Tag Archives: family

The Boys’ and Girls’ Book About Divorce

When you start losing parents, it’s natural and normal to contemplate your own mortality. For me, the death of my father, the great storyteller, meant not only that I am closer to my own death, but that I have lost parts of my history that I will never be able to recover, except via my own faulty Read More…

When you start losing parents, it’s natural and normal to contemplate your own mortality. For me, the death of my father, the great storyteller, meant not only that I am closer to my own death, but that I have lost parts of my history that I will never be able to recover, except via my own faulty and incomplete memories. (My mother, with whom I choose to have no contact now, declared in late 2007 that my brother and I had one year in which to ask her any questions about the past, after which she would never again discuss it. She responded angrily to the one question I did ask, so I did not learn much from her in that year.)

One way I can try to reconstruct my past is to revisit places and objects that are still available to me, such as The Boys’ and Girls’ Book About Divorce. It was the first book aimed at “those who are usually most affected by a family breakup: the 3,000,000 or more American children of divorced parents” (Time magazine). I think my dad gave me a copy soon after we arrived in Pittsburgh in 1972. I was the first kid I knew to have divorced parents, and I was desperate to understand my situation.

I hadn’t seen the divorce coming, let alone had any inkling what it would mean for me. I had known for some time that my parents were not happy together: they fought loudly and bitterly (behind closed doors, but I could hear them all over our large house), which frightened me and made me angry. But, growing up in a small community of expatriates in Bangkok, I may not have understood that it was even possible for one’s family to be blown apart in this way.

Sometime in 1972, I was told that my family was “returning” to the US, a homeland I remembered only from a Christmas visit two years earlier (we had been living in Thailand for the half of my life that I could remember). My dad would be going to grad school in Pittsburgh. Dad’s and Mom’s relatives mostly lived in Louisiana and Texas; we would have no family nearby to ease re-entry. Not that I knew my extended family very well: they, too, were familiar only from that one visit and a few, dim earlier memories.

We packed up our possessions in 55-gallon drums for shipping by sea, except for the armful of stuffed animals I insisted on carrying on the plane with me. The house with its lush tropical garden, beloved pets, servants who were part of the family, my school and my few friends: all would be left behind forever.

My parents had told me that my mother was staying behind to deal with some paperwork, and would follow later, with my infant brother. I was therefore puzzled that she cried upon saying goodbye to me at the airport. If she was sad, I assumed that I should be, too, so I cried along with her. But soon I was thrilled to be off on an adventure with my dad, including stopovers in Tokyo and Honolulu en route back to the US.

We eventually made our way to my aunt’s mobile home outside Coupland, Texas. I was happy to spend time in the country with my cousin, who had lots of animals to play with, and even horses to ride!

I can’t remember whether the letter from my mother was addressed to me or to my father. Whether I read it myself or someone read it to me or told me its contents. However it was conveyed, it was in Aunt Rosie’s home that I finally learned the truth. I remember focusing intently, dizzily on Rosie’s white curtains while someone explained to me that my parents were divorcing, and my mother would not be joining us: she was staying in Bangkok, and my brother Ian with her.

So I came to understand that I had lost everything I had known about my life – except my father – in one fell swoop.

As fas as I could tell at the time, this book did not help much.

Dr. Richard A. Gardner, a psychiatrist specializing in children, started his book by explaining the phrase Hobson’s Choice, and applying it to marriage: sometimes all you’re left with is the choice between an unhappy marriage, or no marriage at all. This made sense to me, but I was baffled by Dr. Gardner’s statement that: “Many children keep trying to get their parents to marry one another again.” My parents were living half a world apart, and already in new relationships. As a practical matter, I could not imagine how they might be brought together again, nor could I imagine them being happy together when I knew very well how unhappy they had been before. So I didn’t waste any pining on that scenario.

The book largely dealt with the then-standard American pattern for divorce, in which Mother stayed in the family home with the children, while Father lived somewhere nearby and saw the kids on weekends.

This was very different from my situation: my brother and I were separated, he staying with my mother in Bangkok while I was with my dad in Pittsburgh. I did not see my mother for a year, then she visited us once. I don’t remember much about this visit. I did not see her again until I was 18, in part because, during those years, both she and my father remarried and moved several times to several different countries. Most of my contact with Mom was via letters, and, even on paper, our relationship was rocky.

Though it did not fit my unusual story, Dr. Gardner’s book was somehow comforting. Years after I had left it behind, I remembered that it contained cartoon drawings of kids and their parents in various scenarios and moods – happy, sad, frightened, angry – accompanied by text saying that all these feelings were natural and ok to have, my feelings didn’t make me a bad person, and none of what had happened was my fault.

One thing kids hear a lot when their parents are divorcing (both then and now) is: “Mommy and Daddy both love you and will always love you, even if they no longer love each other, even if one of them has to go away.” Dr. Gardner took some heat, back in the day, for being honest with kids about the fact that, sometimes, a parent actually does not love you all that much. And, while that hurts, it’s not your fault: “…If a parent doesn’t love you, it does not mean that you are not good enough to be loved or that you are very bad or that no one will ever be able to love you… start trying to get love and friendship from other people.”

Even though I did not consciously remember this advice, I applied it. Whoever’s fault it was that I did not see my mother for so long and do not get on with her now (she blames my father), I went on to find allomothers throughout my childhood and youth, some of whom remained in my life well into adulthood. They (plus years of therapy) helped me survive and recover from the many losses that I have endured, as well as adding much to my life in their own right.

In retrospect, I probably have Dr. Gardner to thank for my instinct to move on and find substitutes for my mother’s presence and love. So: a belated thank you, Dr. Gardner. Your book helped after all.

All American

An amusing (depending on my mood) feature of Internet arguments is that they often reach the point where my interlocutor is reduced to statements like: “You must not be American” or “You’re not from Texas” or “You can’t understand because you’re not [some other tribe of reference]”. So, to spare myself typing in future rebuttals, Read More…

An amusing (depending on my mood) feature of Internet arguments is that they often reach the point where my interlocutor is reduced to statements like: “You must not be American” or “You’re not from Texas” or “You can’t understand because you’re not [some other tribe of reference]”.

So, to spare myself typing in future rebuttals, here is everything we know about my ancestry – which is a lot, because people on both sides of my family tree have been keenly interested in genealogy, for personal or religious (Mormon – yes, I know about them, too) reasons.

Straughan: My paternal grandfather. This is a rare Scottish surname, a variant of Strachan. The oldest ancestor we’ve located in the Straughan line was born in Virginia in 1747. That’s right, BEFORE the revolution. My more recent Straughan ancestors were farmers in east Texas; my grandfather escaped that by studying accounting and moving to the city (New Orleans, then Shreveport).

  • NB: I have owned the straughan.com domain for over ten years (it was a gift from a friend, not named Straughan). No, I will  not give it up or sell it. Sorry, other Straughans.

Tiemann: My paternal grandmother. Her family was Catholic (I was baptized). An ancestor of hers immigrated from Bavaria to New Orleans shortly before the Civil War; he was awarded a medal “for valor” by the state of Louisiana. Tiemann is also not uncommon as a Jewish surname; it’s possible that somewhere along the way this line of ancestors was forcibly converted to Christianity – so maybe I’m also Jewish!

Baird: My maternal grandfather. Don’t know a lot about him; the name is Scottish. He was an accountant, family in Mississippi. In the 1930s, he went to work for an American company in Havana, where my mother and her sister were born.

Cook: My maternal grandmother, whose brother (a WWII hero with an interesting story of his own) traced his family line back to one Koch, a Hessian mercenary hired by the British to fight against those revolting Americans. He deserted, married a local girl, and became a citizen of the new nation. Somewhere in this line of descent there’s also someone French.

And here’s an ancestor on the Cook side:

Assassination of F.M.B. “Marsh” Cook

On July 23, 1890, Marsh Cook of Jasper County was gunned down by six men after warning citizens that the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention would likely limit voting rights and disfranchise black voters. Cook was a white republican candidate for delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He had urged black voters to organize against disfranchisement. No one was ever arrested or tried for his murder.

More on Marsh Cook (courtesy of my cousin Robert).

So, for those who care about such things, I can lay claim to being:

  • American, since before 1900, on all sides of the family. In other words: if you define “American” as “people who have been United States citizens for generations”, then I am as American as anybody – and probably more so than most of the people who question my American-ness.
  • Texan. Also got my BA from the University of Texas at Austin, so I’m a Longhorn – though I managed in all my years there never to see a single sporting event.
  • Louisiana native – born in New Orleans.
  • Deep Southern – most of my living relatives are still in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. No discernibly Southern accent, however.
  • Catholic – I have not practiced in any way since I was baptized, but that is true of many, many others whom the Church still claims as members. I have written to what was probably my baptismal parish in New Orleans, asking how I can have my name removed from the rolls. No reply. I’ll have to figure out how to get myself excommunicated.

Things I am not:

  • In spite of being named Deirdre, I have no Irish blood in me, as far as I know.

…I’ll edit this as I think of more things I am or know (probably when I am accused of not being or not knowing them!).

 

A cousin from my mother’s side describes herself as “a child of “French Quarter beatnik” parents much involved in art, design and music.”

Rossella, Then and Now

21 years ago today my daughter Rossella was born. Now she’s grown up into an amazing young woman. Happy birthday, Ross! You might also like: Whose Story is It, Anyway? A Missing Mother Helping Kids Stay Safe Online When the Mom’s Away…

Ross and me

21 years ago today my daughter Rossella was born.

Rossella 2010

Now she’s grown up into an amazing young woman. Happy birthday, Ross!

Family Portraits

Americans may be the most-photographed people in the world. Many American families, especially those who have children, sit for a formal photographic portrait every year, documenting the stages of their lives as the children are born and grow. (For holiday portraits, some families even dress in matching clothing, which may be taking things a little Read More…

Americans may be the most-photographed people in the world. Many American families, especially those who have children, sit for a formal photographic portrait every year, documenting the stages of their lives as the children are born and grow. (For holiday portraits, some families even dress in matching clothing, which may be taking things a little too far…)

Most American schools publish yearbooks which include an individual portrait of every child, every year, and parents are expected to buy packages of their kids’ yearbook photos to share with friends and family. When I was in school, you had to get the package that included lots of little copies of your picture, to give out as tokens of friendship.

Every occasion in an American child’s life may be marked with a formal portrait: graduation (there are graduation ceremonies for kindergarten!), sports teams, school events and trips, religious rites, proms, etc. It’s quite common in American homes to see walls entirely covered in family portraits and commemorative photos.

Part of the reason, I think, is that many American extended families are geographically dispersed and don’t see each other frequently, so it’s nice to have photos to send to family members and friends far away – I certainly enjoy the Christmas card family photos that I receive. Doting grandparents hang photos of their grandchildren, and insist on giving guests the full tour of the family, which I find very sweet (and informative).

In the Italian homes I’ve visited, I haven’t seen evidence of such a strong tradition of family portraits (nor have I heard of any offer of relatively cheap portrait packages such as you find in the US). But why would there be? In Italy, extended family members tend to live in the same town, same neighborhood, and possibly under the same roof! They see each other all the time – no need for reminders. If anything, they’ll have a few silver-framed foto ricordi (photo memories) from special vacations, and probably a wedding picture, on view somewhere in the house. (Weddings in Italy are photographed and videoed as much as anywhere else – a topic for another article.)

When you do see family portraits in Italy, they may be paintings. After all, many of the paintings in museums today were originally created as someone’s family portrait, and, in Italy, families go back a very long way: some fine paintings have simply never left the possession of the original family. The Titian portrait of a cardinal that I once saw at the home of a classmate of my daughter Ross was there because the cardinal was an ancient, distant relative of the family.

My husband’s family is neither wealthy nor noble, but we nonetheless have some paintings to remember them by. These are hung in the most “formal” area of our house, while – in deference to my American sensibilities – photos of friends and family run up the walls along the stairs to Ross’ room on the top floor. My aunt Rosie had a wall in her house covered in several generations of family photos; I liked being part of that, and, when she died, I brought back some of those pictures to add to our own picture wall.

I haven’t had an American-style studio portrait done since I was in college. We photos of Ross done a few times, but Enrico, Ross, and I have never yet had occasion to sit for a family portrait together.

I usually feel uncomfortable in front of the camera, and am not convinced that the average studio photographer could accomplish a shot of me that I would like. So I was intrigued by the photos my dad and his wife Ruth had done at a photo studio near their home in Milton Keynes (UK). The results were terrific, and very different from the usual stiffly-posed studio portraits I’ve seen. And they had so much fun doing it that Ruth gave gift packages, first to her sister and brother-in-law, then to me and Ross during our recent visit. The Venture photo experience turned out to be a lot of fun.

photo at top: Ross ready for an evening out. Over her shoulder you can see one of the portraits we had done when she was small.

A Missing Mother

This is often a low time of year for me. The days are getting shorter and colder; I wake up in darkness, leave the house in twilight, and by the time I get home it’s dark again. This is hard on my tropical psyche. And October 25th is the birthday of Nancy, my ex-stepmother. She’ll Read More…

This is often a low time of year for me. The days are getting shorter and colder; I wake up in darkness, leave the house in twilight, and by the time I get home it’s dark again. This is hard on my tropical psyche.

And October 25th is the birthday of Nancy, my ex-stepmother. She’ll be 54 this week – only ten years, one month, and three days older than I am. We even looked alike, with straight blonde hair and glasses, which used to confused people no end, especially because I referred to her proudly as my mother, when she barely looked old enough to be my sister. People would stare at us in shock and confusion. “She’s very well preserved for her age,” I would say haughtily.

Nancy officially became my stepmother when she married my dad in 1974. The ceremony included a part for me: we all vowed that we would stay together as a family, forever and ever. You believe stuff like that when you’re a kid, especially when you’ve lost your original family, and desperately need to believe that families can be rebuilt.

In spite of her youth and her own problems, Nancy was a good mother to me, and some parts of my character today clearly came from her. She had raw courage, bordering on recklessness, which probably helped me out of my childhood shyness. She was young at the height of the hippie era, and imbibed to the full that period’s attitudes towards sex. “Open” marriage in the long run didn’t work out for most, but sexual liberation was a good thing, and I’m glad I grew up believing that sex was natural and fun and good, not something dirty or shameful. (It’s odd to consider that, had Nancy had her own child, say around 1975, her attitude might have been different by the time that child reached puberty: neo-conservatism came into vogue in the early ‘80s, and AIDS was hitting the headlines by 1986.)

Indirectly, Nancy taught me how to cook. Her parents, who had immigrated from Czechoslovakia after WWII, ran a restaurant on Pittsburgh’s South Side, and Nancy, having learned from them, was an amazing cook. I never actually helped out in the kitchen (I don’t remember if she never asked or I never offered), but I sat on the counter and watched her for hours. She never consulted a cookbook; she just knew what went together, and somehow, by watching her, I learned as well.

Far less willingly, I also learned to clean house. I had my chores (washing dishes especially), but Nancy was a housecleaning fanatic. During one mercifully brief period when my father lost his job and Nancy had to work full-time at a delicatessen, it was my job to clean the house when I came home from school – this included vacuuming EVERY DAY. I still remember part of the instructions she wrote out for me: “Start dusting from the top and work your way down. If I have to explain why, I can’t teach you anything.”

Nancy trained as an English teacher, but I don’t remember her ever actually teaching after her teacher training. When we moved to Bangladesh in 1976, where my dad worked for Save the Children, she reinvented herself as a specialist in “appropriate technology,” and was able to continue working in that field in Thailand and Indonesia, following (and later leading) my dad’s job changes.

I last saw Nancy in early 1985, in my own apartment in Austin where she and my dad had come to visit and supposedly make a last-ditch effort to put their marriage back together. Yes, it was real fun having that going on in my house. And it didn’t work. Nancy left, and that was the last I ever saw of her, though at the time I had no inkling that that would be the case. Our relationship was already strained; she had withdrawn from me as she had withdrawn from my father.

Nancy went on to do a nine-month master’s in international development at the School for International Training in Vermont. I got a few brief, strange letters from her during this period, while I was on my own study abroad year in Benares.

By the time I was leaving Benares, she was working for the UN High Commission for Refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. There was a grim irony in this: her parents had hated my father for taking her away to all those “dangerous” places (Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia). But it was Nancy who chose – entirely on her own – to go to Peshawar, then and now one of the most dangerous places on earth! (It was probably al Qaeda HQ back then, before anyone had ever heard of al Qaeda, and there were almost daily bombs in the marketplace.) I offered to visit her there on my way out of India, but she said it was too dangerous.

I never spoke to her again, either. My dad referred gossip from the international grapevine that she had married a Turk who was high up in the UNHCR, and possibly had converted to Islam (her parents – devout Catholics – would have loved that!). Once when I was visiting Enrico in New Haven I got a garbled phone message from my dad saying that Nancy was in Pittsburgh and I could call at so-and-so number. I was thrilled, thinking this meant that she had actually been looking for me. I called. Nancy’s dad answered and, clearly lying through his teeth, claimed that Nancy was not there and had not even visited recently. “Well,” I said brokenly, “whenever you hear from her, tell her I called.”

I assumed that Nancy’s new husband might not know she had previously been married and had a stepchild, or that at least she might not like to rub his nose in it. But I couldn’t understand why someone as brave as Nancy couldn’t find a way to communicate with me if she really wanted to.

Sometime in the mid-90s, Enrico, Rossella, and I visited Pittsburgh, on a whim – I hadn’t been there in years, and remembered the city fondly. We had dinner with old family friends who happened to live only a couple of blocks from the house where Nancy’s parents had retired.

“What do you hear from Nancy?” Roz asked me.

“I don’t hear from her. I haven’t heard from her in years,” I said.

“Well, that’s odd. She comes on home leave about once a year to visit her parents, and always drops by for tea with us. And she speaks very fondly of you.”

I must have gone white with shock. I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach. I stumbled through the rest of the meal and conversation, then, when we went back to our hotel, I sat in the bathtub and cried. I was trying to run the water hard enough so that Rossella (then about five years old) wouldn’t hear me and get scared, but she heard, and was frightened and utterly bewildered as to what could have upset me so much. I couldn’t understand – and still can’t – how Nancy could remember me fondly and speak of me to others, but would not speak TO me.

The next morning I looked up her sister’s number in the phone book and called. The phone was answered by one of Elaine’s teenage daughers (whom I had never met).

“May I speak to Elaine?” I asked

“Yes, I’ll get her. May I tell her who’s calling?”

“Deirdré.”

There was a pause and a whispered conversation on the other end, then the girl came back on. “She’s busy right now, can she call you later?” I gave her the hotel number, though I knew it was useless. Elaine never called.

Rumor has it that Nancy has been living in Geneva for quite some time now, where her Turkish husband works at UNHCR headquarters. Geneva is not far from Milan, and, even before the advent of Google, Nancy could easily have found me. But she never has. I have a recurring fantasy that I’ll run into her in an airport somewhere, sometime. If that ever happened, I don’t know whether I would hug her or punch her.