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Keeping House: Ancestral Healing

This morning as I made my bed with crisp, clean, cotton sheets, thoughts of my grandma came into my mind. I had been thinking about how much I enjoy keeping house. Weekend mornings of quiet cleaning and organizing do not feel like a burden to me. Rather, they balance me. I love having clean sheets on the bed, and doing the work actually brings me calm and balance as I think about climbing into a clean bed that night to rest. This morning, my thought trail led to my grandmother, the one who taught my mother who taught me how to keep house. I have memories of going to my grandma’s house on weekends to visit with her and also to help with the things she found difficult as she aged. The gratitude and happiness she expressed after we had helped her do something like wash curtains was probably part of what I took into myself to inform my ideas about the nice aspects of taking care of a home and keeping it clean.

This morning, I thought about how for my grandma, keeping house would have a unique personal meaning. It would have been connected to the gratitude for having a house to live in and take care of. That kind of stability was something my grandma didn’t have early in her life. She was born in Detroit in 1911. Her mother died very shortly after her birth due to complications in childbirth. My grandma told me that she lived with her father and her auntie after that, and that her father turned to alcohol heavily when she was little. She remembered kids in her neighborhood chanting “drunkard, drunkard, fell in a ditch” because her father would pass out in the street, drunk. One of these times, paired with the cold of Detroit winters, cost him his life. My grandma told me the story of being in a carriage with the casket of her father. She was only 6 years old. She said they had her sit on a bench alone on one side of the casket and everyone else in attendance was on the other side. She remembered her discomfort as they all looked at her.

After her father’s death, my grandma went to live with her grandfather and her step grandmother. My grandma said that her step grandmother did not like children and was strange in her ways. In spite of this, my grandma remembered going to school for the first time, starting 1st grade, and being happy in general. One day everything changed. Nuns were going around her neighborhood collecting money and goods for their orphanage. When they came to my grandma’s house, her step grandmother told the nuns that my grandma was an orphan, and that they should take her to their orphanage. My grandmother remembers playing in a room alone when the door opened and her step grandmother said, “Get your things. You’re leaving.” Her grandfather was at work and didn’t know what was happening. The nuns took my grandmother with them that day and left Detroit for Cleveland. They brought her to an orphanage there and that is where she remained until she was 16 years old.

The orphanage was a place my grandma had many experiences that shaped her way of seeing the world and herself. I always asked her to tell me stories from her childhood and from the orphanage. She was willing to tell her stories to me when I asked. My grandma’s name was Ann, which inspired her to call herself “the real Orphan Annie.” There were instances of trauma in addition to the repeated loss and disruption of attachment she experienced prior to being in the orphanage. Also, there was what I call environmental trauma; existing in an environment that is anti-child, anti-wellness, or sociopathic in nature (Sociopathic meaning: norms and values that are against the wellness of the people that comprise society). There were stories of my grandma and the other children in the orphanage being locked in closets for days, forced to go to the bathroom on the floor. There were stories of physical discipline and verbal onslaughts of name- calling and shaming. And, there was serious emotional neglect, with hardly any warmth and no affection being a part of my grandma’s life year after year as she grew into a young woman.

As an adult and a psychologist, I look back at my experience of watching my grandma having very clear signs of anxious attachment and generalized anxiety. It is possible my grandma suffered with complex post-traumatic stress from her experiences as a child and young woman. I saw my grandma display physical and emotional nervousness as well as thought rumination. She was a very nervous driver. She had routes she took to certain places, and to deviate from the route would cause incredible anxiety for her. Once, when I was about 19, I was in the car with her and she was driving. She made a wrong turn and found herself having to cross Telegraph Rd., a divided highway with a total of 6 lanes and a median. When she realized she would have to cross the road, she panicked to the point of being non-responsive. I suggested she stop and let me drive. I suggested she turn onto the road and into the next parking lot. I suggested she wait and calm down before deciding what to do next. It was like she couldn’t hear me. As I urgently made suggestions, she began creeping the car out into the road, her hands nervously shifting on the steering wheel, her eyes terrified. It was like I couldn’t reach her, wherever she was in her mind. Cars going at high speeds were coming toward us, and she just kept slowly moving out into the road. I braced myself and several cars veered around us, honking. As we almost made is across to the median, a car swerved to miss us and ended up driving up on the median, damaging its tire. This made her snap out of it, and suddenly she realized what was happening. Luckily, at this point, she was able to stop near the median and let me drive the rest of the way, and no one was hurt. It was quite a miracle that we were not hit. For weeks, my grandma beat herself up over this incident, so remorseful that she could have gotten us killed. Neither of us understood at the time that she was having a panic attack and possibly a trauma takeover (extreme trigger). Looking back now, I can see how her patterned ways of doing things were not her being rigid or stubborn. They were how she survived, how she maintained a feeling of security in life.

In addition to the trauma my grandma experienced, there was also a consistent presence of growing strength and resilience through her life. While she told stories in which she was abused, neglected, and hurt physically and emotionally, she also told stories in which she learned about herself, life, spirituality, and faith. My grandma told me about a young nun who worked at the orphanage for a short time. She would take time to talk with my grandma. She was kind and gentle. Her presence was soothing. This young nun left the orphanage for several months for reasons my grandma did not know. One night, my grandmother woke in the middle of the night to see the young nun standing at the foot of her bed. She felt comfort at her presence, and felt relieved she had returned. She fell back to sleep. In the morning, my grandma inquired about where the young nun was because she was eager to talk with her. She was informed that the other nuns found out she had passed away the night before, at a location far from the orphanage. This experience stayed with my grandma her entire life.

In trauma healing theory, there is a concept Kimberly Ann Johnson calls “the red and the blue.” Looking to the red means looking for or noticing signals of threat or danger. Looking to the blue means noticing and seeing signals of safety and ease. Part of traumatic experiences is one’s system being blindsided. This shock to the system causes hypervigilance to develop. Hypervigilance is the nervous system’s way of trying to keep us safe by watching out for more threats that might come so we are not blindsided again. We can think of this as a system poised for danger, or, a system living in continuous anxiety. While developing hypervigilance makes sense to the nervous system after trauma, it is essentially being stuck in the “red” of life. The system becomes habitually hypervigilant to the extent that one mostly sees the red and has a hard time seeing the blue, even when it’s there. This is why people with PTSD or CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) often struggle with discerning between real and perceived threats. The nervous system is keyed to see red first and to only soften that stance when enough proof has been given that the threat is not truly dangerous. Part of Johnson’s concept of the red and the blue is that a way we can begin to help our nervous systems recalibrate and heal from PTSD or CPTSD is to begin to notice the blue on purpose. This practice helps the body, mind, and emotions grow in its ability to detect safety and notice ease. We could think of this as growing flexibility. Being stuck in the red is like your head being stuck only looking to the left. The practice of seeing blue is kind of like physical therapy, gradually encouraging the head to look to the right a little more each day. Eventually, the neck becomes more flexible and releases some of the lock. Over time, you can move your head back and forth as needed, and you can also look straight ahead and see life beyond the context of threat detection.

The red and the blue theory goes very nicely with the counseling theory called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This theory posits that human life inevitably entails suffering. And, the presence of that suffering need not blind us to the joy, meaning, and connection available to us every day of our lives. Engaging in value-based action helps people be able to cope with and address suffering as needed while building a colorful tapestry of living. The red and the blue concept reminds us that every single moment of life contains both. There are signals of threat and signals of safety in every single moment. This might seem strange to consider that even in our most stressful and anxiety-provoking moments, there is safety. It is understandable that we forget to look for the blue at such moments, but that does not mean it is not there. For me, the Earth is the provider of blue signals of safety. Our Earth is always there, in every moment. There is always a tree, a breeze, the sky, air, animals, the sound of birds…there is always something we can look to in any moment to remember that we are in the midst of beauty even if we are suffering.

I think about how I was the grandchild in my family to want to know more about my grandma’s life. Wanting to be closer to her, I asked her to teach me Polish once, and she thought the idea was ridiculous. She couldn’t understand why I would want to learn that language as a 14-year-old in the United States. I asked for stories over and over. I found her fascinating. Listening to stories of her life, to me, was better than going to the movies. Hearing her narrative made me have such deep respect for her, and an incredible amount of admiration. The woman I played cards with and laughed with at the kitchen table in Dearborn Heights, Michigan was once the Real Orphan Annie. It blew my mind! And, I was able to witness her never stop striving. She obtained her driver’s license at 65 years old. She graduated from high school at 75 years old. Even at the end of her life, when we sat together during autumn afternoons, she would tell me how she didn’t fear death, because “the Good Lord always took care” of her, and she had no reason to believe that wouldn’t continue after she died. I just wanted to know her, and I am so grateful I took the time to do so.

I guess it is no wonder that I became a psychologist and I spend my days meaningfully and deeply engaged with people’s life narratives. Human beings are endlessly fascinating. We all have these stories we are living. Yes, they include things like trauma and anxiety. Those are real, and they need and deserve care and treatment. And, when I look at my grandma’s story, I see that her suffering did not cancel out her joy and meaning. She was able to survive through the red and still experience the blue. Looking back, I see that she did this with no outside help, really, beyond the privilege she had in being white. I wonder how it would have been for her to have treatment for her trauma and anxiety. I wonder if she would have been able to enjoy the blue even more, worry less, and be less distracted by nervousness. That kind of help was not available for her, though. She survived and coped the best she could. Being humans in linear time, living with our ancestors’ nervous system patterning in our bodies means that we can add to the story so it doesn’t ever actually end. The knowledge and training I have gained benefits us all. Me healing trauma and anxiety in my way is my grandmother healing. As we are connected through the mystery of time, I pick up where she and my mom left off, and I add resources and relief. My children will do the same.

Making my bed with clean, crisp sheets and thinking of my grandma connects me to the lineage of true humanity. We find or daily practices that help us securely attach to ourselves and our lives. We discover ourselves. We suffer. We keep going. Keeping house is a symbol of keeping self. Houses are often seen as self-symbols in Jungian psychology. It is the place we live. As I keep house, I tend to myself. I clear clutter and dust. I create food at the hearth. I sometimes go into a scary basement to find something forgotten. I decorate with things that reflect me. I climb stairs to the upper rooms and open doors. I do all of this in my house, and in myself. In keeping house, she was able to find her preferences for how things should go and create her consistent and reliable methods for cleaning and cooking. Choices were something she did not have in her youth. In keeping house, she found her sovereignty and her domain; she kept house and kept herself. She created the security she needed, and shared it with her children and grandchildren. The Real Orphan Annie finally had a home.

My grandma, Ann Rogaczewski

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