04 October 2007

The Ghosts of Familial Past

A dear friend is heading to his hometown this weekend to face his relatives at a funeral. Knowing what he will be facing in the jungle of his birth family, has made me think about my own birth family today. It's funny how family can have so much power over us, even once we are grown and need them so little. How the ties that bind us are forged in sorrow and guilt more often than in love or joy.

I don't know all the particulars of your birth family or its attendant crazies, but I know how bizarre mine is. I have one randomly employed redneck brother and his twin sister, a multiple times divorcee who lives to shop at Saks; one libertarian entrepreneur brother and his twin sister, a graphic artist with a conservative corporate-type husband; then there's my father who is a bigoted homophobic hard-line Republican, but who now incapacitated and fairly senile; and let's not forget my manically depressed drama-queen mother who thinks she is Peter Pan and doesn't want to grow up. Anyone who met all of us separately would conclude that we could not possibly be related. In fact, I'm still wondering how I got here. How did this family spawn me: a "rabid feminist liberal hippie bitch"? (That is just one of my dad's nicer descriptions for me . . . no kidding.)

When I was growing up my mother kept telling me how lucky we were, what a great family this was, and how happy we were. I think she was really doing all she could to convince herself. The wierd thing is I believed it as a kid. But then as kids we live in fantasy land, we make our own realities. And since most my childhood was spent with my nose in a book (any book, all the books I could find) I was happy. Fairytales were my favorites. You know those stories where the royal coach shows up to take the cinderella-child away, because she's really the princess? I was certain through most of my childhood that any day now the royal messenger would knock on the front door and take me home to the castle where I really belonged. I was sure these weren't my real parents, I was taken away from some castle in rural Ruritania and abandoned by the evil vizier or abducted and carried off by gypsies. My real family would find me, I was sure of it.

Funny thing is I don't think my parents were particularly abusive or anything to us kids. Oh, my dad had a belt we all feared and my mom wielded a mean hairbrush, so discipline in my family was corporal. But on the other hand I don't remember bruises, and to be honest most kids in my generation expected to be "spanked"--it was the traditional child-rearing tool. What I did hate was the fighting between my mom and dad. We kids were pretty certain that sooner or later one of them would do major damage to the other. Though that never happened, my parents, now well into their eighties still regularly threaten to kill each other. It may be only some warped kind of dramatic affection, but it scared the hell out of us kids.

Dad was an amorphous figure who was most always "on the road." When he was home, he was generally asleep in an easy chair front of some ball game on the TV, usually with beer in hand, and god forbid anyone changed the channel. The man could be snoring like a buzz saw, but would wake at any sound of channel clicking to smack the one responsible and insist he had been watching that show (even with his eyes closed). Mom, a medical secretary, worked very full days, leaving before we went to school and, though she returned home before us, was generally asleep on the couch when we came in and would stay there drifting in and out of sleep until we woke her for dinner. Odd, but most of my memories of my childhood involve one or both of my parents being asleep a lot. Granted they worked hard, or at least they regularly told me that they did. In fact a good chunk of my childhood was spent feeling guilty (having been told repeatedly) about how hard my parents had to work to feed and clothe the five of us and that no amount of chore doing could ever make up for what they had to spend on me.

Bedtime for us kids was always 8 pm, even in the summer, even when the sun was still out. For me that was no hardship, I read books. My youngest siblings would come crawl in bed with me and I'd read to them, or if the parents insisted on lights out I'd make up stories for them--usually with them in the starring roles. We spent a lot of time in make-believe as kids. Sometimes though, the noises from downstairs woke us all out of both sleep and our make-believe worlds.

Sometimes I still have nightmares about all the knock-down, drag-out, plate-throwing, screaming matches my parents had whenever my dad was actually home. When the noise started, we kids would creep down to sit on the stair landing just out of sight and listen to the fight and the name calling. As if by being there, witnesses, we could mitigate the violence. I learned to cuss early on from the things my parents said to each other. For me it was like watching a train wreck--you couldn't stand to look and you couldn't stand to look away. For each of my siblings it was different, I think. I clearly remember holding my youngest sister, on my lap while she cried--always softly so they wouldn't hear us--and telling her that it would be okay, that mom and dad were just playing. As the baby she was the sensitive one, and I always thought of her as mine to protect. She took it hardest when they fought. She always felt every pain anyone else felt. She was only 3 or 4 (that would make me 8 or 9) when we moved to the south side of town, where I remember the fighting really beginning. Or maybe I was just old enough notice by then. Dad was home more in those years, traveling a more local route rather than being out of town so much. The others had their own ways of dealing. One brother was the family clown, always redirecting anger with slapstick humor. My middle brother retreated and denied, middle sister pouted and demanded attention. I just lived in a fog built of books and stories.

As families go mine is by no means the worst. Emotional chaos yes, but there are lots of kids who are physically and sexually abused by their families. Yesterday in the news there was a story about a local woman who, having been abused by the father of her children, drowned her 2 daughters and sent a letter to their father that said the girls were at peace and couldn't be hurt anymore. By a standard like that my childhood was a walk in a park.

The funny thing about families is that no matter how wierd, no matter how dysfunctional, no matter what emotional or physical pain we endure--most of us survive. Sometimes we survive to become the people we are, even the decent parents that we are, despite our childhoods. Every parent sets an example for their child, even if it is a negative one. So now, as I think about the grandchild I have and the one soon to be born, I can't help but think that the really neat people my grown children have become and the really cool parents they are and will be, is in part due to me, and in part due to my dad. A dad with whom I have a strange love/hate relationship, but from whom I think I learned some valuable lessons. . . primarily on how not to treat your kids. In the fire the steel is tempered.

1 comment:

G said...

I guess I'm late in reading your blog as this one was over a month ago, but I enjoy reading of your childhood in detail I never thought.

I believe you are right that we learn from our parents, but I add that if we spent more time as children communicating with parents we could learn both from thier actions as well as from the thought process they have developed through their experiences.

I believe my family is close... we play and laugh a lot but I wonder if we listen to eachother and actually hear what is said. I would love to take time and chat through childhood with my mother and father. I would love to hear about the dreams lost among the memories and the fairytales that may have faded with age.