One Among Many

Nounouche 20036

The farm next door to where we would go on vacations – a photo taken by my dad.

I was born and lived in France until I was 20. My dad was a chemist by profession, who inherited his father’s business. They made dies for clothes (which were also used during the war to die prisoner’s clothes in camps to help them escape, I love that part!), dies for shoes, shoe polish etc… like Johnson & Johnson but on a small scale. That name was known in France. Mom was a stay at home Mom with her 8 children in tow. We hardly went anywhere because we would have needed a bus to get the whole crew going. I think in general she was an overwhelmed mom and we lived a lot it seems to me under pressure.

We went away for school vacations about an hour away from my hometown, where we had an old house by a river, in the country. It was an old farmhouse my dad bought before the war, when my parents were just engaged and it was lightly renovated so people could live in it. It was real rustic and there was only cold water pumped from the river and no hot water… No showers, no bathtubs, just sinks. We used to take baths in the river and wash ourselves there. Most of my childhood memories took place in that house. We all slept in one big room upstairs, the dormitory… and my parents slept downstairs, until we got older when boys and girls needed to be separate. We got to see Mom more during vacations because we just all stayed home. Dad was always working or when he was around he would go fishing or hunting…so we didn’t see him much but he brought back some yummy fresh caught trout that we all ate with pleasure that night! One of our greatest thrills with my sister Claire was to go on our bicycles into town (we lived about 2 miles form town) and bring groceries back home in little baskets tied in back of our bikes. It made us feel grown up and trusted. We also had no one controlling us for that short amount of time, and it was a taste of freedom we hadn’t tasted before.

Being the fifth of eight kids felt like being lost in a crowd with no hope of ever getting my parents attention. It seemed that the only time that I really caught my mom’s attention was when I was sick or did something wrong. I happened to be a very fragile and often sick as a child. I felt cared for and special at those times but also at the same time a burden. In some way I am sure I inflicted some of that to my own children as this was all I knew at the time. I was really very afraid of my dad. He wasn’t a violent man or a mean person, just a very authoritarian and unapproachable dad. If we needed to ask him anything we would ask Mom who would ask him. I never needed to interact directly with him. I believe today that my Mom out of her good heart enabled us instead of helping us, which kept us from building a relationship with dad.

When I was growing up, you got up early, made your bed and kept going all day…resting was just not an issue as it was considered a weakness unless it was naptime! You had to remain strong no matter what happened. It was just a way of life. I learned very early on to put walls of protection around my heart so that harsh words and criticism wouldn’t hurt me. Since communication was very minimal, I learned to read facial expressions. If someone looked at me the wrong way, I took it personally, was devastated and figured what I could say or do to make things better. I actually learned to completely shut down. I was the most quiet of all of my siblings – I hardly said a word. I learned that this was the only way to stay out of trouble – never state your opinion! In grammar school I was totally isolated and depressed. I had to write with my right hand and being a lefty I just couldn’t do it so the teacher hit my fingers with a ruler. I so dreaded being in school that one day the teenaged girl who accompanied me back home every evening, didn’t show up at the end of the day to take me home on the bus and I just went by myself through the city, traffic, took the bus home etc.… I was 6 years old! This is how much fear I lived in…I was afraid of any authority. I would have never gone to the school principal for help, for fear of creating more trouble. Recess was my greatest dread because I would have to interact with people. I spent 12 years in 4 different French parochial schools that were all good schools as far as academics go, but very strict. All you did is work, there was no time to interact with the teacher or think. At 16, I no longer wanted to have anything to do with a harsh condemning God. The Catholic Church we attended felt unreal and hypocritical. I told my Mom I was done going to church. I didn’t go back for 20 years!!! God was the last thing on my mind. I lived in rebellion and eventually found a hippie artist and we went on with life…making things difficult for ourselves without realizing it. We eventually after 5 years got married. We loved each other and this is the bond that got us through the hardest times.

When I was little I saw one of my brothers react and respond with aggressive behavior to my mom’s authority which got him into plenty of trouble. My Mom hit him with a whip. He was the only one in the whole family who went to boarding schools. The poor thing felt like there really was something wrong with him. As a result he turned against God in such a radical way that when his second wife became a Christian, they had to get a divorce! I just learned very recently – something I had presumed for years- that he was sexually abused in these boarding schools. So his idea of a Father was not only rash and authoritarian (like my dad was) but also corrupt and not to be trusted! It has taken him years to be able to reveal this secret and maybe I am the only one in the family who knows.

All this to say that when we are wounded as children, it carries through our lives…without warning. We end up being rejected, hurt, angry and rebellious because of our background and life issues. We become stuck in the rut, not knowing how to get out of it. It seems that all the situations in our lives seem to pile up, one on top of the other making matters worse. The anger and bitterness seem to mount up and we get to the point where we explode time after time and become ashamed of ourselves, not understanding where it is all coming from. The vicious circle starts its spin. This is a really dark time where we seem to have no answers to our own problems and need to turn to someone for help. Counseling works for a time but for me to know that I had to pay someone to listen to me just never felt right. After a while it seemed we were all going in circles trying to find something or someone to pick on. Digging in the past was needed, but staying in it was just wrong.

If it wasn’t for God rescuing me I don’t know where I would be today. I found him in Al-Anon a 12 step program…I wasn’t looking for Him in church, I was actually not looking for him at all, but in His great wisdom He found me.



4 thoughts on “One Among Many

  1. Jeanne, there is so much in your story than I can identify with, especially about being so very careful not to be a bother to anyone, and finding safety in anonymity… just being quiet and withdrawing.

    The picture you paint of your vacations, likewise, reminds me of our own family vacations. It was the only time I felt truly part of a family, and also the beginning of independent adventures by bicycle!

    Maybe that is why we both enjoy bicycle riding, to this day!

    I love you you are digging in your past, not to blame or shame anyone, but to find the treasures… to value each piece, even the painful ones, like of your brother.

    It’s interesting that you felt being 5th out of 8 children made you feel less noticed… because I wonder if it’s part of our parent’s “Victorian” rearing (children must be seen and not heard) that may be responsible for part of it. I was 1st of 4, but I felt exactly the same, even down to only receiving nurture when I was sick. To me, it’s interesting…. as part of understanding growing up in our generation, even from opposite sides of the ocean.


  2. Susan, what a small world we live in…so different parts of it and at the same time such similar lives. Thanks so much for sharing, I always look forward to your comments because they help put perspective on things. Interesting that you would be the oldest and didn’t get much attention, that’s rather unusual I think.I’m glad I have a buddy who understands how I am. I actually wrote this article 6 years ago and just changed it a bit for the blog. I am enjoying writing more and love all the feedback. I was going to write a book 6 years ago and just started and when it came to my parenting and all the issues with handicap etc. I just couldn’t do it…I froze. So maybe this will change and I will get more confident to press on. I have received quite a few prophecies concerning writing. So here we go!

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  3. You bought back some childhood memories for me here Jeanne! My mother was french and even though she left me and I never saw her again, I was still sent to France during the long summer holidays. It was so daunting because they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French, but I remember the long hot days in the country. They lived in a tiny little place with only a few farmhouses and what I remember the most is that there was no electricity or hot water until the 1980’s! Gosh I hadn’t thought about taking a bath in a tin tub for years!

    On the serious side I found it so sad to read of the strictness that you endured. That is so hard for a child, especially when it is wrapped up in religion. I am so glad you are now safe in God’s gentle loving arms. That’s where you belong and where I know you will stay.

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  4. Carolyn, thanks so much for what you shared. It is a little hard for people here to understand I think. I am so sorry your mom left you, you must have dealt with serious abandonment issues! One thing you might have escaped is the strict upbringing, even though you are younger than me. The tin bathtubs bring memories that’s how we bathed until I was maybe 5…outside with water that was warmed up on the stove. I was born 4 years after WW2 ended and people still lived in a lot of fear in my house anyways. There was not much religion for us as children at home , just sunday Mass, more of it in the parochial schools though. We said the blessing (benedicite) before dinner which was always the same repetitive stuff…which I can’t remember. We didn’t have a bible in the house. We has a little book with bible stories that I absolutely loved reading and looking at the drawings. Yes it is such a comfort to know Father’s everlasting arms. There is total safety there and no judgment. I am glad this is helping people like you remember when. Do you know where in France you were?


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