The Zombies Ate My Brains

Rescuing what might remain of the grey matter.

Do They Still Make Kraft Caramels?

In my family, three of us are Aries – Dad on March 27th, my baby brother on the 16th of April, and I was born two days later. Two weeks ago, on March 27, as I wrote a response to the Share Your World prompt, I detoured down memory lane to talk about my Dad’s birthday.  I went on at length, and before long, the tone of the post was not as light and fluffy as I wanted. I deleted the “offending” prose and hit the “publish button.”

Today, Van wrote about colouring eggs, and the memories that invoked. She talked about how on a particular Easter, her grandmother died of a heart attack and that meant the family dynamic would change for the worse.

Again, my Dad’s birthday came to mind, since Easter falls around that date. I tamped down the urge to comment playfully how we kids always bought Kraft Caramels for Dad and I wondered, did they still make Kraft Caramels? (Apparently, yes.) I recalled how I would steal the candy and eat four, five, SIX at a time and nearly choke on the surge of saliva. 

And I remembered that I always lived in fear that I’d be caught.  

I started to write about that in my comments to Van, but instead, I simply thanked her for sharing, and urged her to write more some day.

Since I was AWOL from the blogs for the better part of fourteen months, I missed the 2016 entry where Van wrote about her mother’s illness and the suffering Van and her siblings endured. She shared the link.  As is our habit, Van writes an eloquent and heartfelt blog post, and I, in my comments, am inspired to write a post of my own. It seems a story featuring my dad demands to be told.

The title? Just a little something to sweeten an otherwise unpalatable story.

      ***   ***   ***

My childhood home was an unhappy place. Not always, but often enough to merit the designation. I witnessed and experienced verbal, emotional, and physical abuse right up to the time when my brothers were old enough to fight back against their authoritarian and disciplinarian father. My mother remained silent through most of the abuse that dad heaped on us kids. As far as I know, he never raised a hand to her. But since she did not protect us, I suspect that she was afraid that he would hit her.

I distinctly recall the moment in my bedroom, as mom and dad were arguing downstairs,  I declared, “That does it. I’m not having kids.”

I was twelve. What did I know about the cycle of abuse? I knew nothing of my dad’s upbringing, and not much more of my mom’s.  But I had an intuition that the pain and anger and hurt that I witnessed was decades in the making. And that it would continue if I had children. I knew that I would be a lousy parent, given the lessons I was learning at the hands of my folks.

It’s no wonder I got married at twenty. My mom encouraged it, actually. She made a deal with me – take the cheap route, and I’ll give you $2000.00 to set up your new household. It was as if she was saying, “If I can’t leave this nasty life, at least I can help you to get out.”

Thank God I never had kids, for in spite of my declaration, I caved to social pressure and for a short while, I tried to get pregnant. I, and my unborn offspring, dodged that bullet because I cannot imagine myself as a good mother. I’m still working on my “stuff.” I have a short temper, I catch myself judging, shaming, showing disrespect and contempt. And that’s the stuff that’s easy to confess.

With counselling, a lot of soul-searching, and some plain old good luck, I can finally say that I feel compassion for my parents. I know more about their upbringing, and more about human nature.

Both of my parents knew hardship and loss and pain and anger. Mom, the eldest of nine, raised her siblings after her father died and her mother was placed in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of her days. In Dad’s case, he was stricken with polio as a boy. He lived his whole life with chronic pain and deformity. Because of his disability, there is no doubt that he was harassed and bullied, probably his entire life, quite possibly by his father. People are ugly like that. When he’d chastise me for tripping over my gangling feet and snarl that I was “as graceful as an elephant,” I understand where he learned that. It doesn’t mean it was OK for him to say it, but I understand why he did.

Just a few years ago, when Howard had been dead for twenty years, I learned something that changed the entire way I looked at our relationship.

I knew that Howard had been married once before. What I didn’t know was how, or even if, she died. At a Christmas dinner hosted by my step-sister, conversation turned to her mom. Finally, I got some answers. She showed me her mom’s obituary. Dad’s first wife died of a brain hemorrhage as she sang in the church choir. It was Easter Sunday, as a matter of fact. March 27.

What a revelation! The story explained so much about Dad’s protective attitude toward his family. Not only did Dad loose a wife, on his birthday, no less, he soon lost his daughters, too. The eldest, our Christmas hostess, stayed with friends of the family. The youngest, however, was given up for adoption and any contact was refused. I didn’t learn about my second step-sister until I overheard my aunts talking after Dad’s funeral.

I used the word “protective” to explain Dad’s parenting style. I surely did not feel that way when I was living at home. Then he was unreasonable, obstinate, demanding, refusing, limiting, denying, forbidding. He enforced his edicts strictly, severely. He was terrifying.

I stole those caramels knowing full well what would happen if he caught me.

When you hear stories of abuse, there is a tendency to make snap judgments and banish the abuser to demon-hood. Now that I’ve had a chance to learn and reflect on my family’s experience, I try to remember that the “bad guys” are struggling with stuff, too.  I try to allow compassion. We are all working as best we can with the cards that are dealt. This is not to excuse bad behavior. But it is an effort to remain available to new information and understanding.

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Categories: Mom and Dad

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44 replies

  1. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Easy to say, but you have written such a positive post, Maggie. And about the caramels–I always loved the vanilla better than the chocolate. And would see how many I could fit in my mouth at one time. Haven’t had a caramel in years, but gosh I love them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Lois. “Hate the sin, love the sinner. Easy to say…” – yeah, the “love” part doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue easily.

      Love that you also powered down the caramels! I did like the chocolate ones – though there would be only few in the mixed variety bag – I made sure that I’d pick ’em out before anyone else. Man, I was a brat.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. You are so brave to write this story, Maggie. While I have learned to value all the positive the things about my father (which your father may never have shown you), I too learned a lot of negativity and fear growing up. And only near the end of my father’s life did I learn more about his upbringing and where it all came from. So I understand and I even forgive, but I don’t accept that that was the only way my father could be. It’s the path he took.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Luanne – I am grateful for the supportive community of readers here on the blogs. It’s readers like you who offer kind feedback and recognition of my story. To know that other’s out there can relate? That’s golden.

      I understand your statement about our dads having a choice. If, using what I know about how I process stuff, my dad had moments of clarity, and if he knew that he was crossing lines, but didn’t change, then yes, he had a choice.

      But if he never had that revelation? That’s where I think he had only one option.

      Like

  3. I was never a caramel person. But now I like the drizzle here and there.

    This tale you wrote, it’s important. Childhood is defining, of course. Your decision not to have children does not need an explanation, but I think it’s nice you had one. Very conscious for a 12-year-old. In my own experience, I’ve found that people do repeat the patterns, sure, but I think most people strive to do exactly the opposite — bound and determined to break the pattern.
    It’s really important to see our parents as people. To consider where they come from and what they knew. I think a lot of times people do the wrong thing because they truly don’t know the right thing. Make sense?

    You and your clumsiness (me and my clumsiness feel it’s okay to comment) — how terrible to have a perfectly-formed body and not be able to use it with grace. That must be what he thought. Like you didn’t even have a good reason.

    We all have these old wounds. Writing about them, reading about them helps. Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “I think a lot of times people do the wrong thing because they truly don’t know the right thing. Make sense?”

      Absolutely.

      I assume my dad had a crap childhood. Not only was he disabled by polio, he was raised in a time when corporal punishment was the prescribed method of discipline. God knows what he suffered and what he learned to be OK, the “right thing.”

      “I’ve found that people do repeat the patterns, sure, but I think most people strive to do exactly the opposite — bound and determined to break the pattern.”

      In my case, I was determined not to repeat my mom’s story, to get out of a bad relationship. Instead, I had a string of bad relationships. An improvement? The jury is out on that one.

      You know how they say that you get what you focus on? I focused so long and hard on what I didn’t like about my father that I adopted his habits. I am stunned when I recognize him in my responses to the world. I managed to over-write the the more brutal habits as a young woman, thank goodness, but there are still residuals. As my friend says, “Progress, not perfection.”

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Everyone has baggage, some more than others. You were able to learn enough of your parents’ history, and wise enough and mature enough to use that knowledge to lead you to some degree of understanding and forgiveness. I think too few have that opportunity or ability, and while forgiving may be “easy”, forgetting is less so. Babies don’t come with manuals, and no tests are given to qualify people for parenthood. We do the best we can, then we pray in whatever fashion prayer comes to us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Carol, for your supportive remarks.

      I was so scared of the idea of being a mom. Absolutely terrified of not having a good manual, as you say. Literally. I’m a book learner, I want to be able to do the research and be able to count on the instructions. Mom may have had her Dr. Spock, but as far as I could tell, it wasn’t doing us kids any good.

      Like

  5. Thank you for sharing this story Maggie. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I think most of us have some version of the dysfunctional family in our past that we deal with, or don’t deal with as the case may be, but finding the moment when we can talk about it, at least personally, and I hope for you as well, can make a difference, open a door, or perhaps even bring closer finally. I appreciate that you felt safe and comfortable sharing this with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I meant to say closure, rather than closer in my comment and felt the need to correct my error, I will also take a moment to add that I am rather a caramel addict, and could eat an entire bag of Kraft caramels if given the chance.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I take some comfort in knowing that we, products of and participants in dysfunctional families, are legion. I am very blessed to be part of a safe and supportive blogging community. Thank you for your part in that!

        I am absolutely delighted to know that you love Kraft caramels!

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I wish life was different and that everyone got idyllic childhoods. But you are right…we have to deal with what we are given. Sounds like you have learned to thrive in the face of hardships.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A very brave post. Thank you for sharing. I have friends who were raised in “challenging” circumstances and never knew that others were facing similar situations. I think sharing these truths helps others to feel less alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree completely Janis. Sharing is my middle name, for better or worse.

      Once I got over the shame of knowing our Father Didn’t Know Best, and learned that my experience was really nothing special, I didn’t feel like a misfit. As a matter fact, sharing helped me learn that my experience was relatively peachy considering what some people had to deal with.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Such an interesting look into what has made you who you are today. I think that you nailed it with: “I try to remember that the ‘bad guys’ are struggling with stuff, too.” While your childhood was not the best, at least you made the effort to understand who your parents were, and why they behaved as they did. That’s something significant and reflects well on you. [And fwiw, I love those caramels, too.]

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ally – For better or worse (think “curiosity killed the cat”) I have long tried to analyse how people work.

      Lately, though, I’m testing a notion that that practice might be a form of judgement that doesn’t serve any purpose, and one that might be harmful in the long run. I want to categorize and pigeonhole. Perhaps not such a good idea. So, I am trying to follow the advice of a Unitarian chaplain “Judge not, compare not, let go the need to understand.”

      [Yay for the Caramel Camp!]

      Like

  9. The older we get, the more we understand our parents. [At least that has been my experience.]

    Liked by 1 person

  10. We are all so connected, our stories…not so unique. That realization is the best part of blogging for me, and you illustrate it so well here. There is always a reason for behavior, we just don’t always ask the right questions, or get the honest answers. With time and distance, we change our perspective. It’s the human experience. Thanks so much for sharing this, Maggie, and for your kind introduction.

    So much more to discuss…maybe a post or 2 or 3 !

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, Van, I had at least three epiphanies while writing this post. Perhaps I will write another blog post (or 2 or 3!), but definitely this was a worthwhile effort. Most importantly for me, was the act of writing down, the act of grabbing the thoughts and mashing them into something presentable that others could understand. Doing that gave me clarity.

      But I couldn’t spill my guts like this in any old forum. I’m surround by guardian angels here!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. “We are all working as best we can with the cards that are dealt.” – Such an important thing to remember.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. You know the line about “everything has a crack, that’s how the light gets in”? This particular phrasing comes courtesy of Leonard Cohen lyrics, though he was drawing from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi: “The wound is the place from where the light enters you.”

    Crack or wound, the image commonly evoked is of one’s own cracks and wounds. One’s own journey and healing. I think it works the same more broadly, too. Whenever someone shares a story of their own wounds with compassion, it lets more light in for all of us.

    I thank you for the gift of this story. For being cracked, and for letting us see.

    I thank you for today’s light.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. During a lecture I heard on resilience, the speaker mentioned a woman whose father murdered her mother then remarried several times and murdered those wives too. Later, this woman’s sister plotted to kill her but the sister died suddenly and that saved this woman’s life. The speaker then asked the audience if they knew who he was talking about. No one did. He was speaking of Queen Elisabeth I.

    His point was that most (two-thirds) of people who experience horrific childhood trauma, recover and go onto lead productive and perhaps happy lives.

    That says something about the human condition, something very optimistic.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m sure this was a very difficult story to write. Being able to empathize with the challenges and unhappiness experienced by an abusive father in his life isn’t easy. Forgiveness is even harder. Kudos to you that you can understand those the demons. It’s still sad and tragic, but hopefully it puts you in a better place mentally ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, there. Fortunately, this was something I had worked out a while back, so the writing of the post wasn’t too difficult.

      But there is emotional effort involved, and the dredging up of old and the discovery of some new bits of stuff. The exercise has merit, but it is draining. Because it is sad and tragic for my dad, more than anyone.

      I deeply appreciate your comments. ❤

      Like

      • Just as a footnote – my roommate in university had a similar background. Her father also had polio as a child and he was an angry man with a sharp tongue. He was constantly telling her she was stupid, ugly, and would never amount to anything.
        It leaves its scars.

        Like

        • Interesting! Your comment prompts another revelation – friends of ours are very involved with Rotary and the organizations efforts to rid the planet of polio. Every time I see the fundraising ads, I feel a twinge of resistance, of repulsion. It just now occurs to me why that is! Of course, polio = dad = stupid/ugly remarks!

          Thank you for sharing that!

          Like

  15. Bravo for working on your “stuff” Maggie, and for developing compassion towards your less than perfect family. Neither is easy but it helps make you whole, don’t you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Maggie, good for you–so many people settle for blaming or hating a difficult parent but you have done the hard work of understanding and forgiveness. And we all have learned negative behaviors that, when we recognize them in ourselves, make us cringe. Here’s to being human, and loving ourselves and others in spite of those short comings. Thank you for sharing this important post.

    Like

    • Thanks, Ilona – I appreciate your kind comments.

      Yes, the cringing! Good grief. I still shudder violently when I recall my mistakes from decades ago. I suppose that’s a good thing, that I have a well-developed aversion to the bad behaviours.

      🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Sounds like you are getting closer and closer to Buddhahood.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Maggie, thank you for sharing this wonderful insight into your past. I’m so pleased you are able to see the bigger picture. I do hope you have had a happy birthday this year and were spoiled with caramels. Seven of our family birthdays start on March 28 going through to 1st May, with a clutch of birthdays in the middle. My eldest brother shares your birthday. It’s funny, not funny, how Easter holds memories. My first husband committed suicide, probably on his birthday and wasn’t found for a week… at Easter time… ❤

    Like

    • Thank you, Barbara – I wonder if the full moon plays a part – since Easter is dated based on the phase of the moon, I can’t help wonder if the full moon plays a part , especially in accidental or death by suicide situations.

      Like

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