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Will I marry someone like my father?

Published: Jul 18, 2004 - 08:43 AM

Some people look back on their childhood as the ?best years of their lives.? I, on the other hand, hated being a child. I always felt caged and restrained.

I disliked having to ask for things and I especially disliked being told ?no? without a logical or fair reason. I hated being told what to wear, when to come home, where I could go and whom I could go with.
When I was very young I hated not being able to reach things and I really hated sitting in the back seat of the car being told to ?sit still and shut up.? When visitors came, we were sent outside to play, and we were always sent to bed when we weren?t tired.

One of my earliest childhood memories has me standing at the gate with my mothers? voice calling from the house ?Sonya, don?t you leave the yard will you?? I?m about three years old and I?m wondering why I can?t go out the gate.

My father and my big brother left every day. They both got to go out the gate, but I wasn?t allowed to. People walked past, stopped, said ?hello? and continued on. Everyone in the world seemed to be outside the gate, except me. I just knew that exciting things happened out there.

I had heard my father talk about ?work? and my brother talk about ?school.? I had seen ladies pushing prams and carrying home shopping. I had been warned that ?bad things happen out there,? and, that ?someone would steal me if I went out there.? I had been told: ?that I would get lost and not know how to get home; that cars might run over me; and, that dogs might bite me.? I don?t know how I know this but I seem to know it. I also know that at the time, I believed that it was a lie and I didn?t believe it.

One day I did go out and I noticed the neighbour?s fence led to a gate on the other side of their yard. I felt certain that if I kept my hand on the fence I could walk as far as the gate at the far side without getting lost. I played it over in my mind until I was sure it was a good plan. It worked! I went all the way to the other side, turned around and with my fingers lightly touching the fence palings I made my way back.

I think this memory stayed with me all these years, as it was probably the most significant day of my life. For me it is also the day I discovered I was my own little entity. I discovered the ?nature of the beast? that I was to become. I had discovered freedom of choice and independence. It was probably also the day that my parent?s nightmare began.

My father used to refer to me as ?A bugger of a child.? I couldn?t wait to get to school and yet by the third year I was being pulled into the headmaster?s office for truancy. I had my little sister and an older friend with me when we were caught. My mother was embarrassed that my sister who was only six at the time was labelled the youngest kid to ever wag school. Not only did that embarrass her but she learned we were all sitting at my friends house with our faces covered in make up, high heeled shoes and ?smoking.?

By the time I reached high school I had had enough. They considered me to be something of a delinquent and I thought they were ?Screwing with my mind.? I had a ?real smart mouth,? a ?bad attitude? and I ?was heading for trouble.?

My parents later confided they thought, ?I would give them a nervous breakdown.? Honestly, I was a bugger of a kid; I was head strong and rebellious. I challenged all forms of authority and I just would not allow people, regardless of rank, to control me.

I used to lie in bed at night and say to my sister: ?Who are these people,? referring to my parents. My sister was my kindred spirit and I could tell her anything, but my parents were a ?whole different kettle of fish.? We decided we had been adopted at birth and for the time being we would just have to accept ?these aliens we lived with?.

I spent most of my adolescence screaming, ?I just want to be free.? I ran away from home often until the legal age of sixteen, when, I finally packed my bags for the last time and left.

My father was scared and the more fear he had, the more controlling he became. The more controlling he became, the more rebellious and outrageous I became. My father believed effective parenting required discipline; his idea of discipline was to belt me with a strap. For reasons I still do not understand, he would yell so loudly and angrily that the veins in his temples stood out, his face became bright red and his eyes looked like those of a wild animal.

I learned not to cry and later I learned how to scream back and hit back. For many years we were at war.

My father was not a bad guy, he was charming, gentle, talented and a lot of fun. He did not drink, smoke or womanise. Most of the time he was a really likable person. I was not blameless either. I certainly provoked him and definitely required some guidance. My father had a huge problem with anger and stress that manifested itself as violence.

For many years I felt confused about this relationship, as it was both loving as well as hateful. A father-daughter relationship is extremely dynamic and it seems common and understandable that many women marry men similar to their fathers. It turned out to be very fortunate for me that I was rebellious as I was able to move on without any permanent damage. Neither my sister nor I have ever been in violent relationships and we?ve never hit our children.

Miraculously, I made it through childhood alive and intact. Adulthood suited me so much better and once I had my independence I managed to level out. I had raced through my childhood trying to be older than I was, but as we all learn when we get there, ?Adulthood requires maturity and experience.? You really can?t just jump there.

Over the years we re-grouped and became a close-knit family. Ironically, my father and I had an awful lot in common when the playing field was level. By the time he was forty, he gave up his stressed-out life and bought a farm on the north coast. He got part-time work as a musician; found and joined a church; remarried; and, had a new family. In short ?he chilled out and reinvented himself.?

Most of the time we all got along fine but on occasion something would come up and a button would be pushed. Many, many times I confronted my father and demanded answers or apologies about something I related back to. I often bought up instances from my teen-age years and with my articulate, sword like tongue; I would slash him to pieces.

He would be mortified and deeply wounded. We went on like this for a few years as we ?Workshopped our relationship.? The day did come when we had processed everything and simply accepted that, ?We all did the best we could, with the limited knowledge we had, in the time frame in which we lived?.

Or as Oprah Winfrey often quotes, "If we had known better, we would have done better".

My father was a bit of a raconteur, so, there were very few stories we hadn?t heard before. If anything, we had heard the same stories over and over so many times we would have known them verbatim, except, he was also such an exaggerator that with each repetition the story became bigger and more colourful. Still, we didn?t really mind as he filled in a lot of family history and we knew him well enough to sort out the black and white version of his tales.

A few years ago he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer and was told he should ?Get his house in order.? We were very fortunate to be given this amount of warning as it prepared us all for what was to come.

In his final year I spent most weekends sitting or lying on his bed and we would talk. He had reached a point where he had accepted the inevitable and as a Christian, his beliefs had him well prepared. I also think his age and the fact that his body was so frail had him feeling quite comfortable with it all. He had time to do the things he needed or wanted to do and the opportunity to say what needed to be said. He was at peace with himself.

An interesting thing that I noticed is that his childhood memories became crystal clear. In the past when he referred to his childhood he focused on what happened, which is to say, he described events that happened. The difference now, I noticed, was that his stories involved how he felt about those events. During this time my father was not in control, he was not big and he did not speak with authority. His stories did not have a moral or some hidden advice. These were just the memories of a small boy, in a big world, trying to make sense of everything.

My fathers? stories used to infer ?How much he knew, how brave and masculine he was, how proud he was of his ability to work and support his family.? Things were always right or wrong and he was the Patriarch and that made him ?King of the Castle.?

I always thought he was sure of himself and certainly I believed, ?He always felt he was in control.?

This was the year I relived my father?s childhood, with him as a child and me as his best friend.

I won?t go into his personal life stories here, but I do wish to share some of the things I learned about him that year.

My father had never felt connected to his own father. He respected him and learned a lot from him but his father had never hugged him and had never told him he was loved.

He did badly in school and left at the age of fourteen to find work after his father told him, ?He was too old to be supported and it was time to make his own way in the world.? He was frightened and alone as he made his way to a sheep station to work twelve hours a day, for not much more than room and board.

As a small boy he was humiliated and often picked on, because he was much shorter than the other boys his age. He tried to use humour to gain acceptance and later took up music hoping that would earn him some credibility with his peers.

As a young man he became fed up with being bullied and learned how to fight. He found himself a job with a travelling carnival and became a boxer. He found ?being a man? very demanding and learned at an early age that to survive in a man?s world he would need to be tough. He needed to compete and was always trying to do better, have better and be better. Over time he learned to hide his insecurities and became an expert at being what the world wanted him to be.

He was always very close to his mother and he loved her dearly. I also learned that year, that, his mother had come to Australia, as a single woman of forty (that was probably scandalous in itself as she would have been considered to be an old spinster) pregnant with my father.

My father recalled all he knew of his mother?s early years. They were dirt poor and uneducated. The shame she carried and the humiliation and contempt that she had to endure from those around her explained her protectiveness towards my father and the attitude of his father towards him. His father, it turns out, was actually his stepfather. An older man that his mother had worked for and later married, to give her son a name.
I remember her as having a lot of attitude herself especially toward class. She despised snobbery, as much as she despised the fact that she was considered the lowest of the low. In her later years she was a feisty woman. At eighty, she could still tear you to shreds if you offended her or looked down on her. She was a women?s libber way before anyone recognized that there was an inequality between the sexes.

One very big insight came through my reconnection with my father in his final year. I had never really given much thought to ?the gene pool.? I guess I had always believed that we all start out equal and then do the best we can. I had always thought of our genetic makeup as influencing physical characteristics such as the appearance and health of our bodies.

I?m not sure if genes actually influence our personality and psychological make up but I?m starting to think that it is quite probable. Perhaps even emotional memory is passed on genetically and phobias, past life recall and de-ja-vu are the emotional memories of our ancestors. Perhaps, too, our emotional makeup, personality and behaviour patterns are pre-determined by our childhood environment and experiences. Personally, I believe that it is both. Whichever way you look at it, one thing is clear: who you are, how you are and what you are initially, come to you via your parents.

What I learned from these discussions is that our lives are really like a relay race.

When you watch a relay race the first runner starts out with a baton and races to the next person. That person takes the baton and races to the next and so it goes. If one person falls behind the others in the race then the next person in the relay will either make up for lost time or the relay team will fall further behind, and, if all the runners in one team fall behind the other teams then they will ultimately finish the race way behind the winning team.

I thought about my grandmother and wondered how many generations before her had struggled. They must have had enormous obstacles or handicaps, for her to be where she was, at the point of entering the race. She probably gave the best of herself and all she had, to my father. I realize she couldn?t give him anything she didn?t know and she couldn?t give him what she didn?t have. He could only take from her what she was. His challenge in life was to do better than his predecessors. He could do the things his mother had done and learn through imitation, or he could add to the knowledge passed down to him and improve himself and, like the relay runner, he could pick up speed and give me a better chance.

When I wanted to know why my father did something in a way that seemed to me to be totally unacceptable, he would often respond with, ?That?s just the way things are done.? I never found this an acceptable explanation, but I noticed that many of his generation used that phrase. It seems to me that my father?s generation and all the generations before him, had a very strong mind set about continuing to follow the old ways, regardless of whether or not they thought them correct. This, of course, included their view of ?appropriate? discipline measures for children.

My fathers? father, used to strap him as a way of teaching him good behaviour. ?Spare the rod and spoil the child,? he would say. Strapping was the punishment for bad behaviour when I attended school. We called in ?caning? back then but the principle was the same. These days we refer to it as ?child abuse? and it is punishable by law. (Luckily when I say punishable by law, I do not mean you will be strapped or caned.)

My generation is probably the first to really challenge ?the old ways of doing things.? The generation coming behind me has really turned things up side down. My fathers? generation did not question or challenge but the generation of people coming through now are asking all the right questions and demanding better solutions. If we all do away with blame, focus on our own input and take care with our choices then things can only get better and better. If we can?t forgive then let us try at least to understand and accept what went before.

For a long time I resented many of the things my parents did or didn?t do. I am now able to see that my father fought long and hard to pull himself out of the poverty cycle. For many years he must have been extremely tired and stressed as he worked three jobs to support his family. He was not only driven to be a provider but also pushed us to educate ourselves. We went on to become self employed and financially self-reliant. Our children have all gone on to higher education. He instilled in us strong ethical beliefs and reinforced the importance of self-esteem. My grandmother had to overcome social status issues and I believe this made my father an excellent communicator. We have no concept of class or race discrimination. My fathers? controlling and dominating traits taught us to stand up for ourselves, think for ourselves and fight a good fight. Maybe my grandmother was too far to the left so my father swung too far to the right. I believe we have found balance. I also believe that everything that I am today is a result of everything that went before.

Life?s relay is about understanding and accepting our parents. Like my father and your father and all the fathers and mothers before them, our parents give us all they have, and it is up to us to use that and to do well with what we have. Most importantly, we should not condemn the actions of our ancestors, but accept that all we are comes from a long, long chain of learning, loving, hurting, trying and experiencing. Our task is to take the best of what they had to give and add to it. Life is not about what your parents start you out with, but what you do with it; what qualities and advantages you add to your own life and pass on to generations to come.
Copyright Sonya Green


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