One of the problems with living with your parents is that you never get to visit them — unless you count when Ralph Fasanella The Primitive Artist comes over and my mother makes me eggplant parmagiana and I mention that I was out last night at Kamikaze and my father says that shows the social conscience of today’s youth, that they name nightclubs after Japanese dive-bombers. Or on Christmas, when we went to the McCluskey’s in Woodstock and played Class Struggle (the board game) and I was the Student Class and sided with the Proletariat and my father was Small Businessmen and backed the Bourgeoisie and come the Revolution, he lost and was inwardly glad.
Today my mother got locked in the bathroom — she woke me pounding on the door — and I tried to free her with her Lord & Taylor credit card and then by removing the doorknob and finally discovered she’d turned the bottom latch by mistake; she walked out, embarrassed, and kissed me. Was that a visit? I suppose.
Brooklyn, New York
Every December, people ask me if I’m going to spend the holidays with my parents. I usually say no, that my iron lung is too heavy to lug the one hundred miles to my parents’ house near Sacramento. But I know that I could arrange for an iron lung to be delivered to my parents’ house. Then why don’t I?
I know how I feel when they visit me. I’m tense, determined to please them, and afraid that I won’t. I fear that I’ll upset them or disappoint them. So? So nothing, really. Perhaps my deepest lizard brain suspects that they’ll haul me back to flat, boring Sacramento to punish me for being a Berkeley person, graced by culture and jazzed by freedom. Maybe paralyzed-from-the-neck-down people like me aren’t supposed to be dancing to the heady, heavy sounds of liberation rock. Maybe we’re supposed to be in bedrooms or nursing homes watching “Jeopardy” and “Another World” all day. “Supposed” by a decree of God. Or of my parents (I often mistake my parents for God). After all, I’ve told them that I enjoyed my more sedentary days while they were occurring. Perhaps I was lying to them. But it seemed like such a gentle, consoling lie — consoling to myself as well as to them.
Whenever they drive to Berkeley to visit me, I feel that I must pretend to be a happy, busy child when in fact I often feel like a worried, bored adult. I later wonder which one of these I really am. I end up feeling ashamed that I’m not as happy as my parents would like me to be. Then I become angry at the whole idea of happiness, thinking that it’s a crock just because my parents expect to see it in me. I feel inadequately happy and guilty about it. I wish that I didn’t have to be happy for their sakes. I wish that I could express my sadness, confusion, fear, anger, and boredom when I’m with them, but then I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I don’t suffer. And suffering seems to me to be my most shameful secret.
The last time I visited my father in Iowa City I wondered at his quietness. His wise hazel eyes seemed especially poignant — intense, quiet, loving. Were they really that way or does my memory stitch on meaning? I boarded the plane to return to Seattle, sat down in my seat and watched my father waving from behind the airport gate. He stood in his topcoat and hat surrounded by family — my stepmother, my sister, my continually jumping nephews and nieces. He was surrounded by love, yet he seemed mysteriously outside the group, even in its midst.
I was flying back to exciting Seattle, to my love life, my work, yet I found myself crying. Sitting in my comfortable window seat with tears streaming down my cheeks, I felt a mournful squeezing in my chest and throat. I wondered what was wrong with me. It was such a wonderful visit home. Everything was fine. Four months later my father was dead.
Now, of all my visits home, this one contains the pieces that I puzzle over again and again. Could I have said more to him? Could I have hugged him more, kissed his cheeks and told him in better ways how much he meant to me? Why did my eyes and my heart know things that my conscious mind left unsaid, intent upon ordinary conversation? His life and mine are fixed in time now, whatever the illusion of time may be. I cannot seem to go back, and as I go on does my Dad know my thoughts and how I regret that he is gone? All I have for an answer is the farewell scene that runs repeatedly through my mind — that, and hope.
Elmira, New York
My mother died in 1984 at the age of ninety. On the morning of her funeral, I wrote two pieces which I presented to the rabbi to read as her eulogy, because there was no way I could allow her to exit amidst generalities and platitudes. Her eulogy had to be from me, her only child, to her, a woman larger than life who never did anything halfway, who knew only intensity, who had brought me a childhood and an adulthood filled with anguish and pain, but a mother who, I finally realized that October morning, had showered me with so much anguish and pain, so much excess of emotion, so many oys and veys and wringing of hands and pulling of hair, so much tumult, that I had had no choice about what I would do with my life.
Because my mind and spirit surge with the intensity she bequeathed me, I use words to calm myself and I call myself a writer. What else could I do? On the day of her funeral, I thanked her.
In the unnatural quiet of Weinstein Brothers Funeral Home, among family and friends who had never before experienced quiet in Anna Weprainsky’s presence, Rabbi Kleinman read:
“No, Ma,” I pleaded on the telephone, “we don’t need a noodle kugel. I’m bringing the whole meal so you won’t have to do a thing. After all, it’s going to be your birthday party.”
“But,” she insisted, “are you bringing a kugel?”
I had to admit I wasn’t.
“Well, then,” she said, “I’m making one.”
For the ten days until her birthday dinner, my mother talked and worried about the kugel. She wailed and carried on, “I don’t know how I’m going to see to measure anything. You know how bad my eyes are. . . . How will I be able to lift the casserole? It’s so heavy. . . . I had a box of noodles on the shelf and now I can’t find it. . . . I forgot to order the cottage cheese. . . . How can I lift that big heavy pot? . . . I sent my neighbor to get a lemon and she brought me a lime! . . . I can’t see to set the oven temperature. . . . I should probably just forget about it, but I know how much you love noodle kugel. It doesn’t matter how sick I get making it for you.”
Every day on the phone I begged her to forget about the kugel. I offered to make it myself. But there was no way to stop her. Finally, the morning of her birthday arrived. I called to wish her a happy birthday. “We’ll be there soon,” I said. “How’s the kugel coming?”
“It’s made,” she gasped weakly. “I don’t know if I’ll have enough strength left to eat with you, though.” Here she sighed deeply. Then she went on to say, “And one kugel will definitely not be enough. I’m going to make another one.”
“Ma!” I moaned. “One will be plenty. Please don’t wear yourself out making another one.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “After all — how much trouble is it to make a noodle kugel?”
Here the mourners nodded their heads in recognition and actually laughed out loud. Then the rabbi went on to read the second part of my tribute to my mother:
When Ma was a young woman, she had the opportunity, as well as the talent, to become a member of the Yiddish theatre. However, her mother wouldn’t allow it. She said it wouldn’t be respectable for her “Annalah” to be on the stage.
So Ma obeyed. She didn’t fulfill her dream of going on the stage. Instead, she lived her life as if she were on the stage, the spotlight always focused on her, the audience in her grasp, her job to make you laugh, to make you cry, to tear your heart out.
You always knew Ma was there. She never lived in that benign, tranquil middle ground where most people spend their lives. When you were in contact with her, you were drawn to her and you felt her intensity. A visit with Ma left people drained for days as she compelled them to join her, going back and forth along the entire spectrum of human emotion. She was the unforgettable star, always center stage, memorable, forcing each of us to the outer reaches of our feelings.
It was a wonderful funeral. Act One: comedy. Act Two: pathos. I know Ma loved it.
Park Forest, Illinois
Last December, I visited my folks in the Midwest, for the first time in two years. Communications between my parents and me have always been strained, but everything was going all right until the day Mom said she was doing the laundry and asked if I had any clothes to wash. I gave her some socks and shirts and a couple of pairs of pants.
“Where’s your underwear?” she asked, probably figuring I had forgotten to bring it out.
I paused for a second — but not long enough — and said casually, “I don’t wear underwear anymore.”
“I don’t wear it anymore. You don’t really need it, and it’s uncomfortable. I do wash my pants a little more often, though.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed. She looked hurt. Then she got angry. “When did you start that?”
“About a year ago.”
I didn’t know what to say. She turned away, and didn’t talk to me the rest of the day. The next day I bought her a poinsettia, and did the dishes, and she started talking to me again.
The dramatic propensities of my parents ensure that virtually every visit home will feature at least two harrowing scenes from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or an Ingmar Bergman film, so I need to remember to view my parents as divine incarnations or just working out their karma, a very comforting truth, because in my family we seem to compete to see who suffers the most.
They lived many years haunted by an angelic-looking child in a wheelchair, existing in institutions, who has now lain in the ground under a pink and gray marble cross for fifteen years — a daughter with blonde hair and blue eyes like my father’s. I understand that’s the worst thing that can happen to parents. I saw that it was.
When I go see them now, that old tragedy hovers more prominently, conjured up by the striking frequency of deaths in our family the past two years that has left us somewhat shell-shocked. There is the wish that time disappear, so a future devoid of ourselves as a family will never arrive.
While visiting my parents my inner landscape might resemble a parched desert, a placid, frozen lake, a lovely rose garden or the ninth circle of Hell. (When I want to sense the emotional climate I look within, to ascertain the scenery.) Last time, I saw a wild, lonely stretch of moors barren in spots, ominous dark clouds billowing, culminating in furious storms of vituperation I sailed through more or less serenely for once, tuning out their tirades. I efface myself in efforts to be soothing, innocuous, invisible. Childhood patterns of coping can persist.
On her deathbed, Margaret Mead announced she’d decided the nuclear family experiment constitutes the most tragic of civilization’s mistakes.
Durham, North Carolina
Years ago, visiting the folks usually involved being a prodigal son. Although we didn’t kill any fatted calves, there was symbolic slaughter aplenty.
They always took me in with love, despite my transgressions and awkwardness. I was nonetheless wary of their intentions. There is, in every parent, that which yearns for their children to become at least what they themselves are, if not much more. Being our parents, they possess a power over us — subtle, pervasive and unconsciously wielded toward shaping us in their image — its source being the debt we owe them for our creation, our being.
In my youth I rebelled against this claim to my soul with quiet anarchy. There was much left unsaid in my family, much that was communicated through actions. As their power was wielded tacitly, so was my resistance manifested. I refused in my own way to become my parents, wanting at the same time to be loved by them.
My latest visits have been different. I am becoming more of who my parents are. I understand them more readily as I experience in my own life those same realizations that they once came to: we all rebel in order to create our own selves and in so doing affirm the parents within us. Who can deny that we are our parents’ children?
The subtle guilt-tripping from above still lingers but has lost its teeth as I repay my debt of being with filial devotion and love. I rejoice in my genetic inheritance, in those qualities of my parents that I possess, in their myriad examples, and in the promise that their lives hold for me.
Point Arena, California
My parents are both dead now. My mother was a bedroom alcoholic, and my father, whom she’d divorced, hardly saw me. I had no parents really. Now, my step-mom wants the daughter she never had. I wouldn’t mind having a mom; in any case, it’s a step. My friends’ moms and dads wouldn’t mind adopting me, especially some of my male friends’ moms. That feels good, and they are parents, but not mine. “Well, there are some good ones out there,” I remind myself as I pass the fast food places on the way to the grocery store.
My leaving home was the best thing that ever happened to my mother and me. It put to an end our tedious drama: one parent, one child, locked in mortal combat through darkest adolescence. When I finished college, my mother finally had the time and the financial means to resume a life interrupted by years of raising a child alone.
For many years after my departure, distance prevented us from visiting often. We communicated mostly through phone calls and letters. Then, two years ago, my mother decided to retire to Chapel Hill — just a little more than half an hour’s drive from where I live.
Would it be different now? Would we be able to talk? Would we be able just to deal with today’s problems today?
I spent so much time in my adolescence trying to “make my mother understand” (you have to hiss those words through gritted teeth to get the feel of it), trying to get her to acknowledge “her mistakes,” and my pain. Would she know that I no longer wanted any of that? After all, I’m fifteen years older. What I wanted then is not what I want now.
I had a counselor in college who gave me perhaps the best advice I ever had, although it infuriated me at the time.
“Forget it,” he said. “Let go. Let her be. She’s not your fantasy mother, any more than you are her fantasy son. If you have to say anything at all, just tell her that she did the very best job possible raising you.”
I was livid. What about all those betrayals? All those disappointments? All that hurt?
But, of course, he was right. Eventually, the black and white certainties of the teenage years gave way to the gray ambiguities of adult life.
Then, too, my mother had started to open up to me. Partly, it was the distance that made it possible and, partly, I was finally old enough to understand. Secrets she’d kept alone for years, burdens she’s carried without any help, were finally made known to me in those letters and phone calls. Suddenly so much made sense. Now, when we visit, I always keep that counselor’s advice in mind. I try to let her know that she did do the best job possible. I suspect we both want to make up for the pain we caused each other. We wanted to love each other in those awful years, I think, but somehow it went awry.
Now, when we visit, we treat each other with respect and affection, as any two adults would. I also get her to talk about her life — about the child she was; her parents; the young woman she was; and her hopes and dreams.
I’m grateful, when I think of the parents some of my friends have — parents who refuse to accept that their children are now adults. I’m glad I had a mother who never wanted anything except for me to grow up and get out of the house and lead my own life.
When I was younger I would have socked anyone who said I had anything in common with my mother. Now, when friends meet her, they invariably say, “I see where you get it from.” And I’m proud and pleased to be compared to her.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Mom told me she went down to New York recently, for a day of museums. Late in the afternoon, she headed back to Penn Station, as it began to rain. It left her standing on some street corner, waiting for the bus, silent in the rain. Next to her was a woman who reminded her of me. We “could have been sisters,” except this woman was darker, more with Mom’s coloring than mine. Anyway, there they stood, waiting. Finally, Mom said she was a little lost, and asked which bus she should take. The woman answered, then more silence, until Mom asked another question. I forget just what. But before long they were talking. The woman reminded Mom so much of me that she felt a tie immediately. In fact, she didn’t even have to ask, Mom knew before she ever mentioned it, Marie was a writer too.
The bus came, they got on and sat together. It seemed that they could talk of anything, and that is what they did for the next quick hour. Then it was over. They got up, said their good-byes politely, then just stood looking at each other. “Patty is so lucky to have a mother like you,” Marie said, then hugged her and kissed. Mom squeezed her back and said, “I love you.”
Then they let go and left. Next week Marie moves to L.A., takes another job, and she and Mom will never speak again. Yet I doubt that they will ever forget the meeting, in the rain, on a bus. One afternoon, for just a moment, there was love and understanding.
Now, can you tell me what that is? To meet, to touch, and then just walk away. Is it some past incarnation flitting by one last time, the tying up of loose ends? Or is it present emptiness grasping for a hold? Or is it a quiet hope, hope for all mankind, that even unknown to each other, we can love and comfort?
So often I cannot touch Mom’s life because it hurts too much. There are dreams, hopes, fears. Yet despite the need, I cannot touch. Nor does my father, really. She is the one we lean upon, and all too seldom help. Is it that Marie could comprehend and give? And what of her? And her mother? Whole lives float by in anonymity, eager hearts and hungry hearts, and all so human hearts, that I will never know — or is the greater mystery how much of them can be intuited? It all goes by unanswered, merely hinted, in a world of gray street corners, bus stops, and rain. I will never know and Mom will never finish, for Pop broke into the phone conversation impatient to move on to something meaningful.
Had I seen the latest issue of Scientific American? On the cover was the “magic cube,” a cube with sides covered by a three by three display of colored squares. Each square can be rotated so you can mix the colors. If you don’t write down the moves, in five rotations it becomes next to impossible (one chance in ten to the nineteenth power) that you can return to the starting combination. The possibilities are too great, the pathways too divergent. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen!” he said, most impressed. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was interesting.
Five steps and you can never find your way back home. Is that the way of life? Is that why Mom can meet a woman on a corner, spend an hour, find a friend, and never meet again? So unlikely, yet it happens, and I am left in awe.