Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Family Dynamics

After reading Oh, The Joys blog regarding the untimely death of her grandmother, I found my self thinking of the passing of my own grandmothers. I just read today at Fluttercrafts her blog about her paternal grandmother, and it was a vastly different story to tell, albeit one that was closer to the tales of my two grandmothers. So I guess it isn't a very original story, to talk about my grandmothers and their impact, seeing as how others has gone there already. But it is, in a way, a tribute to Oh, The Joys, that in a time of personal grief, telling her story has impacted and inspired so many of us to reflect and even share our own experiences.

It is in the fall that I usually grapple with a bout of depression, the reasons for which are both complex and convoluted, so I'm not going there. I also have spent the past six years researching different branches of my family history. It began as a desire to know if the oral traditions had any truth to them (which they mostly did not), but it evolved into trying to understand the intangible "things" we inherit. For example, there is a family dynamic in place on both sides of my family where girls, or women do not carry the same importance as men. I realize this isn't unique to my families, but why is it there? there also seems to be another family dynamic where women are expected to be the care-givers, or handmaids (as I like to call them) to the parents, while the sons have little or no responsibility. In trying to understand these traditions, I gain insight into not only where did I come from, but it can also enable me to choose NOT to carry on some of these more destructive "traditions". With that in mind, I will begin with my father's mother.
This is a picture of my grandmother's family, sometime around 1918. My grandmother, Ruth, is the little girl on the far right. She was the fourth girl in a family of six children, most of which were girls. She looked like her father, which probably garnered her some small grain of positive attention, because for her, men were always a primary source of affection. Her mother only truly valued her one and only son. When my grandmother talked to me about this picture, she told me that her mother made all their clothes. My own mother always rolls her eyes at this comment, because, being the child of an extremely accomplished seamstress, she can tell that most of the dresses in this picture look like a kid made them. But I get ahead of myself.

I honestly can't say that Ruthie was the worst grandmother of all time - I'm thinking Flutter's grandmother, hands down, had her beat, and no doubt, there are even worse grandmothers out there. She was the kind of person who liked to skip dinner for dessert, and her hand-me-down handbags were pretty glamorous to a kid. However, as I grew older, I became more aware of her negative qualities. Probably the worst thing she ever did was to pit us against our cousins. Whichever set of grandchildren she was with, the other set was held up as paragons of virtue. We were forever being reminded of how smart, talented, tidy, helpful, and perfect the other half was. What we didn't realize initially was that she was selling the same raft of crap to our cousins, who resented us in turn. She also was known for her left-handed compliments. She told me once, shortly after I was married, that she "hoped I would deserve such a wonderful husband", and how "lucky" I was to have "caught" him. Now I do realize that these are the terms of a past generation, but jeez! Give me a little credit in the equation! She also would inquire "what happened to that cute little figure you had", and warn you that "fat girls never find husbands". All words one should live by, all words spewed upon her first, no doubt.

When my grandmother died two and a half years ago, at the age of 96, It was a peaceful death, but the emotional fallout afterwards spoke volumes. My father and his sister decided they would have separate memorials for her, since they live fairly far apart, but my father never actually organized anything - not even a cook-out, to commemorate her. My father was reluctant to even speak of his mother after her death, and when anyone would try he would cut it off. A few months after her death, I arranged for my father and his sister to meet in their former hometown (I was going there to do research anyway - the bonds of ambivalence run deep, but they run strong!). I felt that they both needed to see the other, to sort of touch base, and maybe reassure each other. My aunt was far more open about her relief in seeing and being with her brother, but my dad, the psychologist, who should be all in touch with this stuff, was kind of reserved. It wasn't until later, when my aunt had left, that he started to open up, but at least the floodgates were open.
He painted me a picture of a woman who was never satisfied with anything you could do. When he started going to college at night, while working in a steel mill by day, she thought he was just being ridiculous. When he got into graduate school she told her friends that "it was just something he had to get out of his system". It wasn't until he had that PhD in his hands that she finally got excited and wanted to refer to him as "my son, the doctor". It was something of a revelation to see him so vehement about her. I had always assumed that whatever she was like with us, he had come to terms with her, in regards to himself. It also was a revelation that he didn't have this conversation with his sister, who probably had a few issues to unload as well. That's when it struck me - the worst thing she had ever done was to destroy her family's bond with one another. It wasn't just my brothers and sister, and our cousins she had pitted against each other, it was her own children as well. The one thing we have in any time of crisis is each other, and the legacy that my grandmother bequeathed, perhaps unknowingly, was self-doubt and isolation.

When she died, I was unable to feel any sense of loss, though I know I was in a very dark place for almost a year afterwards. It was almost two years after her death before I could even begin to research her family history, but I wanted to understand how she had come to be this way, maybe to place some of the blame elsewhere, so I could forgive her for a lesser role. Its very hard to love someone, at the same time you are incredibly angry at them.

I'm not angry now, enough time has passed. But the ongoing legacy of ambivalence continues, and that IS something that I can change, even if its only within my own little piece of the family.

Next Chapter: The Wicked Witch of The North (my mother's muhthah)


Anonymous said...

I can't think of a better time to examine the peaks and pitfalls of family that now, heading into that fabulous time know as "The Holiday Season" (Oh Lordy, where's the booze?!). I also can't think of a better way to honor your grandmother's memory that to find out more about who she was, and what made her that way. Wonderful post! - Bea (not really anonymous, but I can't remember my freekin' password!)

we_be_toys said...

Ah Bea! Thanks for the words of encouragement! When are you going to start your own blog so i can give you a piece of MY mind?!!!!