Mother never paid much attention to the names she used when applying what could be loosely called parental control or discipline. She reminded my sister Abby and me often of our human failings. According to Mother’s distorted view of her own children, we had no art ability, I apparently couldn’t think for myself, we both made poor choices, and according to her we almost drove her insane.
Yes, that last point – often expressed verbally along the lines of “You and your sister are making me crazy.” – did strike us as ironic given Mother’s pre-existing mental conditions. Frankly, we laughed our butts off whenever she played that card.
Mother was not one to spread around good vibrations or kind, maternal feelings with her children. She could have cared less about our self worth. It was a different time and truly there weren’t tons of material on how to build your child’s self esteem.
Schools were also not into how to build the kids up. They made sure you knew they were in charge and you were not to question their authority. Even today, my nephew refers to schools as “Conformity Factories.” He’s not particularly into “authority figures” of any type, which explains some of that.
Both my sister and I agree with some elements of his attitudes toward the educational system – there’s good and bad, just like in any system, but I think the experiences my sister and I had as schoolchildren made us more effective, compassionate, and positive educators in our adult lives.
And looking back, Abby and I turned out just fine and here are some of the reasons why.
We paid little attention to our mother, who was always prone to saying all kinds of crazy things. Not dishing out compliments was OK with us because we depended on our own opinions and believed in ourselves. We knew being called pretty was just superficial and what really mattered was what kind of person you were on the inside.
Our dad showed us by his actions how special his daughters were to him and we found our strength and self-worth from our positive experiences with him. Just when mother was muttering about how poor I was in math, Dad was reminding us that we would both go to college so we could support ourselves and be independent. There was never any question about that. He didn’t need to use the Stuart Smalley quote:
I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggoneit, people like me!
My sister and I knew we were smart enough, good enough and people did like us!
When we were adults, Mother was not able to use her sharp tongue as often. However, it seemed that when our paths did cross, she was up to her old tricks again. Always questioning or criticizing our weight, our appearance, our parenting skills, our cooking and cleaning skills, you name it she would find fault with us. We were either too hyper, too into cleaning, too fat or too thin, thought we were snobs…the list never ended. When we were together with Mother, the negative energy was stifling. Abby and I always laughed it off but we knew her behavior and interactions with us was far from normal.
Near the end of Mother’s life, my sister decided that she wanted us to all have “one really nice last visit” with Mother. I knew, as I think we all did in our heart of hearts, that this lovely sentiment was a pipe dream. Nonetheless, we gave it a go. After less than ten minutes of small talk, our mother turned to my nephew and sharply announced
Your hair is a shaggy mess. You need to do something with it!
My nephew Taylor has worn his hair fairly long most of his adult life, but he has always kept it groomed and clean. In fact, at our father’s funeral years before, our step-sister remarked how striking Taylor looked with his long hair and his suit.
At the moment of Mother’s declaration about his hair, I could tell that Taylor really didn’t give a rat’s ass what she thought of his hairstyle. But I also saw the instincts of Abby (my sister and Taylor’s mother) coming…Mama Grizzly style. While Abby was attempting to express to her the inappropriate and hurtful nature of what our mother had said, I proceeded to announce the visit was over and began to roll Mother’s wheelchair back into the home.
A few weeks later, we again tried to have “one really nice last visit” (again, my sister’s idea and wording). While we were all sitting in one of the visiting rooms at the home, attempting to chat amicably with Mother, apropos of nothing she pointed at Abby and I and said
You two both really need haircuts. Or something. Your hairstyles are messes.
Since Mother was by this point more than half-deaf and likely unable to hear him, and since my nephew Taylor has never been one to bite his tongue much, he quickly said to his mother and I
Grandma certainly has become fixated on other peoples’ hair styles lately, hasn’t she?
A little while later, Mother began another mental and verbal trip down memory lane, recalling one of the childhood traumas she had experienced. As she became increasingly agitated and distraught over an event from over 60 years earlier, a nurse from the home brought her some medication to help “calm her.” Within about 15 minutes, the magic mix brought by the nurse had kicked in, and we were able to enjoy the rest of the visit thanks in large part to sedation.
I guess you might say that Abby and I had our share of residing in “Dysfunction Junction” throughout our lives. However, once we escaped, we made sure that we would not reside there ever again.