The first time was on a business trip in California, and the hotel TV included movies. The Mr. Rogers documentary was on and since I hadn’t seen it in a theater yet, I watched it.
This second time, I was on a pilgrimage of sorts in Florida where my past and future had collided with a big bang. I had spent the previous two days with my dad’s sister and her husband, catching up after more than 16 years.
Then I’d moved on to spend the next three days in my oldest son’s college town. That day I had taken him shopping at Target between his classes and a fraternity meeting.
My aunt and uncle and I had so many questions for each other. For the longest time, I thought I wanted to know what my dad was thinking when he told my aunt he didn’t want my brother and me at his hospital bedside during his final days. To be honest, I also wondered what my aunt, who was also a mom by then, was thinking when she agreed to his wishes. But we never got to that. Nor did we get too deep into what happened when my cousin (who was much, much younger than me, thus we did not grow up together) died suddenly and unexpectedly a year and a half ago.
Instead, over the course of two days, in between walking on the beautiful beach at Longboat Key, sharing meals, and going on a rainy-day trip to an aquarium that included my brother (we had coordinated our visits to Florida so that we could both spend some time with this side of the family, but he was staying somewhere else with his girlfriend), we talked about our childhood and the events that transpired after our parents’ divorce, and our memories around them.
I was only 5 years old when my parents split, and just 11 when my dad moved to New York City, to
pursue his dream of becoming an actor have a midlife crisis the depths of hell because of his lover, like Oscar Wilde. This move was simply the catalyst that changed him from a Harvard-educated Navy veteran doctor to a destitute ex-con living in a shabby studio in a dull beige brick pre-war apartment tower.
My aunt and I filled in a lot of blanks for each other and corrected some of our memories. My aunt is 10 years younger than my dad so she was probably barely 20 years old when my parents split. Not only that, she would have only heard my dad’s side of the story.
For example, I thought that side of the family had cast us off after the divorce. My memory was that my grandmother had said, “Don’t ever ask anything from me again,” after my mother sent my brother and me to visit her one summer for a week. However, my aunt told me her mother would never say that and I realized that perhaps my mother had alienated us from that side of the family due to her own shame at having an affair. My aunt wondered if my dad had paid child support. I told her I doubted it because we were on welfare and got food stamps (when they were literally stamps as opposed to EBT cards, so everyone knew) and if we had received the child support we should have, we wouldn’t have qualified for benefits.
I’d had a lot of time to ruminate about our conversations as I made the hour-plus long trip to my son’s college town.
- I felt sad for the little girl who was shamed, criticized, and physically punished; who thought if only she were good, her parents would get back together.
- I felt scared for the insecure girl who never lived in one place for more than a year or two, often sharing dilapidated rentals we couldn’t afford with boarders.
- I felt ashamed for the little girl who was “white trash.”
- I felt sorry for the young lady who made bad relationship choices because she had no clue what a good relationship is.
Then I felt happy when I thought about how well adjusted and “normal” my own kids are. I had got sober (being an alcoholic is another legacy I inherited from both of my parents) long before any of them were born, thus had worked through a lot of my issues (so I thought…at least I learned the slogan, “fake it ’til you make it”). The last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate the same dysfunction I might have been if I were still drinking. (I’m almost convinced I’d never have had kids if I was still drinking. I’d probably be in jail somewhere or dead, no lie.) I have parented my kids the way I wish I had been parented (I still worry that even though they were brought up in a sober home, that “nature” might take its course, especially with my older two whose father is also an alcoholic).
I realized when watching Mr. Rogers that somehow I had missed a lot of his messages when I was a kid. By age 7, we had left our comfortable and secure two-parent home and moved to a big city and apparently, I was already a jaded and cynical person because I hated Mr. Rogers. He was just an annoying interruption between the two shows I really wanted to watch, The Electric Company and Zoom. I used to flip him off. My brother at the time, at age 4, would tell me, “Don’t do that, he can see you!” Mr. Rogers' messages about trust, feelings, constructive approaches to anger (or even that anger was okay) and his daily expression of care were lost on me.
I Googled and learned that there actually is such a thing as reparenting your inner child. It’s just about going back to the age when I was wronged and giving the response or fulfilling the needs that were required at that time.
My parents have been gone a long time. My dad passed away in 1992, and my mom in 2008. I have wanted to write about my childhood for a long time but always chicken out because I feel guilty speaking ill of the dead. But one of the things I learned in my reparenting research is that parents do the best they can. No doubt they also had wounded inner children.
I remember being at a spiritual retreat with my mom one time and in a circle of other women, one of the leaders asked, “What was something your parents told you as a child that made you feel ashamed?” My mom said, “I heard, ‘who do you think you are!?’ a lot.” I blurted out, “Oh my God, me, too!” And we all laughed at how I had just illustrated how the dysfunction can be passed on through the generations.
I have written in the past about parents doing the best they can. Today, thanks to my aunt and uncle’s validation, I know that while the parenting I received might have been the best my parents could do, it was nowhere near good enough.