Saturday, October 12, 2013

Discovering the Roots of Dysfunction...and Forgiving

Since recently having the amazing opportunity to reconnect with my aunt, whom I hadn't seen since I was in elementary school, I've been able to score some great old family pictures, hear stories about members of my family that I never knew, and gain important insight into how my nuclear family ticked.

My father always talked about the first time he laid eyes on my mother.  He was 18 and she was a very mature 14.  He said that the moment he saw her, he knew she was the one.  My mother's best friend happened to be the sister of my father's best friend, and that's how they met.  Dad had just graduated from high school, and Mom had just graduated from elementary school.  (They don't look too happy in this picture, do they?)

This blogger's parents, cir. 1949-50
Copyright 2013 Linda O'Donnell, All Rights Reserved
My mother, who lived only with her father, encountered some obstacles.  My grandfather wasn't exactly keen on the idea of his 14 year-old daughter dating an older boy.  My father went out of his way to assure my grandfather that his intentions were purely honorable, however, and apparently he was able to persuade Grandpa to give his permission for them to date.

One other problem my father had was in convincing his parents that my mother was worthy.  My mother's parents divorced when she was about 5, and my grandmother had developed a reputation as quite a floozy--drinking and bar-hopping, dating frequently--quite scandalous in 1949 Chicago.  I think they were all able to figure out that my mother was nothing like her mother, and their love story began.

When my mom was in high school, my father was drafted, and shipped off to serve in the Army during the Korean Conflict.  He wrote to her nearly every day, and I remember blushing the first time I saw the stacks of letters, all stating "SWAK" (sealed with a kiss) and marked "Hubba Hubba" by my love-stricken father.  I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult that time was for both of them.  Neither of them spoke of it much.  My father had to take leave to come home when his mother died, but had to return to combat shortly afterwards.  I think this was very traumatic for him, and again, he didn't speak of it much.  His father fell apart emotionally upon losing his wife, and he moved to California to escape his memories and grief.  Since their relationship was already strained, the separation only served to widen the gap between them.

My grandmother moved to Louisiana to marry her second husband while my mother was in high school.  I know my mother always felt her mother abandoned her, and she has spent a lifetime trying to figure out what she did to deserve it.

A year after my mother graduated from high school, she and my father were married.  I have no doubt that they loved each other.  But each brought a good deal of emotional baggage that I believe, when blended, created the perfect storm (and not in a good way.)

Dad never talked about his struggles, worries or feelings.  When he got upset, he either erupted in a huge display of temper, punching walls or throwing things, or he would retreat in silence, often for days at a time.  Up until recently, I always viewed my mother as the long-suffering victim, suffering in silence and trying to appease my dad's Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality.  I have since learned that she most likely manipulated him, probably because she could, and their unhealthy emotional alliance would end up taking its toll on their children.

Love is not all you need (my apologies to Lennon and McCartney).  You need communication skills, patience, compromise, and sometimes, therapy.  Of course, people from my parents' generation just didn't do that.  They just got sucked into the vortex of their dysfunction until it nearly destroyed them, and it almost took me and my brother down, too.  Luckily, we were able to overcome and not repeat the cycle, largely because we had each other, terrific spouses and the will to survive and overcome.  We have a younger sister who, in my opinion, inherited/learned the worst traits of both of them.  Very sad.

Me, my sister and brother, 1965
Copyright 2013 Linda O'Donnell, All Rights Reserved

I loved my parents.  I can't say I liked them all the time.  I spent a lifetime trying to please them before I figured out that it wasn't possible.  But I have compassion for them, because they were impacted by events in their childhoods that left them emotionally incapable of dealing with the stresses of marriage, parenthood and the challenges of life.  Am I perfect?  Far from it, believe me.  But I am at least aware of my shortcomings and am continually trying to improve.  And most importantly, the cycle of mistreating our children ended with me.  I may be neurotic, but my daughter has been loved and nurtured, and while I may have spoiled her, I think it's preferable to what I experienced. 

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