Tom North, of the famous blended Beardsley family, reveals the real story of disconnection and abuse behind the happy facade and offers tips on how to keep families together.
When my dad, Dick North, died, my mother—who had eight children—remarried Frank Beardsley, who had 10, and we became globally famous for the size of our combined family. A movie was made in 1968 (and remade in 2005) called Yours, Mine and Ours, starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, and the whole world knew the story of our blissfully blended clan. But that story wasn’t true. What no one knew was that the North children were virtually cut off from our late father’s relatives. Connections with our North grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, were eventually forbidden by my stepfather, Frank Beardsley, an abusive and controlling man. I was six years old when my mother remarried, and I didn’t come to know any of my North cousins until I was an adult.
Over time, I have come to terms with the impact of this disconnection, this severing of ties to my biological family. Research bears out what I experienced personally: that healthy relationships with family and relatives are important to psychological health and happiness, especially for men.
Recently, I attended a North family reunion in northern Utah. I am grateful to my Aunt Weldonna, my dad’s sister, who is 69 years young, who organized this get together, and for arranging a heartwarming and connecting experience for my daughter Elyse and me with our many relatives. The last of her generation, my Aunt “Donni” as she prefers to be called, had invited all the descendants of Elliot North, my grandfather. This simple man with a heart of gold had five children, 19 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren, and so on.
The emotions that ran through my heart as I listened to and spoke with my “lost North” relatives were intense. I felt a desire for connection that had been long lost, and a long-time coming. I’ve shared those feelings in my new book True North—The Shocking Truth about “Yours, Mine and Ours,” and below is an excerpt from Chapter 18 – Visiting the Southwestern Norths.
Grandpa and Grandma North loved their son, and it broke their hearts when he died. In almost every family there is a golden child, and Dick North was theirs. They wanted to visit his children more often, but there was always the complication of Frank Beardsley to deal with. He resented what they were to us …
In 1976 during a college vacation, I decided to pay a surprise visit to Grandpa. When I went up to the door, he carefully stepped down from the camper and, straightening up, looked me up and down. A tear rolled down his cheek, as he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Hello, boy. It’s mighty fine to see you.”
We hugged for a long moment. He stepped back and held me by the shoulders to get a better look at me. “You’re a man now, Tommy. Gosh, it’s good to see you!” he smiled.
Much to my delight, I learned that most of my cousins shared the depth of feeling that I brought to the reunion and were as glad to see me as I was to see them. I can tell you that I had tears in my eyes more than once as I reveled in the discussions we had and felt part of a family that I had been away from me for too long. My concerns of perhaps not being accepted were put to rest, and the laughter we shared was a joy.
I also learned that my experience as I related it in my book about the trauma the North children experienced was appreciated by everyone who had read it or was reading it at the time. There were many questions to answer about the difficulty of living in the Beardsley household and a lot of puzzled looks as my cousins attempted to figure out what the heck my now-deceased mother could have been thinking when she took her children into Frank Beardsley’s domain. I explained it to them, and somehow, it just didn’t seem to make sense.
The weekend went by way too fast and we made all the customary promises to stay in touch that people do when they share heartfelt moments. I have already been in contact with some of my new-found relatives, and plan to stay in touch as time passes.
I am grateful for the new connections I have made with my North family and am glad to no longer be “The Lost Norths.”
And so I wish to offer some ways to create and sustain those family ties, allowing children to really know, absorb and appreciate their place in the family.
Ten Tips to Help You Develop a Strong Family Bond and “Family Narrative”
- Talk positively about your relatives, often.
- Have regular family evenings where you look at family pictures and home movies.
- Share family stories of grandparents and relatives.
- Celebrate birthdays and holidays with relatives.
- Create a space for children to develop healthy relationships with cousins.
- If possible, create opportunities for children to stay with grandparents, cousins, etc.
- Start a Family Notebook where family members can contribute special items, pictures, poems, etc. and document occasions for the future.
- Network in the community as a family – for example, volunteer together for a food drive, or sing at a rest home.
- Learn about family life in other parts of the world and build connections.
- Remember, every day you are creating memories for tomorrow, and giving children the opportunity to pass on your family’s narrative in the future.
According to research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, having a close circle of relatives is crucial for psychological well being, especially for men. In fact, having close relationships with relatives is a key for men’s health.
Grandparents and other relatives play a key role in a child’s life. Relatives can provide a net of support that can help us weather the storms of life, and an excellent opportunity to grow in many directions. They reflect back to us something about ourselves.
Children need to feel that they are connected to others and they are not alone. Studies show that children who know more about their families prove to be more resilient, meaning they can better moderate the effects of stress. They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. As chapters are added to their family’s life, they grow in strength as they share their “family narrative.”
I hope these tips will help men and families everywhere develop and preserve the strong ties children need to become psychologically healthy adults.
Photo—Courtesy of author