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?).
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.
As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go. Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short). Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice. The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey. Those visits had gone quite well.
This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over. The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease. She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade. The disease has done what it does. It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her. The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.
And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her. Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it. In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her. This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.
But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly. You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated. She cannot retain what is said to her. I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her. Never.
Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players. I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care. But that is, frankly the easiest part. My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall. My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.
Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car. While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.
Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city. They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly. In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available. While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services. In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.
As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed. We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride. The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.
Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem. Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets. They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom. And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.
In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well. This was the reason for all of the effort. For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.
The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment. He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland. The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died. There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans. The statistics are startling. 80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war. 98% of Jewish children were killed. The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.
David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother. His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America. All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat. Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.
Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties. I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim. Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well. Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.
So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation. Those who came with an army to kill him are gone. He remains. And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.
He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.
This was a very different moment. This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that. Linda understood that. Dan and Beth understood that. And all wanted him to have that moment. It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.
After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells. We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate. We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan. The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.
We did not have as easy a time driving up. My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat. She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire. Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.
We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family. They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.
We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria. After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide. With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.
We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.
It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift. Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that. They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.
It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day. The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere. I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.
Note: I was rummaging through a drawer and came upon a yellow pad that I jotted thoughts on many years ago. I found the following, written in March of 1988.
I woke up to hear a very pleasant conversation. I look over at Gary to find that he is soundly sleeping. At the same time my eye catches the clock. It is 6:04 a.m. Of course, our alarm clock is set to run about 17 minutes fast for some reason that makes perfect sense to my sleeping husband.
So, you ask, is the pleasant conversation the remnant of a dream, or is there someone else present? In the next room, Leah Rachel, all 9 months and 25 days of joyful life, is engaged in quite a discussion. I wonder: what does it all mean? Is she really saying something to her companions in her crib, her pink and white cuddly, soft dog or powder blue bear? Is she simply announcing her pleasure at waking up to find another day which promises new and interesting surprises? Or is the pleasure of experimenting with her voice, making new sounds or repeating pleasing ones? I wish I woke up that way. I wonder how soon this phase will end. When will waking up become the painful process for Leah that it is for most of the people I know?
I lay back and listen, trying to imagine Leah’s pleasure. I had not known, before her birth, how fresh things would look, sound and feel. That is not to say that there aren’t many mornings when I have been awoken at 6:00 am mighty pissed off at losing valued sleep once again, and not at all impressed with the vocalizations of my little baby girl. But, it has been quite an experience trying to see the world through her big brown eyes. On so many levels, it has made me see things I otherwise had ignored or thought of from a different perspective.
I listen for a while, knowing inevitably that the cooing and gurgling will turn into frustration. I imagine Leah saying, “Oh, I’ve been cute long enough! Where is breakfast?” I get up and go to the bathroom. Leah comes to the instantaneous realization that someone is available so she starts to fuss.
Anyway, once my necessities have been taken care of, I go into Leah’s room to find her little face peeking through the bars of the crib. Her joy at seeing me, and realizing that freedom is near, is a wonderful greeting. I love her little face, the way she nuzzles her head into the crook of my neck, while patting me on the back when I lift her from her bed. This is a terrific hug. It is amazing to me that most every time she greets me, she shows so much affection. After a nap, when I pick her up from the babysitter, after she has been playing with her toys for a while, oblivious to me…Did she learn to do that? Is it a natural thing for a person to do? It is incredible to me that, at such a young age, Leah is already so able to express her appreciation, her love. Is it love, though? What is it?
I guess over the years, as children grow up, they must take these little things for granted. I suppose it wouldn’t be natural to be grateful each time you saw your parents, siblings or spouse. Plus, I guess as you get older, there are more reasons NOT to appreciate them! I will try to savor these moments in anticipation of lean years ahead.
My treasure. Really the point of all this exposition is two-fold. One is to share what is in my heart for my daughter and other loved ones. It is to try to paint a picture of a moment in time that, for me, defines love. And, it is to ask a question: Is this what other mothers, wives and daughters feel? Because if they do, it is at once very exciting because what I feel is wonderful and life affirming. It is also frightening because of the intensity of the emotions.
From Leah’s baby album
Around the age that this piece was written
It is apropos that I came upon this the day after the baby shower. I had wanted to say something at the shower, but in the hub-bub and distraction, I didn’t get to. I wanted to wish Dan and Beth the joy, love and pride that I have been privileged to know as a parent. I hope they are as lucky as I have been.
It was 1990. We had just celebrated Daniel’s first birthday, and Leah was fast approaching three years old. I was working full time for the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review (LCER). Gary was finishing the first year of his Endocrine Fellowship. The kids were in daycare at Kidskeller. Those are the facts.
Gary and I were managing, barely. Financially the ends were just meeting, some months they weren’t. Emotionally we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Here was a typical day in the Spring of 1990:
We got up at 6:30 a.m., if we weren’t already awoken by one or both of the kids. If we were lucky we had gotten 6 hours of sleep, on a good night. We got ourselves and the kids ready for the day, packed up the bags for daycare, ate breakfast and got in the car (we could only afford one). We drove to Kidskeller, an easy ten-minute ride from the house. Each of us took one child and got them settled, then met back at the car. Gary drove me downtown (another ten minutes) and dropped me off in front of the Daily Grind where I would get coffee. He went on to work, parking the car at the VA Medical Center. I walked the rest of the four blocks to my office. At least two or three times a week I took a bus during my lunch break to look in on Leah and Dan at Kidskeller. Even if it was only 10 minutes each, it made me feel better to see them. Then I took the bus back and continued my workday. At 5:00 p.m. I went back through the revolving door of my office building, leaving every thought about work behind and caught the bus again. This time I went to get the car at the VA parking lot. I’d go pick up the kids and bring them home. I made us dinner and we ate. Usually around 7:00 pm I’d get a call from Gary that he was ready to leave work. I loaded Leah and Dan in the car and drove to either the VA or Albany Med to pick him up. We got home and began the bedtime routine. Then we did it all over again the next day.
Given the demands of our lives, there wasn’t much margin for things going wrong. If the car broke down or someone got sick, we had to scramble.
This isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t joy. Watching Leah and Daniel emerge, their unique personalities flower, was a source of pleasure and pride. But, there wasn’t much time devoted to Gary and my relationship. There wasn’t much left at the end of the day, so perhaps the events surrounding this particular experience are understandable in that context (I can write that with 25 years of perspective between then and now).
On rare occasions my work required overnight travel. Fortunately, I would know long enough in advance so that Gary was able to coordinate his schedule, and/or we called upon family members to help fill in. This particular time I had a trip planned to Mineola (Long Island). Dan was still recovering from his second bout of Coxsackie virus, a particularly unpleasant illness that involved blisters on his lips and in his mouth. Gary was able to adjust his work responsibilities so that he was home that day. The plan called for me to arrive back in Albany by 5:00 p.m. so he could then go to the hospital.
My colleague, Debra, and I left the night before so that we could get to the office in Mineola bright and early, leaving us a full morning to conduct interviews and review files as the project required. We were scheduled to make a stop early in the afternoon at a Westchester office to conduct another interview and then go back to Albany.
We arrived at the Mineola office as scheduled at 8:00 a.m. We parked in the garage under the building, as we had been directed. We took the elevator up and began our work day. So far, so good. We were there about 90 minutes when an alarm sounded. An announcement came over the loudspeaker advising us that this wasn’t a drill, we needed to evacuate the building immediately. We left without our coats.
As we got to the street, we were directed away from the building. We were told there was a bomb threat. We heard a multitude of sirens and saw police cars blocking the entrances and exits to the building and its garage. We saw German Shepherds being brought into the building. We were told this was going to take a while. I looked at my watch, it was nearing 11:00 a.m. I felt panic rising. I thought I better call Gary (this was before cell phones – they may have existed, but I certainly didn’t have one).
Debra and I went in search of a pay phone. We crossed the street and found a department store which had a bank of phones. I scrounged change from my purse and placed the call. I told Gary about the bomb threat.
“I wanted to let you know what was going on. We’ve been evacuated from the building and I don’t know how long it is going to take,” I explained.
“You need to leave and come back home,” Gary replied.
“I can’t. The car is parked under the building.”
“I don’t care. Get in the car and leave.”
“I don’t have my keys either – they’re in my coat pocket which I had to leave in the building.”
“Go back to building…”
“What are you saying, Gary? You want me to go through the police barrier? Are you fucking serious?!”
Debra was standing next to me, listening to this conversation, making no move to leave and give me some privacy. I think she was enjoying the show. I was angry and embarrassed. I put my hand over the receiver and asked her to go check to see if the building was still sealed off. Reluctantly she left.
Gary continued, “Well, if you aren’t going to get back in time, you better arrange a baby-sitter!”
“I’m on Long Island, for Christ’s sake! I don’t have phone numbers or enough change! You need to do it!”
“I’m not finding a sitter! I can’t not go in to the hospital, Linda, you know that! I need to round on my patients! You need to figure this out!”
“I might still get back in time. I’ll call when I know.” And I hung up.
As I took a few deep breaths, I rifled through my bag and found the number for the person Debra and I were supposed to interview in the afternoon. I called, apologized and told him I would have to reschedule. One less thing to worry about.
I left the department store and went to find Debra. I was none too happy with her either, but I had no choice. We needed to finish our assignment.
It was just after noon when we got the all clear to return to the building. We went back into the office and finished up our paperwork as quickly as possible. We got our things together and got on the road before 1:00 p.m. Assuming we didn’t hit crazy traffic, never a good assumption, I would get back in time.
The entire ride back, I stewed. I couldn’t believe Gary wanted me to go back in the building. I felt humiliated. This was not something I could ever tell my dad – he probably wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. This from the guy who had come over to my apartment with a baseball bat when he couldn’t reach me on the phone? That same guy wanted me to ignore a bomb threat serious enough to evacuate a building and call in search dogs?
We made it back to Albany with no further delays. I dropped Debra off at her apartment and drove home. I took a deep breath as I came up the stairs to our house. I opened the door and found Dan in his highchair while Gary offered him applesauce. Leah was also sitting at the table, starting to eat her dinner. I greeted the kids. Gary and I didn’t say much to each other, just exchanged essential information like when Dan had last had Tylenol. I took over giving Dan and Leah dinner. Gary left for the hospital.
Over the next days and weeks, we returned to our routines, going through the motions. I couldn’t just sweep it under the rug, though. Eventually, one day, after we dropped the kids off at daycare, we were in the car as Gary drove me to work, I brought it up. “I don’t understand how you could ask that of me,” I began. I expected an apology. I didn’t get one. Instead Gary described how demanding his work was, how stressed he was, how hard it was to meet the standards of his mentor, Dr. Goodman. I got out of the car feeling even worse.
I made a mistake in bringing it up when we had less than ten minutes to discuss it, since we both had to be at work. I arrived at my office upset, frustrated, angry and sad. Not a great recipe for productivity either.
I can’t tie a bow around this story. We didn’t come to a sweet resolution. We just kept going. Circumstances got better as time passed. Leah and Daniel got older and more self-sufficient. I went to a four day work schedule. Gary finished training and went into private practice. His hours were still long and the work demanding, but the financial strain slowly but surely relaxed. We found bits of time here and there to devote to each other. Damage had been done to our relationship. It took a long time to rebuild, and there were other low points (though not as dramatic), but we survived….together.
Note: Gary’s Dad was hospitalized last Thursday morning with difficulty breathing. Gary flew down to Florida to be with him and oversee his care. He wrote this on the flight down and gave me permission to share it.
It is a trip I have taken before. It is filled with dread and anxiety. It is filled with a sense of obligation and duty and a sense of purpose. Once again, my father is at a crisis point. He is hospitalized and in some significant danger. Each time, it is a bit worse than the previous episode. Each time, yet another illness has been added to the list of threats to his survival.
I travel there as his son. I am not his doctor but yet I am. Every major medical decision is really made by me at this point in time. I know too much. He has multiple diagnoses each of which carry a very limited life expectancy, starting with him being 95 years old.
Add to that lung cancer, kidney disease, about 7 decades of hypertension, atrial fibrillation that used to be paroxysmal (coming and going) but now is chronic, diabetes, a monoclonal protein that could at any time turn into myeloma or other blood cancer, nodules on his kidneys, a large nodule on his prostate. And now congestive heart failure.
I guess you could say the most surprising thing is that he is still alive. He is, if nothing else, a remarkably determined man. He is still, all these years along the road, inspiring to me. He is not the man he used to be. Time and illness have taken away much of his incredible vigor. He is physically and mentally slower than he was. But he still finds a way to love life and even to enjoy it.
He is not like me. I am probably better in math and science than he is, but in the most important ways he is stronger and more resilient than I could ever imagine being. He enjoys people. He tends not to be overly possessive. He doesn’t like to wait; patience is not his strongpoint. He is beyond courageous. He will not let terrible things make him unhappy; his will is immeasurably immense.
He trusts me and I feel like he has always trusted me. At least for as long as I can remember going back to my childhood when I got to drive his car in the parking lot when he went to check out the refrigerated warehouse that held the cold cuts he was responsible for distributing to supermarkets. He trusted me to drive the forklift at too young an age. Both of those experiences were thrilling for a youngster and I was not going to crash and betray his trust.
I will not betray that trust today either.
In a sense, the flight that I am on, this trip to Cleveland Clinic Florida hospital, is symbolic of the larger, sad journey we have been on for some time now. He will die at the end of it. If we do everything right, he will die. There will be pain and loss and sorrow. If we don’t do everything right, there will be guilt as well. There will not be guilt.
This journey is one variation of the journey most children ultimately take with their parents. It is the journey Linda took with her father. It is the way things are supposed to go. The children bury the parents. That is what happens when it goes the right way. And if you are very lucky, you get 95 years, perhaps even a bit more, of meaningful life. Of life that is by and large happy. Even when your parent, your hero is less than he was. Even when the limits of life are more and more closing in on him, when his wife, your mother, is no longer the person she had been in almost every way.
It is really the best you can hope for. It therefore ought to be good enough. It doesn’t feel like it is.
I am grateful for so many things. For the tremendous efforts my siblings have made to arrange essentially everything in my parents lives so that they could go on and live out what remains in dignity and with as much independence as possible. I am grateful for Linda’s eternal support and wisdom. And for the endless good wishes and support from my children and my lovely daughter in law.
I have friends who are kind and a work environment that is flexible and understanding. Nobody says anything more than good luck when I have to cancel patients at the last minute to take one of these emergency trips down to Florida.
But, despite this, I am still filled with the same dread.
Postscript: David was released from the hospital late Saturday afternoon. His breathing greatly improved. Hopefully with an adjustment in his medication, he will be stable and able to continue to enjoy his time in Florida. If all goes according to plan, Gary and I will visit Paula and David to share Passover with them. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there are no medical crises between now and then (during or after, for that matter).
Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.
I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”
He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.
I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.
“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.
“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.
This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.
As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.
I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.
Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.
We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.
In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”
This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.
Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!
While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.
Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.
This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?
So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?
Note: As a reminder before picking up my story where I left off, Santa Claus had come to the daycare center. I attended and gave Leah and Dan gifts instead of allowing Santa to deliver them and the daycare center agreed to form a committee of parents and staff to look at the holiday celebration for the future.
As Amy promised, a committee was formed. The committee decided that a survey of parents would be helpful in determining what steps to take. Since I had a master’s degree in public administration and was on leave from a doctoral program in public policy, I had taken several classes on social science research methods, so I volunteered to help with the survey design and collate the results.
It’s funny but I remember very little about the survey itself – I don’t recall what questions we asked. I do remember, quite clearly, that several parents used the open-ended question to explain that this was a Christian country and if others didn’t like it, they could go back where they came from. For Gary and I that would mean going back to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively – which were (and are) still part of this country, though some might like to deny it.
I was shocked and hurt. While it was only a small number who expressed their view in such an extreme way, I hadn’t expected it. I was especially distressed that this represented views of people employed by the medical center, a group that I thought would be more enlightened.
Despite my dismay, I collated the results and prepared a summary. Frankly, I don’t recall what the survey said in terms of Santa Claus visiting, but I think it must have been inconclusive. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the information the survey did provide and give the daycare center administrators feedback on what to do for the coming year.
Once again, I left work and got on the bus to go to the center. A stop after mine another woman got on the bus and I recognized her as a parent from the center. I believe all parents were invited to attend the meeting, even if they had not participated in the committee. We smiled at each other and she sat down near me.
“Are you going to the meeting?” I asked. She nodded and we introduced ourselves and started chatting. I explained how Santa’s visit the year before had affected my family and that I was hoping that the center would consider changing how they celebrated Christmas. She nodded sympathetically. “I can see how that would be difficult,” she said.
We continued chatting as we got off the bus and found our way to the conference room. The meeting had quite a turnout – all the seats were taken. Extra chairs were brought in, not everyone could fit at the table.
The room felt tense to me. I don’t recall why I felt that way, but I know, even before a word was spoken, that I felt defensive. I told myself to breathe and relax.
The director and assistant director led the discussion. I reported the results of the survey, including sharing some of the disagreeable (to me) comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation devolved. I made my case: Santa Claus may be considered an American symbol to many, but not to non-Christians. Also, Santa can be seen at malls, community centers, churches, on television, etc., so if a parent wanted their child to experience a visit with Santa Claus, it wasn’t difficult to arrange.
The assistant director was outraged by my comments. If looks could kill, I would be dead. “Why should the children be deprived of Santa’s visit?” she asked, leaning across the table, accusation in her eyes. This was clearly a very personal thing to her, as it was to me.
“I was there when Santa came,” I reminded her, “and several kids were crying and others didn’t seem to care.” I was thinking that this should actually be the central point.
“I saw children having fun!” she retorted.
This wasn’t going well. I was getting angrier and angrier. At that point, I stopped participating.
The meeting continued for a bit longer. The director, to sum things up, said that they (the staff) would make a final decision about Santa and inform parents within a week. I left thinking they were going to keep things as they were, given that the staff seemed so invested in it and there weren’t very many parents objecting.
As I walked out of the meeting and headed back to the bus stop to go back to work, the woman I came in with stopped me. “It would’ve been much better if you could have explained it the way you did to me on the bus. You were too strident.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry. I told her I would’ve like to have done that, too. I kept walking.
I sat on the bus thinking about what she said. Was it me? Did I present my case poorly? I know I was wound up, and I probably did come across too strong. But, I couldn’t help myself. I felt under attack.
The daycare center kept its policy of having Santa visit. We went through the same process as the year before.
One day, as we approached Christmas, one of Dan’s teachers, who had been Leah’s the year before, asked us if we had gotten our Christmas tree yet. I said no and left it at that. What was the point of explaining it yet again? Was it willful ignorance?
Leah was to start Kindergarten the following fall. She would be attending School 16, the public elementary school a few blocks from our house. The Albany Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered an aftercare program with transportation from School 16. We looked at whether it made sense to move Dan at that point, too, so that they would continue to be in the same place.
The JCC daycare program was more expensive (Dan was three when we were considering this) – plus the medical center took the cost of day out of the Gary’s pre-tax salary. We had to considered whether we could afford to make the move.
It wasn’t much of a decision to make. We moved to Dan and Leah to the JCC that summer so they would be settled in before Leah began Kindergarten in the fall. In many ways, it was a relief. While Gary and I weren’t interested in putting our children in a Jewish setting for their education or care, it did make things easier for the time being.
It wasn’t the end of our battles over Christmas celebrations, we had a few in the public schools, but none so painful and fruitless as that first one.