Do you remember Disney’s Little Mermaid? Ursula, a wicked, dark and powerful cave-swelling sea witch, grants the wishes of mermen and mermaids in exchange for something precious, and then if the merman or mermaid can't fulfill whatever they've agreed to in exchange for the wish, she keeps whatever she holds that's been so precious. We know the story. Our mermaid is Ariel. Her collateral? Her voice. Her wish? To experience life outside of the ocean – to experience something more.
I feel a connection with Ariel’s character after this past year. My birth family is like an Ursula and I am like an Ariel. They have worked hard to silence my voice, to take what is precious. They have made deals with the devil. They, like Ursula and her snakes, have forged together at times, intrusively tried to clutch their tentacles around what remained dear and unclaimed, and when discovered have denied their involvement. Just like in the story, each time Ariel seems to make progress or be close to fulfilling her part of the agreement (like in the boat with the prince), Ursula intercepts her efforts and all is lost seemingly making it impossible for Ariel to gain any ground.
I relate to Ariel’s character as she navigates a new world. When you grow up in an abusive or dysfunctional family, the rules of engagement are different. Your world is different. I had no voice. I had to work so hard to learn how to be healthy, how to develop good communication skills, how to have meaningful relationships, how to establish boundaries, and enforce them. I had to learn who I was. I had to reclaim my lost childhood all while maintaining my adult life (bills, house, husband).
My relationship with my birth family has always been herky-jerky. Once I became an adult, it was much easier for me to distance myself; something I was eager and happy to do, and none of them minded. I was left out of family events anyway. Even the aunts I had been so fond of as a child rarely or never called or wrote. Bud never called. Frances had passed away. I was forgotten.
When Mike and I had the opportunity to move off the continent, we jumped on it. It was five years of being able to forget that my “family” existed. I was able to put Ursula on the back burner. One aunt did on occasion call and check in. When Caleb was born, a joyous moment and certainly a reason for family to send congratulations, there were no calls or cards. It was a small sting, but to be expected I guess. It’s not that I was close with my family; it’s not that I even wanted to be close. I think it was more of the reminder that I didn’t have a family. While Mike’s extended family was busy planning a baby shower for us and flew us back home so that we could have a celebration where forty or fifty aunts and uncles and cousins all surrounded us with kisses and well wishes, I longed for someone to love me like that, too.
After Caleb was born, Bud did call a handful of times which is a handful more than he had before. He asked me how Caleb was doing, and if this gives you any indication of how absolutely inappropriate, completely clueless of boundaries, and self-consumed of a person he is, he told me how proud he was to be a grandfather. My reaction was physical. My impulse was to throw the phone across the room. I don’t even know why I accepted his calls. Pity? Obligation? He also sent a few very small letters. A few times he included a dollar. It may sound like a nice gesture, but looking back (and after everything that has happened this year) it was a way of manipulating me into keeping the relationship open. One letter even asked me to send him money. And I did. Twisted family systems suck you in and even though I knew better (dammit, I knew better!), I still did it. Only once, but once too many.
Then after five blissful years in a place I loved and loved me in return, it was time to go back to the east coast. No more ocean and continent in between me and Ursula. I told Mike, I felt it in my gut, that once we got back east the vultures would circle. I could just sense it. I had no idea how right I was.
When we moved back home, I didn’t let Bud know. I didn’t want him to call me or come visit. I wasn’t ready. Our family was in a huge period of adjustment. Caleb wasn’t quite four and I was six months pregnant with Corrie, we were buying our first home, and Mike was in between jobs. Plus, I just wanted to be left alone. I visited the one aunt who had kept in touch and the visits were pleasant. I happened to see the three other aunts at one of the visits in her home – one of them was kind; the two others were cold and distant. Sigh. And again Mike’s family planned a shower for us. My family did not.
The time came for Corrie to be born. It was the best day. Her birth was bliss, the hospital staff was wonderful, she was a stellar nurser, and she hopped into a sleeping routine like nobody’s business. Having a newborn is rough even when you get an “easy” one, but it was a happy time. The aunt who I’d kept in contact with never came to the hospital to see the baby and never came to the house in the days or weeks to follow to see the baby. Not even a card. None of the other relatives called or visited either. Nope, no cards. Or emails. It was as if Corrie didn’t exist. It was a hurtful blow. Again, it wasn’t that I expected them to do it, but it was just yet another reminder that I was different. I don’t belong.
It was still a truly joyful time though, Corrie's first few weeks. But like most Ursula families, they can smell happiness and they like to take it away. Corrie was two weeks old. I got a call from my “Mom.” (I have a Mom and Dad. They are a couple who’ve taken me in and made me their own. That story will come, I swear - just don’t get confused in the meantime.) She said that Bud had been in town and overheard that I had the baby and he was angry that I hadn’t told him. The “family” was in an uproar that I hadn’t called him because in their minds he is my “daddy.” (I. Want. To. Throw. Up. Every. Time.) The phone call caught me off guard. I was hormonal and still reeling from a major move and the demands of caring for a newborn and a preschooler (not to mention a moving company who stole our possessions; we finally got an attorney and the company “delivered” our stuff broken, mildewed, boxes missing, and in disrepair, but Caleb’s baby videos made it).
So Bud was in town and now knew I lived close by, but he didn’t call me to say “Hi. I’d like to see you.” Bud knew the baby was born, but he didn’t call to say, “Congratulations! How is she? How are you? Can I see her?” And he left town without a word to me about it. He had breezed in and out of town and The Family (like the mob) had ganged up and pegged me for an ogre, a witch, a horrible person, keeping Bud from his grandchild. They said really nasty and hurtful things about me. Things that were untrue. I thought it was really unfair that they didn’t even give me a chance to be kind. If Bud had called to say he was in town and he wanted to see the baby, I probably would have agreed to let him come over for a short visit. I hung up the phone feeling villainized and angry. Really, really angry. And sad. When Mike got home, I was a wreck. I told him what happened and the things the family had said. His answer was perfect. “You’ve done enough crying over them. Let them cry for a while.” It made me feel like he was on my side. And like he could see the unfairness, too.
Over the next few weeks, I slowly gained my footing. The episode with Bud and the family had rocked me, but I tried to put it all in perspective. First, it’s not like my family is an integral part of my life. I don’t see or talk with them on a regular basis (or even an irregular basis) so my interactions with them are highly infrequent. Why get my panties in a wad about things that only happen occasionally? I rarely see or hear from Bud either and since he doesn’t drive on the interstate so I have no fear of him just showing up on my door step so just let it go and forget the whole thing happened. Plus, some people don’t even have any family. I should be grateful for the family I do have and not dwell on the things that are absent. This is how I talked myself off the ledge.
I started to blog again which was wonderful. (And I don’t know many of them, but I have to say a big thank you to the ladies of Richmond Mommies organization for their encouragement. It helped give me a much a needed lift after a very rotten six months. You all said such kind things and through my friend Morgan I was able to meet some of you and I've been very blessed and grateful.) Blogging again was nice. I made a few friends. In small steps, my life was beginning to develop a normal routine I could live with. Last fall, as things were starting to iron out for me, my Aunt Faye was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was the aunt I had the least connection to. She was distant, cold, unpleasant, mean. I know it’s not “polite” to say things like about people who are sick (or dead), but it’s true so I’m saying it. There was something about me that just rubbed her the wrong way, I suppose. I don’t know what it was. My existence? My breathing air? Like most closed, dysfunctional, co-dependent, sick, isolated, abusive, and warped families, mine is very insular. The only friends they have are each other. So when Faye found out she had cancer, the family went into full blown panic mode. I wasn’t part of the panic mode, but since I have the pleasure (barf) of living so close by (they aaaaaall live in the same area as me. lucky me.) I was able to watch this all happen from the stands.
Faye’s cancer progressed rapidly and she died. Her death and funeral is what brought Bud to town and thus the cause of the post last year “The Visit.” I was not expecting Bud to come to my home that day. A member of the family called me and said, “We are on our way to town because Faye died. We are an hour away. Can Bud stay with you?” An hour is a very short time to make such a big decision and I scrambled to decide what I should do. Would this be an olive branch to the family? Would this be a kind gesture to an elderly, disabled man? Would this be opening my door to a narcissist? I had a thousand and one thoughts running through my head and none of them seemed right. It just so happened that I had also just started blogging about my feelings toward Bud so I had all of this open baggage just hanging out. I didn’t know what the “right” decision would be. I called Mike and asked him what I should do. I’ll edit his words to maintain his gentlemanly character, but he essentially said, “No. But if you really decide you need to do this I’ll play along.” So, what to do?
I picked up the phone and called the one aunt I had managed to stay in touch with. We had stopped talking after Corrie’s birth because of the Bud incident (everyone was angry with me), but I knew she would be involved in this hoopla somehow and I wanted to put some things on the table. I called to tell her that I would have Bud over, that he could spend the night, that I would not attend the funeral so someone would need to come pick him up in the morning, and then he would need to go home with someone else after that. And then she and I got into a very sincere and lengthy conversation about this man, her brother and my father, who both of us see with such differing views. Being his older sister Mary Beth sees Bud as a boy trapped in a man’s body, needing protection and care. He wouldn’t hurt a soul and he does no harm to anyone intentionally. He doesn’t call me or check on our family because he doesn’t think to do so, and he asks for money because he doesn’t understand social norms. She can’t stand the thought of him being alone and she feels bad for him. Her argument sounds valid, legitimate, and sincere. Sounds. This is where you have to look before you leap.
I wonder how Bud’s life would be different if he had been born today instead of 1940s. Or to a father who was an accountant in a city instead a tobacco farmer in the middle of nowhere. But such was not the case. And in the 40s and 50s resources for children with developmental delays aren't the same as they are today. With no question Bud has a mental disability of some sort, though (that I'm aware of) he was never officially diagnosed. He has a low IQ, frustrates easily, repeats himself, mumbles, forgetful, and shows other signs of a cognitive something or another, but is high functioning. He is a great reader. Some of his favorite books are Nancy Drew mystery novels and Hardy Boys books. He can drive a car. He can write. He shops on his own. He has always lived on his own. The family thought he was lucid enough to care for two children. He held a few jobs. In tenth grade, Bud was having difficulty in school. Instead of encouraging him to continue his education or working with him so he could graduate, the principal told my grandparents that Bud should quit school and work on the farm, so that’s what happened.
And the bad decisions didn’t stop there. When Bud shared with the family that he was having suicidal thoughts, they encouraged him to get married, not see a doctor. No one ever thought to teach him a trade or an employable skill. Bud was not held accountable for his money management – ever. They did show Bud how to apply for welfare once he had me and it was clear he couldn’t support a wife and child. The family funneled money into him and us with resentment for years, paying for electricity and food and clothing, and never made Bud pay any of it back or work on the farm for it. Once Bud became an adult, he was like a spoiled child on summer vacation. His brothers and sisters worked and paid his bills while he sat at home each day and watched Days of Our Lives and did nothing. And he grew to expect it. If he totaled a car, the sisters complained and moaned, but bought him a new one. They bought his cigarettes. They paid his insurance. And never once, not once, did Bud have to do one thing to earn any of it. For the last sixty years the family has sent Bud the message, “You’re not good enough, so why even try?” And for the last thirty years, they’ve sent him the message, “Put your hand out and someone will fill it; you don’t have to do a thing.”
Mary Beth sees the coin only one-sided, and I told her so. Bud was not my brother – he was my father. He was supposed to protect me. He was supposed to care for me. He was supposed to provide for me. He was supposed to love me. His disability didn’t prevent him from doing any of those things, but the way the family treated his disability definitely did. They created the monster man. They are the ones who instilled in him the attitude that it is better to receive than to give. They taught him that invitations to pity parties are always in stock. They taught him to be lazy and self-centered. They nurtured an attitude that created a person who can only think of himself and no one else, which in turn fostered an environment ripe for abuse and neglect. He wants a relationship with me only for what I can provide, whether it be money or the satisfaction in his old age of the pleasure of grandchildren, a pleasure he has not earned. But the family does not see it that way. Everything for Bud should be free of charge. No responsibility. No penalty. No payment. Mary Beth’s response about my children was, “Well, just let him see them. They won’t ask any questions and it’s only a few times a year. They can call him Grandpa. It’ll make him feel good.” She doesn’t get it.
But Bud came to my home. I received him with grace (mostly). Mike and I decided we would gloss over the whole “grandpa” bit and just not introduce him as anyone, so when Bud told Caleb, “Did you know I’m your grandpa?” I thought Mike was going to blow a fuse. I held my tongue. Caleb looked at Bud like he was crazy and then went off to play. He didn’t ask me about it, but after Bud left the next day I explained that “the guy who was here” was just someone I knew when I was a kid. I let Bud hold the baby. We had dinner. We had breakfast the next day. We chatted. He left. I felt like I did my duty. After all, it was no easy thing. In fact, it was a very, very hard thing to do. I did my part to get good karma. Period. I took some time to process. The holidays were a really rough time for me. The holidays are always a rough time for me. I'm sure others can relate.
Now here’s where things start to get tricky.
In the spring I decided to start volunteering and get my crisis and peer counseling training. Sometime right after that I also had to go back to work. Living on one income can get tight and Mike and I finally knew the time had come so I went back to something I did before babies – banking. Not what I want to do in the long term (as evidenced by the blog and my volunteering), but I do love the people I work with and it's a great company, so for now it's fine. So we're plodding along normally and then BAM!
I was under the impression everything was fine with the family. I had done my civic duty and I hadn’t heard anything else from Bud so I thought all was well. My Mom (remember that lady?) called to tell me to steer clear of all the family. She wanted to warn me so I didn’t innocently call my aunt and then get a shot to the face. I forget the details – it’s kind of hazy because absolutely none of it makes sense – but essentially the family was (yet again) upset with me that I had not made contact with Bud or sent him photos of the kids. And what’s more, they wanted me to start “helping out” with some of his expenses, which is sooooo ironic because I cannot tell you the number of times I have said to Mike, “They [the family] are all getting older. They’re going to start retiring, dying, etc. What are they going to do? How are they going to pay for Bud’s life?” And there we have it, folks. The answer they had come up with apparently is me.
I had seen Mary Beth at a gathering just before this enlightenment. She’s in her 70s now. The event had lots of new people, there was lots of lively chatter, etc. When I saw her (at the time I didn’t know anything was, shall we say, askew) I was friendly and said hi to her like always and tried to engage her in normal chit-chat. What’s more, what makes me grit my teeth now and sends my blood into a cold rage, is that my kids were there, too. Caleb said hi to her and gave her a hug. Her behavior seemed odd to me, cold even. She didn’t ask him about school. She didn’t ask him about his friends. Caleb is a chatty kid and she is a woman who ordinarily gravitates towards small children and enjoys them so I did think it was strange that she didn’t say more to him than “hi,’ but, again, she’s old blahblahblah. Then there’s Corrie, a baby. Corrie sat right next to her for at least an hour and she never asked one thing about her or offered to hold her or said how cute she was or anything. Now, please don’t take away what I’m trying to say is that when my children are around that the world has to center around them. What I’m trying to convey is that this was an abnormal interaction. We had been with Mary Beth before and now her behavior was noticeably different. I chalked it up to being in a new environment. It occurred to me afterwards, once I realized the family had been upset with me, that her interactions with the us that day were more sinister. Now the family was playing nasty. If I didn’t do as the family thought I should, then they would not only withhold love and affection from me, but they were not above withholding love, affection, and attention from my children as well as a way of getting me to play by the rules.
Shortly after this, Aunt Peggy was diagnosed with leukemia. The family started to circle the wagons again. Aunt Peggy was one of my favorite aunts growing up. All four of the aunts each had a different personality and each represented attributes I extracted to make a sort of patch-work idea of what a woman or mother-figure might be like. Mary Beth was the beautiful one. She had a vanity full of make-ups, lipsticks, powders, and a lighted make-up mirror. She had perfumes and her nails were always beautifully done. From her I got an idea of femininity. Aunt Betty was smart and kind. Her marriage was the best as her husband was smart, handsome, a great father, and a good provider. Aunt Betty was fluffy, so I liked to sit on her lap and she never rejected me. From her I got an idea of nurturing and healthy relationships. Aunt Faye was bitter. She had married young and had one son. Her husband had died in a motorcycle accident and I think it must have really broken her heart because she was a cold person. I can’t remember hugging her or hearing kind words from her. She complained about most anything. From her I got an idea of what happens when bitter seeds take root. Aunt Peggy was a character. She was not a princess like Mary Beth, nor squishy like Betty, and definitely not sour like Faye. Peggy was her own woman. She was an imposing six feet tall and solidly built. Her voice was deep, but still had a feminine quality. She had a sharp wit, which she was not afraid to use. But her laugh – her laugh was her best quality. Aunt Peggy’s eyes held a constant twinkle. She was a jokester who could make anyone laugh. Her size and voice were threatening, but once you got to know her you quickly realized that she was bark and no bite. When Peggy came to visit grandpa as a child, while the other sisters might come and be occupied with trips into town or an hour or two in the morning applying makeup or sitting in the living room watching soaps, Peggy would get busy working. And she worked cheerfully, shucking corn, scrubbing cabinets, pushing brooms, or whatever needed to be done. She explained to me what my "period" was. She took me shopping for my first bra, and when I put it on, she reached her hand inside the cup and grabbed my little boob and said commandingly, “You gotta really get in there and lift 'em. They're your boobs. You gotta touch ‘em.” I was horrified at the time, but now I see what a favor she did me. From Aunt Peggy I got the idea that laughter came from the soul and that women could be both beautiful and ballsy.
Aunt Peggy’s diagnosis troubled me. The child inside me remembered the Peggy I loved, but the adult knew the family I’d been exposed to over the last several months. I also knew the current climate of the family where I was concerned. A part of me wanted to visit her, but I couldn’t bear what I thought might be another rejection or altercation or, worse, an invitation to open my own, sweet family up for more and more ongoing family drama. Peggy’s condition deteriorated swiftly. Mary Beth was a bone marrow match, but the doctor’s found some “spots” they didn’t “like” on some x-rays of Peggy’s lungs: lung cancer. A month or so later Mom called to let me know that Peggy had passed away and to let me know where the service would be held. I took a deep sigh. This was a toughy. I braced myself for the shit storm which was about to encapsulate the Greater Metro Richmond area. The questions started pulsing from my brain like a tiny firing squad (appropriate). Will Bud be in town? How long will he be here? Will he want to stay here? Will the family think he needs to stay here? The family hasn’t spoken to me in the months, should I even go to the funeral? Oh. Wait.
It was with that thought that my brain stopped. Until that moment, the Bud and family situation had been about my awkwardness with them and their ill-will towards me, but now, now it was about something else. Now my thoughts turned from being annoyed and frustrated at being confronted with my emotions with Bud to thoughts of grief. Aunt Peggy’s death was a genuine loss. We were not close in my adulthood. She had not reached out to me or befriended me nor acknowledged my children. She didn’t welcome me home with an embrace. She hadn’t taken my side or come to my defense or anything else. I had no reason to mourn her, I suppose, except for those memories I have of her. Many of them centered around Grandma Pauline’s kitchen table, and they all have that laugh and twinkle that was remarkably Peggy’s. There’s the “your first period” story, which is hilarious if I ever get around to telling it someday, and the bra shopping story. Then I am four-years-old or so and I can see Peggy so clearly in my mind and she’s beautiful – sweaty, hot summer day, no makeup, plain shorts and tank-top, dye-job blonde hair – and she’s shelling butter beans and smiling and laughing like it wasn’t work at all. It’s just how she was. And then I’m maybe six or seven-years-old and we’re in grandma’s kitchen. Someone had made a chocolate cake and Aunt Peggy and the whole family is crammed in there getting some, milling in and out, and Aunt Peggy takes a big and bite and yells, “Lord, this is better than an orgasm!” I didn’t know what that was, but I knew it got a big reaction out of everyone. Some people laughed. Some people fussed at her for saying “that.” Some people turned red. I didn’t know what “that” was but whatever it was I thought she was brave and funny for saying it. People may be freer in their dinner conversations now, but in 1988 you didn’t just go yelling “orgasm” at your grandma’s kitchen table. That was Aunt Peggy.
And that was the Aunt Peggy I was remembering and grieving. That was the Peggy I longed to hug. I was no longer someone who wanted to be away from my family. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to be with people who knew her, who loved her. I wanted to be with people who were also mourning. To hear people tell share funny and sweet stories of her. That’s what you do when you mourn. That’s why you come together to grieve. No one wants to grieve alone. But I was alone. I was just part of the family enough to know there was the loss, but not accepted enough to be included in the grieving. I was not told I could not attend the memorial service, but I knew to attend would be to cause a scene and I thought that would be unfair to Peggy’s daughter. Then I thought about sneaking in the back of the church and hiding in the balcony, but the symbolism of Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre-Dame crossed my mind so I decided against it.
I was fit to be tied: the one time when I actually want to be with the family and they’ve made the last 12 months so unbearable and dramatic and draining that I felt like it was an impossible decision. To go to the funeral meant to possibly subject myself to ridicule, rejection, public humiliation, or execution. Not going meant that I wasn’t acknowledging Peggy’s life and her value, the happy things that she brought to me when I was small. I mulled it over and over and over. I chewed it like cud. I woke up with it and went to bed with it. After a couple of days of some pretty deep thinking, keeping all things in mind, I made a decision.
It really wasn’t a decision as much as a realization: I’m done with them. No more. Nothing I’ve ever done has deserved for me to be treated like an outcast and nothing I’ll ever do will get me back into their good graces. Any desire or hope I had of making peace with the family was a fool’s dream and it, too, would be best laid to rest and buried. The important thing was to memorialize Aunt Peggy. A friend of mine had posted that she had some plants she wanted to get rid of so I messaged her and said I’d take a few. I planted them (Thanks, Lia.) and said a prayer of thanks for the happy times with Peggy and that was that.
I’ve cut ties with my birth family for good. Grieving the loss of Peggy was a nice lead into the grief to follow, which was the grief for the loss of it all. I’m not an orphan (remember? I do now have a Mom and a Dad, and I do so solemnly swear to one do day tell it), but I feel like an orphan. Who do I belong to? And where do I belong? Even little questions seem to feel so complicated. Like, this holiday season. Will your family be together for the holidays? Where is home for you? Or people make statements that make your heart stop for just a second. Don’t you just love the holidays when everyone can be together? Oh, my family, there’s just so many of us. We have the best time when we’re all together. And I want that. I want to have a place that is a home for me. I want to say that all of my family will be together for the holidays. I want to have the huge family with the loud cousins and the aunts and uncles and the craziness… and I did have it one time and it was mine. And now I don’t.
It’s the healthiest decision though. Too much damage has been done, and if the last year is an indication, the progression will only get worse. But it’s not for me to figure out an estimated projection of abuse scale or to figure out why they behave this way or try to fix it. I’ve drawn the line in the sand and it feels like a burden has been lifted. It’s taken me a few months and weeks to process all of this (and process on my own I did not, let me tell you). I wish I could say that I would have come to this decision through these experiences out of love for myself, but the kicker for me was my kids. Maybe Cris from seven years ago would have found it easier to appease the family so they’d affirm and welcome us all into their circle of superficial love, and God forgive me if I would have, but no. No, my children will not be used as fodder in anyone’s manipulation tactics or covert operations. My children will not be part of anyone’s abusive or dysfunctional family systems. Caleb and Corrie deserve more than deceit and trickery. Caleb and Corrie were made for real love and real family. And so was I.
I've come so far. Why stop now? It's hard letting go and saying, "Good riddance." Burning the bridge feels good, but watching it smolder is the hard part. I have a ways to go. The journey is a long one. Each turn brings something new. I wish things could be different, but there is no use in hanging onto a wish that can't be granted. I can't control the minds and actions of a dozen other people anymore than I can control the tides of the ocean. I can only control how I respond, and I choose to respond in the healthiest way possible for me and my family. So no toxic people. No nasty, changing parameters. No manipulating tactics. I'm free of it. The reason I have to be free of it, the history behind it, brings a twinge of sadness to my heart. But the burden that's lifted knowing I don't live under anyone's thumb, I'm free from all the guessing games and the dramatic show downs, that makes my heart feel like I did something good for myself. Like I stood up to the bully on the playground and even though I look like I took the bigger of the two lickings, I'm the one left standing.