By Eleanor Cowan
Way back in 1940, my Dad, Neil, married Maggie, a gentle woman soon thrilled at the birth of a son, Gordon. In late May, the young mom traveled to visit her parents in Nova Scotia and settled into a beautiful summer. Even with a war going on in Europe, and even though Gordie’s dad remained in Montreal, those months with her family became even more valued given Maggie’s sudden death.
In early September, Maggie packed to return to her husband in Montreal. Hours before her departure on the 6 p.m. train, she began hyperventilating. Her blood pressure sky-rocketed and Maggie plummeted into mortal asthmatic distress. She never got to Montreal. Before her horrified parents, Maggie, so happy with her baby, died in hospital that night.
Gordie remained with his devoted grandparents for a year before Neil transferred him to his uncle and his wife who, unable to have children of their own, were thrilled to welcome their adoptive son. Three years later, though, Neil married Ann and, disregarding their verbal agreement, plucked Gordie from the shocked arms of his adoring parents and once again transferred him, this time to a woman, my mother, who’d abuse her step-son well into his adult life.
The adjustment from a full ocean of love to a parched desert was brutal. Jovial and pleasant with others, my Dad had a violent temper, a secret one that the five-year-old got to know well. For ridiculous infractions reported by my mother, my brother was beaten in the barn, naked, until he was ten years old by his father, a man who insisted that Gordie’s sins earned him the beatings he deserved. Of course, young Gordie did poorly in school, which earned him more shame and more punishment in the barn loft.
My half-brother took to stretching out under the front wheels of my Dad’s new Ford in the garage. He also took to pulling the wings off wounded flies he found on windowsills or pushing my sister’s baby carriage off the porch where my mother would deposit one newborn after the other for long hours, locking the door behind her.
I know I heard my brother’s wails from the barn. I saw his tears. I was very, very nice to my parents. I stayed out of trouble. I smiled a lot. My mother even criticized me for saying ‘thank you’ far too much. I must have been scared stiff.
In studying our family history, I see that very early, I became both vulnerable and frightened. Afraid of also earning the displeasure of my parents, I learned to dance around, accommodate and tolerate their abusive and blaming personalities, especially of my mother, whose harsh fault-finding of her children became so much the norm, that even fifty years later, I’ve had to remind my sisters that its not okay to speak to me disrespectfully. One day, helping my sister with her move, she loudly criticized, “You pack an expensive crystal vase in a shoe box for gawd’s sake?”
It surprised her when I said I’d leave if she continued the disrespect. She did apologize, and I stayed to witness how courteously she treated the hired packers. Some stains are hard to remove.
My victories — leaving the forever unrepentant pedophile I married, recovering from the sexual abuse both in and outside of my family, raising my children as best I could, studying for and practicing for a career I loved, and developing and enjoying my talents — are still woven inside a weave of imperfection.
Today, my close friends are composed of lovely, respectful, highly motivated and creative people. There’s still the 1% I put up with for the sake of something else I value. Gordie, now a senior like myself, says he wishes his loving aunt and uncle, and the grandfather he dearly loved, had fought harder to see him. He wishes they’d have somehow juggled his disturbed parents and rescued him. That’s not what happened though. Everyone backed off. All contact was lost. Gordie paid the price.
During my years as a school teacher, I got to see lots of parents. I could pick out the abusive ones, content to criticize their kids, the bus driver and me for flaws so apparent to them, while blind to their own. I rarely confronted these self-aggrandizing characters, because I knew who’d pay the price later, at home. Every term, I’d convince an abusive parent of their struggling child’s excellence and even apologize for whatever offense required an apology. I did this for the sake and safety of the child, my student. Some may say I did wrong, or that I was deceitful, and sometimes I worry that I still tolerate bullies as I’ve done in the past.
Today, Gordie lives as he’s always done — a very quiet, intensely private bachelor life. While dutiful and caring to his younger siblings, kindness rarely returned, he prefers to study, read, and volunteer as an archivist for a charitable community organization. Over the decades, my brother funded dozens of children with Foster Parents Plan. He once showed me three of many sincere thankyou letters — one from a practicing lawyer and two others from nurses, grateful for his support all during their youth.
I try to comfort myself that I live in a complicated, complex world, one that requires that If we want to protect the minnows, we must learn to navigate the sharks.