The End of Mythology: Estrangements are strange events (Part 2)


Estrangement

alienation: separation resulting from hostility
alienation: the feeling of being alienated from other people
estranged – alienated: caused to be unloved
estranged – Having become a stranger, of one who formerly was close, as a relative, friend, lover, or spouse
to arouse especially mutual enmity or indifference in where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness
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Saying there is a lot of estrangement in my family makes it sounds like a little squabble of personalities. What I am really saying is I’m estranged from my history and as such my future.

I’m not from a family of talkers. Have a problem? Have an issue? There are a lot of secrets, shame and estrangement.

Let’s go through the tree:

  • I’ve been estranged from my daughter since she was 5.
  • My brother and I have at times been estranged. Until my grandfather’s funeral we hadn’t been alone together in close to five years.
  • My father was estranged from his father for 25 years.
  • My father’s father was estranged from his father, mother, sister and step-mother. He chose not to go to his mother or father’s funerals.
  • My father’s mother died 25 years ago but up until Memorial Day, 2008 I never met any of the Carders. I’m going to say this qualifies as estranged too.
  • My mother was estranged from her parents.
  • My mother is estranged from her two brothers and two sisters.
  • My family is estranged from aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives on both my paternal and maternal families.
  • If you are a family member, and we’re estranged, and I left you off the list. Add the resentment to the list of reasons why we aren’t speaking.

If you come from a close family you are probably saying, “Oh my gosh! I cannot imagine!” and will continue to read for the same reasons people slow down to rubberneck at a car wreck or watch Springer. It’ll make you feel better about yourself and your family so keep reading. Consider this a sort of public service announcement.

If you are living with estrangements, secrets and shame you’ll keep reading because it is refreshing to hear someone talk about it openly. Think of this as an external voice on an internal dialogue.

In either case, my sarcasm, brutal honesty, condescending tones and the sharp edge of my message will occasionally irritate you…which, ironically, will explain why I’m estranged from members of my family and divorced.

Sidebar: that is the funniest thing I’ve written today. I actually snorted out loud when I wrote that last part.

The estrangements in my family are not unique. Estrangements are common. If I make a list of ten friends I could probably name seven of them that are estranged from a sibling, child or a parent.

Society just never talks about it because it doesn’t fit the mold of a perfect family that for some reason has become the ideal but is hardly the reality. Why else would the word “families” end with the word “lies”?

The Kinney men on the farm. Early 1930's or late '20's.

We think we are keeping some important secret. In truth families live much closer to Mad Men then Father Knows Best. Although from what I understand off screen Father Knows Best was more like Mad Men than Father Knows Best.

Here is an example of secrets.

Twelve months before my grandfather, Ralph, passed away at eighty-four, I discovered he had a sister. Not a sister that died at birth – that would be tragic. Rather, a real live sister named JoAnne. I’ve since discovered my great-aunt lived 10 miles from where I grew up in Ohio and I didn’t know it!

Actually, that is tragic too.

I probably drove past her house repeatedly. Her grandchildren are probably my peers.

When I mention it to my parents they were surprised Ralph told me. Apparently she was a secret.

Hurray for dementia and lose lips!

There are no pictures of her in the old albums. I cannot find anything about her and when I asked Ralph about it later he conveniently played the dementia card.

Coward!

I did some asking around and here is what I was told:

Story 1

According to my father, Joanne tried to poison my grandmother, Helen, in the early 1940’s by spiking her lemonade with iodine.

As such, Ralph and Helen never spoke of her again.

I don’t know how dad knows as he wasn’t born until 1947.

Regardless?

Shhhhh…

Story 2

According to Danny, my 60 year old cousin who I’ve seen two times in twenty years, when I asked him about JoAnne at Ralph’s funeral he was surprised I didn’t know. I learned she spent time at the industrial home for wayward girls. She stole (back when shoplifting was still called stealing) candy from the local Ben Franklin’s.

He never heard about the poisoning.

Ah! West Virginia's Home for Wayward Girls. Back when our society believed in rehabilitation and not simply punishment.

But he knew lots of other great, juicy stories about her.

Either way?

Shhhhh…

The Truth?

I have no fucking idea. Both? Some? All?

A week before Ralph died I discovered he had half-brothers.

No one tells me anything!

Some families are tight and regardless of what passes between them they stay close – even if it would be healthier if they didn’t. Infidelities, bankruptcies, lying, split loyalties, physical or substance abuse, family coups or simply embarrassing family vacations photos.

Seriously, if your wife tells you she has “accidentally” seen your cousin naked more than once, something is fishy. I’m just saying…think about it.

And another thing, who stays friends with their ex? Your new spouse and your ex’s new spouse all go on a cruise together?! WTF?! How the hell does that happen?

The close family makes time for phone calls, vacations, reunions and Sunday diners. At the end of every day, no matter how badly they have hurt, abused or embarrassed one another, someone – or something – pulls them together.

Honestly, sometimes the envy weighs me down and makes my heart hurt.

Since this hasn’t been my experience I’ve turned to the two most influential resources on what it means to be a family: The Hallmark Channel and the Godfather.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

First of all, the family is usually held together by a matriarchal grandmother or similar family figure – an aunt, a mother – dispensing wisdom, cookies and healing hugs. Although, sometimes it is the father through a family business, guns, fly fishing or some other manly mechanism that is the glue.

Of course, money is the best glue on keeping families together. Maybe it is more like a vice (I’ll let you choose which definition of “vice” to apply).

So to review – a family can be poor and close if it has a strong matriarch. It can be rich and close if the patriarch is Marlon Brando.

From left, clockwise: Michael (brother), Roger (my dad), Ralph (grandpa), me (with thick hair...sigh), Jim (grandpa, sitting). Does this make me estranged from my hair?

Using these two rules as the model to diagnose the estrangement in my family it is fairly obvious: our grandmothers all died young and we’ve never had much money.

Although I will probably take some heat from my family for saying this, we have always been somewhere between working blue collar rich and white collar poor. There is no shame in that – at least for me. Truthfully, both my parents worked hard and made lots of sacrifices. I never wanted for anything…other than a moped.

…and Mom! Dad! I’m still waiting!

Estrangements are hard and depending on the generation and the times it happens for lots of reasons.

My mom’s father, Jim, was a hard working, hard drinking, hard living blue collar man.

Did I mention he was hard drinking?

Jim laid steel up and down the Hudson River Valley from New York to Albany. He was one of the members of the Greatest Generation fighting Krauts across Italy and Europe. He tried to provide for his family.

That is as long as it didn’t interfere with his drinking. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Perhaps because of his upbringing, his experience in war or because of drinking’s impact on his personality he believed if you spare a child the rod you ruin a perfectly good opportunity to use a rod.

Or perhaps, more plausibly, he was simply an asshole.

Of course, Jim’s harshness was balanced by my grandmother, Jean, a devoted Catholic. She prayed for your soul. Apparently she felt it was a counterweight to the rod…plus she would light a candle for you.

So you could take comfort in that during the beat down.

Although, from what I know of Christianity’s history, it has always professed a fondness for prayer but has demonstrated a propensity for using the rod. A skill learned at the hands of the Romans.

I’m being unfair to the Christians – all fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, Communists, Teabaggers, Klan’s men, High School Football Coaches) prefer to use the rod while hiding behind selective application of dogmas. Apparently, done correctly a pious man can relentlessly wield the rod… cast stones…brandish whips…or wear bomb-vests and as long as he is praying for forgiveness, he still gets to heaven…and possibly be rewarded with virgins.

Oh, and so I don’t offend the PC Police – so can pious women. Although, I’m not sure she gets virgins.

But I digress…

Recently, I’ve learned the family always kept the truth from Gene. The incest, beatings, rape, drugs, financial problems and crimes perpetuated on and/or by one family member on and/or to another were hidden from her because she was too fragile to know the truth. After all, if Gene knew she might break into a million tiny pieces…or at least cry. And if there is one thing Andersen women are good at it is crying. However, the Andersen men have a different set of skills.

And as the saying goes, “if momma ain’t happy then ain’t no one spared the rod.”

At least they still all looked good on the way to Easter mass.

Of course, I don’t know this as a fact. These are all rumors and mythology because my mother’s family is full of secrets. Although I don’t know the secrets I know of them.

Maybe within the labyrinth of secrets is the reason my parents moved ten hours away – to protect my brother and me from the insanity and pain. It was a loving and brave choice. At least that is what the mythology I’ve created says.

There are times I wish my mom would have left the pain and memories she carries with her there too. You can tell sometimes, forty-two years later, some of her wounds still bleed.

It is easy to believe some of her pain is simply self-perpetuating mythology and she needs to get over it. Sounds simple.

However, based on a few of the secrets that have found their way out of the Andersen maze recently it is obvious why the pain is still real and the wounds are deep. It is obvious why it was so important to my parents that we never spent the night with my mother’s parents.

The sins of the father truly do fall on the children. But again, that is part of the Andersen history – some chose to rewrite it while others chose to repeat it.

So, for all the right reasons, my mother is estranged from her family and from her history.

Even ten years after both parents passed on, she still chooses to minimize her relationship with her siblings. If you don’t have to be involved in the day-to-day drama why would you?

Regardless, even if the estrangement is best, it is still painful. I think my mom misses her siblings, nieces and nephews. Being the oldest I think she still takes on a lot of responsibility that isn’t hers. After all if you live the first twenty years taking the blame it is tough as an adult not to take credit.

The Andersen’s are still her family with a common history and shared joys and pains.

Perhaps because so much of my family history has been lost I am attuned to what its loss means to me personally. I’ve watched enough individuals, families and prides to know a rich history makes a family rich. A poor history means a poor family. I know lots of men and women who make choices not on what is best for them, but based on the proud traditions of their family.

If you are a DAR (Daughter of the American Revolution), a Son of the Republic of Texas, Sons of Union Veterans, a Proud Parent of a US Marine, a survivor of cancer or a Parent of an Honor Student at Homer Brink Elementary it matters. It gives a family something to rally around. History provides a foundation. It gives family an opportunity to build something special that can be passed onto the future.

One of the events my mother is proud of is that I won the nicest handwriting award in Mrs. Paraska’s third grade class. At which point I chose to never write neatly again. After all, only girls have nice handwriting.

Nearly thirty-five years later we still occasionally laugh about it. The more history, the richer a family’s legacy becomes. It becomes a point of family pride – or shame depending on the event. History matters. Stories give a family history.

Some people scoff at this and claim history doesn’t matter. They are the captains of their own ship. The master of their own destiny.

What a delusional crock.

People are either embracing their history or running from it. In either case they are looking to enhance or define the history of their legacy. Believe me, the survivors of the Jones Family don’t serve Cool-Aid to the neighbors (look it up) and I doubt Henry Fords’ great-great-children drive Hyundais.

However, if we depersonalize the idea of history and look at it from a more abstract perspective the value of history becomes clear.

For example, does the history of the United States of America matter?

The Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, slavery, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement all impact who we are as a nation. I think these are important eras in U.S. history that define my country.

Some good. Some bad. Some simply ugly.

How I see it depends on what part of American history I am born with, where I was raised and how history impacted my family.

Generally, an American of Apache descent is going to have a different perspective than an American of English descent. They both love the United States but history defines their attitudes towards land rights, the environment, education, civil rights and a host of other complicated issues. Although they may live in the same community they are both bound together – and estranged from each other by – history.

It is more complicated than being either with us or against us.

I never owned a slave – and neither have you – but it still impacts a daily dialogue in my life about justice, equality and freedom. I know a few white males that choose to deny its importance, and even its significance, but to deny it is to deny my nation’s history. The contribution of a history in defining the moment doesn’t go away simply because someone denies its importance or refuses to acknowledge it.

I can deny gravity but it still will kill me if I fall from a high enough height. No amount of prayer will change that reality.

Every family has a history; as does every individual. Essentially there are two histories: the one we make and the one we are born with. This is true even if we are ignorant of either. The difficulty with estrangements is it often leaves a person without the moorings to feel connected to themselves, to family, to society, to their past and to their future. They feel adrift and without a home.

I think the reason adopted children seek out biological parents is to find a history. Others seek out estranged siblings, cousins and families on Facebook and we spend millions on genealogy resources.

We all want to know our history.

For example, one of the first things I did when I joined Facebook was to friend all the Kinney’s I could find.

Roger at 14. He said to me recently, "Contrary to popular believe fat children are not jolly"

This is the great thing about history. Anyone who has had a parent remind them to “make me proud”, “we here for you” or “your family is behind you” has a foundation for a rich life. Military brats grow into West Pointers. College graduates raise other college graduates. Good cooks raise good cooks. It isn’t absolute, but a child’s success is often dependent on their parent’s success. A rich family history provides rich opportunities to grow and do more. Lots of men and women spent summers on grandpa’s farm or at camp in New England or working at a parent’s business. That is the history that matters. That is the history that makes life rich.

However, like a nation’s history, a family isn’t always beautiful, filled with rainbows and puppies. History can reveal a dark side too. Pedophiles beget pedophiles. Abusers beget abusers. Criminals beget criminals.

Again, not an absolute, but statistics are statistics and we do what we know.

But no matter how destructive it may seem in the moment history is important and has value. It is a source of both strength and direction…even is the direction is about what not to do. The idea that “those that do not study history are doomed to repeat it” applies to family history too.

Which brings me to my dad’s family.

Of course, like so many other things about my history I didn’t know this until recently.

My grandmother, Helen, died almost 28 years ago of lung cancer. Her last six months of chemo, drugs and never ending sickness and pain made her as mad as a hatter and twice as mean as bad bad Leroy Brown (look it up kids). I know this because as the only child, my father (and mother) lovingly made accommodations for both Ralph and Helen to live with us.

She was in her mid-50’s so relatively young when she died…but with her an entire family history disappeared. Of course, cancer, and treatment, can make a person crazy. It can also make the family crazy too. There were some good things that came out of this…and some not so good.

On the plus side, Helen’s death resulted in me never trying a cigarette. Or a drug. Never. Ever. I know what it can do to a person.

In the category of not so good is the isolation from the community and our neighbors. Although there are other contributing factors, it is tough to invite your teenage girlfriend over to the house on a Friday night when your grandmother is screaming out in a drug induced hallucination in the next room…it tends to ruin the mood.

I never invited friends over and so those teen years when friends bond I was in a house of family secrets, drawn shades and the smell of death. After all she had the Big-C. Unlike today, people who died of cancer didn’t have memorial marathons, golf outings or wear pink ribbons. You circled the wagons and drew the shades and dealt with it privately. Cancer treatment has come a long way. Thirty years ago if, for whatever reason, the cancer didn’t kill you the treatment would.

However, within a few months of Helen’s death, Ralph found a simple country girl and remarried. Ralph’s choice set up a 25 year estrangement between Ralph and his only child, Roger. An estrangement that followed Ralph into the grave.

I’m not sure why he remarried so quickly. Loneliness? Lust? Love?

I have no idea.

I do know that within a few months of Helen’s death he proposed to the widow next door. When she said “no”, he wandered off and found his second wife.

Then Ralph made the choice to wander out of his only son’s life. From the time Ralph left to the time he died we never talked about it. Whenever I’d ask him, he would change the subject.

I’m not sure if he knew why. Sometimes we just do what we do.

Now this may seem unusual but Ralph had a great deal of estrangement in his life. I really don’t know all the reasons. When he was young his mother ran off with the local piano player. The life of a farmer’s wife apparently didn’t fit with her image. My understanding of the event – or at least my understanding of the mythology – is he never spoke to her again.

He didn’t even go to her funeral.

There must be something more to the story because Ralph’s brothers stayed connected with her and spent time with her and their half-siblings. But not Ralph. I’ve never really understood. But again, I don’t need to understand. Understanding is over-rated. Some things simply are.

The irony (the tragedy might be a better word) is through Ralph’s choice he cut himself off from his family’s history. Then as an adult he cut himself off from his family’s future. I’m not lying this all on Ralph because his son and his son’s family never really understood.

The only person he told was Roger and that was after he was engaged.

As time revealed, his way was probably not the best way to handle the situation for the longterm well-being of the relationships involved. We all like to think we would do it better then someone else but in many respects Ralph repeated the same choices his parents made. Just because you know how someone else screwed-up doesn’t ensure you won’t make the same mistake.

Helen’s sickness and death – if responded to in an honest manner – could have been a powerful opportunity for our family to come together. Instead I ran away to the military, my father ran away to work, mom sought her own escape while Ralph found his. Instead of grieving together I think we all ran for the hills – as if the pain of grieving was going to kill us all over again.

This was our history.

We do what we know and trying to discovering a different way is a great deal of work and applying the change requires courage – more than most people have in a lifetime. Even if someone discovers “why” they do something doesn’t mean they discover “how” to do something differently.

When I look at my family and look about the estrangements I realize I want something different with my parents then they had with theirs. It is a lot of work.

Around the time of Roger’s first heart attack I made the decision to stick around to help out my parents. I would have preferred to be in Maine but my family is more important. Several years ago I had an opportunity to start working with parents in a business. It has been time well spent and as such I have an excellent relationship with both my parents. We still have our things like all families but I want to be close. I want a new history with them.

People are already saying, I, “sound just like your father!”

I wonder what that will mean in 20 more years. I hope I have more hair.

I also hope it means something different with him then he had with his father and my mother had with hers.

I hope it means a new history.

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