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Sunday, 9 November 2008

They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . .

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They may not mean to but they do
They hand on all the faults they had
And add some extra just for you

Yesterday my sister and I had lunch with an aunt we hadn’t seen for over twenty years. She’s my dad’s sister and as with many families there’s a habit of referring to relatives mired in the past – oh he’s the mean one, she’s the chatty one . . .each relative defined by one action that stuck in my parents’ memory and was handed down intact. Alas, looking at the photo of me that auntie brought with her, I may well have been enshrined as ‘the butt ugly one’. Aaah! There I was age 9 or 10 wearing hideous specs, my hair in what I can only describe as a ‘middle aged geography teacher’ style. This particular auntie was ‘the divorced one’ as though it defined her. In some ways it had. We sat in a restaurant and talked with auntie for hours, about family history.

My dad was one of five children, brought up in Ireland in the forties, and my auntie was one of his sisters. I heard about how my dad’s mother had been bullied relentlessly by her own sister. I’ll call her Mrs Nasty. This woman’s life mission had been to revenge herself on her sister for marrying the man she wanted. Let me be precise. My granddad chose my grandmother. She was attractive but he was very handsome. He was also a survivor of the notorious Christian Brothers, and shortly after his marriage to my gran, he joined the army and was abroad a great deal. So gran was bringing up five children single handed. Sadly the constant undermining and bullying she received from her ghastly sister, served to reduce her to a cowering wreck who in turn bullied and undermined several of her own children. My dad was given a bike once, but Mrs Nasty said he would kill himself on the roads. This was a small Irish village which probably saw about two cars a week on the road, remember! But granny, terrified of her sister, took the bike off dad and locked it away.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

My dad, a very clever boy grew up unsure and unconfident about his abilities. My other auntie was forced to leave school early in order to help out Mrs Nasty in her shop – a bit of cheap labour. Can you imagine you, a parent, telling your daughter age 14, “Er you’ll have to leave school because my sister wants you to work in her shop.”

“But I want to stay on at school mum.”

“Sorry but my sister wants you to help out in the shop. You’ll have to leave school.”

My grandmother was totally unable to stand up to her own sister, taking out her anger and frustration on her own children instead.

Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself

Years later after my nice (childless) auntie went back home to see her mother, and Mrs Nasty was there, she made a snide reference to my auntie’s divorce. But auntie wasn’t scared of her and shouted that she should mind her own business. “You’ve had enough practice minding everyone else’s for the last thirty years!” she shouted to a stunned silence. All that anger and misery and bullying rooted in Mrs Nasty’s sexual jealousy.

I came away glad to understand why dad was always so unconfident, and why he had unwittingly handed it on to my sister and myself. I really really hope I haven’t handed this all pervading fear onto my own children.


Kit Courteney said...

It's funny (strange) the things/traits/fuck-knows-whats that get passed on. It's also funny (and often fairly miraculous) the way those things DON'T necessarily get passed on, unwittingly or not.

My mother's mother was an evil old hag. She told my mother (aged about 8) that she (my mother) was never wanted, that she was useless and a burden. My mother grew up knowing she had never been wanted by her own mother.

My mother had/has very little self-confidence but when my sister and I were growing up, we had one of them there 'perfect' childhoods. (Piss poor but healthy and happy!)

Luckily, negative traits don't necessarily have to be passed on, so relax :0)

‘Middle aged geography teacher’ - not good.

Jane said...

God Kit that's awful. How stunningly amazing that your mother somehow didn't pass that on. She must have received some affirmation from somewhere else.

Kit Courteney said...

To be honest, I think she was so terrified that she might pass on the 'unhappy childhood' thing, she went out of her way to be the exact opposite of my grandmother. She has, of course, created 2 monsters in the forms of my sister and me!

Unfortunately she DID pass on shite-memory-itis. A blogger mailed me yesterday to ask where I had found her (you know what I mean) as I'd left her a message for the first time. Been trawling the dozen or so fairly-regular-ish blogs I try to keep up with in the hope that their blogrolls will enlighten me.

Not a sausage :0(

podpilot said...

Thanks for a great post and comments.

I think the answer to the mystery of what gets passed on or not to our kids lies in the degree to which we acknowledge our own suffering as children. What we do not acknowledge and deal with we pass on, simple as that.

Another point to make, as Larkin's poem perfectly expresses, is that our parents often do not concsciously want us to suffer. Thus we should not feel guilty about connecting with the pain of ourselves as youngsters even if we had a 'perfect childhood'.

Alice Miller is very good on this cf The Drama of the Gifted Child

/Fin Keegan

Jane said...

Podpilot you are so right. How often have we heard the 'It never did me any harm' mantra. Acknowledging your suffering as a child isn't self-indulgent and neither is it a way of refusing to take responsibility for where you are now. I must read the Alice Miller book.