Mildred was married for just one day when her husband called it quits, but not before the marriage was consummated and destiny opened her door. Months later, she gave birth to a daughter she named Ellie. Shortly after, Mildred entered an institution with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, leaving Ellie in her parents’ care.
Raised in a sheltered Jewish community by Russian speaking grandparents, Ellie learned English while at school. The language barriers that she had to contend with both at home and in school led to communication gaps in an otherwise loving environment. This lack of understanding, coupled with her mother’s sporadic and disruptive presence, left Ellie at a social and cultural disadvantage. Although her childhood had established mental and emotional wounds, it also provided her with character traits; hardship had taught Ellie motivation, pertinacity, and resilience.
At 21 years old, she married Lewis. Handsome and five years her senior, he carried the promise of a better life, and in 1956, a better life meant being the perfect housewife and mother. Ellie maintained the family home and gave birth to two daughters. When her first child, Lisa, began to show signs of a disability, Ellie soon realized that she was alone in caring for her daughter’s needs. Her husband lacked support and guidance, and had become consumed with a gambling addiction. Lewis’ embarrassment and shame over his daughter’s illness eventually led to marital separation. Eight months after his departure, Lewis returned. The couple remained together, for financial security, for another 9 years before finally divorcing.
Ellie’s second daughter, Wendi, was born three years after Lisa. Wendi referred to her childhood as being a typical child of the 70s; school then home then play with the neighborhood kids until the sun went down. She also recalls feeling the burden of being a child of ‘firsts’ – first job, first prom, first college.
“My parents never verbalized it, but I felt this pressure to be the model child. They put all their eggs in my basket, and at times it felt as if I was the oldest, youngest and only child,” she recalls.
Not wanting to add to the family dynamics, Wendi internalized her emotions.
“My sister has Asperger’s, but in the early 1960’s, it was misunderstood, and the word used was mental retardation. If I had to choose an adjective about the way I felt back then, it would be embarrassed – over my sister, over my parents’ separation, and my father’s addiction,” she said.
At the age of 11, Wendi landed her first paid job. Two days a week for .25¢ per day, she hopped on her bicycle and pedaled two miles each way to walk Cricket, her aunt’s perky Pomeranian. She looked forward to being with Cricket and longed for a pet of her own, but the family’s experience with animals was short-lived.
“I have always loved animals, so my mother would keep trying for me. We tried dogs - a beagle and then a cocker spaniel, baby chicks, and bunnies. We ended up giving away everything we tried to raise,” she said.
Ellie and Lewis decided they’d had enough of city life, and decided to move the family to the suburbs. Wendi was 13 years old, entering seventh grade, and recalls feeling devastated about the change in location. Her memories of high school are those of an outsider entering late in the game, rather than someone who belonged to a group.
And right here is where my initial question for this interview seems fitting: What life circumstances have helped to mold you into the person you are today?
With a childhood surrounded by psychiatric and addictive conditions, Wendi realized she could choose any number of paths, and two in particular came to mind: one that would mirror her childhood, or one that didn’t self-sabotage, was free from blame, and assumed responsibility for her adult life. She chose to adopt those family traits that served her; motivation, negotiation and the stubbornness to persevere. She married, had three children and spent 15 years working for a medical staffing agency. When Wendi was unexpectedly laid off, she viewed it as an opportunity to consider next steps, and realized she wanted a business of her own.
“My mother would fight for anything for her kids. She was the strongest advocate in the world, but the knowledge about what was actually needed was lacking, and as much as I can be annoyed by my mother’s behavior, I know she couldn’t help it due to her own childhood,” she said.
After six months of researching, Wendi decided on an errand and concierge service that also offered pet sitting. Whatever reservations she had were washed away by her determination. One of the skills that she learned from her mother contributed significantly to the success of her business – negotiating - and Wendi “soaked it up like a sponge”.
With a $1000 budget, A Better Way Errand and Concierge Service was born. Within a year, pet sitting began to monopolize the majority of her work, and she realized that it could be a standalone profession. By year two, a renamed A Better Way Pet Sitting was booming, and today has more than 200 clients.
“My maiden name was Barker. When I was in middle school, my friends used to call me Wendi Wendi Woof Woof as a joke. I got a kick out of it, and who knew I would end up with my own pet sitting business,” Wendi smiled.
Wendi checks in with her mother once a week, but does not feel the family has close knit ties. Her relationship with her sister, who continues to struggle with social, mental and emotional issues, has been one of turmoil. She believes that her volunteer work may partially be a result of their relationship.
“I’ve always been the one that steps up and organizes things for a worthy cause. It makes me feel good to help people that need it,” she said, adding, “As a child, I could not help my sister and maybe that is why I do it; maybe it’s because I was embarrassed by her when I was young and now that I am older, I am making it up for it.”
Wendi’s husband shares the similarity of having an older sibling with a disability. They also share values and character traits they’ve passed on to their children – aspiration, the motivation to learn, and the value of hard work and dedication.
“My family consists of my husband, three children and two dogs, and they mean everything to me. I wanted my kids to grow up in a healthy home environment confident in their parents’ love for them. Together, my husband and I have a raised a wonderful family,” she smiled.
Mildred was a person who lived with schizophrenia; Ellie lived within the shadow of her mother’s world, learning English and forging a path with little guidance. When she was 35 years old, Ellie set out to find her biological father. Without the readily available internet that we have today, she found him living in the state of Maine. She tried to contact him multiple times to explain who she was, but he refused to believe her. After several attempts, Ellie decided to drive to Maine. Her birth father, she discovered, lived as a recluse, never marrying or having other children. Her tenacity paid off and the reunion with her birth father provided closure for Ellie, the only heir to this man she would never know, and who died soon after their meeting.
“I attribute all that I am to my mother. She was loaded with her own childhood trauma and didn’t receive the love that a child should have, but she surrounded me with love. It may not have been perfect, but it was her best, and I get that,” said Wendi.
We are born into our tribal families; we grow and bloom and develop histories and wounds and lessons. What we may sometimes forget is that we also have free will to choose whether we allow our generational adversity to govern a life well-lived. We can live somewhere in the past with our wounds, or become happily preoccupied with life in the present. Wendi’s family has a quote, or if you will, a mission statement that they will pass down through generations, opening the future for change and growth: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
We can honor and love our family of origin, but at the same time, it’s okay to move out of the treehouse and start your own branch.
What life circumstances have helped to mold you into the person you are today? This question never gets old for me. I ask it often, of myself and others, and am always humbled by the answers I receive.