I met Terry Helwig when she brought her amazing Thread Project to The Fetzer Institute several years ago. I could tell then that her passion for peace comes from a deep place. Lanie Tankard’s review of Helwig’s new memoir confirms the resilient transformation that made her mature contribution to peacemaking possible.
by Terry Helwig
Foreword by Sue Monk Kidd
New York: Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, October 2011 (304 pp.).
Available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats.
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
—Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
You know you’re in for a bumpy ride from the very first sentence of Terry Helwig’s new book, Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter’s Memoir. When an author can’t even locate her mother’s grave because she doesn’t know her last name, the reader’s senses go on alert. Helwig’s mother had married so many times, her daughter lost track of which appellation she was using when she died.
Helwig became a mother herself way too early as a child, long before she ever gave birth to her own daughter as an adult. She spent her formative years taking care of five younger sisters, one of whom was actually a cousin.
Helwig presents her mother, Carola Jean, as a wild rose who married at fourteen — lying about her age to become the wife of a twenty-two-year-old tenant farmer. Helwig was born eleven months later.
Carola Jean knew nothing about how to run a household. By the time Helwig was eighteen, her mother had been married to three different men (one several times) and befriended many others. “Going to Timbuktu” became her mother’s euphemism for carousing in bars.
There is child abandonment and abuse, alcohol and drugs, attempted suicide, a stint in a mental hospital, and finally an overdose on the part of Carola Jean — and yet through it all, Helwig shepherds her siblings to happy adulthoods. Their current close-knit bond began when “we forged an indestructible ring of sisterhood that helped keep all of us afloat.” In fact, Helwig drew upon their collective memories when she wrote this memoir.
During her childhood, she employs varying methods to make it through the tough times. One day, she plays the Car-Counting Game while wondering if her mother will ever come to pick her up. Another day, she tells herself, “I’ll be so glad when I forget this.”
The memoir is reminiscent of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, with less powerful prose. Details are sketchy at times. The book ends somewhat abruptly, with a large chunk of Helwig’s life omitted before the Epilogue. Still, the story presented is testimony to the triumph of the human spirit.
Two people can experience very similar hardships in childhood, yet evolve into very different adults. How does one person use those terrible memories to strengthen the soul while another watches the very life force ground away by them?
Memoir has a way of getting at the heart of this question through the sharing of tales in what ultimately becomes a collective storehouse of insights. The act of placing those painful memories on paper is cathartic for a writer. And Helwig has reached a position of objectivity regarding Carola Jean — assessing the full spectrum of her personality traits, bad as well as good. Still, the various fathers in the book seem to have many more redeeming qualities.
For readers, knowledge of other lives can certainly help us view our own in comparison, and learn coping strategies.
Sue Monk Kidd, in her foreword to Moonlight on Linoleum, uses the word redemption to describe the story told within. That’s a fitting way to characterize someone like Terry Helwig. Her itinerant family barely stays in a town long enough for the girls to finish out a grade level. Over the span of eleven years, Helwig attended twelve different schools. Thus, as a child, she didn’t identify with “one particular school, group of friends, town, or state.” Instead of becoming bitter, however, Helwig associated herself “with something larger, more inclusive, the sum of many parts — like humanity….”
Growing up in this nomadic and unpredictable family, Helwig found her own compass points. “My familiar landmarks had become, by necessity, overarching — the stars, sunsets, and moonrises. These were my constants. I knew the earth as a mountain, field, canyon, desert, and sea. My roots weren’t anchored to a particular neighborhood, yet they sunk deep into the earth….”
Helwig eventually rose above her childhood to become a counselor and create The Thread Project: “Some say our world is hanging by a thread. I say — a thread is all we need,” she states.
I’d call that resilience, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
Terry Helwig definitely bounced, and her reverberations are global.