The advent of DNA genealogy and its revelations make it practical these days to understand family history even to the point of health risks and almost pinpoint accuracy about ethnic origins. While those scientific tools are helpful, they never tell the full story.
That only comes from oral or written testimony by people that were actually there when things took place long ago. In our family’s case, the truth about my father’s upbringing and family circumstances only emerged when I was in my late 20s.
My dad was born in 1926. His father Harold Cudworth was a farmer in Cortland, New York. His wife Rena (my grandmother) was a Stewart by family name. Our ancestors were English with perhaps a bit of Scottish mixed in.
When my father was probably five years old, his mother contracted breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy to rid herself of the disease, but in the wake of recovery, she developed sepsis infection and died.
By then, the nation was in the early stages of the Depression. My grandfather Harold lost his farm, then lost his wife. The impact sank him into a horrific bout of emotional depression. Apparently, he’d also started a store in the wake of his farming life, and lost that venture to the bad economic times as well. It was all too much for one man to bear.
So severe was his emotional state that he required institutional treatment. Back then, one hardly knows what that all involved. Perhaps if I dug into the New York State medical records, the information could be retrieved. Was it shock therapy? In any case, he was unable to remain home to care for his four children; Marion, Helen, Stewart and Margaret. Apparently the kids were barely supervised during parts of this ill adventure. Then they were shipped to the homes of relatives. My father and his sisters landed with two aunts related to my grandmother, and their brother Leon. They lived on a small farm south of Bainbridge, New York next to the Susquehanna River. That farm sat 200 yards down the road from the farm where my mother lived. So my dad and mom were childhood sweethearts, of a sort. Their relationship had to pass through the Depression and World War II, but they ultimately made it and got married.
The Stewart Farm
Living on the Stewart farm was both difficult and a pleasure for my father. Leon was a reticent, soft-spoken man with a firm work ethic. My great aunts Helen and Shirley were loving in their way, and my father was raised for years under their guidance. One of those aunts was a hoarder of sorts, and a visit to the home meant walking through stacks of newspapers and magazines, old furniture and objects that would become prized as antiques one day. Once they all passed, robbers raided the home and stole away with everything inside, including an incredible arrowhead collection gathered from the land where they lived.
I do recall a fourth party living in the home, a man named Homer that was largely confined to the upstairs bedrooms where his occasional moans could be heard. He was gassed in the first World War. I know nothing else about him.
Eventually, my grandfather Harold emerged from treatment and returned to regular life. By the time I was five years old, he visited our family now and then. Like my father, he adored kids and loved engaging us in challenging little antics. He knew some “magic tricks” that he did with his hands. One involved using a match to transfer the black mark from one side of his hand to the other. I wanted to know how he did the trick, but he wouldn’t tell. He’d just chuckle.
He was a gruff man in some respects. I recall the moment when I winced in his arms due to a hangnail on my thumb. He said, “Let me see…” then to my horror, pulled out a large pocket knife and proceeded to slice off the hangnail as I stood stiff and scared within his strong arms.
I hardly dared ask more about my grandfather, and my mother never volunteered much information. Nor did I have a conversation with my father about his relationship with his father. On the day that my grandfather died in the early 1970s, my dad went out for a long walk and did not return for several hours. We didn’t talk about that either. The style back then was not to hold such discussions. I just told him that I was sorry that his father died.
It might have helped my dad to talk about that loss. Not long after that, he lost his job and got involved in a network marketing scheme in which he invested thousands of dollars and effectively lost it all. The hucksters that ran the scheme were rife with phony motivational language common to such “ventures,” and my dad bought it wholesale. I call it his “weird period.”
It certainly might have helped my father to engage in some sort of discussion about the effects of depression on the human mind. Instead, he was left to figure all that out for himself. He also likely fought ADHD, as his grades in college as an electrical engineer were, I supposed, average at best. So were mine from grade school all the way through high school. By college, I’d figured out how to survive, but it was still a struggle at times. I finished with a 3.1 GPA and led the cross country team to a NCAA D3 second-place finish. So I enjoyed success, and hugged my father the day that we ran that meet, telling him that I loved him.
He was a brilliant man in many ways, and in some respects, he even suppressed certain talents in favor of more practical pursuits. As far as I know, the sole example of his artistic talents remains in my possession. It is a watercolor and ink painting of a male moose. Why he chose the subject matter I do not know. He did have a strong association with nature and grew up hunting on the Upstate New York farm. Later in life when I took to painting birds, my father sold my work to friends and even framed it up to show in local restaurants. As a result, one of my paintings of downtown St. Charles, Illinois, hung in the Manor Pancake House for more than forty years. My father got me that commission.
His advice about producing artwork was a bit dismissive, but simple and smart. “Paint squirrels,” he told me. That was his way of telling me to paint the things that people liked. Familiar stuff. Things people would buy. For the most part, I followed that advice, and over my lifetime I’ve sold nearly 2,000 artworks. It’s never been my full profession, but it continues to this day.
My father was encouraging on the sports front too. He’s the one that guided me into running, insisting that I should not go out for football because it would destroy my body. He was surely right about that.
He loved all our sports careers, and to some degree, his desire for us to succeed probably drew from his own lack of opportunity growing up. He worked on the farm and his aunts and uncles weren’t all that keen on him spending time playing sports. At least, that’s how I understand the story.
So there was some sense of loss about his own sports career. This much I knew: he was fast afoot even into his late thirties when I challenged him to a footrace and he dusted me easily. He was also a famously dedicated and fairly talented golfer. The only thing I didn’t admire about his game was a tendency to engage in “woulda-coulda-shoulda” lamentations after some of his rounds.
The flipside of those lamentations gained expression in his sometimes pressuring us boys to perform. The ironic product of that pressure is that we might tighten up, and he could see that. Then he’d whoop out with some loud directive like “Stay LOOOSE!” which of course had the opposite effect.
In other words, he could be a bit exasperating in the conflicted ways that we were raised. We all knew how badly he wanted us to succeed. Yet we were also a stubborn bunch of boys who hated the idea of household chores and either tried to avoid––or refused to do them. That angered my father, whose upbringing involved tons of chores in place of the sports he might have loved to do. He had little patience or our excuses. On occasion, he’d react with rage at our reticence to obey him. We endured some harsh discipline and over time, considerable verbal abuse as well.
I believe that some of his inner rage came from his long-untreated anger over the loss of his mother at such a young age. While my father likely received sympathy from those around him, the stories I heard about he and his sisters being left to wander the streets after his father was institutionalized suggest a period of emotional trauma that few people can overcome on their own. Imagine losing your mother suddenly at age seven, and then being shipped off to live without your father as well. The trauma is massive.
That is why I don’t entirely blame my father for his conflicted nature. But on the day that he launched a disciplinary attack on my two brothers while I stood watching, the emotional impact on me was profound. I was traumatized, anxious, and afraid.
In that period, we all got spankings and my mother used either a brush or a “switch” that she kept on top of the refrigerator. It was common in the 1960s for parents to whup their kids as punishment for doing wrong.
But this day was different. I was frightened for my brothers, and as a sensitive kid, that fear sank into me in ways that produced anger all its own. Much of my later behavior passed through that portal of fear and rage. A week after my father administered that beating on my brothers, I broke down at school after seeing my best friend get hauled off and spanked on the playground by a teacher who didn’t like how he was behaving. My first-grade teacher pulled me aside right then, and in a thoughtful way asked why I was so upset. I tried to explain, but it appeared only situational to her. I understand that. How could she have known what I’d experienced at home? Such is the case for millions of kids to this day. Teachers are vital influences in our lives and do their best to help us.
What we’re all trying to figure out is how we go from being a sweet child to absorbing all these problems and flaws in our lives. I don’t think parents are automatically the ideal portal for gaining that understanding. It has to come from multiple influences. If anything, many parents hold their children back. So this idea that so many political and social conservatives advocate, that parents are always the best judge of what’s best for their children, is largely a lie.
It is also a fact that not all teachers are great. In fact, during that era of the 1960s when I was attending elementary school, the specter of physical punishment was all around us. At our schools in southeastern Pennsylvania, dominated in part by a religiously conservative ethos, the teachers made a practice of paddling kids on a regular basis.
On a rainy fall day when the entire school stayed inside for recess, I was playing a game of Stratego indoors, and I was winning when some dopey kid lurched into the desk knocking over all the player pieces. I was mad and told him so. He made a face at me so I shoved him. At that moment a strict old teacher named Mrs. Paloney was walking past the classroom. She saw me shove him and came marching in to grab me by the arm demanding an explanation. I told her that he ruined the game. She scowled and hauled me outside the classroom door. She told me to stand alone against the wall, then she marched into her own room to grab a wooden paddle. I recall her stretched back hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Then she hissed at me to drop my pants in the hallway. “You deserve a spanking,” she sputtered. After that, she administered a few hard whacks on my bare bottom with the wooden paddle. “Now pull up your pants,” she said.
And what did all that discipline prove? Nothing, except her unwillingness to listen.
Yet the humiliation and rage compounded in me. Between the conflicted nature of my father’s disciplinary style and the institutional injustice experienced at school, I lost trust in authority in many ways. My sense of fairness was contradicted by these circumstances. But I didn’t give in. I sought to defend justice as I saw it at every turn. A few weeks later, I got kicked out of Cub Scouts for calling out a kid who cheated at kickball.
Granted: I don’t think any of these events or circumstances were uncommon at the time or unique to my experience. All the kids around me endured them too. One poor kid named Richard in my sixth-grade group had eight or nine paddles broken over his ass in a single school year. He was defiant the entire time, and never cried until one male teacher berated him so badly the poor kid erupted in tears of rage, not sadness or fear. That kid grew into a man that later wound up committing crimes and served time in prison. We all did our best to deal with the weird and messed up way so many adults dealt with children. I have no romantic instincts about the “old days” of parents or teachers using corporal punishment. I think it’s stupid and wrong.
Looking back, I now realize why I started getting into playground fights in elementary school. Combined with the difficulties I had with some types of learning due to ADHD (not diagnosed until late in life) the daily struggles were real. One afternoon, exhausted from the teasing at home and the contrary punishments being dealt on several fronts, I burst into tears when someone running the classroom projector either purposely or accidentally pointed it at my eyes. The light was painful, and it should not have happened and even though the kid denied running the project insisted he did not do it on purpose, he still made a face at me to mock my concern.
The teacher had me put my head down on the desk. Then I overheard a girl that I really liked mutter under her breath, “He’s such a sissy.”
That’s when I started getting into playground fights. I set out to prove that I was not a sissy.
So these cycles of anger and frustration––along with the injustice and rage of it all… fuel who we become whether we like it or not. Much of this is about the competition in life. We compete for attention ––and lacking that in some way, we engage in compensatory behavior or redirected aggression. We compete for love, and if neglected or rejected in that category, we ruminate or circle back on our own constitution, engaging in self-blame, or fear. We compete for social survival, and if mocked we put up defenses that become the first face of who we are. These cycles pass through the lives of individuals and families––even whole generations. Cycles of rage and disenfranchisement even infect entire societies, and people go looking for someone to lead them through their personal conflict, and often choose wrongly. These cycles get passed on from parent to child until someone decides to break the cycle and take a different path.
That process takes self-knowledge and courage. Sometimes it also takes “digging in the dirt,” as Peter Gabriel once sang, to figure out how and where we got hurt.
The more I look, the more I find
As I close on in, I get so blind
I feel it in my head, I feel it in my toes
I feel it in my sex, that’s the place it goes
Because yes, these things sink into our souls. We often don’t even know how it works, or where the hurt goes. We indulge in pleasures to hide our pain. We eat our feelings or sex them out in some way. Some people simply never get around to any of that. As a result, they never forgive either themselves or those they perceive to have caused them pain. Others turn to religion or God for exoneration of these “sins.” In reality, they are not sins at all, but a product of the evolutionary realities of the human condition and natural competition, and what it relentlessly calls us to do. That is to survive.
It runs in the family (of all)
At the most basic level, it helps to know that conditions such as anxiety and depression, ADHD, or other mental health issues “run in the family.” In this competitive world, that type of knowledge is critical to adapt and thrive in the healthiest fashion possible. Otherwise, we’re left floundering with brains that don’t function the way other people expect they should. That’s a miserable path to trod as millions can attest.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Mental health advocates are making progress in de-stigmatizing all sorts of emotional and intellectual conditions. Unfortunately, this is hard-won progress that conflicts with the real-time “pressure to succeed,” a euphemistic phrase if there ever was one.
That is what I’ve learned from all my running and athletics pursuits. It’s all about understanding pressure and processing it in a healthy way. I used self-pressure to test myself and ultimately learned that the best way to succeed was not to impose pressure at all, but to embrace what opportunities you can create, and accept the outcomes. I performed best when I learned to relax, which is what my father was trying to tell us all along with his phrase, “Stay loose!” That was just the wrong way to convey it.
These pursuits have also helped me learn how to survive in the face of deeply personal questions. Because while I was competing I was fighting instincts within myself that define self-esteem, and these needed broader attention than just the platform of athletics. Which is why I decided to step out of the competitive arena in my late 20s and grow in different ways.
But first I woke up one night pounding my pillow in some unknown source of rage. At that moment, the trauma of that beating I witnessed on my brothers flashed through my mind. It stood as a symbol of sorts, a type of PTSD that I’d never diagnosed until then. So I started getting counseling, but it took years of digging in the dirt to sort it all out and find a path to self-acceptance. A therapist finally nailed it when she said, “You seem to be good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”
Talk about a healing insight. I’m still far from perfect, but working toward full life acceptance.
So often it’s the case that ideas about our self-image either can’t be spoken or the answers just aren’t there yet. As a distance runner and later as a cyclist and triathlete, those miles help me answer these questions. They have also led to the recognition that the equally wounded people in my life were just as focused on surviving––in their way––as I was. We come to recognize at some point that our parents are not perfect people. Then its our job to work on our own imperfections, inherited or not.
That is the true path to forgiveness, self and otherwise. I absolutely accept that I am Competition’s Son. We’re all Competition’s children. Once you learn that a whole bunch of life becomes much easier to understand.