Thursday, 11 October 2007

The Family Tree Part II

Oh the joys of puppyhood. Minnie, one of our cats, got locked in the computer room last night. I thought I saw her on the patio when I was locking up, but it must have been Pearl. Anyway, she left a steaming present for me this morning (and Jake didn't, for once). But Jake thought he'd have a snack before breakfast. He is NOT licking me today.

But I digress. I was going to write about my dad's side of the family.

I don't know much about my great-grandparents on my dad's side other than these stories. My great-grandfather was a German immigrant farmer who moved to Colorado. When his first wife died, he remarried a woman who already had a daughter of her own. She was unkind to her stepchildren. My grandfather lost his left leg when a wagon ran over it when he was 12. Rather than buy a new pair of shoes when the right shoe wore out, his stepmother insisted he wear the left shoe on his right foot. She would give treats to her daughter, who would eat them in front of my grandfather and his siblings.

When my grandfather grew up he got a wooden leg and, ironically, became a shoemaker. His first wife died soon after giving birth. My grandfather, with the help of his in-laws, tried to raise the mother-less boy. When he met my grandmother and proposed, she said she would marry him only if he gave the boy to his in-laws to raise. This he did, and never saw his first son again.

My great-grandmother (my grandmother's mother) was a tough farmwoman, also of Germanic stock. She had five children with her first husband, my grandmother being the oldest. When her husband died, she moved her children from Nebraska to Colorado, but left my grandmother behind with relatives. Why? My mother said one of the sisters told her it was because no one could get along with my grandmother. Eventually, my great-grandmother remarried and had another son who was the apple of her eye. My grandmother rejoined her family only to be sent to a preacher's family to be educated. The preacher's family apparently viewed her as a servant and treated her terribly. Meeting my grandfather must have been her salvation. She was very young when they wed, only 19. Taking on another woman's son must have been too onerous for her.

My father's parents must have looked odd. My grandmother was very tall, about 6 feet, with red hair. My grandfather was only about 5'6. By the age of 21 my grandmother had two sons (born 16 months apart) and had lost all her hair. It started to fall out after my father's birth and never grew back. She wore a wig and pencilled in eyebrows every day till the day she died at the age of 94. She must have blamed my father's birth for the hair loss for he always speaks of it with guilt. She had another son three years after my father's birth, her golden boy.

My grandfather lost his shoe shop during the Depression. He and his family had very lean years till the New Deal came in. My dad was a bit of a hellion, but in a mischievous way. He quit school at the age of 15 and joined the Navy when he was 16 to serve as a bombadier in the Pacific. He came home when he was 21, got his GED, and enrolled at Denver University using his GI Bill. My mother also was a student at DU. They met through my dad's best friend, who married my aunt. Those two are still married, which my aunt lords over my mother every chance she gets.

After my parents married, they moved in with my dad's parents. My mother describes that time with mixed emotions. On the one hand she says she was treated like the daughter they never had. On the other, my grandmother didn't always treat her right. My mother quit college and got a job at the telephone company to support my dad. My dad was never an academic, but through sheer hard work and some help from my mother, he got a PhD in clinical psychology. My mother had my sister after three years of trying to get pregnant. She was doted on by her grandparents and uncles. Then my parents moved to South Dakota, where my dad had a fellowship. I think that is when things started to go pear-shaped in their marriage. My mother thought my dad had an affair. She was jealous of the time he spent away from her. She left him and went home to her parents, taking my sister. Her mother told her, "You're not woman enough to keep a man." Those words would echo strongly many years later when my dad finally did leave her.

Somehow they patched it up and moved to Florida a year later. My dad started in a new firm and worked hard to build up his career. He was told by his boss, though, that my mother would always hold him back. Was it where she came from (Tampa was an incredibly snobbish smallish place back then) or was it her sometimes odd behaviour? My mother had my brother a couple of years later. The birth was problematic. He was given too much oxygen. He was a difficult baby -- a fussy eater, crying a lot. He was even worse as a toddler. My mother, who has never handled frustration well, would spank him and slap him in an attempt to subdue him. And the boy was not turning into the kind of son my dad wanted. He was clumsy (he turned out to have terrible eyesight) and uncoordinated.

Three years later my mother wasn't feeling too well. "Oooh, I think I'm pregnant," she would tell my sister every night as she struggled to curl my sister's fine, limp hair. My dad accused my mother of sneakily getting pregnant. In my mother's defense, I don't think she thought she could get pregnant, having suffered from endometriosis for many years. I was born in January 1960. My dad was disappointed because he'd hoped I'd be born before the first of the year so he could get a tax break. My sister was disappointed because she didn't want a baby sister, and certainly not in her birth month, and it meant she couldn't have riding lessons. My mother and brother, however, were quite happy, or at least OK about it.

My dad's career was starting to go well, and he would spend more and more time away from home. When I was 7, my mother decided to go back to college to finish her degree. At first she took one or two classes a week, and only in the day while we were at school. As I got older, she took on more classes, some at night. My dad was away at night too doing group therapy. My brother and I (my sister had gone to Florida State University by then) were left to our own devices a lot. I started drinking at the age of 9 when my brother's friend came over and we would play drinking games. Then my sister, who had always been the favoured child, left FSU and moved in with her boyfriend without telling my parents. My dad found out when he decided to drop in on her while driving through Tallahassee. Her roommate told him where to find her. She lived in a crummy part of town in a crummy house. My dad cried all the way home.

My sister married this guy in spite of my parents' protestations. He was a con artist, they were convinced. He had delusions of grandeur. The more they complained about him, the more she stuck up for him. She had a son the year after they married. Money was tight. The husband would go for runs to get rid of his stress. He did run, straight to his mistress's house. My sister stuck with him through three more children. He finally left her.

Meanwhile, back at home, my mother finally had a hysterectomy after years of suffering from endometriosis. Then her mother died. Then my dad met my stepmother and decided to leave my mother. It was messy and ugly. I've posted about this before so won't repeat it. My parents' divorce came through in November 1975. My dad and stepmother married that Christmas while skiing in Colorado. But no one is supposed to know that. They had another ceremony in Florida the following April. My mother sold her house and moved to California that summer. My brother and I stayed with her for the summer, and I moved in with my dad and stepmother and stepsister when I came back.

At first we all worked hard to get along. My stepmother gave me a watch pendant as a token of affection, but soon she showed her true colours. All my stepsister had to do was whine, and I would be blamed for the least little thing. The three of them went to Washington, D.C., and left me alone on my 17th birthday. So I had a party. My brother helped me clean the house before they got back. I missed a handprint on the wall, which my eagle-eyed stepmother spotted the second she came through the door. Things deteriorated after that. Remember that watch pendant? One weekend when I came home for a visit from college, my stepmother and stepsister sandwiched me on the couch, and my stepmother asked for it back because her daughter wanted it. I never saw my stepsister wear it and I doubt if she has it now.

My dad made it clear from the start that he would always take his wife's side and so he has for the past 32 years. He is living out a pattern started generations before him. I struggle to maintain a relationship with him and my stepmother. They have mellowed but I have so much hurt inside me that I've never been able to express or acknowledge. I took a motto of theirs from the 80s and made it my own: Living well is the best revenge. I have a loving husband, two wonderful children, two cats, a puppy, and a nice home. My stepsister is a drug addict and alcoholic whose two children are being raised by her brother. She has been in and out of rehab many times. I am trying hard to see the familial patterns and not pass them onto my children.

And what of my sister and brother? That will have to be in another post because this one has exhausted me.


Flowerpot said...

what an amazing story - no wonder it exhausted you. Good for you for making a good life for yourself. You are strong and brave, despite everything.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

flowerpot: Thank you. I have struggled over the years but refuse to have a life of drink and drugs.

Self employed mum said...

So many family patterns repeat themselves, drunken fathers, mothers, abusive husbands, wives. Well done for breaking the pattern. It was a great read, people always think they're the only one in the world with a past and it's so untrue every one has skeletons in their cupboard.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

self employed mum: And people always think dysfunctional families are a modern phenomenon. I felt physically ill after writing this because I'd never actually put together the three generations of second wives and stepmothers and how they behaved toward their stepchildren.

laurie said...

my god those old germans were tough.
(my grandfather was german.)

absolutely fascinating stories.

he had to wear the wrong shoe????
he had to give up his firstborn son???

The Rotten Correspondent said...

I can't imagine how anyone could have written that and not been exhausted. What a lot of ghosts to revisit.

You've obviously broken the pattern, or you wouldn't be so clear-eyed about the way you see it. You should be very very proud of yourself for the life you have made.

I hope there's more of this story to come. I'm absolutely hooked.

Casdok said...

Wow! What an interesting post.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

laurie: I couldn't make this stuff up. Heartbreaking, isn't it?

RC: Oh, there's so much more to tell of the saga that is my family. My sister alone could fill a week's worth of posts.

casdok: Welcome. I'm glad you found it interesting. I kept these stories under wraps for years for fear of being judged a looney because of my family.

Vi vi vi vooom!!!!!!!! said...

You've exhausted me just READING it! lol.

Queeny said...

That's absolutely heartbreaking, from start to finish. Coming from a closeknit family, I can't imagine having to endure the suffering that you and relatives past and present encountered. But as they say, "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Thank God for your resolve.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

VI: You're exhausted reading MY blog? I'm just wiping my brow from reading yours.

Queeny: Sounds like you have the sort of family I always wanted. I so envied people like you. Finally I realized I could create that closeness with my own children. They helped heal me.

Queen Vixen said...

Wow what a story! I am endlessly facinated by family scripts. How the messages and the struggles get passed down the generations. How do you feel now you have written all of that down?

Anonymous said...

I want to congratulate you on such amazing research into your family. That was truly fascinating. Stay happy.

Crystal xx

J said...

Wow. I identified with so many elements in both your stories.

Looking back at how the patterns develop over time is hard and very necessary. How ever are we to break the bad cycles if we don't identify them?

It also reminds me that I should write down some stories, and some about my paternal grandmother in particular...carnival concessions, mob links and drug smuggling, oh my!

I also laughed when you mentioned DU. My sister went there. She and one of her college friends have a great (and rather incriminating) story about a certain member of W's cabinet. And others about a certain trashy socialite's father.

ciara said...

wow, fascinating story. i'm sorry you had to suffer the pattern handed down, but at least you're stronger than the rest and raising good children. i need to read part 1 now.

jenny said...

I agree with Self employed mum: I'm so glad you broke the pattern.

It is sad when the next generation repeats the pattern from the previous generation. My mom recognized a pattern and broke free of it when she raised her own family. But sadly, I can see her slipping back into a pattern that her sister (my aunt) never got out of. I don't think she realizes it and I look forward to having her move in and hopefully give her positive encouragement. With no husband and all her children out from under her wings, she is in the same position that her sister, mother and grandmother were in at that age. I will write about it one day...

blueangel said...

Wow that is such a story! It's amazing how much detail you have - I'm completely envious. Also, its quite an achievement to write this sort of thing with as little bias as you've included. Your post could have turned into a rant about various members of your family but you've resisted that.
You should be so proud of yourself for being different from the rest of your family.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

QV: I never actually saw the pattern with the men on my dad's side till I wrote this down. I felt sick to my stomach first, but OK now.

CJ: Thanks, I will try.

J.: The story must be about Condi Rice, who went there. Is she a lesbian? I'd love to read about your paternal grandmother.

Ciara: Thanks for visiting.

Jenny: You'll have to write about that sometime. Keep well.

blueangel: It has taken me many years to get where I am. I do rant on occasion, but mostly feel sadness and amazement.

Pixie said...

HOw wonderful that you hare not repeating the pattern. If I could spell it the word schodenfruade [sorry if it's wrong] comes to mind in relation to your step sister.

sexy said...


Anonymous said...