One of the greatest treasures of the last few years has been my relationship with my oldest brother. It took a lot of tries on my part to open a pathway to connection & effort on his part to make it work. He is in his late 70s, I am in my mid 60s & we are both doing our best to create a relationship that hadn’t existed before.
People look at me in disbelief when I say that, but it is true. It was true with all of my surviving siblings, who tended to non-verbal (yes, even Mike – being cheery doesn’t equate to necessarily being readily forthcoming), all of whom graduated from high school before President Kennedy’s assassination (Peter graduated in ’56!) while I got my diploma less than a year after Woodstock.
Our current relationship is very special to me. He sends us clippings & keeps us up-to-date on his adored three granddaughters; we take him out for rambles & to his favorite spots for breakfast or lunch.
There is A LOT of heartbreaking history between the two of us, but we choose to leave it where it belongs – in the distant past.
It would be nice if everyone could make peace with people as they grow older. Our outings with Peter have been a godsend to me, in so many ways. The greatest blessing is simply being able to speak our truth to each other, without judgement.
Peter’s experience with our parents is wildly different from mine – he’s the first, while I’m the baby. Our birth order, gender & age difference aren’t the only things that conspired against any relationship – we’re rooted in two different generations, we have different ideas of what constitutes success, different ideas about class & the importance of social position, different religious beliefs & political leanings.
Perhaps our greatest difference is that Peter seems to see our parents in a radically different light than I do – over forty years since Dad died & sixteen since Mom slipped from us, he still rails at their parental inadequacies. Will never forget Peter sharing one of the oft-told tales of Dad not being the father he needed. Had heard it many times – from mother’s side as well as from Peter’s little boy memory. This time, I was able to respond differently than I would have years ago. Having an active relationship with Peter made that possible.
Peter’s jaw just about dropped when I looked him straight in the eye &, far from defending our parents, laid out the truth – “Dad & Mom had a remarkable partnership, were deeply in love & utterly devoted ~and~ they were terrible parents.”
It felt GREAT being able to say that, even if he didn’t seem interested in what came next. Mom & Dad were gosh awful parents because they’d never seen good parenting. There was no Benjamin Spock, no magazines devoted to every stage of parenting, no row upon row of baby books. In the 1930s, it was assumed a mother knew how to parent & could teach the dad.
Reality… – Mom’s father died when she was 19, succumbing to a congenital heart condition that had left him an invalid for several years. Mom adored her father, a man who loved to play with his children, who enjoyed good times with friends, parties, good music. When he died, not only did his light leave Mom’s life, so did the happy times. Her totally self-absorbed mother moved Mom & Aunt Betty, who was just 18, into their grandfather’s strict Methodist household. Mom had no template for a normal family – the one she had formed, working for a family as nanny & dear companion to the children, was destroyed when the couple unexpectedly divorced.
Dad didn’t fare any better. He was an only child – his mother was rh neg back when that couldn’t be treated; all her subsequent children died at birth or soon after. When Dad was in his early teens, his mother was again pregnant – and carrying the grief of knowing her husband had a mistress. The New Year’s Eve before her death, she & Dad waited up for “Gar” to be home to see the new year in, as he’d promised; to the end of his life, Dad remembered his mother’s tears. The baby died soon after birth, as did my grandmother days later. Dad’s father subsequently married his mistress. When Dad was given his choice of where to go for prep school, he narrowed his choices to Haverford or Harrisburg Academy, choosing the later because there would be no expectation of him coming home over weekends.
When Mom & Dad found each other, a whole new reality became possible for each of them. Dad did what he thought a truly good father should – he loved our mother, was faithful & true to her. Mom was the image of what she believed was a good mother – keeping house, being supportive of her husband & her children’s #1 cheerleader. In one way, they were not typical at all of their era. Looped-out crazy about each other, they were open about being eager lovers to the end; in a stab at lightness in a dark time, Mom said the grave stone should say, “They did it till he died.”
Recalling when, within four months, their youngest son was killed & the lumber yard where Dad was a company officer burned down, leaving him without an income, Mom said she & Dad were lucky – “Tragedy can draw a couple together or tear them apart; we were blessed to be the former.” But what brought them together did terrible damage to the family, who only once discussed the impact of Ian’s death on each & all of us – in a meeting in the late 1990s, forty years later, and that was commenting on the fact the Ian was brought up but never the tragedy, never its aftermath.
That was then… Peter knows these stories, grew up with them as I did, but they didn’t seem to humanize our parents to him. The difference NOW is that when he lights into Dad about the awful treatment he feels he received at our father’s hands, I can speak up. Not from an impassioned desire to “set the record straight” as I might have at one time. Peter’s experiences are his experiences. If I want him to respect mine, I have to first respect his. When he talks about how our parents never said, “I love you,” it’s an opportunity to point out, without trying to score points, that they came from a time where parents showed their love in actions. I understand that Peter remembers Dad as stern & I remind myself that as father/son they had a different relationship than daddy/daughter.
It is such a blessing that Peter & I made peace, that we have a here & now relationship. I feel sorry for all the people who don’t get a chance to hear their siblings’ stories as an adult, to hopefully bring to the connection a willingness to hear & the courage to share without any agenda, other than putting out your truth.