Many years ago, I was at a book launch for a writer I didn’t know for a book I hadn’t bought. A mutual friend urged me to approach this writer with a question about how to publish the book I was working on. I hesitated for all the right reasons: I didn’t know this writer, why would he share this precious information with me? Was this the right venue and moment? I barely knew what questions to ask. Etc. Etc.
But my friend insisted he was a nice guy who wouldn’t mind a few questions. So, I walked up to him and asked if he had any pointers to offer on the publishing journey. I swear I saw smoke coming out of his ears. He was incensed that I would ask him this question on his big day, and he curled his lip in disdain and stalked away.
I felt about three inches high…
The definition of the nuclear family has its origins in the Latin nux/nucleus, meaning “core or kernel.” But in my family’s case, the atomic association of “nuclear” is a better descriptor. I had a physically and verbally abusive mother, who, unbeknownst to everyone, including herself, also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Her anger and unhappiness resulted in abuse and abandonment, and as her marriage to my father deteriorated, our family imploded in a dramatic fashion.
I had my first child at age 35. I likely waited that long because I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of my mother. Without a positive role model in my life, I was worried that I would damage my children in the ways that I was damaged. Thus, I set out to consciously prevent that.
Here are five suggestions for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of your parents, no matter how big or small…
Like many memoirists, my childhood provides a treasure trove of familial strife to work with. What with a physically and verbally abusive mother, antisemitic neighbors (so much for Minnesota “nice”), my mom’s depression and serial infidelity, my dad’s undiagnosed PTSD, a messy public divorce … so much material!
The question I pondered was: How could I excavate this rich vein without blowing up myself and my family in the process? How could I tell stories that resonate with the emotional truth of my journey without further shaming or traumatizing myself or others?
I grew up in New Hope. When I was 8, I remember walking out of a Red Owl grocery store past two smiling Salvation Army bell ringers wearing Santa Claus hats. They wished me a “Merry Christmas,” and I returned the sentiment by wishing them a “Happy Hanukkah.” They stopped ringing their bells and stared at me suspiciously, as though I were trying to pick a fight or trick them somehow.
This was back in the 1960s when redlining, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a raft of state and federal economic policies prevented nonwhites from living in the suburbs. There were no black people, Latinos, or Asians in my suburban schools or neighborhood. No Korean adoptees. No Hmong people, Somalis or American Indians.
Just white Christians. And my family. The only Jews in New Hope.
My mother is not what you’d call a “nurturing” person. Growing up there was no hugging, no kissing, no “I love you.” She was a yeller. And a hitter…with her hand, a belt, a wooden spoon. She came from the “tough love” school of mothering. Her standard line was “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
When I got pregnant at age 34, I vowed not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. When I told my mother I was pregnant she offered to come to Minnesota for a week after the baby was born to help.
‘Oh no,” I said. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I know I don’t have to do it,” she said. “I want to.”
“But…” I quickly tried to think of some excuse to keep her away.
“I’m coming,” she said firmly. “And believe-you-me, you’re gonna’ need the help.”
After a 36-hour labor, my husband Michael and I climbed the front steps of our house with a newborn daughter named Cleome. My mother opened the front door. How much help could she really be, I wondered? This woman who had once broken a wooden spoon over my brother’s butt because she was spanking him so hard?
(Northern Gardener magazine)
Lately I’ve been wondering whether you can actually teach your kids to love gardening. My love for gardening certainly didn’t come from my mother. She grew a few rose bushes, but she wasn’t really a gardener. She preferred sewing and needlepoint. She never talked about gardening and I don’t remember her ever bringing fresh flowers inside. If anything, I’d say her rose bushes made me afraid to garden. Three summers in a row I watched thin red lines snake up my leg—the sign of blood poisoning caused by rose thorns embedded in my foot. For years I associated roses with doctor visits and tetanus shots.
I started gardening in my mid-twenties when, straight out of college, I moved into a musty house in St. Paul to care for my blind grandfather. At first, working among the waist-high weeds in his dingy backyard was an escape from the stale air and old-man complaints inside. But within a few weeks, my daily escape felt less like weeding and more like creating art. I was captivated by the rich smell of the soil and the crunchy sound of the shovel as it bit into overgrown stands of phlox and hosta. I loved digging holes and moving plants around to see how they looked next to each other. Something grabbed me and didn’t let go.
Traveling with kids is important because traveling is not a spectator sport, and it creates a family bond like no other. Not only do you and your kids spend more time together and learn to rely on each other in different ways, but you also go through amusing, unusual, and occasionally frightening or difficult experiences together. These experiences take on a myth-like status and create an enduring family narrative.
Our children will always talk about the beach trip where the pickup truck we were riding in veered off the road and nearly flipped over. They often recount the midnight visit of the scorpion that dropped from our palapa roof and decided the back of my leg was a perfect place to snooze. There have been difficult moments during our travels when it felt like our family was alone against the world. And there have been astonishingly beautiful moments when we turned to each other and shook our heads at the mystery of what was unfolding in front of us. These adventures have become a rich part of our family story, one we continue to write with each new adventure.
At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, if you’re traveling overseas with your family, you may want to think twice before advertising the fact that you’re Americans. I’m not saying you should necessarily lie and tell everybody you’re from Toronto (although I have done that once or twice), but it’s prudent to be sensitive to the political and social attitudes of your chosen destination. Staying safe abroad means educating yourselves about your surroundings, taking commonsense precautions, and avoiding unwarranted attention. In other words, leave that American flag sweatshirt in the hotel room until you’re sure it won’t invite jeers or worse.