Dysfunctional families have sired a number of pretty good actors.
The photo is that of my much loved stepfather, Alfred Lyons.
I was about eight when he and my mother were married. I took to him immediately, insisted on calling him “Daddy,” pretty much banned the word “step” from family usage—and hoped for the best.
At the time, my relationship with my mother was contentious—to put it mildly—because, apart from having a short fuse and a violent temperament, she had absolutely no idea how to bring up a boy. She, herself, had been brought up—until her mid teens—as an only child by French governesses—and her solution to any and all problems with me (real or imagined) was to lash out both verbally and physically. She compounded that behavior by sending me to boarding school at the age of five—and parking me with my grandmother during the summer and with a pair of aunts during the Easter vacation. In fact, I was only at home during the Christmas vacation—during which I largely occupied myself. I had rebelled against my mother’s beatings when I was five and refused to kiss her—and maintained that posture pretty much until I left home.
It was relatively easy not to encounter my mother even when were living under the same roof. The large house was divided into her quarters—her bedroom, her drawing room, and the dining-room (a study was added later), and we children were largely confined to the servants’ quarters, our own rooms, and the large garden. She virtually never went into the garden. That was the gardener’s territory, and she was not—in the main—an outdoors person.
In fact, the only room we overlapped in was the kitchen, where my mother would go for coffee (if it wasn’t brought to her). We children ate there with the servants. Eventually, my mother amended the rules to allow children to eat with her after we were twelve—but that was to come later. In fact, given that the younger kids were under twelve when I left home, I don’t think we ever ate together as a complete family. I was the eldest of 12 children.
I thought nothing of it at the time. Having the children looked after by the servants was common practice amongst the Anglo-Irish in those days. Now, I just shake my head in wonder.
Alfred eased the emotional climate at home during a crucial time in my life—and I owe him a complete deal. He was an exceptional man—intelligent, witty, widely read, creative, the best of company—and extremely kind to me. Yet, given my mother’s destructive nature, the relationship with my mother was doomed from the beginning and—in the end—she killed him (albeit indirectly).
I was devastated when I heard Alfred had died. I felt nothing but a vast relief when I was told my mother was dead. I still feel much the same way.
They say you only need one person to love you to evolve from childhood in a reasonably balanced way (insofar as humans are ever balanced). In my case, Alfred was of the most enormous help, but my real emotional rock was my high-minded grandmother.
My childhood was difficult in the extreme—and I was, indeed, the victim of much violence and other abuse—but I did receive an excellent education for someone destined for the creative world, so, on balance—I feel pretty damn lucky.
As for the many unpleasant episodes, well—as we writers say—it’s all material.