There is an e. e. cummings’ poem that begins. ‘my father moved thru dooms of love’, it resonated deeply with me. I have written much of the gifts my father gave me, so it may seem odd that I choose Fathers’ Day to talk about his flaws. In his youth he had a volatile temper, he cheated on every wife he had and physically abused all but the 5th, the only one to be with him longer than my mother, his 2nd. He emotionally abandoned me for the first 9 years of my 2nd decade of life. But that was probably, in hindsight, a blessing. He had ‘issues’ with women and who knows what damage might have been done if the way he related to me had reflected that as I became a woman. During those years I got to know both sides of my family and came to understand more of the events that shaped both my parents.
I tried to write about this on Mothers’ Day but having had no real ‘closure’ with my mother the feelings are too raw still, though she’s been dead for 30 years. On July 17th it will 20 years since my Dad died. I can’t pinpoint the year in memory but at some time after each of them died I put photos of them as children on display in my home. Why--to remind myself that each of them was once a vulnerable child in a time when people rarely considered the effects of family dynamics and life events on children. My father was hospitalized for a couple of weeks at age 2, when a thrown stick injured his eye. The scar tissue that grew over would make him blind in that eye for many decades. My grandmother had to work, so could not be there all the time, and most adults did not think to explain things to kids in those days. He felt abandoned by her. It didn’t help that at around 7 or 8 years old he had a second lengthy hospitalization, this time from St. Vitus’s Dance a chorea (disorder of nervous system). This is how he looked then:
Whenever I find myself dwelling on his flaws, I look at that photo.
When I am struggling with my feelings regarding my mother I look at this one, she was 2 years maybe 3 at most:
I’m very visual person, so these photos do more than any words to remind me that my parents were people before they were parents-- small, vulnerable people. So were my grandparents, my abusive to her daughters maternal grandmother was married very young (16 at most) and then whisked away from her beloved Hungarian countryside to America, first to mining country, then to a city in New Jersey. The impression I got from many family members was that it was not a mutual love match. A youngest daughter, she was ‘married off’ to a man with a bright future that had fallen for her. Love is such a mystery, though perhaps she was not so hypercritical and undemonstrative then?
There was a time when all behavioral issues and mental problems were attributed to parents. But how far back do we push the blame? Each new generation is for a time at the mercy of the one(s) before it. When do we realize that if we are victims, we are victims of victims? As my daughter says: Knowing certain facts can help us understand people’s behaviors, explaining but not excusing them.
I worked hard to do better by my children. I hope I succeeded. They know the stories from both sides, the heartbreaking and the funny ones. Me, I periodically blow a kiss in the direction of each of the photos above and remind myself: That was then; this is now. Being as aware as I am of all the influences on me—I am responsible for who I am and what I do.