01 April 2012

The Power of Voices from Our Past: Haunting...Inhibiting...Liberating?

—Talk by Charlene Brotman, 15th March 2012

My story is about the power of two voices from my past. One voice is liberating. It came late in my life in the form of old, forgotten letters. It came too late to help liberate my sister, Jeanne.

The other voice I will tell you about was an inhibiting voice. No. “Inhibiting” is too mild a word. I would say “crippling” is the word for this voice. The crippling power of a voice from the past.

But first, you need to know about my brother, Charles, because, as I discovered, he is intertwined with both of these voices from my past. Actually, it is his death that is intertwined. I never knew my brother. He died of a burst appendix at the age of ten, just three months before I was born. It was 1929, before antibiotics.

I grew up somehow knowing that Charles was a most perfect child, and even though I was named “Charlene” after him, I knew in my heart I could never, ever hope to be as good a child as Charles.

One day when I was little – at an age where kids take everything literally – I heard my mother tell someone, “We lost our son.” “No, mama,” I said, tugging at her arm, “We didn’t lose Charles, he died.” Right away, I could see from the faces of all the grownups that I had been very bad to say this thing. That’s why my memory of it is so vivid.

 I learned we never talk about Charles in our family. But one time, when I was grown, my mother broke the silence around his death. She said to me,  “I could not bear to be around Jeanne after Charles left us, because she kept pretending that she was playing games with him, and she carried on make-believe conversations with him. I know she was only three, but it wrenched my heart every time Jeanne said Charles’ name. I couldn’t stand to hear her talk to him. I didn’t want to live. I figured my mother could raise Jeanne. And the new baby.”

For years after Charles’ death, my mother was so ill that they had to hire live-in help. I don’t know how long she rejected Jeanne. Or maybe she never completely stopped rejecting Jeanne.

So I grew up with a shadow brother, an older sister, Jeanne, and a younger sister, Nancy. A peculiar dynamic played out between the three of us girls. Jeanne and I were expected to be – no,we were trained to be -- subordinate to the youngest daughter.

There was nothing subtle about the ways we were taught to allow Nancy to dominate us. Jeanne remembered how as a girl, she desperately wanted a subscription to the magazine, The American Girl. Mother promised her a subscription if she would not fight with Nancy for a whole year. This meant, of course, giving in to Nancy, letting her always have her own way. Jeanne won her subscription. Nancy won entitlement.
Nancy’s entitled position in the family meant that I was often stuck with doing her chores, as well as mine. One day when I was a young teenager, I staged a mini-rebellion. It was the day we were moving for the summer from our house in Wichita to our farmhouse in the country.

Our car was jam-packed with summer clothes, bedding and food supplies. Nancy and I were squeezed into the back seat between stacks of bundles and boxes. Our job was to unload the car together. I anticipated that she would disappear as soon as we pulled up to the farm, but I had a plan. I unloaded half the car, exactly straight down the middle. Then I announced, “There! I’ve done my half. That’s it! I’m not doing Nancy’s work for her anymore!”

My father glared at me. “Stop worrying about what others should be doing,”  “Stop being a complainer! Get that car unloaded! NOW!”

 He took a step towards me. In silence I unloaded the other half of the car. I was afraid of my father.

There was no use appealing to my mother. She never questioned his authority, or allowed us to.

Things turned ugly with Nancy when the time came for the three of us sisters to divide up the possessions of our parents after they died. The inheritance brought out in Nancy a fierce, win-at-any-cost competitiveness, driving her to deceptions we had never seen in her before. It was like the inheritance had made her crazy. We couldn’t figure out why. At this stage in our married lives, she already possessed far more than Jeanne or me.

We began by dividing up mother’s jewelry. I spread all of it out on the bed before us. The one piece we all longed for was mother’s opal ring that flashed milky pink and turquoise and green. Nancy proceeded to take the ring, and made her other choices. Then I started choosing, but my hand stopped in midair as a realization flashed over me.

 “Wait a minute! Hold on! We’re doing here what we’ve done all our lives growing up. Nancy takes first what she wants, then I take what I want, we leave the rest to Jeanne. That’s not fair! We have to come up with a different way of dividing mother’s jewelry!”

I averted my eyes from Jeanne, thinking how all these years I had colluded in this hierarchy of privilege, leaving the last choices, the crumbs, to Jeanne. And always knowing she would let me do that and continue to love me. It had all seemed just the way things were supposed to be. It had seemed that way to all three of us.

I wish I could report to you that my “a-hah!” moment changed everything. I wish I could say Jeanne and I firmly, calmly, resolutely stood our ground. But Nancy exploded into such a vitriolic rage that Jeanne and I shrank back. Nancy walked away with the opal ring and the first choices.

How could Jeanne and I have caved in like that? We were grown women with our own families. My father was dead. He couldn’t hit me.  But such was the power of this voice from our past, this voice that crippled both Jeanne and me.

Sometimes I rerun the scene in my mind, only I give it the right ending, the way it should have ended, the way I would be able to do it now.

I could do it differently, now, and for that I shall be forever grateful to the women’s movement and gifted therapists. That changed how I do my life and how I see myself.

But now I want to tell you about a liberating voice from my past, a voice that revealed the reason for the skewed relationship between Jeanne, Nancy and me.

A year or so ago, Jeanne’s daughter Debbie called me. “Aunt Charlene, I found a bunch of old letters in the secret drawer of Grandma’s cherry wood secretary.  They’re letters between her and a psychic in Buffalo. Shall I send them on to you?”

I leafed through the yellowing pages. Some were copies of desperate questions my mother had written to a psychic after Charles had died. My heart ached for my mother as I read them:

 “Does our son who died in September know about the baby . . . and does he understand now why I was so cross all summer? Is he pleased with her name? Will we ever have another boy? Is he alive and contented there? Does he feel like we did all we could to keep him with us? Will we ever understand why he was taken?”

The psychic, whom everyone called Aunt Lucy, wrote back: “There is perfect happiness with your little boy. He wants you to know there is no stomachache now. Charles said I am to tell you not to cry any more. He tells me he comes home so much . . . I am to know that he has a good mother and she was not cross to him. (That last part was underlined.)

“Your child is alive and happy for he is being loved and cared for by Spirit people. He knows about baby and says her eyes are not like his. He seemed a little puzzled about the name, for he said baby has someone else’s name. Yes, Charles will have a brother someday, also another sister added to what he now has. You will know and be with your son someday, but God has work for you both to do on earth in caring for other jewels he is giving you.”

There were letters from cousin Gussie, too. She lived in the same town as the psychic and regularly attended séances for messages from her deceased mother. Gussie reported that sometimes Charles also spoke in those séances, and she faithfully recorded his every word for my mother.

I learned from cousin Gussie’s letters that my parents were bitterly disappointed when I was born, because I was not a boy to take Charles’ place. To their credit, they never told me I should have been a boy.

The last of the letters was written about eight months after my younger sister, Nancy, was born. The message from Charles was about Nancy. “Tell my mama my little sister is more like a boy than a girl. They wanted a boy. She is more like me.”

So there it was! The word from the spirit world that my parents believed in: Nancy was more like a boy than a girl. Nancy was like Charles. I wasn’t. Charles had said so, himself. He had said my eyes were not like his, and I had someone else’s name.

Now I understand. My parents had bestowed male privilege and male entitlement upon Nancy, just as my father had ruled the family with male privilege and male entitlement. There never was another son, but there was Nancy to take his place, to be raised as the longed-for son.

I wish I could have shared this revelation with Jeanne, but she died of Parkinson’s disease before the voice in the letters surfaced.

I picture my mother reading and rereading Aunt Lucy’s comforting words. I, myself, do not believe in messages from the dead. I suspect Aunt Lucy picked up plenty of clues from cousin Gussie. What matters is what my parents believed, and how that shaped our family.

That is the story of two powerful voices from my past: one voice that crippled, one voice that liberated with the truth behind the complexities of my family.