Southern Voice: Caroline Madison

I was reared to remain still. Soothing and pleasing an alcoholic parent is a tightrope to walk across every day. It was best to stay quiet and hidden. Writing kept me alive and became everything when I finally emerged from silence.

As a child I wasn’t aware of what was happening, just that Dad could be scary and sharp with words thrown like daggers that would burst all of our dreams. I grew to resent him — hate him, even. It wasn’t until I made my way down my own road, well into my own parenting years and long after I made my own seemingly irreversible mistakes, that I was able and ready to shed light onto all I have been, where I have ended up and where I ought to be.

Dad wasn’t a bad man; he was angry and sad. He wasn’t abusive; I believe he did his best. He didn’t mean to come across as he did at home behind closed doors; he was dealing with his own demons, ones I can only hope he was able to face prior to his passing.

He softened in his final years; ones I’m grateful to have witnessed. We had moved back to southern Kentucky for a few years when our oldest girls were still little, Jane merely 4 years old and Anne still a baby. I don’t know if it was by the grace of God, or if he had simply given up. He went as he would have wanted, passing in his sleep from what we think was a heart attack. The autopsy wasn’t worth it. We knew he wasn’t healthy and his body strained. Years of smoking, alcohol abuse and terrible eating habits left him ghost white, his hard belly protruding over his pants as a force that entered the house before he was able to get his cowboy boots beyond the threshold.

Neither was Mom perfect, but as daughters often do in their formative years, I expected her to be. I was well-versed in bringing her shortcomings as a mother to light through tantrums thrown long after I should have been able to get them under control. Recollections of desperately wanting to be seen and heard remain as crisp as yesterday. When no one would listen, I would disappear into notebooks writing short stories that took me far away into worlds where I had a sense of belonging.

Caroline's parents, Wayne and Martha Madison

Caroline’s parents, Wayne and Martha Madison

Mom and Dad battled their way through obstacles I can’t imagine having to face in my lifetime. My older brothers, Ronald Wayne Jr. and Brandon Wayne, died only hours after my mother had given birth. For decades she has driven past the cemetery where her two infant sons rest beneath the ground. Their headstones, crumbling over the years, aren’t far from one another — two babies with a few short years between them with one healthy baby girl born in between. Mom and Dad pressed on, perhaps just a little sadder and more enclosed within themselves than before. As the remaining children, we could hardly break through to get them to stop for a moment to see and to hear that we were still there beneath their feet.

My siblings and I were at home alone most of the time. Mom worked hard running her own dancing school, which we called “the Studio.” Several years ago mom went on one of her creative tirades, and every time I would refer to it as the Studio, she would get upset. “It’s a school,” she had yelled, “like public school, art school or college!” It will always be the Studio. It was where Mom went every day, and it didn’t matter exactly what happened behind those doors, or what we called it. As far as we knew, for as long as we could remember, the Studio was what took her away from us.

Zachary is the youngest of the four siblings. I was 8 years old when he was born. I prayed for him every single day for years until he materialized, like magic, inside Mom’s belly. It wasn’t until many years later when my own daughter would pray just the same for a little brother that I would come to know the graces of God handed down through generations, as one does a hand-stitched family quilt, or grandmother’s wedding rings.

From left: Caroline, sister Ann, Caroline’s mom, and brother Zac in Chicago after Zac’s performance at Second City

“I want a baby brother,” she said.

“Just pray, and God will listen,” I said. And He did. I guess I had forgotten how well prayers work when delivered by an innocent child who still believes in the power of her words with every fiber of her being.

Joseph is a year old, and even though he came at a time when I was ready to grow out of myself as a stay-at-home mom, he somehow propelled me at the same time into a collision of two worlds I always thought I had to choose between. My pregnancy went slowly and seemed to last a lifetime, but it taught me that life is what we make of our circumstances, not that our circumstances determine who we will be.

Families are built upon old foundations with cracks in some places so wide you feel as though you might fall right through them. Your whole life could easily be spent trying to avoid whatever sleeps beneath the earth in those questionable places. The only way to patch the concrete is to realize that whatever is there wasn’t yours to begin with, and that the only way to get over it is to fill it up whole again, so that you can simply walk across and into the horizon of your own story. Imperfect we will walk along similar paths as our own parents, sometimes with fair warning of dangers ahead because they had somehow, even in their absence, taught us how to stay wide awake to keep ourselves from falling.

“No matter what,” Mom would always say in words unspoken, “be good.”

“No matter what,” Dad would always say in words unspoken, “be good.”

Caroline's daughter, Molly, and baby Joseph (in utero)

Caroline’s daughter, Molly, and baby Joseph (in utero)

Caroline and son Joseph

Caroline and son Joseph

It’s a gloomy Spring Break day. The girls are out of school, and my husband took a few days off. We are indulging in a staycation, a week at home with seven entire Saturdays. The moment has found me in the armchair that sits tucked away in the corner of our master bedroom. My feet are propped up on the ottoman. There are baskets of clothes here and there, some dirty and some clean. My husband’s work clothes are resting on our unmade bed, patiently waiting to be tended to and put away. For now, I’m taking Mom’s advice, a woman who modeled for me that it’s best to take a creative urge and turn into something tangible unless you wish to spend your entire life tending to the laundry. Somewhere in the background, and although he wouldn’t dare let us see, Dad is smiling.

Caroline Madison is a Nashville-based freelance writer. She is the author of Rose-Colored Lenses, a personal blog where she writes with transparency about the essences of life and relationships. She resides in Hendersonville with her husband and four children. You can also follow her work on Facebook.