“I wonder where my wrapping paper is,” my mother mused. “I know I’m not supposed to go to the attic, but I did. Maybe it’s up there.” (The attic is a garage loft, accessible by a pull-down ladder.) I was the only witness to my mother’s “confession” as we sat together in her home; at the time, I had been savouring a sweet little dish of ice cream.
Instantly my mellow mood vanished as a tumultuous force erupted inside of me. I later named the force fear, panic and anger—residuals from my mother’s falls the previous year that had resulted in multiple broken bones and an extended stay in nursing care. Quelling the hot words that threatened to pour out of me, I put my hands over my ears—even knowing how ridiculous I looked—and said, “I cannot listen to this.” I then put my treat down, excused myself and walked to another room of the house, where I took deep breaths and counted to about a thousand. With the volcano under control, I returned to the living room and we resumed our visit. We had no further words about the attic.
Within 24 hours of the incident, I glimpsed new terrain in the family system landscape. It took a friend’s insights, however, to make visible what I sensed: It was a transformational moment opening a path to new, healthier interactions. Amazing, I thought, after six-plus decades of being a daughter that significant change is still possible.
The emotional tenor of my first family could be described as open and lively. I grew up with lots of expressions of nurture and love, laughter and playfulness, and for that I am grateful. The emotional atmosphere could also be volatile and, on occasion, destructive. There were plenty of tears, angry screams, slammed doors and some physical violence. Taking the two extremes together, I learned the value of open expression of conflict.
I also learned that our powerful interactions were part and parcel of the bonds of connection. “If I care enough about you, I will fight vigorously with you,” seemed to be the unwritten code. Unfortunately, the fierce loving sometimes destroyed more than it built. Over time, I have tried, and to some degree succeeded, to moderate the more intense, harmful patterns of my childhood home.
Apparently, we keep on getting chances to step away from a dysfunctional interaction towards one that is healthier and more productive. In this case, several thoughts emerged to coax me towards a different response. As I stood deeply breathing a few rooms away from my mother, I thought, “Yelling would solve nothing.” Even though I desperately wanted to give voice to my hurt and fear, I realized with great clarity that nothing would be improved if I did so.
I also thought, “There is not one thing I can say or do that will change the past or that will prevent her from returning to the attic.” And, “Thank you, God, that she did not fall and break her bones.” I even, in the tiniest way, saw a bit of my mother’s courage and spirit.
It took a friend closer to my mother’s age, though, to expand on that vision. “You should say to your mother, ‘Good for you!’ ” she admonished. That was a new thought. Overall, after my time-out I confess that I did feel lighter and more hopeful; there was a way through that didn’t require mindlessly repeating old, futile patterns of the past.
The Apostle Paul promises us that “in Christ, we are new creations” (II Corinthians 5:17 paraphrased). Might that be true in our family interactions?
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.
See Melissa’s reflections on aging gracefully.