My five sisters, two brothers and I grew up in West Islip in the 1950s and ’60s. I was third oldest. Big families were pretty common back then. What was unusual about our family, perhaps, was that both of my parents were only children and had quite painful childhoods. When he was 12, my dad lost his father to a heart attack. Mom endured physical and emotional abuse from her father.
Fortunately, Mom and Dad were kind, honorable people and were determined to create a family that would be better and happier than theirs. With no healthy frames of reference, they chose three very simple family virtues to live by: love, forgiveness and unity.
Our sweet and gentle mother, Joan Young, had a mantra. She told us that all she required of us was that we love and forgive each other always. It was a tough goal to achieve day to day, as sibling rivalry can be messy and combative. Mom never wavered.
One Thanksgiving, my sister Kate, the second oldest, came home during her junior year in college in Indiana. She had carpooled with other kids. At every stop, Kate saw each student greeted with hugs, kisses and celebration.
Kate arrived at our dark house with siblings and parents all asleep. Kate was furious and the next morning announced that she was done with our family forever. Petty fighting ensued. Mom, of course, immediately went into fix-it mode. She demanded that the older siblings, Cyndi, Kate, Stephanie and I, go into her bedroom. Our father, James Burrough, was in charge of the younger ones. Mom followed us, closed the door behind her and locked it. She told us that we would not get out until we forgave each other.
As you can imagine, we were not happy. At first we just stared and scowled at each other, then brought up any and every paltry grievance we could think of. Mom was attentive but relentless, refusing our pleas to be released until love returned. In time — a long time — someone started to giggle, then someone laughed. Eventually we were all laughing so hard we could barely breathe, and we gave in, hugging happily. Mom smiled, opened the door and we were free.
I also remember when, as teenagers, my sister Maripat and I were angrily feuding over something neither of us remembers today. Tearfully, Mom repeated her precious mantra. The pain in her eyes was all that was needed. We followed Mom’s heart, acquiesced and allowed love to return.
My siblings and I are all different. Not one of us has the same hair color; shades include bright red, auburn, blond, brown and more. We each followed our own path. Four were teachers, one was a bank executive, one a homemaker, one worked in the space program, and I became a massage therapist. Our homes ranged from Florida to Maine to Greece.
Despite differences among us, Mom and Dad gave us shared values. We forgive because we learned from them that on any given day, we might not always be our best selves and might need forgiveness as well.
As my brothers and sisters and I approach our senior years, with grown children and grandchildren, we still live by the legacy that Mom and Dad taught us: love, forgiveness and unity.
Reader Drusilla Burrough lives in Port Jefferson.