The earliest memory I have of my natural family is when I was two or three years old. I remember lying on my father's shirtless back while he did pushups. After he finished his exercises, my mother used tweezers to pluck stray hairs out of his back. It is a personal memory, one of many seemingly mundane details that make up a family's life together. What happens, then, when that family is broken apart? That which is personal, the family's very identity, is lost.
My early memories of my family are what I hold on to. They are what preserve my family of origin in my mind, and they are the stories I tell my children. Early on, I was given the normal amount of attention that a child would receive. I remember having family mealtime, watching shows with my mom, and bike riding with my dad. I remember being given instructions that kids normally receive, such as, "Take your elbows off the table." I cherish these thoughts.
One not-so-normal memory is of my mom telling my dad through clenched teeth that she hated him. We were in a restaurant. I recall how she looked when she said it, and how terrified I felt. I was three or four at the time.
When I was in first grade, everything started falling apart. My mother starting drinking in excess on a daily basis. I learned to push furniture against my bedroom door to ensure that she wouldn't bring their arguments into my room. At age six, a tempest raged around me, and I was on my own to figure out how to finish growing up. My dad once took me on his lap and tried to explain to me that he and mom loved me, and that it wasn't my fault that all of this was happening. I began to feel comfort in the midst of my confusion, until I looked up and saw my mom holding a pistol, ready to bring it smashing down over his head. I screamed, and the usual arguing ensued.
At night I tried to go to sleep and shut out the sounds of arguing, my neck aching with the stress of trying to cope with school, friends, and growing up while my family falling apart. Their arguments always seemed to end with my dad leaving. Once, I recall throwing myself on the hood of his car, begging him not to go. As they argued about whose fault it was that I was upset, he peeled me off the hood of the car, then left.
After my mom's first stay in a treatment facility, she became pregnant. As an only child, I was naturally thrilled. I remember my Dad bringing her flowers, going to church as a family, and no arguing during the time she was pregnant. Perhaps the nightmare was over. I continued to try to be good, and hoped that would help things go well with my mom and dad. When my sister was a month old, I knew she was drinking. The arguing started again, but this time my ten year-old self felt responsible for my sister. My stomach ached as I walked home from school, wondering what I would find. My mom went away to treatment again, this time for many months. My sister and I went to stay with our grandparents, since Dad was busy with work.
While she was gone, I keenly felt the need for my mother. I tried to ask my dad questions I had about my appearance, but he couldn't give me what I needed. Again, I was on my own. When my mom returned, things quickly returned to the old normal. One night after my dad left I found my sobbing mom lying on the floor. What I suspected was true--he was gone for good. The excruciating process of divorcing due to "irreconcilable differences" had begun. I remember one trip to the lawyer, during which the discussion regarding who would take what centered around record albums. I felt so sad, as everything that was a part of my life was divided up. I found out that I would live with my mom (which terrified me). My dad, the stability of my life, would be available for visits. However, after he left, I didn't see him for an entire year.
An identity crisis ensued. I decided that I did not want to do anything that would keep me from being part of the popular crowd at school. I quit taking advanced academic classes; I quit my music lessons. I started to smoke occasionally, and later, to drink with my friends. Being good never got me anywhere, so what was the point? My dad was gone and my mom wouldn't notice my bad behavior. If she did, her guilt over her alcoholism would cause her to overlook it.
When my dad began contacting me again I was relieved, but it felt strange. I was not a little girl anymore. We did fun activities together occasionally, but when I came home my mom would get angry at me. We began to fight regularly, and I continued to care for my sister when I was home.
Then, another woman came into my dad's life. We three began to do activities together. I liked her but I felt like I had lost part of my dad. He used to take me bike riding, fishing, and sledding. He and I have never done anything alone together since. That was a hard adjustment for me.
I went to live with my dad and step-mom just before my high school years began. My sister stayed behind with my mom. I was so relieved to be out of the craziness of living in an alcoholic household, and expected things to be fine. However, I was not fine. I suddenly felt like a fish out of water. I didn't feel like I belonged in this new family. The family rules and ways of doing things seemed like a foreign language. I had fun doing things alone with my step-mom, but when we were with my dad, I felt hopelessly awkward.
I was depressed, and didn't know it. I felt like I didn't belong in my own home. I felt guilty when I visited my mom, because I wondered if my dad and step-mom thought I was strange for wanting to visit someone with a serious drinking problem. I felt guilty for wanting to do activities alone with my dad, because I thought my step-mom wouldn't like it. I had thought that I wanted my parents to divorce, because then the fighting would end. I never expected to feel so awful, and so alone. After my dad and step-mom started having kids, I gave up trying to fit in with them ; instead, I stayed busy with friends, school, activities, and work. I figured they would be glad if I stayed away more. When they got their first family portrait without me, it confirmed in my mind that I was a thorn in their sides. My step-mom once said, "If only you had your mother." In retrospect, I think she was being sympathetic, but at the time, I heard her comment as, "I don't want to be in the role of your mom." Another time she tried to encourage me by saying, "You could do anything, go anywhere in your life." I heard her comment as, "I don't care if you end up living close to us or not." The warmth and the desire for closeness that I had grown up with in my very flawed natural family wasn't there, because it wasn't really my family.
Years passed, and I started going to church regularly. I quit smoking and excessively drinking. I married an amazingly patient, trustworthy man. Early in our marriage, at times I was paralyzed by fear that he would abandon me. At first, I was afraid to have children, because they might grow up and hate me. On the contrary, my kids have been a source of healing in my relationship with my parents and step-parents. They gave us something to focus on other than our own awkwardness. Yet some things never heal. When we visit my hometown, we have to divide the time in half between my mom's and my dad's. There is not much time to be with either of them once it is divided. It is like having half a relationship with each one of them. Children, young or grown, relate to their parents as a unit. When one is absent, something is missing. Mom isn't there to fill me in on what is going on with dad, as only a mother can do.
I can't share my good childhood stories comfortably with my mom or my dad. I'm afraid of making my mom sad, because she has so much guilt and sadness about the past. I don't want to bring up childhood stories with my dad, because I am never alone with him. Somehow I feel like a traitor to his current family if I were to talk openly about memories from his "other" family. It is like my whole childhood is a big, sad secret that no one wants to mention. My beautiful mom and handsome father are a memory that I hold in my heart and mind, just like their old photos that I keep packed away in a box. I thank God that I belong to my own husband and children, as well as to my paternal grandparents, who are still living. No one can take that away. But the pain and consequences of a lost family of origin remain.