#iamsubject project – On Becoming Myself

On Becoming Myself

by Vera Petrovsky

My sister and I used to love looking through old family photo albums, giggling at pictures of our parents and relatives in ‘the olden days’. Wondering what life was like for them. Trying to reconcile the serious black-and-white faces with the animated older ones we knew.

We scrutinized pictures of ourselves, those frozen moments in time that commemorated birthdays, holidays and outings. Tracing our life’s journey from the old black-and-white images through the newer colour ones and into the mirror of today.

How had the young ‘us’ in the photos become the ‘us’ we were now? Was there a discernible path woven among the celebrations and family events? How had they shaped us?

One piece of the puzzle – the first big change

The other day, I picked up the oldest photo album and turned its thick paper pages softened with age. There was the traditional baby-on-a-fur-rug, then the snow-suited infant with her Mom. One photo showed a toddler feeding pigs with her Grandpa; another showed her sitting on the sun-porch playing with her doll. And several photos showed a pretty little girl in a sun-dress posing in scenic spots by the Adriatic Sea – photos that would be sent to her Daddy in Canada.

I stopped to linger over the photo of a pig-tailed 3 year old, lying on her tummy in a wading pool, playing with a toy while a neighbour-boy stands, hands on hips, looking down at her. What was she thinking? What did he say to her?

I have no specific memories of the first 4 years of my life, only impressions gleaned from the photos and from my mother’s stories and reminiscences. But it feels right to think of myself as a quiet content little girl, safe in her small village home, cared for by a loving Mom and grandparents.

There is a picture near the end of the photo album. It shows a young woman, eyes bright with tears, holding a tired cranky pig-tailed girl, as they stand in a large airport, surrounded by family members. She holds the child up to her father, a smiling stranger with tears in eyes as blue as her own. He reaches his arms out to her, but she slaps his cheek then turns and nuzzles her mother’s neck.

The second piece – ages 4 to 15

Children are resilient, and the 4 year old settled into life in a new city, in a safe family neighbourhood, and another nice home filled with loving adults. Similar but different.

That old family album chronicled the journey of the little girl who was loved, but who did not fit with her father’s image of ‘his little angel’. She tried to please a disappointed father who communicated through silence or with harsh words, a deep frown and a raised hand. She came to fear him and his unpredictable outbursts. Rare though they were, each one drove the parts of her that didn’t measure up just a little bit deeper inside.

The best of times, the worst of times – the third piece of the puzzle

In spite of my fractured relationship with my father, that second slice of pie – ages 4 to 15 – was the happiest time of my life. Confident child that I was, I befriended a girl who lived a few houses up. She was Russian and understood the Slavic languages I spoke. In the fall, I started school and took to it, learning to speak English, making new friends. Long lazy summers were spent swimming in a nearby park, or playing with friends, or exploring the neighbourhood on my bicycle.

That slice of life ended abruptly when I was 15 and my family – parents, siblings and I – moved into our own house on the east side of the city, where both my parents worked.

It was devastating for me, going into grade 11 in a school where all the kids knew each other and I was the new kid. Surprisingly, there was another girl – new to the school but raised in the neighbourhood – who turned out to have a boyfriend who had been in my grade 10 class in my previous school. Our friendship blossomed and made this part of my life tolerable, even fun.

I grew up amidst traditional values, though the burgeoning Women’s Lib movement at university resonated. But it was my yearning for love, approval and acceptance that fueled my heart’s desire to find my soul-mate and live ‘happily ever after’.

Having a career was not on my agenda – my life would be marriage, family and home. So I drifted through university, accumulating a bunch of Arts credits, then settling into a clerical job when my next puzzle piece was cut. At the age of 22, I moved out of my parents’ house and into my own tiny apartment. So began my era of ‘looking for love in all the wrong places, all the wrong faces.’

I fell in love with a separated man 12 years my senior, my Mr. Right, and we lived together for 5 years. That was mistake #1 and it did not work out – so, at the age of 30, I began dating casually. At 35, I felt my biological clock ticking. I panicked and soon made big mistake #2 – married a man who embodied the ‘opposites attract’ philosophy. At 40, my divorce to the drug addict and criminal I had married came through.

It was a painful time and took several months of counseling to work through my issues, but I emerged, surprisingly, stronger than before. I had been to hell and come back! It was exhilarating to experience this new-found freedom – to live my own life, to become the person I had started out to be – myself.

Turning Point

The turbulent years of my 20s, the disastrous decisions of my 30s, had me questioning the meaning of life. I found myself being gently wooed back to The One man who loved me unconditionally, just as I was, who offered me hope of a new and better life.

No, I had no dramatic transformation. No miraculous ‘aha!’ moments that made me do a 180. But I was at a crossroads when I cut into a new slice of pie. One that is rich to overflowing with the ripe fruit of loving friends, a comfortable home, a secure and safe job, and a renewed passion for my childhood love of writing. I am finally able to reconcile the 4 year old little girl with the 50+ woman, with all the years of change and growth and experience. Free to mould and shape them into … myself.

Justin Kownacki writes “Who you are now is who you’ll always be. You may think that age and experience change people. Sometimes they do. But, broadly speaking, who you are at the age of 23 is who you’ll be at 73.”

I am living proof that this statement is both true and false.

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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