book reviews, family

Repost: 20 years… or things I have in common with Pat Conroy

This is a repost. I composed this on December 7, 2013, when we lived in Texas. A lot has changed since I wrote this post. My father died in July 2014. My husband now has contact with one of his daughters and they have done a lot of reconciliation. This post was true as of 2013, at least from my perspective. It’s now 2023, so please bear that in mind… I’m just reposting this because it includes a book review. Incidentally, I believe Pat Conroy’s daughter, Susannah, eventually came around, too.

Yesterday, was my husband’s daughter’s 20th birthday.  Surprisingly enough, we didn’t talk about her.  We usually talk about my husband’s kids on significant days like their birthdays or on Christmas.  I don’t know if he thought about her at all, though I did, in a fleeting way.  I have only met her once, but she’s still my husband’s kid and he loves her, despite her painful rejection of his affections. ETA: My husband’s daughter is a totally different person since she got away from her mother.

I don’t like my husband’s kids.  I liked them when I met them and I know they’ve been used as pawns and were lied to.  But that doesn’t change the way they’ve behaved.  I never had enough time to get to know them and understand why they are the way they are.  I’ve only seen the aftermath of their actions, which were devastating and deeply painful to their father and to me, simply because I happen to live with and love their dad.  And so, as curious as I am about them and as sorry as I am that things are the way they are, I don’t want to know them. ETA: I’m glad I know younger daughter better today.

Curiously, as I write this, I am also thinking about Pat Conroy’s latest book, The Death of Santini.  Pat Conroy and I share some common experiences.  We are both children of alcoholic, abusive military officers.  Pat and I were both born and raised in the South.  We have lived and spent time in some of the same places.  We both have Celtic origins.  And like my husband, Pat Conroy has a daughter who doesn’t speak to him. 

Conroy’s daughter, Susannah, is a product of his second marriage.  She was born in Italy, where Conroy and his second wife, Lenore, were living at the time.  If you read Conroy’s novel, Beach Music, you get a sense of her.  It seems to me it was around the time that novel came out that Susannah quit talking to her father.  I’m sure the book and her parents’ divorce had a lot to do with that decision.  As I don’t know what it’s like to live with Pat Conroy, I can’t say whether or not the decision was ultimately justified.  I will say that based on what Conroy writes in The Death of Santini, his second wife had things in common with Bill’s ex wife.

Conroy’s latest book also deals a lot with the divorce and death of his parents.  He adored his mother, though admits that she was a very flawed person.  Conroy’s books always feature a beautiful mother figure who is both vain and ambitious.  He had a complicated love/hate relationship with his fighter pilot father, whom he alternately describes as a heartless tyrant and a comical, larger than life, hero of a man. 

While my own parents aren’t quite as vivid as Conroy’s parents apparently were, I am familiar with the roles.  My dad was an Air Force navigator who had ambitions to be a pilot and once told me that had he done it over, he would have joined the Marines and been a fighter pilot.  My mother is a beautiful, classy woman who always seemed to aspire to better living.  Without benefit of a bachelor’s degree, she ran her own business for about 30 years and played organ for local churches.  They are still married and will celebrate 56 years of marriage three days after Christmas.  Or… maybe my mom will remember it. My dad has pretty severe dementia these days.

Conroy’s book has him sort of reconciling with his parents.  I don’t know if it really happened the way he describes it, though it makes for a hell of a story.  It’s unlikely I will reconcile with my dad because my dad is not in his right mind and lives about 1500 miles away from me.  I mostly get along with my mother, when she’s not in a mood. ETA: My mom is a totally different person since my dad passed.

I have three sisters, too.  They are much older and we’ve never been very close.  I have a cordial relationship with two of my sisters and pretty much avoid talking to the third one.  Like me, Conroy has a sister who is at odds with him.  However, my sister is not quite as brilliant or batshit crazy as Conroy’s apparently is.  Carol Conroy is a poet and, reading her brother’s book, I’m led to believe that she’s brilliant.  I see on Amazon.com that she has one book currently available called The Beauty Wars and on the book’s cover, she’s called Carol “Yonroy”.  I don’t read a lot of poetry, but somehow I don’t doubt that Pat’s sister is talented… though not nearly as famous as he is.  She might deeply resent that. 

On the other hand, Conroy seems to have a mostly convivial relationship with his brothers, two of whom worked at “Bull Street”, which is where the state mental hospital in South Carolina was located. I am familiar with that complex because I, too, worked there when I lived in South Carolina.  It was when worked for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) as a graduate assistant.  I want to say the state mental hospital had been relocated by that time… I think it’s now on Farrow Road.  But the buildings are still there and if you read Conroy’s novels, you will read his references to it.  It’s where they used to send the crazy folks. 

Pat Conroy’s youngest brother, Tom, had schizophrenia and spent a lot of time on “Bull Street”.  He spent a lot of time as a crazy derelict, wandering around Columbia, getting into legal trouble, and eventually taking his own life.  Pat writes about this in his book and it was eerie to read, since his brother killed himself by jumping off the 14th floor of the Cornell Arms apartment building, which is just kitty cornered to the South Carolina Statehouse.  I used to walk and jog around that area a lot and I know just where that building is located.  Tom Conroy died in August 1994, just months after I finished my college degree at Longwood College and only a few years before I would matriculate at the University of South Carolina, where Conroy (after earning a degree at The Citadel) and his siblings also studied. 

In one part of his latest book, he writes about delivering a eulogy for James Dickey on the campus at USC… in the Horseshoe, where he could easily see the building where his brother died.  I spent a lot of time on the Horseshoe, a beautiful, historic, lush part of campus.  And when I was a student at Longwood, I had a couple of professors who earned their doctoral degrees at USC.  One of my professors studied under Dickey and went drinking with him.  

Though I didn’t study English at USC, I often felt a tug toward that department when I would see writers come to speak there.  Pat Conroy spoke at USC in 2000; he was a last minute replacement for the late Kurt Vonnegut, another favorite writer who had to cancel because of a house fire.  I would have gone to hear either of them speak, but I was delighted that Conroy visited… I even flunked a healthcare finance exam so I could attend.  Granted, I probably would have flunked the exam regardless, but Conroy gave me a good reason to quit studying.  In the grand scheme of things, passing the exam ultimately wouldn’t have made a difference in my life.  Technically, I got a D on the exam, but ended up passing the class with a suitable grade.

Anyway… this post has rambled on long enough.  I just wanted to put in words these thoughts, which don’t really belong in a book review, but are still in my head.  I really feel a kinship with Pat Conroy, not just because he’s a southern writer, but because his life has many parallels to mine.  And we both share a love of ribald humor.  If you’re a Conroy fan, I recommend reading his latest non-fiction effort.  In fact, I would say that as much as I like his novels, his non-fiction books are far better in my opinion.  But I guess he had to become famous by fictionalizing his life story in several novels before people would care about the real story.

And below are the comments on the original posts…

AlexisAR

December 10, 2013 at 8:29 AM

I took a class in regional literature last year. The only thing of value I took from it that I didn’t have going into it was exposure to Conroy’s writings. I’m not a southerner but enjoy his works nonetheless. 

Replies

  1. knottyDecember 10, 2013 at 3:16 PM Most of Pat Conroy’s books are basically the same story. But he has such a way with language that his novels can be a joy to read. I didn’t like his last one, South of Broad, so much, but the others are very entertaining. I love his non-fiction books even more, though. He has led a very interesting life. I imagine he’s not too easy to live with, though.

The Author

January 22, 2019 at 4:32 PM

Pat Conroy’s brother didn’t jump from the 14th floor. I lived there at the time and was with a friend on that floor at the time and actually saw him fall past the window. He may have jumped from the 15th floor as he was helping a wheelchair-bound tenant there. But more likely the roof, as it was easily accessible at the time. After the suicide they made it virtually impossible to access the roof.

Replies

  1. knottyJanuary 22, 2019 at 5:02 PM Interesting… and very sad. Thank you for commenting. This post gets a surprising number of hits. Pat obviously meant a lot to many people.

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memories, mental health, psychology, stupid people

Spanking is for losers, leches, and lazy people…

This morning over breakfast, I saw today’s featured photo on Facebook, shared by the Retro Wifey page. I don’t often think of that page as controversial, as the woman who runs it usually shares nostalgic pictures of old toys, retro clothes, ads for discontinued restaurants and businesses, and the odd meme. In fact, I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to what she posts, and I almost never comment. I wasn’t going to comment on the photo about spanking. Instead, my first reaction was to X out the picture and snooze the page for thirty days. I often do that with Father Nathan Monk’s page.

I decided to leave a comment when I noticed the dozens of people who were championing the physical punishment of children. You see, I have noticed that when it comes to spankings and similar punishments, results tend to vary. My southern, conservative, alcoholic, Air Force officer dad raised me like he was raised by his own alcoholic father. When my dad decided I had misbehaved in some way, he would often employ spanking as his “go to” discipline.

Because I was a bright, high-mettled child who could be sassy, I got a lot of spankings. They didn’t happen daily or weekly, but they happened often enough that I couldn’t count how many times they happened in my childhood. I don’t remember my father ever being calm when he delivered them. He never had a talk with me about why what I did was wrong. My dad never offered me a hug or encouragement to “do better”. Instead, when he felt correction was necessary, he would fly into a rage, grab me, and spank (or slap) me with his hand as hard as he could. I would scream and cry, and he would just keep hitting and yelling at me.

My father’s spankings were terrifying experiences for me every time they happened, from the time I was a toddler, until I was an adult. Yes, that’s right. The last time my dad raised a hand to me, I was almost 21 years old. That was when I told my father that if he ever laid another finger on me in anger, I would call the police. Although my dad was outraged by the threat (which was actually a promise), he must have known I was serious. The next time he tried to hit me (when I was 26 years old), I reminded him about my promise, and he wisely backed off. That was the last time he ever tried to use physical “punishment” on me. I decided that from now on, anyone who hits me had better kill me.

I’ve written a number of times about why I don’t think spanking is an effective disciplinary method. I’ve thought a lot about why I feel the way I do. I’ll tell you one thing. When my grown man father unleashed his frustrations on me, a little girl, I didn’t feel respect for him when he finished. Instead, I felt a mixture of rage, sorrow, pain, fear, and hatred for him. To me, it doesn’t make any sense to demand “respect” from someone by hitting them. Physical punishments may inspire immediate compliance, but the violent imprint is hard to erase.

Decades after my last “spanking”, I still have a lot of unresolved anger toward my dad. I still deeply resent him for the traumatic memories I have of those discipline sessions, and the way they made me feel. If my father had done to my mother what he did to me, people would call him a wife beater. And yet, people on Facebook still champion spankings as good parenting, claiming that their parents were “right” to hit them. They claim that spanking is what taught them “respect for others”. I’m sure it hasn’t occurred to them that hitting another person isn’t a respectful thing to do. Especially when the person is as powerless on every level as most children are.

My dad died in 2014. I didn’t cry much, which surprised me. I think I had a lot of mixed feelings about his death. Yes, it was hard to lose my dad on the most basic of levels. Over six years, I watched him go from an independent man, to someone completely dependent on my mother. He had lost his ability to think clearly and move freely. So, in a sense, I was relieved that he died, just to free him of the terrible reality of living with Lewy Body Dementia. There were also some good times, when he was thoughtful, funny, and kind. I remember he could be fun, especially when I was little. Sometimes, we had some interesting discussions.

But, I was also legitimately glad I didn’t have to see him again. Never again would I have to hear him complain about my laugh, or make comments about my body or hair. I would never have to see his reddened face again when he was angry. He would never again try to compete with me or resent my successes and failures. I wouldn’t get another unsolicited phone call from him, criticizing my life choices or demanding an accounting of how I spend my time.

I’m sure if I had asked my dad if he loved me, he would have said yes. In fact, he did tell me he loved me somewhat frequently. So that’s why it’s confusing to me that a man who supposedly “loved” me was okay with hitting me. Would he have encouraged my husband, Bill, to hit me whenever I made him angry? What would happen if that was Bill’s way of dealing with everyone who annoyed or angered him? He’d probably be unemployed, and possibly incarcerated.

My decision to write about spanking again today came about because, when I saw that photo on Facebook, it triggered me. Before I knew it, I was once again spilling my guts to Bill about old, traumatic memories. It can’t be a good thing to still be angry about things that happened 40 years ago. When I’ve talked to spanking proponents about this, they’ve implied that I should just “let it go.” As easy as that suggestion is to make, it’s not always an easy thing to do. If it were easy to just “let it go”, I would have done that years ago.

Other people have excused spanking, claiming that what my dad did wasn’t actually spanking. They tell me it was abuse. A couple of people have even gone as far as calling my dad’s spankings “beatings”. But who decides what constitutes a spanking, and what constitutes a beating? My dad called what he did “spanking”. I don’t think he ever learned about spanking from someone knowledgeable about the subject. I think he did to me what his father did to him. And, I distinctly remember that my father had very negative opinions of his father. He very rarely spoke of him. When he did, it was usually when he was drinking. I don’t remember him having good things to say about my grandfather (whom I never knew). In fact, at Thanksgiving, when family members would speak of Pappy, my dad would usually leave the room.

At 50 years of age, I still have a lot of issues with my self-esteem. I don’t feel lovable to most people, and expect most people to dislike me, so I don’t make an effort to make friends. In my experience, making friends with people usually ends in disappointment. While I didn’t have the worst childhood, and many have had it worse, I still feel quite angry about the way I was treated. That man was half responsible for my being here. The least he could have done was treat me with basic respect. Especially if respect was what he expected from me.

I know it’s water under the bridge. I will never get an apology for the way I was raised. There is comfort in knowing that at least I won’t pass this crap to a new generation. I’m also grateful that I married a very gentle, disciplined, and kind man, in spite of his career choice. I don’t have to worry about physical abuse anymore. But dammit, it still hurts when I see people praising corporal punishment, claiming it’s the way to save humanity by instilling “respect” in children.

Children don’t learn respect from being hit. They learn fear. There is a HUGE difference between fear and respect. I just wish more people would stop and think about how they’d like to be remembered by their children before they raise hands to them. I doubt my dad would like knowing that I still resent him for treating me the way he did.

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dogs, Ex, holidays, narcissists

Sure enough, I was right again about Ex…

Hello to you folks out there in Internetland. I apologize in advance for today’s blog post. This is a tough time of year, though, when there are narcissists in your life… even if they are just on the periphery. Writing about this bizarre stuff is useful for me. It helps me process. I suspect some other people are helped by it, as well. Dealing with a personality disordered narcissistic type is jarring and isolating, at best.

Yesterday, I wrote about my father. In that post, I wrote that I don’t think he was a narcissist. I still don’t think he was. He had issues with alcoholism and PTSD, but there were many times when he had compassion and empathy. He also didn’t deliberately do things to stir up shit, especially during the holidays. It’s just that things would happen frequently in his watch, usually because of his irritability and short fuse, and shenanigans from one of my sisters. If he weren’t an alcoholic and had a chance to work on his demons, I don’t think he would have been who he frequently was. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Ex.

Recently, I wrote a post about Christmas time approaching. In that post, I wrote about how narcissists LOVE to ruin holidays. That wasn’t a new topic for me. I’ve written plenty of times about how Ex has screwed up people’s abilities to enjoy celebrations. Sure enough, it happened again this year.

Yesterday, we received a box from younger daughter. In it, there was a stocking for the dogs. It was full of rawhide treats and a toy. They went nuts for it, although we don’t give them rawhides. I used to give them to our dogs, but have since stopped, because they can break teeth and cause intestinal blockages. Still, I got some really adorable shots of their reactions to the gift. She also sent a framed photo of her family, which delighted both of us– especially Bill. It’s just so nice to finally have one of his kids back in our lives. Just talking to her brings him joy.

Arran was obsessed with the photo, because it smelled like the treats!
The dogs were delighted with younger daughter’s gift!

Of course, Ex isn’t very happy about younger daughter’s reconciliation with her father. She’s upset that younger daughter lives so far away, and resists her attempts to maintain control of her. Recently, younger daughter celebrated her birthday. Ex contacted her at midnight Ex’s time, which is two hours later than where younger daughter lives. Ex wrote that she hoped younger daughter had a good birthday, then wrote a lengthy screed about her life. It was full of the usual complaints and insults, which younger daughter wrote that she could barely stand to read.

Then she went on Facebook and liked every photo in which younger daughter was tagged, leaving her with about 35 notifications on her account. Younger daughter wisely wrote that it looked like Ex was trying to look like she was being a “good mother”. As Christmas day is approaching, I’m betting there will soon be more of the same behavior… lots of drama and actions that are designed to maintain appearances for onlookers.

Younger daughter also had a discussion with older daughter, and my suspicions about her motivation for going back to school were confirmed. It’s for the loan money… although I’m not sure Ex really thought this idea through very well. The program that older daughter is entering will introduce her to courses in psychology that may ring a bell of recognition pertaining to her own fucked up situation. I’m sure Ex will do her best to encourage older daughter not to expose herself in person to people who might recognize her plight and offer to help her escape. That could, however, wind up being exactly what happens. Who knows?

Older daughter also made it clear that she won’t leave her mother’s home, because she’s too worried about what would happen to her little brother with severe autism. If that isn’t a damning statement, I don’t know what is. Here she is, sacrificing her life to make sure her brother is taken care of. Part of me wonders, though, if she’s made this her mission in life because she’s afraid to try living on her own. I’m sure fear is a big part of it– she’s afraid for her brother, and rightfully so. But I think she’s also afraid for herself– engaging in a little “learned helplessness”. So she stays in a hellish situation, living with her narcissistic mother under the guise of “protecting” her brother, who will soon be an adult. Does she plan to stay there for the rest of her life? I don’t know… but sooner or later, she’s going to be on her own. I hope it’s not when she’s middle-aged.

Also… if her brother’s well-being would really be in jeopardy if he was left alone with Ex, perhaps it’s time for authorities to intervene. It would make sense to get him out of the home, too. Older daughter is certainly old enough to file for legal custody of her brother, if she really thinks he’s in danger, although it might not be feasible for her to care for him alone. She’d have to get a job. But there are programs and schools for people like him. It sounds like she’ll probably be taking care of him, anyway. Anyway… it’s not my business… but I do wonder. I know Bill worries about his older daughter, too.

Older daughter also used to enjoy going to meetings at the LDS church. Younger daughter said that she stopped attending, though, because people in the church were trying to help her, and that upset Ex. It was church members who helped younger daughter escape Ex, so now Ex wants no part of the religion, even though she was the one who brought them to church in the first place. The church is a source of outside influence, friends, significant others, and prying eyes that might get Ex in trouble or cause her to lose resources. I often see Ex posting about protecting children, liberal causes, autism awareness, and other “woke” stuff. But the reality is, she doesn’t even take care of her own son, let alone actually do any work that would further the causes she claims to support. Taking care of her son is her older daughter’s job. Ex doesn’t want her to leave, because she’s basically convinced her to be her slave and allow her to exploit her own child. Older daughter is a “stay at home daughter”, not unlike the unmarried daughters in large fundie families who stay home to raise their parents’ children and do chores.

I would stake money on Ex being involved in something illegal. I would not be surprised, for instance, if she’s engaged in identity theft, or something of that nature. She has a history of doing sketchy things, particularly regarding money, especially with those who get closed to her. Unfortunately, no one has ever held her legally accountable. At least not yet. Hopefully, her meeting with karma is upcoming. I certainly pray for it.

Today’s featured photo also made an appearance in my repost of my review of The Sociopath Next Door. I’m reposting it again, because Ex ticks all of the boxes. I hope younger daughter decides to block her mom soon. She deserves to enjoy her holidays in peace.

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Ex, family, mental health, narcissists

WordPress suggests… “Talk about your father or a father figure in your life.”

Fair warning, y’all. This post is a downer, and it’s brutally honest. Not everyone will like my candor, but I’m not one for sugarcoating things. I don’t suggest reading this if you’re not in the mood for negativity. The featured photo is of me and my dad in my maternal grandfather’s garden in Buena Vista, Virginia.

Good morning, folks. It looks like our part of Germany is finally emerging from the recent deep freeze. Unfortunately, I have an unpleasant reminder of the super icy conditions we had yesterday. I had gone out to the backyard to clean up any deposits left by Arran and Noyzi, as Bill was trying to chip the ice on his car and the driveway. Thanks to some melting and refreezing of the ice and snow, the road in front of our house was a sheet of ice. And, sure enough, I slipped and fell on my ass. Fortunately, I was wearing my soon to be retired parka, which somewhat cushioned the blow to my left buttcheek. It’s a bit sore this morning, which is too bad, because my right hip has been hurting since last week, when I repeatedly had to get out of bed to take care of Arran in the wee hours of the morning. I think I’ve got some tendonitis in my hip.

Nevertheless, it’s a new day, and we’ve got stuff to do… like cleaning the toilets, washing the sheets, and writing a new blog post. I was having a touch of writer’s block today, mainly because I don’t feel too much like ranting about the news. Lots of people are already doing that, probably better than I ever could. So, I decided to see what WordPress suggested that I write about today. And, as you can see, they picked a doozy of a topic!

I’ve already written a lot about my father in this blog, who passed away during the traumatic summer of 2014. Seriously, that summer sucked so much! Bill retired from the Army on June 30th, and we spent several anxious months wondering what would be happening next. We lived in a rental house near San Antonio, Texas that we didn’t like, which had a lease operated by a property management company that we’d tried very hard to avoid. They took over managing the lease two weeks after we moved in, and I soon found out that they totally lived up to their terrible reviews on Google (although at least we didn’t have to sue them). As the fateful last day approached, we worried about transitioning into the next phase. Meanwhile, my dad, who was 81 years old and suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, suddenly got very sick and landed in the hospital for emergency gallbladder surgery. He recovered from the surgery itself, but was unable to recover from the anesthesia. That surgery turned out to be his exit from a terrible disease that had completely stripped him of his dignity.

I remember getting the messages from my sisters letting me know that our dad was ill. As we rode in the car toward San Antonio to meet one of Bill’s former colleagues, I recall saying to Bill, “Oh shit. This could be the end.” I meant it was likely my dad was about to pass. While I wasn’t that upset about the prospect of losing my father, I did think the timing of it was most unfortunate and inconvenient. However, in retrospect, I realize that it was actually a good thing that he passed when he did, because we ended up moving to Germany less than a month after he died. And that was when we met our psycho former landlady, who proceeded to be extremely annoying and very toxic for the four years we lived in her property. I won’t get into that, though… that’s a topic for another day. 😉

So… about my dad. We had a complicated relationship. As I get to know younger daughter more, I find myself empathizing with her a lot. My dad wasn’t a narcissist, like Ex is. He was, however, a pretty severe alcoholic. He had PTSD brought on by his time in the Air Force and tours in Vietnam. He was abused by his father, and rarely spoke about “Pappy” unless he was drunk. I didn’t know Pappy, because he died when I was two years old. What I do know about him was that he was also an alcoholic, and when he drank, he was very mean and sometimes violent. I heard about some incidents from my uncles that make me wonder if maybe alcohol made my grandfather a different person. My granny told me that Pappy was a really good man and very kind, but when he drank, he became the opposite. Again, my dad didn’t speak of his father very often, but I do remember him telling me one time that his father pulled a gun on him. My dad, at least, never did that. He never owned weapons.

I do have some good memories of my dad. I think he was, at his core, a very good person. He loved music with a passion. He was creative, and had a good sense of fun. He loved a good adrenaline rush, and had a daredevil streak. When he was in his 50s, he learned to hang glide. He loved roller coasters, white water rafting, biking, and jumping off steep cliffs into mountain water holes. He could be caring when he wanted to be. But he and I seemed to have a personality clash from the get go.

Some of my earliest and most vivid memories of my dad involve screaming and tears. I would get into trouble and he would yell at me or deliver a painful spanking. I remember that spankings were his go to punishment, at least when it came to disciplining me. And they usually came without warning, or any cooling off periods. I don’t remember my dad ever talking to me about the things I did wrong. My mom would often side with my dad, although there were a few exceptions. For instance, the time I got paddled in school in front of my entire class of fellow fourth graders, my dad had wanted to deliver another physical punishment. My mom stopped him, and said it was wrong for the teacher to paddle me, especially in front of my peers. But she didn’t go down to the school and raise hell, which is what I would have done if I had been a mom in that situation.

Whenever there were any problems involving me, my dad would often take the opposing side. He almost always blamed me when things went wrong, with a few exceptions. He didn’t protect me– not from the neighborhood pervert, not from bullies at school or church, and not from his own alcoholic rages. In fact, I seemed to be a gigantic pain in his ass. I remember him getting super mad at me for some reason and raging to my mom, “I’m SICK of her!” And another time, he looked at me and snapped, “You are an ARROGANT person.” He would touch my back and say things like, “You have some fat you need to lose.” Or he’d grab my head and comb my hair, none too gently, complaining that it looked bad. He called me names, too. One time, he called me a hog. Another time, he called me retarded. He frequently referred to me as fat, crazy, or unlikely to ever make more than minimum wage. And he would make me do things like give him back massages, which was rather inappropriate. Looking back on it, I think sometimes he came to me for affection, when my mom was freezing him out. Especially when I was a young child. It was never a sexual thing, though. In fact, my dad was very conservative about sex, at least around me.

My dad loved to sing and many people enjoyed his efforts. I was not one of his admirers. When I started singing, too, he would compete with me. When I decided to take voice lessons as a means of easing my depression, he got wind of it and decided to take lessons from the very same teacher. He would deliberately pick fights with me, and disrespect my property. When I was in Armenia, he went through my CD collection, got it all completely mixed up, and lost a few of my favorites. When I confronted him about it, he got all pathetic and shitty. He didn’t respect me. I was just a product of his loins. 😉

Later, when I married Bill, it was clear that he liked Bill more than me. He wanted to see and talk to Bill, but would ignore me or get my name wrong. When Bill was deployed to Iraq, my dad called me– one of the few times he ever did that– and lectured me about being unemployed. He felt I should be working while Bill was gone, even though we would be moving in a matter of months. I told him my employment status was none of his business, which seemed to take him aback.

One time, we did my parents a favor by driving them to my sister’s graduation. It way May 2003, and I was 30 years old. While we were watching the commencement exercises, some woman was sitting near us and had a problem with us talking. The ceremony was in a gymnasium, and there were people screaming, cheering, ringing cowbells, etc. For some reason, the woman said something to my parents, and my dad turned and bellowed at me that I was “disturbing” people. I was absolutely mortified and humiliated; he spoke to me like I was six years old. I got up and stormed out of the gym, so angry that I told Bill I wanted to leave right that moment. It would have meant taking a train home, since we’d driven my parents’ car. Bill was trying to get me to calm down and change my mind. This happened during our “broke” years, and we didn’t have money to spare for train tickets. My mom tried to sweep the incident under the rug. I ended up being passive aggressive, by ordering several cocktails during our celebratory lunch. Oh, it also happened to be Mother’s Day, so when the restaurant gave me a potted impatiens flower, my dad loudly pointed out that I’m not a mother. I was a stepmother, though. At the time, Bill was still able to talk to his kids.

And then there were the times when my dad was violent with me. He hit me in the face more than once, and one time throttled me after I rightfully called him an asshole. The last time he ever physically struck me, I was almost 21 years old. He hit me in the face and bruised my arm. I told him if he ever laid a finger on me again, I would call the police and have him arrested. That, of course, enraged him. But he knew I meant what I said, and the next time the impulse came to strike me, I asked him if he remembered what I’d told him the last time. In spite of his love of libations, he did remember and backed off.

I remember a lot of fights and arguments with my dad. I remember times when I would get so upset that I’d hyperventilate. My mom would hand me a bag and they’d keep fighting with me, criticizing me for everything from my appearance to my laugh, which my dad hated. I remember going to school with swollen eyelids from crying, and sitting out in the cold at the barn where I boarded my horse, because I didn’t want to go home and deal with him after a fight.

I don’t think my sisters had the same experiences with our dad that I had. I do remember there were some pretty epic fights involving the two middle sisters, but when they were growing up, he was often away on military missions. I, on the other hand, came around when he was at the end of his military career. He started his own business when I was eight years old, and ran it out of our house. So he and my mom were always around when I was growing up, and I grew up like an only child. My sisters were significantly older than I was. Consequently, when he died, they were sadder than I was. I’ll be honest… although I am grateful for the good things my dad did for me, and I realize that he’s certainly not the worst parent there ever was, the truth is, he really traumatized me. And when he passed away, it was kind of a relief for me. I’ve also noticed that in the years since my dad’s death, my mom has become a much nicer and happier person.

My dad was a well liked person in our community. He was a well loved member of our family, too. When he died, a lot of people came to pay respects. I sang at his memorial. No one asked me to speak. They wanted me to sing. There was probably a reason for that. A religious song written by someone else would be more appropriate than anything I might say about my dad. On the other hand, it’s kind of funny that I sang at his memorial. I don’t think my dad was proud of my musical gifts. I think he was jealous of them. I don’t remember him telling me that he thought I had any talent for music. Instead, he would usually criticize me, even as he’d ask me to sing duets with him at church.

I grew up wondering if there was something really wrong with me. I had a hard time relating to other people. To this day, I’m pretty weird and people don’t seem to know what to make of me. But as I’ve gotten older, and become part of Bill’s life, I now see that there was a place for me. I do have a purpose. Because maybe my life would have been easier growing up if I had been more of a people pleaser… but being a people pleaser and marrying Bill would have been disastrous. I needed to survive my dad, because learning how to deal with him made me prepared for dealing with Ex. And I think it’s given me a lot of empathy for younger daughter, who is “nicer” and “kinder” than I am, yet still very resilient and emotionally intelligent. She knows her mother is abusive. She has impressive boundaries. But it still really hurts to have to enforce them against a parent. I can relate. I had to do the same thing with my dad. I wasn’t as resourceful as she’s been, though. She’s a very strong person, with a kind, forgiving, heart. I, on the other hand, have a very long memory, and seem to hold onto anger more than she does.

A few years ago, I had a revelation about my dad. I realized that he was very much a product of his upbringing. My Uncle Ed, who passed away earlier this year, was a lot like my dad in so many ways. They even looked alike when they were elderly men. Ed was younger than my dad was, but they both went to the same college– Virginia Military Institute– and they were both Air Force veterans. Like my dad, Ed was an alcoholic. He could be a lot of fun when he wanted to be. There was a really awesome, fun loving, hilarious, adventurous side to him. But he was also racist, and a proponent of MAGA… a total Trump devotee. Ed used to send me political emails, most of which I ignored. One time, I responded negatively to one he sent about how “great” Trump and Pence were. He sent a totally vile drunken screed to me that brought back awful memories of my dad when he was at his very worst. He called me a “liberal nut job” and spewed all kinds of hatred at me. Unable to tolerate that kind of abuse anymore, I told Ed to fuck off, and warned him to leave me alone before I delivered him a verbal ass kicking. Those were the last words I ever said to him before he died. I’m not sorry about it, either. But it was at that point that I realized that my dad and Ed, when they were going off on these abusive tears, they were basically vomiting up things they heard from their own father. I’ll be honest. It makes me glad I don’t have children to pass this baggage to. Because it’s pretty awful.

I’ve always loved my family, but for so many years I had a distorted view of them. I never realized just how fucked up it was, or how it affected me on so many levels. It took getting out of that environment to realize what I couldn’t see when I was growing up. And now, I’d just as soon stay away, which is what makes living in Germany so perfect for us. I don’t miss that traumatic shit at all. So, when younger daughter talks about her mother, and how the prospect of having to talk to Ex gives her nightmares, I completely understand. She just wants to have a healthy, loving, relationship with her family. But doing that is impossible when you have to deal with someone who is incapable of being mentally healthy… and can’t or won’t address their demons, take responsibility for their part in conflicts, and do what they can to be loving to people who are supposed to be their closest allies in life.

Whew… this post turned out to be a lot heavier and longer than I expected it to be.

Anyway… it may not seem like it, but I truly do believe my dad tried his best. I do think he loved me, in spite of the way he behaved sometimes (which wasn’t all the time). He did have a genuinely kind side to him, and he was always there when I was growing up. He was a good provider, and as responsible as he could have been, given his issues with alcohol addiction. I think most of his problems stemmed from being abused by his father, spending time in a war zone, and being addicted to booze. Ex, like my dad, was also abused, but instead of becoming an alcoholic, she became a narcissist and probably a borderline. Dealing with people who are damaged is very difficult. Maybe if I could have stayed a cute little girl, like I am in the featured photo, we wouldn’t have parted company on such sad terms. And again, I do have some good memories of him. But I sure am glad I married someone who only shares the military and the first name “Bill” with my dad (and actually, my dad’s name was Charles… he just went by “Bill” because my Aunt Jeanne started calling him that and it stuck).

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family, memories, mental health

WaPo advice column reminds me of mealtime meltdowns of yesteryear…

Today in the Washington Post, I read an advice column in which a letter writer asked if it’s “wrong” to force a child to eat. The writer explained that he or she was born in 1952, and their mother used to compel them to finish everything on their plate. She would either force the person to sit at the table for hours until everything was eaten, or she would use a fifteen minute timer and warn that if the food wasn’t finished, the child would be spanked and sent to bed early. The writer later found out that they have food allergies.

Yes… I think it is very damaging.

The advice columnist, Meghan Leahy, wrote that she thinks the letter writer is traumatized. She points to the level of detail included in the letter, so many years later, and explains that remembering that much about the experiences indicated psychological damage. Leahy comments:

There are three main activities one person cannot force another to do without inflicting some pretty serious harm: sleep, eat and use the toilet. These are driven by deep impulses, and each human runs on their own internal clock. When parents take draconian measures to control their children’s eating, it is about more than just getting them to finish their chicken. The parent is saying or sending messages such as: “I don’t care about your feelings or impulses. I control them.” “You don’t get to say when you eat. I do.” “I will withhold love and affection until you eat.” “Not eating or not making me happy will make me hurt you, physically and emotionally.”

I found myself nodding as I read her comments. Suddenly, I remembered my own traumatic experiences at the dinner table when I was a very young child. My father and I had a difficult relationship. He was an alcoholic who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. He could be very controlling and demanding at times. Other times, he acted like he didn’t care at all about things. Sometimes, he was even kind and reasonable. Unfortunately, I never knew which version of my dad I was going to get.

When I was very young, I was a rather picky eater. There were, and still are, a lot of things I don’t eat. My mom was a pretty good cook, but she wasn’t above using processed convenience foods. I didn’t mind eating canned things. I loved Franco-American Macaroni and Cheese, for instance. I remember eating a lot of Campbell’s Soup– especially Bean with Bacon or Chicken Noodle. Sometimes I’d have frozen chicken pot pies that, of course, I would heat up before eating. These days, Bill and I make most things from scratch. He doesn’t like eating food from boxes and cans.

But then there were times when my mom would make things I didn’t like. My dad would get on a power trip and try to force me to eat things. I’d sit at the table and cry as he yelled at and threatened me.

The one thing I could never eat under any circumstances was mushrooms. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have a phobia of them. When I was very young, I was literally petrified of wild mushrooms growing in the yard. I would freeze up and panic when I saw them. I think it stemmed from being told, when I was very young, that they were very poisonous and I must never touch them. I took the directive very seriously. I also had sisters who enjoyed tormenting me by chasing me with the mushrooms or drawing mushrooms with ugly frowns and shark teeth in my coloring books.

So one time, my dad, who was quite exasperated about my phobia, decided he was going to force me to eat a mushroom. My mom had made meat pie, and it had mushrooms in it. I remember him standing over me– I was maybe nine or ten years old– screaming at me to eat the pie. He had to go to choir practice that night, so I was under pressure. I was crying uncontrollably as he demanded that I obey him. I think I did eat some of the pie, but I never forgot that experience… or another one we had at a chain restaurant called Mountain Jack’s. My parents took me there one night and ordered sauteed mushrooms as an appetizer. My dad tried to make me eat one in the restaurant, and I started crying. My mom snarled at him to leave me alone, which he grudgingly did. But he would often get on these control freak power plays, sometimes in public. And yes, it was humiliating and traumatic.

As I read that article about forcing kids to eat things in the WaPo today, I was suddenly reminded of all the times my father bullied, harassed, and belittled me over things like food, body image, or even the way I laugh. Like several of my family members, my dad hated my laugh, and claimed I sounded like a witch. By the time I was eleven, I was very preoccupied with my body image and weight. For years, I struggled with disordered eating, although I never fell into a diagnosable eating disorder. Nowadays, instead of being obsessive about my weight and body image, I drink too much alcohol.

I looked at some of the comments people left on this article. One reader left what I thought was a really good comment. I took a screenshot of it; it was so good.

I wish all commenters were as wise as this person is.

Someone else left this comment, which made me feel really sad…

Eating should be a pleasurable activity. But this person’s mother turned it into a battle.

Below is one rather contentious comment thread on Facebook regarding this advice column. “Mike” obviously thinks that being controlling about food is a good approach to child raising… and now he’s raising his grandchild.

When I was growing up, I could not eat the hot lunches served in the school cafeteria. In those days, the food was actually cooked on site, but the smell of it usually disgusted me. There were certain items that smelled so bad that I would get nauseous if someone sat next to me eating it. I seem to remember being completely revolted by the smell of the vegetable soup, which was always served with a big piece of government cheese. I always wondered how it was that the cafeteria ladies could make ordinary food so unappetizing in appearance and aroma. I used to skip lunch during school, partly because I was always dieting, and partly because the whole experience of eating lunch at school was so traumatizing. I think it must be worse today, as schools now police what children are allowed to eat more than they did in the 80s, and food is not always cooked on site.

I remember practically starving myself in the summer of 1982, when I went to 4-H camp. The food there was even worse than what was served in school. The smell of it turned my stomach. I never went back to 4-H camp, mainly because I could not abide powdered eggs and the other barely edible stuff served there. I was fortunate in the the food served at my college was mostly very good, but I remember going to 4-H Congress at Virginia Tech and being grossed out by the food there, too.

I’ve probably shared this before, but it bears repeating. I agree with George, and his take on “fussy eating” is funnier than this post is. 😉

To this day, there are a lot of foods that some people find wonderful, like cheese, that I don’t enjoy. I don’t eat a lot of cheeses, myself. There are maybe half a dozen I will eat, and they have to be melted. Bill, on the other hand, loves stinky cheeses. He will not think twice about buying cheese that, to me, smells like dirty feet, and enjoying it with wine. I can always smell the cheese through the refrigerator door. On the other hand, I do like fish, which I know a lot of people can’t abide.

I’m sure my dad’s tendency to hypercontrol at the dinner table, back when we ate dinners together, was formulated in part because he was a child of the Depression era. He had eight siblings, and the family wasn’t wealthy at all, so food was a precious commodity. My dad was also an Air Force officer, so sometimes he would use that identity to make demands of his daughters. Sometimes, he could be strict, but his method of punishment was, in my opinion, quite cowardly. He used physical and corporal punishments to get what he wanted. Imagine, being a grown man taking out your frustrations on a little girl by walloping her whenever she challenged you. That was my dad. And, sorry to say, he did traumatize me with that treatment. Maybe that’s why I am so fucked up today. 😉

I did love my dad, when he was still living. I think a lot of his issues stemmed from his own abusive childhood, in which he was the eldest son of a violent alcoholic. I think a lot of the things he said to me were things that he heard from his dad. In fact, although I never knew Pappy, because he died when I was two, I have heard a lot of stories about him. Some of the stories are funny, but most pointed to the fact that he was an angry bully and a tyrant, and he had a biting, sarcastic sense of humor that could be devastating. I know that, on some level, my dad hated his father. He didn’t like to talk about him. When he did, it was usually after he’d been drinking. And sometimes, he told me things that sounded pretty awful.

Anyway… I don’t know what made me fall down this rabbit hole. But reading that advice column today really reminded me of those days when I was younger, and eating was traumatic and stressful. It’s too bad that we couldn’t have peace in those days. And it’s too bad my parents weren’t more careful about making a baby they didn’t really want.

Bill just left to go back to Bavaria for the next few days. It was good that he came home. Arran is doing well on the chemo. He’s eating well, enjoying his walks and snuggles with us, and doesn’t have huge lymph nodes right now. I don’t know how long the chemo will keep him feeling better, but I’m grateful for the extra time. I was very worried about Arran a couple of days ago, and I think if we hadn’t started treatment, we might have had to say goodbye this weekend or soon thereafter. As it stands now, he’s mostly back to normal, save for the rancid farts, need to pee, and increased appetite caused by steroids.

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