Fractured Tree

The other day, a Twitter friend shared a photo of a family vacation.  She was an adult and was still going on vacations with her parents and...

The other day, a Twitter friend shared a photo of a family vacation.  She was an adult and was still going on vacations with her parents and siblings.  This made me sad. I really don't know how this blog post will come out, but I'm going to try to speak from the heart, not edit myself, and hope for the best.

Somewhere between my mom being an agoraphobic with panic attacks and my dad's work, we didn't go on many family trips when I was growing up.  Our big vacation was driving to Hilton Head, South Carolina when I was 11 or 12.  Most of our other vacations were weekend trips upstate, going to the beach, genealogy excursions to cemeteries, or family-related.  After mom died, we went on one vacation -- a week of camping at the beach with my extended family that was fairly disastrous thanks to a thunderstorm.

I'm not writing this to complain about not going on fancy or expensive trips as a kid, or complain that I've never been to Disney.  As an adult, I've gone to some amazing places and plan on going to more (4 words:  Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary).  This, along with the upcoming holiday season, just made me think about the many fractures in my family.

Both of my parents had one of their parents die when they were young (my dad's mother, my mother's father).  Because of this, I don't think either of them had normal childhoods.  I don't think either of them grew up going on family vacations (my mom's father was in the Army, I don't think that relocating counts as a vacation). My paternal grandfather remarried and had more kids (so there are 4 from my paternal grandmother, 3 from my paternal step-grandmother for a total of 7 kids).  There was always tension in their family partly because of this.  My maternal grandmother didn't remarry or have more kids (my mom was an only child, and Nana never let her live this down).  She died when I was 8, but my mother's cousins filled in the void.

There was a main nucleus on each side:  my mother's cousin (by marriage) Sandie (who had a blended family as well) and my step-grandmother, Janet.  Because we all lived in the same little town, my grandparents and my mom's cousins knew each other and got along.  My aunts and uncles even went to school with my mom's cousins.  After my mom died, I didn't see my mother's side of the family as often because my dad gravitated towards gatherings on his side of the family.  After Janet was diagnosed with Alzheimer's (and as my cousins grew older and had families of their own) and after my grandpa died, that side of my family seemed to have lost some of the gravity that held us together.

We used to have ginormous family events at my paternal grandparents' house -- you know, the kind where every table and chair in the house was used so that we could all eat together.  There would be nearly 30 people eating together and almost nearly that amount of desserts.  We'd play basketball together before dinner and Trivial Pursuit after. As it turned dark and if it was still warm enough, the kids would play manhunt in my grandparents' backyard and the neighborhood.    These are some of my most treasured memories of my family mainly because I was blissfully unaware of many of the tensions and pain that ran deep on that side of the family.

As I got older, went away to college, and moved 250 miles from my whole family, I noticed that I became somewhat of the black sheep of my dad's side of the family.  My father wasn't the best at keeping me in the loop in regards to family events (people would invite him to things and assume that I got the message -- and I did, but usually with too little notice to do anything or after the fact).  As the years went by, I just felt further and further from my dad's side of the family because of the distance and because nothing and no one reeled me in when I was adrift (and I didn't seek it out for myself).  (Though, this is not beyond the point of repair. And there are times when I think moving back to NYC would help with reconnecting.)

Just as that was happening, I started reconnecting with my mother's side of the family.  They told me stories about my mother and helped me keep her memory alive.  I felt a very strong bond with them because of this. Sandie and her husband Joe also have one of the strongest marriages that I've ever seen.  I'm always in awe of the love they have for each other and how it translated into the relationships that their kids have with each other and with their own little families.  I feel the gravity from them, holding me close.

Within my own little family (my dad, my brother and I), it was never easy.  My mother was one part nucleus, one part puppet master, and one part cruise director. While she was alive, it felt like there was a shift between the daily life of mom, John, and I and then the time we had when dad was around.  At night, we either didn't see him or we got the message that dad was too tired or stressed from work and that we shouldn't bother him.  On weekends, mom always had projects for him to do, and we shouldn't bother him. John would go off and play with his friends and I'd be stuck at home helping.

It was only after she died that we were able to untangle some of the strings she used.  It was a huge revelation when my father told me that he didn't want the role of enforcer/punisher, but that mom had pushed him into it.  I think it was a big revelation for my dad to realize how my mom exaggerated stories about bad behavior, neglecting to tell my dad some of ways she drove wedges between my brother and I, or how she would often belittle us.

But the damage was done, and we took no time to repair it (i.e, no family therapy).  I was 13. My brother was 14.  My dad had a full time job and 2-hour commute each way.  The goal was to survive.  We did survive, but it was far from perfect.  The wedges that my mom drove between all of us remained, and continued to push us away from each other.  I didn't trust my dad to be the confidant and protector that I needed. Dad and I used to get into the worst fights because I felt like I was doing all the housework and my brother was doing none of it. I think my brother resented me asking for the help, that I was trying to control him.

I think my father is thankful that my brother and I were good kids -- we did our homework (usually), got good grades (always), didn't get into trouble, didn't become hooligans, and managed to get into good colleges.  But the truth of it is that when my mom died, my brother and I stopped being carefree kids. And what makes me the most sad out of anything is that we stopped being siblings.

My brother and I not only shared our parents' DNA, we also shared the common experience of growing up together and experiencing many of the same traumas as each other (unlike my brother, I didn't take a line-drive to the nose).  And instead of that uniting us, it really drove us apart.  I feel a pang of jealousy and hurt when friends talk about their close relationships with their siblings.

In more recent times, my brother has had his wife (and her family) and his kids to focus on.  But even when they were just dating, I feel like my brother treated his future in-laws with more care and respect than my dad and I.  He preferred the shiny new thing to the thing that was broken and needed repair.  That sometimes left Dad and I alone to shoot the shit together.  Quite often dad and I end up talking about the past.  But it's hard for me to say what I always want to say because I know they hurt (not because they're arrows pointed at anyone, but because they are surface wounds).  Things weren't perfect back then and we were all hurting in our own ways.  But I regret that we didn't have family therapy.  I regret that we let this terrible thing push us apart instead of bringing us together.

So holidays are always sad times for me because I feel not only estranged from the family (extended and nuclear) that I was born into, but also because I've yet to create one for myself (see previous blog post).

In the last post, I alluded to the book that I'm reading, by Doug Newburg(that he so graciously shared with me): The Most Important Lesson No One Ever Taught Me.  He asks of the people he works with these 5 deceptively simple questions:

  1. How do you want to feel everyday or about your life in general?
  2. When, where, and around whom do those feelings happen?
  3. What gets in the way of those feelings or takes them away?
  4. How do you get those feelings back?
  5. What are you willing to work for? 
These questions have been doing a number on me in just about every facet of my life.  It just happens that today they had me thinking about my family.  I want to be connected to all of them in a meaningful way.  I don't want to be the person that people feel obligated to have around.  I want to know what makes my family happy, what makes them sad, and how I can help shoulder their burdens. 

But where I get hung up is the third question -- what gets in the way?  And I think that is where I need to end this blog post, because it requires me talking to my family and not to my readers.  

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9 comments

  1. This made me think of my family. Mom and Dad were alcoholics and drug addicts. So it wasn't pretty with the abuse. I never got the whole family dynamic til I moved in with my aunt and uncle. Haven't see the mom (who died two years ago) or dad since I was 10 and I really don't care. I know who my family is.

    Also, love the twitter account Robby. <3

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  2. I feel so much of what you're saying here. My grandmother was the glue that held my family together (on my mom's side anyway, most of my dad's side was dead) so I never really experience the two family house hold. My dad was bi weekly visits until I went to college though I won't say he wasn't in my life. He was just not fully. In '98 when my grandma died, the bond broke with her and people started beefing and now we're all estranged. I feel bad about that and wish there was a way I could bring everyone together. Not sure if you've ever seen the movie Soul Food, but there;s a little boy in it and when his grandmother (Big Mama)died, he and his whole family stopped getting together for Sunday dinner and drama ensued between everyone. He faked a treasure hidden in his grandmother's old house and talked to everyone individually about it to trick them all to come together for one Sunday dinner which worked out in the movie, of course, but I always thought about doing something like that to trick my family into coming together but I don't want that. I want us to do it on our own and even if we can't have that union back. I want that relationship back even if only for myself with each of them separately. It hurts. Sorry to go on about myself but it brought a lot back for me.

    I admire every ounce of who you are and the more I read about your personal struggles, defeats, triumphs and everything in between on here, the more I respect you as well. You're a gem...

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  3. Capt: It's quite true that it takes more than genetics to be a family. I applaud the parents that take time to deal with their demons before conceiving. I applaud your aunt and uncle for rescuing you from a bad situation and making the best out of it.

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  4. Marc: Thank you, as always for being a big support. I wouldn't be able to put words to blog if it weren't for people who not only get it, but who make this a safe place for me to say it.

    I've been there with you for the past few years -- wondering what I could orchestrate in order to get my family back to a good place. Ultimately, I realized that I couldn't do it myself. It required willing participants that were ready to put in the hard work of forgiveness and the hard work of rebuilding. I think people hold grudges against their family the worst because it hurts so much when they let us down. It wouldn't hurt unless there was great love there in the first place.

    I hope you find a way to mend the past with your family. You deserve a return of the love you give.

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  5. I feel for you. Although I had a childhood of family gatherings and family vacations, over the last two years I feel like my family has completely shattered. My sister is no longer speaking to my parents, and with that comes heart break for them. Although I'm still speaking to my sister, it will never be the same. We were once close and now distance is between us. it also is heartbreaking. Add the fact that my grandmother passed away this past February, I doubt my extended family will get together like they use to. I'm dreading Christmas this year. I hated thanksgiving. I hope things do improve for you and your family just as I hope they do for mine. It wont be an easy road and each player has to do their part, but hopefully by starting a conversation and expressing your feelings it will improve.

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  6. So much of this story sounds familiar - I lost my mom when I was 10, and she was the "social" one in the family. It was just me, my dad and my brother. And we were all sick with grief and did NOT heal (no therapy, never really talked about it). We became estranged from BOTH sides of the family, and now, as an adult, it is hard to create those close connections. Holidays are a very sad time for me, especially now that my dad has passed too.. my husband has a small family, but they are close, so that helps a little, but I can't help but feel like I got dealt a bad deal as far as the childhood department went. Still takes work to heal these feelings.

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  7. Sonya, Jeanette -- thank you both for sharing. You both serve as good reminders that even when we feel like our hurt is our own that there are people that both understand and empathize.

    It's kinda amazing -- that even with all this technology to help us connect with each other, we still manage to feel disconnected.

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  8. Robby,

    I have NEVER had a relationship with my mother, my Dad was my supporter, my protector, my friend, my guide, and in other words, he was my Superman. Though he tried for as long as I can remember to bridge a relationship between my mother and me it NEVER happened. When I was a teenager, I use to think that maybe she wasn’t my biological mother that maybe my Dad had had an affair and he took me in from my biological mother, which explained for me why she didn’t seem to care one way or the other about me or my needs. How else can one explain a mother who would turn her back on her child? But, I decided that wasn’t the case because my sister, brother and I all looked so much alike which meant we had a lot of my Dad’s features. So, to this day, I do not know why she could care less whether she talks to or sees me.

    On December 21, 1998, my Dad left me and it was this date that my mother chose to tell me for the first time in my LIFE that I can remember, that she loved me! Well, she didn’t say it to me; she said it on the answering machine. I was so HURT that she picked that time to confess feelings for me when I had just loss my Superman! So, instead of us coming closer, I not only backed further away from her but from the rest of the family as well (my sisters and my brother).

    I felt so alone and hurt that my Dad had left me, but at the same time I was glad he was no longer suffering and was at peace, at least that was what I believed was the case.

    As of December 21, 1998, the dynamics of the family changed... It was at this time that I realized my Dad was the glue holding us together, the common thread so to speak. He loved his children and suffered a lot of emotional ill will from my mother as a result. He always put us first and always, always wanted only the best for all of us, my mother, not so much. She was and is a very selfish woman; she did get along with those of us that followed her mode of thinking and attitude towards my Dad, of course, that wasn’t me but everyone else. No surprise here! I was always my Dad’s champion, not saying he was perfect but he was MY DAD and I defended him against anyone who tried to belittle him. My Dad took care of the two children she had outside their marriage. One she had when he met and married her and one she had after the two of them had three children of their own (me, my sister and brother).

    But the bottom line is the bottom line - there is fracture in most families. What is strange to me, however, is how a mother put anything or anyone before her children’s happiness? How can she not be a protector at all cost? Wasn’t it she who carried that life inside her for months? How can she not have that connection, how?

    I have reached out to her (my mother) over the pass few months, but it felt fake and strained so I stopped.

    To say your post made me emotional, would not be enough, it made me feel less alone for some reason, not that I would wish "fracture" in any family but just knowing I am not alone in my feelings of loss of family. Thank you for sharing.

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  9. Wow, what a powerful story. You have touched my heart. Thank you so much for reminding me what I have let go and what I have embraced.

    Cheers.

    linda

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<3 Robby