Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Same Family, Differing Histories

When my brother Mike and his family visited us recently, he spent some time relaxing and reading some of my recent blog posts. After reading my blog about Roots and Wings, where I recounted my departure from home to college, he sighed.  "You're the only one of us to leave home in what could be called a normal way," he said.

While my memory of departure was loving parents letting go, his reality as well as Tai's were to be quite different.  He left home at 15, after years of physical and emotional abuse from our father, to go live with our maternal grandmother in Kansas, helping her on the farm and healing in the warmth of her unconditional love. Tai ran away from home when she was not quite 18, living with friends until she could find a job and a place of her own.

Even in less extreme family situations, siblings grow up experiencing the family and the world in a different way. Birth order, parental situations, and individual personalities can make such a difference in forming one's views of the family and of the past.

That's why a fond memory by one sibling is another's nightmare or may be greeted with a blank stare. That's why one sibling's feelings about aging parents may be different -- because he or she may have experienced the parents you shared at another life phase or in a whole different way.

I read recently that when one writes a memoir -- as I am in the process of doing -- it can be a minefield for family tensions because each sibling has his or her own take on what growing up in the family was like, with some shared and some very divergent memories.

The differences are quite apparent in my own family.

As the eldest child, I tried very hard to be good and to get along with both parents, keeping a low profile when things were not going well with father, doing everything I could to avoid upsetting him. I became very good at hiding.

Mike, an unusually winsome, loving child, found our father's fury and antipathy hard to understand. Once, when he was leaving for work, Father gave him a beating for no particular reason. Mike ran after him, weeping, his arms up, begging for a hug, as father climbed into his car. "Father!" he cried. "You forgot to kiss me goodbye!" Any time father was in a rare good mood, Mike would brighten. If father would take him up on his lap or show him some special attention, he was the happiest little boy alive. Unfortunately, those moments were rare.

Tai was born with spunk and spirit.  The first time father hit her, when she was about two years old, she faced him, nose to his kneecap, hands on her hips, stamped her foot and yelled "Don't you ever, ever, ever do that to me again!" I held my breath. Father laughed and said "I like your spirit, kid!" And, many years later, while the rest of us -- either at home or at a distance -- were quiet when he went on a drinking binge with his stockpiled Cuban rum, Tai ran into the kitchen screaming and smashed his entire irreplaceable stash in the sink, calling him a "hopeless alcoholic" before running off into the night to the house of a friend.

While we all share some memories and experiences -- both fun and painful -- of growing up together, our dramatically different personal experiences, relationships with parents and reactions to what went on, colored our lives in a variety of ways.

I was the first child born to parents in their mid-thirties, on an Air Force base near the end of World War II.  My parents were looking forward to the end of the war and the beginning of a prosperous and promising new life together.  My father, a difficult and conflicted man, greeted me with love and exasperation, with nurturing and verbal abuse. He encouraged me to be the best I could be and to not let my gender hold me back -- even as he treated our mother like a second class citizen.  As a result, I grew up driven, feeling I had to achieve to be loved, and wary of children as life-wreckers, after hearing much too often that having children had ruined my father's life. And yet, having been raised feeling that I was truly loved, I had no difficulty making friends and bonding with teachers, co-workers and some very good men. I got married at 32 and that marriage has survived and thrived for 34 years.

For Mike, the pain of his early years made him wary of commitment, unable to trust, until, in late middle age, he found just the right woman half a world away. A physician and expert in medical informatics, he was working at an international medical center in Bangkok, Thailand, when he met Amp -- a young Thai woman who is truly a twin soul. She's the only person I have ever met who is more frugal than he is. They married when he was 58 and had Maggie when he was 60.  Late in life, he has a happy marriage and a bright, lively toddler daughter -- and the joy and peace of real connection at last.

Tai, born to parents in their mid-forties who felt little but despair over their life situation, was essentially an only child after age eight after both Mike and I left home. She has no memory of our father ever having a job or our parents being happy or living lives with any semblance of normality. She grew up feeling abandoned and alone in a family situation that was increasingly chaotic before she fled for her life. Her growing up experience has made her tough and resilient on the outside, tender on the inside. She married for the first time at 21 and has spent a lifetime working to build a viable family.  It is, perhaps, no accident that she is a nurse who is dedicated to easing others' pain and is an infinitely patient parent to Nick.

It's important, in dealing with our siblings, to honor and respect their experiences, their memories and their very individual world views.  It isn't a matter of arguing whether something did or didn't happen,  whether a parent was this way or that.  The truth lies in each one's singular experience.

I got an email from Mike on the 4th of July, telling me that this was always his favorite holiday because father had always been in a good mood on that whole holiday weekend and always let him shoot a little carbide canon all day if he wanted,  an experience he describes as "pure pyrotechnic bliss. " And there were no beatings, ever, on the 4th of July.  For Mike, it was a blessed time of refuge from life as usual, his favorite holiday of the year.

And so he was celebrating with enthusiasm the other day, buoyed by memories and by happy current realities. He sent me a picture of Maggie celebrating the 4th in her own way.  And I rejoiced in his happiness and feeling of safety and contentment, knowing all that was very hard won.

                                  Maggie celebrating her Dad's favorite holiday - July 4!                            


  1. Such a touching, perceptive and TRUE post, Kathy. Thank you so much for it.

    I'm constantly amazed at how different as well as how similar are my memories of our parents and those of my 4 sisters. They overlap, yet diverge so much, partly because of the 20 year age gap between the eldest and youngest of us. We were fortunate in that our parents were never abusive but inevitably our individual experiences were different and you have described both the fact and the reasons for that so well.

  2. This was a very interesting post. you gave us much to think about.

  3. I've seen this happen in my family -- or my extended family of cousins -- as well. One sibling has totally different recollections. We don't know how much of this is true (no one in the family ever saw the middle daughter treated any differently than her younger and older siblings) and how much was the times -- moving, the creative spirit. Even now, as we near our 60s, there is a tension that has been somewhat alleviated over time, but still pops up. I'm glad your brother has found a way to bring his past and present together.

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