Last night I had an epiphany. I write because I want to be heard. I know what you’re thinking, “Oh, wow. A writer who writes because she has something to say. Big whoop!” I knew this idea was there. I just didn’t realize how deeply rooted the notion was.
When I was five years old, my family, consisting of seven kids, two parents, and a Collie-mix, moved from a small, isolated town in eastern Utah to a suburb in Ogden.
I hadn’t realized we were moving. I don’t know why the cardboard boxes that must have been everywhere or the U-Haul truck following behind us filled to the rim with our stuff hadn’t clued me in. I believed we were going for one of my dad’s long drives to a historical mile marker somewhere along the highway.
Instead, we drove several hours to a neighborhood filled with 1950s track homes. Each house was identical to its neighbor, with orange brick, three bedrooms, and a carport off to the side.
What a sight we must have been! A U-Haul rumbling down the street piled high with boxes. Followed by a station wagon, piled high with seven children roughly the same size and age, each slightly smaller than the one before, like Russian Nesting Dolls.
In such a tiny house, we were busting at the seams! Here was the first time I felt we were being watched. Everywhere we went, all eyes were on us as if we were a carnival act or in a Fourth of July parade. People would stop whatever they were doing and stare, their lips wordlessly counting out how many of us there were. Our sheer size was always the topic of conversation.
We lived in that house for four weeks and moved to a house spatially fitting on Mount Ben Lomond’s foothills several miles north. Still, someone would meet the size of our family with a mixture of awe and terror.
“You’re another Ellis?” or “What number in the Ellis clan are you?” was asked of me often.
This was when dinner table discussions over manners began. “Because we are such a large family, wherever we go, everyone watches us, so we need to be on our best behavior,” my Mom told us every time we left the house together, and we tried to make our parents proud.
Having a large family proved stressful, both for my parents and for us kids. Any amount of noise, happiness, or upset was exaggerated by seven! Soon I felt swept up by my siblings, swallowed into one of many, becoming part of the big “we,” without room for an “I.”
I began to sing. I sang all the time. The kitchen sink, full of dinner dishes, became my sound stage. My limited experience, thoughts, and feelings became my inspiration, and I dabbled, making up words to various genres.
There was my operatic, “I’m Hungry,” which repeated those two words in an interpretive Italian accent and dramatic vibrato over and over again. It wasn’t that I was hungry all the time, but I must have been hungry once, and a song was born. There was also my clunky attempt at Country-Western. Incorporating my fear of the dark and wanting to make my Mom laugh came, “My Daughter’s a Chicken.”
My mother was my biggest fan. She would stop what she was doing and watch me perform. In those moments, I wasn’t one among the family flock. It was just me.
I became a performer, singing, dancing, and acting in local musicals, enthralled in the experience, in the practice of being something else, someone else, at least for a time. I learned to express myself, kind of.
However, in my late teens, I stopped singing. In yet another move to another suburb, I couldn’t compete with my skilled and trained peers. They had drama teachers! They had voice coaches! Dance instructors! They could read music and play the piano! They had a piano! Plus, I had become incredibly depressed. The expression angsty-teenager was me personified. I was Holden Caufield!
In my senior year of high school, I wrote a poem during my creative writing class. I described a treehouse that held all the childhood memories and recognized that I could never go back to that time. My teacher loved it and wrote it out on three chalkboards for class the next day.
He asked the class to guess who wrote it. Nobody assumed it was me. Nobody guessed that the words were mine. That’s when I started to write.
I had always written stories, mostly knockoffs of Walt Disney and his princesses, but to use writing as a way to express myself?
Then, suddenly, I was a middle-aged woman and an empty nester. And just as suddenly, I was invisible again. I felt like part of the scenery around me. I felt unheard all over again, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I still don’t know what to do about it. I suppose that’s why I’ve gotten obsessed with the subject of my Great-aunt Glenna—she was me personified!
Last night revealed that I sang because I didn’t feel seen. I wrote because I didn’t feel I was heard above all the noise. Now, I focus on Glenna because I don’t think she was either. I want to fix that, and if that isn’t an epiphany, I don’t know what is!