The three of us could not have been more different from each other, but for one thing- our shared childhood home. Greg served as a solid buffer between us and our parents, but that was all. She alone could neither undo or compensate for the affection we lacked as children. Consequently, we each developed our own coping mechanisms to get us through.
As the eldest, I was the earnest and compliant one who worked hard to anticipate and fulfill the desires of the grownups around me. I was the “good” girl. I would sing, dance, and recite on command and generally do what I was told. I was seen, at least by my mother, as needy because I was the one who wept most easily. This was true on both counts. I was needy. I craved the approval of parents whose affection was well nigh impossible to come by. I coped with my parents harshness either by compliant performance or by cringing like a little dog who, whimpering, rolls onto its back revealing its soft underbelly in an act of submission, hoping for a sympathetic response.
I was sent for lessons in ballet, piano, art, gymnastics, swimming and horseback riding. I was sent to Cotillion at the Breakers Hotel in order to learn ballroom dancing,comportment and manners. I was also given daily math tutoring every summer to compensate for disappointing math grades. Clearly, my parents were giving their child what they themselves never had in childhood. They were also looking to form me into a well rounded young lady of means. I would be their exemplar.
I loved my ballet lessons, and I was the entertainer. I took on my role with great seriousness at times that we had company, pirouetting and leaping across the floor to recordings of Chopin or Tchaikovsky. I would make my balletic curtsey at the end of the dances to the applause of my parents and the various visitors and be excused to go play. It was such a regular routine for me to do this that as I got older, around ten or so, and I remember the day I became self conscious of the command performances and refused to dance. I had always enjoyed the attention and positive responses I had gotten. I got so little otherwise. But suddenly I felt like a little monkey, expected to do this “job” for the grownups because I was starving for the crumbs of approval I received. Once the image came to me, it would not retreat. It was this need for approval that suddenly felt sad and sorry to me, and I never danced again for them, despite my parent’s criticism.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why won’t you dance for us?”
“I just don’t feel like it.”
“Come on, Helen, just one dance.”
Now shame faced, lowering my eyes, I repeated quietly, “I don’t want to.”
My mother scolded, “Go to your room then.”
My father with a disapproving, “O.K.”
I turned and left, the grownups frowning, but unconcerned. No one followed. I went to my room and I wept.
Debbie, the middle child, was the tomboy. She preferred playing with blocks and stuffed animals to playing with dolls. She was rough and tumble and independent to a fault. Debbie coped by presenting a cool and self-reliant attitude which bordered on the side of defiance in the name of self-preservation. She did not like to be hugged, even as a child, thus keeping an emotional distance from everyone, even Greg. Debbie was given all the lessons I received, but for the math tutoring, She had no interest in any of those things except the horseback riding, an activity which held no thrall with our parents. She was painfully shy as a small child, often hiding herself behind Greg’s hem as she stood in company. This seemed to rankle with my parents, who pushed her even harder in social situations.
As my sister, and only two years younger, Debbie was constantly compared to me. The message was, “Why can’t you be more like Helen?”
She was encouraged as a toddler to dance with me, with less than satisfactory results. She had to draw with me, while she had no real interest. She didn’t like dresses, but they put her in them until she was too old to be told what to wear. (In her adult life I saw her in a dress only once, and it was at her wedding.) Everyone giggled when she would try her best to imitate her sister, while her sister got all the accolades. She was willful and less compliant than me. She never quite managed to do anything I did, dance, sing, or draw quite as well as me, and it was no wonder. First of all, she was younger, but more importantly, Debbie’s inclinations and real talents laid elsewhere. Our parents took no note of them and gave them no importance. This was her tragedy. And it was ours as siblings. She never felt she measured up, and the resentment she felt toward me became a lifelong issue between us. Simultaneously, I felt the sting of that terrible injustice from an early age.
My mother told me privately when I was about eight years old that I was her favorite. We were alone in her room. She was sitting at her vanity and gazing at me with a strange look of affection. Gently, she moved a lock of my hair away from my forehead and said, “You know, Helen, you are my favorite child. I searched her eyes for the joke. I was horrified. Tears filling my eyes, I cried, “No, Mommy- don’t say that! You love all your children the same!”
She replied, “But Helen, it’s true. You are my favorite. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
My mother gave me a rare embrace for the show of concern for my sisters, and chuckled at me for my tears.
Like a captive who survives while his comrades are shot, I needed the good will of my parents as much as my sisters. The guilt was crushing for such a young child, but what little more affection I got was precious, and I had no resources do anything more than try to survive that childhood myself.
We were like the Smothers Brothers. It was always pointed out that Mom loved me best. They knew knew it. And although I never told Debbie or Carolyn of that conversation, sadly, it was true.
Carolyn, as the baby, was the sunny child, and seemed to be amused wherever she was, not requiring much from anyone. Compared to Debbie and me, Carolyn was low maintenance in the extreme. She was always compliant and became Debbie’s companion, minion and whipping post, as Debbie and I never had an easy time with each other. She was easy going and was almost three years younger than Deb and she could be Debbie’s ally where I had been set up as the enemy. Carolyn simply went with the flow, wherever it went, just happy to be going along for the ride. My mother often said that Carolyn would be her “walking stick” someday when she grew up, as she could not detect a difference of opinion or difficulty between them.
It was Carolyn who was able to sidle up uninvited and climb into our father’s lap, snuggling in with no problem, much to the surprise and delight of our father. Debbie and I would watch with the same amazement as if she had climbed onto a rogue tiger with no ill effects. We never did it. Even with the proof right in front of us, we were sure it was dangerous and impossible. We even talked about it between us, unable to comprehend how it was possible that she did not perceive the danger. This was not a man to be trifled with, and we knew it. Was Carolyn crazy? We weren’t sure. We only knew she seemed so happy, in a home that was not- and this was a mystery which would not be solved for many years to come.
From the beginning, Carolyn’s happy personality baffled all of us, even our parents. Her coping mechanism was just this. If you make no waves, you don’t get singled out. Everyone enjoyed her as the baby. She was an adorable little thing with light brown hair that curled at the edges and the optimistic and friendly demeanor which charmed everyone. She got less in terms of discipline, and managed a general pass from the microscope that was trained on her older sisters. As a coping strategy, this worked marvelously well, but there was a price to be paid. Ultimately, it was Carolyn who was forgotten in the vicissitudes of our daily life. She fell through the cracks straight through to her teen years, left to her own devices more often than not. No one worried about her, and ultimately, no one encouraged or even had expectations of her.
To be fair, Carolyn was born five and a half years in to the last fifteen years of our father’s life. His health was always failing, and there was much more to worry about in the household than the easy child.