A Blog of Personal Thoughts
Building Healthy Family Relationships
I titled my December 2019 blog Our Family Home. I described the house, bits about the family, and my life. What I didn’t describe was how we succeeded in our building healthy family relationships and how our parents created a healthy home atmosphere. The people included my parents and their four children, my father’s mother and then my mother’s mother. From the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, it also included various aunts and cousins.
We had a large house built on a hillside. We did not live on top of one another, other than garden level apartment, first, second, and third floors. We did not have three or four children in one bed. Except for my parents and the three aunts and their one child each, we each had our own bedrooms. To enter another’s room or apartment, we knocked. We siblings could not barge into one another’s bedrooms without permission. If I wanted to talk to Mary, Bill, or Hannah in their rooms, I knocked or asked permission at the doorway.
If any two of us had a disagreement, parental interference was “Go to your rooms until you’re ready to be civil.” Or polite. Or solve the problem. They never gave us a time we could come out. I think it depended on us and that each was over the huff and had probably apologized. Being sent to our rooms happened most often to my brother and me. He loved to tease me and get me all riled up until I was too noisy. That was that. Off to our respective bedrooms we went. What we had, though, was a gift. His closet opened into my bedroom. Surely our parents knew this! They had bought a finished house, but then designed and built the final ten feet of all floors onto the north end of the house. That would have included the second door to his closet.
Bill and I probably pouted for a minute or two before we went to the closet to open the shared door. All was peaceable. We usually set up a board game set up on his closet floor—Parcheesi, Sorry, Checkers, or Monopoly. We thought our parents didn’t know about our little scheme. Children should be parents first. Then we’d know the schemes and also know how adults think. We’d get into much less difficulty that way. How could we have thought for those several years that our parents didn’t know how we solved the problem? Did they really think we’d stay up there for an hour pouting? If they did, silly them.
My mother was the oldest of six and my father the youngest of four. His three sisters had all died before he was born, so he grew up an only child. He loved children and all my mother’s large family. We were a gathering place for all, and a living place for some of her younger siblings and their children.
Was arguing allowed? No. Disagreeing and logical arguments were allowed, but never a raised voice or a huff and walk off. I don’t ever remember seeing any adults disagree with one another. If my parents had a disagreement with one another, it took place in their bedroom with quiet voices and the door closed.
One time when I was a teenager, I disagreed with my mother about something. I don’t remember what, but that’s not the point. She was downstairs and my father and I upstairs. He said he agreed with me, but he would never disagree with my mother in front of any of us. If I wanted to argue, as in a civil debate, I was on my own. I would know by his silence, though, that he agreed with me. That was the important point. I had to present my case and have a polite back and forth with my mother. His silence was powerful as he sat in the captain’s chair (his grandfather had been a sea captain). I felt supported but on my own. That’s why the topic didn’t matter. They both treated me as an adult. I still treasure that moment.
Years later, Mary went to her 25th Mount Holyoke College reunion, Bill to his 25th Mount Hermon prep school reunion, and the next year Hannah to her 25th Westtown reunion. In a four-way conversation and in a few two- or three-way conversations, we discussed these events and our lives. We learned we were different from most of our classmates because we didn’t have divorced parents, nor a parent or sibling with serious physical or psychiatric problems. None of us had gone off the rails and sidetracked into alcohol or drugs. We treated one another respectfully. We were in our forties and fifties and still got along. At no point in our immediate or our relatives’ families was there someone who did not speak to someone else. We laughed a lot, and I mean a lot. We had fun. As we moved to different places in the country—Vermont, Oregon, California, Kansas, Colorado, Alaska (some of us moved around)—we talked a lot, visited but never without advance notification.
We began to realize what a unique family the four of us and our parents comprised. We had much care, love, mammoths amount of humor, and stepping up to the plate when someone needed help. My three older siblings and their spouses were wonderful to me. Those six people helped me grow as much as my parents did.
One of my favorite stories about this family love and care comes from a niece. I was in Boston on a street corner by the Common talking to my niece. I was on my way up to Vermont to relieve someone—a sibling—helping care for the oldest of us, Mary, who was dying and wanted to stay at home. As I spoke to that niece, Ann, she mentioned that her father, my brother Bill, had asked her why she was going back to help Mary because she didn’t know her Aunt Mary that well. Her commonsense answer, “But, Dad, she’s family!” Bill had no answer because she was right.
I went to a family reunion in July 2018. The Koch family. It was a small reunion of only six of us, all related to the common factor of Edwin Bud Koch, my first husband. Debby and Pam, sisters and the half-sisters of Bud knew one another. Barb and Debbie, cousin to Bud and her daughter also knew one another. Christina, Bud’s niece and, therefore, my niece because I am her aunt, Ed’s ex-wife have known one another since she was four. Three pairs of us, who did not know the other two pairs at the beginning of five days, made it a close and warm long weekend. I remain a part of the Koch family because Ed/Bud and I were not capable of hating one another after the divorce. Our parting words as he was dying were “I love you,” “I love you too” with a mutual hug and kiss. I never saw him again, yet I remain a part of the Koch and Donaldson families. I am also a Barry and a Giese because my second husband is.
Family. Nurture it. Devote time to it. Feed it. Be kind to it. Treasure it. You’ll only have two families—the one you come from and the one you create. If you divorce and remarry, then you have three families. Remember, they are all still family.