Stories

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)

A Very Educational Trip

Whose fault was it? Gary’s or mine? I’m actually not sure. When we’ve told the story over the years, Gary has taken the blame. But I’m not sure that’s how it went. It doesn’t matter because the outcome was the same. We were almost stranded on a Sunday evening, in the middle of a national forest in Oregon, but with luck and the kindness of a stranger, we were rescued.

Gary and I took this trip in June of 1982. I had just finished my master’s program, before I started a full-time job, and before he heard that he was accepted to medical school. We planned it meticulously.  Gary had not yet been west of Amish country in Pennsylvania. I had traveled a bit more, as I have written about previously, with my family, but was hardly experienced. In celebration of my completing graduate school. we decided to go California. We would fly out to San Francisco, rent a car and do a loop, first heading south (but not as far as LA), then going north (up to Crater Lake, Oregon), then back down to the Bay Area.

Gary and I went to a travel agent recommended by his parents to plan the trip. In those days, I think you had to use an agent to get airline tickets. Maybe you could call a particular airline on the phone and make a reservation, but it was confusing and time consuming to compare schedules and prices. We didn’t have the tools we have now to do our own research. We were young and inexperienced. In short, we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t even have a credit card.

The agent was very helpful. We got a package deal that included two nights in a nicer hotel. We decided to use those nights during our stay in San Francisco. She knew we were traveling on a tight budget and she told us about Motel 6 – the cheapest place to stay, other than camping. We weren’t campers. We planned our itinerary, taking advantage of the all the Motel 6’s that we could find. We flew to San Francisco, drove as far south as Monterey, then east and north to Yosemite, on to Lake Tahoe, then Crater Lake in Oregon, and finally back down to the Bay Area. We made the loop in one week.

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Gary’s first experience of the Pacific Ocean – Pacific Grove, CA 1982

The trip was memorable for so many reasons. We learned we were compatible travelers: enjoyed the same level of hiking (easy), interest in the same sites, on the same page as far as our budget for activities and food. Early on we bought a large Styrofoam cooler and filled it with ice at each motel stop. We bought breakfast and lunch supplies. Once, in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of the Redwood forest, we were chased back into the car by aggressive blue jays when we were picnicking. We were both cowards (hence the preference for a cheap motel over camping).

We had more success picnicking next to the Merced River in Yosemite. It was late Spring and the river was very high, white water rushing by, cooling and freshening the air as it went. I stored that memory, the pine scent, the sound of the water cascading over the rocks, and called upon it in Lamaze class years later. When asked to go to a peaceful place as part of the exercise, even though the water was anything but peaceful, I imagined our time next to the river. I felt relaxed and happy there.

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The Merced River in Yosemite National Park – June 1982

I wasn’t so relaxed on that late Sunday afternoon returning from Crater Lake. We saw signs for a natural bridge – formed from lava – in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It was about 4:00 and we were heading to Medford about 60 miles away. We took the opportunity to see something interesting. We pulled into the parking area, there were only a couple of cars. Locked the car – we are New Yorkers, after all, and our valuables were in it. We took the short hike to the bridge and wandered around. After about an hour, we went back to the car.

Gary asked, “Do you have the car keys?”

“No, I thought you had them.”

Gary was patting his pockets, then turning them inside out. I did the same. No keys.

Uh oh.

We walked over to the car and looked to see if the keys were still inside. Nope.

We head back the way we came, scanning the forest floor for keys, hoping the fading sun might catch the metal of the key. No luck.

Now it is about 6:00.

We go back to the car and look for ways to get in. We do manage to pop the lock.

Gary and I are good kids – we have no idea how to hotwire a car.

A couple of hikers pass by and we flag them down – explain our situation. They were as clueless as we were

We remembered that we passed a small town – and when I say a small town, I mean SMALL. Union Creek, Oregon. There was only one shop, but fortunately it was a gas station. We walked there, hoping it will be open, even though it is after six on a Sunday. It isn’t.

But, there is a pay phone. I call information and get the number of the rental car agency. After some more phone calls, fortunately we had change, I learn that if we get the car towed to an AMC dealership (we were driving an AMC Gremlin), they can make a copy of the key. They tell me there is a dealership in Medford. That was the good news.

Now, how do we get the car there? Gary and I assess the situation. We look around the gas station and notice there is a house right next door. Out of options, we knock.

Clearly, luck was with us. The owner of the gas station lived there and had a tow truck!!! He was willing to tow us the 60 miles to Medford for $100!  That was a lot of money to us, but we were in no position to negotiate – we were grateful. In retrospect, even considering inflation, it was more than fair. I think he took pity on us.

I don’t remember his name, I do remember his kindness. We climbed into the cab of the truck, chatted along the way, and took many deep breaths of relief. He deposited the car on the lot of the dealership. We said our good-byes, thanking him many times over. We walked to the Motel 6 and tried to sleep.

I called the dealership first thing in the morning to find out when they opened. We were there when they did. The rental car agency had given me the code for the key and they were able to make a copy.

We were back on the road again in no time.

Aside from learning we were compatible travelers during that trip, we got through a stressful situation without killing each other. I don’t remember either of us blaming the other, I think we behaved pretty well. Of course, I could be telling myself a story, but I tend to think it is true, since we are still together 38 years later to tell the tale. Perhaps Gary would care to comment?

Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.

 

Full Circle

When Leah was born, my first child, I was overwhelmed. Not surprising, most first time moms are. Each time she cried, which seemed often, I would go through the possibilities: hungry? wet diaper? too cold/ too hot? needing to be cuddled? In an effort to bring some order to chaos, I kept a pad where I wrote down how long she slept, how long she nursed, and her diaper production (a nice way of saying her pooping and peeing). Writing it down seemed to help. With time it became more routine, and I relaxed as I learned about my baby.

I noticed that when Dan and Beth had their beautiful baby girl they more or less did the same thing, but they had an app for that! She is now approaching 11 months, they stopped using the app quite a while ago, as they too eased into parenthood.

Both my mother and my father-in-law, 85 and 96 respectively, have faced serious health challenges over recent weeks. My mom had an operation to have a cancerous tumor removed from her left lung (the second time she faced this, 3 years ago she had a cancerous tumor removed from her right lung). My father-in-law had pneumonia. He was hospitalized, fortunately briefly, and seems to be slowly recovering. Pretty miraculous – I don’t think many 96 year olds survive pneumonia. They are both progressing in fits and starts.

My anxiety about their recoveries reminds me of how I felt when Leah was born. A fear of doing the wrong thing, of not knowing what might be helpful, of understanding whether a symptom is serious or not, of not being attentive enough or maybe too focused. You can make yourself crazy.

So, we have come full circle – concerned about those basic bodily functions. Here’s hoping that they continue to work, and that my anxiety lessens as they do.

It is times like these that I wish I was a person of faith, but I don’t feel it. When my dad was seriously ill, and it turned out was approaching the end of his life, I had these same anxieties. Though I don’t believe in God (that’s an essay for another time), I found myself offering up a prayer to the universe: give me strength, give me the wisdom to know what to do and have mercy on my father. I silently repeated those words regularly over the course of the weeks. I don’t know if it helped. I did get through it. I offer that same prayer now. I will see this through, too.

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While Mom was in surgery, I looked out the hospital lounge window and saw this. I appreciated the bit of whimsy in that moment.

Scared Straight

Scaring kids straight isn’t supposed to work, but it worked on me. There is a school of thought that says that if you present adolescents with a frightening picture of what drug use looks like, it will keep kids on the straight and narrow. I haven’t looked at the data, but I’m under the impression that the strategy isn’t very effective. Maybe because adolescents think they are immortal, that they are unique, can maintain control and it won’t happen to them. Or maybe because they don’t believe the message adults are feeding them. When I was an adolescent, I believed.

When I was growing up in the early ’70s there were stories about people taking a ‘bad trip’ and trying to fly off buildings – to their death. There were other stories of tripping on LSD and wandering outside naked. I’m not sure which of those scenarios horrified me more. The idea of being out of control, or not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, was terrifying to me. When there was a rumor that someone had laced the ketchup in Coney Island Joe’s, a neighborhood burger/hot dog place, with LSD, I stayed away for years.

When I was 12 a book came out,“Go Ask Alice.” It was released anonymously, described as the diary of a real girl who got mixed up in the drug scene. I don’t remember who got the book, my friend Deborah or me, but we were so anxious to read it that we went into her basement and read it aloud. I think we read the entire book that way – in one sitting. We were shocked and disturbed by it.

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The story presented a 15 year old girl, who we could relate to as she struggled with social acceptance, whose first experience with drugs was accidental. It fed into the zeitgeist of the time (not that I knew that word then). After consuming LSD without knowing, she got deeper into the scene. She was new to her town and she became friends with a group of kids who were experimenting with drugs.  It all seemed so plausible to me.

The worst part of the story was that the diary ended with her clean, starting a new path with new friends. There was a brief epilogue that reported that she died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks later. Deborah and I were devastated.

I was just starting junior high school and I never felt more alienated. As I have written before in earlier blog posts, Nana, my grandmother and closest companion, had died the year before. To make matters worse,  I was zoned to go to a different junior high school from my classmates in elementary school.  It was a challenging time to say the least.

Reading Alice’s story, the girl’s name is never actually revealed, we just assumed it was Alice based on the title of the book, convinced me that whatever loneliness I might have felt, befriending kids who were doing drugs was not an option. I think Deborah came away thinking the same thing.

I’m not sure what reminded me of the book or this issue, but when I did a bit of online research about it, I found some interesting things. Unbeknownst to me, a few years after it came out, there was controversy about whether the book was a real diary or if it was fabricated.  The edition we read had the tag line “A Real Diary.”  (see photo above) It was presented as non-fiction. Lo and behold, when information emerged about the possible author, Beatrice Sparks, it turned out she was a therapist who said it was a diary of one of her clients that the parents authorized her to use. But, apparently Sparks augmented the diary entries. Today the book is still in print, but it is categorized as fiction and includes a disclaimer. Turns out James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” wasn’t the first of this kind of controversy.

Perhaps those adolescents who were skeptical about messages from adults were right. Ironic, isn’t it? I think my fear of drug use served me well, though.