Guest post/Interview

Finding Strength in the Ashes

Finding Strength in the Ashes by Mary Helen Sheriff

Confession: I cried when I watched the Wonder Woman movie that came out a few years ago. The little girl still inside me, the one who ran around in Wonder Woman Underoos for much of her childhood, finally got her superhero movie and it was AMAZING.

In real life, I admire the outspoken women who take the world stage to right wrongs and fight the good fight. Women like Malala, Melinda Gates, RBG, and so many more.

There’s another kind of strength though. A kind of strength that doesn’t often make headlines, but is perhaps equally important in our individual microcosms. It is a quiet strength full of dignity and grace. The kind of strength it takes to rise from tragedy and grief. The kind of strength it takes to find laughter and love, even in the face of challenges. 

Many of you can probably think of someone in your life with this type of strength. For me, it was my grandma, who we called Hootie. The Hootie I knew, loved, and admired baked cookies, hosted my friends for slumber parties, set up treasure hunts, and listened and laughed with an easy readiness that made me feel safe and loved. And then later as her body fell apart and the pain grew in constancy and intensity, she didn’t complain. She refused to be a burden. She lightened the load of those who loved her by continuing to find joy.

Before she was my grandma though, she lived a different sort of life. In 1948 she had a son, Sandy, who was born with Down Syndrome. 1948 was a different time. In 1948, it was devastatingly common for people to believe if a baby was born with a defect, then the mother had been cursed by God because she had done something wrong. It was accepted practice to send the child to live in an institution. My grandparents fought that recommendation for several years before the birth of another baby and the total lack of a support system to help with Sandy made that impossible. The emotional baggage from this decision turned Hootie from a woman who enjoyed a good party into an alcoholic. What followed were decades of neglectful parenting with their own ramifications for Sandy, my mom, and her sisters. Eventually, my grandfather passed away and their home caught fire. My grandmother rose from the ashes, moved away from her small town, and built a new life. 

I don’t admire the choice she made to put her child in an institution, but I understand that in her situation at that time and place her choices were limited. I don’t admire her using alcohol to dull the pain, but I understand that alcoholism is a disease and that mental health care was even more limited than it is today. The impact of her actions on the quality of life for her children, especially Sandy, is tragic.

What I do admire, though, is the woman she became, the woman I knew and loved, in spite of her mistakes and failures. 

By the time I sat down to write my debut novel Boop and Eve’s Road Trip, Hootie had passed away. I was emerging from my own bout with postpartum depression, and I couldn’t help but wish Hootie was still around to talk with about and, yes I suspect even find humor in, our experiences with depression. I wrote this novel, as a way to spend time with “her” in my imagination when I couldn’t in real life. As is the way of writing, Boop took on a life of her own and though inspired by Hootie, Boop is her own person with her own brand of strength and love and humor. 

Boop and Eve’s Road Trip is a tribute to all who find the strength to start again. It’s a tribute to strength born from failure and the subsequent humility that follows. The kind of strength that withholds judgement, that makes room for others, and relishes moments of joy. May each of us, imperfect people that we are, find the strength of Boop and Hootie to live with and share grace. 

Mary Helen Sheriff spent fourteen years in classrooms teaching elementary school, middle school, college, and professionals. During that time, she also had the pleasure of dabbling in writing for children, teenagers, and adults in a variety of forms including fiction, poetry, blogs, and nonfiction. She spent several summers immersed in an MFA program in children’s literature at Hollins University. Currently, she lives and writes in Richmond, Virginia, with her two kids, two cats, and husband.

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