Many of us grew up with the family truism, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Though it could be used as a way to encourage us to not eat so much junk food, it worked in a multitude of areas. If a sketchy friend came into our lives, if we read too many comic books, if we watched too many cartoons…garbage in, garbage out.
I had not thought about it much until recently on Facebook, I read a poster that caused me to reconsider that truism in light of how I look at my past childhood trauma:
While you are healing from generational trauma,
do not forget to acknowledge generational strengths.
Let’s face it. Both my parents were dealing with unhealed trauma and probably PTSD long before there was a label for it. My dad was a WWII veteran with a flash temper and an addiction to pornography which probably contributed to my abuse.
My mom was a WWII survivor from a war torn country who probably had never herself been mothered, as the birth of her sister caused the ruination of her mother’s health and gave mom the task of parenting a sibling at five years of age. Thus, mom, when mom ended up raising, sort of, four children in a foreign country whose customs she never fully embraced or even understood, she practiced all she knew: benign neglect.
But here’s the thing.
Garbage in did not result in garbage out.
More trauma, yes. Bad decisions, yes. A complicated life, perhaps. But somehow, the four children of that upbringing all grew up to be fairly successful human beings. Why? What were the generational strengths that have gone unspoken under the weight of the trauma?
My dad’s first field trip anytime we moved to a new location was to take his children to get library cards. He valued reading, and though he had only acquired a high school education, I hardly remember a time when he did not have a book he was finishing. I heard he wrote poetry, which my mom discarded as unnecessary, so it remains unknown to me.
He also loved all music, especially classical, and his proudest possession was a console hi-fi which held a prominent place in the living room on which he softly played classical music any time he was home.
My dad loved to cook and taught me how to make homemade bread, always leaving the kitchen a disaster. He was constantly starting new hobbies, like jewelry making, that cluttered our small home with gadgets. And he loved the outdoors and was always taking us out to experience a hike or a swim or a drive in the country, which usually ended up with some small disaster.
But what actually endeared him to my mom was the fact that he had a generous heart towards others. While stationed in Japan, he somehow connected with Father Damien’s work and became involved with helping lepers. In the military he worked hard to bring a library to those who were incarcerated, and he booked musical acts and other entertainment for soldiers to bring a little relief to their lives.
And his laugh was so loud that Jimmy Durante used him as “bait” for his jokes at a concert we once went to.
Mom, on the other hand, did not learn to laugh until her later years. We often joked that the shortest book in the world was “Four Hundred Years of German Humor.” But her joy could not be contained when she was adventuring in the woods. She loved camping and hiking and seeing unexplored places for the first time. And she hand typed a manuscript of her life of adventures which I still have today.
Her love of literature and poetry knew no bounds, and she too was an avid reader. Her near photographic memory allowed her to retain the many of works of Goethe, which even in her nineties she could recite at our early morning coffee. And her generosity of spirit led her to open an employment agency in downtown Salinas where she tried with every ounce of energy to employ the “unemployable.” There was no one she ever met that was beneath her attention, and though she often had a cruel comment in private, in public she welcomed the stranger and the outcast with open arms.
As I have been writing this, it has dawned on me that it is past time to shift my focus to those gifts they passed on to me in my young years. Was my life made more difficult by the unhealed trauma from their lives? Absolutely. But I did not leave that trauma unhealed in myself, and some of that process may have been facilitated by the strengths they passed on.
I’ll be honest. It has been hard to turn that coin over. I would so much rather cling to an old story that is no longer mine. But in truth, the ashes have turned to beauty. The past is forgiven. The plot took a fortuitous twist.
So today, after working so hard to never be like my parents, I would declare this:
I am a poet like my dad, and I am a writer like my mom.
I am spontaneous like my dad, and I love to adventure like my mom.
I love music and literature, just like my father. Just like my mother.
And I am moved to acts of compassion by the example of them both.
And for that, I am grateful.