Siblings

I was visiting with my son, we were debriefing after the successful birthday party for his daughter, who turned one the prior weekend. He mentioned an observation his wife shared after the party. She said she never met siblings who were more different from each other than my brothers. I got a good laugh from that. She is so right.

Her observation came as no surprise, but I realized that I take it for granted. I don’t think about it; it just is a fact of our family life. Hearing her comment, though, gave me pause. It is hard to explain how two such different people grew up in the same house, from the same set of parents, born only 17 months apart. Mark and Steven are about as different as day and night.

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Me and my bros – 2017 – recreating a pose from when we were small and could more comfortably sit like that!

Mark likes to be the center of attention; Steven doesn’t (he certainly doesn’t seek it). Mark is a jokester; Steven enjoys a good laugh, but doesn’t work to get one. I can see Mark’s wheels turning as he figures out a way to tease someone or fit in a humorous story; Steven tends to hang back. Steven gives attention to his appearance, he enjoys wearing stylish shoes and a well cut leather jacket. Mark couldn’t care less – he is pleased if his clothes aren’t stained. Mark is also color-blind; Steven isn’t. Steven is neat and organized; Mark is anything but. Mark is very liberal politically; Steven is a centrist. Other than being about the same height and having the same hairline, they don’t look much alike either. Steve has a dark complexion; Mark is fair-skinned and freckled. I could go on and on. How could they share so much DNA and yet be so different? It is a mystery.

They do share some commonalities. They like sports and are good athletes. Hmmmm. What else? They are dedicated husbands, fathers, brothers and sons (though how they express that dedication is not similar). They are both upstanding citizens – trustworthy and hard-working. Beyond that, it is hard to find adjectives that apply to both. Interestingly, they married sisters! My sister-in-laws are not as dramatically different as my brothers, but enough so that they are a good fit.

It makes me wonder about siblings. I see patterns in the siblings in my extended family and Gary’s, too. Our mothers had an interesting and similar dynamic with their respective sisters. When asked about her childhood, before the war, Paula recalled with warmth and love her father sitting on the edge of the bed she shared with her sister telling them bedtime stories. Sophia, younger by a couple of years, didn’t remember it that way. She insisted that their father directed the story to Paula, Sophia felt neglected. Fifty years after the fact they still disagreed about it. Paula insisted he was entertaining them both; Sophia said no, the stories were for Paula. There is no way to reconcile the difference in perception – they felt what they felt.

It is sad because that perception colored Sophia’s view of the world. Her Holocaust experience added trauma and pain to the baggage she carried. Paula at least had a more positive foundation.

The story of my mother and her sister was not as dramatic, it didn’t play out against the Holocaust, but the theme was similar. If asked to describe the same incident from their childhood, my mother’s version was lighter, more positive. Whether it was because she was extra sensitive or tuned into subtleties, her sister, Simma recalled slights and hurts. They often disagreed about the meaning of the actions of their parents or aunts and uncles. Again, it could be difficult to reconcile their views of the same people.

The pattern isn’t limited to sisters. If you asked Gary and his brother to describe their father, you might think they were depicting two different people.

I wonder how common this is. It would be an interesting experiment: ask siblings to describe their parents and see how much overlap there is in the portrait offered. Maybe the same words would be used, but it might still feel different to each child. I imagine that my brothers and I would agree that our Dad was impatient. But, we each might feel differently about that. It might have rolled off my back because I knew the storm would pass. One brother might have been unnerved by the harsh tone and the other might have been oblivious. It could be that Dad mellowed with age and while I saw his impatience, I may not have experienced the intensity of it. Or maybe as his baby girl, he may have shielded me from the worst expression of his impatience. So many possibilities! Birth order, gender, gaps in age all likely play into it. Is it any wonder that sibling relationships can be so complicated?

Regardless of the differences in perceptions and personalities, my mother and mother-in-law were deeply connected to their sisters; they were not estranged. They argued, but they were present for each other. The message I received growing up was that familial bonds should be valued and respected. Hurts and disappointments could be overcome because you knew you could count on your sibling to be there for you, especially during tough times. You didn’t have to like your brother or sister, that would be a bonus, but you loved them no matter what and they were part of your life forever. Judging by how often families are estranged, not everyone grew up with that message.

I do understand that sometimes relationships are so toxic that they have to be cut. Certainly, where there is abuse, it is appropriate and necessary to dissolve the bond and create a family of choice. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me or my brothers.

Whatever differences in character traits that exist between my siblings or between them and me, we know with certainty that we can rely on each other. I am grateful for that knowledge.

 

 

My Eyes – My Achilles Heel

Note:  I am working on a new piece but it isn’t ready yet. It occurs to me that I have been fortunate to accumulate new readers since I began this blog over three years ago. With that in mind, I will periodically post an earlier essay. I hope to have the new entry ready by Wednesday. Meanwhile, I offer the following reprise from June 6, 2016:

Everyone has stuff that they deal with – sometimes it is invisible to others and sometimes it is painfully obvious. I’m not sure which is worse.

The image that is the banner for this blog is of my brothers and me in the style of the time, lined up in age order. Today I look at that picture and smile. When I was young I looked at it and cringed. All I could see were my crossed eyes and it felt like a personal failing.

I had my first surgery when I was one. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I had another when I was in kindergarten. I remember waking up from that surgery with the cloying smell of ether still in my nose, the nausea overwhelming. I was released from the hospital wearing an eye patch with hopes that it would force the strengthening of the weaker eye muscle. Perhaps there are children who could pull off wearing an eye patch, making it cool, but I wasn’t one of them. Fortunately I didn’t have to wear it for long.

After that surgery, instead of fixing inward on my nose, my right eye drifted out, especially when I was tired. “You talkin’ to me?” was a question I heard often, long before it was used in a different context in Taxi Driver. Like the movie, though, the question had a very unsettling affect. I would take a deep breath, close my eyes in a kind of prayer, concentrate really hard and hope my eyes would go in the same direction when I opened them. Mostly in that moment I wanted to be swallowed up by the floor.

At least once a year I would go with my mom into Manhattan to see the eye doctor, Dr. Snyder. The trek to ‘the city’ from Canarsie was a long one. A long walk across blustery Seaview Park, a long bus ride to Eastern Parkway and then the 4 or 5 train to the Upper East Side. That trip may be a reason some Canarsiens didn’t bother going into the city.

On the one hand it was special to have my Mom all to myself for the day. We would have lunch out and window-shop. On the other hand, the subway, with its screeching wheels, the smell of metal on metal and the crowds of humanity, filled me with dread. I was terrified of getting separated from her.

Dr. Snyder’s office was just off Park Avenue. The waiting room had red leather chairs and, to my delight, Highlights magazines. I would find the hidden animals in the pictures while we waited to be seen. Dr. Snyder was gentle. There was one part of the exam that confounded me. He showed me a picture of a fly; it was enlarged, the details of the fly in blue against a silver background. He would ask me if it looked raised or flat. I could never decide. I would just pick one and looked at him to see if I got it right, but he never let on one way or another. This went on every year. Turns out I couldn’t see in three dimensions. I used one eye at a time and still do.

I was assigned exercises to strengthen my eye muscles. I was supposed to stare at my index finger as I moved it slowly toward my nose. I’m not sure that we followed the doctor’s directions as faithfully as we should have, but I don’t know that it would have made a difference.

As I got older other problems with my eyes emerged. In graduate school I was having recurring migraines and as part of the work up I had my eyes examined. Unrelated to the migraines the eye doctor found that my retinas had areas of weakness – he called it lattice. He advised against skydiving (no loss for me since as anyone who knows me would agree, I’m no adrenaline junkie!). He said, “Your retinas are your Achilles heel,” and recommended a surgical procedure to freeze them. I had the surgery. (Another story for another blog entry☺)

I think having crossed eyes, and then a lazy eye, and weak retinas shaped me in important ways. It added to feeling like an outsider. I always identified with those who felt different. I was also terribly self-conscious and received more than my share of teasing from other kids, especially in my neighborhood. More than once my brothers were called upon to defend me from bullies.

I can’t help but think that my eyes played an important part in creating the sensitive, introspective and insecure little girl that I was, the girl who sought comfort from Nana.

As my father pointed out, as I got older, some of those same qualities were a blessing, not just a cross to bear. It’s been a journey, but I can smile at that picture today, despite the fact that my eyes are still my Achilles heel.

Friendship

When I arrived on campus at SUNY-Binghamton in August of 1976, I was 16 and emotionally fragile. I emerged from the disaster that was junior high school and had grown more socially competent through high school, but I was still a bundle of insecurity. Plus, though I didn’t understand this about myself yet, I was prone to depression.

Thankfully, when I moved in to Cayuga Hall, I met Merle. It isn’t really correct to say that I met her because that implies that I didn’t know her before. Merle went to my high school and we were in many of the same classes. But Merle was out of my league. She had a posse of friends. She was captain of the booster squad, co-leader of Arista (the honor society), in the top ten in our class. [Editor’s note: since I posted this, Merle called to thank me and also to correct me. She was not captain of the booster squad! She was just a member of it. I stand corrected. :)] She was pretty, petite and seriously smart. I may have given myself partial credit for being smart – at least in English and Social Studies (my grades in math and science were very average), but I was none of those other things. In fact, feeling unfeminine and unattractive was my Achilles heel.

So, though I knew Merle, at the same time, I really didn’t. Imagine my surprise when we bonded over our shared struggle to acclimate to campus life during college orientation. Thus, began a beautiful friendship.

I learned there was a reason Merle had so many friends. She listened attentively, she empathized, offered great insights and gave useful suggestions. And to top it off, we laughed our asses off. We took one class together – Anthropology. One time we disrupted the class with our laughter, the professor stopped and glared at us. We tried to rein it in.

I came to college so young and inexperienced – in every sense of the word. I was wound up pretty tight, afraid to try things. Merle was a whole six months older, maybe not much in the scheme of things, but she had a much more adventurous spirit. I needed to loosen up and she helped me do that.

Much of our time, in the beginning, was spent commiserating about our roommates. Both of us were tripled; both of us were in a dorm room that wasn’t connected to a floor (the door to our rooms opened to the outside – hers on the first floor, mine in the basement). One of her roommates was quite beautiful and knew it. She lounged naked. She entertained her boyfriend at night, thinking her roommates were asleep. Merle wasn’t. It made for lots of things for us to discuss, and more to laugh about.

We signed up to be trained as counselors for High Hopes, an on campus help line that mostly gave referrals to students if they had questions or problems. Merle, I think, had already decided to be a psych major. I thought it would be interesting and believed it was an important service. The training was great. They taught us to reflect (using Carl Roger’s approach) when listening to someone’s issues because it helped the caller to clarify what they were thinking and feeling. That was one of the most valuable skills I learned in college.

We also attended a lecture about homosexuality as part of the training. It was 1977, before AIDS, before gay characters were on television, most lived in the closet – mothers were still being blamed for it. The lecture opened our eyes to something we knew very little about. A mutual friend of ours was in the process of coming out. In fact, Merle’s older brother, came out to her around that time. I went with Merle to visit him in San Francisco in June of 1978. I have great memories of that trip. I learned so much about opening my mind and heart to differences. He took us to the Castro, and though I wouldn’t have articulated it quite this way at the time, I began to understand that love is love is love….

We also went camping in Yosemite. I had seen mountains beyond the Catskills when I went with my parents to Rocky Mountain National Park years before, but Yosemite Valley and the majestic Sequoias were sights to behold. Merle’s brother and his friends brought food, but it was mostly vegetarian. While it all tasted good, Merle and I snuck off to share a ham and cheese sandwich when we were at the gift shop. We were kindred spirits even if we inhabited very different bodies.

 

 

I write this today because yesterday was Merle’s 60th birthday. I am happy and proud to say that we are still friends. Through the loss of parents, the birth of children, the ups and downs of marriage and career, we have shared a lot. I still rely on her empathetic ear, her insights, her suggestions and her laughter. I hope I have returned the same.

I have learned countless lessons from my friendship with Merle. Not the least of which is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. All those years ago I was intimidated by the cover. It turned out that while she is all of those things, popular, beautiful, petite, and smart, she is also warm, kind, vulnerable and funny. Here’s to continuing to celebrate life’s milestones and being there for each other during life’s challenges. Happy birthday, my friend!

 

The Path

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Why do adults ask children that question? Are they expected to know? On the one hand, the question can prompt some introspection and perhaps a realization that they have a future which they can/should consider. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming because of all that the question implies.

I envied kids who knew what they wanted to be. Evelyn, my classmate in elementary school, wanted to be a doctor. Though I lost touch with her ages ago, I know through the wonders of the Internet that she achieved her goal.

A lot goes into achieving that goal, starting with knowing that’s what you want. Then, you have to navigate the path, and, finally, you need to have the resources and wherewithal to complete it. None of that is easy. But, for those who don’t know what they want, or for those who want a career where the path isn’t well-defined, the process can be quite fraught.

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If only the path could be so well defined.

Readers of this blog may remember that I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was young. I read Marv Albert’s book, “Krazy about the Knicks,” in which he described his journey, starting with “broadcasting” games from his seat in the stands of Ebbets Field. Inspired by him, I wrote up every Knick game in a notebook (I still have that notebook).

I was worried that being a girl would hinder my prospects. I wrote to the Yankees when I was 14, and had just gotten my working papers, asking for any type of job. I wrote that I was strong enough to be a vendor in the stands, carrying Cracker Jacks or whatever (not beer, since I wasn’t of age). I got a polite rejection letter. As I’ve shared on the blog before, I continued writing sports through college when my enthusiasm for it vanished without explanation.

When I was even younger (less than ten years old), I tried my hand at writing a short story. As was often the case, I was in Nana’s kitchen while she visited with her two brothers and their wives. They were seated at the marble table, having coffee and chatting. Mostly I listened. But Uncle Morris and Uncle Jack were kind enough to engage me in conversation. They always asked about my interests. I must have mentioned that I wrote a story. They wanted to read it. I ran downstairs to retrieve my story; a couple of pages handwritten on loose-leaf paper. I presented it to them and left, too embarrassed to be present while they read it. When they finished, they called me back upstairs. They had bemused smiles on their faces. They asked where I had gotten the idea for the story. I have no recollection what it was about. I do remember feeling terribly self-conscious. They weren’t unkind, but given my level of insecurity as a baseline, I gave up writing fiction.

I still wanted to write, though. I had a good friend Cindy who shared my sensibilities. When we hung out, we would write fake newscasts (long before Weekend Update on SNL) and tape them on a small cassette recorder. We laughed so hard we cried. I don’t know if it occurred to us to share them, but we never did.

One time, Cindy and I decided to try something different. We worked on a play. I don’t recall the specifics, but I do remember Cindy making a suggestion that created major conflict between the characters, I think jealousy between siblings. I was so impressed that she could come up with that idea. At that point I knew enough about storytelling to understand the need for dramatic tension, but I had no idea how to construct it. Once again, I internalized the message that I didn’t have the talent to write.

I think I grew up looking for evidence that I didn’t have the goods to be a writer, even though another part of me felt driven to do it. I learned sportswriting didn’t satisfy the urge. An unformed notion that I needed to write still lived inside me, but I didn’t have the confidence and I didn’t see a defined path to continue pursue it. I got a job instead.

It is one of the great challenges of growing up – finding that path. Finally, at 55 years of age, four years ago, I went to look for it. Fortunately, I realize I haven’t finished growing up.

Family

I was taking another drive to New Jersey recently. Usually I listen to music, but I have been exploring podcasts. A friend recommended Marc Maron’s WTF, saying he was a good interviewer. He’s also a comedian so I thought there could be some laughs. I enjoy a good interview and laughing so I decided to check it out.  (I agree with my friend; he is a good interviewer and I enjoyed the three podcasts I listened to – it is a long ride!).

Anyway, one of the comments he made got me thinking. He was relaying a story about family vacations. He did not remember them fondly (don’t worry, Mom, I remember ours very warmly). He talked about his family of four sharing one hotel room and in that cramped space they got on each other’s nerves. He mentioned that they didn’t know each other that well. He pointed out that they were probably all too self-absorbed in their day-to-day life and didn’t actually know each other. When they were thrown together in the confines of a single hotel room, it could get unpleasant.

The idea of not really knowing your own family gave me pause. On the one hand, I would have said that we knew each other quite well. We were a close family; we spent a lot of time together. On the other, maybe not…. especially when I was younger. Most of my time with them was as a family unit, and we fell into certain roles. Dad was the disciplinarian. Mom was the one directing our activities. Mark was the instigator, looking to get a rise out of someone, mostly me. Steven was the sphinx, keeping to himself, getting along. I don’t know who I was – sometimes I know I was the whiner, “Mark touched me!” I would cry with great indignation.

I don’t mean to reduce us to one characteristic, but I think there is something to that. We still fall back into those roles.

I remember once when I was a young adult living in Albany, having already started my own family, Dad came to visit alone. He was attending a social studies conference at one of the hotels in the area. He stayed overnight at Gary and my house. It was all fine, but it felt odd. It isn’t that I never spent one-on-one time with my Dad. But that was when I was a kid.  When I was 9 or 10 years old, I would go to watch him play tennis. I would ride with him to Marine Park, where he met his friends and they would play doubles. I would alternate between hitting a tennis ball against a wall and watching them play. On the way home, we’d stop for an egg cream. I remember enjoying those times, they are special memories for me.

I’m sure that was more time than some daughters get with their fathers. Yet, when he visited that time in Albany, it struck me that there was some awkwardness to it. Maybe it was because as an adult it had been years since it had just been us. Maybe we didn’t know each other as adults.

It wasn’t that he disappointed me in any way during that visit, or that it was unpleasant. I became aware, though, that our relationship was inextricably tied to our connection to my mother. I was more accustomed to spending time with them as a couple. It felt a bit weird to relate to him as an individual.

This notion was reinforced, years later, when my Dad died. I became aware that my relationship with my mother was changing. She was likely changing, after 50 years as a partner to Dad she needed to find her own path. I discovered different parts of her personality, as she may have been discovering different aspects of herself. It is hard to disentangle the varied strands – was she changing? Was I? was that who she had always been, but now I saw it?

I also think back on ideas I had about other family members. It’s funny how my understanding of our family has changed over the years. When I was young, I thought we were perfect. Then I went through a phase, not surprisingly, as a teenager, where I hated them (okay, hate is a strong word – they annoyed me profoundly). Then I got to college and realized I was so lucky to have two parents who communicated their love and care clearly, and an extended family that I was deeply connected to. As I grew into adulthood, I saw our family in more nuanced ways. I became aware of tensions that ran beneath the surface – not so much in our immediate family but with aunts and uncles. I realized that things were more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I remain deeply connected to my family. I continue to get to know them. How well do we know each other?  I can’t answer that. I wonder what others experience in their families. Do you know each other?

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part of my family

 

The Fifth Commandment

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful day for me – I felt loved. Need I say more? Probably not, because that sums it up pretty well. But, I do want to say more (otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog post, would I?).

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Part of my mother’s day. I am so lucky!

I came across an essay by Anne Lamott, a writer I like very much, in which she argues for cancelling Mother’s Day. (If you want to read her post, here is a link: here, though if you aren’t on Facebook it might not work.) She made a lot of valid points. It is a day that can be fraught for many reasons: it can be a reminder of the painful loss of a mother or child, it romanticizes motherhood when for most the relationship is not as simple as a Hallmark card, it can be alienating for those struggling with infertility….the list can go on. But all celebrations have a flip side. Birthdays can be reminders of what we haven’t yet accomplished. The holiday season can feel intensely lonely. I think we need to be sensitive to that and reach out to those who may be in pain. We should also emphasize the love, not the consumerism. But we shouldn’t cancel the celebration. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, even the flawed among us (which would be all of us). Most of us are doing our best, which sometimes isn’t enough. And there are some who aren’t doing that, but then I hope we could celebrate those who helped us overcome, who played a nurturing role. A mother, whether they are biological, adopted, or chosen, is worthy of recognition.

After all, it is in the ten commandments. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or has their doubts, the ten commandments offer some good moral guidance, and the fifth commandment says to honor your father and your mother. I have wondered what that means.

I remember when I was a child being in the room when my dad had an argument with one of my mom’s uncles. Uncle Morris was saying that children owe their parents respect and love. My father, in his forceful way, disagreed. He said children didn’t ask to be born. Parents were obligated, since they brought the child into the world, to care for them, but a child didn’t have to return the favor. Uncle Morris was taken aback. I think I understood, even though I was a child, that somehow this related to my dad’s feelings about his own parents. I’ve written about this before, but I believe my father didn’t feel loved or supported by his parents (at least not in the way he needed to be). To his credit, he, in turn, did his best to make us, his children, feel loved and supported.

What do we owe our parents, if anything? My mother has often told me that she doesn’t want to be a burden. I appreciate her saying that. I make a choice to drive to New Jersey to take her to the doctor in New York City. I choose to call her almost every day. Is that burdensome? Maybe. When I am crawling through midtown traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel to take her home from the appointment, it can be onerous. But, it still feels right. I want to do those things. Sometimes I wonder if I can or should do more. We are all pulled in different directions. Balancing it, our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our own health, is a never-ending struggle. I am constantly in conversation with myself about whether I am striking the right balance. It is not a very satisfying conversation because most often I feel like I am coming up short somewhere.

Do you have that conversation with yourself? Any comments on that fifth commandment? – it is a tricky one. Maybe they all are.

The Path of Least Resistance

fullsizeoutput_f17Oh paperwork!!!


Letters, notices and advertisements pile up on my kitchen counter

Which electricity supplier should I use?

Is there a difference among them?



A notice of unclaimed funds arrives in my mailbox

Three phone calls placed, four completed forms submitted

Five months later, I receive a check for $2.50




Another notice arrives via email

The bank has closed an account due to minimal activity

I ignore it

Four months later, I need that account

Something to do with a trust

A visit to the bank is in my near future



Oh paperwork!!!



The La-Z-Boy in the family room invites me

I take the novel I started

Settle into the comfy chair

And disappear into 1980 Atlanta.

(For those who are curious, the novel was Silver Sparrow by Tayari
 Jones)