When I was twelve years old I discovered Rae Creek. My family had recently moved to a small town in northeast Nebraska, small enough for me to walk from one end to the other barefoot which I did frequently. I fell in love with this town with its population of only 510 and in no time I discovered Rae Creek, a half mile outside of town. It initiated a lifelong habit of writing poetry to describe this journey called life and the place I played in it. Once of my first stanzas was: I crossed a dusty road today and crawled beneath the fence, there I paused amidst the weeds that grew so green and dense. I scrambled through the meadows barely glancing at the herd of cattle standing in the field nearby and headed for the heavily forested land beyond. All of my senses orchestrated bringing me the sound of the music of the many robins, the fragrance of the spring wildflowers, the deep green of the leaves and the weeds that looked more to me like budding flowers. I stroked the bark on the trunk of a cottonwood looking up at the shiny leaves that twinkled back to me. I found an oak tree that became my best friend. Here I scrambled up to her tallest branches and surveyed the land that now belonged to me. One of the branches was long enough that it reached across the creek. I crawled to its end and holding on flung my body to the shore on the other side of the creek. I wrote more: I knew this land and I were kin, with a spirit roaming free, and in my mind I knew my heart had found a home for me. After years of moving from town to town following my father’s job as Superintendent of a crew that worked for Elliott Construction Company, staying in this village for the rest of my life seemed the happiest of circumstances I could ever have.
The following year when my father initiated his sexual abuse, Rae Creek became my sanctuary. Here I could forget the trauma of a happy Catholic family struggling to bury the reality of my father conducting night time raids to my bedroom where I slept on the bottom bunk with my rosary under my pillow. Here too my sister, one year younger than myself, and my three year old baby sister sleeping in a nearby crib were to witness a reality that would scar them forever.
Only in Rae Creek could I leave behind the horrors of our family, a family that once upon a time was the epitome of a Leave It To Beaver existence. I escaped deeper and deeper into its woods, stroking the bark of trees, bending down to pick a wildflower, walking barefoot in the creek, inhaling the fragrance of the meadow. For reasons unknown to me I no longer heard the robins, their melody lost to me. One day as I perched atop my favorite oak tree I penned the following words: Wherever I go in the years to come, whenever my heart is tired and sad, I’ll think of life in this hidden world and long for the moments that once I had.
For the next several decades I would say those words repeatedly, a mantra from which I drew strength. My mind would leave my body and soar over Rae Creek and my wooded home as I left present time where I lived in a troubled world, one from which I could not escape, and buried myself deeply into the greenery that was Rae Creek.
When I was fifteen my family moved away from that small town heading for the Los Angeles area and my grieving heart followed as I moved through every inch of the town, the farm land, the country bridges, the fields of corn and wheat, the stands of cottonwood and Oak, the Beaver River where I swam in the summer and ice skated in the winter and especially Rae Creek. Years later I would come to realize that my family moved so that the townspeople would not discover the dark side to life that existed in that small red house out on the highway: a father who started working in a nearby town coming home only on the weekends, his nighttime raids to my bedroom when he was home, a mother who, having discovered her husband’s rapes, spent most of her time in bed sobbing fitfully as I bathed her, shaved her legs, washed her face all the time wanting to know what happened to my mother, what happened to our happy Catholic family. My family life reminded me of a camp of mutilated and injured soldiers from some obsolete war, indescribable in its agony. All the figures were shadowy and disoriented, as if only half alive and that half living in a well of misery. We moved in and out of our days appearing to wait for some catastrophic happening, all of us knowing that once it did, we were ill-prepared to handle it.
I was to mourn the loss of Rae Creek for twenty four years.
My mother had instigated beatings from my father as punishment for what I was doing. I ran away from home at the age of eighteen after a beating that almost killed me. For the next two decades I went from one abuser to another, twice hospitalized in a Psychiatric Ward for attempted suicides. I suffered from frequent and terrifying nightmares, a nightmare of a steamroller coming over the top of me as I lay sleeping, crushing the life out of me. I had become anorexic, severely co-dependent, promiscuous, had weak boundaries, suffered from severe depression, insomnia, migraine headaches and had poor self-esteem.
Twenty two years after leaving my home town I journeyed back. I had been painfully homesick all those years and could wait no longer. It was just as I remembered as all of my memories flooded back. My soul was so badly wounded and it wanted nothing more than to wander through Rae Creek seeking its soothing hand. I hiked out to my beloved wooded land. It was gone. The trees and meadows were gone, the creek was gone, the wildflowers no longer in bloom. I sat on the side of the road and sobbed fitfully. What happened to my sanctuary? I was told later that a tornado had torn many of the trees up, elm disease had taken the rest. With no trees to guard its waters Rae Creek had dried up to nothing more than a rut of mud and dirt. Like me, Rae Creek was badly, morbidly wounded.
As the next few years went by and, after my marriage to my third abuser, one who my therapist said I would never survive, I entered recovery from incest. I had periodically returned to my home town always hiking out to Rae Creek. As I began recovery I found that trees were again growing and as they grew the muddy rut little by little became a creek. The wildflowers were nurtured by the waters. Every time I returned Rae Creek was further along in its own recovery. It was if it too, shed tears for what I had gone through. It too wanted to become whole and well again. By the time I finished my self-enforced five years of recovery Rae Creek had completed its recovery. I felt as if God knew what had happened to me. He knew that Rae Creek was my sanctuary, a place where I received nourishment. And as I moved through the painful times of my teenage years and began to heal it too began to heal from the trauma it had gone through.
The best part was the many robins, the purity of their cheerful warble filling me with enchantment. Rae Creek was once again dotted with them, their red breasts sparkling like large fireflies as they danced among the trees. Rae Creek and I had been living parallel lives. Its memory had kept me alive as its recovery coincided with my own.
Today I am happy and healed. Today I give thanks for a place called Rae Creek.
(Parts of this are excerpts from my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin Sing available at amazon.com in Kindle, soon to be available in paperback.)