Life is a road which urgently needs repaving. It’s full of pot-holes, rocks, broken branches, quicksand, and mud. It’s amazing how anyone can navigate the distance. What makes repaving plans tricky is no two people travel the same road.
There are far too many roads. All of them need grading and paving.
Okay, sure, sometimes paths cross … even run side-by-side occasionally for miles — years — at a time. But even when they cross or run parallel, they aren’t one road.
Photo: Garry Armstrong –Winter at home
It’s like a family with three kids. Say you’ve got an older brother and a younger sister. Your brother becomes a businessman and lives a pretty normal life.
Your sister discovers her own version of chaos theory. She proceeds to live a life of crisis and yeah, chaos. Not theory, but the real deal. As for you, you’re not entirely sane, but compared to your sister, you’re solidly grounded and compared to your brother, you’re a wild child. That’s worrisome because you know how much weird stuff is going on in your head.
All three kids had the same parents. As far as anyone knows, you also all had (more or less) the same upbringing.
So, I guess that road is going to stay uneven. Life will continue to be unfair. It will leave many of us looking skyward, searching for answers and sometimes, for questions.
We have great parents, crappy lives. Horrible parents, amazing lives. That’s just life. Infinitely variable, lumpy, bumpy, and charmingly uneven.
My brother was four years older than me. We did the usual scrabbling and arguing as kids, but over all, we were friends and allies in a seriously dysfunctional home. How dysfunctional I would not know until we were teenagers, but it was bad.
Matthew left home — with my mother’s help — when he was 17 and I was gone by the same age — in my case, without help.
I loved him and he loved me. He had many problems caused largely by that same horribly dysfunctional childhood we lived, but we understood what had happened and though we did not talk to others, we talked to each other because we were the only ones alive who knew how it had been.
He died 10 years ago of pancreatic cancer and I have never stopped missing him. I haven’t many pictures of him but these are a few.
When I was young, I thought that both my parents were only children. When I was eight or nine, I learned that my father actually had a sister and that she was alive and well. She was eight years older than my father so she was in her mid 70’s at the time. Her name was Bertha, she lived in either Wisconsin or Michigan and she had one son and several grandchildren. I knew none of them. I’ve never even seen a photo of any of them.
I confronted my father, asking him why I didn’t know my aunt and my cousins. He told me she had seen me once, when I was two years old. But that was it. He just couldn’t face her.
Why? Apparently my father was consumed with guilt about his sister. She had not had a great life and he felt he was somehow to blame. Their mother died of Tuberculosis when Dad was three and Bertha was eleven. For several years, Bertha had to take care of Dad until their father came home from work. I don’t know if that meant she had to stop going to school.
When their father remarried, their step-mother doted on my father but was cold to his sister. Bertha didn’t get to go to college but my father did. He got an education, a career and a successful life. Bertha got trapped in a loveless marriage with someone who could barely make a living.
I don’t see how most of this was Dad’s fault. But his success in life made him feel nothing but guilt towards his sister. My father never abandoned Bertha. They talked on the phone once a year. He always sent her money so she never wanted for anything. He also paid to send her son through college. He just wouldn’t see her.
No matter how much I begged and my mother cajoled, I never got to even meet my aunt when I was old enough to remember her. I think my mother once met with her son when he came to New York City. I know she had his contact information in her address book.
I never understood my father’s aversion to seeing his sister. If I felt guilty about a sibling, I’d go out of my way to be super nice to her and her family. I’d include them as cherished people in my family’s life. I certainly wouldn’t punish them by banning them from it. Instead, my father isolated Bertha from her only family. I think he made her life worse, but I think he was too self-absorbed to see that — or to care.
I felt cheated. I understood I could never have been close with my aunt and her family because of geography. I also understood sibling relationships are often tense, even hostile. My grandmother and her brother would spend years at a time not talking to each other. But some contact with Bertha and her family, some small connection would have meant a lot to me.
Unfortunately, my father’s ‘issues’ deprived me of what little close family I had.
I grew up the middle child of three and I was known as “the communicator.” My brother was four years older than me. My sister was five years younger. My brother passed away more than a decade ago and my sister vanished into a world of drugs.
We three were the children of the same parents, but not really. Matt and I had a lot of similarities, but our personalities could hardly have been more different.
We do not create the children we dream of, if indeed we dream of children — and not all of us do. They are not those little chips off our personal blocks. We learn to understand them, eventually — or at least mostly — but it’s remarkable how different we are from our kids.
My mother was a hands on person. She painted, sewed. She was athletic. She loved books, but she loved the outdoors more. Horses and ice skates and bob-sledding. All I wanted to do was read. I could not hook a rug or knit to save my life.
The single thing my siblings and I all shared was a basic failure to understand numbers. We made them work, somehow, but we weren’t kids who had that “instant grasp” of numbers as a language. We suffered through arithmetic and were nearly undone by geometry … only to be buried under trigonometry and algebra. It’s a pity. I actually loved science … until it got to the numbers part. Then I sank like a stone.
So we were three kids from the same two parents with personalities entirely different from each other. My sister seemed like a kid who dropped into the cabbage patch by the stork. My brother was merely different.
We always say “Oh, we all had the same parents,” but we didn’t. Our parents were different. The oldest sibling had the youngest “what are we doing with this kid?” parents. The youngest kid had the most mature parents. By the time they made it to the littlest kid, they had parenting basics down. They had eased up a lot on restrictions. I always thought if my mother had given me the freedom my sister automatically got and didn’t appreciate, life would have been grand.
I told her that, shortly before she died.
“Well,” she said. “Parents have to grow up too.”
That isn’t something we get until we have our own children or have other experience with children in “parenting” ways. That’s when you look back and say “Oh. I see. Now it makes sense.”
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