Hi there, Dear Reader. It is noon here in New Hometown, Florida on Thursday, October 15, 2020. Currently, the temperature is 85˚F (29˚C) under mostly sunny skies. With an east-northeasterly breeze blowing at 4 MPH (7KM/H) and humidity at 72%, the heat index is 92˚F (34˚C). Today’s forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 90˚F (32˚C). Tonight, the sky will be mostly cloudy, and the low temperature will be 72˚F (22˚C).
As I mentioned yesterday in my post Beatus Natalis Matrem Suam: Reflections of an Upcoming Birthday, Saturday will mark my late mother’s 92nd birthday and the sixth recurrence of the occasion since her death in our townhouse in East Wind Lake Village (July 19, 2015). I’m doing my best to try and see the brighter side of her passing, and so far, the best I can manage is this short list of Positives:
- She doesn’t have to live in these uncertain times of the COVID-19 global pandemic
- She didn’t see the ascension of Donald Trump – a man she found totally distasteful from what she knew about him prior to his candidacy – to the Presidency of the United States
- She didn’t live to see the estrangement between her two adult children, although she foresaw it and took steps to try and minimize the damage of it, especially its effects on me
- She is no longer in pain or suffering from the indignities of losing her mobility, her independence, or her mental acuity
One of the reasons behind the estrangement between my older half-sister Victoria and me – perhaps the main one, really – is that of the two half-siblings, I was the one who Mom had a better (and closer) relationship with. Mom did her best to get along with both of her children and tried hard to not show overt favoritism; she even went as far as arranging for joint birthday celebrations for Vicky and me – as adults, mind you – to compensate for the fact that although we were born nearly 13 years apart, our birthdays are only five days away from each other – mine is on March 5, hers is March 10.
I don’t remember now when Mom stopped having separate birthday celebrations for Vicky and me; when I was a kid and well into my post-college 20s and 30s, each of us had our own party/dinner, and sometimes even more than two, since we both had circles of friends to celebrate the occasion with. I’m going to guesstimate that something – perhaps a sour comment or even a major hissy fit on Vicky’s part about not getting a birthday dinner from Mom because my half-sister worked at the hospital on the 10th – caused our mother to make a Solomonic decision and split the difference by celebrating our birthdays jointly on a date that was midway between the fifth and the 10th.
The point of this, of course, is to show how Mom bent over backwards in order to give off the appearance of fairness. She also extended this policy of a façade of parity when it came to gifts, not just for birthdays but also for Christmas. For instance, she always placed the same number of presents under the tree – when we had Christmas trees, that is – for each of us. If Mom gave Vicky a package with a gift, I also got a package with a gift. If Vicky got two packages, I would get two packages. The same principle applied to Mom’s tradition of giving us both a check tucked inside a Christmas card: If I got $50, Vicky received $50.
(The not-so-dirty-little-secret here was that Mom would often tell me, especially in the last years before her fateful surgery in the spring of 2010 and the slow mental decline caused by its aftereffects, to get myself “a little something extra” on Amazon and that she’d pay for it. “But don’t tell Vicky!” she’d add.)
Of course, anyone with a keen eye for family dynamics could tell that of the two children, I was the one Mom tended to favor. She loved my half-sister and bailed her out of situations caused by Vicky’s careless handling of credit cards and poor financial planning more than once. When Vicky’s air conditioner broke down in the 1990s and needed to be replaced – it would be cheaper than the costs of repairing the unit – Mom gave her the money. When Vicky had a hysterectomy in the mid-1990s, Mom went every single day to visit her, first at Kendall Regional Hospital, then at her apartment. And while Vicky was still in the hospital immediately after her operation, who do you think fed my half-sister’s Himalayan cat, Murphy? That’s right…Mom.
But as much as Mom cared for Vicky, the deep and abiding maternal love she felt for her daughter was tempered by a massive amount of opprobrium regarding my half-sister’s emotional and psychological issues. Mom didn’t approve of Vicky’s dating choices and often despaired over Vicky’s penchant for telling lies and sowing discord willy-nilly. Even more serious was Mom’s constant worrying about my half-sister’s drinking problem, which was something that was inherited from Vicky’s father Manuel, a brilliant if rather unstable person who suffered from alcoholism. And, of course, Mom was deeply affected by the amount of jealousy and pettiness that Vicky harbored toward me.
In short, the mother-daughter relationship between my mother and my half-sister is best described as loving-but-fraught-with-conflict.
With me, it was a totally different ball game.
To be sure, the relationship between my mom and me was hardly conflict-free. Beatriz Diaz-Granados was – at least until her final illness – was almost a fine example of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) when it came to neatness, while I am so…not. I’ve gotten better at keeping my stuff clean and tidy, but I doubt that I’ll ever love to clean house or do laundry as much as my mother did.
So, yes. Mom and I had more than our fair share of arguments and unpleasant moments – I dare anyone who has lived with someone else for an extended period of time to tell me that everything runs smoothly and that no arguments ever erupt – but in the grander scheme of things, we got along better because my mother and I basically had similar temperaments and tastes in books, movies, and TV shows. Plus, I never deliberately did anything to bring embarrassment and shame to the family in general. Vicky, on the other hand, made many choices that displeased not just our mother and me, but also our extended family in Bogota, Colombia.
As I said before, though, Mom did her best to be impartial and fair when it came to showing her affection to her two children. I don’t think she succeeded, at least not 100%; Vicky often accused our mother, loudly and bitterly, of preferring me – the younger of the two – over her.
From my perspective, I always thought – until Mom finally admitted the truth to me less than four years before she died – that Vicky and I were somewhat equal as far our mother’s affections were concerned. I did not see myself in the rather unwelcome and unasked for role of “Mom’s fair-haired boy”; I simply assumed that Mom and I had a better parent-child relationship because, other than my messiness, I tended to be more or less compliant to her wishes and was not a source of embarrassment or discord to her or the family in general.
For instance, I never got in trouble with the law or kept any major secrets from Mom. In contrast, Vicky got arrested at least once that I know of for driving under the influence and had to attend “traffic school” to clear that black mark from her driver’s license, and she never fessed up to either Mom or me. We found out about the DUI from people Vicky -rather foolishly, I think – confided in. I also never went around bad-mouthing Mom to anyone who cared to listen in order to gain sympathy. Vicky, sadly, did this on a regular basis, and many of my mother’s friends and acquaintances ended up not being her friends as a result.
Eventually, though, Mom felt compelled to unburden herself to me sometime in October of 2011 after one of the many incidents in which my half-sister had a sudden fit of fury during a discussion with me over some issue related to Mom’s care and stormed out of Mom’s townhouse, vowing, as she often did, that she was not coming back.
After Vicky left, I was quite distraught; in the heat of the moment I forgot that Vicky had a penchant for the dramatic and had, in the past, made similar “I’ll never darken your doorstep again!” pronouncements. At the moment, when she turned on her heel, walked out of the house, and slammed the door – another one of Vicky’s favorite dramatic gestures – the only thing I could think of was, I can’t take care of Mom on my own.
Mom, of course, was beginning to show signs of mental decline, but in 2011 they were not as acute or obvious as they would be in later years. She saw how upset I was and tried her best to calm me down.
“Don’t get so depressed, my boy,” she said. “She’ll calm down and she’ll come back tomorrow. She always does.”
“But, Mom, why does she have such anger toward me?”
“It’s not just you, Alex. Vicky has always been a difficult and willful person. Even as a child, way before you came along. But her anger is aimed more at me.”
My mom smiled tenderly and with more than a small trace of sadness. “Because, my boy, she knows that you are my favorite child. And she can’t stand it.”
By sheer coincidence – and this is why I remember the timeframe of this conversation, Time magazine’s cover story for the issue I got in the mail that same week was science writer Jeffrey Kluger’s Playing Favorites.
Subtitled Never mind what your parents told you. They had a favorite child — and if you have kids, so do you. Why it’s hardwired into all of us: Kluger’s article starts with this statement:
There’s sweetness in the lies parents tell their kids, which is a very good thing, since they tell a lot of them. Yes, that indecipherable crayon scribble looks exactly like Grandma. No, I didn’t put that tooth-fairy money under your pillow. The fibs — nearly all of them harmless — may differ depending on the family. But from clan to clan, culture to culture, there’s one tall tale nearly all parents tell, and they tell it repeatedly: “We do not have a favorite child.”
Mom and Dad will say it earnestly, they’ll repeat it endlessly, and in an overwhelming share of cases, they’ll be lying through their teeth. It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter, and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: The favored kids recognize their status and keep quiet about it — the better to preserve the good thing they’ve got going and to keep their siblings off their back. The unfavored kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents deny it all.
I don’t know if I knew consciously that I was Mom’s favorite child. Maybe deep down I did, but I always believed that it was more a matter of how I behaved and treated others vis a vis the way Vicky interacted with family, friends, and even strangers. I am not sure – but I can’t be certain, of course – that I was as Machiavellian as Kluger suggests “favored kids” are. I do know, though, that although I grew to resent and even dislike my half-sister after a specific event that took place in 1987, I never tried to do anything to harm Vicky’s standing in the family or destroy any of my half-sister’s friendships or romantic relationships.
I remember hiding that particular issue of Time magazine; I still might have it somewhere in a moving box or storage bin. I didn’t want Vicky to see it lest she start another fight with Mom over her standing in our dysfunctional family.
As Kluger writes:
The hard truth is, most parents do (have favorites). In one oft cited study, Catherine Conger, a professor of human and community development at the University of California at Davis, assembled a group of 384 sibling pairs and their parents and visited them three times over three years. She questioned them about their relationships and videotaped them as they worked through conflicts. Overall, she concluded that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. And those numbers are almost certainly lowballs, since parents try especially hard to mask their preferences when a researcher is watching.
If the scientists don’t see through the ploy, however, kids usually do — and react accordingly. From the moment they’re born, brothers and sisters constantly jostle for the precious resource of parental attention, each fighting to establish an identity that will best catch Mom’s or Dad’s eye. I’m the smart one! I’m the funny one!
Just who will win that love-me-best sweepstakes is hard to predict. The father-son bond is the stuff of legend — unless it’s the father-daughter one that’s the rule in your family. A mother innately understands her daughters — unless the girls turn out to be a mystery to her and she adores one of her boys best. It’s equally hard to predict the fallout from favoritism. Being the favorite may boost self-esteem and confidence. But studies show it can also leave kids with a sense of arrogance and entitlement. Unfavored children may grow up wondering if they’re somehow unworthy of the love the parents lavished on the golden child. But they may do better at forging relationships outside the family as a result of that. And there’s no telling how the differential treatment will play out among the kids.
In my immediate family, the differential treatment played out thusly. Vicky had plans to get 50-50 control of Mom’s townhouse (and somehow talked our mother to make out a will that set that in stone…or so Vicky thought) and the rest of the estate. After Mom died, Vicky was going to have me committed to an assisted living facility for the disabled, perhaps by showing a judge that I was not able to even keep my home in livable condition since the townhouse Mom owned was in a bad state of disrepair. And because Vicky was in bad shape financially from her spendthrift ways, her intention was to sell the townhouse and leave me with half the proceeds from its sale.
Vicky made a serious error, though. Instead of keeping this plan to herself, she told other people about it. Eventually, she told the wrong person, who then told Mom about it shortly before Mom went to Mercy Hospital in Miami for her fateful operation to repair her damaged spine. And faster than you can say, “Holy Jesophesat!” Mom made out a new last will and testament that basically limited Vicky’s inheritance to $25,000 from a life insurance policy. End of story.
Even that, though, ended up not-so-rosily for me, but that is a tale for another, perhaps very distant time. The repercussions of Mom’s death and its immediate aftermath are still affecting me, you know?
So, you see, being Mom’s favorite “kid” was not an enviable place for me to live in. On the contrary, it brought me much unhappiness and too many memories of arguments, bitter feelings, and a lot of anxiety.