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My Sister

My mother fell apart after she and my dad separated, so I took care of my little sister. Nobody told me to do this, or exactly how. It was just something I did because she was my sister, and I loved her. I was eight and she was three. Children, both of us.

I knew how to do the little things like comb her hair or make her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she was hungry. It was the big things that caused a pain in my stomach, though. Worry. I came home from school one day, and my sister had stitches near her eye. She had been hit in the face with a swing in our back yard. Who was watching her, I asked. Where was Mom when this happened? She didn’t know and didn’t care. But I did, because I was the one who wasn’t there.
When I was ten and my friends went off trick or treating on Halloween, racing to fill their pillow cases with as much candy as they could, I took my five- year old sister, door to door, slowly, at her pace. It was dark out when a teenager ran past us and grabbed her pillow case. She screamed at the shock of him whizzing by and cried at the loss of her treats. I gave her half of mine and told her not to worry–it wasn’t a real monster, just a bully.

In the mornings, I would remind my sister to brush her teeth, and she would get mad at me, shouting, “You’re not my mother!”

In those days, my father defended me, and would say, “Don’t talk to your sister like that. She’s better than the mother you got.”  Eighteen cavities later, I never once said, “Told you so.”

A year after my father got sole custody of us, when my sister was seven and I was twelve, she came home from school with tears in her eyes. “The kids are teasing me about my bald patch.”

Bald patch. What bald patch? She tilted her head down so I could see, and sure enough, there was a quarter-sized bald patch. The patch continued to grow, so my father took her to the doctor who said the hair loss was from nerves. The doctor wanted to inject something into her scalp, but at the sight of a 12-inch needle, my sister protested (screamed?), and so it was decided to use a cream applied twice daily to her bald spot.

I can still feel the roots of her hair and see the pasty white of her scalp where I had to rub in the cream. I hated the world for making me do this to my sister, and hated my mother who caused the stress in the first place. If I saw my workaholic, perfectionist father a little more clearly, I might have blamed him too, but in those days, he could do no wrong in my eyes. Did my sister hate me for reminding her she had a bald spot, a loss that she herself couldn’t see? I find it curious that nowadays doctors won’t ask the mother to hold her baby for shots, or stitches, or whatever.  They think the baby might associate pain with the mother, causing attachment issues.

In my disowning, my father made my sister choose sides. At first, when I was in college and she was in high school, my sister used to sneak out of the house to see me. Later, when I moved an ocean away to marry my high school sweet heart, a Swiss exchange student, she told me she despised me and hoped I never moved back to the U.S. I could hate her for turning her back on me. I could call her selfish for not showing me any kindness when I took care of her for so long.

But I understand. I understand she needed our father more than she needed me. For fifteen years, my sister worked at the same news station as my father. As a famous sportscaster and our sole parent, he was larger than life, so my letters and cards were no match for his daily presence. She lived two miles away from the house we grew up in. I always felt these were her choices, her decisions, but were they really? Does a child choose to need air, any more than my sister chose my father’s love?

I never lost hope, either for my sister or my father. After all, I had done nothing wrong, or nothing worse than grow up. It took me more than a decade of unanswered letters and the birth of my own children, to understand the depth of family patterns, though, and to see how my father was repeating his own childhood trauma. His oldest sister had been disowned for getting pregnant out of wedlock, and her name was never to be mentioned again.  Has my name, too, not been mentioned for 25 years?

When my father died a couple years ago on Christmas Eve, he left her nothing. Six months later, her husband left her too.  She has no children.

I hear she now lives an hour from our childhood home, and so when I visit DC for work in a few weeks, I will drive by her house, ring her doorbell, and leave her some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. There’s something about the memories of years of baking together and the timelessness of the love those goes into a homemade cookie. It’s the only way I know to soften a hardened heart. If she answers the door, which I’m not expecting her to, I only hope that she doesn’t do anything worse, than say “I hate you.”

Books That Have Helped Me Cope With Being Disowned

Here are some books that have helped me understand why I was disowned, why it was not my fault, how to cope, and specific strategies for healing and reconciling:

Healing >From a Family Rift by Mark Sichel. He’s a therapist who was disowned. It was in this book that I first learned the word narcissist as a more specific parenting problem.

The Narcisistic Family by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman. Your parent doesn’t have to have narcissistic personality disorder for this book to apply. Instead, it’s more about families who put the parents’ needs ahead of the children’s.  Reading this book gave me a lot of aha moments – why I push people away, something the authors call plastic walls and why children who have grown up in such families have symptoms similar to those of children of alcoholics.

Children of the Self-Absorbed by Nina Brown. Full of self diagnostic check lists and patterns of how children react to these parent types. Some rebel and some do everything to please. I fall into the pleasing camp.

I did recently order I Thought We’d Never Speak Again by Laura Davis but haven’t read it yet. Will update this post when I do.

I didn’t find anything in my local library but I think some can be borrowed through inter library exchange.

And then because my faith has given me strength throughout my life, a friend gave me Jesus Calling which are daily reflections. When God Winks at You is a good read on the meaning of coincidences (there were a lot around the time of my father’s death!) as well as Unfinished Business. If  you believe in Karma or the after life, this last book is full of stories that will make you determined to reconcile in this lifetime. And if you have tried and reconciliation is beyond hope, then it’s really for the people who have disowned you to resolve and make up for their failings.

The online group and non profit http://www.EstrangedStories.com has also been very helpful.

Please do let me know if there are books you too have found helpful.

 

 

Holding Onto Your Heart, not Hate, When You’ve Been Disowned

Printed in our church bulletin from Christmas Eve, 2009, is a quote from the poet Henry Van Dyke from The Other Wise Man: “If you truly believe that love is the strongest thing in the world–stronger than hate … then you can keep Christmas.” I didn’t see the bulletin until months later, the paper buried in our junk basket amid bills and condolence cards.

Instead, that Christmas Eve, when I was supposed to be tracking Santa on NORAD, I was reading my father’s obituary, George Michael, sportscaster and disc jockey, March 24, 1939 to December 24, 2009. It lists my father’s survivors. I am not one of them. NBC had also left out my brother, an omission that nagged at me all day. I waited until after my children were safely tucked in bed, milk and cookies left out for Santa, before plucking up the courage to call the news station to ask why.

I asked to speak to Matthew Stabley, the author of the obituary. He wasn’t there. I asked whom to talk to about an error in a news story about the death of George Michael. His name stuck in my throat for a multitude of reasons. Only then did I realize I hadn’t said my father’s name in years.
The pitiful reporter who had to work Christmas Eve, who happened to take my call, asked who was calling. I hadn’t thought about how to answer this. I hesitated, then finally said my name, my voice thick. “Cindi Michael … I’m—“
He responded with a hint of panic,“Oh, Cindi, jeez, I’m sorry.”
“So you know about me?”
“Yeah, yeah, we know about you.” He explained that my brother’s omission was an error in phrasing, as they offered condolences to their long-time employees, my step mother and sister. My omission, however, was intentional. They were respecting my step mother’s wishes on this point.
I wanted to know what my father’s dying wish was. Even with this brutal ending, I still held onto a thread of hope. I didn’t voice this, though, because I was trying not to crack.

My father hadn’t spoken to me in twenty years, not counting one letter. I hadn’t known he was sick. When he retired in 2006, I had assumed it was because of declining ratings, usurped by satellite dishes and ESPN. I imagined my long-hoped-for reconciliation was near as my father had finally been forced to slow down, to get off that treadmill of fame and success. He would remember the person he once was, the relationship we once had. Instead, a neighbor heard about his death on the radio and called my husband, who broke the news to me. Had my father’s hatred really outlasted my hope?

My father had disowned me twice in my life. The first time was when I was 18, a freshman in college, 1983. I was dating the vice principal of my high school, and even though my father initially tried to accept the relationship, after the rumors started, he feared news of the relationship would jeopardize his career. When you are an Honor’s student, Student of the Year, and all around goody-two-shoes daughter of a famous sportscaster, the fall from grace can be long and far. I didn’t think my father was being fair. He had always told me age didn’t matter, since there was 15 years between him and my stepmother. Even after the vice principal and I broke up, my father still wouldn’t speak to me, probably angry that I had written a letter to him and called him an a**hole. In the letter, I had told him I loved him too, but I guess that wasn’t enough. So I worked two jobs and managed to stay in college, without my father’s support. Like my father, I learned that work and success is a way to deal with pain.

I proved to myself and to my father that I didn’t need his support. But after two years, when my heart was breaking and my soul dying, it was clear the one thing I needed to survive was his love.
My boss called my father, told him I was desperate, told him I wrote to him in my journal every day, the only way I could talk to my dad. We reconciled for a few years, and in that time, I did my best to please him, to make him proud as I had always done. My father promised he would never turn his back on me again. Was I wrong to trust him?

Call it destiny or an attempt to recapture innocence, but shortly after I reconnected with my high school sweetheart, the only boy my father ever liked. He was a Swiss foreign exchange student, and our long distance romance was safe, up until the point it came time to make a commitment. He was in the army and still in school, so it seemed more practical that I should be the one to move to Switzerland. I tried for more than a year to get a work permit, and when one looked promising, my father remarked, “You know if you go there, you’ll only get divorced.” I thought he was referring to me, how I didn’t deserve this boyfriend, wasn’t good enough for him. I never considered that my Dad’s remark was about himself, and his distrust in the power of love. I didn’t get the work permit, anyway, and so our long distance relationship stayed long distance.

My second and final disowning came slowly, starting in 1988. It began over little things, including spilt sugar, literally. My stepmother, Pat, had spilt some sugar on the floor, and when I walked over it in my high heels, my father grimaced in disgust. He was a perfectionist in everything, whether sports highlights or cleaning. I said I would clean it up when I got home from church, that cleaning was not one of Pat’s strongpoints. How could it be? She didn’t grow up with a bachelor father like mine who had taught me at the age of nine to tilt my head to catch the sunlight to check for dust, to run my fingers along the floor, the dresser, the counter, for any spots I might have missed. After that, my step mother never really spoke to me again, and made sure to point out my flaws to my father.
So when my boyfriend had been visiting the U.S. for three months, and we announced our engagement, my father said, “I don’t give a s*** where you get married, I’m not coming to your wedding.” Would it have mattered if my fiancé had asked my father’s permission first? It might have helped, but he was so like my father, too proud to think he needed to. My father’s temper is legendary. He has thrown a carousel of music tapes across a room, broken a foot while kicking a chair in the studio, and ripped up a new suit in a store when the tailoring hadn’t been done perfectly. My father was mad at me about a lot of little things, but I believed it was just a matter of time before he got over whatever I had done to annoy him.
That could be weeks, months, or as I learned in my first disowning, years.

My fiancé returned to Switzerland and the army, so we planned our wedding in Switzerland, during his next military leave. We sent an engagement announcement to my father. He didn’t reply. I called my dad a few weeks before I was due to move overseas. He didn’t offer to take me to the airport. I knew by then not to ask.

The day of my wedding was a sunny day along the Lake of Lucerne, laced with snowcapped mountains. A friend’s father offered to walk my down the aisle. I declined. I didn’t want anyone occupying my father’s place next to me. Either my dad would be next to me, or nobody would.

I walked down the aisle alone, the chords of the old organ carrying me forward. When I got to the alter, I heard the church door bang. I turned, hoping to see my father rushing in. It wasn’t. It was the door being closed.
I called him a few days later, but there was little to say, the pauses on the phone wider than the ocean that separated us. I held fast to my hope though. I just needed to be upbeat in the letters and postcards I sent weekly, and eventually my father would soften.

When my husband first hit me, the first month I was there, I knew not to go crying to my father.
My father sent me a card the first Christmas, but never otherwise wrote back or called. When I called home to plan a visit a year later, he told me not to bother, saying simply it was easier if I didn’t come. He suggested I could keep writing, though, “It’s nice to know what’s going on.” So I wrote of my work, of my travels, of learning German. I didn’t write about when my husband left me out of anger for days at a time, the blue marks on my legs when he tickled me too hard. I only called it quits three years later when he drew blood.
I wrote to my father to let him know we were divorcing. It was my younger sister who wrote back, telling me never to come back to the U.S., saying I had hurt her father. I heard from a cousin that the extended family was told not to talk to me.

I eventually remarried, and wrote to ask my father if he wanted to meet him or to be involved in the wedding. He didn’t reply. Nobody did. When our first daughter was born, my father’s first and only granddaughter, I wrote to him again and included baby photos. I suggested that if he didn’t want a relationship with me, I would accept that and would ensure he could still have a relationship with his granddaughter. He never replied. When my son was born two years later, I tried again. I suspect my second husband, a kind and protective man, silently hates my father, having watched him nearly break me multiple times. And yet still, when I share the happy stories about my dad, he listens quietly, not understanding how a father could ever treat a daughter like this.

Instead, he let me introduce our children to my father through my eyes, taking them to his favorite bakery each summer, sharing his traditions, but never revealing his fame. I never wanted my children longing for him through the TV or Googling his name the way I sometimes did. I believed my father would just pull up my driveway one day, comment on how green my lawn is, and ask for a cup of coffee, black. On that day, I wanted my children to be able to open the door to him, to their grandfather, not for him to be a stranger to them.
Perhaps I should have given up after my dad didn’t show for my first wedding. Perhaps I should have hated him. Hate would have hurt less, but how would it have changed me, changed my children?

Certainly, there have been days when I didn’t think I could go on living with this hole in my heart. There have been years when I blamed myself, for some flaw in me that I just didn’t see but that my father clearly did. Always, though, I remembered the man my father once was, the person who once fought for custody of me, my brother and sister, when my mother and he separated. He had only one condition for us to move in with him that October of 1976: we had to stick together. He was a bachelor then, a rock and roll disc jockey at WABC in New York, play-by-play announcer for the Islanders, and yet he still won custody of us. It was during these years Dad would often say, “I may not have any money, but I am the richest man in the world, because I have my children.”
My father taught me patience and determination, so I could wait a lifetime to see that person again.

I have tried to trace the exact moment when my father so hardened his heart. At first I thought it was when he was fired from WABC, November 17, 1979, coincidentally on his first wedding anniversary to Pat. He cried that night, saying he would never again have money or success like he did in New York. I tell this story often to my children, that sometimes you have to hit bottom and work your dreams from every angle before they come true. It was in his firing as a disc jockey that he became free to pursue his dream of sportscasting, a dream that had eluded him since college, when the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t hire him to do play-by-play. In 1962, he was too loud for their tastes.
It was only after my father died that I understood my disowning was in the works long before I was born. I can go back to my grandfather, Pop who lost his first wife in a car accident, discarding all pictures, and never telling that son that his mother died when he was baby. And then there is my father’s oldest sister who was disowned when she was 18 for getting pregnant out of wedlock. My father would have been about seven when she was banished, her name never to be mentioned. No wonder my father often said, “Never bring up the past,” because his past taught him to bury the pain, no matter who you shut out in the process. That my mother and he separated must have further shrunk his heart. It probably never helped my cause that I have her smile.

I don’t know if my father hated me in the end or simply never thought of me again. I have only clues and uncanny coincidences since he died. In his eulogy (a eulogy I watched on Fox News since it was made clear I was not wanted there), Joe Gibbs described my Dad’s final words in the hospital. “He said, ‘I’ve made some mistakes … I have to get stronger. I have to get out of here. There are some people I need to talk to …’” Did he mean me, or am I deluding myself?
Why after 19 years of not speaking to me and just after he was diagnosed, did my Dad mention me by name, spelled correctly in an interview with Washingtonian? And then there is the poem I read at the private service we held for my father, copied in my diary when I was ten, written by someone I thought was a classmate, “Time is too slow for those who wait … too long for those who grieve … but for those who love, time is eternity.” Eventually, after finding the church bulletin, I learned that the poem was written not by a classmate, but by Henry van Dyke.

Christmas Eve is no longer the joyous day it once was for me. It’s a day of mixed blessings, of trying not to lose myself to grief. And yet, I know I still have so much to be joyous about. On the first anniversary of my father’s death, sitting around the dinner table with my family, I raised my glass of wine for him, and started a toast, “To my father, may he rest in peace, and …” My voice clogged. I could not continue.

My husband encouraged me. “It’s okay.”

I took a breath and tried to continue. I had made it through the day without shedding a tear, but now they spilled over. “I can’t.” I whispered. My father was truly gone, and I could no longer hope to see him again.

My husband raised his glass. “To George. For all he did right, to make you the kind of person you are, for making you–you.” We all clinked our glasses together then in memory of my father, for the person he once was, for the man they never met.

 

Copyright, Cindi Michael, 2012

Reasons to Disown a Child

Is there any valid reason to disown a child? I can’t think of one, not even murder. As a mother, I have brought my children into the world, and I feel responsible for them, forever. This is not to say that I am responsible for their actions or decisions, but that I will always, always be their mother … to love them, to guide them, to hug them when they make mistakes. I don’t see it as my job to control them (unless of course we are talking about a 3-year old having a tantrum). And yet here are some reasons why people have been disowned:

  • Marrying a different race
  • Marrying a different religion
  • Being gay (see this awful letter)
  • Not taking care of their parents in the way their parents expect
  • Getting pregnant out of wedlock
  • Choosing to pursue a music career rather than devoting themselves to religion
  • Being born a boy when the father really wanted a daughter (and vice versa)

I still cannot readily say why I was disowned. I have sometimes told people it was because I grew up. The reason is true enough. When I got married, I moved to Switzerland. My father adored my husband, but I don’t think he wanted me to move overseas. He never told me this, of course. Would it have mattered if he did? So I think it hurt him that I moved and my father’s way of coping with hurt was to cut me out of his life. Ten years after my disowning, he wrote me a letter. I had been writing to my family for ten years, postcards, pictures, any little thing to keep trying to reconcile. They had never once written back. But this time, I had written to my younger sister, suggesting that our father was repeating a family cycle, since he had a secret older sister who had also been disowned (for getting pregnant). It was my father who replied, and it was a letter that nearly destroyed me. He said I was disowned because he and his wife (my stepmother) were happier without me. At the end of his letter, my father he told me never, ever to contact anyone in the family again. I know my step mother was glad to have me out of their lives, because I don’t think she is a very nice person. She brought out the worst in my father. But I kept these opinions to myself, because my father loved her. So what should I say—that I was disowned because my stepmother didn’t like me? Because my father was happier without me around? Or because my father couldn’t cope with losing me so he had to hurt me in return? Or because my father failed to understand how his own upbringing tainted our family, causing him to repeat the terrible cycle his father had started?

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My Father Could Deny My Existence But Not Our Resemblance

I thought of my father this morning, as I do most mornings. Today was different, though, because I was nervous about a keynote I was doing on cool technology. Every good presentation starts with an attention grabber, a hook to make a connection with the audience. So I had planned to walk on stage in my very conservative black suit, donning a cool 70’s style dress beneath it. Trusting that there would be no wardrobe malfunction, I would drop the suit, as music from Queen, “I want to break free” rose up, and my inspiration for cool, “The Mod Squad” showed on the screen behind me.

I was nervous. It was a conservative crowd. Would they find my stunt too edgy … too silly … too unprofessional?

So I thought of my Dad in circa 1983, then a rising sportscaster in Washington, DC. He was interviewing a few Redskins players on his show, pool side in Miami ahead of the Super Bowl. At the end of the interview, the two players tossed him into the pool, expensive sport coat and all. Some people in journalistic spheres criticized him then, noting that his shoes were coincidentally not on him when the football players spontaneously threw him in the pool. Had he staged the act for the sake of entertainment? Of course he did. It was his hallmark: to entertain while also delivering sports news.
He taught me well.

To educate and inspire people, it’s more effective to make it also entertaining.
I wonder if he was nervous when he staged this event? Surely, he couldn’t rehearse it, as I had done with my suit a dozen times in advance. There were other times though that I had heard him rehearse, usually before announcing a baseball or hockey game, memorizing the visiting team’s numbers. Who inspired him on that day, on so many days? He would have been 43 when he was launching that part of his career. I am now 47, and somehow, I still feel like a child, in awe of my father who was larger than life.

My father may have disowned me, refusing to acknowledge me as his daughter, but in my work, there is no denying the resemblance.

Is Hope a Dangerous Thing?

I hate movies like The Bucket List, Last Song, or Peace Love and Misunderstanding that promise a happy ending to being disowned. In real life, there is no reconciliation, most of the time anyway. Actually, I’ve only seen the Bucket List, long before my father died, when I was still filled with hope, a hope that survived for more than 20 years. It was that hope that kept my heart open and spirit alive.

But then my father died, with no warning to me and certainly no reconciliation. His sudden death nearly destroyed me and everything I believed about him . . . about love.

There are some that would say that I was wrong to have hoped for a happy ending. If I hadn’t deluded myself about my father, then I would not have been so devastated. Are they right? Sometimes I think they are. I could have hardened myself 20 years ago and been spared a lot of pain. But I think that would have changed me as a person, as a mother.

My father had it in him to love and to forgive. It was his choice to hold a grudge. It was his choice to ignore the patterns of his past and of our family. It would have been difficult for him to reach out to me, and I can understand he would have been afraid of the pain. Would his daughter still love him after all that cruelty? Certainly there would have been consequences with his wife, my stepmother. But these were his choices. He could have chosen differently.

So I think I was right to hope, and I would never tell a person estranged from their family to give up.
I think those Hollywood happy endings are rare, very rare, but I have sometimes seen them. Consider this:

  • My grandfather reconciled with my aunt, who had been disowned for more than 20 years. Pop was dying, and it took a lot of lobbying from another aunt to bring peace.
  • A reader on this blog whose father disowned her brothers has reached out to them after decades. I hope her father will not maker her choose.
  • My nephew sent my daughter a facebook friend request … a nephew through my brother who has not spoken to me in 20 years.

So perhaps the healing happens in the next generation. I will remain forever hopeful. It's dangerous, I know.

 

Birthdays. A Hard Day to be Disowned

It’s my birthday today. 47. Birthdays are always the hardest day of the year to be disowned. It’s the day I am most likely to have a pity party. It also used to be the day I would most likely Google my father’s name to see how he was.

Why celebrate a birthday when my father did not celebrate me as his daughter? That’s the pity part. And then there is just the clear marking of time. Yet another year of hoping and waiting and nothing. Another year he did not respond. With his passing, I don’t have to hope any more.

But then there is my brother and sister too. As serendipity would have it, I won’t be home in New Jersey for my birthday. I will be away for work in Florida, just a few minutes from my brother’s home. So I emailed him, suggesting we meet. I called to be sure my email didn’t get lost. He never responds. I sort of understand– he just can’t go there. That’s the thing with a father who disowns a child. The ripples of damage go on forever.

After 20 years, why do I even bother? Why do I reach out to these people who at worst hate me or at best just can’t cope with the trauma that is our family? Is hate really so much easier than love? And therein lies my answer. Yes, I still love them. Even though what they have done–are still doing–is cruel and wrong.

It would be easier I think to cut them out of my heart. That would be my Dad’s coping technique. There’s so much love and beauty in my present family. Yesterday, my daughter and I went on a Bridges run with our church. It’s a service to bring food, and tooth brushes, and sweaters to homeless or almost-homeless people in New Jersey. We had been baking homemade chocolate chip cookies for Bridges for a couple years now, but we never had a chance to go on a run to deliver them ourselves. Our hope was that the cookies, soft and gooey the way we make them, would bring just a little bit of TLC to people down on their luck. A smile perhaps. I had heard they do, but never saw for myself. I am so proud of my children. They each bake two batches, 100 cookies eac. Even my son, who was 11 when we started, will bake on his own if I am away for work. I don’t need to remind him. He knows it matters.  So my daughter and I brought the cookies yesterday morning. It was ten degrees out. We gave the children in the line some extras, wishing that they didn’t need to be there at all. It was heartbreaking when we ran out of gloves.

My daughter saw a woman pushing her cart and her bag down the street. She didn’t come over to the Bridges truck. Maybe not knowing what it was, Maybe not wanting the hand out. I don’t know. My daughter grabbed two bags of sandwiches (the cookies were long gone) and caught up to her. These are the grandchildren my father never met. He never responded to their birth announcements. So I think about the type of people my children are.  I watched my daughter reach out to a stranger in need. These are the gestures that remind me: no matter how worthless my father’s disowning me makes me feel, I am not worthless. None of us are.

 

 

Famous People Disowned and Estranged

I sometimes wonder if being rich and famous goes hand-in-hand with disowning and estrangement. Do we just know about these stories because they are in the public eye or does it happen more often because ego—either the parent’s or the child’s– becomes more important than unconditional love?

Here are just a few examples:

Neil Diamond’s father disowned him for several years, supposedly because he pursued singing over the path his father wanted him to take. This was the theme of the movie Jazz Singer. Eventually they reconciled.

Jerry Lee Lewis  disowned his son. Whether he was disowned for speaking publicly about his father hitting him or for having a drug problem is unclear. The son eventually died of a drug overdose and still Jerry Lee Lewis wanted nothing to do with him.

A royal family in India disowned their son Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil  for being gay. His story was told on Oprah.

JK Rowling is estranged from her father.

Meg Ryan is estranged from her mother.

Tatum O’Neal was estranged from her father Ryan O’Neal. Drugs on his part were allegedly part of the problem as reported in a reality TV series.

My father disowned me. His ego. His fame. Our loss.

 

Disowned, Disinherited, Estranged: What’s the Difference?

I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night, when Callie said her mother almost disowned her for being gay. Disowned. People like to use the word loosely, but for me, it’s a term I don’t use lightly. It’s a condition I wish on no one. Gay or not. Murderer or not. Pregnant or not. Drug abuser or not.

Callie might have said her mother was mad or that they were “estranged” for awhile, but disowned is forever. Webster defines disown as “to refuse to claim or accept as one’s own.” When my father gave interviews, he would say he had only two children, not acknowledging I was his daughter. In his obituary, I am not listed as a survivor, but that was my stepmother’s doing. I’m not clear what my father’s dying wish was. Did he want me so permanently and publicly disowned?

To disinherit someone is slightly different. To disinherit is to cut them out of your will. Parents may disinherit a child regardless of whether or not they were on speaking terms. Money is often used for power, trying to force a child to do something. I blame fame and money, in part, on my family’s downfall. The year that we were closest was the year my father lost his job. I can accept being disinherited as I think of it as blood money. Being disowned is harder. Love has always been a more powerful motivator for me than money. So my father withheld both.

“Estranged” is another one of those terms. Webster defines to estrange as “to alienate the affections of or to make hostile or unsympathetic.” A parent may not talk to an estranged child or vice versa. They may not visit in person but at least they acknowledge one another exist. I think there is a lot of estrangement out there, more than disowning, but it’s often temporary. Maybe the estrangement lasts months, maybe years. My father and I were estranged for more than 20 years. It goes hand-in-hand with disowning.

I continue to be estranged from my brother and sister. Their choice, not mine. I couldn’t say for sure if they too have disowned me. Do they acknowledge they have a sister? Probably not, because then they’d have to explain our situation. A story that can’t be explained, that can’t be justified. It's better to keep me a secret.

 

 

 

 

Where do you visit a loved one when there is no grave?

My father died Christmas Eve 2009. He was cremated. I do not know where his ashes are. My step mother would not want me to know. My Dad was raised a Catholic and once read the Sunday sermons at mass, but he was not a practicing Catholic at the end of his life. I don’t believe a person’s spirit stays in one place, but I would have liked a place to lay flowers and to sit and talk with him.

Instead, I visit our 3 homes in Northern New Jersey, the places where we were once were so happy as a family.  I start at the home where we first lived when my Dad got custody of us in 1976. The house looks the same, with the boardwalk to the front door. I study the yard to the side of the house, where he taught me how to throw a softball. I ring the doorbell to ask permission to walk around back, but instead, the present home owner invites me in.

He is my age and says his family is fourth generation from the town, Oakland, New Jersey. I walk up the stairs to the family room. Some things have changed (the hardwood floors). Some things have stayed the same (the mirrors my father hung on the cathedral ceiling). We walk onto the back deck that has since been rebuilt. I look into the back yard where my brother and step mother once crawled with our cat’s bell, trying to catch our mean neighbor. We think the neighbor hit our cat with a baseball bat. I share this story with the present owner, and he laughs. The nasty neighbors are still there, and he’s had his own run-ins with them.

I didn’t know if the neighbor on the other side would still live there, but I baked him cookies just in case. His wife, deceased 10 years at least, had once taught me how to soften the butter when making chocolate chip cookies. Her cookies were the best. I still follow her technique, and my children do the same. I see him outside, and I step over the little rock wall that I had once stumbled over when I was 12.

He remembers our family. He remembers my brother, who had once been his son’s best friend. He knows my Dad passed away. We laugh about the party my brother once had when Dad was at work. The woods were littered with beer cans. My Dad got mad at our neighbor for not having noticed, for not having stopped it somehow.

It felt good to remember those times. It felt good to visit a place where my Dad was just my Dad and not somebody famous. It felt good to talk to someone who remembered I was his daughter.