Category: Family and forgiveness

Fail better

As it’s approaching the end of the year, a time for reflection and hope for the new year (never got that last bit – how can the change of a date mean a change in the world?), I’m taking time to remember those epiphanies that came after the ‘shouldn’t have done that’ realisations. And thinking about how we can learn to ‘fail better’.

Some twenty years ago, I phoned my mother after our cat had gone missing. I was hoping for some words of comfort, but what I heard was, ‘You shouldn’t have let him out at night’. The very last time I spoke to her, after several years of estrangement, she called to tell me that I was a bad mother. My daughter had left home after a horrible row, which was mostly to do with my boyfriend, who had just moved in to our house. We were both hurting terribly, my daughter and I, and my mother chose that time to point out all the things that I had done wrong. Some of this, according to her, was letting alcoholics into my life, into my daughters’ lives.

The boyfriend was a recovering alcoholic. He had many faults, but excessive drinking was not currently one of them.

What is was about, with my mother, re the missing cat and the men in my life, was pointing out that things were all my fault, and implicit was that this is how I am, that there is no capacity to learn or to change.

There are two areas of my life that I am focusing on in this blog post on failing better – work and men.

Never be a slave to any job or any person

I have had some horrible jobs in my time. Washing up in the kitchens of the Grandstand at Epsom race course was one of them. Asked to wash shelves and shelves of plates, stacked floor to ceiling, the day before the race meeting, I lifted off the top plate of the pile to discover that all those below had been stacked dirty at the end of the last race meeting, the remains of the last meals they had held still clinging to them.

That job was only for a few days. I stayed because I had a work ethic, I’d been taught to see a job through. And I wanted the money to buy records and clothes. But there were other jobs where I stayed too long, used and abused. The last of these, my last full-time job, ruined my health. I knew it was dreadful, I knew that I wasn’t being looked after by my employers (the board of trustees of a mental health charity – many of whom had severe mental health problems themselves), but I had been trained from childhood to look after other people and forget about my own needs.  The client group had needs greater than mine – until I became one of them.

Lesson learned: never be a slave to any job or any person. If it’s not right for you, get out. Since that time, I’ve got into other abusive situations workwise, including as a volunteer, and it has taken me some time to realise it’s not right for me. Patterns can be hard to shift. But I have got out in the end. As the Beckett quote goes:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Moderation in everything – don’t get involved with drinking men

My mother was right. I do have an attraction towards men who drink. The men who came after my first marriage broke up all ‘liked a drink’. They could be exciting, tremendous fun. They were also a nightmare. Even the recovering alcoholic, so damaged by his past drinking, and with a need to control his environment to make him feel safe. This included controlling me – wanting me to be in touch with him all the time by text; berating me for going out with female friends; accusing me of affairs with male friends. See above re lessons learned about abusive work situations – If it’s not right for you, get out. He left, clearing my house of most of the furniture, as he’d insisted that I get rid of my stuff when he moved in. As I sat there on one of the remaining chairs, without a TV to watch, with my eldest daughter barely speaking to me, I knew that I had failed big time. That I shouldn’t have let him charm his way (bully his way) into my life. But, boy, was I glad that I’d got him to leave.

An epiphany came with sitting in the Rochester Cathedral Tearooms with two male friends. There I was with two intelligent, interesting men who had chosen a cafe over a pub for lunch. I thought, ‘what have I been doing with those drinkers?’

Lesson learned: don’t get involved with drinking men, even those who have stopped drinking. I’d failed with the recovering alcoholic, but I had the courage to try again, and found a man, now my husband, who only drinks in moderation. His idea of a binge is the three pints he had on his stag night.

Learn something from every ‘shouldn’t have done that’

I’ve learned something from even the worst situations. Every difficult work situation has given me a new skill. Working on the sweet counter in Woolworth’s in the ’70s gave me terrific mental arithmetic skills, still sharp after 40 years. I’ve picked up marketing and budgeting skills from working in charities, where you had to do a bit of everything. Even in bad relationships, I’ve had good sex. And fun, for a while, when joy had been lacking in my life for a long time. Even the recovering alcoholic got me to reassess my relationship with my late father and my brother, both drinking men. He helped me to see a disease, not a character failing or a lifestyle choice.

As for my mother, the lessons learned are it’s best for me to keep away from her, not to allow that negativity, that blame  for things I have done wrong, into my life. I take responsibility for my own shortcomings as a mother and try to offer support without criticism to my daughters. If I get this wrong sometimes, I certainly shan’t be telling myself that I ‘shouldn’t have done that’, just remember what Beckett said:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Going Home

I did not speak to my father for the last few years of his life. Some of the reasons are mine to tell; others do not belong to me, are not for sharing here, and there is that thing about family secrets – who knows, who doesn’t, it’s hard to remember.

‘He was fond of the drink,’ they would say, meaning that he was an alcoholic, not fully acknowledged by us, his family, and not at all by him. His drinking was nobody’s business but his, he said. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows otherwise; their drinking is everyone’s business.

He was the father of five children; I am the middle child. He didn’t know how to relate to us. He didn’t know how to love us. I can name only a handful of good memories of being with him. One where he led me by the hand on the way to Sunday Mass, lifting me as I kicked the piles of autumn leaves in the park, so it felt like I was walking on top of them, my feet not touching the ground. Another, when he and I were alone, awaiting the wedding car after the rest of the family had left.

There were times, many of them, when I wished my mother would leave him, find someone nice. There were times when I thought of him as a monster.

When he died, I was very ill. Too ill to travel to his funeral, too ill to cope with the emotion of it all, and not prepared to hear the stories of what a lovely man he was when I knew otherwise. It wasn’t until seven years after his death that I came to know him, and that process is ongoing, another seven years on.

I wanted to know where he had come from, how he came to be the man he was. I knew little of his childhood in Ireland, only that he had been left by his parents who went to England without him, and that he was raised by his Auntie Molly, amongst her children.

Through good luck, the help of a man in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who came to be a good friend, and meeting the cousins my dad was raised with, plus an old schoolfriend of his, I pieced together my father’s story. It has been material for poetry, stories and for crying my way through to a kind of forgiveness. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness these days – it does not mean condoning the things a person has done, but coming to terms and letting things go. Perhaps understanding how the early influences in their life, a lack of love, caused them to become the person they grew up to be.

I first visited Mitchelstown, my father’s home town, in 2007. I decided to go alone, the first time I had travelled by myself. I was 47 and it was about time. It was a deeply emotional experience, gruelling in many ways. But I met people who took me to their hearts and do so each time I return. I visited in September 2014, not only a social visit, but to read from my collection of stories As Long as it Takes at the town’s Culture Day celebrations. In an email before my visit, my friend Liam said, ‘Pleased to hear you’re coming home.’

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The photos I am adding to my Friends’ Gallery are from my visit to Mitchelstown, September 2014. Me, with my friend Liam Cusack (left) who helped me find my way to Mitchelstown, via a letter I sent to William Trevor who was born in the same year and the same town as my father. Next to Liam is Jim Parker, a schoolfriend of my dad’s and now a friend of mine. Jim ended his career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Army. A local celebrity, I was honoured when Jim travelled to Mitchelstown to hear me read from my book. We are having lunch in O’Callaghan’s, which was formerly a jeweller’s shop owned by Peter and Mary Dold. Mary is one of the cousins my father grew up with.

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The second photo is with newly found cousins – Edel, Anne (who is not fond of of having her photo taken) and Liz. They are the daughters of two of my dad’s cousins, Nelly and Mary. I think that makes us third cousins. We had a wonderful afternoon together, piecing together family connections, guessing at the secrets that the older generation reveal only unwillingly, if at all. And making me feel a part of the family.

So is Mitchelstown ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, have only spent a couple of weeks there in total? It surely felt like it that day.

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