Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers and Family Memories

My father, my brother and me
Probably in The Muskokas, Ontario
Circa 1965-66

Every time I look at this picture, I laugh to myself. It evokes exactly what it was like when my brother and I were little kids. I have two older brothers as well, one of whom may have been taking this picture, or it could have been taken by my mother. In this image, my dad is probably taking us swimming at the lake. My parents both loved to swim and my youngest brother and I took instruction at the local pool and at the camp we attended from age 4 onward until we were sufficiently competent not to drown ourselves without great effort. My brother is being a ham. He loved to be a ham. I was likely being attacked by mosquitoes or blackflies; they thrived on my lily white complexion. 

The reason I put this picture up is that without these old photos and our home movies, which I recently watched with my girlfriend, who was seeing them for the first time, I would only remember the childhood hardships I faced. I wouldn't remember that my family had two sides. Not only were there epic battles, difficulties, inherited patterns of abuse and ineptitude in dealing with the cycle of abuse, there were also huge efforts put in by both my parents and my eldest brother Chris (RIP) to give us two youngest kids the time of our lives. We had great vacation adventures throughout Ontario, the eastern United States and in England - the homeland of my family.

Without watching these home movies now with people who love me, I wouldn't see my childhood through their eyes. Granted, it's not like we filmed the bad times - that would have been totally weird, but it really makes a difference to see the gargantuan effort my mum put into birthdays and Christmases. My girlfriend pointed out how many cakes were made by my mum, with four children having birthdays and Christmas cakes and puddings made every year - taking weeks and weeks to prepare and plan parties and buy presents. Every summer, they took us away with them to cottages and on road trips - sometimes on business trips during the summer as well. They both worked - running their own company from the time they returned from England for the second time in 1961, with my mother heavily pregnant with me, entertaining the husband and wife of the parent company in England until mere weeks before she was to give birth. We were always impeccably dressed, heading to camp, riding lessons, theatre productions, restaurant experiences, day trips to different gardens and on trips through North America and England. They did a HUGE amount for us and included us in many unique learning experiences. I am endlessly grateful for the cultural experiences they provided. It must have been exhausting with four kids and a business.

My father supported my leisure pursuits. He took me to every soccer practice and game - shared tips and laughed at my tenacity in the net. I remember the time I dove for the ball to prevent a goal just as the player was going to kick, taking the kick to my mouth, leaving my teeth slightly chipped and my gums bleeding. My coach came over and told me not to be a baby. I lost it and told him to "f*** off" - which did not please him very well. My father tried to be upset but was also holding back laughter as his eight or nine year old daughter was behaving like an FCUK player already. He did make me go to my coach's house that night to apologize so I could learn a lesson in team spirit and so I could keep my place on the team. He said it was probably best not to mention the incident to my mum if I wanted to continue to play. I never told her.

He was the one who would have bought me the stellar Pearl red sparkle surf drum set I coveted in the window of the Richmond Hill Drum Shop. My mum ...well, not so keen as it wasn't "a very lady-like instrument" to  play. I still think I could have been a rock star and did in fact build a set in the basement out of pots and pans and buckets and tin pie plates - needs must.

I still think my mum had the hardest role. She lost the love of her life in the war and married my father afterward. They look pretty happy in the beginning and when we were young but things kind of went pear shaped for them after that. It had to be so hard for her - losing her first love, giving up any idea of being independent in the late 1940s, getting married, having kids and working full time while trying to maintain a household and half of the family business. I was pretty happy when they finally split up and home was fairly quiet again. I didn't actually want to live with either of them but never said anything as I was aware that would have hurt their feelings. My dad didn't offer to take us so we went with my mum. She did her best and raised us well as a single mum with a small stipend of child support. 

The thing is, when we were little - there were good days and bad. Both my parents brought there own history of abuse into the relationship and the subsequent family. People back then didn't really do therapy and even when women started to look to it for survival and recovery, men did not so much. Generations of history told them to "man up" and get over it. Don't cry. Don't complain. Laugh it off ...and strike out, often in abhorrent ways as a result of suppression of emotions and pain.

It makes me sad that in this day and age, many men around the world still shun their hearts. You are allowed to feel, you do get to reach out for help and you do have a chance to stop the hurt. 

My wish for every single male out there on this Fathers' Day is that you can stop and reflect on the beliefs that you carry about yourself as a male and think of your place in society. Think about the ways you hurt and the ways you may have hurt others and find healthy, positive ways to move forward with a peaceful heart and spirit. Perhaps some of you have suffered at the hands of your own fathers or wish you could express your feelings in a safe and peaceful way. Give yourself permission to do so. You will benefit from letting go of what is not working for you in your life.

I'm not a male bodied person and I do not subscribe to gender roles so maybe I'm the last person in the world who should be taking about this. I only know what I have seen in my own family. I believe the males with whom I grew up had so much potential, but the harms they experienced, passed on from one generation to the next, perhaps as sons of warriors, left them hurt and ill-equipped to deal with those hurts. This means that their hurts held them back and manifested in behaviours which held them back even more. They are intelligent and talented; however, a large amount energy goes into trying to find ways to cope with their individual hurts without healthy expression and assistance in processing. 

As a woman, I "allowed" myself to go to counselling and bore the thousands of dollars of cost to keep myself from being a complete emotional right-off as an adult and I am still a work in progress, so I can't imagine what it would be like to disallow myself the healing path I took and still be an okay, non-violent person. I feel sad that some men won't allow themselves the space for healing - not only for them but for everyone they encounter thereafter because the dis-function leaks. It comes out and not in good ways: spurts of anger, violence, self-harm, addiction... the list goes on. 

The fact is, if you aren't processing the harm in some way, it will manifest in illness, violence and harm - to self or others; therefore, now, when I think of the term, "man-up", I think of it as dealing with your history, processing your pain, crying, and feeling what it is you have experienced - both good and bad. I wish this gift for everyone on this fathers' day. 

For my part, I'm grateful for the kind and loving things my father did and I am frustrated by the unkind, abusive things he did and the impact of those acts - it didn't have to be that way and it is up to this generation to stop the cycle. I've done my best to end it and pass on to the young people in my life the lessons I have learned. May we all do our best to love, learn and recover. 

-Gillian Cornwall, c. June 19, 2016

A family vacation in England (the homeland)
Photo - BF Cornwall, c. 1966

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