If you had asked me 30 years ago about my family, the preface “dys” would have never appeared before the word “functional.” I am not certain I ever even knew what the word meant in relation to families, let alone mine. After all, I grew up in the era of “Make Room for Daddy” and “Ozzie and Harriet.”
I started to understand the concept when my Uncle Morrie died. He was a very kind and gentle man. But I had no clue how central a role he played in his family until he was gone.
My next clue came when a divorce occurred within my family. The finger pointing began, with three pointing their fingers to one as the one “who broke up the family.” Significant family milestones came and went, without everyone on the guest list.
Slowly I began to realize there just might be more dysfunctional families than functional ones. By letting out the painful secret that mine was one of them, I found kindred souls. Their moccasins might not have been the exact same size, but they walked in a similar style. It was strangely comforting.
The real aha moment came one weekend when my husband and I were out of town and turned on a Sunday morning religious program. The speaker was going through the Ten Commandments.
He was saying, “Now comes the hardest Commandment of all to follow.”
Before he could answer, I said to myself, “It is going to be honor thy father and mother.”
I was right. That was exactly what he said.
I was so taken aback that I really was not alone in my struggle, I did not get the full reasoning behind his answer. Weeks later, I went to the omniscient and omnipotent computer to find out why. It came down to the fact that our parents are human. Nonetheless, we, as their children, want them to be perfect. When they are not, we do not know how to handle our feelings toward them.
My father lived a very healthy life until two days before his 89th birthday, when he suffered a mild stroke. It was a wake-up call that he was no more immortal than anyone else’s father.
I turned to writing my thoughts as my solace. The framework of “Everything I Ever Learned” came to mind. I was astonished at all the positive things I found to apply to my father.
Once he stabilized, I gave him a copy to read. I would read it at his 90th birthday and at his funeral.
I wasn’t so sure if I could do the same for my mother, at least in a positive way. At first thought, it seemed “Everything Negative I Ever Learned” I learned from her.
The thought must have been working its way through my subconscious. As Mother’s Day approached a few years later, the answers came to me. I wrote her a comparable letter in lieu of a Hallmark card. I didn’t read it at her 90th birthday, but I fear the time is approaching when I will need to do so at her funeral.
Of the many things I learned from my parents, my father taught me a sense of responsibility, a passion for loving what I do and an acceptance for doing the best I can. My mother showed me the way to unbridled optimism, to take a chance, to toss my hat in the ring and to do the best I can.
Despite the ups and downs of our relationship over the years, I achieved peace with the flaws within them and within myself, and could genuinely honor them. They read my words; they heard my words. Then I found a way to translate those words into something tangible when they no longer could see or hear them.
Like so many other things in life, it happened by chance. A friend gave us a gift of a gardenia bush when my mother-in-law died. This friend did not know it was her favorite flower. We planted it next to the Charleston bench in our backyard. When my father died, we planted violets and a red rose bush since he loved to write poetry that started with “roses are red, violets are blue.”
My mother does not have a favorite flower, but she has (and always has had) red hair. So I will find something red and equally spirited. When the day comes, it will be planted right outside our door next to the others. I have every confidence it will know just when to bloom: On Mother’s Day and her birthday, just as the other flowers know their time in the sun.
Her flower also will be cared for, watered, pruned and admired. It will bring peace, reflection and closure; after all, roots run deep in families as well as plants. By honoring the life in my garden, I can continue to honor the lives they symbolize as I was commanded to do. It is the best I can do.
Archie Burkel of James Island is president and founder of The Hat Ladies, creator of the workshop Memoirs Done Write and a motivational speaker.