This week, I wanted to write something in response to seeing Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild on the big screen, brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. More than any other book I’ve read, this story has resonated so much with me that I can’t believe someone has lived it and told it. I first heard the author reading it out loud on the radio and I was transfixed by it. Who was this woman singing my life with her words?
In her twenties, Cheryl set off on a journey of self-destruction, sleeping around and taking heroin, until she didn’t recognise herself. She cheated on her loving husband. When her mother died suddenly at 45 of cancer, she divorced her husband and decided to become the woman she told her mother she would be. She began with a baptismal trek through the wilderness – a 1,1000-mile hike along the US’s Pacific Crest Trail.
Now I’ve never done heroin (or any other hard drug for that matter) but I know what it is to walk out on a husband who is a nice guy, a safe pair of hands, and step out into the unknown. Something compels you to go and much of that has to do with living a life that your mother hoped you would live, or the one you think she wanted for you. For women in particular, it is a baton that gets passed on from generation to generation, even if they never vocalise it during a lifetime. There is an understanding that somehow you will improve on the life of the woman that created you, and that it is your duty to do so.
There is a point in the movie when Cheryl snarkily tells her mother,“I’m just so much more sophisticated than you were at my age.” Her mother retorts that that was always the plan. We constantly see ourselves reflected back and forth between generations of women, and although I’ve never had the privilege of having a daughter of my own, I feel the same way about my friends’ daughters, or young women among my group of friends.
It is always the plan. I know my mother wanted more for me than she had had herself, professionally, romantically, economically and everything-ally. And I have spent my life trying to make that happen, especially since she died sixteen years ago.
For me, the grieving for her mother in the movie was the note that struck home. In a series of flashbacks, we see Cheryl’s vibrant, playful mother, played by Laura Dern, making a life for herself and her children away from an abusive husband. She is a woman who decides to go to college at the same time as her daughter (the college runs a special mother-daughter scheme), and who sees herself as a mother first and foremost, an independent woman second. She passes the baton to Cheryl, who puts herself through an independence right-of-passage, on the infamous PCT.
My mother was an exceptionally bright woman who couldn’t go to college because the Second World War got in the way. She entered into a very happy marriage with a man she loved, but I could always tell she wanted to see me get more out of life than just being a housewife with kids. When I finally tore myself away from the family home at twenty-two to go to college, she vicariously shared in my academic and subsequent professional success every step of the way. I always felt as though every A* grade or job offer was a gift for her and in many ways, I’m still offering her my personal achievements. I think she’d have liked this blog.
The grief for her passing hit me like a steam train. I’ll never forget how physical it was – I felt as though a boulder had been strapped to my chest. I suddenly realised the real meaning behind getting things ‘off your chest.’ It sat there, pressing down on me, unwilling to move. For days I found I didn’t cry – I just moved around in a fug, unable to really grasp what had happened. My sister and I threw ourselves into the paperwork and logistics of sorting out a funeral – I still think all that stuff is put there deliberately just to keep you busy.
I remember going into her local supermarket in Wales a few days later, just to pick up a few things. I suddenly had a flashback of her standing there, holding a basket with a few strange things in it. A tin of salmon, a carton of yoghurt. That’s when the grief got me.
Cheryl Strayed had her moment on top of a mountain, as she watched her walking boots bouncing away down the side of it during a rest stop. She was left to construct some shoes to walk to the next town in, out of duct tape and a pair of sandals. But she carried on.
And this will sound like a cliché, but someone once told me clichés are there because they’re true. We are all wearing our mother’s shoes but at some point we have to construct a new pair of our own to walk in.