The Cardinal Club: A Daughter’s Journey to Acceptance

Introduction: continued …

I’d signed up for an advanced seminar in family therapy and the instructor had assigned us the task of drawing our genogram.  It is a tool used in therapy, a visual image that illustrates the people and connections in a family that is used to help them share their stories. This was the second time I’d done such an exercise.  The first was early on in my social work career, when I was in graduate school, newly married and still struggling to find my way in the world. Strangely, few things had changed since then. Five years later, most of my grandparents were still alive.  My brother and his wife had two children, but not much else was different. I drew double lines to mark the strong connection between my parents, grandparents and various sets of aunts and uncles. My grandmother Maggio had been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier, but most of the other members were healthy.  I scribbled the word “Italian” above both families in bold letters.

My colleagues introduced us to their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and grandparents. On the surface, the genogram drawing seemed simple enough.  A series of circles and squares, straight lines and broken ones. But images can be deceiving.  It was behind the symbols that the richness lay.  Stories of first dates, marriage and subsequent divorce. Alcohol abuse, addiction and a struggle to recover.  One of my classmates grew up an only child. Another, his family with barely enough to eat.  Still another emigrated from Mexico.  You could barely hear a pin drop as she told the story of the coyote who guided her family across the border. 

As we went around the room and shared our stories, a knot began to form in the pit of my stomach.  I compared myself to the others. I’d grown up in a middle class family.  My parents were still married.  We always had enough food and I’d had the best education they could offer.  I took tennis lessons and piano lessons and spent summers on vacation. There was no doubt I’d lived a privileged life. I felt lucky to have been given so much and I was grateful for all of it. Still, the pain my classmates shared lent a richness to their experience, a depth I longed for.  I found myself embarrassed, as though the financially abundant life I’d led disqualified me in some way. 

I needn’t have worried. Although I couldn’t see it at the time, I too had my own share of pain.  Hidden behind the almost perfect façade was a truth my family would not allow and did not recognize.  Facing the whole of my own life would give me all the lessons I would need. Clearly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Over the years I have been challenged by my tendency to see only what I wanted to see.  To focus on what is comfortable. It wasn’t easy to say the unpopular thing, to stand alone in my truth. Like most of us, I wanted to be liked.  To be accepted.  In my own family I’d often chosen to apply a thick layer of whitewash and cover over the deep cracks and sharp edges, to ignore the hardships, the strife and the difficult relationships.  The truth was, there were plenty of good things to focus on and I had been taught to appreciate them all. But ignoring the difficulties can make the good things seem shallow and the experience feel like a lie.

When my brothers, sister and I were children, my parents would take an annual Christmas card photo. On a fall day in late October, when the leaves were just beginning to turn orange, red and golden yellow, we’d dress in heavy wool sweaters and puffy parkas, don mittens and caps and gather around the blue spruce in the front yard.  We’d smile as my father snapped photo after photo, pictures to be used on the homemade Christmas card my mother sent out each year.  After my father finished developing them in his dark room in the basement, my mother would pick the best one and send it out to our family and friends. 

But behind that carefully crafted image was another story.  We hated taking the annual Christmas card photo.  For one thing, it took hours.  My mother arranged and rearranged our position around the tree as my father took dozens upon dozens of photos.  The fall air was thick and we sweat under our winter clothing.  As we shifted our bodies around the tree and tugged at our itchy wool sweaters, my mother criticized the way we smiled.  She chided us for closing our eyes at exactly the wrong time.  Afraid to speak up, we swallowed our anger only to have it leak out when one or another of us began to cry.  And yet, year after year, their friends commented on what a wonderful photo it was.

It took a long time for me to have the courage to see what I did not see back then.  What I could not allow myself to see.  Behind the circles and squares, behind the façade of a middle class life was the struggle to be seen, to make a connection that all the money in the world could not buy.  Although my genogram lay out the structure, the real work was just beginning. 

A year after my mother’s death, I sat in the living room of my friend’s house, tears streaming down my face. I felt knotted up inside, threads of grief, shame, guilt and sadness twisted around my heart.  I was overwhelmed by her loss and I did not understand why, even after she was gone, I still clung to feelings about her that no longer served me. I wanted to understand why I’d struggled so with my mother.  Why the hollow ache in my heart would not go away. Why I wanted her acceptance so desperately and why I felt so powerless to do anything about it. And so I began to write.

Although I had traveled this road with hundreds of families, it was not until I chose to do it myself that I could learn the lessons I needed to learn.  As I peeled back the layers of my own life, I began to see things I had not seen before. I was forced to confront family myths that I’d always held to be true.  I discovered that what I’d believed to be the whole truth of my family story was only partially true; that there were things I chose not to remember.  Stories that had been readily accepted. Patterns of behavior that were destructive and challenged the image of the idyllic family life I remembered. Until I began this journey, I could not see the role I’d played or the way the decisions I made so long ago still impacted me.

Now I share those stories with my students. My classroom is filled with people from all walks of life, people who come from families who are every bit as diverse and unique as the other. As I tell them stories about my own life, I encourage them to share stories of theirs.  To ask questions, to be curious, to learn to speak their truth.  Stories, I tell them, have the capacity to connect us, to bridge the divides we feel and allow us to understand. As my students share their stories, they begin to accept one another because no matter how different we appear on the outside, inside we are all human.  And as many times as I watch it happen, it always feels like magic.

Years ago, when I held that genogram on my lap, I believed that I had avoided the suffering that my classmates had experienced.  That the heartache and pain they felt had not touched me, but that was not true.  None of us escape hardship because all of us are human and there is pain in humanity.  My journey was one I could not have predicted.  The struggle to understand my own distress gave me the opportunity to accept my family for who they are, not who I wanted them to be.  And now, rather than clinging to the knots of grief, anger and sadness, I am left with a compassion for the people they are and an acceptance and appreciation for the experiences we had together. 

It has been two years since my mother’s death.  As I write this, on the eve of Mother’s Day, it is as if a weight has finally been lifted off, one I have been carrying for as long as I can remember.  I feel a lightness I have never felt before. Writing this book changed me. Claiming one’s story does that. I believe it can change you too.  And so I invite you, the reader, to come along while I share my story.  It is my hope that in sharing my journey you will have the courage to begin your own.


Read the rest when The Cardinal Club is published in December 2019!