Laurel Paretta, Contributor to Moving, for You: A Tribute to Empathy
I grew up in a very dysfunctional household with a brilliant, energetic, intellectually curious, yet alcoholic mother and a huge teddy bear of a father whom everyone loved and who was hysterically funny except when he lost his temper and unleashed upon us physically. My sister and I had no sense of certainty or stability upon which to rely.
As none of this was clear to me then, my life was one of relying upon my limbic system to survive, figuring out how to steer clear of the commotion and danger that constantly hovered. As a preteen, I began to do all I could to control my environment and became known as the "mad cleaner," as I spent hours each week polishing and cleaning everything I could lay my hands on in hopes that this would be one less thing that my father would notice that my mother was not doing, that there would be one less horrific argument between them.
One day while dusting my mother's prized piece of furniture which she called her secretary, a large mahogany monstrosity with a drop-down desk front where she would sit to pay her bills each month, and a glass case above containing her most favorite possessions of books from her father and small glass knickknacks my father brought back from Japan after the war, I decided to unlock the glass case and clean its contents. I knew the key was kept in the secretary's midsection in one of the little sliding wooden compartments with false fronts to look like books, and so I slid out the one that contained the key and dumped it over into my hand, whereupon, with the key, a note fell onto my palm.
As I began reading what my mother had written, my body began to tremble and shake, as the words became clear even through the tears that had filled my eyes. It read, "If I should ever take my life it is because my husband has told me that I am an unfit wife and mother, Carol only loves me for the material things I can provide her, and Laurel hates me with such a force that I can never feel loved or valued."
There was more, but the violence with which my body was now shaking and the fear that I felt at having discovered this secret, caused me to return the note and run to my room clutching my childhood teddy bear Brownie, waiting for someone to come home. I thanked God that my older sister was first, and after leading her to the note, and asking her what we should do, we decided to tell my father.
Later that night, we heard him railing at our mother, who then came storming upstairs to tell us how dare we go through her personal things and what kind of daughters were we to violate her privacy and then hurt her purposely by telling our father. Neither parent ever raised the subject again after that night.
As an adult I have come to see this as the fiercest of many similar events that instilled in my sister and me the message that we should resist any need to talk about the urgency and importance of what went on in our household, no matter how terrible, frightening, or confusing it may have been to us.
Rather, we carried forward in our lives the message to deny in totality the reality of the horror that our mother might have killed herself and that if she did, we were fully to blame for it.
We wore steadily on our shoulders the guilt and fear we felt for our role in this potential tragedy and the remorse and shame of having revealed our discovery, making us betrayers and instigators at fault for the chaotic relationship our parents shared. My sister and I took on these roles assigned to us, wordlessly and without question, in a perverse loyalty to our parents, unable to know then the damage that was done.
I have had many years and many moments to absorb and understand that incident and all it revealed about my family. I have had many experiences and opportunities that have enabled me to forgive my mother and father with an understanding of what their lives were and how they did their best to raise my sister and me.
What I still have trouble with is forgiving myself for not having known how to discuss sadness and fear and anger and happiness with my own children when they were little. I carry a tremendous sense of loss and sadness and guilt over the years I spent parenting them when they were young while I was still unable to understand the value of discussing and sharing the intense complications of the myriad of emotions that being a family unleashes. I had not yet learned the value of expressing and confronting the feelings that are so necessary to a child's sense of self, safety, love, and well-being.
I tell myself now that it seems awfully egocentric to assume that every shortcoming I see in my children as adults is as a result of my parenting. Even as they assure me that they have forgiven me for mistakes I made when they were young, and that they believe I was a wonderful mother, I nonetheless carry an enormous sense of responsibility for any unfortunate aspects of their lives. I would love to free myself of this burden once and for all.
Calligraphy by Amorosa5