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Fix This

Posted in Adventures With Humans

Laurie Anderson Oh Superman

Despite no longer having to tend my elderly mother, one reason why I am still living in this town is that my mechanic is here. Anyone who has had to deal with car issues, even once, and had a bad experience, knows the value of a finding a mechanic you can trust and it is glorious. His wife runs the front desk, and what I love is that they are both thoughtful, and have a good sense of humor. Through the years, while waiting for whatever service was being done on my van, we would swap stories of various family dynamics that had spiralled into the dirt, especially tales of the behaviour and attitudes of our elders, and the difficulties in caring for them–details we never saw coming earlier in our lives. My family, less my father who died in 2004, still owns a field attached to the farm we grew up on. I visit the field at least a couple times a year to make sure that the stream running through it is clear, as it is an important tributary to other farms. Sometimes I would camp overnight, plus I had recently camped my way across the country a couple times, and had left gear in the back of my van: My hip waders, that I wore while clearing the stream were in there, plus a bucket that I used to haul water for washing, a tarp in case it rained, and a shovel to either help douse a fire, or dig out more of the stream. One morning, I was waiting at the desk to pay for an oil change and my mechanic came out front with the keys, laughing. I asked him what was so funny, and he said that he knew I didn’t have a great relationship with my mother, but he thought it was funny to see the hip waders, and the tarp, and the shovel in the back of my van, as if I had a dark plan in mind. It was funny, and I was delighted to have been hanging around two people who were actually listening, and who understood.  
When I became pregnant, my husband and I attended prenatal classes taught by the midwife we had hired to guide us through this new and exciting process. There were several couples in the class; wives in varying stages of whale-dom, and their husbands floundering to feel useful. There was one man in particular who my husband and I found remarkable. It’s funny when someone behaves like a dick, you tend to hone in on their lesser attributes; this man had dark black hair combed down in such a way that made me assume that he not only still played Dungeons & Dragons, but owned the geeky outfits to prove it.  He could have had a six pack and giant biceps, but since he was irritating, it was his stupid hair that I noticed. Yes it was unfair, but the reason was that, while all of us women were anxious about the large thing we were going to pass through the small place, this dork said that he wasn’t worried, because “women have been giving birth since the beginning.” I looked at his wife, wondering if she was settling on either drowning him while he was in the bathtub, or lacing his tea with something noxious. I couldn’t imagine what kind of father he would make; “Oh, come on Jimmy. Kids have been bleeding from open fractures since the beginning.”  My husband and I made fun of this man, not in his presence, but relentlessly on the drive home, and then one of us would mention him every now and then. It was okay. He deserved it, and the process took away his power, his misguided effort to sound wise.
Eventually, on September 29, 1991, I did the thing, and we became a family­­–the first couple in our network of friends to have a child. Sometime after the dust settled, I remember attending a party, but instead of hanging out with everyone, I found myself sitting on a chair in a closet, nursing our kid, because it was the only quiet space available. Every now and then, someone would open the door and ask me if I needed anything. I felt like an exhibit at a fair: “Open the door, see the freak! Tell your friends!” We were learning, you know, as if we had not been around since the beginning either. We wanted to be good parents; our kids were a priority.
I had a miscarriage after our first child was born. We were sad, but we felt that science was on our side; that something was not working out, so this was necessary. I was pregnant again in a blink–another boy to make two, and we were done. The thing was, I felt we were missing something here; my parents seemed to have little interest in our children, compared with my in-laws who doted and developed a strong bond with the boys. There were seven years between me and my next sibling, my brother, and we wondered if our mother had had a miscarriage herself somewhere in those years. We asked her, but she never gave us a clear answer, so we left it alone. I was disappointed that my parents were so inaccessible to my kids. It was as if they didn’t know what kids were. True that dad was busy trying to save the world, and mom was busy drinking, so yes, little extra time to put into developing a relationship. Plus, my mother commented that she had learned from her mother-in-law, my grandmother, who was overbearing and meddlesome, that she wanted to stay away and let us raise our family without any of her input. That, to me, was a passive-aggressive lodestone that ruined everything.  I still don’t understand it from two people so fully immersed in the Quaker religion–all about love, yes? But then again, we were trying to run a house that was fun, joyful, instead of the dark, suffocating aura of the farmhouse, there swaddled in guilt, and a complete disregard for anyone other than the less fortunate of the world; there was no balance at all.
I don’t really know why I’m writing about this. Perhaps it’s because new generations need to realize how much their behaviour affects their children. You need to be ‘on it,’ right from the start, but if you don’t have a parent involved to update you on ancestral traits to heed, and passed-down, helpful child-raising hacks you’re working blind and that’s not fair, and also that’s not how raising a family was supposed to be done. Plus, when parents don’t make an effort–don’t work as hard as they could to overcome their own challenges so they can be present for their immediate family, descendants like me end up wanting to have very little to do with them, and both parties miss out. It’s possible to be a wonderful parent, but you have to be present and aware. If you weren’t dialed in from the beginning, there is only praise if you decide to change and make an effort later in life. So many things you do can make a huge difference in a child’s sense of self and his place in the world. When you don’t do them, you leave a gap that gets filled by something else–unhelpful self-doubt, low self-worth, things that if you would have just gotten over yourself might not have been an issue.
In the American journalist Anderson Cooper's podcast, 'All There Is,' one of the people he interviews is the avant-guard artist and excellent human, Laurie Anderson. Cooper’s podcast is about loss and grieving, and though this interview is largely based on the same topic, there is a story that Anderson(Laurie, not Cooper–this might get confusing) tells from her childhood that, upon hearing its’ conclusion, I almost fell off my chair. Anderson–Laurie that is, who is 75 now, describes a scenario where she, at 8 years old, had taken her 2 year-old twin brothers to a movie on a winter afternoon, pushing them along, bundled up as they were, in the stroller. This ‘being trusted’ like this, wasn’t unusual back then, especially in the small midwestern town where they lived. Now it’s likely that a police car would show up and deliver the party home, and charge the parent with neglect, but this was a different time.  On the way home, Anderson decided that she wanted to take the twins to go see the moon from an island not too far out on the lake that was hear their house. She pushed the stroller out onto the ice and they made their way on the frozen surface. They were close to the island when there was a loud crack, the ice opened up and the stroller fell through. Anderson was shocked, but got her coat off and dove into the water. She found one brother and threw him up onto the ice, went down to find the second brother but couldn’t. She came up and, despite starting to panic, dove again, this time finding him much farther down. She had the wherewithal to unstrap him from the stroller and get him onto the ice with his brother, now both boys screaming. In the interview, Anderson described the distance from the break in the ice to their house to be about three blocks, so off they went, Anderson running with the boys in her arms. She got them into the house, put them down, and was ready to be in so much trouble, but her mother looked at her and said–and I teared up when I heard this, “I didn’t know you were such a great swimmer, and such a good diver.” Anderson said that it changed her life “to be thanked for something like that.” I can’t imagine how good that must have felt. And isn’t it crummy that a story like that is such a big deal? That it made me cry? That’s evidence of a primal need to be noticed, and acknowledged, and held. It’s something we all have, and something so rarely met, and how stupid is that.
I’m far from a perfect parent, but nobody can say that I don’t try. Initially, I explained to my boys that, though they might not be that excited to see their grandmother, that they should respect her and, no matter who they are dealing with, they should always be gracious. I like that word. If you’re gracious, you can invoke your particular perspective, but always in a way that is not confrontational or mean. You don’t have to agree with the person, but you do need to be compassionate and thoughtful, which is what sifts out when I think of ‘gracious.’ Every now and again I would make an effort to bring the boys and their grandmother together in hopes of them becoming more fond of each other. Once, I had them come to visit my mother in her apartment, and bring their musical instruments to play for her. I was hoping that the vibe might get her keen to play piano again, something she did quite well while we were growing up. The boys arrived, and began playing, and about ten minutes in, I noticed my mother get up and go into the kitchen. I thought I heard a ‘clink,’ and then saw her come sit back down. I was curious, went into the kitchen and found a glass half-filled with straight gin. In about three minutes, I saw my mother’s face begin to show the effects of drinking, exhibiting the physical clues I got good at spotting while I was growing up; the eyes begin to work solo, instead of as a pair, and speech slurs in tandem with other motor skills. I called a halt to the evening. I made it clear that I didn’t want the boys exposed to this, that it was not okay, and I sent them off. To be clear, it’s one thing to make yourself a drink, bring it with you as you sit, and offer the same to others in the room but if it’s done on the sly by an alcoholic who won’t get, or accept help, well, this is how families shatter.
I have never been mean, or offered ‘less-than,’ to my mother. While I was looking after her, I prepared the best food for her meals. Nothing was processed, and I worked hard to change things up so that she didn’t get bored. I found things for her to watch, especially baseball, which she loves. I noticed that she didn’t like movies much, as I think she wasn’t keen on witnessing difficulties between people. She wasn’t a reader either, and while I’d like to say that this was due to the onset of macular degeneration, and her being classified as legally blind in 2019, but books were never her thing; now declining even audio books. She liked podcasts, documentaries, and music was good. Still, on top of all of her care, I had given her the Heimlich twice, picked her up from the floor after she had fallen, helped her navigate with a fractured lower vertebra, and she had never made mention of being grateful, or any feelings at all around that. She seemed unable to look even in my general direction and say, “Hey thanks,” or anything close like, “Oh, you’re just a peach and I’m glad you were there! ‘So glad you knew what to do?” It’s almost as if she wanted to be the only child in the room, and so I was her competitor instead of her offspring.
There are neighbours who repeatedly ask me how my mother is doing, now that she has moved to a long term care facility near my sister, and I am no longer involved. I can tell that when I make it clear to them that I am grateful to be away from her, they are unsure of how to react. There’s an implied requirement that I’m to love my mother, and worry about her, and anything else is heresy. To deny my feelings around this–to expect me to ‘pretend,’ invalidates all of the crummy history I have with my mother; so little joy. “Oh, it was that generation,” doesn’t swing with me. How do you explain Laurie Anderson’s mother absolutely hitting it out of the park for her daughter? I think parents have to intentionally work hard to develop good grounding for their kids. My parents knew better. They weren’t idiots, but they clearly made the choice that we weren’t a priority, otherwise, the stuff-in-the-back-of-the-van would not have been so funny.  
You can fix relationships, or at least make it clear that this is your goal; it’s a decision. It’s never easy, but the initial maneuver of throwing off your projections about others and how they see you–the stories your ego tells you that are more often than not false, is a brave start, and there is lots of help out there for this if you should feel so moved to take advantage. You can start sharing your thoughts about how you dropped the ball at times, and what was going on that made you do that. When you have children this is your responsibility. It’s also your responsibility as a human on this planet to spread joy, or at least not to dismiss someone else for trying. In short, you have to earn your respect, not simply assume that you deserve it because of the archetypal role you fell into, such as mother, or father. And if you meet someone who is not ga-ga over a parent, there is often a story there, one that you don’t know, and the gracious thing to do is to respect that instead of demanding hallmark responses to your repeated inquiries. I haven’t been here ‘since the beginning,’ I’ve been here long enough to no longer suffer needless, unfounded guilt around family dynamics, and would never impose such a demand on others. Thing is, it would be nice to offer our kids the ability to avoid having to start from scratch by tending family relationships as the prime considerations that they are, thereby setting them up with a head-start. I know that if my mother or father had said anything to me like what Laurie Anderson’s mother did, my life would have been different, and I know that I’m not alone. To be clear, I’m not promoting over indulgence and the repeated lobbing of unearned praise so that your child turns into a spoiled jerk, but rather that thoughtful, meaningful phrase of acknowledgement, earned and appreciated fully by both of you. I can’t go back in time, but if you’re hearing this and you’re a parent of young children, you can fix things, and make a difference for them, and their descendants. You can thank me later.