"More than anything, I want to understand," writes Linda Wisniewski toward the beginning of her memoir. She does and she shares it.
Growing up in the Polish neighborhood of factory town Amsterdam, NY, little Linda Ciulik knew things weren't right. Most dads didn't yell all the time, terrifying and verbally abusing their families. Mothers didn't cringe and criticize; other mothers thought their daughters could grow up to do wondrous things on their own. Teachers found the good in a child; teachers didn't always search for the weaknesses and then spread the word. And other girls had straight backs. Everything seemed off-kilter.
This was Linda's Ciulik's life as a child. It is not Linda Wisniewski's life today. Her back may still curve, but when she stands in front of the mirror she looks straight into the eyes of the woman who gazes back at her. What's more, Wisniewski knows how to talk straight and write straight.
This book is a memoir—and more. Wisniewski weaves a fascinating account of the ordinary events of childhood: going to church, going to school, having the family over—ordinary events filled with meaning. It is an accurate picture, not only of a family and a town but also of the times. To this member of her cohort, it brought many memories of a childhood on the dusty, windy plains of Texas. "Yes!" I wrote in the margins more than once. (Remember canned fruit cocktail?)
During Wisniewski's teen years, the family doctor recognized scoliosis in a routine exam. A round of medical tests, examinations, and X-rays followed, changing her life. Today, Wisniewski's back remains C-shaped. She sees her scoliosis as not merely physical fact of her life, but as a metaphor of her off-kilter childhood. Yet this is no simple childhood reminisce. Wisniewski moves on, quoting the Buddha, "Do not dwell in the past; do not dream of the future; concentrate on the present moment." She brings us from the unhappy, frightened and hurting child to the full woman she is today, skillfully joining the childhood years with her adult journey to now.
She says her "stifled emotions would someday eat me from within." She did not allow herself to be consumed, and she shares how she did it. "Writing out my pain had lessened it. I had found a way to heal when I found my voice." She cried when she first began to write her memories and her feelings, at first in letters to her mother, later in writing groups and workshops. "Each time I vented my anger, I cried less, until one day I read my words and did not cry at all."
Here she brings us an account of many people, especially her family, most especially the mother and grandmothers who shaped her life. But she insists that "This is not their story. It is mine, told from my perspective, because it's all I know."
Good for Wisniewski! And good for us all that she has shared both her story and her commitment to truth. This is a fine book. I recommend it to all; its appeal is not merely to women of Wisniewski's age, but to everyone. In fact I'm going to do more than recommend it. I'm going to buy two more. One is for my older sister, the other for my daughter—23 years my junior. I know they'll both love it.
One final note, Wisniewski displays a real talent for choosing appropriate chapter epigraph. I particularly relate to the one for Chapter 7 from Iris Murdoch. "One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small pleasures." This book certainly is one.
Linda Wisniewski knows how to keep herself busy. She writes for a newspaper, teaches memoir workshops, is an active volunteer with the Story Circle Network and a substitute librarian. At home, she shares her life with her husband and teenage son. You can visit her website.
(See another review of this book, here)
Check out our interview with the author of Off Kilter.
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