Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Rivalry… and reunion
Almost sixty years ago, I lost three of my grandparents in rapid succession.
On June 20, 1958 grandma Sophie passed away, the victim of a botched surgery. She smiled and laughed as she was leaving for the hospital for a routine surgical procedure, telling us, ‘I’ll be back day after tomorrow.’ We never saw her again. Her husband couldn’t live without her. On Christmas Day, 1958 grandpa Casimir passed away. For years afterwards, I thought O Holy Night was a funeral hymn, because from behind drapery at the funeral parlor, a gramophone played that solemn, seasonal song. The next year my other beloved busia (‘grandma’ in Polish) Maria passed away in her sleep on September 9, 1959. As Catholic children, we were all exposed to our grandparents in their coffins at the funeral parlor. We stepped forward, knelt on a kneeler set up in front of their coffins, recited a prayer, took a look, kissed them, and then sat down somewhere to amuse ourselves while the grownups talked in hushed tones.
Then, a little over fifty years ago, on July 7, 1965, my last grandpa, Pawel, passed away. By this time, my parents had moved our family out of Chicago to a small town in the country. What little we saw of our cousins when we still lived in the City was now reduced to never. One would wonder, how and why, since all the families had automobiles by that time. Well, there were many reasons, none of them good.
Uncle Leo, my mother’s older and only brother, disowned us when we moved out of Chicago in the summer of 1964, calling us the ‘N’ word because we abandoned inner city Chicago and moved ‘to the sticks’ (a demeaning term for the countryside). I never saw my cousin Tommy again after that until, as a grown man, married and with one son, we visited my uncle Leo and aunt Anne, saw Tommy again as an adult—he didn’t speak or recognize me, because he was at the time mentally ill—and met a younger cousin I hadn’t known as a child, because she was born too late. Uncle Leo had forgotten that we were apostates from Chicago’s Polish community, and let auntie Anne treat us lovingly and with great hospitality as she always used to do. But after that visit, the wall of separation closed again, for no real reason, other then the fact we were living on the West Coast by then.
I don’t really intend this to be a walk down memory lane, however I began, but a testimony to what sibling rivalry can do to a family.
First of all, there is hardly a family I have ever known where there was not some form of sibling rivalry—children competing for attention, learning the bad habits of slander and mockery in the process. In the best of families, this rivalry simmers down under the influence of Christian teaching and prayer, but except in rare instances—I know of only one family where siblings really appear to love and respect each other fully—most families are affected by it.
The separation from my cousins that is only now after fifty-five or more years coming to an end was caused by sibling rivalry. We were all children when our parents became estranged following the decease of our grandparents. The estrangement established itself on the basis of grudges about money and estate matters, but that wouldn’t have happened if peace and unity had reigned in the family to begin with. A death in the family brings out either the best or the worst in us.
Now, as we get to know each other at the end of our lives, as we once did at the beginning, my cousins and I will have a lot of ground to cover, lives lived apart and incognito, a condition we had no control over, but have inherited from a ‘family feud’ that was carried on in the previous generation.
Thankfully, our first meeting long distance and not face to face shows signs of being a reunion welcome to us. What it brings home to me, though, is how we don’t realize what harm it does to our families in the short or long run, when we let sibling rivalries divide us.
The remedy to rivalry is easy to find but hard to practice—love, respect, choosing not to give offense or take it, and the willingness to forgive everyone, everything, right away. This is, of course, another way of expressing the Golden Rule, which was always there waiting for us to take notice, and follow it.
Just one more thing. To be religious is not to go to church or temple frequently, but to make room for one another, trusting in Christ God to bring us all to safety and salvation, and believing that all we have is by gift alone, His gift, and that, no one can ever take from us.
at 10:28 AM