Guilt

I come from an Italian family on my mother’s side. My father was German, but we had no extended family on his side of things so my roots are pretty firmly grounded in my mother’s ancestry. A great cook in her time, she mastered one outstanding traditional German meal for my father’s sake and I imagine she felt her duty done by his heritage (still, my fondest holiday memories are of my father solo-singing — despite other family members’ seething inability to watch other people besides themselves performing for attention — “Stille Nacht” and “O Tannenbaum” in German).

Guilt is big in the Italian household. Supposedly this comes from Catholicism, but I can’t speak to that personally as we were raised without any organized religion. I know that I often felt guilty growing up even though most of the time I couldn’t tell you what for. And when I was able to identify and articulate a genuine source of guilty feelings, my emotional state usually went into massive overdrive. A disproportionate response. I got laughed at a lot when I was little because I would throw out a tearful confession within MOMENTS of doing anything wrong.

I spent many years in therapy working to understand and unlearn the survival skills learned growing up in an active alcoholic and codependent household. ‘Cuz those skills are totally irrelevant in normal adult relationships. I’ve learned that I can either accept that everything is what it is and deal with it, or I can try to change everything, in which case, everything will still be what it is and I’ll still have to deal with it, I’ll just be super-disappointed that not everyone and everything conforms to what I think is the best way to be. It’s a daily choice to make. I forget myself sometimes and try to control things. Then I get unhappy and try to blame it on someone else, but eventually I remember that if I had just accepted things and people as they are instead of trying to change them, I could have had a different outcome.

This mostly comes up for me when dealing with family issues and I will right upfront admit that when it does come to those issues my number one method of dealing was moving a thousand miles away from them all twenty years ago. This strategy was not without its consequences. I spent not enough time with my father before he had his first stroke, which was when I started mourning him (he had a lot of trouble remembering me), even though he did not actually pass away until many years later. On the flip side I also wasn’t around for most of the deterioration of my mother’s attitude towards him and his limited ability to help her in the ways she had become accustomed to being helped (though I was witness to a few key incidents of emotional abuse during the holidays). I haven’t spent enough time with my niece and nephew who are grown now and very cool. My relationship with my siblings has always been strained since they are so much older than me and had a very different kind of alcoholic-household-childhood than I had. In one spectacular phone argument several years ago my sister accused me of “having it easier” because I never had to clean up after a passed out parent and put them to bed, to which I responded that she really wouldn’t know much about what I did or didn’t have to do since she and my brother basically abandoned me at home alone with those crazy people by the time I was eleven. They might not have been has protected from the ugly truth as I was, but at least they had each other. Alone, I just blamed myself for all the turmoil in the house because that what kids do when no one tells them the truth. Not to mention that we were all raised to be pitted against each other anyway in an effort to distract from what the real issue was in the house: the demon rum (or in our case, Black Velvet).

It’s clear to me that several members of my family — immediate and extended — don’t think I’m a very good sister, daughter, cousin, niece, whatever. There are things I should do and say and more of an effort I should be making because for Pete’s sake, I owe my mother/family the respect she/they deserves. And if not that, then I should at least be pulling my weight. When my mother slid down our steep, black-ice-covered driveway last Thanksgiving and busted her ankle in three places, a lot plans went into motion. It was decided she was moving to another city to be closer to her sisters. The house we grew up in would be emptied and sold. I didn’t contribute to the planning — I wasn’t invited to, but even if I had been, distance and work/theatre commitments would have made it impractical. I was asked, however, to drill home with Mom the idea that this was The Way Things Had To Be (I dropped the ball on that, I admit, though I never openly encouraged her to rebel). It was implied that the people who were working towards this plan were saints and had Mom’s best interest at heart. Mom came back from the hospital and the clean-out began. I felt the pain of a long-distance goodbye to a home that was my Dad’s and that I was never going to see again. A local gal was hired to list the place. An apartment — more manageable than our big old house where everything is upstairs — was found, close to the Aunts and their families. Thousands of dollars were spent and 230 garbage bags were shunted from the home, either to the dump or to the mission.

Today is, or was, moving day and I just spoke with my brother. Of course no one is going anywhere. The apartment that was lined up was not signed for. The house is mostly empty, but Mom is still living there. She didn’t want to move. It was all other people’s idea, not hers. In hindsight it’s obvious that she was never going anywhere.

Other people wanted to move her so that they would not “have to worry about her”. Isn’t that a fascinating phrase? It’s one I used to understand easily but don’t anymore. Who is holding the gun to their heads and screaming “Worry about her!”? Does she not have the right to live as she pleases? And if she wants to take on the risk of falling down the stairs and cracking her head open, shouldn’t she be allowed to accept those consequences? Isn’t that what they’d want, to be allowed to live and die as they saw fit? On this point I am told that it is easy for me to feel that way because I don’t have to clean up after the mess when things happen, but I feel the logic of that sentiment is faulty because they don’t either. They choose to, and that’s different. I’m content with letting Mom figure out herself how to get groceries, take the garbage out, pick up the mail. She’s resourceful when she has to be; people just are. To attempt to control another person to minimize the consequences their actions take on you is so damn complicated — why not just allow them the dignity of handling their own consequences? Yes, it’s tough to watch people struggle and fail until they ask for help. It’s tougher to watch them squirm under the bootheel you’re trying to hold them under. Isn’t it? Or am I just lashing out against others because I feel guilty for not doing anything to help? I don’t have answer to that and it makes me uncomfortable. I honestly don’t know if I feel guilty for being so removed, or for not feeling guilty at all about being so removed.

I try everyday to accept people as they are, not as I’d like them to be, and that includes my family. We had a rough go and I think we deserve a break. I don’t know why it’s such a struggle to give it to each other — and to ourselves — most of the time. 

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