My dad grew up on dairy farms in the Milwaukee area. He had to milk the cows at the crack of dawn, and ended up so hating warm milk straight from the cow that he couldn’t drink it. On those rare occasions he had milk at all, he had to have it over ice.
I will also only drink milk if it’s iced. That goes for eggnog, too, which my daughter thinks is criminal. Chocolate milk, eggnog, coffee with cream. I wanted to be close to my dad when I was a kid, so I intentionally adopted some of his preferences; iced milk, the colors blue and white together, classical music. If I was enough like him, maybe he would like me; this was my conscious thought.
One of the joys of talking to my cousin Marion is finding out the similarities in our fathers. She expanded her search and discovered more cousins, so now there are five of us now engaging in a group chat. Five whole father’s-side cousins. One is a super researcher who uncovers unexpected details and connections, which spins us off on another trail of discovery. Marion has infectious joy about everything we’re learning that’s helping me have a more balanced view of the paternal ancestral depths we’re plumbing as a group.
When I mentioned the iced milk habit today, one of my cousins said that he does the same thing.
That one character similarity brought into focus my newfound feeling of belonging with this group of cousins. We have never met in person, haven’t even spoken on the phone, but for the first time, there is a whole group of people who believes what I say about my father. Most people, when I would mention how my father was, have brushed it off as typical of the era, typical guy stuff, typical patriarchy.
That typical behavior is only part of the story. Until now, no one has believed me.
Having contact with people who will listen without trying to convince me that my experience could not possibly have been as bad as I claim, who then have their own stories that line up in tidy parallels to mine makes me feel like I’m suddenly whole, real, verifiable. I have a blue check. I’m becoming a Real Boy, solid, no longer a wooden toy. Until I started talking with this group, I didn’t realize how intense my feeling was of being an outsider, nor where it came from.
Even more than talking to other parents of kids with OI, or other spouses of people on the spectrum, communicating with my cousins makes me feel like I belong somewhere. I have other cousins on my mom’s side, the four boys my aunt raised, but without the frightening energy of anger and abuse, they had a very different upbringing. I felt in awe of those older cousins, all science and tech super brains, children of uber-intelligent parents. They were completely out of reach.
I’m new to the feeling of fitting in. I’ve been “outside” so persistently, going back in my childhood, that I’m still figuring out how to hold myself in these new clothes. Every couple of days, another piece of research will send us on a conversation topic that has us comparing the contents of our childhoods. “Did your dad do that? Do you remember this? Did he talk this way?” There are no straight lines in our discussions, just meandering streams of consciousness about our parents’ shared behavior patterns and how it affected us.
It’s like I’ve been floating in space, no sense of up and down, and suddenly I have a framework in which my aspect is locked. My world looks clearer, and I can more readily trust my own perceptions.
Even as I envied people with large, close families, I was suspicious of their connection, fearful that they had to pretend to like each other just to be in the same room. My mother’s hostility for one of her brothers and his family prevented us from getting all fifteen (!!) of us from getting together, so that was my norm growing up. The only other example I had was Tim’s family, which is doggedly impersonal. Belonging was not part of my core understanding of family.
But now I think it just might be possible. Now I’m believed, because now I’m not alone. What I perceived actually happened, and it also actually happened to other people who lived miles away from me but were raised by people who shared my father’s childhood. I hope someday my siblings can join in the conversation and relieve some of their feelings of isolation and intrinsic peculiarity.
Iced milk may be popular among dairy farmers, or Wisconsinites, or maybe midwestern men who have had the experience of milking a cow and can’t stand the association of warm milk with an early morning udder in a freezing barn. But this one small quirk is symbolic of the newly uncovered history I share with my cousins. All of the sudden, in small ways that trace back to significant relationships, I am no longer alone.
Please pass the iced milk.