Parental Debris

What was  your face before you were born?  I think that or something very close to it is a Zen koan, designed to get us out of the thinking patterns we have become accustomed to.  Here’s something of my own “what did you feel the moment you were born?”  Think about it, there we all were for about 9 months, with a nice warm environment, all we needed to eat automatically.  Then, all of a sudden, WHAM, so much for that and we were in the “real” world.  No wonder our brain does not remember that, so traumatic.

All this is to say for myself, and I think most humans, we sense and react to our surroundings for about 3 years, but remember very little of them consciously at least. We still are affected by them, as well as in the micro culture of our homes, and the larger culture of our community and the times  we lived in during childhood.  Our actions and decisions as adults surely reflect, even if we are not aware of the ancient memories of our early past.

So relying on my own memories I want to share a bit about my mother and father and our home life.  Marge is gone now, but I have been fortunate recently to find some  documents about her life that she had written and saved that I was completely unaware of. I honored her privacy while she was alive, and I now finally got around to sorting our old letters, notes, etc.

My mother was second generation American of Welsh ancestry. They were largely miners and metal workers, pretty hard lives.  But they loved to sing, and in general had as interesting lives as they could.  I remember my mother, and later cousins, relating that my grandfather once had a summer cottage, and in the winter he owned a reindeer and loved to have it tow him along in a sleigh in the winter.  How fun!!

My mother was a schoolteacher in elementary school.  In the early 20th century the only education requirement was one year in what was called Normal School.  She lived and taught in the industrial Northeast part of Ohio.  She married my father at age 32 in the middle of the depression.

Mom was a typical for that time, homemaker.  She had a couple babies, me included, cooked, cleaned the house, clothes, etc. as was the custom then.  Mom was outgoing, affectionate and caring and rarely complained.  She was not exactly happy living in a very rural outpost of NY, after the urban life in Ohio, but did not make a big fuss over it.

She married my Dad, this ( Dannemora,, NY) is where he worked, and it was a package deal.  I remember her playing card games with me, and caring for me when I was ill, as I often was in winter.  Her father, my maternal grandfather, for some as now unknown reason moved from Youngstown, Ohio in about 1944 to San Diego CA, where he died in 1946.  When Mom got the news on the phone, she was overcome with grief, crying her heart out and it was scary to me.  I learned that my grandfather, whom I had met only once, had died and that was the cause of her grief.  I really loved my mother. I was upset to see her so upset.

My father died in 1976, my mother lived alone until about 1983, when dementia set in and she came here to live in Las Vegas.  Marge and I tried to care for her in our home, but we both worked and rent-a-companion services were next to useless.  I finally found a small home based care home for the elderly and took Mom there.  I really felt like it was up north in Alaska and I was shoving her off on an ice flow.  I wished and tried to care for her, as she had cared for me, but it was really impossible.  Mom progressively got worse, and died in 1990.  I really did not grieve for her, as the mother I knew had passed away years previously due to the ravages of the dementia. I was thankful that her suffering was over.

My father was another matter entirely.  He was first generation american, of Swedish, and Danish descent preceded by Norwegian further back.  There’s a hairy old “Norski” joke that runs like this:

Question: If you are talking with a Norwegian, how do you know if he is interested in you?

Answer: He’ll be looking at your shoes, not his.

A lot of truth in that.  On the positive side, Dad was a solid citizen and a steady provider. He never struck any of us, though at times he could in anger blow up at what seemed to me like something very insignificant.  I never saw or heard him and my mother fight, though they might have possibly when they were alone.  Just a guess.  Dad encouraged both my sister and I to strive for a college education and the importance of education in general.  When I started elementary school, every time I brought home a paper with a grade of 100, he gave me a nickel.  In those days, that would buy you a candy bar, and two nickels would buy a comic book.  Not insignificant at all.

On the other hand, Dad was almost an emotional zero.  He was pretty much flat lined as far as either joy or sorrow.  He even seemed a bit uncomfortable when Mom would give him a kiss when he came home from work in the prison.  I think the only time I got a hug and expression of joy was when I was notified by the state of NY education department that I had won an academic scholarship based on my achievement in a statewide competitive exam.  I had a ticket to get out of northern NY state!!  this was something that Dad wanted for both my sister and I, and I did internalize that goal.

When Dad’s mother, my paternal grandmother, died, I learned it only from my mother when she told us that Dad was going to be gone for a week so he could drive to the Buffalo, NY area for grandmother’s funeral.  Nothing from Dad then, nor when he came back home.  Life just went on.  No grief, no anything.

Dad was self contained at home and would usually read a book or magazine after supper.  He and Mom would go out occasionally, and we all would go to the movies once inn a while. Dad would take me to slapstick comedies such as 3 Stooges.  I will say that.  He was useless as far as home maintenance goes, except for painting, and even then he would not consult any of us, and he was a bit careless as to details.

His one recreation was fishing, ice fishing in winter, and on lakes and ponds in good weather.  He would often take me, which I found about as interesting as watching grass grow.  I suppose he thought it was a “guy” thing.

Dad did have what used to be called in previous days, an “anal” personality.  He was very concerned about bowels, and actually used to take a tablespoon of mineral oil every evening. Gag.  He died in 1976 of, I believe, a virulent form of leukemia.  I had no grief over his death, only concern for Mom who was now on her own.

So, to summarize, by osmosis I picked up from my mother the importance of touching, care, affection, expression, emotions, and love in general.

Similarly, from my father, I picked up on the responsibility of the man to be the provider, don’t bitch about your job, etc.  More important was what I did not learn was how to translate the values I picked up from my mother into male responses in the family setting.  I believe this at least contributed in no small amount in my inability to relate to Margery in the way that deep down she wanted.  My best just wasn’t good enough for her because I never learned how in my formative years.

Now to Marge’s parents.  She is gone now but I have memories of each of her parents and some biographical writing that Marge did concerning herself, that I only recently discovered in going through boxes of files she left when she died.  I will do my best to represent her.

My mother-in-law’s name was Dorothy.  I first met her in the spring of 1958 on a rather surprise visit to her home in Cornwall, NY.  More on the details of this later.  Dorothy was a small woman, independent and somewhat feisty.  I liked her and believe that was reciprocated.  I believe this independence was partly due to her own upbringing and partly due to the necessity brought about with the US Army separations both in war and peacetime. Her husband was an Army man, Col. Alexander Sutherland, a Regular Army officer, West Point 1931 I believe.

Marge was the youngest of 3 girls, sister Anne 5 years older and Pat 3 years older.  When they were away at school, and later married young, Marge lived with her mother in Cornwall.  From what I can remember from visits, and from writings that Marge left, I believe she and her mother got along well, loved each other and talked frequently and at length. Of course, as Marge got older and became more independent herself, there were some differences and I believe they amicably agreed to disagree.

Dorothy was spiritual but not religious.  Marge was a Christian, largely I believe so she could sing in the choir.  Marge did deepen her faith in the 1960s when the Christian Charismatic movement was in vogue.  She and Dorothy accepted these differences, which really were more in form than substance.

Pat often came here to visit her sister Marge from her home in NY when Marge was treated for cancer.  I call once in a while to keep in touch.  For some reason we were recently talking of her mother when Pat remarked that she once told her mom that she, Pat, had never seen her mom cry.  Dorothy’s reply was “you never saw me sitting on the cellar steps crying my heart out.”

Dorothy died in 1989 of lung cancer.  While she was dying, Marge and her sister Pat would take turns going to Cornwall to care for her.  Marge really grieved after her mother’s death.  Since I had not grieved the death of either my own mother or father, I did not really understand this at a personal level. I am sure I did not offer Marge the understanding of loss and pain that she really needed. Unfortunately, this occurred at a quite low point in our marriage. I probably came across as an insensitive and uncaring husband.  I just didn’t know how to be who she wanted then, I had never learned.

Now to Marge’s father, Col. Alexander Sutherland.  Marge told me that prior to marrying Dorothy, he had told her that for him, the Army came first. If things came to making a choice, the Army was first.  So that was the package deal for those two. Alex was married to the US Army.

Marge can’t tell her own story now, since she died in 2012.  But I have been going through the boxes she left to clear out what I could, organize the rest, and found a biography written by her at age 45 dated 9-86.  In it she mentions her father, and so I will copy it verbatim so she can tell her own parental story.


I was born at the end of 1939.  I remember a few things from early childhood, but only two or three dim pictures come to mind from the time before my Father had gone away in the war.  I remember a very happy fragment, – my Father and Mother and myself, and possibly my sisters having a sort of active snuggle on the couch in the living room.  There was laughter and love.  I might have been two or three years old then.  Later we lived in a house in Cornwall, NY while Daddy was gone.

After the war we went to Texas, where I was in the third grade.  By this time I was aware that my parents were not really happy  but it was just a sort of background, not anything in the forefront of my life or thoughts, My sisters were in Junior and Senior High School then and once I remember that they were both on the verge of running away.  They were outside in the driveway, and Daddy and Momma and I kept going out sort of in turns to try to talk them into coming back in the house, and not leaving. I don’t think I ever knew why they were going but I remember my feelings of dismay, but somehow or other they didn’t go.

However, sometime later I remember a time when we were all in the dining room and Daddy and Momma explained that Momma was going to go back to NY and that we three girls had a choice of staying with Daddy or Momma. it was devastating.  I remember choosing to go with Mom, because I didn’t think Daddy could take care of me. He had not in the past,  didn’t take care of my before, how could he do so now.

So it happened that my mother and sisters and I all came back to New york where we had lived during the war. After a couple of months, my father came and they decided to try and keep the family together.  Later he was transferred to Georgia and while there bought a Hammond chord organ.  He had never played before but he learned and brought it home and it was the hit of the neighborhood. The neighbors came to see it and once when I was trying to play it, someone came and Daddy shooed me off so he could demonstrate.  I felt humiliated.

After the war was over daddy came home again and things got worse. I had forgotten until now the fights Mommy and Daddy had. Not many really, but whenever they got in a real argument, I couldn’t stand it. It made me feel bad – a physical and mental and emotional pain, and I remember running away to get away from hearing them.  I don’t think that it was my fault, but I felt terrible. The feelings I had when they quarreled were like the feelings I had when we had to choose – it was a rending of the whole thing and I felt torn apart myself. On January 3 1957 my father moved out of the house into quarters at West Point.  It then felt peaceful.  The tension was gone and I was glad.

It must have been during the previous years, when there was a lot of unhappiness and tension and,no doubt lack of and mis-communication, that I picked up the attitude that Daddy, and by extension men in general, were the enemy.  Not to be trusted with your innermost being because you would get hurt.  I could not love both Daddy and Momma and again had to choose sides. In order to be for Momma, with whom I lived, I had to be against Daddy. I was alone with only Momma and she talked to me somewhat about her problems with Daddy but it was not helpful to me, it just turned me against him.


I am having difficulty in piecing all of Marge’s writing into an orderly fashion, as they were just randomly put in boxes.  However, in another document that I do not have ready at hand, Marge mentioned that when the first choice was forced on them, in a way she felt that her choosing had at least in part been the cause of her parent’s divorce.

Also she mentioned about how afraid of her father she was when he got drunk and angry.  I never saw him that way, but perhaps he was dealing with his own demons.  He had spent WWII in Europe, including Germany and certainly had seen the worst that humanity could do to other humans.

Col. Alex was an atheist.  Marge told me that once when the family was together for a meal he told them that he had looked into religion and that it was all “hooey” and not to be believed.  When Marge was about 13, she had her first solo in the Cornwall Presbyterian church and of course she wanted her father to hear her.  He wouldn’t even do that for his daughter, Margery, instead sending a dozen roses as a sort of consolation prize.  So, again, Marge felt devastated that her love for her father was misplaced and not reciprocated. Speaking for myself, I well imagine that just reinforced her belief that men in general were not to be trusted.

When we got married in 1960, Marge did not send the announcement to her father until after the wedding.  She did not want him to turn up, or I think possible, be invited  and not turn up.

This post has been more disjointed than I would have liked.  It is difficult emotionally to go through all her past material, as well as very time consuming to try to put things in some order.  The perfect is the enemy of the good.  It has taken me almost 2 weeks to get this far.  I am far from finished, but I wanted to get this posted regarding the debris we both brought into our own relationship from our prior family life.

As I understand it, Marge’s growing negative feelings about her father showed that she really need a mate to shower her continually with love, understanding, and compassion.   For my part my own father’s lack of emotions gave me no male parental model to easily give Marge what she needed most.  When I was in my late teens I definitely decided that in no way did I want to be like my own father.  I did not dislike him, but wanted to be entirely different.  Ironically, despite this conscious decision, in many ways I was like him. The good part was that of being a good provider, doing my duty,  solid citizen and all that.  The bad part was not having a  model for the positive emotions my mother showed.  I think Marge needed  that more than a nice middle class home and cars.

Marge and I really brought an 18 wheeler of debris into our own relationship, but in the end we did get through it all, I think, quite well.


About R. F.

I am a retired Professional Engineer who spent my working life in the electric utility industry. I am now a volunteer instructor at the University Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV).
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.