Welcome to My Family

My childhood is divided up into postings: Rockville, Fort Belvoir, West Virginia, West Point, Panama City, Fort Leavenworth, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Pennsylvania.  Most were United States military bases, until Pennsylvania, when my dad retired from the Army, became a civilian, and immediately went back to work for the government as a civil engineer, first for the Veterans Administration, and later, for the United States Navy. He spent two of the first five years of my life overseas, first in South Korea, and later, serving in the Viet Nam War. 

Our family was an Army family, and we were used to being uprooted every year or so, moving house over the summer, with a new school each fall. It was harder for my siblings, Jim, who was five years older, and Susan, who was three years younger than he was. By the time my father retired in 1973, I was only 9, and I hadn’t made that many moves, but I was already a product of Army Life, and I instantly hated the alternative. If it had been up to me, I would have spent my entire childhood as an Army brat, moving to ever more exotic locales. As it was, the biggest adventure had been three years spent in West Germany in the years before German reunification. The older I get, the more grateful I am for those years I lived abroad without a clue how lucky I was for such an experience.

Growing up, we weren’t rich, but I never wanted for anything. My parents, who had been raised in, if not poverty, than in very modest circumstances and during the Depression, were frugal people. They had benefitted generously from life in the Army, and by the time they were ready to buy their own home in their early 40’s, they were able to put down a substantial deposit (since they’d never had to pay for housing before), at extremely low, Army-underwritten interest rates. They paid off their home in 15 years.

Their incomes, though not exorbitant, paid for all of the needs, and since they were frugal (they always bought used cars, never bought new anything, never went on vacation, and saw no need to pay a repair person to do what my dad always figured he could do himself), their money grew and grew and grew.  One goal my parents both shared was to be able to afford each of their children a college education. This dream – and it was, truly, a dream – stemmed from the fact that my father had only been able to manage college by going to the United States Military Academy at West Point (hence the Army Career), and my mother, who had always wanted to be a journalist, and was a brilliant woman, had been able to attend Penn State for a single semester before her parents could not longer afford the tuition.  I think that may have been her biggest heartbreak. Since there weren’t student loan programs back then, she had to drop out. Throughout her life, my mom took college courses wherever we lived, and by the time she retired, she probably had enough courses to satisfy a backelor’s degree.  Still, she never got that piece of paper.

And so, my parents told us kids that all we had to do was graduate from high school, and a college education would be waiting. My brother took it for granted; my sister, who was not a strong student (because, I believe, she likely had an undiagnosed learning disability and probably was unable to successfully complete most of the work as a result), was not interested in college; but for me, it was always in the back of my mind, probably from about the age of 8, and by the time I was in junior high school, every move I made was with my college education and post-college career in mind.

We were lucky in that respect. My best friend from high school recently told me, forty years after the fact, how lucky I was that I had parents who set the bar high and expected me to be academically rigorous in high school.  Little did she know that, while my academic ambition was in part the result of my parents’ expectations, it was also the means to putting as much distance between them, and my siblings, as possible.  But to the outside world, our family probably seemed pretty normal. We were a solidly middle class family, three children, two professionally employed parents, three kids, living in a four-bedroom, two and half bath colonial in suburban Philadelphia.  Most of our neighbors and school mates were White, Christian, professionals, also middle class, and went to clean, modern, well-funded public schools.

Our family had health insurance. We had new clothes when we needed them. We had food on the table, cars available for use (older cars, and never our own cars, but cars we could use to go to work or band practice), and we lived in a neighborhood where the “worst” thing that ever happened was that someone’s mother once died by suicide.  There was no crime, you could walk to and from a friend’s house after dark and not worry that you’d be kidnapped, and hanging out at the Mall on Friday night was a safe and fun activity for teenagers who couldn’t yet drive.

For two parents who had grown up in something of a dead-end town, with few prospects, my parents ended up making good. My dad’s career, combined with his frugality, had made him a rich man (though you would never have known it to look at him, or our house, which, thirty years later, still bore the royal blue plush carpet – bare to the canvas backing in some areas – which had been put down by the buildings in 1969, when the house had been built). My father was the classic “it may not be pretty, but it works” engineer, who saw no reason to replace a perfectly good sofa, even if it was hideous and forty years old, and renovating a bathroom just because it was outdated would never have occurred to him in a hundred years.  “It works, doesn’t it?” he would have asked.

Being able to provide his children with “good meals” every evening (this was a man who often went hungry due to an unreliable, Lothario father who was as likely to be out Tomcatting with someone else’s wife as home with his own family, and whose alcoholism made him a spotty earner), and with a new set of clothing at the beginning of each school year must have made my dad feel a bit like Aristotle Onassis (the billionaire of our days), and he frequently found his children to be spoiled and ungrateful.  They did not understand what it was like to watch your father regularly beat your mother in front of you while you tried to keep your younger brothers from seeing, or try to intervene when he broke your mother’s arm. They had no idea how it felt when your father ran off to California and never came back, having died in a brothel from a fire he set with an errant cigarette.  They didn’t know what it was like to have to work every day of your life thereafter, starting at age 8, to help support your family, while also earning straight A’s, playing three sports, being the class president every year, starring in the school play, and playing in the high school band, and editing the newspaper.  That’s what you did when you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and had no father and wanted a shot at getting anywhere in life.

My father’s children probably were spoiled, when you line them up next to that, until you consider the things my father didn’t, which was that in addition to the material things he gave us, he also brought so much unaddressed trauma – the abusive, alcoholic, neglectful, and, ultimately, absent father; his own alcoholism; his molestation by an uncle when he was under the age of six; his exposure to Agent Orange during the Viet Nam war, not to mention whatever other happenings during his tour may have caused him to suffer PSTD – he also brought a simmering, uncontained and uncontrollable rage to his particular brand of parenting; a rage which manifested itself in so many egregiously destructive ways.

My father was a deeply troubler, difficult, vicious man who rarely allowed the depths of his love, caring, and kindness to shine through, although it was there and showed itself to me on a few rare, but deeply meaningful occasions.  He died at the age of 83, in a memory care facility, having been diagnosed with either Lewey Body dementia or Frontal Temporal Dementia.  He was a man who was never able to address his trauma or make peace with the great sadness and terror of his life.

My mother, on the other hand, was a woman who stuffed down pain, difficulty, discomfort, or conflict, with a ramrod.  She was the queen of denial, refused to acknowledge the reality of our family life for fear that it might kill her even though my sister and I have candidly spoken to her about its impact upon us, and despite my having shared with her how it has informed a number of difficult decisions I have made in terms of how I have managed my own family. My mother has always hoped that if she just didn’t speak of it, it would go away and it never happened. She was raised by two alcoholics – a tannery manager who married a woman I never met, because she died of cirrhosis a the age of forty-nine.  My mother, until she developed dementia, always filled out medical questionnaires listing her mother’s cause of death as “breast cancer.” She just couldn’t tell the truth.

My mom’s family also moved around a lot when she was young, from tannery to tannery – and not because my grandfather, or “Pop,” was doing such a good job, he got promotions – it was the opposite.  He kept getting demoted, mostly because he drank too much, and wasn’t running the tanneries optimally.  When he landed in Curwensville, where my father lived, he was given a home owned by the company that also owned the tannery, and what a fine house it was. It was huge – but also very expensive to furnish and heat. My mother told me the blocked off most of the rooms and lived in only about three of them, though many people in town thought the Hoblitzell family must have been loaded.  They weren’t.

Years later, when my grandmother Phoebe died, my mother helped her father clean out the house.  There were bottles everywhere – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of empty bottles of booze.  She was a true alcoholic, through and through, a woman who neglected her children. The only real measure of “care” my mother could remember was that each night when she came home from school, her mother would take the shoelaces out of her shoes and wash them, and also shine her shoes.  That was it.  It’s not surprising that my mother, most of her life, was not a warm and fuzzy person and was always the first one to break the hug.

But our family seemed normal enough. Father, mother, brother, sister, sister. Nice house, good jobs, eventually, a dog.  Two cars, kids who had activities and music lessons, a son who excelled in cross country and track.  We looked like the all-American family.

Which is how you knew that there were secrets, plenty of them, and that everything was being held together with alcohol and lies.

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