when she found out that I had been exposed to her mother. When I was seven, I saw her again a few pews up at the funeral of her daughter-in-law, Rene, who had died in a tragic car accident. She kept her distance from my family all day that day. When I was grown, I saw her for the last time at the third marriage of my Aunt Linda. My Dad and I went near to speak to my mother’s oldest sister, who Dad had not seen in many, many years and I had never met. Jessie stepped closer and asked my Dad, “Is Joan here?” He pointed out my mother across the room. Her own mother had not known her on sight.

My mother’s hurt locker contained a million scars, slights, abuses, neglect. She tried to lock her childhood in there, away from us, as much as possible.

When she was thirteen, my mother met the man who would change her life. I have always believed that she fell in love with his family as much as anything else about my dad. She loved and respected his father, Clayton. But she idolized and emulated his mother, Mildred. From the start, Mildred treated her like one of her daughters. She taught my mother how to be a mom by example. My mother had never known unconditional love and support until she met my Grandma Cartner. Her mother had taught her what not to be. His mother re-enforced her belief that things could and should be different than what she had always known in life.

As I mentioned, my parents married when my dad was eighteen and my mom was barely seventeen. For a short time, they lived in a cinder block building behind her parents’ house. As soon as they were financially able, they moved into a trailer home across the yard from my Grandma and Grandpa Cartner’s house. My mother described it as being saved from the clutches of Hell. Four years into their marriage, my brother Curtis arrived. Since they both needed to work, Mom and Dad entrusted Curtis to Grandma Cartner five days a week until they moved to Charlotte for a job opportunity when Curtis was two or three years old. The five or six years that Mom got to live across the yard from her Cartner in-laws must have seemed like Heaven to her. Days on end without someone being fine one minute, then threatening to kill her the next, must have been bliss. Her father visited the newlyweds in their home on the night that he died. My brother Curtis’s six-week-old doctor check up had been that morning and Mom invited her dad to dinner and to play with his grandson for what turned out to be the last time. The next morning, when Mom went to her parents’ backyard stained glass art studio to report for work with her Dad, she found the yard full of police cars. An ambulance was unneeded. Her father was gone. The last words my mother ever heard from her mother were spoken to the police: “Well, if he hadn’t been our whoring around last night, this wouldn’t have happened.” Convinced her mother had finally followed through on old threats, my mom requested her father’s body be autopsied. She just knew her mother had poisoned him. Jessie refused to allow my mother back onto the property, so she lost her father and her livelihood in one fell swoop on October 8th, 1960.

I was born in Charlotte in 1965 when Curtis was nearly five years old. Almost every weekend of our early childhood Sunday church was followed by the fifty mile drive to Grandma and Grandpa Cartner’s house. As the years passed, we stopped going every weekend, but continued to make that journey at least once a month and on every holiday and for family reunions, birthdays, weddings, and funerals. In her later years, we started going every weekend once again, though we switched to Saturday nights, so we could take Grandma out for seafood dinners.

Even though I remember being jealous of my cousins who also had Grandma and Grandpa Knox, or Cline, or Green, or Koontz, or Huie to visit, I knew how lucky I was to have Grandma Cartner. Early on, probably due to my mother’s great admiration of her, I knew she was really something special. Grandma didn’t have favorites among us. She loved us all … like crazy. That being said, she was my favorite person on Earth next to my parents. I am sure she knew that Curtis and I needed her to fill all the grandparent roles. She knew about my mother’s upbringing, her hurts, her losses. And she was so good, so kind to us that we did not feel the deficit of other grandparents, even if we sometimes wondered what it would be like to have two or three people like her in our life. She was so kind that she never turned me down when I asked to spend a week with her in the summer or over Christmas break from school. She welcomed every girlfriend or boyfriend that Curtis or I brought along with us to visit like they were her own grandchildren. She welcomed first and second wives and husbands of her children as if she birthed them. She never had a bad word to say about anyone that I recall. She was so well loved that her ex-son-in-law, the mailman, brought her mail inside the house for her in her later, less ambulatory years, even though he had been divorced from her daughter for decades.

Curtis and I both worshipped Grandma Cartner. Because her door was always open, we took advantage of that and took every opportunity to talk to her about her life, about our lives, about any and everything. We probably spent much more time with her than others of her grandchildren because we did not have the same obligations they did. We didn’t have to get to a second set of grandparents’ house every Christmas or Easter. When I got married, it turned out that my husband’s family was not close like the Cartners, didn’t have the tradition of getting together like we did. To me, that was a blessing. I could still put my Cartner family first, as I wanted it to be. My married cousins were often forced to visit their in-laws instead of keeping up the tradition of spending the holidays with Grandma Cartner.

I cherished the times sitting with Grandma, thumbing through photos, hearing stories about her life. Her recall was amazing, even in her eighties. I knew we didn’t have forever to have these talks, so I asked questions, I encouraged her to write down her story for all of us, so we could remember as much about her as possible. Curtis interviewed her to record her living history. We held onto her for dear life, until we couldn’t anymore and cancer took her from all of us.

No, I wasn’t her favorite, dang it! Though I would love to have been. I needed her. She saw that and never turned me away. For that, I am so grateful and blessed. But she didn’t play favorites. She would’ve walked on fire for any one of her children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. She was proud of all of us, no matter what.

I believe the words that were said to me by my cousin in that Messenger message came from a place of loss, of grief, of regret, of sorrow. I know all of those things intimately. For that reason, I forgive them. I sincerely pray for healing, for comfort for my cousin. That’s all I can do. The rest is up to her. The key to our own personal hurt locker is in our own hands.

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