We were talking about our childhoods, only briefly shared, as she is ten years younger than I am and spent a large part of her growing up years as the only kid left at home. Still, there was much we did share: the terror and uncertainty of living with a mentally ill, sometimes violent, alcoholic, pill-popping father and a stressed-out, frightened mother. As we grew older, we understood just how damaged our father had been by his own nightmarish childhood. And we also found that, as much as the terror, we remember the laughter and the moments of love.
"He really did love us," Tai said quietly. "As much as he was able. There were times when I could really feel his love...."
And we talked about those times: times when his face would soften and he would tell us how much he loved us, times when illness or misfortune hit us and he was there, worrying over Tai and her broken arm, and gently reassuring her, weeping over me when I was diagnosed with polio at age six, times when he made us laugh with his stories or delighted us with fun adventures.
Later, my husband Bob told me that he was puzzled over our conversation. "He was a monster," he said. "He treated you kids horribly. I really have a hard time hearing you talk about his saintliness."
I saw his point, understanding his anger and outrage. My father was no saint. He could, indeed, be a monster. How does one begin to explain a life story with so many contradictions? For all the horror of our growing up years, we all came away with the feeling that we were dearly loved by both parents and with gratitude for the good times. We don't forget the terrible times, but, as we grow older, the positive moments resonate the most.
"I'm truly amazed," my brother Mike, now raising a five year old daughter and two year old son, both born when he was over 60, told me recently. "I'm amazed that, as damaged as he was, Father didn't kill us, given the stresses of raising small children. And he did make us laugh and we did feel loved..."
This made a critical difference in all our lives.
Not long ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend Sister Ramona, my favorite teacher from high school. As we were discussing a classmate of mine who has struggled for years with mental illness, Sister Ramona said "It always seemed to me that your family was, by far, more dysfunctional than hers. But then I realized the crucial difference: your parents loved you and your siblings so much. I saw it during parent-teacher conferences and when they came to see you in school plays and just during informal talks with them. As flawed or as crazy as they could be, they loved you so much. And what a difference that made!"
And what a difference, in my own life narrative, it has made to have other adults who loved me as well, especially my unforgettable Aunt Molly, Sister Ramona and a very special elementary school teacher, Sister Rita McCormack. Both Sister Ramona and Sister Rita became life-long friends of mine and it's interesting how their insights and memories add immeasurably to the stories I tell myself about my life.
My dear friend Mary recently attended a Catholic charity fundraiser and found herself sitting at a table beside Sister Rita, whom she had not met before, but she knew that I have loved her for more than 60 years. They traded pleasantries, then stories. Sister Rita told Mary about her first memories of me as a shy little girl who would walk around the playground at her side, tightly clinging to the sash of her nun's habit. This underscored my own memories of needing her love and attention so much as I struggled to fit in at school during my recovery from polio and how grateful I was that she was there at that time and place and that she was so loving with Mike and me.
During our kitchen table conversations during the past week, Tai and I talked about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the impact this can have on us and our current relationships.
We tell ourselves stories of a past remembered for its pain or its possibilities.
We can choose to remember primarily the pain, the feelings of powerlessness we had as small children with troubled parents. Or we can focus more on the ways that we were fortunate. We can choose to label ourselves throughout our lives as helpless victims or as survivors. We can be angry or bitter or we can forgive, if not forget, and go on, making our lives very much our own, taking responsibility for our own growth and happiness.
The early difficulties, undeniably, have had an impact on our lives. And sometimes these have been negative. There have been times of depression and devastation when love relationships have foundered. There have been moments of perfectionism as painful as Father's stern insistence that "An A-minus is NOT acceptable!" And there was Mike's long period of commitment-phobia that led him to postpone marriage until he was in his mid-fifties and met Amp, who brought to their loving bond her own understanding and unique insights born of a childhood filled, once again, with both love and pain.
We can be aware of the residual pain of the past while not surrendering to it.
We can tell ourselves stories of survival, of triumphs both large and small, of understanding that comes from hearing the stories of others' lives.
I remember seething, years ago, as I listened to Father talk about his tortured childhood -- his beloved father's death when he was only eight years old, his mother's lies (she told him for a year and his younger sister Molly for four years that their deceased father was on an extended business trip), his mother's alcoholism and her physical and emotional abuse of her son, his being forced to support the family from age nine on with an unwanted, but reasonably successful career as a child actor in silent films. "Your mother was so horrible!" I said at last. "I hate the way she treated you. I'm so sorry it was so hard for you. What a terrible person she was!"
"Oh, no," he replied softly. "She was a wonderful person in so many ways. I guess you had to have been there. She went through some very hard times. But that didn't mean that we weren't loved..."
And I began to understand more about the shades of gray in all our lives. To tell the stories of our lives in terms of absolutes limits the glorious complexities of the individuals we grow to become.
Even those of us growing up in the same family have life stories that are uniquely ours: Tai and Mike both have life stories that have some similarities to mine but with some themes that are all their own. And all of our stories are the truth for our own lives and contribute to a central life theme.
For all my stories of growing up fearful and joyous, excluded and embraced, anxious and hopeful, one theme stands out above all: I have been dearly loved.