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people who need people 2

September 4, 2013

Last year, with rather mixed feelings, I began working on a book about my father-in-law’s life. In  some ways, oddly enough, my father-in-law reminds me of my mother’s father. Their personalities are not at all similar, but late in life, both certainly felt that what they’d hoped for their lives had somehow gotten away from them.

My grandfather was a real people person, but I don’t know how he felt about my grandmother. And he doesn’t seem to have been close to any of his three children. I loved him but our relationship was emotionally fraught. Given my own issues with him, asking my siblings and cousins how they felt about him might have gone to dangerous places, so I never tried.

Spouse is not close to his father (or his mother). Even before I realized that Spouse’s avoidant attachment style must come from how he was raised, I couldn’t quite get a handle on either of his parents. I felt affinity for his mother, but she didn’t like me back; she seemed to almost be afraid of me. Over time, I stopped reaching out to her.

My father-in-law comes alive under only two circumstances that I’ve ever seen: when he talks about working at IBM; and when he talks about his childhood, which almost always centers around himself at age 10.

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I was initially interested in the idea of the book about his life because I thought it might help me understand why he is the way he is.

I also hoped to ask him questions I really do want to know the answers to.

Well, I have asked those questions, for the book. And he won’t answer them.

I know way more than a city girl needs or wants to know about “housing tobacco”, and hauling water from a spring to a farmhouse, and how to keep milk cool without refrigeration while you’re at school.

I asked a lot of questions about his self-professed close relationship with his own mother’s father. Apparently they talked about the weather, and sports, a lot. He doesn’t have particular vivid memories of specific conversations with his grandfather (like I do with mine).

My father-in-law insists he was equally close to both parents, and was/is also particularly fond of the brother closest to him in age. But there have been no stories of “quality time” spent together with these people. Not aunts and uncles or grandmothers or cousins neither. Everything is very generic, almost like he read it out of a book.

Oh, wait. He is very animated about . . . the food they ate. But even that is oddly impersonal. No one ever seems to have made, I don’t know, a cherry pie just for his birthday, or a favorite meal because he graduated from school. I understand that growing up on a farm in Lincoln County, Kentucky, in the 1940s & 1950s wouldn’t have been prosperous.                  Different setting but, my father grew up in an even bigger family, on the south side of Chicago just a few years earlier, and they were poor. My father was the youngest of seven children to Irish immigrants. His father was violent and bad-tempered; his mother was apparently a lousy cook. I’m guessing neither parent had much time for my father. A warmhearted neighbor taught him to read; his best friend’s rambunctious German family all but adopted him. Despite the age difference, he spent time with his older brothers, his cousins, aunts and uncles.

I was still in contact with my father until he was in his late 60s. And he could still recall vivid details of specific incidents of his childhood.

Maybe my father just has a really good memory, or is a pretty good storyteller. His father-in-law, my grandfather, was an amazing storyteller. Good storytelling is clearly a skill set, that lots of people don’t have. But that’s not the whole story.

Even people who can’t tell good stories can talk about their own memories in some detail. When my father-in-law told me about some process improvement he came up with at IBM, it was a very detailed story — the technical parts were way over my head, frankly.

My father is a lot more expressive than my father-in-law, although neither are particularly emotionally expressive. Which is probably normal for men of their generation. And my father, when I knew him, almost never directly referred to his own feelings. And yet, I got a sense what his feelings were, by what he talked about, and how he talked about it.

I don’t have any idea what my father-in-law’s feelings are about . . . anything. Including his wife, or his 2 sons. Even though I’ve known him and have been listening to him for 20 years.

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Working on this book about my father-in-law’s life has been deeply unsatisfying, but more than that, it’s been unsettling.

Who would describe a relationship with a grandparent that he saw almost every day, where all they talked about was the weather, sports, and how not to think you’re “better than everyone else”, as “close”? Unless, maybe, having an adult talk to you at all was unusual.

I asked my father-in-law if the two of them talked about my father-in-law’s life. Specifically, did he ask his grandfather for advice? I mean, I assumed their conversations were two-way streets. But now I’m wondering if maybe they weren’t.

My father-in-law seems to have been highly-thought-of at IBM, later Lexmark. He clearly misses those days.

But with family members, he has . . . terrible . . . people skills. For the first 15 years I was married, I took it personally. But then I realized, everyone else is just accustomed to his strange ways. They grew up where his stuff was “normal”, so it’s not weird to them.

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Yesterday I was in a card store, and I ran across two versions of a memory-book I’ve seen before. They were called something like, “getting to know Dad” and “getting to know Mom”. Each one asks various questions about the childhood of the parent, then, “how did you meet <Spouse>?”, then “how did you feel when you knew your child was going to be born? What are your favorite memories of me?”, stuff like that.

The versions I had seen years before were directed to siblings. Even then, there was no way I could conceive of asking my siblings about their positive memories of me . . . because there are way more negative, and everyone loves to tell me fun things like what a disappointment I’ve been, how I’m not like the rest of them, how everyone else is a lot more enjoyable to spend time with.

What I really wanted to know, back then, was what my godmother might have said, or 1 or maybe 2 particular cousins might have said. But we didn’t have the kind of relationship where I could ask. So I didn’t.

When I saw these two books yesterday, I thought about buying the one for dads. Giving it to my father-in-law, and saying, “answer these questions as if Spouse (or Spouse’s brother) had given you the book”.

And then I thought about reading the responses (assuming he even filled it out).

Maybe Spouse should care about what his father would say to those questions. But I don’t.

I want to know what somebody would say about me. All my life, I’ve yearned to hear that someone missed me when I wasn’t around. That someone had favorite memories of me. That someone loved some characteristic thing that I did, or said. That someone waited by the mailbox for my cards or letters to arrive.

There are people still alive who knew me when I was a child — my parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings.

I’ve told many of them my favorite memories of them. I’ve written them letters telling them.

No one’s ever told me. And no one’s ever written back.

It’s like I hatched out of an egg, that . . . laid itself?

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