Monday, October 29, 2012

Conditional Love

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

Conditional Love

Until I got sick, our family was the spitting image of saccharine wholesomeness. A picture that still hangs on the wall in my parents’ house shows a family portrait in happier days. Everyone is smiling with great gusto, flashing expressions that would have appeared forced had they not been genuine. Even my father seems relaxed, beaming at the camera. For once, I appear comfortable in front of the lens, not introverted and shy, seeking to collapse into myself.

Twenty years later, the change has been prominent. I’m not sure that I would consider our family dysfunctional as much as battle-weary. We’ve had our moments of histrionics and our quirks, for sure. My father is a chronic worrier and inclined to catastrophize even the smallest of problems. It is a condition I have inherited, to some extent, either genetically or by osmosis.

I am very fortunate to have had the parents I did. My mother’s brothers are thoroughly self-absorbed. They’ve never felt like real people to me, this because they’ve never been willing to show a broad range of personality. One of my uncles is always right and never wrong. If he is challenged, he terminates conversation immediately. He wants to be validated, but if he doesn’t receive it, he can’t tolerate being challenged.

My other uncle appears to have a pleasing, friendly personality, at least at first. He is, however, a name-dropper and social climber. The charm is all for show, and often to gain some material ends. His business dealings at times have bordered on unethical. Once, years ago, he was desperate for political power and tried to set himself up as a candidate for elective office. This was, of course, until his own mistakes and character flaws eliminated him as a plausible politician.

Both are heavy drinkers and likely functional alcoholics. Much of their personalities result from the place of the birth, small-town Alabama of the 1950’s. The Fifties were a time in which masculinity revolved around being tough and not showing weakness. Nowadays, you’d refer to the both of them as geeks. In the hyper masculine, tough guy culture of their upbringing, this distinction automatically rendered a person unable to conform, forever an outsider.

Their God is money. I do not want to seem uncharitable in levying that charge. My uncles grew up in borderline poverty, constantly without enough money. The psychological impact made enough of an impression that they were convinced they needed to make money by any means necessary. Or, as Scarlett O’Hara put it in Gone with the Wind,

As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!

I remember most the forced family gatherings. Thanksgiving dinners, in particular, were an experience akin to waterboarding. One uncle and his wife always hosted the gathering and prepared the meal. The two of them were sure to be at least somewhat intoxicated before everyone showed up. The blood feud always resumed when my other uncle entered the house with his own wife in tow.

Before long, accusations and counter-charges flew across the table. As a child, I could pick up on the thick tension in the room, knowing something was very wrong without having words to describe it. My uncles have never resolved their grievances and I sincerely doubt they ever will. They’re too old and set in their ways now. Most of the arguments were petty, often about the amount of power each presumably had in the Republican Party.

I’m glad my mother managed to survive this noxious atmosphere. If you want my honest opinion, I think that mental illness of one kind or another is present across the board. Genetically, it is rampant in the family, and knowing what I do now, I recognize their denial for what it is. They cannot own up to what they have, so they refuse to seek treatment. It is their unhealthy conduct that has led me to be open, truthful, and forthright with my own manic depression.

My Grandmother used guilt to pull her warring children together one more time. She was the only person who could have done it. Following her death, the custom has not been resumed. My mother tolerated the behavior of her brothers and their wives for a time, but their attitudes eventually led her to mostly disassociate herself entirely from certain members.

When it happened, I felt satisfied and proud of my mother for being courageous enough to make the difficult, but necessary decision. She put up with family drama about ten times longer than I ever could. As I study the dynamics present, I see conditional love and denial in great proportion. The jury’s still out as to how I make sense of it all.

When my grandmother died, I didn’t grieve her passing much. I was the fair haired child who could do no wrong. My sisters could do no right. I find it strange that such a strong woman would favor male children over female children. Eventually, I came to resent having to constantly defend my sisters while being placed upon a pedestal. I never asked to be placed on high and did not find it flattering.

My uncles made a few lame, half-hearted gestures to establish a relationship with me. One took me hunting, a practice I felt no need to continue. The other paid to have me flown down shortly before Christmas. We went fishing, then fried the recent catch in peanut oil on the boat with a portable grill. Beyond these gestures, we had no real relationship and do not now.

I can only remember their behavior while intoxicated. The two become extremely silly, even childish. But I do not consider them to be authentic people. They are much too repressed and neurotic for that.

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