The Tools They Were Given
(Tokoni 05/13/2009)

“They had to work with the tools they were given,” the shrinks said, but they never really explained it to me. I wonder if they really understood it themselves. It was a phrase handed out in college, like their diplomas – something to hang on the wall for us to see. A handy cliché, something to say when they couldn’t think of anything else. They have a lot of those phrases, dispensing them like candy pills – and in many cases, just as effective – which means it sounds sweet, but doesn’t do any good. It still doesn’t cure the sickness in your heart and in your soul. It isn’t the superglue that makes the mind whole. Trust me – I know.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking here lately. Part of that goes back to the story I wrote, “The Drum Beats Slowly”. The drum is thrumming, the mind is rolling, peeling back away the years – looking for experiences and motives, times and conditions. Onion peel – hell yes. I’m peeling back those layers, one by one. I wonder if onions cry when they are being peeled? I know it must hurt them; it hurts me. Just look how hard it is to peel an onion as you dig deeper through the layers. They don’t “peel”, you have to tear the skin off, ripping it with your fingernails and fighting your own tears are you dig deeper towards the core. And I – for now – am that core. And yes, as an onion, I can tell you: it hurts sometimes. Hurts really bad.

But I’m not going to go there right now – my skin is still fresh and bruised. Instead, I’m going to consider something else.

The tools they were given.

What do I know about my parents? What do I know about their family skills?

I’ll take the easy one first.

My dad. His mother was killed when he was young by a drunken driver. That drunken driver was his father, piloting the vehicle they were in. I didn’t discover this story until I was in my early forties – dad won’t talk about it, won’t mention it, and gets madder than hell if we do and simply storms off to go sulk in his room. What I do know about it I’ve gleaned from my mom, who had long been into genealogical research. She has talked to members of his own family, discovered the ‘family secret’ that he kept hidden so well – so well in part because he changed his name as soon as he was able. That’s how much he hated his drunken dad for taking his mother from him. (soft smile. Nothing stays hidden from mom, not for very long – nothing except my own secrets, and the secrets of my own madness – though she has long suspected something is ‘wrong’ with me. But then again, she has often said I am crazy – just like her, only in a similar, if somewhat different way. At least I sought help for my own particular type of insanity – after experiencing her’s for so long.)

I’m not certain, but I think my dad was in the car when his momma died. Again, not sure, but family rumor has it that his dad pulled out into an intersection against the light, getting rammed in the process. Of course into the passenger side, where his own bride sat. My dad was eight years old.

I know this (and because I’m from a military family, over a thousand miles from my extended family – always have been – information is sketchy at best). His aunt(s?) and uncle on his mother’s side took in all the children. I didn’t really realize he had two sisters until my forties, again. I thought they just lived with someone else; were a different set of children. I never knew they belonged with him.

His mother – or shall I say aunt? – was a doting old bitch. I know this from having met her several times. She even insisted my mother press and iron his underwear when my mother married him. (It was a frowned upon marriage by his extended family.) I don’t know where he got his mean streak from – he’s quite a sadist at times, has always been that way. I know the man who raised him – a great hunter with a natural eye for shooting – was gruff, but friendly to me and my brother. Me and my daughter have inherited that eye – we seem to be able to pick up a rifle or a shotgun and always put that round just where we want it. Amazing thing to me, to see my five year old daughter shooting my .357 with an unflinching eye, putting those rounds right where she wanted. Same with the .22. Dead shot every time. I guess it’s something we inherited. (some stories in that, needless to say!)

He grew up out west, in Wyoming, the lonely state. His ‘father’ (or uncle, if you’d rather), was a business owner and a businessman, who, I gather, also had a few Mafia connections. He owned a bottling plant – I won’t say which one (trademark issues), but my father worked for him for some time before joining the Army. It wasn’t long after that that he first met my mother.

I also know that my father changed his name as soon as he was legally able. That much he has managed to admit. He wouldn’t tell us what his ‘real’ last name was – that was something for my mother to find out. I rather wish he hadn’t changed it. I like his former last name much better; my daughter, too. His ‘new’ last name is just too hard to pronounce, and even then, he didn’t get it quite right. He changed it from his uncle’s last name to one of his own making – shortening it somewhat, and throwing off the “ie”. As a result I’ve always had to give my last name by spelling it. And of course, it’s often mispronounced. I feel like I have two last names – three, now, if you include the one my dad gave up when he was eighteen – because when asked, I say my last, then spell it right after. I’ve learned most folks won’t get it right the first time around. But I’m okay with that. I just wish my wife would let me use the name “Smith” or “Johnson” or “Jackass” (my favorite) when we go to a restaurant and have to leave our name to stand in line to wait. It would make life so much easier – for both the poor restaurant girls and me.

I also know that my dad suffered PTSD from his experiences in Korea – ones that left him so violent and enraged the Army (and this is the Army, mind you!) – determined that the best thing to do was put him in a hospital for a year – and then isolated him (along with others of his kind) on a small military outpost on a smaller Japanese island for another year – leaving them without treatment (the Army itself didn’t understand PTSD) to ‘heal’ on their own. It didn’t work.

My mother’s life I know much better. She was a lonely girl, despite being born into a large family. And they had it hard (unlike my dad, whose family had a bit of money – the bottling plant and Mafia thing, you know.) Her first mom and dad split up when she was young – but not so young that she couldn’t take care of the kids – her siblings. And when her mother married the second man – things went south. Quite literally.

They moved away from her family home in Iowa, where she had all her relatives and friends. Her new dad was a WWII vet, given to bouts of alcoholism and extreme violence. He had PTSD in every way imaginable. Apparently he was a front line infantryman during the Great War – or the second of the Great Wars – and saw a lot of truly, seriously bad s**t. We’re talking the ‘guy next to you head blown off’ face gone limbs mangled blown up bits of body type of stuff. The really bad stuff that if you think of being there, sends shudders down your soul. And I guess it kinda broke him – and not in a gentle way. From what I remember of him, he was a violent man with a bad temper, though he always treated us grandchildren okay. Not so much his own wife and kids. Apparently there were beatings and starvings. Things we’d call torture today. And they were poor poor. Hard core poverty. And my poor mom – she had to raise the children, though she was a child herself. Her mother was too involved in trying to keep her marriage together (which sounds familiar, given my mom and her marriage to my dad! ← new realization!). Her sister still leans on her like my mother is her mom – which is what my mom had to be to her then. I remember my grandmother on that side. She was . . . weak. Beautiful and frail. An artist and a writer (which is perhaps where I got those skills, eh?) Her letters to us always contained the most beautiful pictures and drawings in the margins and envelopes. But she was weak. Too weak to leave him, despite what he was doing to their family.

Screwed up relationships. That is what my mother and father were given. Those were the tools they had to use. For my mother: a hatred of a violent, PTSD, half-drunken father who couldn’t give a good G-D about their feelings or needs. One who, apparently, never told them that he loved them – because he couldn’t. He was a hard man. I know. I met him.

I was walking in the woods with my mom a few weeks ago. She has always bitterly complained how much she hates her (now dead) stepdad; how badly he would beat her, how she was put in charge of everything regarding her siblings, ‘the kids’. “The only thing he didn’t do was sexually molest me,” she said, her voice so bitter that I could almost hear the leaves dropping. “That came . . .” and she trailed off. I didn’t press the issue – god knows! – I know how hard it is to address that sort of stuff within one’s own self, much less admit it to someone else – much less admit it to her own (now adult) son.

But it left me wondering, and with little doubt.

It must of happened to her, too.

I’ll add this, before I close on this one.

My mom was desperate to escape from her ‘family’, if you want to call it that. Horribly, desperately wanting to escape an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive stepdad, and the mother who was too weak to either control him, or leave him, and the children who depended upon her for their care. And she met my father at a USO dance one night. A few days later he proposed to her. Sher refused. He asked again. Again she said no. The third time was the charm. A week or two they were married. Within a year, my brother was born; a year and a half later, overseas, I was too.

She was trapped.

Just like her mother was.

So . . . these were the tools they were given. And now, in retrospect, I’ve discovered the secret of the phrase that the shrinks were given – and they gave to me. Even if they didn’t explain it at the time.

My parents couldn’t do any better because, I guess, they didn’t know any better. Or did they?

I found out. Why couldn’t they? Or perhaps – they viewed the treatment they gave me and my brother as so much ‘better’ than that they were given . . . that they thought what they gave us was good. What a normal family should be.

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this one. It’s got me sorta confused – but I can see a point. A dim point of light there, at the long end of a tunnel. They were treated bad; I was treated better? Is that it? Even if better was “bad”? Does that excuse what they did? I don’t know.

And yeah – feel free to enlighten me on this one. Like I said: it’s sorta confusing. Kinda like my life sometimes.

I gotta quit for awhile. This onion is feeling . . . bruised and tender skinned. Let me dry awhile. Let that shell harden a bit Then we’ll dig deeper again.

(Note: Now it is 2011 – and I do feel much better!  Specifically, I started “feeling much better” on April Fool’s day for one of two reasons; then two of two reasons (one leading me – and us – to another, better reason) – and now many more (including love, Faith, and Forgiveness (some)).  You’d better read the rest of my blog (especially around that period) to even get a clue.  Until then – have faith, have hope, and carry on as best YOU can …. with the Tools YOU’VE been given.  Good luck, good faith, and have a lotta hope . . . and may the Peace of Love fill your Souls as well.

Jeff and Friends
May 2011