Talk about dichotomy. Recent events have underscored it in ways that could not be more pronounced. First, the con:
I’ve been talking with a cousin about my mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s, the death of her parents (her father was Mom’s brother), our shared history. A random comment from me spurred by an old black and white photo of our mothers together — “Mom grew up believing she was unattractive” — brought an instantaneous response from Becky: “I knew it had to come from Grammie. She was a hard person.” Beck went on to tell me about the reality of her growing up — the mean remarks and combative stance of her insecure father. I can sympathize. Although my mother was not combative (at least not with me), she could be incredibly hurtful. Remarks like “I should have had sons instead of daughters,” “The only good thing about being pregnant is not having your period,” and “You’d have a perfect shape if it weren’t for your boobs,” give you an idea of what I (and my sisters) endured.
I’m not crying “Poor, poor, pitiful me” and expecting sympathy. I’m only using those examples to make a point. I’ve come to pretty decent terms with the past (acknowledging that it still can occasionally rise up and bite me on the ass when I least expect it). My great-grandmother was, by all accounts, an absolute bitch. She treated my grandmother abysmally; she locked her granddaughter (my Mom) in closets and basements and likewise abused my mother’s siblings. One would think (one would hope) that behavior of that sort would not be transmitted to the next generation; that they would have self-awareness enough to change things. But that wasn’t the case.
Grammie imparted to her children (some of them, at least; I haven’t spoken to everyone) the same lack of confidence she no doubt carried. Mom remembers the boys being treated far better than the girls, but the abuse must have been wide-spread, for her two older brothers were likewise affected. Brash, gruff men who could be downright MEAN when it suited them. Two older sisters — one as hard as nails, the other a quivering bundles of nerves. Can’t speak for the youngest brother — he’s a quiet man who keeps his thoughts to himself.
But again, the next generation did nothing to change things. I’ve witnessed some of the “rough edges” displayed by my uncles and have since learned more particulars that make one cringe. I knew what it was to grow up in a household with a non-involved father (himself a child of emotional abuse; again the cycle continues) and a mother who played “kiss me, kick me” and displayed a dab hand at guilt-laying. I knew what it was to grow up wondering what was wrong with me that no one loved me.
And yet….I cannot say that Mom was an evil person. Not even a bad person. She was wounded, that’s all, and unable (or unwilling) to heal herself. Maybe, since that interior life was all she’d known, she saw no reason for change. That was just the way things were. Maybe she didn’t even recognize that things were wrong. In many ways, she is still the wounded child, hurt by her mother. The walls that kept that child contained have begun to come down with the onset of her illness, and it’s only now that I see how damaged she is. How can I fault her for that? How can I blame her? Lord knows my behavior is not always so exemplary that I have a right to point a finger.
Last week, I spent a lovely three days in Michigan was some good friends, the wife-half of which is my twin sister of different mothers. Got to meet Pam’s family for the first time. They’re not perfect — no family is — but the amount of love they display for one another was awe-inspiring (and tear-inducing). There are three little ones now — Pam’s great-nieces and nephew — and those children are growing up in an atmosphere of love and support. All under the age of six, they KNOW they are loved by everyone around them and they are supremely confident because of it. They know no enemies; everyone is a potential friend. They are clear-eyed and matter-of-fact. They look you straight in the eye when they speak. They are creative and joyful, and I pray they hang onto those gifts into adulthood.
But it underscores a potent truth — we are thoughtless creatures. Have a care what you say to a child. You may think you are teasing, but a child won’t know that and all it takes is one remark to begin the damage. We are not perfect parents, not any of us. We make mistakes. I’ve done and said some pretty rotten things to my step-kids. I’m no saint. But I’ve apologized. Have the nerve to do likewise. You might not be forgiven, but you just might. If nothing else, you’ll show a child that adults make mistakes, too, and can admit it rather than hide behind pride or fear. Work hard to undo the damage and be attentive to the waters ahead of you, wary of those hidden rocks.
And love. Openly, freely, without reservation or qualm. Hug those who matter. Say “I love you” aloud — don’t assume someone knows it. Even if you KNOW they know it — say it anyway, and often. Make a difference. Change the course.