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sisters and sons

March 5, 2017

Today my youngest brother, N, turns 44. I’ve heard he’s living near San Francisco. My last sighting of him was in 2008, at a family wedding; I don’t recall speaking with him.

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I have few memories of just me and N. The age difference (I’m 6.6 years older) meant, growing up, we didn’t have much in common. He tagged along behind my other brother, D (4.9 years older), afaict, hero-worshipping him. My sister, E (3.7 years older), made a pet of him.

What did I have to offer?

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I remember helping N study for a spelling bee. (I’d competed in our school’s bee 6th, 7th, and 8th grade; won, in 8th grade.)

Now that I really think about it, that might be the only memory I have of the two of us.

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I’ve always felt like a Pisces [Water ~ emotions], even though I’m a Leo [Fire ~ passion], and there are aspects of Leo that do resonate.

That affinity for Pisces felt like an affinity for N himself, but… I didn’t know how to express it. I occasionally made obscure comments to that effect that everyone ignored. I wasn’t sure if that was their usual disdain for me, or if I was completely failing to communicate.

As the eldest, I had a completely different growing up experience than my siblings. I don’t remember being an only child (D is 1.7 years my junior), but… I remember having my mother all to myself. I remember her choosing to spend time with me over all others.

I remember the week the 3 of us older kids, all under the age of 5, got the chicken pox.

I remember my mother, pregnant with N, taking me and my father for a walk, and asking my opinion on the 2 names they were torn between for the baby. I cast the deciding vote. (Or so it seemed to my 6 year old self.)

I remember how… everything changed when N was born.

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{I wasn’t thinking in anything like these terms at the time, I was the usual self-absorbed 6 year old, but} In retrospect, before N was born, I was my mother’s favorite, the Golden Child.

After N was born, I was demoted. I became Cinderella.

D took my place. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t remember things ever being different.

E, < 4 when N was born, has only ever been competing with D for parental favor, trying to oust him, all these years, as my mother’s heir.

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When my mother was 8, her youngest sibling, a brother, was born.

She’d previously been “the son her father never had”, the apple of his eye. Not just a tomboy, she was somehow socialized to believe, unconsciously, that she was a boy.

When Mark was born, she was demoted.

But to what? Cinderella, after all, is a girl. My grandfather was still saying, when I spent time with him in my own childhood: “Everyone knows girls are stupid. They’ll never do anything important. Boys grow up to Do Important Things. Girls grow up… and get married and have babies. Nothing that matters.”

Sometimes I really hate my grandfather. If he’d been less of a patriarchal Lithuanian (American! It was his parents who were the immigrants), woman-hating asshole, my mother’s whole life, my aunt’s whole life, would’ve been totally different. My whole life would’ve been totally different.

If he’d tried to outgrow those horrible attitudes… But he never did do it, and he never tried.

And here we are.

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I’m grateful to whatever gods there might be that my brother D, the only one of us sibs to have children, had 2 daughters and 0 sons. No one was pitted against others, informed “you don’t matter”.

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I can’t even fault the 8 year old child who would become my mother for retreating back into childhood narcissism, a developmental stage she’d probably just started to outgrow.

But… she never outgrew it. The older she got, the more narcissistic she got.

I think she likely had some Demeter-archetype in her, as a kid — although I doubt it was her primary one (which I can’t even guess at). But the trauma of Mark’s birth and her father discarding her, like she was trash, (I believe) violently transformed that bit of Demeter first into a toxic version of Hera (because Hera’s primary motivator is gaining power), and, ultimately, as a beleaguered wife-and-mother, furthering transmuting into…. Medea.

Medea in the myths went off the rails because her lover mistreated her, so she killed their kids (etc., etc.) to get back at him.

My mother’s Medea-archetype wasn’t punishing my father, but (I’m only just realizing) her own.

Could my mother’s relationship with her father, pre-Mark, have been as emotionally-enmeshed as my early relationship with my mother? (Where child-me was essentially re-parenting her, rather than her parenting me.)

My grandfather was the oldest child of his parents. He was born when his mother was still 15, a very new immigrant, living in coal country Pennsylvania with her husband, my great-grandfather, a man with an explosive temper.

Because mother and son were so close in age, because their husband and father was a raging, violent asshole, mother and son got emotionally enmeshed, and stayed that way all her life.

My great-grandfather was murdered in his late 30s — no one was very sad about it. That made my father “the man of the house” as a teenager. My widowed great-grandmother did remarry, and apparently the stepfather was a kind, gentle person everyone loved. But he was in failing health, and died sooner than he should have.

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I have such a love-hate relationship with 19th century Lithuanian culture.

As a kid, what I loved about being of Lithuanian descent was… it was different. The city of Chicago and environs housed more Lithuanians than anywhere out of Lithuania, but that didn’t mean that anyone who wasn’t Slavic or Baltic had ever heard of Lithuania.

See, my father is Irish. His parents were the immigrants, in the early 20th century. They settled in Chicago, which not only had a huge Irish population, but… Irish Catholics controlled a lot of the power structure. They still dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day! Irish Catholics were policemen. Irish Catholic priests were all over the parishes, and in top posts. Irish pols were part of the Democratic machine: the Daley family, case in point.

When heritage comes up in conversation, you say you’re Irish, everyone knows what that means.

Lithuanian, now, that gave me distinction. My grandparents and their siblings and cousins spoke a language amongst themselves that my mother, aunt, and uncle were never taught (in the usual way of trying to assimilate as fast as possible).

Visiting my grandparents, still living just at the edge of Chicago, we ate foods that were similar to Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, all of which peoples could be found in Chicagoland, but… certainly when we moved out to Naperville, heavily populated with upper-middle-class people trying to appear as WASPy as possible, the trend was to leave all that ethnic stuff in the past.

Not me.

Even as a child, I wanted to learn to speak Lithuanian. I date my fascination with other (human) languages to listening to my grandparents, wanting to know what they were saying.

I didn’t want to learn to cook the foods because they were too time-consuming, too fiddly (too taxing for my limited working memory and executive function), but I sure loved eating them! And with Baltimore’s large Lithuanian and large Jewish populations, if I wait for Jewish holy days, I can get kugelis at our supermarket. (I do miss pierogis. And Lithuanian black bread, slathered in butter.) Gramma really loved poppyseed anything; whenever I see poppyseed rolls, which is often, I think of her. (Can’t stand them myself: the seeds always get stuck in my teeth.)

Whenever my love for Lithuanian-culture-modulated-through-my-Lithuanian-American-grandparents came up, my mother would claim credit for it. Drove me up the wall.

I knew my love for her parents’ culture was just that, her parents’ culture. It was a way of connecting with them, and, at least in my own mind, it was a way of individuating away from my mother.

After all, if I learned to speak Lithuanian, I could speak it with my grandmother, and my mother wouldn’t understand us.

And… I suddenly see that could be why my mother led me on for 3 years about Lithuanian language lessons, only to not arrange for me to take them when I turned 15 (and was, therefore, old enough and responsible enough to stay with my grandmother, travel into Chicago, and learn from Lithuanian nuns).

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The child version of my mother didn’t want to individuate from my grandfather, and spent the rest of his life trying to return to his good graces.

Child-me didn’t… hmm, I was already an individual, I really was. I was always asking questions (which both my parents found annoying; they gave me more and more books to shut me up). I was curious about everything. Even at 6, I held strong opinions, and I wanted to share them.

After The Fall, what I missed the most was… being listened to. It’s like N’s birth somehow made me invisible, mute.

I wasn’t trying to ‘get back into my mother’s good graces’ so much as I was trying to… return to being a person who is valued by my parents. A person that adults want to spend time with.

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I don’t remember why we were ever there, and I can’t be sure how old I was, although I think 5 or 6: I remember child-me being in downtown Glen Ellyn a few times with my father, at Mister Donut. I still love cake donuts. He talked to me.

It was just us two, and whomever else was in the shop. No one we knew.

That’s a pattern that would repeat. We do social things, where we mix with people outside our nuclear family, and… I listen to my father. I ask him questions, I learn about him. Depending on the event, as I got older and prettier and smarter, he might ‘show me off’ in a sense. But only to people I would never have access to separate from him: his cousins; his business associates.

He wasn’t mentoring me, or helping me make my way in the world. I don’t know what he was doing.

It was only at an event like that, that my father… might listen to me. He was never curious about my life or thoughts though. I’m not a man.

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I really can’t escape gender, even though I try to.

Growing up, my gender models were: (women) my mother, Aunt Carol, Gramma Wask, Pam, Kendra, various female relatives; (men) my father, my 2 grandfathers, (stories of) my mother’s grandfather, my father’s brothers, my mother’s brother, male cousins by the busload, various other relatives.

I didn’t feel much like any of them. I definitely didn’t want to emulate any of them. (In the case of people like my father’s father, and my mother’s grandfather, I wanted to stay as far away as possible from their example.)

But… there weren’t any other choices, were there? I gotta be one, or the other.

Even if self-defense, I didn’t think I could attack another person. I was a pacifist, hated arguing. I never threatened anyone.

There was a second possible mode of being a male success: in a trade, or in an office. That would require me to get very skilled at a whole bunch of things I seemed to not be suited for, plus, impress people, which I’ve failed at all my life. So… being a man was obviously out.

The women I spent the most time with, growing up, were obsessed with power, and how they didn’t have it, but they should.

I didn’t care about that kind of power.

I liked being nurturing and helpful, but I didn’t think I was ‘maternal’. I found other children confusing, preferred the company of adults (especially if they were readers).

Girls could be really mean. (My sister for instance.)

So being a woman didn’t fit either. But… always recalling my grandfather’s words about how what girls do “doesn’t matter”, I realized I could hide there. If I failed at being a girl, well, who cares about girls? Nobody. So they won’t hurt me because I failed. I definitely saw boys and men around me being hurt because they were failing at it.

Ultimately, of course, I did fail at being a girl.

I didn’t belong anywhere in a gender binary.

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What all of this has to do with N will have to wait for another day.

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