Anyway! Meanwhile, my counselor has assigned me to explore some of the more painful memories of things regarding my father (and I’ll probably explore things about my mother too – sometimes they’re hard to separate) to try to work through the pain and just leave things in the past where they belong. So I’m going to do that . . . later. I’m just not quite up for it yet.
Instead, I’m going to do what I promised someone several months ago, and post a letter I wrote last summer to my parents. (A not-to-be-sent letter, mind you.) I’ve gone through it and changed names to be a little more generic, and maybe a few other details. And rather than calling them by the pet names I’ve always called them, I changed every direct address to “Mother” and “Father.” Even though that’s not what I actually call them. Other than that, it’s just as I wrote it originally.
Dear Mother and Father,
You’ve known me for nearly 25 years – over 25 years if you count in utero. You tell me many things about myself. But I wonder two things. First, I wonder if you realize how little you really know me. And second, I wonder how much you really know about yourselves. And those two thoughts are linked to create a third one: do you realize how much what you may not know about yourselves (or may not admit about yourselves) affects what you may not know about me?
I feel a little hypocritical talking about how little you know me and all, because quite honestly, I have very little desire to be closer to you. Father, I miss our late-night conversations, but I would have a hard time feeling close to you again after many things from the past, and even from the present. Most of which you probably don’t even realize or remember happened. Or maybe you do, deep inside, but I sincerely doubt you ever admit it to yourself. Please realize, this is not about forgiveness, it’s about trust. Mother, you I think I could trust more easily if only we could get past certain things, but I have a hard time believing that will happen. Not that it can’t, mind you. But it’s a personality thing—I’ve never really connected with you, and that on a personal level. A personal connection doesn’t develop just because problems are fixed.
And I guess that’s the first thing that you don’t know about me. You’ve always been so busy seeing me as the “good girl” that you never took time to really know my personality. Oh, sure, Father can analyze me: talks a lot, disorganized, artistic, a bit of a scatterbrain, yup, looks like a sanguine! But I’m not just a piece of biology to study and classify. I’m a person. And that involves a lot more than just categorizing me as a sanguine. There’s a lot more to me than that. In fact, of the 4 personality types, I’m almost an even split of three of them.
Whatever. Personality types aren’t really what I want to talk about, but they do pertain to what I’m trying to say here. But first you have to understand that I’m going to use the animal name version, not the one that Father always taught us, just because I know that version better. Choleric=Lion, Sanguine + Phlegmatic=Otter, Melancholy÷2=Golden Retriever and Beaver.
Now that that’s explained: I’m an otter/golden retriever/beaver mix. What you don’t realize, in your insistence on labeling me “Sanguine” all the time, is that I’m incredibly sensitive. Oh, you know I’m sensitive to some extent, at least. But you don’t know that what made you call me your “jewel” child, what made you think I was oh-so-perfect, was that I was so sensitive that I was afraid to hurt you. And I still am. I’m struggling just to write any of this because, even knowing that you’ll never read it (God forbid that a Harriet the Spy scenario should take place) I still hate feeling like I’m saying things that will hurt you. But the fact is, I’ve been hurt. And it’s a lot harder to get over a hurt that built up over a lifetime—one that I didn’t even realize was there until I was in high school—than it is to get over a hurt that happened all at once, or even over several years later in life.
Mother, you put so much pressure on me. Maybe because I was sensitive, you treated me like your own personal counselor, even when I was little—3 or 4. And I’ve seen you do the same thing to my nephew and it kills me. Why do you get SO upset about things and cry SO easily? Let me give you a hint: it’s not “just the way you are.” You need counseling, but not the sort a child can provide to her mother or, worse, to his grandmother. But you won’t admit it. Just let go of your pride and admit it! Because being 4 and feeling like I have to stay and let Mother cry and can’t go do what I want, when she’s ostensibly “comforting me” about something that I’m not upset about . . . or watching a 3-year-old hug his grandmother and try to make her feel better when, again, she’s ostensibly “comforting him” about something that he wasn’t that upset about while she’s bawling . . . that’s not right, Mother. Being 14 or 15 or however old I was and being told that I’m the “jewel” during a whole time of your pouring your heart out about things my older sisters were doing . . . again, it’s not right. Why do you think that you never knew that I was involved in Wicca? (And Father, I know you’re going to say, “I knew.” And you may be able to trace back and piece things together and even figure out when it was before I tell you. But you didn’t know, at least not for sure, and I don’t really feel like putting up with your feigned-superiority-in-order-to-feel-better-about-myself complex right now, so please don’t even go there.) You never knew, I never told you, because I didn’t want you to be hurt. I didn’t want to see you cry. I felt responsible for protecting you. I, your daughter, felt responsible for protecting you, my mother. It never occurred to me that you, the parent, should protect me. And what did you protect me from? Not much. I never felt like I could go to you with anything but the most basic problems. I never told you when I started my period, I never wanted your help shopping for a bra, I never felt like I could ask you questions about things, not because of the afore-mentioned lack of connection—at least not solely—but because I felt like I was supposed to protect you and support you and make you feel better. A counselor doesn’t go to the counselee for council, and I could never go to you.
Father, you were different. You I could talk to. Not about personal things—neither of you ever knew about my personal life, at least not any more than what I would be willing to tell the average person I happened to be sitting next to in public and happened to strike up a conversation with. But I could at least talk to you about intellectual things—science, history, theology, philosophy. But those were treasured moments. A child wants Father’s approval more than Mother’s. I don’t know why, but it’s true. There’s just something about the father figure. But almost every moment, I was afraid that the fuse would run out and you would blow. I tried so hard, and then gave up trying. Not once, dozens of times. This time it would be different, this time the house would be clean. Always better in the future, but always failing. Why? Well, certainly part of it was my own lack of willingness to do anything. I don’t like cleaning. Still don’t. But a major part of it was the blame. When I could spend the entire day cleaning and doing as much as I could, and instead of being thanked for my work, I had to listen to yelling about how little had been done, what was the point?
You always loved to say, “A place for everything and everything in everything else’s place.” But it was never true. Never in my life did we have a place for everything. Why? Because you insisted on having as much junk as possible. I mean, seriously, we weren’t allowed to throw away meat trays. We weren’t allowed to throw away empty pill bottles. And what’s worse, I still have a hard time with that!
Mother? She’s not a hoarder. She’s a yeller, but I’m not sure she was to begin with. And she’s a blamer, but again, I’m not sure she was to begin with. Maybe some, but not as much. But you? You get angry at everyone for everything. Who are you really angry at? Oh, I could psychobabble you all day, I could analyze and research and whatever. But the fact is, choices are still choices. Regardless of whether you’re really angry at yourself or God or your father for dying before you were born or your stepfather for being abusive or your mother for marrying him or the world in general . . . none of that matters. The fact is, you choose again and again to express that anger at your family, more than anyone else. Whether you really think you’re blameless in everything, or whether you really blame yourself for everything, you choose to express your blame at your family. Or circumstances beyond your control. Or wherever you can to make sure you’re not outwardly blaming yourself. And that anger, and that blaming, it hurts everyone. It hurts you, it hurts us. And I really think Mother’s hoarding tendencies (which are nothing compared with yours) and her yelling and her blaming are largely due to your telling her she couldn’t throw anything away, your yelling at her, your blaming her.
Mother, this doesn’t absolve you. Whether you would yell and blame anyway or whether it’s from Father, you’re not absolved from the responsibility of it any more than I am from the responsibility of taking care of my own home and of getting over things from the past. Just as neither of you are absolved from the responsibility of properly managing funds. Father, you blame Mother for reasons such as the following: “The church gave us a grocery store gift card for $50, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a really nice meal so I splurged.” Direct quote from her to me. Understandable why this would be upsetting. After all, managing that money (and any other money) more wisely would mean food in the house more regularly. (Planning regular meals rather than “let’s just buy whatever and eat it as we feel like it” could help tremendously with that too.) Mother, I’ve never heard you distinctly blame Father for the financial difficulties—I think it was largely from you that we, and Kat in particular, got the idea that there was no money simply because there were too many kids—but Father, most people blame you. People from your church (do you know how many people you haven’t fooled with your masks?), friends and parents of friends who know the family better than you realize, and I’m pretty sure all of my siblings do too. You’re the one who complains about having no space, then goes and buys more junk at the thrift store. You’re the one who insists on buying stupid little trinkets every Christmas that will just break later that day and serve no logical purpose. You’re the one who must have cable because, sob sob, poor you, you’re stuck at home and not able to go anywhere. And of course, it’s not like you’re capable of doing anything but watch TV all the time. That is, not unless it’s something you actually want to do.
I mentioned the masks. I hadn’t gotten to those yet. This letter is obviously very scattered and probably will never become better organized. Why bother? It’s for me, not for you. Anyway, the masks: people at church know who you are. People in the schools know who you are. Some of them knew even before I did. I was still trying to protect you when [a particular angel of a teacher] was trying to protect me. I was just realizing how much of a mask you wore and understanding why my sisters left the church—because they saw the masks earlier—when [a particular amizing lady at church] was trying to protect me. Why do you think you can make friends so easily, but not retain them so easily? Father, you especially. How many close friends do you really have? What happened to [one]? What happened to [another]? Where’d they go? They saw your mask, tried to help you, eventually got fed up with you enough to point-blank tell you that you needed to change, you got mad, and as far as you’re concerned, they left you. Well, I would too if I were in a circumstance like that. Yeah, [one]’s comment about “getting rid of that traveling pharmacy and getting a job,” that was unnecessary. I mean, the doctors put you on those meds. It’s not like you’re just a hypochondriac popping pills for no reason. Or like you’ve ever been put on placebos or anything. But what prompted it? He saw that you wear a mask in public and become someone else completely in private. The Bible calls that hypocrisy, and it’s not just an arbitrary term. Hypocrites were actors who wore literal masks. The only differences between you and them are that your mask is metaphorical and the public is your audience. And when people see that so much of your life is made of self-scripted lies, why should they trust you that any part of it is real?
Things run through my head. Father yelling at us for how selfish we were to complain about not having anything to eat in the house when he was stuck there all day and at least we got school lunches. Mother yelling, “If one person could put one thing away in this house just once, I’d be thrilled!” Untrue. You wouldn’t notice. That’s like saying you’d be thrilled if someone put two pieces of hay parallel in an entire haystack. Besides that, it was a can opener. Was it really worth getting that angry about not being able to find a can opener? Especially when there was about a one in five chance that you’re the one who hadn’t put it back.
Anyway. These, the other things I’ve mentioned, these are the go-to examples I hold in the forefront of my memory, the things that my brain automatically reverts to when I think of what it was like growing up with you. But the thing I mentioned with my nephew, having you get mad at my brother for taking care of his own house and family over going to help you with something, getting frustrated because no one is helping you with something you haven’t even asked for help with, yelling at my nephew instead of trying to actually help him when he’s way overwhelmed and confused, and most of all, the continued state of your house and finances . . . all of these just show that it’s not our fault. And they’re things that I don’t want my current or future children to be around. I don’t want them getting yelled at. Someone told me her family is similar and that after a visit with her family, her daughter asked, “Why does Grammy hate Aunt so-and-so?” because of the constant yelling. I don’t want that same question from my own children. I don’t want him in an unsanitary environment. And I certainly never want to hear you utter the words, “I don’t care what your mother says, I’m punishing you for thus-and-such anyway!” Especially when it’s a matter of not getting into things in your house that shouldn’t even be there—broken ornaments, I believe it was. I don’t want my son to feel like he has to comfort his grandmother, I don’t want him to feel like a mess that he didn’t make is his fault, I don’t want any of that for him. It’s so hard because, as I told my husband this past weekend, you’re the only family I come from. I don’t have a choice. I can “adopt” all the brothers and sisters and parents that I want to, I can love and enjoy my in-laws, and I can love and enjoy building my own family. But you’re still my parents, and I still love you. I can’t change either fact, and don’t actually want to. But it makes it so hard when I have to deal with wanting my son to know his grandparents and yet feeling like I can’t leave him alone with them. And like I have to limit his exposure even when I am there, because I don’t want him around all that negativity. I have no intention of trying to protect him from everything—how could I ever send him out into the world that way? And parents are supposed to teach kids and prepare them so they can face the world. They’re supposed to raise them so they can let them go. I don’t feel like you’ve let me go, but putting that aside, my point is that I want to train my son and any future siblings he may have to be able to face the world. Doing that does not involve keeping them from knowing that there are hard things. But does it mean that when he’s just an infant, a toddler, a preschooler, that I have to expose him to all the yelling and blaming that I dealt with? Even in short increments . . . it’s not like drinking a little poison, then a little more, to build up a tolerance. Anger is a poison for which no tolerance can be built. A callous, perhaps, but I do not find that a suitable alternative. And when dealing with a small child and his tender years, will I have to answer why their grandmother and grandfather don’t really hate each other, or explain that their grandmother wasn’t yelling because it was his fault but because she just does that sometimes, or explaining that when their grandfather shouted at their cousin, it wasn’t really their cousin’s fault and he’s not really a bad boy?
It’s just too much. It’s stressful enough feeling like I’m physically attached to you all and not allowed to go far or, worse, be out of contact for long. My in-laws miss us, but they let us have our own family. Not only are we constantly drawn back to you and not allowed to have our own family, but we’re drawn back to your yelling and your blaming. And now we have a child to consider too. This isn’t just me anymore, isn’t just my hurts anymore. And never was, really. I have siblings. Weren’t we worth enough to change? If the kids weren’t worth enough, are the grandkids? Or is your pride still more important than seeking the help that you two need—individually and together—and recognizing the ways in which you need to change?
Like I said, I have no desire to be friends, to be closer to you. Not that that means much, since you probably never realized that I didn’t consider us friends. But I do still love you and I always will.
In that love,