Sunday, April 26, 2015

Family History

The question, “Is there anything about your family that seems unusual to you?" stimulated this particular piece.

A number of difficult life events over the last five years have led me into psychotherapy and a profound reconfiguration of who I am, or perhaps awareness of who I have been.

One of the stunning bits of feedback I have received in this process is the statement by my therapist that, “I experienced the worst child abuse she has encountered in her twenty-five years of clinical practice.”  That shocked me.  I knew I was not happy...but not that I was the victim of traumatic parenting.  I was an only child.  I had the only childhood I knew.  There were no real standards of comparison for my experience to others.  I lived my life in my family and it was “as it was.”

My parents were the best people they knew to be…...and “goodness” was always their aspiration.

Their childhoods too were “as they were.”  My mother was born in 1920 into a troubled family of poor young Irish immigrants in Syracuse, New York.  Her Father, Joseph Kelly, abandoned her mother while my grandmother was carrying her.  When she was an infant her mother died in a fire.  My mother somehow survived, and was thus, orphaned.  She was taken in by various relatively distant family members 75 miles north in Watertown.  Apparently, from what I can glean, she was passed from relative to relative throughout the north country spending portions of her childhood on the other side of the St. Lawrence in Canada, and more in Watertown, New York finally settling out with her Aunt Liza.  Liza was not really her Aunt. She was a widow and a single mother with two children of her own: not at all a happy set of circumstances in the 1920’s and 30’s.  She was a nurse and opened a nursing home in a sprawling house built during the Civil War.  She also managed to own a grocery store no small entrepreneurial feat for a widow lady of her time.  Had Liza not  undertaken to parent my mom, she literally would have been on the street.  Liza died when my mom was 17.  I know her via my mother’s jumbled narrations…..little bits and pieces of her childhood.  It is very much a Dickensian tale which is a hybrid of Cinderella and Great Expectations.  Her childhood was one of hard work and ferocious Presbyterian Calvinism, punctuated by no-nonsense strict physical discipline.  She was fed, clothed, and schooled.  She lived in the attic, and always felt she never had anything that hadn’t first belonged to one of Liza’s “real kids”: that she never had a real mother or family.  As she aged into dementia, as she eventually did, whenever we celebrated her birthday she would always weep joyously, proclaiming “Finally! This is the first birthday cake I ever had.”  We’d had cakes  for her every year for at least two decades and my father always had them for her before that.  But her lyric of a second class childhood never relented throughout her life….even as her awareness diminished to only a faint glimmer as she moved into her 70’s and 80’s.  

Liza was not an easy woman.  She was alone, with her own children and with no other motivation than to do good, raised my mother.  Thank god for her.

It may have been long cold north country winters sleeping in her drafty attic, or her diet,or genetics, but by the age of 19 my mother had tuberculosis.  She moved into a  public institution of that time, a
TB sanitarium.  Quarantined there, she and her peers awaited death.  About 10% of those interred there survived…..she was one of those who came out the other side. She lived there two years.  Before “the san,” as she called it, she had gone out a few times with a young man two years older than her.  He was a classic “bad boy” of that era, and was himself an orphan, who had largely grown up on the street, self-parented, during the depression.  Paradoxically, he’d somehow managed to graduate high school with top honors in his class at the age of 16, despite his lack of adult guidance.

His childhood too was split between far northern, small town, and rural, New York and south eastern Ontario.  He had lived with his parents until the age of 12.  His mother was a stereotypical 1920’s flapper…..Peck’s bad girl… and his father a handsome man’s man.  Their family perpetrated the greatest heresy of their day.  They divorced in 1930 .  Neither of his parents had a place in their life for a 12 year old boy. He was on his own.  Child custody laws were not sophisticated.  Imagining the adventures and traumas of a 12 year old, very intelligent, guy bouncing from whatever home would take him in for a time, or living as best he could, on his own, in that day brings up images ranging from tales of David Copperfield to Huckleberry Finn.

My parents were married in the second year of World War II.  They had waited, my mother recovering from her TB experiences, and World War II raging.   My dad however worked in a war defense factory, which work earned him the rarest of all circumstances for a young able-bodied man: a draft deferment.  They married June 26 1943.  Certainly were he to be drafted it would have happened by then.  My Dad’s draft notice caught up to him July 2, 1943 in Kentucky as they were on their honeymoon.  July 10 he reported to Army Basic training at Fort Bragg.  In a short time he was in Italy.  He loved to quip that, reversing today’s trend, he and my mom were married two years, before they lived together.

That was my parent’s family values imprinting….their structural blueprint.  They both were determined that their children (there came to be only one) would never know the lack of structure, the lack of ownership, of an in-tact family.  They both imagined an idealized family life opposite what theirs had been.  They did everything they could to create that reality, despite the scars, nightmares, and rage they harbored from their own childhoods.

Reality fell far short of the bliss they had known would be theirs, if only they could create their family as they knew it could be.  They were married 61 years and in love for at least 25 or them.  They may not have been saints but they were never the monsters that their early lives might have caused them to be.

I have issues to live with from my past.  When I took my Masters Degree counseling psychology comprehensive exam, I was asked to write an essay in response to the statement, “Everyone is doing the best they can.”  I thought of my parents as I filled out my blue book.

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