Margaret Laurence once said, “In some families, please is described as the magic word. In our house, however, it was sorry.”
I can most definitely say that when I was growing up, my family belonged very firmly in the first category.
For some reason, my parents, especially my father, were obsessed with us having good manners. My father was very British in his ways. For the first maybe five, six years of my life, he smoked a pipe and only moved onto cigarettes much later. During my school years, he refused to accept any American spellings in my homework and would laugh endlessly if I pronounced dynasty as die-nasty instead of deenusty or said dived instead of dove. We were required to learn to set the table with fork and knife properly placed, and had to learn to use them properly, from the time we were kids…at least us older three kids did. We were seen and not herd at the dinner table, we didn’t dare make a sound while the grownups watched the news…in all honesty, I look back on my childhood sometimes and wonder how I’ve turned out this way…or not wonder, depending on the viewpoint you take.
When I decided to be a mom, my greatest fear was that I’d end up (pardon my French) screwing up my child’s life as much as my parents had mine. I really, really REALLY wanted to have a son, so that I wouldn’t keep dreading that one day I’ll end up saying to my daughter, in exactly the same tone and volume as my mother, anything nasty that she had said to me while I was growing up. Of course, I’m delighted by Roz, but I’m still afraid every day of turning into my mother.
Those who have wonderful mothers whom they call their best friends will obviously never understand this, but for us few that aren’t, it’s a tricky path to walk. The only thing that keeps me sane is telling Krys that if he ever hears me saying anything that even remotely resembles something I will regret when Roz is older, he has my full permission to clamp a hand over my mouth and wrestle me out of the room before I never forgive myself. I had hoped that having a son would mean a clean break from my past in some ways.
But I’ve also come to realise that Freud and the rest of the psychoanalysts were and are still right. No one ever really survives their emotional childhood. We all carry our scars. It’s just that some of us will make some therapist a small fortune one day.
Anyway, the biggest decision I consciously made last year while I was pregnant was that whenever I did something wrong, I would apologise to my child. Regardless of how old they are, I would make a gesture to atone for my wrongs, and encourage them to do the same. This may seem a very obvious thing to most people, but the truth of the matter is that growing up, I can honestly say I don’t ever remember my parents apologising for anything. Even when I knew and they knew that something they did was totally out of line or completely wrong, there were no apologies. I could probably tell you tons of incidences but we ain’t got all year do we? Ha!
I never quite understood this and always thought perhaps they weren’t aware when they hurt my feelings , crushed my hopes or plain insulted me (and I say me because I cannot speak for my sisters or brother). But I remember this one day when everything just made sense.
I must have been nineteen at the time because I was in college, and that day, my dad had said he’d pick me up as I was staying late to study. Well, he was meant to pick me up at five, but I waited for an hour before he showed up. He had two women in the car with him and as I sat in the back, obviously pissed off because I now I’d be late for my turn to cook dinner too. He introduced me to the women, who happened to work with him and were getting a lift home, and I very sullenly said hello. The woman sitting beside me then said,
“We’re the ones who delayed your dad. He was waiting for us a while and we didn’t realise he had to pick you up.”
I just mumbled something under my breath about it being okay. But the woman sitting beside my dad said,
“Mr G, aren’t you going to apologise to your daughter or being late? If it were my son, he’d be telling me off now”.
“No!”, my father said, “You never apologise to your child. You’re always right. It’s my car and she could have walked if she wanted.”
He laughed and the woman looked at him in amazement and said,
“You’re not serious Mr G! You never apologise? No! I don’t believe you”
“Never”, He said. “No matter what you do, you should never apologise to your own child.”
And you know what, everything just clicked into place that day. I understood a lot about my parents and have continued to understand a lot to this day. And it hurts sometimes, but what can you do except learn from other? So I do try as much as possible to apologise when I mean it and when I can see that what I’ve said may have hurt someone because looking back on my own life, I feel that this lack of apologies has also tainted me in a way as I was never one ask for forgiveness when I did something wrong. I would make a gesture…a cup of tea, a present, a compliment or cheery chat, to people I knew I hurt, but with no one to emulate growing up, I know that apologising doesn’t come naturally to me.
But one thing really struck me when I was in Zambia. Something big happened. A disaster actually, but I’m not going to dwell on what that is because that’s not the point. But an aunt said something to someone that started a chain of events that unfortunately meant that my sister got hurt emotionally, very badly.
Had it been me, honestly, I think I would have avoided my sister like the plague and tried to find out how she was from someone else before venturing near her for fear of a stab in the eye or a tongue lashing! But you know what, Aunt….let’s call her… Aunt Jemma, has always been a ballsy chick.
I was sitting in the bedroom with my sister, who was in absolute bits, when Jemma walked in, sat next to her and started apologising. She apologised for having said what she had. She said she was sorry that what she said had caused my sister so much pain, and that her intentions had been good and she had only been trying to protect her at the time. She understood that sometimes, wanting to protect someone might mean hurting them in another way, and she was sorry that this protection meant my sister got hurt in the process. She was there now, to correct this and hoped my sister would forgive her.
It was so genuine, and so beautiful to see, that I must admit that I did cry a while later from the beauty of that moment. After all, we all just do what we feel is best at any given time and to admit that you were wrong in that, well, it takes some kind of guts.
Perhaps Jemma grew up in a household where she was given apologies, so it was just the normal thing for her to do, but for me, it meant so, so much more. It meant that the healing has begun. It meant that I finally see what atonement looks like and how easy it is to make amends and ask for forgiveness. It meant for me, that the healing has begun, and that I can do this.
I’ve come a long way in the last ten years that I’ve lived on my own out here in the big bad world. Especially emotionally. I just have to have a little faith in me and my own resolve to let this grow from the little springs in my generation, into the next.