Family values?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I don’t mean any political hype here either. I am referring to the things we pass down the line, from ancestor to descendent, via both phenotype and genotype(nurture and nature)

Phillip Larkin wrote famously, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to but they do,” and sadly, as both parent and as child, I can only concur. We are so often unaware of what it is we pass on to our children, the illogical and often harmful thought patterns that we inherit consciously and unconsciously from our families. So much of what we unquestioningly accept as right and true is a load of old bollocks, pardon my Klatchian.

My mum has been seeing a counsellor recently to try and help with her depression issues. I’ve been paying a keen but nonchalant attention to what Mum has to tell me about this; I’ve always found with my mother that an oblique approach is better than the more direct approach that works with my father.

On Saturday as we walked through Cambridge, she was telling me a bit about her last appointment. It mainly focussed on what would or would not be an appropriate thank you gift for the counsellor, but Mum let slip a couple of things. The first was the counsellor had identified her tendancy to beat herself up over the slightest thing; I could have told her this but it takes a stranger to tell you this sort of thing. I nodded and agreed, and we navigated our way along Hobson’s Conduit, and then as we turned the corner, Mum then mentioned something about her father.

“Grandad used to say there was no need for dressing gowns,” she said. “That if you were ILL, you would be in bed, and if you weren’t ill, you’d be at work. There was no in between.”

Now, my grandparents were born in the very last year of Queen Victoria’s reign, and born to unspeakable poverty. I’ve seen the pictures; they look like something from a reformer’s pamphlet. My mum’s grandfather was in the Merchant Navy and did the classic seaman’s thing of coming home every so often to meet the new baby and get the wife pregnant again. My great grandmother was a sick woman most of her life; I found out a few years ago that she had breast cancer in her thirties, had one breast removed but continued to not only have more babies but actually breast feed them with the one remaining breast. My grandmother was one of a massive horde of kids, and as the eldest was heavily involved in the upbringing of them all. Three children died in the space of ten days, at some point in the early years of the twentieth century. My grandparents eloped aged 18, to the dismay of the family; my grandfather was from an equally huge family, and as the seventh child wasn’t even the youngest. He wasn’t a catch, apparently, in economic terms. But life went on much as before, with my grandmother living next door to her parents and bringing up her brothers and sisters along side her own brood. My mum is one of eight.

To tell you something of the hard nature of my grandfather, I’ll share one of the stories about him. Back in the 30’s, when the economic crisis was pretty deep, he was working on the overhead railway in Liverpool. It doesn’t exist any more but as an electrician he was a skilled worker. Health and safety directives being non-existent at the time, he fell off. He fell more than thirty feet into the service pit below and broke his back. He lay there all night, every other worker having gone home. In the morning, he managed to find the strength to climb out and somehow get to hospital where he was told he had broken his back(though obviously no severing of anything in the spinal cord) as well as most of his ribs and that he would be in hospital for at least six weeks.Grandad’s response? He refused. Apart from the fact that he couldn’t afford medical care on that scale, he had a family to feed. So they put him in a full body cast, from neck to hip and…he WALKED home. The next day, he was back at work. He lost only one day’s wages.

I wrote a jokey line in the poem here Accident of Birth, about my ancestor’s hardness- “Lost a leg? Hop, girl, hop.” That wasn’t really a joke. That’s pretty much what my family would say. As a child, being ill meant you HAD to have a temperature to prove illness. And then if you were in bed, you stayed there and were not allowed to read. Or go down and watch TV, or do anything. There were no half measures. I once cycled the rest of the way to school having had a nasty fall taking the skin off both knees and both hands, and arrived at school bleeding heavily rather than go home, even though the accident had taken place only a short distance out. The onset of my periods brought trouble because my Mum simply couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss about the pain; get out in the fresh air and run around, that’d sort it out. Every woman gets a bit of cramps but it’s nothing to make a fuss about, she’d tell me. Knowing now that the endometriosis that makes my life a misery was almost certainly present when I hit puberty aged nine, is no comfort. I have trouble explaining the condition to Mum even now. In the end, all this heroic stoicism is why I made myself drag my body almost a mile with an appendix ready to rupture, rather than make  a fuss and call for help sooner.

This is not the only attitude I have simply accepted and absorbed unaware; there are a lot of others. My big question is how to I shed the ones that are not only unhelpful to me now but are actually downright harmful? You see, some of the others are tearing me apart in ways I can’t begin to express clearly; and I can’t even see clearly what is good and what is bad and what frankly is more than a bit mad or even dangerous.

Because laudable though my grandfather’s physical endurance was, it was also stupid. Only because the story had a different ending can I marvel at his strength; in another universe, moving without keeping his spine straight could have severed vital nerves, either killing or paralysing him for life. Either would have meant the workhouse or worse for his family.

So my task is to sort the wheat from the chaff of my inheritance, both the physical attributes and the mental attitudes. I can’t do much about the physical; I’m stuck with the double joints and the blonde hair. But if I can isolate and understand some of the less tangible things, is there any hope I can rewrite my own inner progamming for good?

I do hope so.