We Can’t Escape the Past, We Can Only Suppress It or Hide From It, but Should We?

familyWhen I look at one particular photo from my childhood, it captures my family perfectly: Disneyland, 1950s, planted on the edge of a circular planter. With one hand, my mother grips the stroller containing the current baby (there always was a new one), staring off to the right. The kids strewn to her side, also sitting, probably for fighting or misbehaving, each of us looking into the distance, not at one another.

Way over on the left, separated from the rest of us, my grandpa. The fedora hat he always wore, even in the California heat, alone, isolated, also staring off. My father, the one behind the camera, trying to capture visually what he always sought emotionally, and never succeeded in finding—the perfect happy American family. I can almost hear him saying, “Okay, everyone, smile,” as he stretched his lips in a grin, pointed his camera and shot.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I don’t know if I agree. Nothing in life is that simple, especially as I grow older. I started thinking about families when reading an author who’d entered some hyper-critical observations on his own father—his over-protectiveness, his predictions of failure. I imagine that dad wanted to protect his son. I now know after having children and grandchildren of my own that most of us simply try to do the best we can.

At times, if I imagine one of mine in danger, or hurting, or discouraged, the love I have swells inside me, like yeast doubling, tripling in size until it’s about to choke me. I have to think my parents had the same response, even if I didn’t know then.

There’s much more to the photo of my family than just an image of people together on outing. Separate, isolated, roiling with emotions that at least some of the time were resentful and angry. There’s much more to the stories those people lived: my mother, abandoned by her mother before adolescence; my father, whose first wife died in pregnancy, leaving him with two little girls to raise; several sisters still to face death, poverty, disappointments in their lives; brothers with their own challenges.

I’ve avoided writing about my family for years because it hurt too much. Was my family dysfunctional, or simply normal? Life can’t be happy and smooth all the time. What hurts the most is my inability to change myself in the past, compensate for my shortcomings. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop running away. Time to honor those people for being themselves, doing their best. Acknowledge the closeness we had, what we brought to one another, and, yes, the love we felt. But whether to use memoirs, essays, or fiction, I don’t know yet.



2 thoughts on “We Can’t Escape the Past, We Can Only Suppress It or Hide From It, but Should We?

  1. There is no one answer, is there? For what we choose to give to the relationship, of family and if we can offer the respect and family loyalty, that each of us deserve as human beings, we can ultimately determine the quality of the family. We get, for the most part what we contribute, for one another. Are we willing to be loving,responsible, caring, and loyal individuals, respectful of another’ judgment, decisions and choices?
    ” I remember a family member saying to me, ” I’m going to inherit 3 million dollars, because I believe in Jesus, and you are going to be poor all your life-because you don’t!”
    This is not a good thing to say to an inheritor of those suffered by 6 million Jews.
    As human beings, entering life alone, and also leaving it alone, we are united in our loneliness. Long ago, as in our present age, families were united in their sense of culture, place and union with their community. In our status driven culture, if you’re rich, you must be a better human being, having better judgment of reality. Although we are not what life brings to us, it is what we do with what we do with it, we were all a group of deeply introverted individuals, each visualizing their reality from such wildly different perspectives, united by blood, separated by cultures.
    The time after WWII, I think, as a society in the United States, we, as a people, longed for the comfort of home. In our attempts for normalcy we suppressed issues involving the individual. Freud, alcoholism, racism, sexism, and the struggle for economic security stood in that picture, alongside the shadows of the family members in the photo. I have not seen, or recall the photo, but I deeply understand the impact of standing alone through all your troubles, without the help of family, community, or familiarity of place, in way lost in a universe, of strangers, who are all related to you. If anything this was a primary message I heard from my parents- stand on your own two feet-make it on your own. If you were weak, you were blamed. If you are ill, you’re a burden- compassion is weakness. To whom do you trust in the end, no one but your self and your own judgment.
    If we live in a family that values individuality, and self reliance, it is as thieves of the heart, thieves of opinions, thieves of authority, thieves of respect, thieves of financial security of one kind or another. If we wish to become more of a family, we must make a consistent, conscious choose, we must choice to refrain from judgments, give from the heart what we can, and protect ourselves from injuring our own survival, because, as inheritors of the holocaust, we can honor our ancestors, by being respectful of those in our family that are survivors. They are us.

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