You are currently browsing the daily archive for March 9, 2012.

Having read about child and spousal abuse in Christian homes over the past month or so, I must write about my cousin and get this off my chest.

Lest anyone think that I am telling tales out of school, I struggled with this topic for weeks before writing about it. If this offends you, please don’t read the following.

M. (not her real first initial) and her brother were my favourite cousins since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, as Americans say.

My aunt — a blood relation — married my uncle, a lad from the neighbourhood, when she was barely out of high school. She didn’t have to get married and was very popular, but she loved him so much that my grandparents and his adoptive father — all Catholics — agreed to the union.

My aunt was a happy, vivacious person. When I was a young child, that soon changed. Her mother — my maternal grandmother — was worried for her. My grandparents removed her wedding picture from open display in their home. I only saw it once I was at university when we were clearing my grandfather’s effects after his death. You couldn’t imagine a more hopeful couple.

I don’t know what the problem was. Maybe my uncle by marriage felt insecure over his adoption and didn’t know what to do.  This was the early 1960s. However, he was a union man, had a good job at a local manufacturing plant and shouldn’t have had any problems in the world. His adoptive father was still in reasonable health, although his wife had died.  However, I never heard from my grandparents of any link between that event and his feelings.

Since the time my aunt had given birth to two children, M. being the elder, my uncle tormented her. As my grandparents, my mother — her eldest sister — and the rest of the siblings were discreet, I only know of a few incidents. One involved my uncle waking up my aunt, who had a full time administrative job which was well paid, in the middle of the night. He prodded her with his ice-cold hunting rifle and said, ‘If you ever leave me, I’ll do away with you and the kids.’

So, it was with some dismay that I read Presbyterian parachurch pastor Tim Keller’s wife’s article against marrying ‘unbelievers’. Mrs Keller’s ‘three true outcomes’ did not ring true in this case. I understand Mrs Keller’s advice and appreciate it, but it’s no guarantee of success. I really wish my aunt had married someone else, including a Protestant or an agnostic. I’m married to an agnostic — raised Anglo-Catholic — and am eternally grateful for it. I cannot imagine being blessed with a better spouse.

Back to my aunt and uncle. These days, they do everything together but, because my aunt ended up being so secretive over the years, no one knows what happened between then and now. She’s pretty much divorced herself from family, except on big occasions which she attends alone. No one dares to ask her what is happening or what has happened in her life past the 1960s. I’m probably one of the few relatives to keep in touch with her by letter once or twice a year.

I do recall, however, that we were rarely allowed to visit their house and only when my uncle was away on a hunting trip. They had a fierce watchdog — a crossbreed trained to bite. As much as I love dogs, I never wanted to pet him. My uncle had trained him to attack strangers, including children. When my mother and I did visit — my dad never went, for some reason — we had three or four hours of non-stop laughs. Even as a child, I could see the tension draining from my aunt’s and my cousins’ faces. One time around 1968, my uncle was due home on the same afternoon my mother and I visited. Late that afternoon, my aunt told my mother, ‘You’d better go. He’s coming back soon’. My mother asked, ‘Well, can’t we stay to say hello?’ My aunt shook her head. My cousins stopped giggling and got serious. We soon said our farewells and left them as we’d found them — lifeless.

In our teenage years, M. — my cousin — and I exchanged letters and anthologies of short stories. M. wasn’t the most studious person, although she wanted to open her own floral shop. She also enjoyed animals. She is — or was — the kindest person I knew. A little slip of a thing, she was pretty, gentle and good company.

When I had moved away from home to another part of the country, M. married a burly Baptist. I think that my aunt had some trouble finding a Catholic priest to give a blessing at the ceremony. Her parish priest wouldn’t do it, and I can understand why from a theological standpoint. No one in the family — devout Catholics — seemed to mind. M.’s husband was softly spoken and, as she described him, a cuddly ‘bear’ of a man.

Well, as time went on, M.’s husband became less cuddly and more of a bear. He isolated her from everyone. I didn’t hear from her anymore and she was really my only pen-pal in the extended family. I would ask my mother, who wasn’t sure what was going on, either. A couple of years later, my mother rang me one day to say that M. had managed to ‘finally escape’ her marriage. I asked for details, which were sketchy. All she said was that the Baptist was a wrong’un and that M. had returned home to her parents, where all was well, my aunt and uncle finally having achieved marital harmony.  My aunt arranged for the marriage to be annulled, as there were no children. Whether my cousin had miscarriages, I do not know. As I say, everything was secret.

M. easily found work as a travel agent in my family’s home town, a medium-sized city in the heartland with a large Catholic population.  She began accompanying tours to Marian shrines in Europe and met P. (not his real first initial) during one of these trips, as I remember it. By then, I had been preparing for my move to London, so my immediate recollection now is not as clear as it was then. I met P. after they had been going out for some months and were engaged. This was at my paternal grandmother’s house, as my maternal grandparents had died some years before. My paternal grandmother, a widow, had always been concerned for my aunt and my cousins. (My mother and her mother-in-law — two widows — had a very close relationship, which they compared to Ruth’s and Naomi’s from the Old Testament.)

Anyway, during this visit, I asked M. if I could speak to her privately for a moment. She replied, ‘Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of P. and me together.’ I wanted to ask her if she was happy with him, if she had any doubts and if she loved him. Of course, I smiled politely and declined. ‘I’m very sorry if I gave the wrong impression,’ I said, in a typically Episcopalian response.

P. was quite burly and not unlike the Baptist. Hmm. They, my grandmother, my mother and I had an agreeable hour together. And that’s all it was — one hour: ‘We really must go now’. I hadn’t seen M. in donkey’s years, and I really had hoped to rekindle our relationship. I also wanted to know why she hadn’t written me, but I was under the impression that the Baptist ‘bear’ wouldn’t allow it. That’s what my mother assumed.

Once I moved to London, not long after, I wrote M. to say that she had always been my favourite cousin, along with her brother, with whom I still keep in touch. He, too, has been ostracised from M.’s affections. More on that further in the post.

When I married two years later and returned to my grandmother’s flat for a visit with Spouse Mouse, I rang M., by then married to P. She seemed surprised, so I spent some time trying to discern this. ‘But I wrote you some time back saying that you were my favourite cousin. Why wouldn’t I ring you?’ She said, ‘No, you always favoured –‘ and mentioned two other cousins. I said, ‘Didn’t you get my letter?’ She asked, ‘When?’ I had to run through the whole gamut again. She finessed it. ‘Oh, yes — yes, I remember.’ It didn’t sound too convincing, though.

I put it down to distraction then, but now I am wondering. Was P. in the room with her? Was he trying to get her off the phone? Was he carefully listening in on an extension? Most importantly, though, had she even received my letter?

That last question only occurred to me a few weeks ago when I read about ‘Calvinist’ — I use the word advisedly — pastor Mark Driscoll who censors his wife’s emails and has written about it in his new book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with her. Of course, Mr Driscoll says he does this to ostensibly ‘protect’ her.

Hmm.

I’ve tried to piece the bits of M.’s life since her marriage to P. M. left her travel agency job which gave her so much pleasure shortly after their wedding. P. moved them into a large house in a rural location with much acreage. He had a graduate degree from a prominent Catholic university and was making good money. As she liked horses, P. bought her a horse, which they kept on their land with a stable.

Suddenly, M. wrote a lot less, and the horse had been sold when they moved to another exurban sprawl, a town which used to be a rural outpost, although I still received Christmas cards with family portraits — wallet sized of her, P. and their sons. Very nice they were, too. She wrote me in her schoolgirl scrawl that she was once again having a difficult pregnancy in her third trimester, which confined her to bed much of the time. That was with her third son. She asked me to pray for her once again, which I did. I wondered whether she should have more children. She gave birth to five sons in total, no girls. Her husband wanted more.

Then, in the late 1990s, our correspondence went cold. I faithfully wrote her every Christmas only to find that she didn’t reply. My mother would say, ‘What did you think of M.’s five sons? Aren’t they wonderful boys?’ I would reply, ‘Keep the letter and picture to one side for me, as I haven’t heard from her for a few years.’ ‘Really? That’s strange’.

Yes, it is strange.

Then, around ten years ago, something really strange happened. I had sent M. my usual Christmas card and letter, which expressed concern for her as I hadn’t heard from her for a few years. A few weeks later, after the holidays, I received a letter in unfamiliar writing from her address. I opened and read it.

P. — it seems — had replied to me with one page of news ending in sentiments not unlike ‘Have a nice life’. It certainly wasn’t M.’s handwriting, as it was small, written in upper-case print and looked like a man’s. He even signed off as ‘M’!

Now I’m wondering if she had even seen some of my letters. Did she see the one where I’d said she was my favourite cousin? Did she see the ones where I’d expressed concern for her death-defying pregnancies?

Was her husband censoring her post?

Around the same time, other strange things began to happen. Another aunt wondered why she hadn’t heard from M. in a while. She didn’t have M.’s new phone number. Then, at a family gathering, M.’s mother and mine — sisters — got into a heated discussion about her. M.’s mum said that M. had severed all ties and didn’t want anything to do with her. My mother had asked, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ which is when the conversation took flight. It turned out that M. was also estranged from her brother, with whom she had been so close. (To this day, M.’s brother says nothing about her, so I can only assume that this estrangement continues.)

At that point, my mother decided to investigate. She gave M.’s new number to my other aunt; this aunt met with a rather anodyne response. My mum then rang M. saying that she would be in the area and could she meet with her, P. and the boys after Mass that Sunday. M. was vague: ‘I would have to give you directions to our church.’ My mother was all ears. ‘Well, we’re really busy on Sundays,’ M. said. ‘Too busy to see your aunt who welcomed you into her home when your father was distant?’ my mother said. And she was not wrong. We had welcomed M., her brother and mother into our home on long weekends. We all enjoyed ourselves, my father included. (He discovered that my aunt also had a passion for horses and took her to the racetrack whilst my mother, cousins and I went to tour a local farm.) Finally M. relented and gave my mother long and complex instructions on how to find this Catholic church. M. agreed — reluctantly — that my mother could visit her home after Mass.

On the appointed Sunday, my mother met with M., P. and their family. She followed them home after Mass. It was a modern, spacious, well-appointed ‘mansion’, as she described it. However, most of the doors were closed. My mother, a loving aunt to M., was refused a tour of the house and was hurriedly ushered into the living room, which my mother said didn’t look well-lived in. M. fetched her a cup of coffee.  M., P. and their boys sat down, staring at my mother who stood alone with a cup of coffee in her hand. ‘May I sit down?’ There was a long silence and some glances among the family members.

In the end, my elderly mother remained standing up drinking coffee in front of seven ‘family’ members who were seated. There were no other places to sit.

My mother told me afterwards in a phone call that she felt very uncomfortable the whole time. There was also little in the way of conversation. She met with silence, as if she had to explain exactly why she was there.

My mother never heard from M. again.

This leads me to conclude that M. may be abused. Now these links might be tenuous, but this is the sign of an adept abuser, meaning P. It’s so subtle, we can say nothing for certain.

I have left M. money in my will. I’m sure that, should I predecease them, P. will get to any notification before M. does.

I sincerely hope that P. is not walloping my cousin.

But that’s the strange thing, you see. None of us knows, and, sadly, we have no way of finding out.

Today, it’s not only a small group of Baptists, Evangelicals and possibly extreme Reformed types abusing and isolating their wives, it’s been happening in some Catholic circles, too.

I’m sorry that my cousin is emulating the sad pattern of family life that her mother knew. At least her mother was able to work outside the home.

I hope that my dear cousin is safe. May God bless her and take her out of what appears to be a hopeless situation.

As for Mrs Keller, her advice is no guarantee of happiness.

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