Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The meaning of family.

It is the last day of the year - my husband, Mike's birthday - and I need to get some things off my chest so that I can leave it behind in 2019. That's how my brain works. Shit will bounce around in there until I get it out, so...here goes.

To start, 2019 was probably the most amazing year our family has experienced together, for all of the reasons that I have happily posted about for the world to see. A year ago, moving out of San Diego to Erie was a dream, something I hoped for but didn't...couldn't let myself believe would ever actually happen because our circumstances just weren't right for it. Circumstances change though and here we are - in our happy place!

Other events happened in 2019 that have been good for me, personally, but that I have not posted about as readily. My mother, Sally, died in May. On the day of her death, I wrote about her. It was something I had planned to do for most of my adult life, because there were parts of her story that no one knew. I grew up hearing from both of my parents about how she was never really accepted into my father's family because she was his second wife. I can't speak for my brother, but I know I never felt like a part of his family either. My mom didn't have the easiest life and I wanted to tell her story. I left out the parts that didn't shed the prettiest light on her.

Her death made me face a few things that I knew, but really only ever talked about to Mike and our daughter, Mackenzie. I never liked my family. I have not liked them in a very long time, but I've been able to avoid saying that because our military life has kept us far away from them. When my husband retired from the military in 2014 and we settled in San Diego, I no longer had that excuse. I lived a few hours away from my parents and still rarely saw them. That was by choice.

When their health began to decline and my brother was required to do more to take care of them, I might have felt guilty for a moment, but it didn't last. I had a job working for the VA and they were not the most understanding employer when it came to having a life and family outside of work. I took time off when my father had to have part of his foot amputated in 2018 due to his diabetes, but then I had to get back to my job. The brunt of the work of taking care of him, and our mother as well, fell on my brother.

The thing I didn't say then that I want to say now is, "Good. That is how it should be."

As a parent, I have tried to look back at the examples I had of what parents should be and everything I learned not to do came from how I was raised. I was the youngest and the only girl. Even though my two half-brothers from my father's first marriage didn't live with us, my mother never let me forget that they already had three boys and "didn't want a tomboy" for a daughter. That's why she said no every time I asked to try out for any kind of sports team.

I wasn't allowed to join clubs after school, because that would make someone have to arrange to pick me up afterward. So much time was already being taken to go watch every single baseball and football game or every track meet of my brother's. Once we were in high school and he had a driver's license, I could not join a club after school because he had to be able to drive me home right after school and then get to whatever practice he had and there was always some kind of practice.

There is one thing I cannot take away from him. He was a gifted athlete. It was a joy to watch him play. I just don't think he realized how many lives revolved around his. He relished how so many idolized him. What's funny is how lucky everyone thought I was to be graced to live in his presence. Oh, how far from the truth that was!

Recently someone made a comment about how I seemed to rarely miss a baseball game back then. That one innocent comment made me so angry! I wasn't angry at that person though. I was angry because it was true. I never missed a game. It wasn't that I rarely missed one. I never missed a game, but it wasn't by choice. I was never allowed to stay home by myself. Even sick, I had to go because my parents would not miss watching him play. I have sat through games with a fever. I've gone to out-of-town games when I really should have been home writing papers or doing homework.

All of those memories came to a head this year when my mother died because I never told her exactly how that childhood affected me as an adult. I hated her for making my life revolve around someone else for so long. It wasn't until I was 24 that I made a decision - to join the Army - without consulting her first or getting her permission. The reason I always had to get her permission prior to that was because I relied on my parents financially. After one year of college, she said, "Girls don't need a college education. Get a job." I did get a job doing the only thing I knew how to do - type. I worked as a secretary, but couldn't make enough money to ever completely be independent. Joining the Army was the one thing that I didn't need their help to pay for, so they couldn't say no.

Since giving birth to my first child, I have used my childhood as the example of what not to do as a parent. Never was my daughter going to be told she couldn't do something just because she was a girl. Once we had a second child, Mike and I agreed that we would divide and conquer if necessary when they were older so that neither child was ever denied an opportunity to do something they wanted to do.

I never told any of them that though. I might make a comment occasionally about my childhood in front of my brother, just to see what he had to say. It never registered with him though. I recently told my father that I am continuing the tradition now that began in his house when I was a child - I am the shadow of the family. Back then, I was the shadow in the back bedroom or in the backseat of the car. Now I am the shadow across country in Pennsylvania. For nearly 30 years, I've reveled in the bliss of not having to deal with them and thus, never having to tell them how growing up in that household affected me.

When Sally went into the hospital in May, I had to actually admit that it really wasn't important enough to me to change all of my plans to get there to see her before she died. I could have. I lived only a few hours away. I couldn't do it though. Mackenzie was graduating college in just a few days (her graduation was three days after my mom died). Mike and I had just quit our jobs. As soon as graduation was over, I was staying to help Mackenzie get packed up because we were all hitting the road for Pennsylvania. To drop everything just to go sit by the death bed of a woman who never dropped anything for me just didn't work for me.

Go ahead and say it. I'm a shitty daughter. It's probably true, but you know what? I'm a damn good mother because of what I learned from that woman.

There was no service for Sally. That was by her choice. I found out a few weeks ago that my father and brother apparently decided to have one anyway. My mom is the only other person besides me to have served in the military and is therefore entitled to be buried at a national cemetery. I would have never known about that service if it wasn't for the fact that my name was listed with the cemetery as a contact; my brother's was not. My father had no clue how to call the cemetery to make any arrangements, so I had handled all of that back when she first died.

This is the part that has been rattling around in my head and the reason I needed to get out of bed early today and write. The service that they planned for Sally with full military honors, presentation of a flag and burial was yesterday. If I had not had to call the cemetery and give permission to do that, because I had told them back in May that she didn't want a service, I would not have even known about it. Bottom line...I would not have even been invited to my own mother's funeral.

Let that sink in for a minute. I've been trying to let it sink in for weeks now, but it just won't.

I've been trying to process why they would go against her wishes and have a service, but then I thought maybe they need that closure. If that's the case, fine. I get it. To try to schedule it and not tell me though...that is beyond my understanding. I asked my brother, albeit by text because I couldn't bring myself to call him, if he would have told me there was going to be a service at all if he hadn't needed me to call the cemetery to give permission for it to happen. He never replied.

Forgive me for a minute, but...that spineless ass never replied! Seriously! What the hell?

Ok, sorry...had to rant for a second. I'd love to know their reasons for not wanting me there. Is it because I wasn't there to help when she was sick, or because I didn't bother to try to see her before she died? My son fought cancer for two and a half years before he died. My father never came to see him in that time. My mother came once, during the few months when we thought Keeghan was cured. In other words, when there was no help needed from her. She showed up and sat on her ass for a week and made us wait on her. My brother came to see us twice. When Keeghan was first diagnosed with cancer, my husband's sister wanted me to have someone from my own family there for me so she bought him a ticket to fly to Houston. And then again after Keeghan died, a total stranger who lived on the base we were stationed at and who had suffered a similar loss previously offered to pay to fly my brother out to Washington, DC to be at the celebration of life we held for Keeghan. Twice he visited and both times were somewhat forced on him.

The bitterness just keeps pouring out, doesn't it? I have not tried to be there to help with my parents. I haven't felt the obligation. My brother should feel obligated though. He has been the center of their universe ever since he was born. Life is as it should be.

I've been trying to process all of this for a while now. If I was only angry, it would be easy. Anger and I are pretty close friends. What makes it all so difficult and frustrating is that it hurts. The fact that they still have the power to hurt me is like the ultimate twist of the knife. This...THIS is why I have made being a good mother my highest priority since I became one. Do I think I have been perfect? Hell, no! But I knew what the choices I made as a mother could do to my children later on. When I someday die, I don't want my daughter to grieve. Parents are supposed to die. I hope to be older than dirt when it happens because I truly love life, but when my time comes, I want my daughter to celebrate the life I had. I want her to always be able to celebrate the life she had with us as parents. I want her to know she is loved. I have no doubt that my parents loved me in their own weird way, but it never felt like love. Looking back, it still doesn't feel like love.

2019 is over. 2020 is a new starting point in so many ways for me, Mike and Mackenzie. This last day of the year is the perfect time to let go of negativity. It is time to let go of anger. It's time to say enough! Enough of worrying about what cannot be changed and just accept it for what it is. Everyone has fucked up people in their lives. I've just never said it out loud before. It's done now. Time to move on and continue living the life I've built, with the family we've built.

It was still dark when I got out of bed to write. The sun is up now...or at least I assume it is. It's gray and windy outside and it has just begun to snow. I freaking love snow. It's going to be a good day. I've found my peace. I hope they find theirs as well.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Find your peace, Mom.

My mom died today.

That is so surreal to type. I've lived 52 years knowing that someday I would say those words, but it is still so strange to finally say.

I've had a strained relationship with my mom for a very long time, but that is a whole other blog post. I've wanted to tell Mom's story for a long time now, mainly because I think she has been short-changed in a lot of ways in life. Now is finally the time.

I can only tell it as it has been told to me. I'm sure there might be some who read this who say it is not correct, but I am telling it from Mom's perspective which is likely different from those who knew her. So be it.

Mom was born in South Dakota in 1942. My grandfather was in the Army. I don't know if he was in the Army when she was born, or if he joined later on. I only know that he was in the Army after she was born because she always said she learned to talk in Louisiana (hence her pronunciation of "towel" as "tal" and "wash" as "warsh" according to her).

Eventually, she ended up in Illinois. I don't know how old she was when she moved there; only that she attended high school in Raymond, Illinois.

When Mom was 14, her mother gave birth to a boy. As Mom told the story, everyone in town knew the child was not my grandfather's. In fact, Mom would freely say that she was the child of the town drunk and town whore (her words, not mine). As soon as the child, Rusty, was born, my grandmother moved his crib into Mom's room and told her he was hers to raise.

That's a lot for a 14-year-old girl. At one point as a baby, Rusty got sick and ran a high fever. Mom spoke of sitting up with him all night long, trying to soothe the miserable baby. Rusty ended up with "brain damage" because of the illness that caused him to always have problems developmentally. He never read well. He could sign his name; that was about it.

Sometime during her high school years, she dated a guy named Cliff. Because she had to take Rusty everywhere with her, they had a toddler chaperone on most dates. Cliff was older and in the Navy. He was Mom's first love. Unfortunately, at some point, he ended up cheating on her and having a child with another woman.

I think that experience put the seed of an idea in Mom's mind though. After graduating high school, she decided to join the Navy herself. Keep in mind, it was 1960. Not very many women joined the military at that time. My great grandmother's last words to my mother before she left for boot camp were, "Only bad girls join the military."

I have always wondered if Mom joined the Navy to escape Cliff and his new wife, to escape having to mother her younger sibling, or just to escape all of it. At 18, she had already been a "grown-up" for quite a while.

Mom went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland and later was stationed in Long Beach, California. She had great stories of her Navy time! She worked as a medic (I honestly don't know what her technical title was), and she talked about giving sailors vaccinations in the clinic. Once, a sailor in for shots asked her if it would hurt. She told him that it would not. After she gave him his shot, he immediately said it hurt and bit her on the back of her hand. He bit hard enough to break the skin. She said that she developed an infection from it. The sailor was not punished, but eventually, he had to come through for shots again. When he did, instead of giving him the vaccination he was in for, she gave him a shot of isopropyl alcohol. Apparently, that "stings like a bitch."

Mom was a bit of a badass.

Another story that I heard many times was of a guy who asked Mom out while she was in the Navy. He bragged to his buddies that he would "get in her pants." Fortunately for my mother, one of the buddies told her his plans. Mom played along, going to a hotel with him. She told him to get comfortable and went to the bathroom to "get ready" only to come back out with a bucket of cold water. She dumped it on him as he laid in wait on the bed and then left.

Again, badass.

By the time Mom got out of the Navy, her parents, older brother and his wife and younger brother had moved to California from Illinois. Also, Cliff had been discharged from the Navy and was divorced from his first wife. Mom and Cliff were married on January 1, 1964. She'd finally found her happily ever after, marrying her first love!

On January 31st, just 30 days after getting married, Mom was driving in Byron, California, where she and Cliff lived, and she came upon a car accident. Because she had medical training from her military time, she got out of her car and walked up to the accident to see if she could help in any way. That was how she found out that her husband had died. She only found out that she was pregnant later when she miscarried.

Honestly, I cannot imagine going through all of that at just 21-years-old.

I don't know if she was already working as a waitress at that time or if she began that job later, but three months after Cliff died, while working as a waitress in a local restaurant, she met a new guy. His name was Al and he was recently divorced. He was a few years older than her and had two boys from his first marriage. The owners of the restaurant she worked at were Al's ex-wife's parents.

I don't know if you can say they dated or not, but three weeks after they started seeing each other, they went to Reno and got married. My mother, a 21-year-old widow, became not only a wife again, but also a stepmother to a 7- and 4-year-old.

I did not become a mother until I was nearly 28-years-old and I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I cannot imagine instantly becoming a mother to two children at 21!

Add to all of that a new pregnancy. My brother, Brad, was born nine months and two days after my parents were married (and he was one day late!).

Dad had custody of his older boys, but they still spent time with their mother occasionally. Because of the reasons they divorced, it was a strained relationship. His first wife had cheated on him, becoming pregnant by another man. My dad, fool that he is (in my opinion), helped find a family to adopt that child and then took her back. It was only after the second time she cheated and became pregnant (by yet another man) that Dad divorced her.

Needless to say, when the older boys were with their mother, she did not have kind words about my mom. Mom told me stories of the boys coming back from being with their mother and telling her that she couldn't tell them what to do because she wasn't their mother. At one point, the younger boy went through a phase of biting his older brother. At a loss as to what to do, Mom finally held him down and let the older boy bite him back! Was that the best solution? Of course not. Did it work? According to Mom, yes, it did.

Dad told me once that he would sometimes come home at the end of a workday and find Mom sitting on the front porch, crying, while the boys were in the house destroying things.  Again, I cannot imagine what I would do in the same situation.

On top of all of this, Mom never felt that she was accepted into Dad's family. He was the youngest, with four older brothers and an older sister. My mom was not only the second wife, but she was also much younger than Dad's brothers and sisters-in-law. I don't know exactly what the reasons were for her not being accepted into the family and I never will as most of those family members are long gone. His father, my grandfather, was always welcoming of Mom, but he died only a few months after they were married.

The one person she did become close to was my grandmother, maybe because Grandma Kelley was also a second wife. Grandma once told my mom that her "greatest sin was marrying a Kelley." When Grandma was alive, we were always included in family gatherings. Grandma died when I was 12-years-old and I don't remember attending more than a couple family gatherings after that.

Eventually, Dad sent his two older boys back to live with their mother fulltime. Maybe there was some judgment against Mom about that, but those people didn't know the difficulties my mom was dealing with. The judgment was not disguised in any way though. I remember going to one uncle's house because he had a pool. He was always very loving and welcoming when we went to visit. I was so young that I never thought it odd that we never saw my aunt in those visits. We never went in the house and she never came out. Mom would sit by the edge of the pool watching us swim the whole time.

It's a strange thing to be the children of the second wife. You're never really a part of the family and that is so unfair - to us and to Mom.

But Mom survived all of that. We continued on as our own little family unit, separate from everyone else and she made sure we never felt like we were missing anything. She always had our backs and we always felt loved. She was never perfect, and for sure I have had my issues with her over the years, but considering all that she dealt with as a young woman, her strength is beyond question.

Her later years are another story. There are many, many stories that I will tell over the coming months, both good and bad. For now, though, I want to remember the badass that she was.