Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Song My Sister Tried to Teach Me

When I remember Barb’s birth, all I see is RED. Red hair, that is. It seemed that red hair was the Holy Grail for newborns in my family, and Barb had it! On the genetic craps table, she rolled a “7”. And I hated it.

What do you do when the one thing everyone is “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” over is something you have no control over and can never achieve? In my case, I made it the object of derision and scorn. I teased Barb mercilessly about something she had no control over, either. If I couldn’t be celebrated for my brown hair and brown eyes, then I would make her miserable about her red hair. Even a child can understand the concept of “misery loves company”.

Slowly, as one sibling after another arrived on the scene, my resentment grew. Barb was the redhead; Jim was the only boy; Linda was born with a heart defect that required special attention and care. These were all things I just couldn’t compete with!

And if I couldn’t compete, I would just have to choose a different path. In my case, that was the “I don’t need your attention—I’m fine on my own” path. It was a self-delusion, designed to soften the blow of not feeling special, but it was quite effective. I worked hard at being strong and self-sufficient. I became someone you could give important responsibilities to, and I would handle them. That coping mechanism became a defining personality characteristic.

Looking back at the arrival of my first sibling, I am convinced that nothing changes the dynamic of a mother and daughter quite as much as another daughter. With the arrival of my sister, the special bond my mother and I shared was changed. Our estrogen-infused duet became a trio, and another layer of harmony was blended into our song.

I’m not certain of the underlying cause, but I do know that Mom, Barb, and I became a relationship triangle.  As often happens when three people are closely bonded, there are always two people, at any given time, whose ties are dominating. This might be due to age or personality type; it might occur because of shared interests and experiences—both good and bad. Sometimes, it is brought about by emotional or physical distance with one party. The two-person bond can float around that triangle, changing with time.

When we were young, Barb and I shared a bedroom and we spent many hours together. We lived in the country, so outside friends weren’t readily available. I remember saying our prayers together at night and many whispered conversations after the lights were out. But mostly I remember how hard it was for her to understand how her “bookworm” sister could constantly have her nose in a book when Barb was right there to interact with! Like most siblings, we fought as much as we did anything. Much of the time, I was perfecting my performance of “I’m fine; I don’t need anyone”. Barb was easy to tease; I wasn’t always very nice to her. And life rolled on.

I’m sure Mom hoped that, over time, the perfect friendship would develop between Barb and me. After all, she and her sister were quite close. But, friendship isn’t born out of wanting it that way. It arises from chemistry of personality and shared experiences. C.S. Lewis describes it this way in “The Four Loves”: 

“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . ."

That can’t be manufactured or forced. When Barb and I reminisce about childhood, it always seems we had very different experiences. Our memories of the same event are colored by the perspective we viewed it through. It don’t think I’ve ever experienced a “You, too?” moment when discussing childhood and adolescence with my sister.

One thing Barb and I did share was music. You see, my sister is my perfect vocal partner—which is not unusual in siblings. The same genes and verbal instruction that made our speaking voices sound similar, worked on our singing voices. Many of my childhood singing experiences were shared with my sister. This was one area of our life that we operated in effortlessly; it was really the only thing that was easy. Music was always there to remind me that we were bound to each other, even as I moved through adolescence, perfecting my role as the self-sufficient child. Step by step, I inched away to the edge of the relationship triangle I shared with my mother and my sister.

There was one “song” that Mom and Barb knew by heart—drawing close. Their personalities bonded easily over shared interests like cooking, sewing, and other creative endeavors.  And then there was the trauma of significant health issues that Barb experienced, beginning in her teens.  Over about 10 years, Mom and Barb would spend countless hours at doctor appointments and in hospitals. They sought out every bit of information they could learn about her illness. Mom would visit for weeks, when Barb was very ill and weak, to help care for her and for my nephew Nathan. Barb needed Mom so much during the time that I was practicing my new song—letting go.

Maybe I wasn’t simply letting go—I was pushing away from Barb and Mom—and I pushed hard. I was newly married and so very young and idealistic about my relationship with Dave. I couldn’t see how either of them could possibly be of any help to me. Barb wasn’t married and Mom was still working through the pain of a failed marriage. I continued to dig deeply into my role as the independent child, believing that Dave and I had it all together—that we were fine.

I pushed away so hard that, eventually, I was not part of that triangle any longer. Barb had needs and Mom wanted to be needed. Their relationship deepened and flourished the way any relationship would that is given proper time and attention.

When the three of us spent time together, I often felt like I was on the outside looking in. It was as if they spoke a different language that I couldn’t quite figure out. They had written a mother/daughter song that I couldn’t learn to sing, because it didn’t have a third part. When I became a mother, I began to see all that they had to offer me in terms of encouragement and support. I wanted to express my deep need to be validated in my new role and my continuing need to be mothered as well, but it always came out sounding like “Look how great I’m doing!  I don’t need any help!”

But I did need help. I was still measuring myself against every other mother I met at church or at work. I never felt good enough. So many times I wondered if what I was doing as a mother and as a wife was the right thing. During the times that Mom, Barb, and I were together, I compared myself to Barb endlessly. What made things different for them? How did she get Mom to understand her feelings and needs so easily?

And that’s when I made a mistake that I wouldn’t understand for about 20 years. Comparing myself to my sister led me to vacillate between two extremes—downplaying the beauty of the song Barb and Mom shared versus trying to mimic it in my own relationship with Mom. The first choice just widened the gap between them and me; the second one left me feeling like a constant failure.

That all became crystal clear to me about 6 weeks ago, when I began writing about the songs of my soul. It’s little wonder that I couldn’t figure out how to have an honest relationship with them. If I couldn’t be honest with myself, how could I be authentic with them?

And, so I started down this path of learning who I was.  It’s been a beautiful journey, and I’ve felt a lightness in my heart that I’ve never experienced before.

I was sharing this with my sister on Thursday afternoon, after our Thanksgiving dinner—explaining the new freedom I feel within my soul and the ways that Mom and I have been able to talk openly and describing how much I love this new experience. Barb looked at me and said something that brought me up short.

“Soon you will learn how easy Mom is to talk to.”

That. Right there. That is the song Barb has been trying to teach me since we were young girls. She has been trying to teach me the song she sings with Mom. And, I’ve been trying to learn it.

We were both wrong. You can’t sing someone else's song. It’s like a bad cover of a famous song; even a good cover will never be the same as the original. Everyone who hears it instantly compares it to the original and it never measures up. And my attempt to sing Barb’s song was very, very bad.

I was never meant to sing the daughter-song that Barb sings with Mom—and continuing to try just invites more comparison. In that “contest”, I will never measure up, and it will always feel wrong.

And so, I looked at Barb and said, “No, I won’t ever learn that. Because it’s not true—it’s not easy. It’s not easy for me to talk to her, and it’s not easy for her to talk to me. And, that’s OK. Just because it’s not easy, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

Once again, the three of us are working through the ways we love each other. And finally, I’m content singing my own song.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Song My Father Taught Me

When my brother, Jim, was born, it was clear that something big had happened in my family.  Apparently, having a boy after two girls was a cause for great celebration. One year later, when my youngest sister was born, Jim became firmly enthroned as “the only boy”. He was a big deal. I knew my parents loved me, but I would never have the status of “only” anything. I was just in grade school, but I began to learn the “song” that being male was part of being good enough. I realized that I could never be my father’s only son, but I could work hard to be as much of a companion to him as my brother. I watched whatever Daddy watched on TV (westerns, Sunday night Mystery Theater, and—years later—football). I watched/helped him work on his big semi-trucks. I learned to ride our small motorcycle and I loved riding with him on his big bike. Other than some questionable food choices of his (lima beans and liver), if Daddy liked something—so did I. If I couldn’t be his son, I would get as close as I could—I would learn to sing that song somehow!

Daddy and I always had fun together and I have many happy memories of times we spent together. My favorite is a practical joke we played on Barb one afternoon. Daddy was sitting on the porch and enjoying a beer. He had been working on his truck and I had been hanging out with him most of that time. He was joking with me and asking if I wanted a sip; he knew I would say no, because I thought it smelled nasty. All of a sudden, he said “I bet we can convince your sister that you like it”. I didn’t believe him, but it sounded intriguing, so I asked him how. He took the bottle that was nearly empty and rinsed it out and put lemonade in it. When Barb walked by, I took a long draw on that bottle and grinned at her, asking if she would like some, too. The look on her face said it all! She definitely didn’t want any, and it turned out to be hard to convince her it was actually lemonade.

Daddy was gone a lot when I was young; his job as an owner/operator long-distance truck driver meant that he had to go where the work was. We lived in Ohio, but often the work was on the West Coast and other times it was down in Texas. Many times, it took him away from home for three or four weeks at a time. His homecoming was special every single time. Daddy wasn’t like other fathers who were cold and distant; he was affectionate and gave wonderful bear hugs. When he came home, he would squat down and we would all run to him for the love we had missed while he was gone. I know now that my parents’ marriage had been troubled for years, but they never let their children glimpse the difficulty they were having. We never had a lot of money, but I always felt like my childhood was very rich in love and laughter.

Yes, I was definitely a “Daddy’s girl”. But, that all stopped a couple of months before my 14th birthday—the day my whole world fell apart. The day my father moved out of our home, my broken heart took the blame. As I looked at the time we spent together through the eyes of a young girl I decided that I wasn’t enough. I would never be enough to keep him there. My brother went to visit Daddy two years later and never returned home. Jim was enough, he was the one that Daddy wanted to have with him all the time and I was not.

For six years, my father was mostly absent from my life. He missed teaching me to drive, seeing my performance at St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, and my high school graduation. For a few years, my step-mom signed my birthday cards, until I told her to stop sending them, if he couldn’t sign them himself.

Since school was the one area I’d always felt I was able to prove my worthiness, I dove back into my schoolwork, trying to convince my father that I was worth coming back for. I told myself, irrationally, that if I could just keep that 4.0 GPA, he would be so proud of me that nothing could keep him away. Physical Education and Typing class became my academic nemeses—lowering my GPA to an unacceptable 3.8. I was so disappointed in myself, because I knew he would never come to my graduation. I didn’t want to invite him. I can’t even remember if I did.

All I could see was the glaring evidence that I would never be good enough, because I wasn’t a boy. All that effort was wasted. I could never be what my father wanted most. I could never be what Jim already was—a son.

You might think that I would never have forgiven my father for his absence. But, I did. Most of the people in my life didn’t understand it then, and some still don’t. When I was 19, I decided I wanted to see my father again. I can’t remember if I called or wrote to him, but the result was an invitation to visit for a month during the summer of 1983. It was a very good visit and, over the next year, Daddy and I repaired our relationship with grace and acceptance. I realized that even the gravest mistakes can be forgiven. I began to understand how the people we love the most are in the position to cause our greatest pain. I learned to accept him for who he was—good and bad. My father and I would gradually reestablish the comfortable companionship we had enjoyed when I was a child.  

But, it could never be the same. Choices have consequences. Wounds leave scars. During those five years apart, I had learned some painful songs that could never be “un-learned”. In his absence, other men had stepped into the role of father-figure in my life. Some of those experiences had hurt and some had healed, but all of them had changed me.

My father’s love will always be something I crave and his companionship will always be easy and comfortable. I will never be his son, but I can learn to sing my true song.

I’ve learned that Daddy loves me just the way I am.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Song My Mother Taught Me (Verse One)

The first song that any of us learn to sing is for our mother, and is taught to us by our mother. It’s easy to understand, when you consider the sheer number of hours each day that we spend in physical contact with one another.  At first, a child sees her mother as an extension of herself. The part of her that enables her movement through this world and brings to her the things she desires. The yin/yang of this is that, as a child grows and develops, the mother begins to experience the pride and the distance that accompany each tiny step her child takes in life that leads them away from her.

This is the first “song” my mother taught me:  the drawing close—the intimate bond of mother and child. 

For the first two years of my life, my mother and I were inseparable. I am her oldest child, and we, quite literally, spent every single day together. Not just every day, but nearly every hour of every day. Our bond was so strong that I became inconsolable, when she was hospitalized, for just two days, when my sister, Barb, was born. No one could comfort me. Not my father. Not my grandparents. I cried for hours—until I was exhausted. By the time Mom came home, I was so “homesick” for her that I was running a fever. Miraculously, every symptom was remedied by her return home! 

I find it fascinating and sad that, even now, my mom feels she failed me during those first two years of my life, by not preparing me to be away from her. My mom, who devoted every day of her life to my needs, feels she let me down. She taught me to depend on her, to be confident in her love for me, to call out to her in my times of need—but she still regrets forgetting to teach me how to be apart from her.

And so, she began to teach me a new “song”:  the act and the art of letting go—showing me the steps to achieving my independence from her.

I know the arrival of my siblings spurred this on. Within three more years, a brother and another sister would join our family—four children under the age of 5!  As any mother knows, there are only so many hours in each day and so much that calls out for her attention, including her children.

And so, I learned to be her helper, to answer the cries for attention of my siblings, and to be a responsible big sister. Bit by bit, the dynamic of “the two of us” became “all four kids”. I learned to seek out their companionship to fill in the time she no longer had to lavish on me alone. In learning how to nurture from her, I was learning to bring other people into my life; the companionship she had used to draw me close became the way I learned to let go of her.

Drawing close—days of mirroring her mannerisms, her voice, and her loving care became decades of “that’s how Mom taught me to do it”.

Of course, when I became an adult—when I was so busy making my own way, my own marriage, my own family—I saw only the ways we were different. My eyes were fixed on the trivial things like music and clothing choices or movies that I loved and she hated. But, there were big differences, too.  Our marriage experiences were like night and day. My relationship with my father was a constant source of pain for her. I struggled with spiritual issues, at times, and she seemed frustrated with my lackadaisical church attendance. I hid some of my life choices from her—out of fear and respect—fear of discussing our differences and respect for the fact that she might be disappointed in me.

That was a big mistake. When I buried our differences, I buried our opportunity to truly know each other. I avoided being myself with her. Years later, in my 30s and 40s, I wondered how my mother could know so little about who I was and about what truly mattered to me. Even today, there are times when our differences can seem so strong, but on other days, they almost disappear.

Letting go—our relationships and choices drew us apart from one another. Her desire to teach me how to be independent developed into my relentless need to separate myself from her and become my own person.

One thing I am certain of—my mother is the one person whose disappointment in me cuts the deepest. And, her favor and approval are something I continue to crave, even in my 50s. 

For two years she was my world. And then, she helped me move out into the world.

And still today we practice the songs of drawing close. 

And letting go.