Should you read your parents’ letters? Are their journals and private musings cathartic or potentially devastating?
I face this question right now, and it’s a big one.
A while back, after moving to Eugene, Oregon this past year, I saw an article by a fellow Sixty writer which touched on this very thing. Having just discovered what I then considered a treasure trove of boxes of my parents’ writing, and they were prolific as am I, at the time I didn’t agree with her assessment that it was best she didn’t read that material.
Since then I’ve had second thoughts. I wrote an article not long ago, a very painful one, wherein I explored how it feels to not be chosen by one’s parents. When they prefer another child, over and over again, the very child that steals, hurts, does damage. In my case, that child committed incest against me, a terrible secret that I was well aware I couldn’t divulge to my parents.
Towards the end of their lives, my parents wrote me out of their will, and chose my brother, who proceeded to clean my mother’s bank accounts after Dad died. I had to take her checkbook or she would have become a ward of the state. That cost me my brother, not a great loss to be frank, but it saved my mother.
She still chose him over me, in one of the great mysteries of how the heart works. I think somehow she believed that money would save him, which it didn’t, but I have to believe (not being a mom myself) that when spit and a Kleenex can’t work, maybe money will.
My parents didn’t like kids and trumpeted to anyone who would listen in Washington DC in the 40s that they hated them. By the time they had moved to Central Florida in 1949, something had shifted, and along we came.
I think my parents were of two minds: we were projects they took on, and were proof (or not) of their success as people. So when my body expanded the same way my father’s genetic heritage would determine, I was deemed an insult. Fat, or an imperfect body, were reflections on them.
Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the combination of my brother’s predations and the body shaming of my youth, it wasn’t terribly fun. I left home at 16, joined the Army at 21 and made my way.
My parents wrote extensively to friends, long before we showed up and long after. My brother and I, raised in a family of writers, wrote them. Peter wrote them asking for money. I wrote stories about my life and adventures.
My parents didn’t approve of my choices, my lifestyle or much of anything else. There’s no question that complaints about all those aspects of my life are woven into the many narratives; especially as my father, who liked to tell people he had raised two “losers,” needed to create distance between himself and his failed offspring.
As much as my folks were flawed, they tried hard, and it would be unfair to demonize them. We all struggle. Those struggles, given my folks’ love of the dramatic – which I inherited – are likely etched into the pounds of pages of handwritten and carefully typed tomes that now inhabit my garage.
My father passed at 84 of cancer and a lifetime of alcoholism. As much as he graced me with a multitude of gifts, for which I am forever grateful, his outspoken disapproval and disregard for my humanity made loving him very hard.
When I visited them, he would sit outside with neighbors and speak loudly about all my faults and transgressions, knowing full well I could hear. Or he would abuse me to my face, causing my then-husband to refuse to come to their house and have to bear witness.
He died long before I wrote two prize-winning books, long before I won a journalism prize, long before I became a serious athlete and an accomplished adventure traveler.
My mother lost her eyesight so she couldn’t see my books or articles. I couldn’t regale her with adventures for she accused me of having a death wish. She had a wicked, caustic tongue, and my soul still bears the scars of her berating my body, as had my father.
There is no question that plenty of this, penned with the assumption that I would read none of it, lies in those boxes below me. Is it worth the pain of revisiting parental censure at 68? Do I really need to reopen the wounds of not being the chosen one, but instead causing my parents shame and embarrassment?
While I haven’t yet decided, this much I do know. At this age, I possess the grace to hold my parents’ choices a great deal more lightly and to put them into context. All of us are born with certain “factory defects,” if you will, be they genetics or disposition or a penchant for leaning a little too far from the law. Who knows?
Our parents do their best with what they can, or could, in most cases. There is something to be said for being a loving student of our folks’ frailties, and being willing to discard their judgment in search of a greater truth.
Their words can only do damage if I allow them to. If anything, a trip through the great forest of my parents’ words put to paper might well be the kind of adventure travel I was finally meant to take, if for no other reason than release from whatever emotional prison I might still inhabit.
I might also find healing in ways I don’t expect. That is also a very real possibility, in being able to finally experience my parents as people, not as PARENTs, with all the explicit and implicit weight those words carry.
It would take courage of a very different kind, perhaps. At this age, I am living the life my mother wanted to live but couldn’t. I suspect some of her pain is in her writings. My father, too. I am not the author of that pain, even if they would like to lay some of it on my then-childish shoulders. It is, sometimes, what we do when our burdens become too much to carry.
Is it time? I don’t know. But I have ever leaned into those scary, little-trod paths in our woods. Those journeys have inevitably been the best life had to offer.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story, here’s my hopefully gentle way of inviting you to read more of my stuff.
What about you? Have you braved reading your parent’s writings? What did you learn about them and yourself on the way? What were you able to gain or release?
Let’s Have a Conversation!