My relationship with my father has been complicated. Many people who read these pages might assume he is the narcissist who set my soul on fire to write this blog, but it was actually a different narcissistic personality in the family who triggered me into remembering my childhood and facing the way I was treated by both of my parents and others in the family even as an adult.
Now, as I tie up my childhood memoir, I have been told by at least one sibling they can’t even think about our childhood–it’s too dark for them to go there. I understand my sibling’s pain and yet, for my own mental and physical health, I have to go there. These words of wisdom really hit it home for me.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” -Brené Brown
Perhaps it was because we were sometimes homeless, living in state parks or in a cabin without any utilities or constantly moving–all I know is that somewhere in my peripatetic childhood, I began feeling like the grown up long before I was one. This carried on into my adulthood where I paid electric bills that were not mine and bought groceries and bought at least three cribs for children I never gave birth too–along with everything else a new baby needs and I didn’t stop there. It seems I had a silent contract with my father from an early age to serve my family and give them everything I had because in my father’s words, “Jesus sacrificed everything for us–don’t you love Jesus and want to be like him?”
Later, I realized the reason I worked so hard to plan family gatherings and find gifts and bake cakes for birthdays is because I am a Seven on the Enneagram and Sevens often ignore their own pain and do everything they can to cheer up others to help them enjoy life. I was literally trying to make up for all the missed birthdays and Christmases and other deficits in our childhood–but the truth is I couldn’t make it up, because we can never go back.
A recent study shows two of the most damaging times in a child’s life are what my parents called the terrible twos and the teenage years. Both are times of extreme brain growth and require rest and stability.
My childhood was rarely stable and my parents believed we should be belted until we stopped throwing tantrums. So they probably didn’t mean to do this, but just as a child got overstimulated and cried and threw a tantrum, they hit us harder and harder until we were stunned into silence. These beltings continued on occasion until I left home. My parents have always said I had an elephant’s memory and it seems true. I can remember nearly every belting my father ever gave me. And my teen years were tumultuous–not because I was a bad child, but from moving and begging to go to school and have friends.
My coping mechanism was to try to eat away my pain. While I was growing up, I was taught to be a positive Christian example to the world, but the only way I could do that was to push away the sad memories of the past or the fears of the present and eat until I was numb. Of course this has had terrible implications on my health. Sometimes the very people who tell me to forget the past imagine that it is my sad memories that hold me back from losing all the weight and being fit like them. They don’t realize for twenty-five years after I left home, I didn’t look back at all. I didn’t even tell my husband about the sad times until we’d been married several years. I just kept on stuffing my mouth and hoping not to feel anything.
There are three reasons people tell me to forget my childhood, one is they can’t bear to look back due to their own pain and the second is because they have no clue because their childhood was full of stability. And the third reason is because they feel shame about their past behavior. I am pretty sure my parents fit in this last category although I don’t believe anyone needs to feel shame. It just was what it was and they had pain from their own childhoods too.
My memoir is not one of revenge, but I’ve enjoy showing what it was like for me to grow up one hundred years after Laura Ingalls Wilder and live a lot like her. It’s also my story about how I discovered my own power and freedom. The story is not my father’s or my mother’s, but mine and I own it.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” -Anne Lamott
The good news is that none of our lives are defined by one memory, one incident and one moment in time–our lives have a cumulative impact on ourselves and others. A true narcissist cares only about protecting himself and usually at the expense of others. For me the only way to peace and hopefully better health is acknowledging who I am and what happened to me in all the years of my life. Like a favorite author once said,
“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide…” – Madeline L’Engle
Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I feel a deep sadness because I mourn the relationship I wish I had with my parents today–one where honor equals honesty. I regret that I no longer plan to bring the family together, but it became too unsafe for me. The last two times I saw my parents were not fun. Once was at the Spaghetti Factory–a once favorite place where I can never return again because in that parking lot my parents yelled at my nearly fifty year old self to tell me that since I didn’t see things their way I was mentally ill. It was not the first time my father called me that. This happened in childhood whenever we got in an argument, but the difference was this time I knew I wasn’t.
A year later, wanting to smooth things over, I went to their house because I was beginning to write a blog about my childhood, I wanted them to know I love them both despite any differences we have. I wanted them to understand that when I write my story, it’s not about mistakes they made, but rather my own journey from fears and tears to wonder and joy as I grew up. It just so happens that moving interrupted nearly every school and friendship I had, but I don’t feel bitter.
And I don’t resent the parents I have, but I do regret this visit ended up with me trying to explain my theology for three hours and then being yelled at for my blog stories, so I’ve never been back. I cried all the way home, because I knew I might never see them again. That year my husband and I moved further away because it was too painful to have holidays alone when they were just an hour or so away, but couldn’t even come to my house for dinner.
I would like to say things have improved, but even in the last few years, my parents have gotten upset with me over the phone so I rarely call any more. It’s painful to call when the only topics I can talk about are flowers and cats and then I remember how much my dad complained that cats and flowers were all Grandma talked about and I fear I have become my own grandma. It’s all that’s left when we have nothing else safe to discuss. I’m not interested in conspiracy theories or long lectures about how the kind of music my husband pays on the piano could be the seat of satanic power. I almost never call and yet, I worry they will think I don’t care about them.
So now, before anyone reads my memoir, I just want to put a big jagged sticker across the front of the book that says my parents are not the same people they were thirty years ago and neither am I. We have all changed hopefully for the better. However this was my very unique childhood–unlike anyone else’s I know–except for my three siblings. Only we know what we went through and none of us are getting any younger. My parents are almost eighty. Someday all six of us will be gone and unless I leave this trail behind me, no one will ever know about our struggles and triumphs.
As I do every Father’s Day, I feel gratitude for my Daddy who gave me my first picture of a loving God by taking care of me when I was sick and playing with me and brainstorming with me whenever I was bullied or depressed. I adored my Dad while I was growing up. Any breakfast or long drive alone with him made my week. And I am still glad he is my Dad now despite our differences even if he calls me a bleeding heart liberal.
Something my Dad taught me as I grew up was to treat everyone with compassion–even the beggars at the stoplight. I would love to sit across from him and enjoy his company as we eat his healthy waffles and read the newspaper and talk about the news–if only I thought it was safe enough to be myself in their home and not have to apologize for who I am and what I believe.
What I do know is that my father, with his own pain and insecurities, raised me to be a strong woman and despite his prejudices against feminists and women pastors, he empowered me to be myself at one time and now his reactions to my mature ideas, baffles me. Even as I write, I have to give him some credit for who I am and because of his imperfect love, I can extend that grace back to him and in so doing, I hope my writing will set both of us free.
So happy Father’s Day to you Daddy! I’m sorry for all the times I’ve hurt you–including my words on this blog and in print, but I will always love you no matter what you’ve done or said in the past! I hope you know that nothing–no religious differences or political differences and certainly not events that happened thirty years ago, can ever take away the deep love and gratitude I will always carry in my heart for you!