Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A difference of opinion or how sisters see things from such different vantage points; brothers too.

I have had some serious time to reflect on the art of perception. In this case, it's personal. I am now an official orphan. Amelia never got that far; she died before her mother. But Muriel did. She lost her sister, then her mother. And lived on and on and on. I know that she and Amelia had starkly different ideas of who their parents were. The letters show it. Amelia idolized her father, then was disappointed in him and came back to him at the end, she was the one who was there when he died. And Amelia seemed to resent Muriel's relationship with their mother; the tensions apparently exacerbated by Amelia's choices. Her husband. Her career path. These were both hard for her mother to adapt to, a woman who divorced her own husband was still quite conventional. As was Muriel, although over time she became much less so. At least in my view.

But today I'm writing of my own experience. You grow up together and yet you grow up separately. Your parents are so different with each of you. My father and I never really managed a rapprochement. His final words to me were, "You've gained weight." Let it be said, I'm rail thin. When my second novel came out, he arrived with the only bad review I received in hand. I'd never even known about it till then. I had to sit there and read it while he watched me. He wanted to know whether I knew the person who'd written it? No. Besides, it was published in the New York Law Journal. I had been reviewed in a host of national newspapers including the LA Times, the St. Louis Post Dispatch etc. This was what he brought to my attention. I still don't understand it, or him. He's been dead for years and he eludes me. Yet my siblings were enamored of him. So was my mother. He was the ideal man, the ideal father, and I think their best friend. How can people living the same life have such divergent opinions. Where was that father when I was growing up? I still don't know.

As for my mother, she was mine to deal with. My siblings wouldn't agree, but that was how it felt to me. And I grew to love her after years of strife. I always admired her. But I also found her enraging. She was purposely so; she fought with you over everything and nothing and I suppose you could say, she had no shame. She could have used a little. But in the end, all that falls away. She managed to convey her pride in me and that was enough. She was hardly an easy person, or a fun person, but she was what I had. And I learned how to accept her limitations and how to push her to be a better parent, and finally a friend.

Yet she was never my best friend. That was impossible. She was my parent and it's different. I see it with my own children, they need me to parent them. They want that. They don't want a friend, though sometimes they confide in me or share things with me and I feel honored. Mostly, they need me to be the adult. I needed the same from my parents and when I became an adult too, I needed them to honor that. My mother learned how. My father? I don't think he ever really did. Not with me anyhow.

So I return to Amelia and Muriel and wonder, how did they feel about their parents? What regrets did they have about those relationships? It seems to me that Amelia and Muriel were always the adults; that their mother and father acted like children. Amelia in particular took on the job of caring for everyone, or providing for them, and then she was gone and it was Muriel's turn.

Parents are imperfect, their imperfections mark us; for better or for worse. Make that for better and for worse.


  1. Are you the oldest, youngest, or middle sibling? Oftentimes a critical parent is hardest on the oldest kid.

  2. In what ways do you see Muriel becoming less conventional over time? I'm intrigued by that comment. I don't know as much about Muriel's life as about Amelia's.

  3. I'm the youngest by ten years. Go figure. I think the real evidence is that Muriel did in fact become an admired teacher not to mention one of the go to speakers for those interested in having an Earhart in attendance. She seemed to become increasingly outspoken, she adapted to the role of being an Amelia authority and a protector of the Earhart legend, much of that is in her book about their childhood. Plus she was one of those volunteers in the community, a real force apparently. And in the few interviews I read she was extremely firm in her opinions. Feisty. When Amelia talks about her in the letters you see an entirely different sort of person. Older sister to younger . . . I have a feeling you can see the appeal this story has for me.

  4. Yes, younger siblings can bloom and gain self-confidence once out from under the shadow of older ones.

  5. I like your phrase "the art of perception." Perception is an art, and with it we paint our lives.

    I'm struck by how your father brought the bad review when he could have brought one of the good reviews. He was a lawyer, and the review was from some obscure law journal...Perhaps he thought this was a review that you would never have known about if he hadn't found it for you. I think it's pretty impressive that your book was even reviewed in the New York Law Journal... I wonder how many published authors are accorded that honor. I wonder if he was proud that his daughter was the author of a book that was reviewed in a professional law periodical? Even though you say the review was critical, perhaps it was a mixed review- as most reviews will point out strengths and weaknesses of a book? It's possible that your father's intention was to humiliate you by having you read the one negative review in front of him. But I wonder if it's also possible that that was the farthest thing from his intention?

    Since you are rail thin- is there any possibility that your father meant it as a compliment that you had gained some weight? My son Chris is very thin and I affectionately say to him "Hey! You're getting fat!" and I am delighted and mean this as praise. Maybe my comments are out in left field, and your father was trying to insult you, I just thought I'd toss out these considerations. I have found many times that when I was convinced someone meant me harm, I had in fact misunderstood their intentions. If he did mean you harm...that's hard to take. But there are plenty of hurtful comments and actions that we human beings inflict on each other all the time, and especially in our closest family relationships.

    All the family dynamics in any family are such an incredibly complex tapestry...Thanks for an interesting post, it has me wondering about the dynamics in my family too.

  6. Colleen, my guess is that you are a kind, generous person with only warm thoughts for your offspring. Hey, that's not even a guess. My dad wasn't like that. The review was scathing. And he never even commented on the positive ones I showed him. He had a few issues, which isn't to say he didn't love me in his way. He just had to whittle me down to size, continually. It's hard I think to be a perfect parent. Hard to even be an adequate parent. I have sympathy for him in that sense. He was a warm man, and could be incredibly kind. But something about me always set him off and I have a feeling I know what it was. . . fathers and daughters . . . it's pretty complicated.

  7. The fact that he never even commented on the positive reviews must sting- I agree it seems he felt compelled somehow to "whittle" you down at a time of glory. Sad and painful. You mention you had a special bond with your mother that your sibs didn't have, and that you were born 10 years after them...Perhaps your dad was jealous of your relationship with your mother? I guess the possibilities are endless.

    My big issue with my mother is that she condemns all negative emotion (especially anger), and this amputation of the life force has taken a heavy toll on her. She never tires of her somewhat sneaky efforts to "cure" me of my emotions, she always has an agenda to "improve" and "help" me, and she is convinced that she knows what is best for me (i.e. getting "rid" of my anger) and that I do not know what is best for me.

    I've been out of contact with my mom since last Christmas. She had returned from a workshop on how to get rid of anger, and kept preaching to me about how "all anger is a sin" (to quote her verbatim). Finally for my own psychological survival, I felt I just had to have a little distance from my mother. I feel guilty, she is 77 and lives alone, but there you have it. Two of my three sisters haven't spoken to her in years. Anyway, enough rambling...families are complicated. Thanks for bringing up these interesting discussions.

  8. Dear Colleen,
    Thanks so much for responding. This is such a fraught topic. Who knows what's right with families? So complicated.