Thursday 25 September 2008

The Past Is

I called my last post "How will we change the past, if we don't know what it is?". I keep looking at that and trying to understand exactly what I meant by that. Maybe what I meant to say was:

"How can we change the present, if we don't know what the past is?" or

How can we understand what we are dealing with now unless we understand what the past was? or

How will we change the impact of the past, if we don't know what it was? or

How can we stop being destroyed by the past if we don't know what it was?

The blog itself explained what I was trying to say. I am now deconstructing my own title. It is kind of interesting. Probably the most important point is that I referred to the past as existing in the present "... what the past is?" The past is always with us. It is. Our understanding of it may change, but if we don't know at least what happened to us, we can't understand and what we don't know, what we won't face can and probably will kill us.

I am right now teaching courses in history, and "the personal is political". My students were having difficulties with the notion of "truth". A postmodern problem??? If we have had one view of history (or a "master narrative"), and find out that there are missing pieces, or that the writer(s) had biases or were bigots or otherwise less than perfect, then does that make the history a lie? I would just say that it makes the history incomplete - it may make it a bit warped. But what is warped? There are facts - x happened. Why it happened, how it happened, the results of fact x are all open to interpretation and understanding. New facts, new information, new ways of looking at the world - all these things can change our understanding and interpretation of the past. The more we learn, the more angles that we use to understand, the better off we will be in the end. The past is; it cannot be changed - what we do with it is what changes.

Do past ways of understanding constitute lies?

It is the interplay between the personal and the "historical" that is starting to interest me. Some of this is not really new. I keep thinking about the old adage - "Those who don't know the past are condemned to repeat it". Can we find ourselves in "microhistories", anymore than we find ourselves in the "macrohistories" or "master narratives"?

There is probably a point to this rambling but I want to think about it some more. This doesn't quite fit everything that has gone before it, but I'm sure that it will connect up at some point!

Sunday 7 September 2008

How will we change the past, if we don't know what it is?

I have been having a hard time working since Friday. I had the wonderful plan to get a couple of weeks ahead solidifying my lecture outlines so that I could go and see my children & grandchildren. I just couldn't focus enough to organize anything. I spent a few hours with my mother on Friday and again on Saturday morning, but I didn't really want to talk to anyone. My son phoned and I spent an hour talking, the upshot of which was that I sometimes have a hard time believing that both my sons are so "together". It wasn't until a long talk with my sister this morning that I managed to begin to sort through the funk that I have been in. Strange how that works! The topic of the conversation began in a similar vein. The discussion began with "given our mother, it is truly amazing that we have managed to raise four self-sufficient, highly functioning children". This is not to say that they don't have problems, everyone does. Sometimes life sucks, sometimes it is wonderful. It is just that they all have the easy capacity (whether they know it or not) to live and resolve their difficulties when they occur effectively. They are able to move forward and live. [It is hard to write about one's children - but I never cease to be very proud and amazed by them]

I am still not sure what the trigger points were that set off the funk but I know where it took me. My mother is now truly going downhill. She has just moved into a beautiful one bedroom apartment in the priciest senior's residence in town & bought lovely new furniture for it. She is almost 90 and has lived a fairly good life in her 30 year retirement. We have never know about her past, her childhood - this was verboten. We never had grandparents; our paternal grandparents were both dead by the time I was 2. We never met my maternal grandmother because my mother talked to her but once after she left home at 14 or 15. My maternal grandfather died when she was 18. She built a life for herself, had an amazingly productive career even before she met and married my father and came to Canada as a WW2 war bride from Holland. She also worked in her chosen profession for years in Canada. This is to say that whatever happened in my mother's life to make her the way she was & is, is a closed book. I once asked my aunt and uncle about my grandmother when I was in Holland. I finally saw a picture of her (she had died the year before) and was stunned to realize that I looked very similar - there was no mistaking the genetics [it explained a lot about my extremely convoluted relationship with my mother]. I also learned that, not only did I have an uncle but another aunt, as well. My mother was aware of the "half-brother" (or full brother according to my aunt - another part of the story!), but had no idea that there was another sibling. And it was clear that she didn't want to know. I got no answers as to why my mother left home so early and went and worked in a hospital the year before she started training; it was as if her life only began after the Second World War; little but her ties to her sister remained of that life.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, now we get to my father. Without my father, I doubt that we would have had any fun at all. I suspect that despite his temper, this is where my sister and I learned whatever positive child-rearing skills we had that came from our home. He was very easy going most of the time. He spent a lot of time with us, took us everywhere from the library to skiing. He took one or all of us fishing, camping, when he went to work building houses (during periods of lay-offs from the mill). I certainly learned how to fix cars, how to do electrical work, how to use a saw, besides all the female stuff. It should go without saying that I have no brothers! He cooked, he cleaned, he ironed. In other words, before the days of feminism, my mother had an equal partner around the house - particularly, when compared to his fellow steelworkers. He didn't drink when I was growing up - that seems to have changed somewhat later. He loved having people around and he died way too soon from an industrial accident when I was in my twenties. If he had lived, I suspect that my first marriage might have lasted, but he never even got to have grandchildren - and he would have loved the boys. However, he did have a temper and he did beat us. It was inconsistent. About the only consistency that we could ever figure out was if we upset my mother, there was all hell to pay & we could be assured that we would feel the belt. But when it was over, it was over. My father never made us pay endlessly for whatever we had done wrong & there was no doubting that he felt bad afterwards and he could say "I'm sorry". In the end, it has been relatively easy forgiving my father, he was only human and on the whole, the good outweighed the bad - at least for me. I wouldn't presume to speak for my sisters.

But there was another reason why, in the end, the good outweighed the bad. Totally repressing traumatic events as I did as a child can be very problematic. The problem is that I didn't just repress the bad memories, I also repressed everything else within the time frame. In fact, growing up, I had virtually no memories prior to the age of about 12. What I did have were mostly negative and unrelated to the sexual relationship with the priest. During my years of therapy, my father would figure periodically in the sessions - usually dealing with his violence, but sometimes around the fringes of the abuse issues. They were always nebulous. I would wonder sometimes if I had everything wrong and my father was a real bastard - but it never rang true (therapy is a strange beast - never assume you have the whole picture - you get discreet memories that might mean one thing, they might mean something else entirely - like jigsaw puzzles - when you put the pieces in the wrong place, it creates a distorted picture - I had to learn to trust my feelings in therapy - no matter what anyone suggested, if it didn't feel right in my gut, I didn't have the whole picture). Over the years, I would claw away at the walls, I would open the doors a little bit, sometimes the doors and boxes where my memories were gathering dust would fly open no matter what I did. And when the ones that held the role my father played flew open, the adult me could only feel so sorry for him. It was my father who told me that sex between adults and children was wrong; it was because of my father that I "broke up" with the priest; it was because of my father that the priest stalked me and tried to kill me. It was in my father's arms that I cried and cried and cried. It was my father who told me that everything would be all right [just to let the reader know, I am crying right now and reliving all of this one more time as I write]. It is now clear to me why I never had any sexual transference issues with my therapist - he replaced my father in the part of my life that needed to believe that everything would one day be all right - no matter how bad it seemed at the time. In many ways, my father has carried me through a rather raucous life. It also explained why I dreamed of my father after I was sexually assaulted in Paris, but he was too far away to help me - I just couldn't get to him (he had died by this time). I was alone.

You may be asking yourself: "where was her mother in all this?" Well that is a question that I haven't even asked myself until recently. This brings us to the point of "why the funk?" In fact, it is only in writing this that I have found the answer. About three weeks ago, my mother was completely disoriented, she clung to me and was crying and couldn't function at all. There were other people around and when they asked, I said that it was like PTSD - lord knows, I recognize it in others. I don't know what started it exactly but there was no question what it was. Over the last couple of days, she has been somewhat disoriented as well - not as extreme as 3 weeks ago but the look and the feel were there - she was disengaged. That was the trigger for the funk - it just took longer to have an impact on me. Where was my mother when I was eight? Somewhere else in her own world. I can only assume that what was happening to me, had completely incapacitated my mother. She couldn't help me. I desperately needed my mother to hold me and tell me everything was going to be all right and she couldn't do it. My father had to do it. I don't think that it came naturally to him (he was a man after all!), but he did it. He took care of me. The adult me also knows that he must have been taking care of my mother as well. I do know that I never trusted or depended on my mother again.

I have been her "therapist" over the years after my father's death (I'd be a rich woman now, if I had charged by the hour). My sisters and I have done this, probably as long as we can remember. When things would happen, we could not really go to her for emotional support - she never knew how to do that. Along with my sisters, I will support her until she dies (hopefully, peacefully in her sleep). I even moved back home four years ago to support my sister as mother started to fail. One could say that old habits die hard. I rather think that, for my part, this is the least that I can do for my father. He loved and adored her. As much as was possible, she loved him back. My father loved us as we were, no matter what we did, no matter how angry he got. As much as was possible, she loved us, but it was always qualified. Sometimes I think that she needs us; I am not sure that that qualifies as love. It was and is the best that she can do. Do I love my mother? Probably not, if I were to try and explain what love is to me. But I do care about her. She is my mother, and deep down inside, I know that she tried her best. She just didn't know how and I suspect that this is because she never learned how.

Maybe this is finally my eulogy for my father. Unlike my eulogy for god, I still miss my father. I wish he could have lived longer. I wish that he could have known that I have my PhD. I wish he could have spent time with his grandchildren and now, great grandchildren. It was not to be. Without him, both good and bad, my life would have been a lot less happy than it was. Maybe the Mik'maq child-rearing practices managed to work their way down, even to my generation.

One day, I hope I can be as generous about my mother's faults. I am not ready to write about how difficult those made my life. Perhaps this blog is also a start of finally forgiving my mother as well. The past creates the present and the future. Secrets destroy our lives and the lives of those around us. I am often asked whether all this "washing of the dirty linen" (read sexual abuse of children), in public is a good thing. My answer is always an unqualified "yes". I know that there are downsides - e.g., too much fear becomes generated in children and parents - there are, after all, lots of people who do not have this as part of their life story - more of them than us. However, how will we ever change the past if we don't know what it is? I know that I wish that we had all known more about my mother's past. I wish that my mother could have talked about it - it would have helped us, it would have helped my father. Life could have been so much easier for all of us if we had known at least some of my mother's past.

Good old-fashioned Christianity: Just in case you thought things were going to change

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