Growing up, I had no choice but to accept the myth of the traditional nuclear family—father, mother, son, daughter, all living and loving together in joy. But in my experience, I see that wasn’t the case, and it’s not the case for everyone.
All through childhood and adolescence, my parents were, each in their own way, abusive people; they had a limited and bigoted worldview, frozen mentally somewhere between the World Wars, not realizing theirs was not the only way the world works. My father was racially prejudiced, often spouting the N word, and also insulting Italians and Poles—I won’t use the words he used. My mother was religiously prejudiced, always saying something insulting about Catholic and Jewish religious holidays and rituals; she even said that the Pope plotted to take over the country, and John and Bobby Kennedy were his advance men.
I could rarely if ever get a kind word out of them; they always found some stupid thing or another to complain about. Nothing I did pleased them, and, just like the kids in schools teased and harassed me, my own parents often made fun of me when I said something serious or intelligent; to them, I was to remain a little kid, to be seen and not heard, no know my (inferior) place—to be a nothing.
For three years, from 1969 through 1971, my parents didn’t speak to each other, except to yell at each other. My mother had some sort of nervous breakdown, and she often acted strangely—laughing and crying for no reason, complaining of hidden microphones in the walls, sitting in the bathroom for hours and not coming out (while I needed to pee!), talking about running away with someone else.
In this time, my father’s favorite topic was waiting to “pack his bags, take off, run away, not come back,” and take me with him on the road to—in the first year, it was Florida, then after that California and other locations. Each week he would badger me in to joining him on the road to nowhere. He was delusional; where would he find a place to live, and to work? What about my education? It had no reality to it.
For each of them, I wasn’t there, even when I was in the room; I was to stay out of their argument, except when I served their purpose, to convey messages between them, and to use as a tool in their argument; she would demand he purchase clothing for me, and he would gripe and complain about having to do so, and I would feel it was my fault somehow. If he wanted me to join him, she would demand I stay with her. Even when things got better between them, they acted like my interests weren’t important, like I wasn’t even in the room, or else they didn’t care.
NOW? After 40+ years living in the city of Philadelphia, I have several loving families: my union brothers and sisters, my coworkers at my job, my synagogue, my writing and poetry colleagues, and the people at the diner and the bars I frequent. They worry about me, talk to me, correct me when I get off course, and support me, and congratulate me in all my achievements. That to me is the real definition of a “family”—the people who have your back.