What did it mean to have a governess? What was it like? It was the difference between having to be alone with only those two, or having an absolute buffer and a safe zone in which to retreat. It also meant that my own parents were virtual strangers to me and my sisters. They were exceedingly mysterious- and that mystery leant them a kind of unassailable power and glamour, as they were above us, separate and unaccountable to anyone but themselves.
It was not until my teen years that I realized how strange and unusual it was that my own mother never did certain things for me herself, things that most of the children in the world took for granted. She had never changed my diapers or fed me a bottle, or even touched me except as a rare matter of show for guests. She never dressed me, or worked the knots out of my hair. She never took my temperature, or gave me a bath. It was someone else who fetched a cool washcloth for my brow or held my forehead as I threw up. it was someone else, who accompanied me to birthday parties- even my own. At these events, my mother presided as the perfect hostess, dressed to the teeth, never touching a dish or wiping a messy hand. It was Greg who did these things and it was Greg who pulled up the rear with all of the logistics.
Greg had been there since I could remember. Greg did it all. It was Greg who was, in effect, my actual mother.
I did my homework without parental involvement too, which was just as well. On the few occasions in which I did have a question, I would be sent to my father. He would gladly launch into the history of the subject, the nuances of different approaches to it adding endless minutia until I was reduced to tears. My reaction clearly dismayed him and I think he found it puzzling. I would arrive at his study with a question like how much is two and two and I would receive a dissertation on advanced calculus in response. He wanted his children to have endless curiosity and savor his lectures as he relished making them. It was difficult for him to simplify to the level of a less knowledgeable questioner, even his own children. I dreaded asking him anything academic. I would be stuck in his office while he held forth, smoking his cigar, clearly glad to “assist” me, however long winded he was. By the time I made it to school the next day, I would open my text book and be assaulted by the pungent scent of cigar smoke rising from its pages, a souvenir of my misery the evening before.
Strange to say, I believe there was less of a disconnect from my father, as it was common for fathers of the day to be less involved in the daily care of their children. As a result, it did not seem as strange that he was less available.
I suspect that it was also a common thing among the very few of us who grew up with proxies, to miss the ministrations of our mothers more, or at very least, to suffer more from their absence. This is not to suggest in any way that I would not have also benefitted from any tender attentions father might have afforded me. Neither one of them were there for us.
This fact was the crux of the “love” question, which held thrall for me as a lingering and lifelong issue. There is a risk here that some will see this as some sort of “poor me” complaint. It is not. I have long since worked it out in my mind that they, my parents, did all they could in this department. They simply did not have the same abilities in this respect that others may have had. They both grew up under difficult if not abusive circumstances which left them emotionally bankrupt. They were not withholding love so much as incapable of sharing it. Greg always told me my parents loved me, but I just wasn’t sure. All I had cared about during my youngest years was that Greg was there for me, and she was. Love was not a concept I needed to wrap my head around at that age. As long as she was there, things were OK.
It was later on, when I began to have friends from more normal circumstances, that I saw for myself what it was that was missing from my own life. It was then that a tiny bit of doubt began to gnaw and grow in my heart, leaving me unsure of my place in universe. What made it more difficult was that around the same time I began to doubt this, I also became painfully aware of my place with Greg. After all, she was being paid to be with me, and surely her love for me was not a way in which I could truly be comforted. If my own parents could not be bothered, who was to say that she would either? In effect, I was the daughter of parents who were, at best, not responsive to my needs as their child; while at the same time, I was attached and wholly dependent on the love of someone who, given the choice, might or might not be there for me if not for a paycheck. It had a profound affect on me. I have no doubt it affected my sisters too. I believe that my psycho-somatic illnesses began at the dawning of this knowledge when I was ten. I was unaware of the nature of my suffering psyche at the time, but the hindsight I have acquired since those days tells me with more clarity what was at work back then.
I do remember thinking to myself that surely Greg was sincere when she told me she loved me. Given the circumstances, it was not until I grew up and left home, that I could learn the real truth.
What I did know then, was that I had no right to complain. I had Greg with me, and even if I wondered now and then if her attentions were sincere, I could not afford to question it too closely, as she was the center of my world, and without her I would collapse. I was utterly vulnerable. My life line was paid for, and I could not even entertain those thoughts without paying an unspeakable price myself- the certainty that I was alone.