Due to having had spinal surgery (and my kids tending to be big and floppy for their ages!), I need some physical help with lugging DD around to rest my spine. So my parents visit fairly often these days, together or alone.
It’s only when my father is without my mom that he will volunteer bits and pieces about his childhood, which he otherwise rarely talks about - whenever my mom who is one of the extroverts in our family is around, he lets her do all the talking, and she has loads of stories about her childhood, which I think was as comfortable a middle class childhood as a wartime childhood in Europe could be. Yes, they went to glean nuts in the woods for food, they had few books and fewer toys, chocolate was a superspecial treat, but they never went hungry.
My father, though, has different stories. He shares them when we talk about DS and my worries about his sensitivities, his high need for intellectual stimulation and my fears about elementary school. I won’t say that it puts things in perspective because that would be cheesily moralistic and just plain wrong as we live in different times – but it is always such an awakening to realize how different those times are.
He grew up as the child of, at first, pretty poor peasants, and later, after his family was deported when he was four, of dirt poor deportees. He must have been a pretty sensitive kid – when still on the farm, he remembers having a special cow and refusing to drink the milk of any other. He also remembers having a godmother who adored him, and he always ran to be with her whenever he felt unfairly treated at home. We were talking about DS’s high sensitivity and intense need to have me around, which I was trying to balance with my intense need for the intellectual stimulation WOH gives me, and he started reminiscing about being separated from his mother in the deportee camp and being mistreated, which he said is one of the few things in his life he finds hard to forgive.
He is color blind, and I am still not sure whether DS is – he tested negative for it as a toddler, but he still makes the same mistakes my father makes (green for brown, black for red, yellow for green etc.). However, he is still much better at telling colors apart than my father, which makes no sense if he did inherit color blindness from him, because they should have exactly the same deficit. So I wondered whether maybe lots of exposure to picture books and lots of people in DS life saying “Look, there’s a red car!” etc may have made a difference in DS’ ability to tell colors apart by shade, if not hue. I asked my father if he even had a picture book growing up and he just laughed. He had told me the story of finding out he was colorblind before – after the beatings for seemingly messing about with his colored pencils in some underline-the-words exercise had no effect, his teacher began to wonder!
I talked about how hard it felt to trust daycare and preschool to satisfy DS’ intense need for correct information and he started musing about teaching himself to read at four looking at number plates. Still not having any books, how did he ever learn things, we wondered. Must have been in school, we concluded.
The one story I am almost jealous about is the one about his fourth grade teacher, who, when my grandfather refused to send my father to college prep for fifth, actually went to his house to persuade my grandfather to change his mind. (All my elementary teachers ever told my parents was to stop hothousing me already). Not that my grandfather didn’t have aspirations for my father – it was only that they peaked in sending him to trade school until 16 and then having him get a job at the post office, a steady job with a government agency and a uniform being plenty aspirational already for him. He did relent at the teacher’s intervention (maybe the teacher hinted at the possibility of studying for the priesthood, that would have tickled my grandparents) but had one stipulation: my father had to make straight As at all times or he’d yank him out.
So my father did just that.
He started working in high school to support himself and his family – and to start violin lessons! I imagine not just out of a love for music, but also to keep up with my mum’s family, which was very musical, after meeting her.
He was able to go to university on a Catholic scholarship (which is why he finds it hard to turn his back on the Church even these days) and became a MD, eventually heading a hospital. He still works part time even though he is officially retired, telling me he really enjoys making the extra money – because they can spend it to support their grandkids!
I feel that if DS has inherited just a quarter of his resiliency we’re sorted.