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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ice Clinking in a Glass

The sound comes into my peripheral memory in the strangest moments. The sound of ice clinking in a class, a memory from childhood that has echoed through the years, reverberating in dark moments, striking me as somehow only those kinds of memories can.

The sound came to me this afternoon as a co-worker and I discussed some of the "protecting children" curriculum came into our conversation. Not all of it is bad, but I have great concerns about some; and one of my greatest concerns is that it seems to place responsiblity in the hands of children. Resposibility that they don't and shouldn't have.

I will not go into detail about this; those who work with it know of what I am speaking, and those who have lived out such responsibility in different ways will hear the same echoes as I, and shudder at the coldness that robs us of our sense of security.

Weekend at Dad's

Mom and Dad were separated by then, and Dad was living at his sister's house, so on weekends, my brother and I were packed off to stay for the weekend. It was summer, I remember, because on that weekend we were celebrating my birthday and Father's day, so our Grandparents were there, too.

As she sent us off, Mom told me, "Now, remember that your Dad isn't supposed to be drinking when he has you kids, so don't let your Daddy drink, and don't go anywhere with him if he does."

I remember taking those words to heart. I knew that because Mom and Dad were "getting divorced", I had to be a "big girl" and behave when Mom wasn't around. So if Mom gave me instructions in any way, I knew I had to be obedient ESPECIALLY then...and in my heart, I thought it meant I had to be responsible to take care of those around me. I had to "grow up" and not be so shy all the time. I had to have the same courage Mom did.

I had to be like Mom. A grown-up.

My brother and I arrived at our Aunt's house, where the kitchen smelled of something wonderful, the lights were bright, and there was a festive atmosphere in honor of the occasions being celebrated. We were ushered into the dining room where the adults were laughing and talking, exclaiming over us, and sending us off to drop off our weekend bags.

When I came back downstairs, they were all pouring drinks for themselves, and even Dad had one in his hand. I could hear the sound of ice being scooped and dropped into tumblers, the sound of adults walking past with the liquid and frozen water making "tinkling" noises around me.

I was becoming alarmed; I thought that everyone knew what the rules were, and the rules meant that Dad couldn't drink. It didn't seem right that everyone else was...or behaving as though he was supposed to be doing so. I remember how Grandpa said he didn't want anything, refusing. My eyes fixed on him, hoping in him. I was offended for and with him as my Aunt, Grandmother, Uncle, and even my Dad pressured him to have a drink.

Finally, to my great disappointment, Grandpa gave in and agreed to have one, and everyone rejoiced. My brother was dispassionate; maybe he was absorbed in the TV by then, immune to the goings-on in the dining room. But I realized my last ally had fallen and that left only me.

Where did a little girl like you learn a word like THAT!?

I didn't know what to do; I knew that I was responsible for whatever was happening, but I was even more aware that I had no authority, and didn't understand why I was expected to stand up for what was right. But there it was, and I knew that I had a job to do, whether I liked it or not.

Mom expected it of me.

I think I said something to Dad, but he ignored me or made a joke. So I thought maybe Grandma was the best source; after all, maybe she knew the rule and had forgotten it. In any case, if she knew the rule, she was Dad's Mom, so she could tell him to stop, and order would be restored.

I knew that order did not rest in me; somehow, even though I felt responsible, I thought maybe I was only a messenger; the role of enforcer was someone else.

Grandma, while moving around the room, finally came near me, so I tugged quietly on her sleeve, wanting to be discreet. I knew that what I had to say to her was "no one's business." Besides, I was shy and didn't want to speak up, anyway.

I can still remember what she was wearing, how it matched the color of her kitchen back in Michigan but seemed out of place here in our Aunt's dining room. It, like everything else about that day, was completely out of place.

Grandma bent down to hear me, smiling, her lipstick bright against her teeth, the ice clinking in the glass she held in her left hand, condensation forming already as she shook it, stirring it up.

I hesitated, so she asked me loudly to tell her whatever I wanted to say.

Gathering up my courage with everything I had, I whispered, "Mommy says Daddy isn't supposed to drink 'cause he gets drunk."

Grandma stood up quickly, taken aback, a scowl on her face, her ice clinking again in her glass. She moved so quickly I think she might have lost half of whatever it contained.

"Where did a little girl like you EVER learn a word like THAT!?"

I cringed at her exclamation, realizing immediately that my plan had failed, and that my trust had been in vain.

Her cry caused silence to descend upon the dining room, and even my brother poked his head out of the TV room to see what was going on. Grandma repeated what I had said, to the complete and utter shock of all present. My brother shook his head and went back into hiding. He was the smart one.

I stood there, cringing as Dad alternately laughed and belittled Mom, Grandma and our Aunt chewed me out for having learned "bad words", and then launched into a criticism of Mom for having said such things in our hearing. I looked to Grandpa, and he looked sympathetic but remained silent, perhaps having lost this battle long before.

My defeat was utter and complete. I think I was too shocked even to cry.

When my public humiliation was over, I slinked off to join my brother, who told me I shouldn't have said anything at all. I already knew. He told me to hang out with him, let them do what they were going to do, and we could watch TV and stay out of the way.


To this day, when I hear ice dropping into a glass, a part of me cringes. There are often responsibilities "given" to children that they aren't supposed to have, and which no one intends for them to embrace. But every time it happens, that child is scarred. Some are worse than others. In the end, with everything we do, we have to remember to whom information is being given, how they understand it...and if we are unwittingly putting the innocent in a place where they have no authority, yet making them believe that they do.

To do this is disaster, and no child should ever have to experience it. I can honestly say that because of my experience that weekend, there were other things I did not report to my parents that I should have; because I thought I was responsible. I thought it was my fault.

It wasn't Mom's intention to do any such thing; her words were out of concern, and were completely thoughtless as to how I would take them. I believe she was only "thinking out loud". your words, watch your thoughts, and don't ever do anything to make a child think they are responsible for the behavior of an adult. They will take that responsibility to heart, for out of their innocence, they will do anything to please you...and will meet with disaster.



Lucia Maria said...

Hi Adoro,

I've been reading your blog for a few months now. You really put yourself out there for the readers, and your stories of your life are incredibly poignant.

A couple of months ago my cousin told me that she and her husband were separating. We had been pregnant with both our children at the same, so I'd felt a real connection with her and her family. Not only that, but over the last two years my husband and I have been healing our own marriage - so I thought afterwards that I could have been her, announcing my separation to the world had things turned out differently.

I turned to the internet and found a book on the impact of divorce on children. After reading it, I understood far more than I had realised about her life growing up. As long as I could remember, she and her sister were brought up only by their Mum (my Aunt), with the Dad an occasional guest for special occasions (sometimes I'd be staying over). This was normal, as far as I knew, though they were the only family I knew of that lived this way.

I realised that my cousin ended up becoming the "caregiver" - a role that a child automatically takes on herself (and it's mostly the girls that do this).

Your story here tells of the same sort of thing. So, I was wondering if you read this particular book: Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, The: A 25 Year Landmark Study (Paperback).

I talked to someone else that had read it recently (another child of divorce), and I think she said the book helped her understand herself. But then she also said that you always want to make an exception for yourself and your own family - I think she was basically saying she had a tough time accepting what the book was saying about her own circumstances.

So, I just wanted to point you in the direction of the book if you weren't aware of it, just in case it may be helpful.

Your story breaks my heart, btw.

Adoro said...

Lucyna ~ Thank you for the comment and the book recommendation. I had not heard of it or read it, although from what you say, I agree that children of divorce always want to make themselves "exceptions". In my family, my brother has become more of the "caregiver", although I'm not sure why the roles changed. Our family would be a quite a study; from my own understanding, having studied psych, etc., we are not a norm, although that's not to put us in the category of "exception".

One of the reasons I blog under a pseudonym is so that I can speak as I do, because there's a great need in our world for people to tell such stories. My friends in real life know at least some of these, but I "hide" my identity in order to protect my immediate family and extended family. On never knows who is reading, and I wouldn't want my family to be embarassed. Or to take exception to something I say and make an issue out of something, etc. In other words, I can speak freely this way. Comments like yours are an exact reminder of why I do this.

Thank you.

Lucia Maria said...


Anonymous said...

Alcoholism is insidious in its own way, adding to the confusion of divorce. The blindness of others, their enabling behaviour and refusal to honour honesty (as such, your own earnest words) undermines the spirits of all involved.

The beauty of the 12 Step program is finding out how "paint-by-numbers" the whole setting is. No matter how many stories are shared, in essence the compelling details are all the same.

I'm sorry you were trapped in such a web, but can honestly say that the wisdom I gained from getting help after leaving home was priceless. The program is nothing other than the Ignatian Exercises in disguise.

Anonymous said...

Been there, done that... I was fortunate that my father went through treatment for alcoholism. Past memories and situations still remind me of the strange responsibilities I thought were expected of me as a child....Maybe they were...

Banshee said...

Whenever grownups can't bring themselves to act like grownups, they pretend like kids are already adults.

Anonymous said...

"Been there, done that", also. I tried to "fix" my own Mom, but it didn't work. Got called disloyal, a liar, you name it. Mom eventually died of the effects of this awful disease and to this day (20 yrs. later) everyone is still in denial about what killed her. BTW, I don't drink -- my "drug of choice" is food. You got hit with the double whammy of divorce and alcoholism. My heart goes out to you. God bless.