Family was one of the principle sources of dischord in James and Penny’s otherwise fairly harmonious union. Essentially James had it and Penny didn’t. Of course, she had a family, all the parts were in the right place, but she felt that the sum did not function as it should. Having encountered many such families, I had always tried to impart the view upon Penny that there was no ‘should’ when it came to families, and therefore the attempt to insert one was as unproductive as it was unfair. However, Penny had a fixed idea of what a family should do and be, and hers fell short in several regards.
After over 30 years of marriage, Penny’s father had left her mother with the revelation that he had been unfaithful for about 3/4 of their marriage. This had left her mother shocked and heartbroken, and in the three or four years since this had passed, Penny had been left to pick up the emotional pieces. She claimed that she hated her father with a passion for what he had done, and yet, she was not quite ready to live with that thought; he was, after all, still her father. Penny also had a brother, Alex, only a little younger than her. According to Penny they had been very close until they both became teenagers, when she became a party girl and her brother became withdrawn. This drifting apart became much more serious, and from Penny’s reports they were verbally and physically abusive towards one another.
About five years later when James first came on the scene, he had encountered a tense and uncommunicative relationship between Penny and Alex, which occasionally flared up into misplaced anger and frustration. Nevertheless, with everything that came with the fall out of their parents relationship a year or so later, Penny and Alex had been, rather grudgingly, trying to put their differences aside in the interests of helping their mum. Penny’s mum, Penny had realised in retrospect, had been the thin line of glue holding the family together. When her father walked out, her mother gave up this responsibility, as she gave up as many responsibilities as she could. She stopped working, she did not cook or clean or even dress somedays, and did not seem to care about anything. While her brother, who owned his own business nearby, did what he could to provide some practical support, Penny did what she could with the emotional fragments of her mother – listening to her bitter stories of regret and abandonment night after night on the phone, and visiting her as regularly as she was able, taking food, clothes, jewellery, make up. Just trying to work some of the things that her mum had always prided herself on back into her life.
Penny’s mum, Anna, had been a type 1 diabetic ever since she had given birth to Alex. She had always been very careful in her control of her sugars, occasionally going a bit low, but always knowing what to do about it, and never seeming to allow the illness to control her. After her husband had made 20 years of infidelity known to her, on his way out of the door, the diabetes was one more thing that was allowed to slide somewhat. This was obviously of great concern to both Penny and Alex. She did not seem to get the early warning signs that her body used to give her, and was going low, sometimes dangerously so, with an alarming frequency.
Physically, Penny’s family had her running round in circles. There was a regular communication line running between herself, Alex, her granny and Anna – making sure that she was ok, checking on her several times a day, going round to the house as often as she could. Then there were the family meals and holidays, which her Dad had decided he wanted to organise in the wake of his destruction. As Penny sardonically remarked, he had not done any of this for years while they were still a family, so it was difficult to look on these post hoc attempts at union with anything other than disdain; a thinly disguised attempt to off load some guilt. Emotionally, Penny was on tenterhooks; constantly afraid that her mum was going to do something really silly, like just forget to take her insulin, or just not even bother checking herself. This combined with the deep ambivalence she felt towards her father to ensure that family was an extremely touchy subject.
Three things entered this fraught scene. Firstly, Anna had a car accident, quite a serious one. She was left housebound, with a badly damaged shoulder, and her confidence severely shaken. Secondly, Penny’s dad, Richard, decided that it was time to sell the family home, which he had moved out of but had still be contributing to financially. Thirdly, Penny, so completely exhausted with the relationship that she had with her mum had become frustrated and had started simply refusing to hear anything more about her ‘bastard dad’ and ‘what he had done’.
Around this time, Penny and James went on holiday to the far east, returning engaged. It had taken James three proposal attempts over about four or five years to persuade Penny that marriage was not necessarily something that ended in lies and hurt. To persuade her that the act of union on their part was a statement of their strength together in the face of everything that had been revealed about her parent’s past. Having successfully negotiated this, while on holiday in the far East, they had then returned home, and re-discovered the challenges that they faced, that Penny faced everyday, with her family. Thus they were unsure of when they would be married, or what kind of an occasion it would be, and whether there would be drama, and hurt and tears. James was cautiously optimistic; hopeful that perhaps this kind of news might really help Anna, to give her something to focus on and to begin to rebuild a relationship with her daughter based on more positive grounds. Richard was just something to be decided on at a later date – would he walk her down the aisle? Would this feel like total hypocrisy and make Penny feel sick inside? At that point nobody knew.