Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

Halloween Past and Present

Halloween has come and gone. Since we were out of town, I didn’t have to buy candy, so I dodged a bullet. Leftover candy is irresistible. Even if I bought things I didn’t like… wait, who am I kidding? There isn’t much candy I don’t like. I did miss getting to see the little ones dressed up as mice or rabbits or bumble bees or whatever adorable costume they and their parents devised. But, it isn’t the same without little ones of my own.

So many memories of Halloweens past….

When our children were growing up, we decorated (to be more precise, Gary decorated). Gary usually picked a theme and he would create elaborate scenes. One year he got dry ice and set up a witch’s cauldron. He made a giant spider using black Hefty bags and wire hangers, painted tennis balls red for the eyes, and set it up on the lawn. The next year he made a giant spider web. That spider and web were re-used year after year until they fell apart. His decorations were clearly homemade, and there was a charm in that. Without our kids to amuse with his creations, Gary doesn’t bother anymore. I don’t blame him. I loved that he did it for all those years. The only decorating we still do is carving pumpkins – and this year we didn’t even do that.

In the past, we stocked up on candy for the many, many, many trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell in our suburban subdivision that was perfect for scoring a huge haul. Every year I would buy at least 10 bags of candy and then Gary would pick up more on his way home from work – God forbid we should run out!

Gary, Leah, Dan and I each carved a pumpkin; we lit them with votive candles and put them on the front porch. Gary would roast the seeds and enjoy them during the week that followed. Leah and Dan had homemade costumes, too – again courtesy of Gary who could do wonders with a box. I think Dan’s favorite was his ATM machine with the bag for the candy attached inside from the slot where you could make a deposit. That box still sits in his bedroom closet. Leah’s favorite was dressing as a chewable grape Tylenol. Gary turned to his trusty cardboard boxes to make the pill and I supplied a Halloween-themed turtleneck. That one is likely in landfill somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, due to recurrent ear infections both kids were quite familiar with those little purple (but tasty) pills. Lucky for them, though, they were never sidelined for Halloween – I believe each was able to trick-or-treat every year until they decided they were too old for it. That was not the case for me.

 

Halloween was a totally different experience for me growing up in Canarsie in the late 1960s. My children waited until it was getting dark to go out. We had to be finished by the time it was dark. We rushed home from school, changed into costumes and out we went. It was not safe to be out after dark – not just on Halloween, but any day of the year.

I don’t recall ever carving a pumpkin. We may have had some decorations – perhaps paper cut-outs of witches or ghosts that hung on the front door.

My Canarsie neighborhood was good for trick-or-treating. The blocks were short, the houses were close together. Each time you climbed the front stairs, there were two doorbells to ring. None of that mattered, though, if I was sick. Somehow October was a cursed month for me, and it remained so well into adulthood. Invariably I had an ear infection and fever. Okay, not every year, I did get to go trick or treating sometimes, but it happened often enough that it became a thing.

On those occasions when I wasn’t able to go, I would dress up in my costume (most often as a princess), sit on the steps of our foyer and wait for the doorbell to ring. Since my grandfather worked in a bakery, he brought home giant cookies for us to give, but those were for friends and children we knew. Everyone else got a small candy bar.  One time an older boy who I didn’t know saw the array of cookies and he stepped into the hallway and grabbed a couple as I yelled, “Those aren’t for you!” He made off with them, there was nothing I could do. I was so upset I went in and told my mom I didn’t want to hand out the candy any more. I don’t know why that rattled me so much – some combination of feeling powerless and disappointment in humanity. That was just who I was, even as a seven-year old.

On the years when I had to sit out trick-or-treating, my brother Mark would carry a second bag for me. I’m sure that roused suspicions and may have earned him some unwelcome comments, but he did it anyway. I had a paradoxical relationship with Mark. On the one hand, I spent almost my entire childhood dreading his teasing, his caustic jabbing at me. “Your shoes look like canoes!” (a comment about my big feet) “You were adopted!” A barrage of remarks that would get under my skin immediately.

Mom or Dad would have to separate us multiple times a day.

“Don’t even look at him!”

“Go to your room and close the door!”

Mom still wonders how we all survived it.

On the other hand, though, he went trick or treating for me. Mark was often my protector. It was fine for him to harass me, but not for other kids in the neighborhood. If I tripped and fell over a cracked sidewalk, he would stamp on the offending slab as if to punish it for hurting me. And, for all the teasing, we would do stuff together. Our older brother Steven couldn’t stand our squabbling and preferred solitary activities or being outside with friends. That left Mark and I to watch wrestling or baseball or F Troop on TV, that is when we weren’t banished to our separate rooms.

Another Halloween has come and gone. On to the next holiday, stirring up more memories.

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.