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A local author comes to grips, in a published memoir, with the trauma and violence her parents faced

ELIZABETH USSHER GROFF - In the narthex of All Saints Episcopal Church in the Woodstock neighborhood, the local resident known as C. Vargas McPherson holds her book - published to rave reviews in April of this year. When trauma and violence occur, sometimes memories are suppressed or tucked away, deep into the history of a country, or inside a family, and individual psyches. And so it was with the family of the Administrative Assistant of All Saints Episcopal Church, S.E. 40th and Woodstock Boulevard. Under her pen name of C. Vargas McPherson, "Inheriting our Names" – the name of her "imagined true memoir" – was published in April to rave reviews. It has been praised for its beautifully-depicted epic of family, war, and trans-generational grief. In lyrical prose, the book reveals family history that had been deeply buried in the past.

For Vargas McPherson – a nom de plume made by combining her mother's and father's last names (her mother from Spain; and her father. from Oklahoma and in the Air Force, stationed near Madrid) – the violence and trauma that affected her mother's family occurred in the 1930s, during Spain's Civil War. The traces of that trauma seeped into the crevices of family memories, but they never talked about it.

"As a child, I could see the veiled pain from some of our Spanish neighbors, and even within my family. But we did not speak of Franco, the war, or the 'hunger years' when 200,000 people starved to death. This pain and grief was just under the surface, but was never discussed.

"In the early 1980s I first learned about the Spanish Civil War in college English literature classes – reading Hemingway, Orwell, and Lorca. It was stunning that I had never heard of this hidden history."

She began to see and understand that the trauma her grandmother and mother had experienced during that war had been kept deeply hidden. She realized that for her mother, who had immigrated to the United States in search of medical care for her older sister, who is brain-damaged, it [her time in Spain] was "a very tender [and painful] subject.

"[My mother] never talked about her family, and in all honesty, I didn't know I had four uncles, an aunt, a grandfather, and loads of cousins in Seville, until I was eight years old."

In her adult life, Vargas McPherson began to search for answers to the grief she felt hanging over her family, and the void that did not explain anything. "When I started to learn the history – about the murdered, and disappeared; about what happened to my grandfather and my mother's older sister; about the hunger and the sickness – I began to understand my mother's white-knuckled silence, as well as her avoidance of family, culture, heritage, language, and country. Silence was actually legislated by Franco, so that none of the loss and injustice could ever be discussed." That greatly influenced Vargas McPherson's mother.

For fifteen years, while raising two children with her husband in Portland and working part-time, Vargas McPherson delved into Spanish Civil War history in her spare time.

Those years included reading many books on the subject, doing extensive research, and taking two trips to Spain – one by herself during Holy Week, and another with her family to introduce her children to their Spanish family. "That turned out to be a wonderful reunion."

She met people and learned facts that explained the reasons for the hidden memories of her grandmother and mother, and for her mother's silence.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - C. Vargas McPhersons mother in Sevilla, Spain, in the 1930s. Her three-year-old face reflects the deep and hidden pain and grief experienced by the family and other adults during the Spanish Civil War.Then she began writing a memoir: Filling it with imagined details for some blanks in the family history. She did most of the research and writing while her children were napping, or in school. She had taken creative writing classes as an undergraduate and graduate student, but her writing skills really flourished while taking writing workshops from the Attic Institute, a renowned "haven for writers" based at S.E. 42nd and Hawthorne Boulevard. She says, "I was lucky enough to take a memoir workshop with Cheryl Strayed, right before her brave and enormously successful book 'Wild' was released."

In the process of researching and writing the book, she learned a great deal about herself, in the context of the almost-forgotten family history.

She ultimately found hope within herself and family; and sorrow was replaced with a sense of personal salvation. Other individuals who probe their own family's history -- of the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, or other tragic family traumas – often go on a similar journey to understand family and self.

As with so many writers who might not have a publishing "connection", she finally settled on self-publication. On her website – www.vargasmcpherson.com – she shares, with eloquent and poignant honesty, her struggles with writing and publishing. By clicking on "reviews", you can read three short reviews of the book from Amazon.


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