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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Growing Up

Adulthood is never what children perceive it will be.

From a child's perspective, when one finally "grows up", they will be respected, have money to spend, get to sit at the adult's table at family reunions, and not have to go to bed when the best shows are on TV or the best things happening in the neighborhood.

Yeah, from a child's perspective, things in adulthood are all peachy and perfect.

I wish it was really like that. 

You know that some days I sit up and think, "Oh my gosh! I am just a kid! Where is there an adult to go to in order to handle this problem! Help!"  Then I stumble across a a mirror, see the wrinkles and sags, the weight gain and, well...the oldness...and realize there isn't anyone to go to anymore.

And even worse, more and more, I find I am becoming like one or the other of my parents, for better or worse.

The most tragic part of that fact is this: no matter how much I aspire to their greatest virtues, I seem to have made my own their most grievous faults. I have become the sum of the fall of my parents. 

Nobody's Mom and Dad are perfect. Nobody's! No matter how well-to-do or how impoverished, every family, in modern pop-psychology terms, is "dysfunctional".  Welcome to the human race. In ancient times and theology that was called "concupiscence", but in modern times, we poo-pooh that away by labeling it with things such as "dysfunction" and "co-dependence".

Oh, fogeddabodit! Let's just get to the point and recognize we're all a bunch of sinners in need of salvation, and yeah, we've been harmed by the sins of others! So what? How does that make anyone a victim?

Sorry, got off on a rant there for a bit.

Every so often, I fall into the Oprah-victim-pity-pot of interior destruction. Oh, to see her big brown eyes well up with tears for my familial demise....cry me a river. Seriously, is there anyone who DOESN'T deserve to be on now-defunct Oprah?

Tonight I fell into that trap for a short period. I thought about how, as a child, I was bullied. Always, in fact. I always had a hard time fitting in, and I think the reason was two-pronged:  Mom had a difficult time socially for a few reasons, and, well we were poor and from the wrong side of town. Dad was a great guy, everyone loved him, he loved everyone, but let's face it; he wasn't an over-achiever unless he was drunk, and then he was living what he wanted to be but was always denied because of his congenital disability. (My parents were bullied as children and as adults, too. Dad died, but Mom continues to be bullied by her own siblings.)

[I don't care what age you live in, but your social circumstances and family hierarchy dictate how you are treated by others. You cannot legislate that away. Period.] 

So...I was pondering my childhood today, often an exercise in futility. Recently I came across a piece of music and if my piccolo wasn't so in need of repair, if my embouchure wasn't so in need of practice and retraining, if only I could remember how to finger the notes...I think I could pick up either a flute or piccolo and play the piece. In fact I did, in a dream, and it was incredible. If only that had been real life!

It was this that made me ponder so much, for my love of music is often met by the resistance of memories I wish I could forget.

You know the movie "A Christmas Story"? 

Yeah, well, as children my brother and I begged for a piano because we both loved music as did Mom, as did my Dad, whose father was a musician, teacher, and salesman in a music store.

One Christmas we came home to...a two-octave organ, totally mechanical sound (computers do better now...far better, far more realistic), complete with set drum beats, "trumpet" sounds and others that sounded NOTHING like the actual instruments, and after only a few weeks of "piano" lessons that took us far beyond what the limited keyboard allowed, both of us [necessarily] quit lessons and the organ gathered dust until Mom finally managed to pay someone to take it away.

That took years, by the way. It was our fishnet-legged lamp in the window and I'll never forget my disgust. I suspect that's why Mom was so enthusiastic after their divorce, to spring for a flute for me when I was finally able to choose an instrument in 5th grade. (In the US, that's when public schools began musical instruction). Granted it was rented, but she didn't put up a fight with any substitutes like trumpet (which I also took up in high school) or clarinet (which I never wanted, no offense to clarinetists!).

Then there took over the concupiscence, the push-and-pull of child and parent as the child struggles to become herself or himself in the world.

I loved music and began singing. Mom loved the fact that I loved music and encouraged it, but didn't seem to understand the sense of balance. She began to ridicule my successes and my attempts, and this was part of her own disease of bipolar.

One summer, I tried out for Community Theatre, having been a member of our tiny parish youth choir, and so accepted the help of another community-involved parishioner to help me in my audition. I nearly got the lead role, was cast as unofficial understudy with a serious role in the chorus...and had a great time! That same summer, in prep for a talent show at a camp I wanted to attend, my fellow chorus-members, the music director, and musicians helped me to prepare a song and gave me great advice while my Mom waited as an all-too-verbal spectator.

I was trying to sing "Memory" from the musical "CATS", a song I knew my Mom loved, so my offering had a lot to do with her own influence. As I learned the piece and sang it with accompaniment, as the experienced musicians and teachers encouraged, taught, and helped me to make it my own, I heard only one voice, that of my mother, speaking above them all,  "You're no Barbara Streisand."

I cowered in shame and listened to that litany all summer. "You're no Barbara Streisand."

I still remember the musicians and one of the actors exchanging glances, pretending not to notice, then renewing their lessons for me. Knowing I wasn't trying to be great; that I was only trying to have fun in an entertaining way; and that's something I could do.

Over the years, I heard that line a lot. As I soloed in my parish, as I was selected to cantor, as I occasionally auditioned for high school productions, always my mother telling me, "You're no Barbara Streisand."

There was a dichotomy, though, as I practiced my instrumental music, for Mom didn't have a comparison. She wanted me to be a professional musician. When I aspired towards visual art, she shot that down, telling me there was no money in it and I would end up on welfare. As we were already there, that terrified me and yes, I knew she was right about that. I wanted to be an actress; not allowed, and yes, she was right about that!

I nearly joined the Marines after my band teacher handed me a brochure about the Marines Band, something I knew about thanks to my uncle, a proud former Marine! It was a great deal! If I enlisted, I could go to ANY, and I mean ANY Music school I desired, on a full scholarship! Because my brother had been around and around with an Army Recruiter who wouldn't take "no" for an answer, I said nothing about this to my Mom, but did to my band teacher. "What's the catch?"

"Well, you gotta go to boot camp."

" thanks. Not selling my soul for boot camp."  (Seriously, if only I could have predicted the 2 boot camps I would go through a few years

When I pondered colleges, and we went to visit the college I would eventually choose, and while we gathered information regarding various programs, including theatre, Mom informed me once again, "You're no Barbara Streisand."

Finally, I'd had enough. I don't recall when I said it but I do know it was in private - a grace she had never left to me. Finally, finally, I cried out in tears of frustration, anger, and sadness:

"Why do you continue to compare me to BARBARA STREISAND?  I'M NOT HER!!! STOP comparing me!!! I CAN'T SING LIKE HER! I DON'T KNOW HOW!  WHY do you compare me????

It was as if I had slapped her; she hadn't realized what she was doing.

The reality is this; her years of comparing my every attempt to the GREATS made me aspire to something more mundane, more average. More people oriented, less arts-and-music oriented.

So it was that I left my music, my art behind. So it was that I majored in Criminal Justice and spent four years defending myself against the extended family trying to tell me that law enforcement wasn't for me.

But at least I didn't have to try to sing like Barbara Streisand anymore.

All Grown Up

It would be easy to blame my Mom for a lot that's wrong in my life, but I can't. If victim-hood is going to come into this particular Diego Rivera mural, it's going to involve everyone, not just my family, not just yours.

We all have our stories, and if we know them, we can take responsibility for them.

Yes, I left music and the arts because of constant and overbearing criticism holding me to a standard I could not meet, but I don't regret the degree I pursued, even though I'm not qualified to work in that field anymore - because of my own choices and career path. Yes, I live in a townhome I can't afford because I bought it back when I had a good job, and left it was time, and now have to pay off grad loans on a salary that pays less than peanuts. That's my choice, not my Mom's.

Every criticism from Mom was an attempt to ground me, to keep me balanced, and to ensure I did not suffer the financial and personal ruin of the poverty in which she raised us. I can blame my Mom and my Dad for a whole lotta things, but as an adult....I truly can't blame them for anything.

All I can do is thank them. 

I thank them for trying to guide me as best they could, even though they suffered so much from the deprivation and abuses thrust upon them long before they brought my brother and I into the world.  I thank them for giving us the opportunities they could, and even if misguided, for criticizing us to try to keep us from being what we all hate. I thank them for being who they are (or in Dad's case, who he WAS, may he rest in peace), so that we could become greater, according to God's calling.

And most of all, I thank them for the life they gave us, with all its trials, all its suffering, all its failures, all its triumphs, for much we experienced together, and much, growing up, made us who we are today.

We may not be much, and we will never be "great" in the eyes of the world, but both my brother and I know who we are, where we came from...and it's gonna be a whole lotta years before we ever really "grow up."

Somehow..I think Mom (And Dad, Eternal rest grant unto him...) would agree.

To all you Moms and Dads out there, I speak to you all...Thank you. 
Eternal Love,  
Your Children

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