Posts Tagged ‘family’

Vacation From Chaos

March 31, 2011

blue soapbox  Late one recent afternoon, spinning my wheels on all kinds of tasks that needed my attention, I called my sister Erica.  “Hey Eri, wanna go get a drink, or a cup of coffee?”

“Well—um, I’m kind of cleaning up my apartment, and—” her voice was tiny.  “I could use a hand.”

She was asking?  Forget the drink.  “I’ll be right over.”

For months, I’d been offering to help my sister, who’s not a born housekeeper.  But she’d been feeling too ashamed of her chaos to accept my offer—and too overwhelmed to tackle the job on her own.  That she was now extending an invitation to me was, in the language of sisters, something of an honor.

I know how thorny it can be to do spring cleaning, how myriad the opportunities for self-reproach:

I bought these pants, but who am I kidding?

What kind of person lets mail pile up like this?

Why didn’t I keep the moisture out of this now-unusable dishwasher soap?

How did I create such a monster out of plenty?

I headed over to Eri’s and walked into the kind of disorder only a trained eye would recognize as evidence of progress.  I began scrounging around for empty bags in which to put the castoffs.  We gained momentum, and in a few hours, we’d filled dozens of bags with giveaway, recycling and garbage.  “If you regret anything, you can always get it back on eBay or at the flea market,” I chanted, as much to myself as to her.

Eri seemed anxious that I was going to lose steam or, worse, start lecturing her.  But for me, the work wasn’t hard; I appreciated its concreteness, the discarded items piling up nicely in the hallway.  And I felt no urge to criticize my sister or tell her what to do.  I had my own pile of stuff I didn’t want to face: an e-mail inbox I hadn’t purged in a year and a half; that Advance Directive form I kept meaning to fill out; research on the various options for authors wishing to make their books available in electronic form.

I’ve been on the receiving end of sisterly hand-holding many, many times.  Home moves, babysitting, post-surgical care, fridge cleaning, remodeling decisions, party throwing, proofreading of galleys.  Until now, I hadn’t fully grasped the most important part of that generosity: countering any self-condemnation the other person may be feeling about not being able to manage everything herself.

How is it that we’re all convinced our mess is the worst, our shame the most legitimate?  While Eri waited for disapproval, I could only admire her for being brave enough to let me in.

Something must have shifted during my unplanned vacation, because when I returned to my own chaos, I found I was able to tackle it much better, as if my hand-holding of Eri were now magically extended inward.

And a few days later, Eri called to tell me she was re-organizing her kitchen cabinets.  By herself.

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Nothing Personal: Some Thoughts on Father’s Day

June 16, 2010

blue soapbox  My father was an eccentric who loved discussing topics that no one else seemed to know about.  Not a classroom learner, he dabbled at college but didn’t finish, apparently conceiving a philosophy out of it: academic achievement was the sign of a small mind.

The trouble was, I liked academic achievement.

As a child, I went about the business of school under the radar, probably hoping that if I quietly excelled, my parents would stop fighting.  But after their divorce when I was a young teen, I became more provocative toward my father.  In an attempt to get back at him for his relentless attention-seeking—and because I was starting to notice he wasn’t always as well-informed as he seemed—I began to ignore his intellectual meanderings.

Dad would retaliate by telling me I lacked imagination, or that I wasn’t a voracious enough reader.  Or he’d say I was “rigid” for wanting to cut short a visit so I could study for an upcoming exam.

I was sixteen when my father won custody.  It was October of my senior year at Berkeley High, and a few weeks after moving in with Dad, I began filling out the application to Cal.  I asked him to handle the financial aid forms.

Dad took one look at the paperwork and started hyperventilating.  “If you were a real intellectual, you wouldn’t need college,” he remarked.

I got my way, was awarded scholarships and grants, and took advantage of my college experience in spite of him.  But my inner landscape was another story.  When I did well in school, I worried I’d soon be exposed as a fraud.  And any subject or book I found difficult seemed to validate my father’s skepticism of my intellect.

Was Dad insecure?  Of course—deeply, exhaustingly.  Did he feel humiliated by my ability to succeed in college and get along without him financially?  Probably.  Was he hurt that I couldn’t bring myself even to feign interest when he’d pontificate?  No question.

But these are explanations.  And explanations don’t show you how to live.

I like getting older, because sometimes insights come my way for no reason other than that time has passed.  A couple of months ago, a lovely cousin of mine e-mailed me about some letters she’d found from Dad’s father.  She mentioned something I never knew:  that before my grandfather immigrated to New York and became a shopkeeper, he’d been admitted into the top yeshiva in his village in Ukraine, and that in a very scholarly family, he was considered the most brilliant brother.

I didn’t know Grandpa well and had no personal sense of his academic prowess.  But I suddenly felt a strong kinship with him, a fatherly presence one generation removed.

I also realized at a new level how ashamed of himself my father must have felt at the time I was applying to Cal.  Sure, he’d fought for custody and won, arguably a heroic act, but he’d also recently lost his retail store and livelihood and was barely making ends meet.  And he wasn’t as accomplished as his own father, who’d fallen short of the rabbinate only because of life circumstances, not because of a lack of ability or focus.

I wish I could say that as I come to understand my father more fully, his condemning voice naturally ebbs from my consciousness.  But it’s not so simple.  In one way or another, I do battle with that voice every time I sit down to read or write.

What I am starting to grasp is that really, it was nothing personal.

Published in The Piedmont Post, June 16, 2010

Some Thoughts on Mother’s Day

May 5, 2010

blue soapbox  When I was young, I gravitated toward friends who had struggles with their mothers.  I felt overwhelmed by my difficulties with my mom, and needed orientation from others with similar experiences.

Over the years, I’ve been startled to see many friends gradually resolving their conflicts and coming to appreciate their moms—most of whom turned out to be not all that awful.  For me, mom-trouble wasn’t a phase, but a permanent condition.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that bad mothers must exist; otherwise there’d be no bell curve of nurturing motherhood.  Some people are the offspring of those moms.  As angst-ridden teens, these kids might look and sound just like other angst-ridden teens.  The difference is that the mere passage of time, the natural progression into maturity, won’t fix things.  In other words, not everyone will—or should—look back eventually and say, “Ah, now I see things from Mom’s point of view.  She was right, after all.”

My mom was tough from early on.  Very rejecting of two of my sisters, she clung to me for emotional support.  Despite her divisive and inappropriate parenting, as a child I viewed Mom as the saner of my two parents, because of my father’s explosive temper.

After my parents’ divorce, Mom became increasingly blaming and unstable, lashing out at us and sometimes barely leaving her bed.  There wasn’t much to eat around the house.  Finally, when I was sixteen, she evicted me and my two younger sisters from the family home so that she could rent it out and go on an extended car trip.

It was then that my father, who had recently lost his retail store and livelihood, sued for custody.  Practically destitute and drowning in business debt, he took his lawyer’s advice and scrambled for work, landing a job at a fast food joint.  In 1971, men were simply not awarded sole custody of their children.  Dad won.  That was what the court thought of our mother.

I wish I could say that Mom got help, came to her senses, tried to make things right.  Instead, she was so furious about my father having gotten custody that she barely spoke to me for a number of years.  Eventually she returned to Berkeley—only to make a permanent move to New York as soon as my sisters and I started having children of our own.  Contact was infrequent and often painful as Mom kept up old behaviors.

And at 87, back in Oakland now, she’s still keeping up those behaviors, though with somewhat less frequency—and more pharmaceutical intervention.  My current relationship with her, while sweet, is the product of my emotional distance, not resolution.

So how is it that year after year, I make the trek to the card store, wading through racks of “You’re my inspiration” and “Your love has meant so much to me” to find a suitable marker of the occasion?  Like all my efforts in my mother’s behalf, the card is partly about loyalty to my sisters, who’d have more of a burden if I weren’t pulling my weight.  Really, the card is for them as much as for her.

A simple floral picture with the barest of messages would be best—or perhaps no message at all.  That way, I’ll have something to write.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.  Love, Lisa.”

Published in The Piedmont Post, May 5, 2010