In recent days I have had the opportunity to catch up with friends and family from my childhood days. These conversations revolved around what we remembered from our younger days and how we perceived one another’s families.
My home was, what I though, a pretty typical family life. The families around me were, for the most part, fairly similar. Dad worked all day, Mom stayed home and raised the family, cooked meals, etc. We went to church on Sundays, played out in the yard when we could, had good meals (nothing fancy) and were surrounded by people who loved us. We did not have lots of money, but we had all the things we needed to survive.
My parents loved to have other people around, we hosted exchange students, we had gatherings of people from church and our family, and you could often find a cousin or two or three at the house. Outside we had the best hill for sliding and a pond for skating where lots of kids could be found on the hill and pond in the winter and catching frogs and polliwogs in the spring and summer.
Our cousins perceived that we were a wonderful family and nothing “bad” ever happened to us. Our parents are described as “wonderful”, “funny”, “easy to talk to”.
What they failed to see or recognize is there are ALWAYS flaws. It does not escape any family or any person – yet we did our best to hide the flaws or perhaps did not recognize them as flaws at the time they were happening. In talking to my siblings in recent years in a more honest and open way, I have learned things I did not know about them and about our parents and our relationship with them. There are most definitely skeletons in our closet. Closets that have hidden parts of our lives that we could tuck away and not examine. Closets can hide a lot of the mess.
My father was not raised in a very healthy environment. Tossed between different parental homes as well as the homes of grandparents or others, he did not experience unconditional love. He never really would tell us about his background, nor did he speak much about his short time in the Navy. As I said, he held the traditional role of the working husband and father who supported his family. He went to work in the morning and came home afterwards when dinner would be served promptly at 5:30 or so. We sat around the table as a family. I do not remember what we would talk about, but I am sure we must have had conversations likely around how our days were at school and so forth. Dad did not have an active role in our daily lives. On Sundays he would be the one telling us to “clean up the living room, take stuff upstairs” before going to church. My siblings do not recall him ever being the dad that hugged us or tell us he loved us. He was never shown much love or told he was loved so he did not have a good example of that.
Dad was the one who planned our annual family trips by marking the road maps we would take. He was the primary driver most of the time. We were shown the entire country (my younger siblings having seen more since the older ones went off to college or adulthood lives long before we did). In that regard, my younger siblings would say that we were given an amazing lesson in geography as we helped read the maps he had dutifully marked. We learned responsibility as we all had chores to do to set up camp before we could go and play.
Mom was in charge of raising us, feeding us, leading by example. She came from a tightknit family with many siblings. She made parenting look easy (though none of us were really a handful at all). We were allowed to be kids. Mom did not seem to mind the entourage of playmates that would traipse through the house or hang out in the yard. The more the merrier.
On camping trips, she was responsible for planning the meals and purchasing the food. Traveling with a large family could be costly so we almost never ate out at a restaurant. A treat for us was the occasional soft serve ice cream treat. We lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Tang or Koolaid while on the road, served from the wooden box “pantry” my dad had built for our trips.
The one thing that stands out for all of us is the religion in which we were raised, and the beliefs associated with it. Christian Science is a metaphysical religion where doctors/medicine and alcohol are not used. We were constantly told that our illnesses “were not real”. That our “true identity” was the perfect child of God. The conditioning and treatment we received as a result of Christian Science has left an indelible impression on most of my siblings as well as myself.
One brother broke an arm and did not go to the emergency room to have it set. When the arm was healing and it was evident that something was very wrong, my mother did take him to get it re-broken and re-set. That was his catalyst to turning off to C.S.
Another brother recalls a time when he was young and was coughing due to a cold or maybe even the flu. He slept in the room next to my parent’s bedroom. They would come in and tell him to stop coughing, that it “wasn’t real”, wasn’t his true being. As a result, he began to back away from C.S. and realized he could not depend on my parents to care for him. He began a journey of separating himself from my parents.
My sister incurred her own set of issues. She could not go with her friends on Sundays to do things because it was our duty to go to church on Sundays. She always felt “different” than her friends and grew to resent my parents. When she became pregnant during her first year of college, that disconnect would grow even further. Twenty years later when my nephew was “found” by my sister, my parents would not acknowledge him as a grandson which seemed unfathomable, given the fact that my folks had many “non-family” that they considered to be family – yet their biological grandson was not given the same consideration.
For myself it would take many more years for me to sever my ties with C.S. I was the last holdout. When I did, it hurt my parents. I opted for surgery after getting an ovarian cyst so felt as though I was no longer this perfect child of God. I couldn’t even bring myself to call Mom to tell her until at least a week after surgery because I knew exactly what the response would be…. And when I did finally call, I heard that old familiar phrase, “It’s not real. It’s error….” No, this was not what I needed to hear. I had gone back and forth to church but this incident along with another that had happened a few years earlier started to pull me away from church for several years. When I did go back to church, it was not to a Christian Science one.
My dad was more of a staunch C.S. believer than Mom. After a heart attack she had begun to take medication. She always hid the meds from sight and took them when Dad was not looking. There is something wrong about this. She became more accepting of the rest of us in her later years. We stopped hearing those old familiar phrases we had grown up with.
Most of these things were unseen by anyone outside the immediate family. These things produced scars for all of us, giving us some insecurities that we quietly dealt with. We never spoke of them to our siblings as they were brushed under the table. Hidden from sight. They were the fragile bones in our skeleton. We remained to others the picture-perfect version of a family.
On the outside we certainly were. We enjoyed the times we came together as a family. We all loved one another (and still do). We still loved our parents. We just never had deep and meaningful discussions with them.
In talking to cousins on my most recent trip, they were shocked to hear some of our stories. And as they shared their stories with us, we realized there was so much we didn’t know about their families. They, too, had their own skeletons.
It has taken us, the “Russell children”, a lifetime to get to a point where we can be more real with one another. We are learning about each other. We are finding that we need each other. We are finding the need to connect with “long lost” cousins and listening to their stories. It is cleansing for us to be real and to be honest.
We are the sum total of our experiences, the good and the bad. We carry our scars and, if lucky, we use them to motivate us to be better and do better with our own families. Taking these memories out of the closet allows us to look at them more closely and determine what to do with them. There is no changing them as we cannot change the past. We can, however, use them or forget about them as we move forward.
What skeletons are in your closet? Are you willing to examine them, share them with others to better understand the past? Once you remove the skeletons you can replace them with love, acceptance and understanding and forgiveness. That is the ultimate goal, to accept the past we cannot change and thus must learn from – to take us down the road to peace in our lives, to live in a way that honors who we are, who we have chosen to become. To not dwell on the negative aspects of our lives. To be “real” and intentional people, setting an example for others.