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I Was the Free Spirit in a Very Uptight Family

·744 words·4 mins
Family of Origin

“You had the most beautiful smile,” my mother says. “You were the free spirit in the family.”

And it’s a weird moment for me. Because I’m so used to being misunderstood by her. Mostly insulted. But on the rare occasion she’s said something nice, it’s been something that didn’t resonate with me. It felt like one of those standard gifts you get someone when you don’t know them very well — a bath set, a scented candle, a gift card to a store that sells pretty much everything.

Basically, it’s a nice thing to get them — or to say — but it doesn’t have much to do with them. A safe bet.

But this time it’s different. No one has ever called me a free spirit. True, I’ve spent many years in alternative circles. And even before that, I had a lot of friends who were artists, musicians, hippies. But perhaps that was part of the problem. I was in those circles but certainly not the most disinhibited person in the crowd. I was always a little reserved compared to present company.

It was only after I briefly started hanging out with more mainstream people (for about a 5-year period during my 20s, desperate for stability and wanting to settle down and finding that most of my former friends were still on the road and traveling) that I was confronted with this idea that I was wild. A party girl.

But other than that brief stint, I’ve spent most of my adulthood surrounded by people freer than me. You know, the most anxious person at the orgy. That’s me.

But Mom is right. Compared to my family of origin, I’m liberated beyond compare. Always have been. I grew up in a large blue collar French-Canadian Catholic family in the middle of the Maine woods.

Both of my parents were perfectionists, working hard after impoverished childhoods, desperate to achieve upward mobility. My mother’s mother had to work full time as the family breadwinner (at a time and place when women didn’t generally do that) and caretake for a husband who’d been wounded in the war and their four children; my father’s father was an immigrant janitor who didn’t speak English well. Their huge family lived in a tiny, ramshackle house next to the graveyard.

My parents were both uptight as adults. Had basically no sense of humor. No tolerance of mistakes — from themselves and certainly not from their children.

I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but looking back, I can see that they were terrified of losing what they were struggling to build. Of making one mistake and ending up in poverty again. Or of one of their children making a mistake that doomed the family.

In this equation, a free-spirited child was a liability. I was automatically the “bad” kid. Constantly clashing with them. Told explicitly I was the family embarrassment.

This Former Liability Is Now Something My Mother Is Proud Of

These days, Mom cites this independent streak in me with amusement and even pride. I know it helps that I have a stable life these days and can take care of myself. And that it helps that Mom and Dad successfully escaped crushing poverty, a feat I’m even more impressed by now that I’m older. (It does help that it was much easier to do it back then than it is nowadays, although it was never truly all that easy, I don’t think.)

“You were so much fun to raise,” Mom says, “though stressful. Biggest ups and downs I had of any of my kids.”

And it’s at that moment where I can brush aside a lot of the resentment I’ve felt over the years for the things she’s said and done and say, “Thanks Mom.”

Well, it’s not just like that. It isn’t that one moment. Nothing as neat as that. There have been a lot of moments leading up to this one — a lot of conversations where she’s admitted the way she’s fallen short and I’ve found my voice, too.

But we’ve been having appreciably more honest conversations since my father passed away last spring.

I don’t know that we would have ever chosen one another if we weren’t acquainted through an accident of birth. But I’m starting to feel like we really do understand one another. And that’s something I never thought I would say, during the long years of no-contact and low-contact.


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