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When I was five years old, my parents separated. At the time we were living in Reykjavík, in a one-bedroom condominium on which my parents had recently put a small down payment. To flee the fallout from the separation, my mother travelled to Canada to visit my aunt – her sister – who was married to a Canadian and was about to give birth to her second child. She took me with her.

The visit, initially meant to be only a few weeks, was extended to several months, and when my aunt’s husband accepted a job offer in Cyprus they invited my mother and me to join them. That stay ended up lasting for one and a half years. When we returned to Iceland, I was in my eighth year and went directly into grade three. It was my first introduction to formal education.

At that time, my parents’ divorce became final. In order to avoid having to sell their condo and to ensure that we would have a secure place to live, my mother and father agreed that it should be put into my name. At the time, inflation was very high in Iceland and mortgages were not yet indexed to the rate of inflation, so over the years, as prices and salaries rose and mortgages stayed the same, the mortgage effectively disappeared and the condo became my property.

Three years after we had returned to Iceland, just as the dust from my parents’ divorce was beginning to settle, my mother decided that she wanted to move to Canada. I still remember the dread I felt when she made that announcement. I did not want to leave again. Iceland was my home. It was where my extended family was, my [paternal] grandparents, my roots. But my mother insisted. In the end she played her trump card: if I came to Canada, she said, I could have what I wanted most in the whole world: a dog. Maybe even a horse, too, if we moved to the country. Perhaps we would move to Calgary, where there was lots of land and much economic prosperity.

So when I was ten, we returned to Canada and moved in with my aunt and her husband. Just over a month later, I started school. I remember it being an absolute, utter nightmare. I only understood about ten percent of what was being said. I was put back a grade as a result. I was whispered about and teased because of my accent and my lack of comprehension. I still have a vivid memory of standing out in left field – literally – with a big mitten on my hand during a baseball game in gym class, listening to the shouts of wrath from my teammates because I was supposed to catch the ball. I didn’t know. Nobody had bothered to explain the rules to me. I didn’t even know what baseball was. And I was too scared to ask.

What kept me going was the promise of the dog. That became a symbol of comfort, understanding and solace. When I asked my mother, she told me to work hard in school, get back up to my normal grade, and we would then talk about it. I worked hard. By the following January I had made it up to my normal grade. But by then, we had moved to a small rental apartment and dogs were not allowed.

My mother had begun dating a man, and shortly afterwards we moved into an apartment with him. He was a professor at a military college, hung swords and military memorabilia on the walls, and was miserly to the point of insanity [a topic for another installment, perhaps]. He was also obsessively controlling – the ‘little secrets’ that were the real reasons for his tyranny were exposed many years later – and he despised me.

We moved to a house on the outskirts of town when I was thirteen. My mother and I had been in Canada for three years, and I had changed schools three times. I remember virtually nothing of my education during that time – or subsequently. Everything I had went into adapting to ever-changing circumstances, and trying to survive the dysfunction and emotional abuse at home. The dog was still a topic of discussion, but by this time the excuse had become that my mother’s new boyfriend – and soon-to-be husband – didn’t want a dog.

Which is why it came as a complete surprise when, a short while later, my mother bought him a dog for his birthday. The reason? “Because he has always wanted a dog.” […!] This dog was a big, fierce German Shephard named ‘Chappy’ who lived in the garage and who I was not to go near because he was supposed to be “disciplined”. A few months later, Chappy met his demise when he was taken to the vet, attacked the vet’s assistant, and had to be put down.

The dog was only one in a series of bizarre betrayals and rejections I experienced at the hands of my mother. The next major one came a couple of years later, when she and her husband decided to move to the country, to a farm in the middle of nowhere. I was fifteen, going on sixteen. Again I was gripped with unspeakable dread; living alone with them out in the suburbs, steeped in dysfunction and insanity, was utterly soul destroying, and the thought of moving away into still more isolation, was unthinkable. I said I wouldn’t go.

In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want them to leave – although in hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t ultimately the best thing for me. I was terrified to be left on my own. But that’s what happened. They left, and I stayed in the house, which was put up for sale. Bit by bit, they removed the furniture, until basically all that was left was my bedroom stuff and a kitchen table and chairs. Soon afterwards, my mother sold the condo in Iceland, transferred the funds to Canada, and because of a favourable exchange rate, was able to buy a small house for me to live in. And so, at seventeen, I was installed in my own property, was managing tenants who lived in half of it [which provided funds for me to live on], was struggling to finish high school, worked two nights a week plus Saturdays, and on the surface played the role of capable young woman. On the inside, however, I was devastated. I developed an eating disorder, used alcohol and drugs indiscriminately, and hid from people.

Two years later, having finished school and moved to Toronto [knowingly only that I needed to get away] I fell into a black hole. I won’t go into the details – except to say that it was my great fortune and blessing to be guided to a kind psychiatrist who with great patience helped me, over a period of about two years, to see some sort of light and regain a semblance of hope.

It’s been a long journey since then. Many things have happened, too many and too complex to explain in this small space. Suffice it to say that at times I have quite literally struggled for my life. But I am incredibly lucky to have been guided to people who have helped me see that what happened in my childhood was not normal, and not okay.

As I alluded to in an earlier post, I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother was not the mother I needed. Whatever her reasons, she did not nurture me, did not support me, made no sacrifices, and ultimately abandoned me. She could also be incredibly cruel. About fourteen years ago, when I was a single mother in a foreign country and absolutely terrified for the future, I turned to her for help that she had previously offered. She harshly rebuffed me. My appeals for assistance – which note bene were very modest – were rejected outright. Her advice: return to Iceland, and work to overcome my ‘deadly sins’. After all, according to her, I’d had every opportunity at my fingertips, and had squandered them all. And Iceland was now the only country I had any claim to.

At that point I made a vow to myself that I would never, ever, ask her for anything again. I kept that promise, with one exception: I asked whether she would be willing to pay for AAH’s flight ticket to come to visit her last year, and she agreed.

In the last few months of her life, I thought I’d finally arrived at the point where I could simply love her, without being hurt by her. I was wrong. Last week, I was informed that I would receive no inheritance from my mother. She had made a will, and her wish was that I should not be in it. Her entire [50 percent] share of the farm and land she owned with her ‘husband’ [they had separated, but still lived with under the same roof], all her assets, government bonds, personal belongings, everything, went to my half-sister. Meanwhile, all the papers regarding the sale, years ago, of the condo here in Iceland and the subsequent transactions of the property in Canada, had been meticulously kept and recorded as ‘advance inheritance’. No attempt had been made to calculate whether this was an equal sum. No allowance for the fact that at the time I was a child who needed somewhere to live, and something to live on. No gesture made indicating that she had not one daughter, but two. Not even allowance for a flight ticket for me to travel to Canada for her memorial. One hundred percent eliminated. Except for one thing: I was to receive her Icelandic books – presumably because no-one in Canada can read them, and no used book shop will have them.

This is easily the longest post I have ever written. I wondered if this was the appropriate forum in which to vent. I don’t know. Undoubtedly some people reading this will feel that I am wallowing, steeped in self-pity, or be shocked or angry that I’m airing my dirty laundry in public. Others may think I’m exaggerating – I assure you I am not. There is much that has been left out here. Still others may think, what’s the big deal, everyone’s had a terrible childhood. Perhaps that’s true. But that doesn’t make it better – for any of us.

Everyone has their story. And everyone has a voice. This is mine.


PS. If you’re new here, have managed to make it through to this point, and are scratching your head in confusion, don’t worry – this is definitely not the way things are around here normally. We normally stick to lighter fare – like the weather. Today it happens to be windy, overcast, with a damp kind of cold. 5°C. Sunrise was at 09.14 and sunset at 18.11.

Comments

comments

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • alda May 5, 2008, 11:25 pm

    The link to the original comment thread is here:

    http://www.haloscan.com/comments/aldakalda/5394940457852944146/#304242

  • Anu May 9, 2008, 6:40 pm

    Hi, I’ve been truly enjoying your blog. I found my way to your life story through some links here on this site. I think you have the skill to write even about the tragic side of your life in a way that communicates with the world.
    After having spent a shorter time in Canada than you, I could somehow detect from your language that it’s Canadian. It’s a treat to get to know aspects of Icelandic culture through your posts!

  • Sanna May 14, 2008, 4:46 pm

    And what a voice you have. I’ve been enjoying your blog – and am not an Icelandophile, but I could be, eventually. I spent 5 hours in Reykjavik, not nearly enough time, and have always wanted to go back. Eventually.

  • Natalie May 31, 2008, 3:53 pm

    I wish you peace.
    You are an incredible person:)

  • CarolQ August 10, 2008, 9:49 pm

    As I was going through your old(er) posts, I read this one and had to write a comment to you. As my mother told me (regarding her mother, my grandmother): “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives” and that is so true. I know I would not be able to overcome your mother; I had a hard enough time overcoming my GM even with my mother protecting me. Mental abuse is as bad – or worse – than physical abuse. Physical wounds heal but mental wounds require so much more from the victim. Bless you, as you will go to heaven since you’ve already been through hell. xoxo

  • alda August 10, 2008, 11:01 pm

    Thanks to all of you.

  • Deborah August 12, 2008, 11:42 pm

    I wish I could give you a long hug. Your story is sad, but you must be incredibly strong inside.

  • Marc October 7, 2008, 12:19 pm

    I found your website via an econoblog on the current demise of Iceland. And then I read this.
    By coincidence I am a translator by training (but now work in IT) and have had some family issues myself. I think I got to grips with it now (I’m 35 now, and father of 3). I believe that my past has scarred me, and on occasion the scars still hurt. But I can try to offer to my children what I missed. But I know I still am vulnerable, so I cut my ties (to my father) for good. It’s not out of anger, but self preservation, which I have become quite good at, although I’m still a mess on other things.

  • Ann October 11, 2008, 3:38 pm

    I love your writing. I think you must be a person of great strength, without doubt an inspiring person. I believe you move and enlighten more people than you could imagine. Your loved ones are very fortunate to know you.

    Thank you for your words, honesty and courage.

  • The Other Katherine Harris November 9, 2008, 11:03 pm

    How horrible and gorgeous, Alda. I dropped by for further news of the meltdown and am glad to have browsed beyond that to find this aspect of your story, stunningly told.

    Brava, You, for surviving in such gracious style.

    I wonder how many of us writers came from toxic parentage of assorted varieties. Probably it’s more common than not. As Tolstoy observed, “All happy families are alike” — hardly circumstances likely to prompt much close observation and extended reflection.

  • Kismet November 14, 2008, 6:58 am

    We have much in common, unfortunately.

    I wonder, how is your relationship (or do you have one?) with your sister? Does she realize how your mother treated you so differently?

    I am encouraged by you.

    ~K!

  • Bryan Bessette November 24, 2008, 7:37 pm

    Amazing life, Alda. Thank you for enduring! Given your intellect, awareness and experiences, I would imagine you are a great mother. 😉

  • Bryan Bessette November 24, 2008, 7:43 pm

    Ummm, the smiley in my previous post was supposed to be a wink. I don’t want to be misunderstood as being sarcastic. I truly meant what I wrote.

    My mother had a similar early childhood, we’d have to substitute Iceland for Germany, but with her experience and insight she was a great mother that has steered me right.

    My apologies if my smiley offended.

  • Jón January 15, 2009, 12:36 am

    Alda, can you explain this better:

    “He was also obsessively controlling – the ‘little secrets’ that were the real reasons for his tyranny were exposed many years later – and he despised me.

  • Jacqueline January 19, 2009, 11:52 pm

    *hug*

  • Joan April 22, 2009, 6:39 pm

    Thank you Alda for sharing with us, I am so sorry for what you went through. I went through something similar. An interesting question to ask is what is the relationship with the sister? Is she honorable and does she offer you a part of “her” inheritance, which is rightfully partially yours?

    My parents are getting ready to bequeath EVERYTHING to my brother. Does he think he will have a normal relationship with me afterwards, if he doesn’t at least offer a part of it to me his sister? If the situation had been reversed, I would have done that. but I guess in our world, money is more important than anything.

  • Lindsay June 7, 2009, 7:23 pm

    hello dear Alda,

    i have just recently began exploring your blog, and to locate this post has given your blog an entirely new depth now that i know that you have been steeped in nothing but perseverance.

    i am a Canadian living in Canada, although i lived for a short time (4 months) in Iceland to study and work last winter. In spite of the time (and money!!!!) spent there, Iceland still exists in a very lofty realm for me. your blog helps bring it all down to a level that is tangible for me, and i enjoy it very much.

  • Martin September 24, 2009, 10:29 am

    Hæ Alda,

    I found your blog by chance as I’m always looking for more infos about Iceland since I became addicted in 2004 when I first visited your country.

    Your story is really sad and I can imagine pretty well what it felt like (and probably still does on some occasions). Destroying a child’s self-confidence is probably the worst thing parents can do. It’s a great achievement that you survived this and lead a normal life now and, most importantly, don’t pass the “lessons your learned from your parents” on to the next generation. You can really be proud of yourself.

    Bless,

    Martin

  • KB October 27, 2009, 12:54 am

    Alda,
    I´m speachless…
    I really admire you, your perseverance and your warm heart.
    Thanks for sharing your story!
    Love.

  • Daphne January 7, 2010, 9:52 am

    I’m from Leeds in the North of England. I’ve just found your blog and have been really enjoying it and this piece about your childhood was both gripping and horrifying. I’ve bookmarked your blog and I’ll be back, thank you. I have always wanted to visit Iceland but Britain’s doing a pretty good imitation of it at the moment!

  • Jennie January 23, 2010, 12:02 am

    Dear Alda

    There are so many parts of the story that are parallels to my life but you are much braver than me. My mother is incapable of expressing her feelings. I was raised by my extended family and even to this day feel abandoned. However I have gotten enough therapy now to know that I will not change her anymore. I vow to not be like her and in many ways I have succeeded with my own children. However there are some days where I can be pretty messed up thinking about all those missed hugs and shows of love.

    This is my first time on your blog and I enjoy it a lot. Keep it up. You are great.

  • Tom Thumb February 3, 2010, 1:43 pm

    You are a brave person to tell your story so publicly. I am much more the other way of extreme shyness. My father and your mother would be bookends, identical.

  • Traci P February 27, 2010, 6:26 am

    I just wanted to commend you on the bravery of this post, and the long distances you have traveled to gain such a perspective.

  • Elizabeth April 18, 2010, 4:48 am

    Awesome post.
    No, to me your post is nothing to do with wallowing in it or self pity. This is you. Here it is. It’s on the table, so there’s no need to ask. You get rid of the preliminary bullshit and get to what matters…and that is the weather.

    I think it is probably cold and crappy right now. I haven’t looked at your latest post.

    I found you because I did a search for Noatun+Iceland and you had your rant about buying coffee there. I have to tell you, I hate their bloody commercials on the television. My husband (a fellow Icelander living in Canada with me!), watches the news everyday and if I hear that advert for Noatun one more time I am going to have a stroke.

    And I know what you mean about the checkout cashiers. Apathetic is not a strong enough word to describe them. I’m not sure if it was there or at kronan that my husband, Astvaldur, went to the checkout to pay and put his basket up. She stood there, not saying a word for about a minute, looking at him with this blank look on her face. Finally he asked what the problem was. She said in a monotone voice “you have to take the groceries out of the basket”. I thought he would blow a gasket right there. It took her a minute of his time to tell him that. Why not take them out and tell him afterward, as a point of customer service for a person who was obviously unfamiliar with the policy.

    Thanks for making me laugh. Thanks for being real.
    Beta

  • Habba Grace February 24, 2011, 3:11 pm

    Thank you so much for leading me to this post. And yes, I will surely wait for things to ease up for you, with your busy schedule at the moment. But as I said earlier, I honestly want to meet you, in fact now I feel I HAVE to meet you. This whole thing is just so weird – by that I mean the timing of my expressing interest in meeting up with you, for instance. Can´t wait for that to happen. It will be good, for sure.
    Let me know if you might want a slice of apple pie, some whipped cream and coffee to recharge your batteries in the midst of cramming for your exams, that would be nice. At any rate, good luck in your studies, new job and all else. See you later. And thanks for your post.

  • Hannah Joy Curious June 27, 2011, 6:45 am

    Alda… I read this about a week ago, nodding all the way. You made me feel less abnormal and less alone. Many of the things you speak of happened to me too. I’m glad you seem to have found your spot in the world, some stability and a loving family of your own. I’m still looking for all of those and the search does take its toll at times. Thank you for your words.

  • Meow February 7, 2012, 3:07 pm

    This made me cry. I saw too much of my own childhood here and had always thought “Thank God I’m the only one this miserable bullshit happened to”. Just replace intended-cruelty from mother who moved around ALL THE TIME with a neglectful I-just-can’t-handle-being-a-mom mother who moved around ALL THE TIME and one evil bastard of a stepdad for several militant abusive alcoholic boyfriends. I’m very impressed that you pulled through it to become such an incredible and funny person. It’s a testament to your strength.

  • Aldís Amah Hamilton February 8, 2013, 12:19 am

    <3

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