The opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I am half Polish American on my father’s side of the family, the drunken asshole side that dominated so much of my teenage life.
Most holidays put the dysfunctional aspects of Catholicism mixed with homophobia, misogyny and alcoholism on display. Beaten down by hard lives and hard drinking as well as the sexism of the 1950s the men would gather in the living room to watch sports, the women in the kitchen.
Unwelcome anywhere I was often given the task of minding the kids ranging in age from a year or two to ten or twelve.
As I grew older and more obvious I was the teen aged queen no one knew what to make of, subject to comment from both aunts and uncles.
My dysfunctional family wasn’t as mean as some and while my feelings were often hurt by the mean comments I was not thrown out while I was still too young to take care of myself.
Aside from my obvious girlishness I was an earnest kid, who tried hard and didn’t give up.
Part of why I was trusted with watching the children had become apparent that summer. My uncle John, a New York State Trooper and My uncle Mike, a college basketball player and several other family members were on a beach when my younger brother started to drown. I jumped up before either of my uncles could react and rescued him.
That year for Christmas my mother made me a sweater. She gave me a pattern book of virtually identical boy and girl sweaters and told me I could pick one I liked. She vetoed a couple, telling me they were too obvious and that considering the skin tight jeans I favored my wearing those would have been like my wearing a skirt to school.
Instead she made me a beautiful ski sweater. Years later I showed it to my boyfriend, Jerry and he said, “Everyone must have known that was a girl’s sweater. How did you get er to make you that?”
It was a reward for saving my brother’s life as well as reward for working so hard and taking the scholarship exams.
In spite of all the meanness no one in my dysfunctional family said anything cruel about my new sweater.
It was also how some dysfunctional families treated their teenage transkids.