When I was in high school, one of my friends told me her sister recognized my father at a bank the day before. Her sister was a teller at the biggest bank in town, the same one where we had our accounts. I asked my friend how in the world my sister could have recognized my father.
“She said he looks just like you,” my friend said. “So she called him over and asked him if he was David’s father. She was right.”
I never thought I looked like my father, but I seem to have been mistaken — at least according to a lot of people who have known us both. Older folks in the family told me I looked just like what my grandfather did as a young man.
I bristled at such comparisons. I didn’t want to look like anyone. I didn’t want to be compared to anyone in the family. I hadn’t realized at the time how much dysfunction there was in my extended family, but I somehow knew. I didn’t want to be like any of them. I then spent decades running away from them.
Now that they’re all gone — and I’m safe from their dysfunction — I understand the ways in which I have to embrace what they were. It’s time for me to accept what I got from them. And it’s time for me to redeem that family history — as best I can — by the choices I make.
Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve experienced a lot of bitterness toward both of my parents and their extended families. I knew that I had genetically come from them, but I didn’t want to be like them. I’ve gone through periods of hating both of my parents — although I tried to deny it — and it took me a long time to work that out.
As long as my narcissistic and dysfunctional father was alive, he still seemed like a real and present danger. Now that he’s been dead four months, his history — and the history of all the rest of them — is written in stone. What they were is hard, cold reality. I can finally embrace what they were — and I can accept their best and deal with their worst in honest ways.
I am my father. He’s dead, but he’s still alive in me. Same for my mother. And all four of my grandparents. The closer I was to an individual in life, the easier it is for me to see bits and pieces of their strengths and weaknesses in me. Parts of all of them live on in me — but it’s up to me to choose which parts of them to accept and embrace. It’s up to me to choose which parts are not allowed to continue into another generation.
At his best, my father was charming and bright and loving. At her best, my mother was beautiful and brilliant and creative. At their best, they were amazing people. At their worst, they were people whose lives I don’t want to emulate.
My grandfather was an alcoholic. Nobody used that word for him at the time. In fact, his history of drinking was hidden from me until I was an adult. He had quit drinking by the time I got older, although I knew there would still be an occasional beer in the refrigerator when I would visit their house.
My grandfather cheated on my grandmother. When he partied and caroused, he kept bad company and he ran around with other women while my grandmother was at home raising their children. When he was drunk, he was sometimes mean to her, I’m told. I never saw that side of him, but my father finally admitted this to me when I was much older.
I barely knew my grandparents on my mother’s side. My father kept us away from them. Her father was a teacher and a gentleman farmer in the summer. Her mother had also taught school, I believe, but I might be making that up after all these years. We were taught to call her “the Fat Woman” — not to her face, of course — and I wasn’t around her enough to know whether my father’s terrible stories about her were true. I didn’t like her the few times I was around her. And I knew that she had stabbed and tried to kill her husband — my grandfather — when my mother was just a little girl.
For years, I’ve rejected these flawed and dysfunctional people. I was in denial about them, because I was afraid accepting them meant I might be like them.
I’ve come to a different point of view lately. I can’t tell you why.
I don’t have any choice but to have bits and pieces of them inside me. Every piece of my DNA was passed through my parents and carried with it little encoded pieces of what their parents were — and theirs before that. I am a product of a long string of flawed and dysfunctional people. Collectively, we’re called human beings.
My parents and grandparents all had choices. They could embrace their good qualities or they could give in to their weaknesses and dysfunctions. They could choose to learn and grow and evolve — or they could stagnate in denial, slowly becoming more and more enmeshed in the ugly things with which I associate them.
No person is perfectly good and no person is perfectly evil. The purest saint was still a sinner at heart — and the sinner in a gutter had the power of redemption available to him at any time.
The difference for every single one of us is choice.
I can choose to accept what my father tried to make me. I can accept what my mother’s problems handed to me. I can accept the legacy of bad things which lived in my various ancestors.
Or I can choose to embrace the best in each of them — and thus become something more loving and more powerful and more successful and more emotionally healthy than any of them experienced regularly.
I believe denial of what your family legacy gives you leads to repeating it. I believe the only way to avoid their mistakes is to accept what they were and look that evil in the face.
I am my father.
I am my mother.
I am my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.
I am all the people who came before me, those who I’ve heard of and those whose history I will never know. I am that first McElroy ancestor born on this continent — in Maryland in the late 16th century — and I’m all those ancestors before that in Europe.
I accept what they were. I compassionately embrace them in love, but I gently reject much of what they chose. I know I didn’t start my life from a blank slate. I know my family history was born many years before my parents even existed.
I will always be what they were — but I choose to be the best of what they’ve been, not the worst. I choose to start something new — born from the soil in which their ashes are buried — and I hope to be able to redeem the worst of what they’ve been by becoming the best of what they’ve given me.
Note: The photograph above is my father with his parents at Central Park in New York City. My father was stationed in NYC while in the Army — as a secretary to a general — and this photo was made during one of their trips to visit him there.