After my fabulous weekend in mid-September, I began reading Sharon O’Brien’s memoir, The Family Silver. To my surprise, she shed light on my Irish relative’s puzzling behavior.
On page 34, O’Brien writes: “I come from a people for whom abrupt and often unexplained severings of contact were the way to deal with conflict, hurt, loss, and separation. The Irish are great talkers and storytellers, but they prefer silence to speech when it comes to the realm of emotions. Simply cutting off a family member by not speaking or writing is a common pattern in Irish and Irish American families. Sometimes the black sheep may live only a few blocks away, and yet the silence may endure not just for weeks, but for months or years or decades.
“The Irish-born writer Frank McCourt attributes this form of punishment to the importance talk and conversation hold in Irish society. To shun someone, placing her in a circle of silence, is to cut her off from the family’s and the culture’s lifeblood. It is the cruelest thing you can do.”
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Knowing about that Irish cultural pattern explained so many things about the Brady clan.
The Brady clan: Me, Dad, Aunt Mary Ann, Mom, Aunt Vicki, Aunt Earline, Uncle Wayne, and my brother, Phil celebrating Mom & Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1991
Everyone in this picture is now deceased except for Aunt Vicki, Uncle Wayne, and me.
As a deeply-feeling child, when I witnessed silence and shunning among my mother and her siblings, it created a longing in me for a happy, harmonious family. My wish seemed always out of reach. As I grew older, they directed this behavior toward me.
At first, I took it personally. I couldn’t understand what it was about me that was so bad as to warrant this withdrawal of love. As I matured emotionally and studied family dynamics, even though the withdrawal hurt, I came to know that it wasn’t all about me. Still, I had difficulty letting go of the feeling I had done something wrong or I was bad and wrong. I had no idea until reading O’Brien’s memoir that silence and shunning are part of an Irish cultural pattern.
O’Brien helped me understand why negative feedback is easier for me to handle than silence. It explains why I needed for Alice to give me honest feedback about her thoughts and feelings about my blog posts (see September 28 post).
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For as long as I can remember, my brother and I idolized Uncle Wayne.
Below is my earliest picture of us with him and our grandmother. I was about three and Uncle Wayne about twelve.
I turned ten when my parents, brother, and I moved to New Bremen, Ohio, my mother’s hometown. Uncle Wayne was nineteen and often had dinner at our house, especially when Mom fixed apple dumplings…one of his favorites. I developed a crush on him. When he married Aunt Rosie, they asked me to serve as their junior bridesmaid. That’s me on the right in blue. My brother and I spent a lot of time visiting our newly-wed uncle and aunt in the apartment they rented in the upstairs of a big, old house.
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Now I understand my ambivalent feelings.
My childhood friend, Amy, called me a few weeks ago to tell me it was time for a visit. She had seen my Aunt Rosie and noticed she has lost a lot of weight and looked frail. Aunt Rosie indicated that Uncle Wayne wasn’t doing well either and is usually grumpy.
I am always the one who reaches out to them. Since my immediate family members save my daughter are all gone, I wish we were closer. Their only contact with me is a Christmas card. I don’t think they are shunning me. But I can’t help but wonder whether the distance the Brady’s maintain with each other is part of this cultural pattern. While I wouldn’t avoid a visit, especially with the two of them in declining health, I noticed my ambivalent feelings. O’Brien’s memoir helped me make sense of them. With every contact, I risk silent disapproval and shunning–an even worse kind of distance.
Amy and I made plans for me to visit the weekend of September 16-17. I called to let Uncle Wayne know I was coming to town and made arrangements for a visit on Saturday morning. He told me that since he turned 80 three years ago, his health problems have increased. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and wasn’t sure what to expect.
It turned out to be one of my most meaningful visits.
When he hobbled to open the front door to let Amy and me in, I was shocked by how much he has aged.
Even though he seems much frailer in his body, his mind is as sharp as ever. I was pleased to notice a softening.
I spared him the discomfort he seems to experience when I tell him I love him, but I did reach out to greet him with a hug. In the past, he stiffened. This time he relaxed into my arms. Soon we were in a spirited discussion. He expressed admiration for strong women, a softening of attitudes toward women that are common for men of his age.
None of the Brady’s like to talk about their painful growing up years, so I no longer ask. I did risk telling him about my interest in genealogy and the research I’ve done. I even asked if he would be willing to let me swab his cheek so I can get a read out of our DNA ancestry–to see if there is something more there than Irish and German. He agreed! Then, he expressed interest in seeing my research.
Best of all, he asked if I was finished writing my book. I didn’t think he even remembered I was writing one.
That he remembered and asked touched me deeply.
Then he accepted a departing hug and thanked me for coming. He seemed genuinely pleased that I did. He also seemed happy about my returning soon to collect his DNA sample and share my genealogy research.
Uncle Wayne is my only remaining uncle, my mother’s youngest sibling. To share these significant moments with him before he is gone means more to me than I have words to express.
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After our visit, I started out on the next leg of my trip with a heart filled with gratitude for the meaningful connections I had made with Amy, Alice, Uncle Wayne, and Aunt Rosie.
That was only the beginning of what turned out to be a fabulous weekend from beginning to end. I’ll tell you about the mind-blowing experience I had in Port Clinton in my next blog post.