MARRIAGE


marriage“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.” – Unknown

My husband came home from work today, after hanging out with some guys at the bar to watch the Masters, and said “I think we are becoming a minority.” Knowing my husband as I do, I could have gone in so many different directions with that comment. I looked quizzically at him and, as has happened hundreds of times in the 21 years we have been together, he realized I had no idea what he was referring to. “It seems like we are the only ones left married,” he said smirking. I laughed, knowing he was being facetious but I also stopped for a second and took in a deep breath. He is right. Maybe it’s because of our age, maybe it’s because of where we live, maybe it’s because of our circle of friends and acquaintances but, whatever the reason, it seems like every day we learn of more and more couples splitting up. Today he learned about yet another and, as is always the case, it sends chills down your spine. You can’t help but wonder if one day it will be you. I cannot deny that there have been moments – more than I care to admit – that I wondered if our marriage would survive.

I entered into marriage completely clueless. I had no role models. I had no reference point. Frankly, I had no interest in getting married. I had determined, at a pretty young age, that I wanted to have a fantastic career and would not submit to giving up my dreams for any man. And, I certainly did not want to have kids. Sure, I was a feminist. I was also broken from all that I had experienced in my childhood that I couldn’t even imagine a reality where I could be happily married. By the time I was in college, my mother had been married and divorced 3 times and was on her way to her fourth. My father had 2 under his belt and my sister, 14 years my senior, had just split up with her husband. She would go on to marry 2 more times. I wanted nothing to do with all this. I was not interested in participating in this ritual that seemingly always had an unhappy ending.

I was a serial dater after I got out of college. I would meet guys, date them, break up, find another, date them, break up, find another and the cycle went on and on. Nobody lasted more than weeks or maybe a few months and the relationships never went very deep. I had so much intimacy with all of my gay boyfriends that I never felt needy in that way. If it were not for sex, I would have been content to hang with my gay posse forever, collect some cats and become a living, breathing stereotype. I simply did not see a pathway that would ever lead me to wedded bliss. I had a great career, was starting to make some money and had, what I believed to be, a relatively glamorous life. I worked for a major movie studio optioning books for movies so I spent my evenings going to plays, movie premieres, parties, fancy dinners – all surrounded by the largest group of gay men imaginable. I guess, perhaps one of the reasons I could not see the pathway was because there were not very many suitable candidates crossing my lane.

I met my husband when I was 24. When I think about it now, I realize how I was still an emotional amoeba. I simply knew nothing about the world yet I had lived what felt like 5 lifetimes sorting through the turmoil of my family’s drama. We met as friends – he and I were both dating other people (he was living with someone!) so there was no pressure on the relationship. He seemed like a nice enough guy and, much to my amazement, I found myself quickly intrigued by him. The relationship became romantic very quickly and, after we sorted out our other conflicts, we started dating for real. Both of us being somewhat impulsive, dating lasted about two minutes before we fell remarkably, passionately, overwhelmingly in love. He was my soulmate. I could not imagine how I could spend one minute away from him, which was extraordinarily difficult since he lived 3000 miles away on the other side of the country. We managed to find ways to see each other several times a month and each visit was filled with anticipation – heart-racing, soulful expectation. And every goodbye was marked with tears, sometimes painful and gut-wrenching, because we could not imagine how we would be able to fill our lungs with oxygen without the other to move the diaphragm. We so quickly became a symbiotic unit and every thought I ever had about not wanting to marry went out the window like a paper floating away in a brisk March wind. My fears or uncertainty about how I could sustain a relationship seemed foolish and immature. Here I was madly in love and all I could think about, even at the tender age of 25, was how fast I could begin my life as his wife.

We got engaged in less than 6 months and just a little more than 2 years after we met, we walked down the aisle in a lovely spring wedding and began a whole new chapter in our lives. We set out to right the wrongs of our parents. We vowed to do it differently. We committed to break the cycle. We blindly, ignorantly, whimsically set out on what seemed like a perfectly paved pathway together.

Next month will be 19 years since that lovely spring wedding. 19 years – nearly two decades! In contrast, his parents’ marriage lasted 13 years, my parents stuck it out for 15 before they separated, my sister’s ended at year 14. There was a moment, several years ago, that we realized that we had hit some magical milestone in our family. We were officially the longest married couple. We made a toast. And returned to our blissfully banal life. We have expanded our symbiotic union by two with sons that keep us grounded and focused and remind us why we decided to enter this extremely challenging and complex obstacle course.

In 19 years we have had more than our share of fights and far too many moments, through tears, that we each gritted our teeth and questioned our beliefs. That perfectly paved pathway has revealed many cracks, uprooted roots that have pushed up the concrete and we have tripped and fallen many, many times. We have been challenged to find the intoxicating love that left us in tears when we could not be together every moment of the day. Now the tears were rage-filled and that love was nowhere to be found. Well, actually, it was buried beneath piles and piles of hurt feelings, unkind words, bad choices, anger, resentment and all the wonderful things that are often hallmarks of long-term relationships riddled with financial woes, exhaustion from child rearing and general disappointments that life did not turn out to have the fairy tale ending you dreamt of. For some couples that is where it all goes awry. For many, the challenges become too untenable and the relationship dissolves. For us, we had many sleepless nights, raging battles and days where we could barely look at each other because we loathed the sight of the other but we pushed through. Perhaps the fear of splitting up was more overwhelming than the notion of trying to tolerate each other another day, but we persevered. Despite our efforts to hold it together, I was certain we were doomed. Everyone around us seemed so happy. Their marriages looked so healthy. Everyone seemed to be having sex ALL THE TIME while I couldn’t muster the energy to even think about it most of the time. Everyone appeared to be blissfully in love, even after the trials of marriage had weathered their bond. They all seemed to have a healthier, stronger, more powerful attachment and I didn’t see how my marriage could ever compare.

The joke was on me, of course. Sure, some couples seem to have the good fortune of peaceful and loving relationships and personalities that are not like firecrackers with short fuses and a lit match. Many couples, however, put on a good show when everyone is looking in order to make the pain of their own unhappiness less visible in hopes that it will make their misery more manageable. They sweep it under the rug and put on a good face, hoping no one will notice, existing in silent desperation. For me, I had to learn to stop looking around for comps and spend more time looking at my own relationship and understanding what it needed to work properly. When I searched my soul, I knew I loved my husband on the deepest level and could not imagine a life without him. I needed to focus in on that and stop worrying about the window dressing. None of that shit mattered.

As I watched so many friends delight in the sparkle of new relationships after their marriages ended and they were reborn into these new loves, I had to dig deep to find a way to reconnect with the man who changed my life and brought peace to a war-torn girl. I doubted, I questioned, I ached, I cried, I searched, I begged for mercy. And then I fell in love all over again. This time, I fell in love with the old pair of shoes lying in the back of the closet that I had forgotten were hiding out, stuffed underneath some boxes of new shoes that were so shiny and inviting. I slipped into those shoes and they felt warm and comfortable, and my feet knew exactly how to mold themselves into the leather. They were perfectly suited for me. I exhaled and I opened my eyes wide to find that nothing ever changed between my husband and me. We still loved each other deeply – in fact, we were much more in love than we had ever been but we had lost our way. We fell victim to the complications of life. We stopped paying attention, took our eyes off the road as the car careened into the woods. It was a bit dented but still ran pretty well and just needed someone to get behind the wheel and steer it onto a new road.

I love my husband more today than I ever could have imagined that pretty spring day 19 years ago. I look into the eyes I have stared into millions of times and I see our lifetime together. Soon we will be together longer than we have not. Now we fit together like two puzzle pieces that slide together so easily. There were days we had to shove ourselves together, taking a second look to see if, in fact, we were the right pair of pieces but, now, it is easier. Sure, we still take each other for granted at times and we still have trouble finding time and energy to have quiet intimate moments but I know, without any uncertainty, that there is no one else I would travel the road of life with. We are a real story, a 3-dimensional, full-color, reality of married life. We are imperfect, we hurt each other, we make mistakes. And, we love each other with everything we have. And we fall in love over and over again.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY


motheranddaughter“The woman who bore me is no longer alive, but I seem to be her daughter in increasingly profound ways.” – Unknown

Today would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday.  And, Friday marked one year since she passed away.  As I have shared in this blog before, her passing was an event that did not hold much significance to me at the time because I felt I had said goodbye to her many years before.  Despite that, this past year has left me with the need to do a lot of reflection to help me come to terms with my feelings about this complicated relationship in order to begin a healing process resulting in forgiveness and transcendence from decades of trying to love someone who was fundamentally incapable of experiencing or giving authentic love.

This is a journey I did not enter into willingly.  In fact, I had my mind all made up when I learned that her life was nearing its end that I was relieved and ready to move on to the next phase of my life – a life without having to look over my shoulder and wonder when the next onslaught would occur.  I welcomed the freedom that came from knowing that the hurt, the humiliation, the constant anxiety about when she would next strike out would finally come to an end.  When I got the word that she had died, I texted my best friend to let him know and he immediately called me in bewilderment, wondering if he should console me or plan to take me out for a celebratory toast.  He gently prodded, fascinated by this highly unusual circumstance of someone losing their parent and not immediately  kicking into the rituals of mourning, honoring, etc., and asked “How do you feel?”  Of course, he knew that the feelings would be complicated.  He implicitly knew that I would be struggling to find words to make sense of the emotions, even in my own mind.  At the time I was quite laissez faire about the whole situation, resolved that I was ready to start anew.  I had prayed for an escape from the grip she had on me and suddenly my wish was granted and now I had the time and space to react and redirect myself.

In the year since my mother’s passing, I have had a metamorphosis of sorts.  In my own way, I have undergone a process of grieving and realigning myself without the force of my mother’s mental illness driving an undercurrent in my life.  Despite the fact that I had terminated my relationship with her nearly 7 years before her death, I was still struggling on a daily basis, balancing my indignation and my guilt while continuing to fear her wrath, her scorn, her outbursts intended to try to regain a connection with me.  She patented the art of attempting to have bad behavior rewarded with attention.  It took great resolve and discipline to not take the bait.  As an adult child, I still yearned the love of my mother and wanted nothing more than to wake up from a seemingly bad dream and find myself in a fairy tale, basking in the glow of love showered upon me by my mommy.  I never lost the wish, the unwavering desire to curl up and be loved and nurtured in a way that I understood was a gift meant for other little girls, simply not me.

As I worked through the process – one that I intentionally pushed to the background to be a backdrop to everything else that was going on in my life – I began to see answers and understanding emerge around me like giant thought bubbles bursting over my head.  I knew when I began the journey of healing that I would never truly understand my mother.  I acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that her actions and behavior would never make sense to me.  I did not have all the puzzle pieces.  I was missing huge chunks of her history that informed who she became as an adult.  I did not understand the demons that she confronted as a young child and had no way of understanding the role they played in the destruction of her life.  I never had a clear sense of the roots of her mental illness.  All of that, however, was intellectual masturbation because none of it mattered in how I felt.  And, frankly, for the better part of my adult life, I spent my time trying to understand, trying to solve the equation.  How I felt was always secondary.  I knew I was a victim of her illness and I knew that our relationship was ultimately detrimental to both of us.  I woke up one day and realized with crystal clear certainty that we were better off without each other than with.  And I walked away.  As my therapist has explained to me so many times, I nearly erased myself from existence by abandoning the most primal and pivotal relationship in my life.  I annihilated myself by rejecting my mother.  And, at the same time, I gave myself life.

I have struggled over the past year to find my way with this.  Life has presented me with seemingly unending complications to derail my focus and challenge my own mental stability.  I have struggled with my own purpose, my intentions and my truth.  Losing my mother without ever closing all the loose ends left me with a complicated web of questions and emotions that I knew I had to tackle when I was ready and in my own unique style.  No one – absolutely no one – could help me make sense of it.  I was living an experience that not a single person I know has ever experienced.  I was alone on an island left to sort out a big giant tangle of ropes in hopes that, when untwisted, I would be able to toss them out to pull in my raft and return the land of others.  I had hoped that by whacking through this mess I would suddenly feel differently, look like everyone else and be able to return to life feeling more complete and more connected.

It’s been one year and two days.  367 days of quiet contemplation.  8,808 hours of attempting to locate a lost piece of myself in order to better fit into my world and begin to blend in with everyone else.

Guess what?

I failed.

On the bright side, I am beginning to forgive my mother.  I am finding ways to have compassion for her and understanding that hers was the road less traveled – and not in a good way.  No one would ever sign up for the cruise that she took in her 82 years. No one would willingly leave the earth with a scant few by their side, having more regrets than joy.  Four marriages, three children, four grandchildren and her passing was barely noticed.  I feel sad for her.  I grieve for a life that was lost to an illness left untreated and an unwillingness to relent and accept that perhaps the darkness that she lived with was not simply the way it was meant to be.  I take no comfort in my righteousness that she deserved what she ultimately received.  I wish, I truly wish, I could have made a difference for her.  I wish I could have saved her and brought her to my island.  I tried so many times to heal her with my love, thereby, hopefully, healing myself.  However, it was always short-lived.  She thrived on chaos and manipulation.  She needed to break things down and then attempt to put them back together in order to feel like a savior.  She needed to be a victim and find blame in everyone else.  She did not know what it meant to forgive.  She only knew how to hold a grudge and suffer as she exhausted limitless mental energy feeling anger and resentment, ironically usually targeted towards those she most frequently hurt.

For me, today, I am learning to get beyond all that and am starting to understand the impact of her life and her behavior on me.  I am not a victim of my mother.  I am a product of my life experience and it is my choice to continue down the pathway she led me or to take a detour and find my own lane.  She is not a compass for me – a fact that pains me greatly because I believe so deeply in the power of motherhood and the role we play in guiding our children to their own paths while standing by to guide them to another and another as they need us to.  Nonetheless, my mother is all around me.  She shows up in my life in the form of other people that create struggles for me – the narcissists that invariably make their way to me; the angry, damaged and pained individuals that sniff me out falsely seeing me as a safe harbor.  I am simply not that port and I am learning to accept that about myself.  My job is not to rescue anyone but to provide an atlas built from my own painful journey.  I am not a walking support group and I have come to accept and, in fact, insist, that I am not here to be pitied or protected or, quite frankly, understood by anyone because we can never truly understand the complexities that make each of us unique.  Instead, I am here to give love, receive love and hope to leave a legacy that includes inspiring and empowering others to live a more meaningful life.  And, for that, I thank my mother.  Without her, I am not sure that these lessons would have made their way to me.  I am not sure that I would have the courage to look at life the way I do.  I have no certainty that, without my mother, I would have broken down and been rebuilt in a way that provides me with my own brand of power.  I am not perfect and I struggle to make sense of things every day but I feel grateful to have the opportunity to tackle life and connect the dots in the way that I do. As with many things in my life, I would never go back and change history.  It all informed my place today.  The road could have been easier and my choices could have been better but it is all about the journey.

This morning I talked to my best friend again and shared with him a piece of my truth that has crystalized for me.  I have spent so much of my lifetime trying to adapt myself to fit into the world in a way that would enable people to understand me better.  I have twisted myself up so painfully trying to blend in and make sense in other people’s worlds.  However, today, my own gift to myself on my mother’s birthday, I committed to allowing myself to be me.  367 days after my mother left the earth I am finally becoming the person I am meant to be.  And, after 45 1/2 years of life, I know I am just getting started.

Happy Birthday Mom.  I wish you could have gotten to know me.

TRUST


trust“All trust involves vulnerability and risk, and nothing would count as trust if there were no possibility of betrayal.” – Robert C. Solomon

I’d be lying if I did not confess that relationships are challenging for me.

There were never any roadmaps or guidebooks to help me navigate relationships growing up. I learned how to connect with people by trial and error. I had no role models because the relationships in my family were transient and conditional. I learned how to love out of pure need to be loved. I was willing to love someone if they showed me love, even at my own peril for many of those who I believe “loved” me had a very shallow definition of love and tossed the word around recklessly. I learned how to trust by…. well, actually, that is where things get really complicated for me. In my life, trust presents a lot of difficulties and is not something that comes easily. Most who know me well will attest that trust is something I place high on a pedestal and, if broken, does not have a good chance of being repaired . I’m not proud of this but it is part of my complexity – I don’t trust easily and I can grow to mistrust without much effort.  I’m not perfect, nor are my relationships yet I work diligently every day to nourish and enhance the trusting bonds I do have.

I recently located an old video from my childhood that was buried away in a closet. It is the last vestige of my youth in my possession and it is a critical touchpoint for me. My parents, like many others in the 60’s and 70’s took lots of Super 8 movies and, after my parents divorced, my mother kept them stored away in a box high on a shelf in one of her closets. By the time I was a teenager, the projector we used to watch the movies was long gone and all we had left were a pile of flat round tin cans that held all the memories of when my family seemed “normal,” when things were happy and when it appeared that my course in life would be dramatically different from the road it actually took. The films lay in those cans for years because we never bothered converting them to VHS and because they represented a time in life my mother simply did not want to return to. To see the demise of her life in full color blasted before her eyes was simply too painful. It wasn’t until I was married and getting ready to start a family of my own that I went back to her house to retrieve whatever I could to piece together a life that now seemed a bit more like a dry erase board that someone leaned on and had carelessly rubbed across the words. Everything was smudged and smeared and you could sort of make out the content but the message was very unclear. I really wanted to chronicle my family’s history and gain a deeper understanding of where I came from. By the time I got to the box in the closet, it was evident that someone else had beat me to it. My older brother, caught up in his own turmoil, had the same idea I had. Unfortunately, he never converted the films and, in his haste to leave an apartment from which he was being evicted, he left the box behind, likely to be retrieved by some future renter who would carelessly toss them in a dumpster. When I went to my mother’s closet, there was one stray canister left behind and I grabbed it, not knowing what I would find. To my relief, it was a splendid 28 minutes of me from the age of about 5 months to one full year later. It included a magical Christmas, my first steps, a decadent vacation to Miami Beach, my brother’s birthday party and an assortment of other sweet moments that gave me insight to a life I never knew existed.

I watched the video countless times over the years but then stored it away, like my mother did, replacing it with converted DVDs of my own children’s highlights over their short lives. I had forgotten about the tape until recently. I started scouring my house looking for it because, for some reason, I knew it included some critical pieces to my puzzle. I knew that, today, with a new lens, a new perspective, a new need, I would find essential messages that would help me unpack more pieces of myself to help me move forward, even if only just by a few steps.

I was cleaning up the guest room and scoured through the closets and drawers. Surprisingly, it was right there out in the open in a drawer, waiting to be retrieved. It practically laughed at me, wondering why I had such a hard time locating it after I had passed over it again and again. It screamed “I’ve been right here all along!” I grabbed it, raced out to a local shop that converts VHS to DVD – yet another iteration in this film’s life journey – and popped it right into the computer the minute I got home. I had recollections of the scenes in my mind since I had seen the film so many times in the past. But this time I studied it. I watched every touch and every kiss my mother placed on me. I looked deep into my father’s eyes to try to understand this mysterious stranger. I looked at myself, trying to find the roots of me, trying to find my soul in that chubby little baby. I watched it and felt loved. I saw a child who was doted upon by family, friends, neighbors.  I saw a family so perfect and so sublime. And I knew it was all bullshit. I knew it was a show for the cameras that reflected just a small portion of what was really going on. Where was my sister who was 14 years older than me and had been exiled to live with my mother’s brother in Brooklyn because of conflicts with my father? Where was the endless flow of Johnny Walker that turned my father into a monster who beat my mother with anything he could find? Where was the vitriol that my mother doled out to my siblings and me to degrade us and demean us in order to get us to follow her every command? None of it was there because this was the highlight reel – truly. This is every Facebook post talking about how wonderful life is when, in fact, people are cringing and crying on the inside. It is a mirage of happiness that, while may hold some reality in those brief moments, do not reflect the real road traveled.

So, what does this all have to do with trust? Well, everything. For me, trust is about absolute authenticity. Trust is about honesty. Trust is about putting your real self on display and being vulnerable and allowing yourself to stand in your space and be who you are. Without that, we are only showing a fragment of ourselves that prevents us from really being honest and really being trustworthy. In all candor, I have not perfected this. In fact, there is a small contingent that I share my ugliest worts with. There are only a select few that I really trust. And the reason why is because, after a lifetime of being duped into believing that the highlight reel is the truth, I need to be certain that there is more. I need to know that we can get down and dirty and show our secret underbelly.

I’ve been thinking about all of this recently because it is a critical part of my journey. As both of my parents died in the past 1 1/2 years, I have been trying to find a way to forgive them for all of the pain and suffering they have caused me and my family. I have been trying to learn the lessons from their lives and my own to, hopefully, make different choices and better decisions to create a life for myself that is authentic and, while not free of mistakes and pain, makes me feel like I am being the best person I can be. I want to make sure I am putting out into the world something of import. I am trying to learn how to forgive those who hurt me in order to maintain trusting relationships and not be so quick to abandon the trust simply because I have been hurt or scorned. I am struggling with it today.  I seek out guideposts that help to send me in the right direction so I can figure out who to forgive and who to forget. I am trying to find a softness – an antidote to all of the callouses that have formed from years of hurt and betrayal.

My husband and I will celebrate the 21st anniversary of our meeting this week. What I did not know that February night in 1992 was that I was meeting the man who would teach me more about love and trust than anyone ever could. And, I had no idea how much I would test it or challenge it over the course of our lives. As I reflect on my life and all the relationships that have flowed in and out, I know without a shred of uncertainty that he is the only person that I trust completely. He is the only person I can forgive without question. He is the only person that I know, without any doubt, will have my back and love me no matter what. And, for that, I am really blessed. He has taught me that there is a life where the highlight reel can be the real reel.

THE BEST GIFT EVER


christmas presentIn 1980 I was 13 and, for the first time, shopped for Christmas presents on my own, with my own money saved from babysitting.  I can still see the images of the busy street late one December afternoon, shortly after John Lennon was shot.  I felt the heaviness and significance of his murder despite not yet having discovered the Beatles in any meaningful way.  I knew a song or two but did not understand how legendary Lennon was and had never heard of The White Album or Abbey Road.  It was the first time I heard the powerful lyrics of  “Imagine” which was playing in every store I entered and I can still hear the words in my head as I walked from Woolworth’s to the stationery store to a few more little shops on that blustery cold afternoon in search of gifts.

What does not stand out to me as much, thankfully, is the heaviness I often felt during the holidays, particularly that year with the bittersweet freedom of shopping on my own darkened by the reality that I really had no one to buy for.  Christmas in 1980 was just going to be me and my mom and, frankly, we didn’t even really celebrate.  My mother was Jewish (lapsed, obviously, after having married and divorced a Catholic).  We didn’t have much money and, even in the best of times there were never any big holiday celebrations.  This year would be no different.  We might have been seeing my sister and her husband but that would have depended upon whether or not she and my mother were speaking.  Likely, it was just Mom and me, sitting alone in our house with me fantasizing about what Christmas could be.

Christmas, during my childhood, was often lonely.  My mother resented Christmas because it was not “her” holiday but she also did not observe her own Jewish holidays so there was no Hannukah celebrations either.  Both of my parents were often estranged from their siblings and parents because of conflicts which arose from their unwelcomed marriage and, as a result, we sufffered.  When we did actually celebrate the holidays, they felt small and joyless, often ending in conflicts between my parents or my siblings.  They were heavy, burdened events.  As a result, I felt like an outsider to all those around me who were showered in joyful traditions and family.  One of my more memorable Christmases was the year my parents first split up and my dad came to take me and my brother shopping for presents.  I was probably around 8 or 9 at the time and was filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of going to the toy store and picking out anything I wanted.  He came to fetch us in his little blue Mercedes convertible, the car he bought when he left my mother and moved in with his girlfriend.  It was the car he parked in our driveway one night in a drunken stupor and sat on the horn screaming obscenities at my mother.  I remember the police coming and I remember the frilly nightgown I wore as I stared out the window filled with shame.  I hated that car.  On the day he came to get us, I knew exactly what I wanted and could hardly believe that my father would agree to such a purchase.  But, I suppose a silver lining to divorce was parental guilt on his part and  I secured myself the Barbie Town House.  It was the most coveted toy of the year and  I could not believe my good fortune that I was getting the mack daddy of all Barbie residences.  Sure, the beach house was cool but this was the Town House – with an elevator!  When we brought home our loot, my mother, who was resentful and angry that our father had chosen to shower us with gifts, took everything from us and prevented us from opening our new toys until Christmas day.  It was on that cold, overcast day that I was sent outside to the backyard, suited up in my hand-me-down winter coat that my mother secured from my sister or one of the older girls on the block, where I set up my house on the redwood picnic table and, in gloved hands, assembled the furniture and let my Barbies have the Christmas celebration that was fit for such a dream house.

As I grew older, I loved the idea of buying gifts, wrapping them in beautiful papers with bows and matching name tags. I would buy presents for anyone I could, even if it meant buying a Hello Kitty eraser for one of my friends at school – as long as I could wrap it up in a neat little package and pile it with any other gifts I had assembled.  We never had a tree so I kept my gifts on the floor of my closet, usually hidden from my mother who thought such indulgences were unnecessary and wasteful.  I would stare at the packages, all beautifully stacked in all their colorful splendor.  I dreamt of becoming a gift wrapper at one of the department stores and, the first time I saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, I fantasized about what it would be like to work at a store like Macy’s during the holidays.

Every year, since that stroll down the boulevard in 1980, I dreamt of big festive Christmas celebrations.  I longed to have a big, extended family with a tall, proud tree, glimmering with lights and ornaments that took my breath away.  I wished for the nonstop arrival of guests, bearing gifts and plates of food and the laughter and storytelling of Christmases past.  And every year, especially after my children were born, I tried to make that happen.  My husband and I celebrated our first Christmas in NJ in our little apartment, with a little tree but we spent Christmas Eve at his uncle’s house with his big Italian family.  They got a live tree every year and would collect it and trim it on Christmas Eve.  It was an event filled with tradition and merriment and I loved it.  In later years, after we had children, we celebrated here in our home, relishing in the delight of the kids as they prepared on Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa and awoke with amazement at the abundance of toys Santa managed to squeeze down our narrow little chimney.  There has always been a beautiful tree with lights and ornaments that we collected over the years, imprinted with photos and dates and memories of our life as a family.

It all seems so perfect and magical, just as I always imagined it being.  But, alas, my baggage is heavy.  My memories are dark.  My loneliness associated with the holidays is still so vivid that I can taste it, feel it, smell it.  So, as we have created traditions for our children over the years, I recognize that I have spent a lot of effort overcompensating and creating manufactured events to make up for the shortcomings of my life before my husband and children.  It never occurred to me, even once, that I was inadvertently repurposing the demons that haunted me even though they were not part of my children’s reality.  They never had a reason to feel that their holiday celebrations were anything but magical regardless of how many people came to our house, how many presents were found under the tree or whether or not we got dressed up or used fine china for our dinner.  Those were issues that mattered only to me and the pain attached to these ideas were rooted squarely in my past and resulted from my lacking.

This year, as we began our planning for the holidays, I talked to my husband and children about all of the possible activities and events.  I talked about going out to cut down our tree with a group of friends and shared the various invitations to holiday parties.  We discussed who we might want to invite over for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or options for spending the holiday with others away from our home.  And, to my shock, both of my children, now aged 9 and 12, said they wanted the holidays to be at home with just the four of us.  They did not want any big events.  They did not want to go to lots of parties.  They wanted us to go together, alone, to find our tree, trim it ourselves and carry out our family traditions together.  All I could hear was that we would be alone and all they communicated was that we would be together.  For them, our little family of 4 represented peace and comfort and security and love.  For me, it had always felt too small, too simple, too alone.

I stopped speaking.  I listened to their words and literally felt myself healing.  I allowed myself to be buoyed by my children.  I indulged in their sense of love and security and borrowed it for myself.  For right there in that discussion at our kitchen table my children assured me that they were not me and that their reality was nothing even close to mine.  They assured both me and my husband that we had given them the one gift neither of us had been afforded – unconditional love.  They were happy.  Happy with our little family of four and our quiet traditions of baking, playing games and watching movies together on the couch without the distractions of others who might burst our little bubble. There need not be more tradition, more festivity and more stuff.  They required nothing more than Mom and Dad and each other and they released me from my penance of working feverishly to create events to make the holidays special and memorable for my kids. It already was.

Yes, in 2012, the tables began to turn and my kids started to teach me.  My kids provided a much-needed  reality check that the world does not always exist in the way that I think it does.  My kids reminded me, without ever saying the words or even knowing the stories to share, that they did not have to play outside on Christmas day with the new most treasured toy because I was too angry or resentful of my ex-husband to let them play with their new loot inside.  My kids shined a light on the fact that they never sat alone in the house on Christmas lonely or bored and never had to stockpile gifts in their closets because there was no tree to place them under.  My children never knew anything but a beautiful magical Christmas and, to them, Christmas was wonderful because the four of us were together, regardless of who else showed up, even if we never went anywhere and despite the packages mostly coming from mom and dad.  To my children, the most wonderful and precious memories were the ones that included the four of us being together on Christmas morning, opening our gifts, laughing in delight as they screamed and cheered at their acquisition of “THE best present EVER” over and over again.

So, for me, in 2012 I certainly got THE best present EVER.  I got the gift of knowing that my children are happy and that their memories of Christmas will be joyful and, hopefully, filled with traditions that they will pass down to their children.  Mission accomplished.  Amen.

FAMILY TREES


“You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.” 
― Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society

Yesterday, a typical Sunday afternoon for me – folding laundry and catching up on television shows on my DVR – I stumbled upon a show where a pair of singer/songwriters were talking about being inspired to write a song for a friend who was struggling to see her own beauty.  I thought it was such a lovely gesture on their part and I could hear the passion as they talked about their process of writing the song.  Naturally, it made me think about what inspires me to write.  Like the pair, I need to be really passionate about something for the words to flow through me and, when that inspiration hits, it is difficult to hold them back.  And, almost as if the Gods heard me, I was trolling around Facebook a short time later and found some inspiration.

Two things caught my attention and they were so oddly related that it felt like a bit of divine intervention.  First, I saw a photo of one of our oldest friends that brought a huge smile to my face.  He recently acquired his first pair of reading glasses (a common plight with my social set these days) and posted a photo of himself wearing them to amuse his mother-in-law on her birthday.  Something about seeing him with the glasses took my breath away as it captured the passage of time since we met when he and I were just starting out right after college.  His endearing smile, the small crinkles around his eyes, and the signs of age that come from years of living life to the fullest was simply joyful.  It reminded of me of how I see my husband every time I catch sight of the grey hair in his beard or around his temples.  I can just as easily imagine him as the young man I met 20 years ago and I adore the history that the aging process signifies.

Immediately I was flooded with memories of the two decades of friendship he and I have shared with our spouses and children and just the look on his face made me happy. Not sad that we hardly get to see each other anymore because he and his family live across the country but, instead, grateful that we have such wonderful memories and that, as we age, we have a familiarity and comfort that never wanes.  He and his wife and my  husband and I have been friends since the beginning of our relationships and our children have known each other since birth.  They are our family – distant, separate but always deeply connected in our hearts.

Almost immediately following that, I saw a posting from a friend of a friend that challenged the very notion that had just warmed my heart.  She wrote:

“My friends, neighbors, students and colleagues it is important that you never take your own family for granted- today “family” is thrown around as a casual term – sometimes describing a group of friends or workmates, nope. What happens when you are no longer “family”? or if you decide to move on? Please consider its origin, It is through blood, through marriage or birth, by genetics, lineage, heritage- marked by tradition, held together through customs and habits for generation after generation…Not perfect, not without flaws but – it is you and I, and it makes up who and what we are..it is the essence of our soul.  To enjoy an experience with those that are like minded is a constant gift, to have friends that you cherish is a rare gem, to exercise with a group of students is a limitless joy and one that I hold steadfast to my heart. But they are not my sisters, nor my brothers- and they are not yours either…we are mere humans sharing space, hopefully being kind to each other, supporting one another and wishing and bringing out the best for– but when the chips fall where they may, who is there to pick up the pieces? remember the difference… because one day, in quick moment, you will know.”

While I have great respect for the bonds she has with her family, her assertion cut through me and saddened me because the suggestion that family is created by lineage and blood and marriage simply does not hold true for me and many I know and love.  I can appreciate that she may be one of the very fortunate who has an intact family that is able to love and support each other but many of us need to find family in different ways.  And, often those family members come from work or our communities and we are more than simply “humans sharing a space.”  That is not to say that every friend and every colleague with whom we share closeness and affection is of the caliber of being considered family but, for many of us, we discover those diamonds who truly become our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers.  We connect and love and share and assume responsibility for one another in a far deeper way than simply humans sharing a space and being kind to one another.

I try hard to not take offense at other people’s beliefs and ideals because I accept that we all come from different places with markedly different experiences.  In this case, her open commentary to her community disturbed me because it challenged everything that is true for me.  While I understand she met no malice by her words and her sentiment was genuine and heartfelt, the reality is that, according to her commentary, I have no family beyond my husband and children – and the mere thought of that makes me very sad.  Unfortunately, I have not had the good fortune to have blood relatives who could love and support one another.  We are not the ones who are there for each other when the chips are down and we need to be lifted up.  My reality is that, aside from my husband and children – whom I love dearly and would go to the ends of the earth for – there is no one with whom I am connected by blood that has any involvement in my life.  It is painful and sometimes I feel very alone, but it is my truth.  Instead, I have painstakingly, handpicked a select group of people who are my people – my family.  I know, without any uncertainty, that they will be there for me through thick and thin and I for them.  Ironically, the friend that I share in common with the author of those comments is one of those people who is part of my manufactured family.  She is my oldest friend and she and her family are the closest thing to blood relatives I have ever had.  We have no genetic connection.  There is no lineage, no marriage, no heritage.  Just years of caring for one another and building enduring bonds that have surpassed many of our relatives.  There is no doubt in my mind that we are family without a single genetic link.

Families come in many shapes and forms and that proves itself to me every day when I think about the families I see all around my community.  I live in a wonderful environment where families are constructed in many different ways.  We have non-traditional families with two moms or two dads, with children that come through foster care, adoption, or surrogacy and have “aunts” and “uncles” that share no DNA but have love and bonds that are as strong as steel.  Many of us have large circles of friends – extended families – that celebrate holidays and vacations together and support one another through the most difficult and the most wonderful moments of life.  We go far beyond being kind to one another and are invested in each other’s futures and outcomes.

I do not take lightly the notion of family and I do not quickly entitle someone to being part of my family because I am very selective and very protective of those who enter into that arena.  As someone who has seen blood lines severely broken and found water to be thicker, stronger and more enduring than blood, I can say, with complete certainty, that when the chips fall, those with whom you have made significant investments, whether they come from blood lines or elsewhere, will be there to pick up the pieces.  I am walking proof that this is true.

FLOURISHING


I have never fancied myself much of a gardener. In fact, I might be the worst gardener that ever lived. I have no proclivity for gardening, no passion for it and nothing in the way of talent. No green thumbs here. However, ritually, every spring, I set out to tackle some type of approach to gardening in my yard. I have selected some shrubs that I really like – hydrangea and lilacs and roses – and I make a valiant effort of pruning and creating flower arrangements in pots for my front and back doors. And I do ok. Nothing spectacular. I am scrappy so I don’t too much research. I go by my gut and get drawn in to the pretty colors. I try to follow the directions of placing plants where they will get enough sun and make sure to space them far enough apart to grow to their potential. Invariably, I am cutting back wayward rose bushes and overgrown black beauties but I do my best.

Growing up, my father, an Italian immigrant, was the one who handled all the gardening in our family. Even though he and my mother divorced when I was young, I have memories of him mowing the lawn, planting shrubs, taming the roses and taking great pride in the manicured landscaping of our home. My mother could barely maintain a houseplant since she hardly ever let any light into the house. She kept the shades drawn because she believed there would be less dust that way (after all, the sunlight allows you to see the dust particles so she was able to fool herself into believing that if she did not see it, it did not exist.) I do not have that many fond memories of my father since he was not around all that much and, when he was, his drinking created an inordinate amount of chaos in our home. But, I do recall his work in the garden as something he was passionate about and it brings me warmth when I smell the fresh-cut grass or breathe in the scent of freshly bloomed roses. It takes me right back to being a little girl and standing in our small yard that was fenced in with the typical Queens chain link fence. My father managed to bring some beauty to our very drab row house. We had a corner property so there was lots of room on the side of the house to plant all types of shrubs and there was a large lawn in the front of the house. I remember my mother lamenting about this after my father was gone for it was a lot of work to maintain our property and I recall the days when the roses became overgrown and infected, the grass was tall and the shrubs were no longer perfectly pruned. The disarray of our gardens were a perfect metaphor for the chaos of our lives.

Yesterday I spent the day in my own garden, paring down my enormously overgrown butterfly bushes and trimming the lilacs that decided to bloom far too early and, as I do every year, I thought about my father and these tender memories. Last year, on my first day out in the garden, I was unusually angry. I resented the fact that I was the one trimming the roses because, in that moment, I irrationally believed it was the man’s job to handle that. That’s a pretty remarkable thought for someone like me who fancies herself a feminist and does not ever define gender roles in that way. But, emotions are a powerful force and mine resulted in irrational resentment and surprising nostalgia for a man who, otherwise, was not a very loving father. With every branch I snipped from my climbing rose shrubs, I longed for a man who would, like my father, take care of the important details like landscaping. In all fairness, my husband is pretty awesome about taking care of the outside of our home and, of course, my emotions had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the loss I was feeling at that moment. I was suffering from never having had the opportunity to experience a traditional father-daughter relationship and the only connection I could drum up was the one that overwhelmed me as I got thorns stuck in my hands as the large branches came down. The stickiness and pain that came with each thorn pressing into my skin was a reminder of what I lost when my father walked away all those years ago.

My father died last year and, in contrast to when my mother died, I found myself to be very emotional. However, similar to with my mother, I had been estranged from my father for many years – decades, in fact. He and I never had much of a relationship at any point in my life in that I was so young when he left and his alcoholism was so corruptive to everything in his life – especially his relationship with his family. He tried to forge a bond with me when I was in college but, after so many years of being told what a bastard he was by my mother and feeling alienated and confused, it was hard, even as a young adult, to bridge that gap. I regret that we never had that opportunity because I know, at his core, my father was a kind and loving man – and he and I were very much alike. Those who have known me since I was a little girl have always told me that all the goodness in me comes from my father – which makes it that much more difficult to accept the fact that he and I did not have a relationship. I would have liked to have known him differently and have had him enrich my life in positive ways. Alas, that was not possible for so many reasons – primarily because he was drunk for most of his life and was not that great guy that everyone remembered.

When my father died and I surprised myself with my emotional reaction, I spent some time trying to understand how I could feel sad about losing someone who never really was a part of my life – someone who caused a lot of pain in my life. I suspected it was because I managed to find a way to forgive him and release some of the pain I experienced. Or, maybe it was because he and I had a deeper bond that simply never had the opportunity to blossom. Whatever the reason, I am grateful that I sat with the feelings and allowed myself to make my peace with them.

Yesterday, when I was undergoing my annual ritual in the garden, I decided to make it joyous. I chatted with friends and then listened to music – for hours. I spend a large chunk of my day trimming, planting, mulching and found it calming and enriching. My skills are no better, my eye is no more sophisticated and I am not sure what results will be yielded from my efforts. However, I was at peace. I remembered my father with fondness. I thought about all those summer afternoons when he would put on his shorts and t-shirt and sport his white boat shoes and tend to the garden. Memories I will forever cherish.

FOOTBALL WIDOW


It is a Sunday during the winter in my house which means just one thing – football.  Back before my kids were born, Sundays were sometimes a day that I spent with my husband watching football or, sometimes, if he was trying to score some points with me, we’d actually get out of the house doing something together.  But, for the vast majority of the past two decades, Sundays in the fall and winter have been focused primarily around football.  We start early in the morning with all the pre-game shows.  The backdrop of breakfast is often one commentator or another pontificating on the outcomes of the umpteen games taking place that afternoon and evening.  Lunch is typically consumed in front of the enormous TV in our living room that serves as an homage to football and dinner is always served with the game on in the kitchen.

When my kids were younger, they did not care about football or any sports on TV for that matter, so I would typically entertain them on Sundays with either some indoor activity at home or a playdate with other little kids.  As they have gotten older, my older son has become as sports-obsessed as his father while my younger is less interested but will happily park himself on the couch with a handheld video game to partake in the testosterone fest.  The best visual would be three guys, adorned in various team jerseys or t-shirts strewn out on my very lovely Crate & Barrel sofa yelling and screaming while ingesting massive quantities of junk food.  It’s a tradition that apparently is handed down across the generations.

Being the only individual in my house in possession of ovaries and a uterus, I tend to try to find something to entertain myself during the fall and winter months while the pilgrimage in front of the TV takes place.  I know there are plenty of women who love to watch the games alongside their men (many of my friends included) but I am not one of them.  Even though I can get excited by the Super Bowl or a high-pressure playoff game, I really would rather do anything else but spend my entire Sunday channel surfing between games and watching NFL Red Zone on Fios.  I typically use that time to finish up projects, catch up with friends, shop or snuggle under the blankets in my bedroom and watch a movie.  It is definitely Tammy time.

I remember thinking, when my children were babies, that a time would come where my Sundays would be just like this.  It would be my day to escape the house and do whatever I wanted.  I would be free to enjoy estrogen-filled activities without any guilt of sticking my husband with the kids.  But, as with many things that look a lot rosier from a distance, now that I am living in the reality of being the outcast in my football house, I am not sure I like it all that much.  It only reinforces my apprehensions about being the only female in the family.  It reminds me that my entire little family speaks a freakishly different language than I do.  It underscores my disconnect with all the males in my house who seem to relish over fart jokes and other potty humor.  It illustrates the imbalance of power that exists in my little empire.

When I was pregnant with both of my sons, I dreamed about having a girl.  The first time around, I just assumed a girl was what I wanted.  A sweet little baby girl who would be like a doll to me.  I would buy her beautiful clothes and braid her hair and we would have tea parties and go for mani/pedis.  Everything would be perfect.  And, then the penis showed up on the sonogram.  I quickly adjusted to the idea of a boy and was actually quite excited.  I knew my husband would be thrilled to have a son as girls scared him to death.  I also got real about the downside of girls and luxuriated in the idea that I had escaped (at least with this kid) all the angst and teen drama that was bundled with the special edition baby called a girl.  I knew I had a huge learning curve but I was up for the task and looked forward to the idea of matchbox cars and legos (things that I had always enjoyed as a kid).  Plus, I always got along well with guys so I would probably have a great relationship with a son.  I quickly rationalized away any sadness that I might have had over not having a girl and was absolutely madly in love when my first son came along.  I marveled at how I could have ever wanted a girl because boys were just perfect (as babies).

With my second son, I was determined that I was going to level the playing field in my house and bless my husband with the daughter he never wanted.  Before I went in for the sonogram this time, I had all my girl names picked out.  I knew, for certain, that it was a girl.  This pregnancy was so different.  I felt much worse than I had with the first one (girls are harder, of course) and I had gained much more weight (girls make you ugly, the old wive’s tales tell you).  It was absolutely impossible that I could be carrying another boy.  Despite the fact that I weighed the pros and cons of having a girl vs a boy and the pros for having a boy won out every time – no need to get new clothes or toys, keep the nursery with the same colors and theme, no wedding, no PMS, etc, etc – I was certain this was a girl and I was thrilled.  And then there it was again – that bloody penis.  As tears streamed down my cheeks, I could hear my husband silently do an end zone dance as he rejoiced in the fact that he would now be the proud dad of two sons!  His sperm had done their job and, since we knew two was our limit, he had secured the majority and our life as a fraternity with me playing the role of den mother would commence.

Nowadays, I feel a bit disconnected from all the men in my house and, as the kids get older, it gets harder and harder.  I adore my kids completely and love that they speak a secret language and have equipment that I simply have no understanding of.  It creates a whole new level of challenge to this game of parenthood.  However, on days like today when I was thinking about going to get a mani/pedi or running out to the store to buy a new pair of jeans, I really miss the fact that I do not have any players on my team.  It is hard to be the quarterback, wide receiver, lineman and punter all by myself but I guess I will appreciate it a little bit more when my kids are full-fledged teenagers and, instead of whining and telling me how much they hate me, they will just sit with their dad and watch sports and ignore me.  yay.