Saturday, February 7, 2009

I'm Pretty Normal, It Turns Out

No one is more surprised than me that this conflict is happening in my family. You probably think I'm pretty normal! Growing up, I thought our family was exceptional.

We came from another country - emigrated to this far-off English-speaking country to "start over." I was five. To me, it wasn't even scary. At that age, you take everything as it comes; I didn't understand the implications of the move.

The implications of the move were that my parents couldn't get along with their parents, so after four and a half years of trying, they just left.

My mom's background is lower- to middle-class. Her dad worked in a mine during the war, and survived three cave-ins. After the last accident, which injured him, he became a mail-carrier. He used to drink merrily, eat heartily, and smoke cigars. He died recently. Her mom, my Gran Eveline, was a housewife. When times were hard, she took some cleaning and sewing work on the side. She's still a skilled seamstress.

My mom was never expected to get an education, and in fact, her parents thought she should leave school as soon as possible to start contributing financially to the household. Thankfully, my mom held her ground, continued through school, and then, to my Gran's dismay, went on to post-secondary. Eveline rented my mom's room out while she was gone.

My dad's background is also middle-class, but with a bit more education and strong upper-middle class pretensions. His dad was an accountant, and thought he knew an awful lot about money. He put his money into stocks, and refused to buy a house, thinking this was the wisest financial decision. My dad's parents were openly scornful of my mom's parents, who went into debt to purchase their house. As it turns out, my dad's parents were dead wrong, and my mom's parents came out ahead financially in the end, but my dad's mom, Anne, still feels herself to be a higher quality person than Eveline. I think her attitude is at least partly bound to that financial idea that holding stocks was morally superior than holding a mortgage.

There is a rumor, possibly fabricated and occasionally perpetuated by Anne, that her family has blue blood. It's not entirely impossible. I could be the bastard great-great-granddaughter of some distant relative of a duke. I'm more interested that the rumor shows the strength of Anne's yearning to be marked out as superior.

Anne bequeathed her yearning to her son, my dad, and until recently, I had believed it about our family. In fact, although I'm no longer convinced of our social superiority, I still feel it as part of my personality. It's one of the things I'm struggling with, because on one hand, as any false notion is bound to do, I think it holds me back from fulfilling my potential. On the other hand, it's such a powerful component of my upbringing that I'm afraid letting it go will destroy me.

I'm not trying to sound dramatic. This is how I was brought up.

My parents, my brother and I moved to this new country, wide open and wild, full of people with new and different ideas, none of them related to class identity. We were isolated from family, from anyone we had known. In addition, we were culturally unique. We dressed differently, spoke differently, used strange vocabulary. All of this would set us well enough apart; now add our inherited superiority complex. I suppose it helped us get through the hardship of our move. We didn't have many connections, but then why would we? We were strong, we were smart, and we could survive on our own. Anyone making friends with us would themselves benefit. Few did.

In school, it wasn't easy for me. I was different for many years, before my accent and mannerisms blended of their own accord. I didn't ever have many friends. I endured extreme hostility from the popular girls, and hated my situation throughout middle-school and junior high. I was miserable. I may have been suicidal.

All though this time, my dad comforted me with the knowledge that I was better, really fundamentally better, than everyone around me. I could play any instrument I picked up. I could sing better than everyone, and won awards proving it. I got top scores in every subject. I succeeded at everything I tried. I was beautiful, I was brilliant, and I was going to have whatever I wanted if I could only get through school.

So you see, believing that I'm superior was a survival mechanism. Now that I've survived, I have to look at my superiority complex, and figure out which parts are true, and which are the family fairy tale. I'm having this crisis now because my dad's approval meant so much to me all through my life. Now that he has disowned me, I'm struggling to find my own confidence, and stand apart from him.

It still surprises me, though, that we're having this fight. Our family was tight. My dad was the best! We were so close, all four of us, such good friends. We were the unit we could always count on - the only unit, I see now. So, we're normal, as it turns out, and it has blindsided me.

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