Receiving a Legacy

A weird side-effect of my brother’s situation has begun to manifest in my own life.  I have begun to be more disciplined.

I’m not the kind of person who reacts outwardly with great emotion.  Half the time, my reactions are scheduled for 3-4 days down the road, which is many times annoying but sometimes useful.

So as the distasteful details that were thrust upon me in a 2-hour rant by my sister-in-law began to really sink in over the ensuing weeks, I have found myself reacting in increasing horror to the entire situation.  I’ve already detailed some of my reaction, in realizing how I could have easily reacted to childhood issues in a similar way.

Many times I’m not completely aware of just how deeply I feel about things until I observe my own actions.  I attribute this to the fact that I tend to feel things deeply enough that the feelings are, well, too deep to break through to the surface at first.

So recently, when I found myself taking great pleasure in putting things away in exactly the right place and wiping up every last crumb immediately and plowing through five loads of laundry from start to finish – including actually putting the clothes away — in one day despite the cold I was fighting, well… that told me something was up.

Because while I really, really appreciate a clean and tidy living space, I’ve never been able to make myself care enough to meet the standard of the home in which I grew up.

That home was perfectly clean and tidy.  (Except for the parts I messed up on a daily basis and over which my mother despaired of ever breaking me of my bad habits.)  It wasn’t Better Homes And Gardens, Ready For The Queen To Visit Should She Happen To Be In Town, and What Will The Neighbors Think If There Are Footprints In The Carpet In The Formal Sitting Room.  It was home, and practical, and decorated in Early American Immigrant (read: cheap, functional, and this will have to do for now).  But it was CLEAN.  And it was TIDY.

When she was 12, my mother lost her mother in WWII during a bombing raid on London.  So her teen years were spent in a household recovering from the war, with four teens and a single Dad.  Let’s just say it wasn’t ever clean and tidy.  When she moved out, she vowed that her place would ALWAYS be kept up, and she has kept that vow to a fault to this day.  She is 85 and people still marvel over the organization in her cabinets.

So all in all, it was a pretty awesome home to grow up in.  Everything you needed was right where it should be, we never ran out of anything because a back-up was unfailingly purchased and stored in a timely manner, and should you want to sit down at any time of the day or night, you had a veritable plethora of seats available without having to move a single purse, jacket, backpack or animal.

I was trained from an early age to keep it this way.  So my house should be the same.

Except for the fact that my mother accomplished much of the “peace” in our home through control.  It wasn’t real peace.  It was that we were all afraid to voice an opinion.  In fact, I don’t think I even allowed myself to have opinions until my early 20s, at which point my mother bewailed the fact that we had “all turned on her.”

I went to counseling to help me deal with this upbringing and the other (worse) details that had ensued as a result.  Through the counseling, I was able to set healthy boundaries and become my own person, and after the initial shock wore off, my mother was able to deal with me the way I was. From then on we have enjoyed a close, loving relationship.  She is still one of my best friends.

But the one thing that has lingered, even to today, was a deep resolve to “not let her win.”  It’s ridiculous.  She does not live at my house.  She does not even tell me what to do – if she has advice to give it is unfailingly delivered with tact and humility.  But deep inside me is a little girl stamping her foot and not wanting to be bested by the control monster.

I have been aware of this for years, but understanding it and eradicating it have proven to be vastly different things.

Until now, when rebelling against what my mother told me, instead of being attractive to my inner child, has suddenly come to symbolize the lifestyle my brother has pursued.

That’s painting things with an awfully broad brush – I’m well aware of that.  It’s an inner child and she’s apparently using preschool tools.

But there is an element of truth in there.  Not that it means if I don’t put the toothpaste back in the drawer when I’m done with it, I will find myself entrenched in the lifestyle of a swinger and surrounded by people with truly wicked designs.

It’s just that on a visceral level, I feel the need for the comfort of my mother’s order, to counteract the chaos in which my brother is living.

I was talking this over with my 22 year old daughter this morning, telling her how, in the past, when I have tried to make myself be disciplined, I would come up against that steely resolve to “not let Her win.”  She suggested I find a new thing to say that is more accurate.

And that’s when it hit me – it’s not about my mother winning.  It was, back in the day, when she had no idea how to raise two children in a foreign country with a somewhat absentee workaholic husband and no friends.  She coped by digging in and never being wrong, because if she wasn’t right, then everything could fall apart.

But it’s not about her winning today.  If you were to ask her, TODAY, why she wishes I would do my dishes in a more timely manner, I know exactly what she would say.  Not, “because it’s the proper thing to do” or “because I’ve told her to and she’s so disobedient.” She would answer, with a sigh, that she can see how much it stresses me out to have a dirty kitchen, and that it would be so much easier for me to have everything in its place and ready to go when it comes time to cook.  She would answer out of love and concern for me, not out of winning.

So the next time that childish voice emerges, saying, “No! We can’t let Her win!”, I will replace it with the words, “Yes!  Let’s do that!  Let’s accept the legacy my mother has been trying to hand me for over 50 years!”

3 thoughts on “Receiving a Legacy

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  1. This is BEAUTIFUL! “She coped by digging in and never being wrong, because if she wasn’t right, then everything could fall apart.” WOW!! It takes so much maturity (and courage) to see and acknowledge this. As a mother who has made mistakes (and who doesn’t?) I see so much grace in your evaluation. I look back on my parents (also in their 80’s) with the some of the same perception. It can be hard to put ourselves in our own parents shoes at THAT time in their lives. Thank you so much for this piece. It is very important.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Powerful life lessons in this post, Muffy. I think there is a degree to which we all try to define ourselves differently than our parents… yet, when we can sort the good from the bad, we are free to become more. I love the authenticity and wisdom of this post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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