The truth was that my parents probably shouldn’t have had children: like Betty and Don Draper, they did it because it was expected. For years, the lack of my parents’ loving kindness made me risk averse, afraid to open up, to love and be loved. For too many years I thought I was not worthy of love. That was the lesson I had learned at their table.
It’s not often that television shows speak to my life. Mostly they provide entertainment, escape, and, if I choose wisely, elegant writing and some humor and pathos. Thirtysomething is the last show I recall that hit me where I live: I was the same age as the characters, having children and struggling with issues of motherhood versus work. But I find myself strangely drawn to Mad Men, a fantasy of a show that somehow seems to strike me right in the heart.
The episode where Sally Draper hears about her beloved grandfather’s death and, uncomforted by her cool and aloof mother, runs and sobs under the table, almost made me weep. I could immediately recall my own grandfather who died when I was ten years old. I had been staying alone with him and my grandmother the night before he got sick. It was a wondrous visit: he took me out to his boat and we sat and talked about how he would teach me to fish. The next morning, Papa lay in the beautiful carved bed (that my daughter sleeps in even now) and I knew he must be very sick. I crawled up into bed and lay with him until the ambulance came and took him away. I never saw him again; he had another heart attack in the hospital and died that day. My mother, wrapped up in her own grief, didn’t even think of the impact on me. And both of my parents decided that attending the funeral would be too “traumatic” for either me or my two younger sisters.
This was not an incident of my parents protecting me. It was just another in a long line of evidence that my sisters and I were, mostly, too much trouble to deal with in any significant way.
I was seven-years-old in 1963, a year younger than Sally Draper was in that Mad Men episode. I recall that year quite clearly, as my friends and I were playing on the playground at school when we were all rushed inside and told our president had been shot. But I remember a lot more about that year and the years since. Although we did not live in Manhattan, my father worked long hours and was often inaccessible when he came home. My mother was glamorous and unhappy. She smoked a lot and drank a lot and dismissed my sisters and me most of the time. Before my father came home we were fed and put to bed (so as not to “disturb” him). When we were older we would watch them sit and have cocktails on the couch: my mother freshly bathed and in a pretty dress. Although I wasn’t sent to a closet for bad behavior, I was sent to my room and for inordinate amounts of time. The rest of the time we kids played outside for hours unsupervised while my father worked more and my mother drank more and grew more unstable.
The truth was that my parents probably shouldn’t have had children: like Betty and Don Draper, they did it because it was expected, although I will admit that both Don and my father share a certain romanticism about love, marriage, and babies: before those events actually happened, of course. And if it can be believed, Don Draper is far better father than mine ever was to me. For all Don’s philandering, at least he has a soul in need of searching and it is clear he loves his babies and takes joy in them. I was mostly the object of both my parent’s indifference and derision, depending on the day, the week, the event. Now that my mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s she presents a stunningly different picture: she is kind and generous and tells my sisters and me that she loves us. But her memory is decaying exponentially and even those precious few great moments do not completely make up for a lost childhood.
My father is another story. For reasons not completely known to either me or my sisters, he doesn’t like me. Never has. He might deny it but mostly he wouldn’t even want to discuss it. I know, I’ve tried. He has said I remind him of my mother but then he DID marry her and stay with her for 25 years. They also had a pretty easy separation for 15 years in which they continued to see each other and travel together.
What I think he means by saying I am like my mother is that I am serious, deep, and honest. Those qualities confound him. What I am not is bipolar. I am neither a drunk nor an hysteric. Nor am I a neglectful mother. I am also not entirely self-absorbed. Those traits I do not share with my mother.
In some profound way, he has frozen me somewhere in time and I can’t get out. He knows nothing about me, doesn’t get me, and doesn’t want to. He doesn’t know me and he doesn’t get me and that doesn’t bother him. While I can’t imagine having that kind of relationship with my own children, I must accept, hard as it is, to understand that is what he wants.
What I have also done, and will do forever more, is live a life of intention and integrity. I will be loving but honest, kind but truthful, serious but forgiving.
He knows none of that, of course, because he has never bothered to find out anything about me. He never asks questions or has an ounce of curiosity about my life. When I try to talk to him about anything at all, he shuts down. He can even be vicious and insulting as he was last summer and as he was this past weekend when I took my daughter down to see him.
What I have done in the past is to challenge him to talk about something other than the weather and what’s on television. I gave that up. What I do now is just try and be as nice and helpful as possible and to get along for the two or three days of a visit. In the past I have taken care of him for weeks at my house. I have called and visited regularly. I have made every effort to have my children know and care for him. But none of that matters. The older and sicker he gets, the more unhappy and mean. Rather than cherish what he has: three grown and successful and happy daughters, loving and interesting grandchildren, and a second wife who nurses and puts up with him, he would rather stew in his own angry juices.
For years, the lack of my parents’ loving kindness made me risk averse, afraid to open up, to love and be loved. For too many years I thought I was not worthy of love. That was the lesson I had learned at their table. But over time, I grew healthier, and though I still struggle with my past, mostly I get around it and go on.
Yet, even though I can tell myself I have no expectations, every time I see my father I think: this time it might be different. Maybe he will finally talk to me, maybe he will finally say he is sorry, maybe he will recognize and be thankful for all he has. Maybe he will be grateful to be alive instead of furious. But his anger is not just at being alive. It has always been there. I know that and still I hope. I don my bulletproof vest and walk into his war with me. But the barbs and bullets always find their mark.
Our parents can wound us in ways that leave such an opening it never heals quite completely, no matter how hard we try to close it up with the salve of the love of ourselves and others.
My last visit had been to his hospital bed. Told he might well be dying, my middle sister and I drove down for four days. We sat in his tiny room and tried to keep him company. It was a draining experience, emotionally and physically, but in a miracle of sorts, by the time we left he had sort of rallied. Two weeks later he was home.
I decided that I should take my daughter to see him over the long weekend now that he was his back to a semblance of his old self and not in the hospital. As he could deteriorate at any time, it seemed imperative. I did it for her and for him. I did it because I wanted to have an image of him not lying wan and weak in a hospital bed. It had been clear that he scarcely seemed to notice my sister and me on our last visit so what I found this time should have come as no surprise. He didn’t seem to care that we had come this weekend, either, after the first few moments. And what I hadn’t accounted for was my daughter, who is now able to understand things as an adult, to see him be so ugly to me, her mother. Her mother whom she loves.
Still I struggled to maintain conversation, and that time with my daughter I danced the old dance: keep the man entertained. We told stories, had conversations around him, even asked him questions. He scowled, he watched television, he contributed nothing. Until he began to insult me and ask intrusive questions. Then, on our last night together, all hell broke loose.
I had, as normal, put on my bulletproof armor, but somehow his barbs pierced my heart anyway.
I don’t know if I can continue to put myself through this. There are times I still feel a lot like that little girl, crying all alone under the table.
I watched the episodes where Betty Draper’s father treated her like a princess and wondered why she couldn’t make that happen for her children. My papa treated my mother the same way: she was deeply loved but could not pass it on. I watched as Don Draper struggled to overcome his very humble background and be happy with his success. My father grew up poor and was also a self-made man but he gave even less to us emotionally than Don does. I see Sally and Bobby stealing and lying and smoking and remember my sisters and I doing those things, too. I see those television kids spinning around like tops to please mommy and daddy. I did that dance, too: anything to get their attention. And I want to tell those fictional kids: stop. Stop. Nothing will help.
I want to tell those kids, even as I repeat it to myself: Home is not necessarily where the heart is. Until, that is, you get out and make it on your own.
*This essay originally appeared in Open Salon in 2010