Unbreakable Willy Women: With Love to our Littlest on your Graduation

I don't have any of my photos of us kids when we were little here in Texas with me, so instead of photos of us, I'm putting up this photo of some other Willy Women, including my grandmother and my great aunt and the little ducklings in their lap (who are in their 70s and 80s now!). 

I don't have any of my photos of us kids when we were little here in Texas with me, so instead of photos of us, I'm putting up this photo of some other Willy Women, including my grandmother and my great aunt and the little ducklings in their lap (who are in their 70s and 80s now!). 


It’s finals week and I have a paper due tomorrow (tonight?) that I should be writing, but I’m tired and fried and needing sleep. So, while I wait for the coffee to wear off, I’m reflecting and writing this. And, because it’s late and I’m tired and I’m writing about my family, I’m writing in my own, real, Missouri voice. Read with accent, more as you go along.

Last weekend I went home to Missouri for my mom’s graduation. It was an awesome trip and I loved it, even if I did have to drive 24 hours in three days and then come home to research and write 40 pages (still in progress). It was good to celebrate my mom’s achievement, to spend time with my dad and my grandma, to see old friends, to eat the best damn Greek pizza in the state of Missouri (thank you, Alex’s pizza, for making a gluten free crust!).

The only really bad part about the trip last weekend is that it was too close to this weekend and I can’t go home two weekends in a row. I’m missing two events in Missouri this weekend. The first is the ordination of a dear friend from college, and it would have been nice to go. But the other is the graduation celebration for my baby cousin, Madison, and I wish more than anything that I could be there.

I’ve missed a lot of the highlights of Madison’s life. She was only eleven when I left for college and I missed all the big moments that you would expect to miss, but also the ones I never thought would happen. I missed her dad’s funeral because I was in Rome. And then, only a few months later, I missed her mom’s. Friends who knew me in Rome probably remember me talking about my cousin, Tracey, and the fact that it was after his death that I spiraled into a deep depression and fog--which we later found out was partially celiacs. Tracey was one of my favorite people in my family growing up—so loud, so alive. He ranked in my favorites alongside his wife, Daphne, who was the most gentle, loving, caring soul you ever knew. She and I always had a special bond and when I went to Rome, she was ecstatic for me. The day before Tracey died, I bought Daph a beautiful scarf from a vendor in Rome and couldn’t wait to get home and give it to her. When I found out about Trace, I held it tight as if it could give me some link, some way back to the family I missed and needed to be with in order to process the loss that I could never understand.

So, yes, I’ve missed a lot of important moments in Maddie’s life—and her brothers’ lives as well. I didn't get to see Chase graduate either or see him go off to college. Facebook stalking your family can only help so much with staying connected and I have hated to miss every single life event in all their lives. But I’m especially sad to miss Madison’s graduation, because it’s such a meaningful rite of passage and I know how hard she has worked to come through it.

Like a lot of families, my family isn’t perfect. And, like a lot of rural Missouri families, we have our share of demons: addiction, abuse, cooking meth…lots of “isms”… you name it, we’ve had to deal with it. But from what I can remember of her childhood before the worst year in our family history, Madison was always the exception. It was like the dark stuff couldn’t touch her, or at least not impact her as catastrophically as the rest of us. She couldn’t be broken, couldn’t be tamed. She was the very picture of wildness: curls everywhere, messy, loud, filled with joy for life that wasn’t tainted by what was going on around her. That wildness saved all of us sometimes—when things were rough, when things were too painful to touch, Madison could just…make it better. Just by being her normal, goofy, wonderful self, she made the dark stuff hurt less. That little girl was pure light in the darkness. The young woman she’s grown into is full of strength, beauty, and joy. She has all the best parts of her daddy and her momma, and that has made her into a truly special person. Like the rest of us, she has her shit to deal with and she isn’t perfect. But let me tell you: that young woman has strength to conquer the world if she wants—and the spirit she radiates could heal some of its brokenness.

I don’t talk about my family very much—there are too many of those demons mentioned above that haunt me and make our relationships strained. But I am proud of my family. Over the years and on more than one occasion, I’ve had family members make off-hand remarks about my education and about me being the “hope” of the family. I have simultaneously watched my cousins’ faces hearing that and felt a deep shame in the lie of that. I’m the only one to go out of state for college, but most of us have gone (and those who haven’t are making more money than I ever will and seem happy enough). I’m not the only one with an advanced degree, but I suppose Notre Dame sounded impressive (it wasn’t that impressive). I do hope that my PhD does get me some brownie points to make up for missed Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthday parties, weddings, and all the other little moments in between. I’m one of the very few out of the dozens of us who has actually left the Ozarks. I’ve been gone now for a full nine years, so there’s a lot that I can’t make up. And when I say I’ve been gone, I mean I’ve been gone. I’ve created a family here in Texas and they are the center of my life. When I talk about my family, nine times out of ten I’m talking about a group of complicated people (who are almost as crazy as the real deal) down in Irving, not the people who raised me and whose blood I carry who live back in Missouri.

So, really, let me tell you about the “hope” of our family. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not me.

This young generation of Willys (and Sulzes, Tunes, Bartles, etc.) is filled with amazing human beings. I love all my cousins, but I am so stinking proud of our womenfolk! I am cousin to beautiful, amazing, talented, kind women. My cousin, Amanda, is a musician and, even if I don’t really like her music (don’t worry, Mandy, I never like newfangled music), I love her to pieces and am proud of her gumption to go after her dreams. Jodie is a total badass athlete (seriously, you should follow her on facebook, she is always up to something) while still being a gentle listener and teacher. Kenna is a supermom of three wild critters who manages to keep going in spite of illness and chronic pain, and is far, far more amazing than we give her credit for. Sara is stubborn as all hell, but is also my hero—even though we hated each other as kids, she’s one of my favorite people and I love her with all my heart. Christina is an adventurer and survivor and keeps our family together with love as well as with her famous mac and cheese!

Friends, I am the proud cousin of talented moms, a teacher, a business owner, and so much more. I have watched my cousins work through grief, overcome obstacles, make lives, build families, and mother awesome little ones whose big moments I have missed, but celebrated through Facebook from two states away. I’m in love with those babies (who aren’t babies any more!) and insanely proud of the women who are raising them. In addition to this slew of cousins, I am the niece to two strong women who have consistently been there for me and loved me through my complicatedness and who have, in addition to giving me the cousins listed above, mostly raised us kids with the patience of saints. I know it’s not been easy. We were all wild things, but not all of us were the wonderful-wild that Maddie continues to be.

So, this Saturday, I will be missing another big family moment. Our littlest girl has done it—she’s graduated and is opening a bright new chapter. Madison, I am so proud of you and I’m so sorry I can’t celebrate you in person. You are strong and kind and all the best parts of your parents while still being your own wild, brave self. I love that wildness. Never let it go.

Love you always