06 June 2012


I learned three things early on in life: first, that no family is considered “normal,” second, my family was definitely not “normal” and, third, that everyone’s life is different. We all have obstacles to overcome, we all have situations that change our personas and no one has the life they appear to have. Though I started this post three days ago, I was yesterday again reminded of these things. Everyone has a story.

It all started with a Park Avenue woman named Jeannette Walls. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, recommended for a book club I just joined, begins on her way to a function in New York City. On the way, she looks out the window and recognizes the woman digging through a trash dumpster on the street. Embarrassed that her mother would see her and start waving from the street or worse, approach the car, Jeannette immediately turned away, slouched in the back seat hiding her head and asked the driver to take her home.

Park Avenue is one of the most expensive streets in Manhattan. Jeannette lived in a building with marble floors and a doorman (not nearly as common in America as they are in Singapore); she had expensive art in her abode and lived a lavish lifestyle. But her life was not always so glamorous, and it was clear that her relationship with her mother was damaged.

Jeannette spends 90 percent of the book describing her early childhood, moving from city to city, sleeping in cars and on cardboard boxes, literally starving at times. She was in a lot of difficult situations, which made her feel adult pressures at a young age. Though she had parents who loved each other, they did not always want to be parents.

The most stimulating part of the book for me was learning if Jeannette and her siblings would realize that their life was not considered “normal.” In a nature vs. nurture world, would the children believe everything their parents advised was truth or would instinct override their environmental upbringing?

As I made my way through the first half of the book, I began flipping ahead to find the chapter on New York because my mind kept wondering, “How in the world did you get to Park Avenue?” I did not read ahead but I wanted to know how many chapters I had until my question might be answered.

The stories were riveting. Amazement, disbelief, heartache and nausea were all words that described my feelings while reading the book. The book club leader upon her arrival asked my feelings about the book and how it related to my life, since I previously stated I foresaw similarities. While it did not parallel my life to the T (thank God), I did see some resemblance to my own life. What I can say, without a doubt, is that I wholeheartedly realized that no matter what I went through, other people have gone through much worse.

One intriguing question posed in the book club was how life for Jeannette and her family could have been changed if they had accepted welfare. I considered the question and wondered, as the question poser did, if the family would have become dependent on the system as most families do. I started to agree with the notion, forgetting that my family had been on a free school lunch program and food stamps. I realized that being a family that did receive help was, for me, flat out embarrassing. I came from an upper-middle-class family; I did not want to be the poor kid. I hated receiving government assistance and it motivated me to become an independent person who would never need that assistance from anyone again. I suppose Jeannette would have welcomed the aid but would have also pushed herself to become self-sufficient.

Though my family was homeless for a short time, on welfare for a short time and often struggled to make ends meet, my brother and I never went without food and we never slept in a car or out in the open air.

Yesterday I spoke with someone who, in my mind, had it all – a great upbringing, the ability to travel to and live in some amazing countries, a great family and a joyous spirit. Yet this friend confessed that her life is falling apart and she doesn’t know how much longer she can keep holding everything together on her own.

One thing I learned early in my career was to listen more and talk less – a philosophy that proves beneficial on days like today when listening is key and my words are not important. Sometimes people just need someone to listen.

Yesterday’s conversation brought back memories of my childhood, when my parents had their issues, eventually leading to divorce when I was 12. Being a parent is difficult because parents constantly want to keep their children out of harm’s way. There are certain challenges from which they want to protect their children. The hard part, in my opinion (again, not having any kids of my own) is knowing when it’s O.K. to tell your kids when something is wrong – knowing how much to tell them and knowing what to say.

I realized during that conversation that my mom found some miraculous balance of keeping my brother and me informed that there were problems but keeping us out of most of the drama. Yes, I was definitely involved in my share of family drama, but I am sure I was shielded from a lot more. For this I am grateful.

In my opinion, it is vital to keep your kids in the know. I remember a friend whose parents divorced when she was in elementary school. She said it was the hardest thing in the world – O.K., she was young at the time, but she did not understand why. Her parents never fought in front of her, they always put on a good face and told her everything was fine. So, when they told her they were separating, she was confused. Her parents always seemed so happy and never once communicated to her that there were any problems. Hello therapy.

When my parents separated, I knew it was coming. I don’t even remember being upset. I think I knew they would get divorced eventually – divorce was becoming quite popular in the early 90s. My parents were one way at church and another way at home. My mom was always frustrated; my dad never seemed to care. My brother was always in trouble, which made my dad angry and abusive toward him. I remember running to my room, closing my bedroom doors, burying my head under the pillow, plugging my ears and humming to myself anytime my brother would be punished because I did not want to hear the sounds of the beating or my brother’s screams that followed.

By age 10 I knew that my family had financial problems. I was present in the dining room when my father was going through years of owed back taxes because my family was being audited by the IRS. I know that my dad would spend thousands of dollars on model train sets for his collections but we could not afford birthday parties or family vacations. I rarely saw my father put more than $5 in the church offering plate and I never saw him put in more than $20. I don’t think my father ever tipped a waiter or waitress more than $2 no matter the bill price.

We could not afford our house after a while so the bank took it. I don’t think I will ever forget the day that we went home, walked up to our front door and found a real estate lock on the door. My dad was so angry, he slammed the lock against our front door. That’s probably the time when I realized the divorce was imminent.

Through it all, my mother, who is extremely dependent by nature, found a way to break out of a bad situation, support two kids and eventually marry again. My dad also married again, and then divorced again. He never got back to the six-figure income bracket and he died without truly knowing his kids. My brother used his anger and embraced a career in the U.S. military. I graduated college, had a dream job in my mid-20s and am now living in Singapore. Our lives are not perfect but they feel pretty perfect, which is why it is sometimes difficult to hear that my friends’ lives are not so perfect at a time when they should be.

When bad things happen, I don’t blame God or ask why. I thank God for giving me the strength and the wisdom to change if I need to and to survive what I have been dealt. Hang in there, friends. Though it may seem a bit dark sometimes, it’s just the dark before the morning.

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