Updated: Jun 5
My family changed our last name because we have done and are doing the work of breaking inter-generational patterns of trauma; because we are living into our authenticity and integrity; because we are honoring a family legacy of joy, welcoming hearts, and unconditional love.
Without really knowing it, family became one of the most important facets of my life.
Strother is pronounced with a short 'o' sound, as in "bother" or "top" (not the short 'u' sound as in "up")
Growing up, I spent many days and nights running around my grandparents' land in Shepherd, TX. They had 40 acres and a couple horses. My Memaw had a green thumb like no other—she'd toss seeds out her back door and turn up with produce. When I was little they had chickens and a couple dogs, Truffle and Bluebell, the latter named after the Texas ice cream she kept in her deep freezer for her grandkids.
My Pepaw, he had a sense of humor like none other. He was always cutting up, playing pranks, and telling jokes. Despite having pretty severe arthritis and the typical health problems that plague old age, he always kept us laughing, he kept singing "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog," he kept feeding the horses. He rarely had a short temper, even when he started forgetting more and more. I remember sitting across the table from him when I was 13 or 14. The rest of the family had gone outside. I remember thinking I didn't care how many times he asked me the same question over and over, I just wanted to sit there loving him for as much time as he had left.
When I was 15, he was hospitalized again. I had my driving permit and told him I'd take him racing in my red Ford pickup when he got out. Instead, I drove that pickup the familiar route to Shepherd to help my Memaw pack up their house after he passed away that December.
He's been gone 15 years now, but I think I miss him more rather than less each year. Thanks to my Memaw's post-Great-Depression mind, I've got all those water color pictures and the letters we wrote saved in old cereal boxes. We'd sat endless times at that table with the watercolor paint set, painting pictures of wooden fences and fields and horses and us and our family. I miss all the walks we'd take to the barn, the smell of horse feed, riding in his old truck with the beaded seat covers. I miss how he'd laugh at every little thing. I miss the things that were never possible—him meeting my husband, seeing his joy over all his great-grand-babies.
Playful loving joy. My Memaw possessed these qualities as well, with a mixture of vigilant worry and hilarious candor. She loved taking care of horses, gardening, dancing to country music with my Pepaw, and spending time outside. In her later years, she continued to spend as much time as she could outside if she wasn’t with her family. She was known for many things: constantly wiping down her counters and milk cartons, endearing and sometimes perplexing frugality. More than anything, though, my Memaw was known for how much she loved her family.
My father was an alcoholic. Abusive with his words, terrorizing with his anger, and conditional with his approval. My diaries and journals from my 8-11 year old self read things like, "I wish my parents would get divorced," and "dad makes me wish I'd never been born," and "I don't understand why I'm not good enough for him." Because of his financial success and my mother's relationship with him, he was what they call in the therapy world a "high functioning alcoholic," meaning no one really knew; he could get away with it. People he worked with knew he could be hard to get along with, and they'd buy him Scotch for Christmas, but that was it. I was given strict orders from a very young age not to tell my friends or teachers when there'd been a fight at home.
I tried telling my mom once that I was scared of my dad. She replied that one time, her dad (my Pepaw) had scared her too. She told me a story of how once when she was scared at night, she called for her mom, but her dad came instead and she didn't recognize his voice at first. At the time, I didn't know how to articulate the difference and the feeling of not being understood, but now I do. There's a difference between being startled by someone we love and trust and living in fear of someone who we are supposed to love and trust, but can't.
I wanted to love my dad. I wanted to be loved by him. We shared some good things—he told me stories from his childhood, took us camping, and gave me a love for Neil Diamond. Other than that, most of what my dad modeled for me was what not to do. I've spent years in therapy because of him, and became a therapist because I liked therapy so much. It's hard for me, in a bittersweet way, when I've worked with people who are recovered alcoholics. "Thank God," I think, "it is possible to recover. It is possible to make amends. It is possible to be whole." Because my dad never did, he never was. He died blaming everyone but himself. Thank God I was in therapy when he passed away, because it took me years to grieve such a complicated relationship.
I can say this from a place of peace, love, and forgiveness in my relationship with my dad: I deeply feel that him leaving me was the most merciful thing he could have done for me. Being in a relationship with someone like that is exhausting. Everyday, someone who was supposed to be a source of secure attachment and love demeaned me, bullied me, belittled me, dismissed me, told me not to cry and made fun of me for wanting to call my mom, then became explosively angry when I said, "You don't even love me." It was hard to find the truth under all that waste, scrape it off every day, forgive him, and know I'd be walking right back into it.
And that was just the way it was with his side of the family. A lot of the stories he told me from his childhood involved lies, betrayal, and deceit. The kind of "war stories" Brené Brown cautions against regaling with a sense of sentimental nostalgia. I had to do a genogram in grad school, and he summarized the whole Grimes side by saying, "We were all always drunk." Oh, and there was a murder, too. Last I heard, one of my uncles proudly had the gun in his possession before he passed away.
I can't say all this, though, without saying, thank God for my sister—Cyndy. She's my half-sister from my dad's first marriage to Helen. Cyndy is 23 years older than me, and growing up she was like some mixture of a mom-sister-cool-aunt kind of person to me. As I got older, she was always there to pep-talk me through the tumult with my dad. Because he was her dad, too, she got it. She had her own stories, but a lot of times she'd just tell me with a tone in her voice that I understood in my bones, "Desirée, he used to be so much worse."
"I was lucky," she told me once, "my parents got divorced." In a way, that divorce exemplified how our family functioned as a family. From everything everyone ever told me, and from experiencing it myself, Helen and my mom always got along. At family get togethers, Helen was there, she was like another aunt to me. I went with my sister often to visit her Grandma Maggie. I was only 8 when Helen passed away suddenly, but I remember feeling wildly defensive and protective of my sister—as in, don't mess with her, she just lost her mom, and I lost my Helen. The words "my sister's mom" don't really convey the felt sense of her in my life; they don't make words for these kinds of special people who are in your family in an un-traditional way.
I know, from my mother's perspective, she has similar feelings towards Cyndy. "I can never replace your mom," she tells her in hard times, "but I'm here for whatever you need me to be."
My Memaw and Pepaw's legacy is one they lived joyfully while they were here and left to us healthy and thriving. My Memaw, Betty, met my Pepaw, Don Strother in Mexia when she was fourteen. The first time she remembered seeing him, he was helping deliver a cabinet to their house, and, she recalled, “He winked at me!” He gave her an engagement ring shortly thereafter.
When she was fifteen, her mother let her quit school and move to Houston where she worked as a waitress at Inter-Urban Pharmacy. Later, she moved to Dallas and worked at La Mode Ladies Ready to Wear Shop until she was seventeen. Betty and Don were married on December 1, 1945 in Mexia, TX. In 1948, they moved to Pasadena, TX, and in 1952 celebrated the birth of their son Wayne followed by the birth of their daughter Barbara (my mom) in 1955.
Both my mom and Uncle Wayne have tons of stories from growing up "at the house on Mulberry." How my memaw never worried about the yard, because she wanted the kids to be able to play baseball out front. How my Pepaw would come home from the corner store with candy in his shirt pocket for my mom to find when he'd scoop her up. The horse riding, the family trips, going to the farm at grandma's (my Pepaw's mom). Both my mom and uncle are still friends with their childhood best friends.
My Uncle Wayne has three kids from his first marriage, and they're all now married with their own growing families, and he's been married to my aunt Mickye since I was 6. I can't speak for them, but what I've witnessed and what I've heard them say is more of the same—no matter how you get here, in our family, there's just family. There's their mother and her parents, my aunt Mickye and her mother—all family. We check on each other and on each other's people. As many of us that can, we've piled into my sister's house for the holidays every year with her, her husband and his family, and my niece.
In 2017, my Memaw had moved in with my mom. She had breast cancer and was about 87 years old. She was still lively in spirit and sharp as a tack. One of my cousin's husband is in the Navy and between deployments she and her family were able to come see us in Texas. Before they sold my Memaw's house, we gathered in there. It was empty of furniture so we sat up folding tables and camping chairs. We had a potluck of vegetarian chili, mac and cheese, cheeseburgers from What-A-Burger, cupcakes. I was 12 weeks pregnant and got to tell my whole family there when we were all together. My cousin's kids were running around and playing loud, just like they should. I remember standing in the kitchen there, it felt like slow motion. It was like watching a home movie while it's being made. The noise and the food and the showing up. It was like heaven; it was all love.
Before I got married, I considered not letting my dad walk me down the aisle. I knew for certain that my mother would. She is the one who raised me, the one who loved me. She deserved to be the one to walk that journey with me—that journey of joining in family. The journey of covenanting, the journey of saying to that whole big mess of love, "Look, I've brought in some more love."
When I was younger, I was very protective of my mother against my father. I couldn't understand why she ever married him in the first place, much less why she stayed, why she put up with it, why she didn't stand up to him for herself or for me. None of that changed the fact that she and I loved each other, not only with an unconditional mother's love, or the special bond between a mother and her daughter, but also with the love of a trauma bond. That last part got me debilitatingly homesick while I was in college. That's when I realized I had to do the work of un-enmeshing myself with her. If I really wanted to love my mother, I had to stop being responsible for her emotions, I had to stop lecturing my dad every time he was awful to her, I had to accept that her choices were her choices. I had to see her and myself for who we truly were and not who we were together surviving my father.
One day before I got married, my dad asked me why I didn't talk to him much. I, maybe for the first time, was calmly able to tell him all the things he'd done to hurt me and that he'd never apologized or even acknowledged what he'd done. "I don't think I have anything to apologize for," he said. I nodded and said, "I know you don't. And this is our relationship." At that moment is when I decided that just as it was symbolic for me for my mother to walk me down the aisle, it would be symbolic, but in a different way, for my dad to walk the aisle as well. It was a symbolic releasing myself from him and forcing him to let me go. I danced our father daughter dance, to forgive him. When he danced with my sister at her wedding, he told her, "I'll never get to do this with Desirée." Why he chose my sister's wedding to express that existential concern to her always infuriated me and tells you exactly who he was. He wanted to show up, but he never knew how and he left hurt in his wake. I danced with him to John Meyer's Daughters. I cried the whole time, and he said, "It's okay," because I think he knew. He passed away three months after my wedding. When I heard the song playing in the hospital gift shop, I knew he wasn't going to live.
I danced with my mother, too. We danced to The Best Day by Taylor Swift. My dad was smart, my mom is the prettiest lady in the whole wide world, and that paint set in the kitchen—well, that was my Pepaw's. And my mom comes from that legacy, that Strother legacy of love and joy and playfulness and wholeness, the legacy of family, the whole family, all of them, even if there's not a word for them. Even with all the heartache that can come from growth, and even when she hasn't understood it, my mom has always stood by me growing. Quietly, steadily, unconditionally, lovingly.
So it made sense, that when the time came for us to grow—to change our name to the right name, the family name, and the name that means family—we asked her blessing.
When it came to getting married, I knew absolutely that I did not want to keep my given last name, Grimes. I wanted to appreciate the history that came from my father's side of the family, and move on. And I deeply wanted to say to him and to myself at that time in my life, "I am separated from you."
The name Richardson was special to me only because it was Andrew's, and that's where it stopped. I want to be careful here, because there are many stories that are not mine to tell. When you get married, though, their stories intertwine with your stories and new stories are made.
Andrew came from a family where abuse was present, in many ways and from all sides. Because of that, he'd never really liked having his father's last name. He'd thought about taking his mother's maiden name from time to time, but also found that ill-fitting due to the circumstances of their relationship and family history.
As for me, both my mom and dad always talked about what a great relationship they both had with their respective in-laws. Because of that, because of growing up in a family where there weren't really step-relationships or in-law relationships, a family where even though we’re a bit all over the place, we're all just family—I had always hoped of having a close, loving, fun, and uniquely-ours relationship with my in-laws and envisioned huge family get-togethers with both mine and my husband’s families present, now an even bigger family. But over the years, it became apparent to Andrew and me that that just wasn’t going to happen.
After our daughter was born, the existential thing that happens for all of us, happened for us—when you have a child, your life cycles back before you. You see your patterns bubble up, you see your psyche reflected back to you, and you relive trauma when your child reaches the age you were when your trauma happened. If you're not open and aware, the patterns just keep going across the generations. If you've got your eyes open wide, your heart open and ready for the experience, it's an amazing way to grow into something better, to break an old cycle, to heal old hurts, to renew or release a relationship. Even if you've got your eyes open wide, your heart open and ready for the experience, it will blindside you.
The cycle of abuse and manipulation began again, and in that postpartum rawness, like a mother wolf pacing back and forth outside her den, I said no. I said I would not let it in my home, and I would not let it in my daughter's life. When you've got that history, there's a lot that goes unsaid out of fear for safety, out of desire for love and acceptance, out of the exhausted belief it wouldn't make a difference anyway. As a therapist who could see the forest, as a wife fighting for what my husband couldn't see, as a new mother holding the shape of my daughter's life in my hands, as a woman fiercely rejected by a person I'd done no harm other than entering her son's life, and as a Strother-Grimes family member who wasn't letting jealous, scorn-filled words about that family pass the threshold of this wild love—I said enough. I said deal with this. I said all the things that had gone unsaid, and I helped Andrew say his, too. From a place of complete peace, we released that relationship.
Identity formation is one of the major life tasks we undertake. We usually start in adolescence, and a healthy identity is one that is cohesive and flexible to new growth. Before our daughter was born, I wrote to her and about her often. I wrote for her:
I think of all the work I've done and the work Andrew and I have done together and the way this starting place can't be perfect, but we ask God to bless it anyway and offer it humbly and proudly. A foundation we know all the pieces of. We built it, explored it, threw things out, burned up parts, and put our hands in the mess to make this beauty.
And that is true. That's the life we've built together, the intention we have for ourselves, and the integrity we hold ourselves to. We've put our hands into some God-awful mess to break patterns, to choose love, to go a brighter way, and come out more whole than we knew we could be.
True to their name, my family has always loved and welcomed Andrew wholly, enthusiastically, joyfully, playfully, from the beginning. Just like a snake can't grow without shedding old skin, it doesn't make sense anymore for us to have the name Richardson. And where else would we go but home? Home to the family that has always been the sweetest love—Strother.