Changing the Story


When my nurse practitioner told me on Monday that she was treating me for pneumonia, I felt an inordinate amount of satisfaction.  Smug, even.  And at the same time, I was angry and resentful that my friends and family weren’t rallying around me.  When I stopped to look at all that head-ichor, it felt contradictory and very, very old.

We’ve been exploring ancestry in our UU study groups—how ancestors may differ from relatives, how we receive transmissions and transfer them on to the next generation, how we are given gifts and responsibilities.  With that in the back of my mind, I began to see my reactions to illness and support as a transmission.  They are as much traditions in my family as oyster stew on Christmas Eve.

wicked witchThe only time we could count on our mom giving us positive attention was when we were sick.  She touched us with care.  She looked at us.  It was acceptable to wake her up in the middle of the night to say, “Mom, I don’t feel good.”  It was not acceptable to be scared of the Wicked Witch on The Wizard of Oz.  I learned that at the age of three, sitting on Mom’s lap.  “If you’re going to be that way,” I remember her saying, “I’m turning off the TV.”  I got it: Emotions=Bad.  Illness=Good.

It was also a long-standing tradition to value illness that could be named, especially by a doctor, or was freakishly out of the ordinary.  So, my brother scored lots of points for the fast growth spurt he experienced as a teen when he woke up one morning unable to move.  The story of my dad carrying him in a fetal position to the car is legend in my family.  Same with the story of my brother accidentally dropping a pitchfork on my sister’s face and how the tine curved around her eye instead of puncturing it.  These are the fairy tales I heard as a child.

merthiolateGetting a cold wasn’t legendary, but having warts that disappeared before the doctor could inspect them smacked of magic and mystery—and worthiness.  I knew when I fell off my bike I’d better have gravel for Mom to pull out with tweezers or I wasn’t worthy of her time.  I learned how to wash a wound, dab on merthiolate and blow the sting away, wrangle a Band-aid without it sticking to itself.  I learned not to bother Mom with minor injuries.

But worthiness carried over into other areas of our life.  Recently, I talked to my brother about this.  It was no secret that he won the Most Worthy Award in our mom’s estimation.  He wrote to our parents every week from the time he left for college until Mom died last year.  He came home for Christmas every year, a nine hour drive from Bemidji, often through bad weather.  He kept the same job with the state of Minnesota his entire work-life and still works part-time, though he is officially retired.  He’s a little eccentric, which somehow made him more dear rather than worrisome.

I asked him why he did it.  Why did he write faithfully every week for all those years?

“Mom told me to,” he said.

testMy brother passed a test I failed long ago—obedience and demonstration of affection.  It was our responsibility to prove to our mom that we loved her, to do what we were told.  After my dad died, I think my sister understood unconsciously that a new test was in the wind.  She called our mom every day.  She helped her buy a new car and new furniture.  Of course she wanted to support Mom in her grief and confusion, but there was a frantic quality to it, a blurring of boundaries that sapped my sister’s emotional energy.  Eventually, my sister backed away enough to rebuild her boundaries.  And, of course, Mom felt abandoned.  And angry.

As I consider my family’s emotional legacy, I see all of it playing out in me.  I made light of my chest cold as just another annual event and went about being stoic and “taking care of it myself,” because it was nothing special.  At the same time, I silently tested my friends and family to see if they “cared enough” to call or offer help.  When they didn’t, I got angry and marked them as unworthy.

My care-giver, Leanne, visited yesterday, and she slapped me awake like a Zen master.  “How can they offer help if they don’t know you’re sick?”

Holy crap.  I’d turned into my mom, expecting people to read my mind and anticipate my needs.  I had carried forward a story that may have started generations ago.  What happened in my mom’s young life to make her so insecure about being seen and loved?  What happened to her mother to demand a boundary-less relationship with her youngest daughter?  I felt compassion and sorrow, imagining my mother and my grandmother trying to scratch affection out of a barren landscape.  Or, more accurately, what they perceived as barren through the lens of this family fairy tale.


So, I did a scary and fairy tale-contradictory thing yesterday.  I announced on FaceBook that I had pneumonia and would appreciate kind words and help.  The outpouring of love and people rushing to come to my aid knocked me senseless.

I’m well aware that being able to say pneumonia still carries a lot more brownie points in my mind than the less worthy chest cold.  Editing this old story will take time and patience.  But my hope is that the legacy stops here.  Part of my work as a point on the continuum of time and ancestry will be to pass on a different story of who we might be.  In that fairy tale, everyone is worthy.

21 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Val Boyko
    Nov 19, 2015 @ 14:37:20

    Thank you for sharing what’s on your mind so we don’t have to guess 😊Hope you feel better soon.


  2. Leslie
    Nov 19, 2015 @ 14:54:59

    One of the biggest problems that I have, is that I know what my mother is afraid of. I know how she was raised. I know they were poor, I know my grandfather got drunk and hit my grandmother. I know my mother lives in terror of being poor again and surrounds herself with as many symbols of wealth as she can.
    And knowing this makes it so hard to deal with her. Because, I kind of get it. I can kind of understand why she is the way she is, and instead of making her deal with her bull, I excuse it, because she had a hard childhood.
    It’s interesting to look back and see who our ancestors were and see what the triggers were. I believe in life as a great pendulum. A parent has a child who doesn’t like what she sees in the parents, so she tries to live her life differently. The opposite of those little nuances that you only see from inside the family. Then that child grows up and her child goes the other way.
    I’m really sorry that you have pneumonia. I hope you feel better quickly. xo


  3. Sandra Hatch
    Nov 19, 2015 @ 16:53:10

    Hugs and get well wishes!

    Sent from my iPad



  4. Littlesundog
    Nov 19, 2015 @ 19:47:42

    I’m sorry you’ve been dealing with pneumonia. I hope you’re on your way to mending and feeling much better. It really requires a lot of self-care, so don’t skimp on treating yourself well.

    Aren’t these realizations just the best? I found what you had to say about “family emotional legacy” highly interesting. It really made me reflect on my own upbringing.

    I used to be much like your brother – always doing what was expected of me, like it or not. I too wrote letters to grandparents, my aunt and uncle and a few elderly people I left behind when I moved to Oklahoma. My grandparents all passed away, and finally after my much-loved aunt died a couple of years ago I quit writing. Those people who were now gone, I had loved and wanted to write to… but like your sister, I had to take a step back, and rebuild my boundaries. The people that were left… well, I didn’t want to write them anymore. After years of being the good girl, I’m now the bad girl no one can figure out what went wrong with. Funny… I don’t FEEL bad. I feel liberated and that feels good! 🙂


  5. LindaNoel
    Nov 22, 2015 @ 16:50:05

    Such valuable insight with specificity that connects us with the universality of the family stuff, the big puzzle. Becoming more aware of my parents’ upbringing and the cultural context helped me a great deal over the years — and brought sorrow about the times I was rude/mean BUT I have many years of loving them demonstrably, some of it I learned from them and some of it — hugging and squeezing a hand, bringing my Mom’s old hand up to my lips when we in the car listening & singing to music, laughing,


  6. Karen
    Nov 22, 2015 @ 17:36:18

    I know I need to examine this “ancestry” again. I did somewhat in therapy years ago, but I’m in such a better place now that I think I could gather more insight and meaning for the forward march than I did then.


  7. pegoleg
    Nov 23, 2015 @ 12:01:18

    I’ve come to the conclusion at my ripe old age that every family is its own kind of dysfunctional. Maybe there are degrees – I assume there are – but all of us experience this to a certain extent. Reading your family account I am reminded, uncomfortably, of my own mother’s litmus tests of love, and how they are responded to (and resented) differently by different family members. Very insightful.

    I’m sorry if you have a bad cold OR pneumonia, but gotta admit that something serious seems to call for more help to most of us, unless we’re told differently. Good for you for telling people differently.


    • Sandy Sue
      Nov 24, 2015 @ 08:23:36

      I think you’ve hit the Family Secret right on its noggin. I have a friend who’s fond of saying, “We all have shit.” Same with families. Age, time, experience, whatever it is that gives us perspective, seems to lighten the load (okay, pun intended).


  8. Sherrie Miranda
    Dec 18, 2015 @ 16:45:06

    Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    We all have these family stories and legacies. Hopefully, Reblogging this will get us all thinking about what we inherited from our family in the areas of caring, giving & getting affection, and reacting to other’s needs.
    My own history and legacy is a complex one, one that involves my parents getting paid when we were sick, me being the main one to help get them the money (by learning how to pretend I was sick) and other things like there not being enough attention to go round.
    Life is full of ups & downs and learning & unlearning, of getting & giving attention, and knowing when & who to ask for attention. Hopefully, in the long run, we learn to get attention for the accomplishments we made, rather than getting sick to get it. Hopefully, we learn to do that before we get sick one too many times, and find ourselves dying when we hadn’t REALLY wanted to.
    Please, don’t ask me to explain. Just heed my warning.
    Peace, love & health to all,
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:


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