I’d been on the infertility merry-go-round for years. My doctor still couldn’t determine the cause. Rounds of pills and shots had brought no results. I was tired, but other would-be mothers had gone through so much more than I had and had achieved their dreams of having their own baby. I had to quit whining and press on.
One day my mother called, and I relayed my latest tale of woe while attempting to sound hopeful. I wanted to give up on the treatments, but I would not acknowledge it. I’d invested too much time, energy, and money.
“You know, honey,” my mother said gently, “it’s OK to stop.”
Really? Wasn’t that quitting? What if the next time was to be the time? What about all those success stories I’d heard and read about?
But I did stop. I canceled an upcoming procedure. My husband and I gave up on the dream.
A year later I gave birth to a beautiful girl. She is now twelve, and I can’t imagine life being any other way. My mother, with those few simple words, had given me permission to do what I was unable to do by myself.
My husband, Mark, arrived home from work late one evening complaining of an intense headache. Thinking it was a migraine, he went to bed and waited for it to subside. He was up and down all night with nausea and severe pain. In the early hours of the morning, on the way to the bathroom, he fell to the floor, his face slack and his speech slurred.
A neurologist in the emergency room diagnosed a stroke: a blood clot had come loose and lodged in Mark’s brain. The news was a shock, as he had recently received a glowing report on his annual physical and had no risk factors for stroke. The prognosis: he would live but would be confined to a wheelchair.
His mental faculties intact, Mark cracked jokes and answered the neurological test questions with his usual sarcastic wit. The nurse wouldn’t allow him to drink from a straw, for fear he might choke; he could only suck on a small sponge dipped in water. But when the nurse left the room, Mark whispered that he was thirsty and asked me to get him a 7Up. I said I couldn’t; it wasn’t allowed. He gave me a crooked grin and said, “Be a rebel.”
Two days later Mark was dead at the age of forty-six from a brain hemorrhage. Left to raise two daughters on my own, I have often felt uncertain and overwhelmed. So many decisions. So much responsibility. Mark’s advice to “be a rebel” frequently comes to mind. In my heart I know there isn’t any other way to be.
When my daughter Sydney was in first grade, we took a trip to California to visit my family. While we were there, she lost a tooth. She ran into the kitchen to show me and asked if the tooth fairy could fly this far.
My mom shot me a look of concern and later suggested that, by indulging such fantasies, I was teaching my child not to trust adults. Wasn’t Sydney going to feel betrayed when she found out the truth?
I pointed out that my mother hadn’t seemed to have a problem with the tooth fairy while I was growing up.
The next time Sydney lost a tooth, she fidgeted with excitement as I put her to bed.
“How does the tooth fairy get in?” she asked.
Through the window, I explained.
“Shouldn’t we unlock it, then?”
“I’ll do that right before I go to bed,” I replied.
“Why does the tooth fairy want everybody’s teeth?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and considered my mother’s advice. Sydney would soon figure out the truth anyway. So I told my inquisitive seven-year-old that, in fact, I was the tooth fairy.
She cried, hard. I apologized and explained that she was getting to an age at which it was more important for me to be honest with her than to play imaginary games. We cuddled for a while, and she stopped crying.
She had one last question.
“What do you wear?”
The night before my big church wedding, my aunt and I shared a room in my parents’ home. Aunt Buddy was Mom’s older sister by twelve years. At family gatherings Buddy and I would prepare meals and clean up together, maybe talk about sports or TV shows, but we never shared anything too personal.
After the lights were out, Aunt Buddy wished me good night from the opposite side of the room, and then, in a voice made gravelly by years of smoking, she asked, “Is there anything you’d like to ask me about now that you’ll be a married woman?”
“Not really,” I replied with confidence. At the age of twenty-one I felt quite worldly and couldn’t imagine what advice my elderly aunt might have to offer me. I was a spirited product of the 1960s; she had come of age in the 1920s.
As we rose on my wedding day, Aunt Buddy casually offered me a box — a gift, she said, something she didn’t need anymore. I opened it and found an electric vibrator with a ribbed rubber attachment. I thanked her and tucked it in my suitcase.
It wasn’t until several years later, after I’d read The Art of Loving and The Joy of Sex, that I learned to appreciate the gift my aunt had given me. Maybe I should’ve accepted her offer of advice too.
“Start with quality,” my father-in-law’s friend, who was head of a bank, told my husband and me. He wouldn’t consider giving us a loan to buy the small, ramshackle house we wanted. He advised us to keep looking.
But that house was all we could afford. With a toddler in tow and me pregnant with twins, we were anxious to find a place. So we borrowed from family and friends, took cash advances on our credit cards, and bought the house.
We lived there until the twins were almost two. Plastic covered the windows in winter, and pieces of the asbestos ceiling occasionally dropped onto the worn carpet. The cribs blocked the front door, so we used the back. We celebrated holidays and birthdays, ate lovely meals with friends, planted fruit trees, built a swing set, hosted visitors from out of town (who slept wherever they could find floor space), and watched our three children crawl and toddle and skip and dance to the background noise of the traffic outside. My father-in-law’s friend had been wrong. We had started with quality.
I was twenty-six, the mother of a cherubic toddler, and in the early stages of an unpleasant divorce. With only a handful of community-college credits and a spotty job history, I had no idea how I would support myself and my son. A friend held me while I sobbed.
“You should go back to school,” she said, passing me a tissue.
I couldn’t, I told her. It would be hard enough trying to work full time and to find affordable child care.
“Take it slow,” she suggested. “Just one class a semester.”
At that rate, I protested, I’d be forty before I got a degree.
“Honey,” she said, handing me another tissue, “you’re going to be forty anyway. The question is: What do you want to be doing when you’re forty?”
I got my master’s degree in 1993, one month before my fortieth birthday. I’ve been teaching ever since.
Every day at the welfare department where I worked, there would be at least one urgent referral of a woman in imminent danger, usually with children. There could be no turning away these women, no suggesting counseling, no leisurely drawn-up plan for gathering financial resources. There was never any time.
Into my office they would come, bearing scars and bruises, barely able to meet my eyes. Most of these women had tried to leave their abusers on their own but had been coaxed or dragged back again and again, often with the threat of losing their children. Restraining orders had proved useless, police intervention only a temporary fix.
My advice to them was always the same: “Get out. It’s only going to get worse.”
If they agreed to leave, I would make it happen immediately. Time and again I smuggled women and their children out the back to our employee parking lot while their abusive partners sat fuming in the lobby. I drove these clients to the police station, where they were met by staff from the women’s shelter, the first stop on a journey that would often carry them out of state. At their final destination these women would receive counseling, job training, and child care. It was like an underground railroad.
Months later I’d sometimes receive a phone call from a grateful client, now living far away in an undisclosed location. She’d tell me how her life had changed and thank me for setting it all in motion.
I’d tell her it was the least a fellow survivor of domestic abuse could do.
Santa Rosa, California
For my eleventh birthday my mother gave me a green-vinyl autograph book. In it she’d written:
If wisdom’s way you wisely seek, Five things observe with care, Of whom you speak, to whom you speak, And how and when and where.
She must have sensed even then that my mouth was going to get me into trouble.
I have spent a lifetime speaking without first putting my brain in gear. I have unwittingly made comments that were broadcast across a conference room, engaged in side conversations that were heard over the phone, cursed too loudly in social situations, and generally lived with my mouth wide open.
Six months after she was diagnosed with leukemia, when I was fifty, my mother became profoundly deaf. We communicated with a white board on which I printed questions with a purple felt-tip pen:
The last thing she ever said to me, as I leaned in to put the drops on her tongue, was “I wish I could hear your voice.”
My great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in the early 1900s. My great-grandfather George worked in a neighborhood bakery while my great-grandmother Jalela cleaned houses and sewed for affluent families. George died of a heart attack in his late forties and left his uneducated wife to raise five children in Beaumont, Texas. Jalela, affectionately known as “Titi,” was illiterate and spoke a mixture of broken English and Arabic. My mom described her as a strong-willed spitfire who would smoke unfiltered cigarettes like candy and curse to make a sailor blush.
When I was small, my family spent holidays and summer breaks at Titi’s house, where the art of Lebanese cooking was passed down to the younger generations. At the age of four I’d sit under the window at the back of her kitchen, sunlight pouring over me, and watch as the women prepared meals.
I liked to play with the meat grinder on the wooden table. Titi carefully pressed raw meat in the top and turned the handle, and out came long pink spaghetti strands on the other end. She’d mix the meat with cracked wheat and pine nuts and place it in a pan to be cut into squares and baked, but she always saved some of the uncooked meat for me to dip in drawn butter and eat raw. As I licked the butter off my lips and fingers, feeling full and satisfied, she’d laugh and throw her hands into the air, saying, “Bless you!” in Arabic.
Years after Titi’s death, I was visiting my grandmother over summer break from college. I asked how Titi had fed the family as a single mother during the Great Depression.
“One day at a time,” she replied.
I would not understand the full meaning of this response until decades later. Now, as I approach midlife, I often wake in the morning holding her words in my mind, a guide to get me through my day.
When my interest in baseball was supplanted by an interest in girls, I discovered that my sisters were an invaluable source of advice about the opposite sex.
One evening I confessed to my sisters that I had a crush on a girl named Barbara. They suggested I call her up and ask her out, but I couldn’t afford to take her on a date; all I had was a dollar. (This was Brooklyn in 1962.) My sisters insisted that a dollar was enough. Here’s what they told me to do:
Invite Barbara to go on a Sunday-afternoon walk in Prospect Park (free). Put her on the carousel and wave at her as she circled around (twenty cents). Buy her a helium-filled balloon (twenty cents). Treat her and myself to a Coca-Cola at the soda fountain on the way back to her apartment (ten cents each). This would leave thirty cents for the round-trip subway fare to her home in Park Slope and ten cents to make an emergency phone call, if necessary.
I was skeptical that anyone but my sisters would consider this a real date, but they said it was precisely what any girl would want. I made the phone call while they gestured encouragingly.
My sisters were right. When Barbara and I got back to her family’s apartment, she invited me in. We snuck past her grandmother, who was watching a baseball game on TV, and we ended up making out in the next room to the sound of Ralph Kiner announcing yet another loss for the New York Mets.
When I was pregnant, the sheer volume of information on prenatal health was overwhelming. There were so many “experts,” all claiming to know what I should and shouldn’t be eating, how much and in what way I should be exercising, and even which position I should assume to sleep.
I found myself thinking: What did women do before the Internet and magazines existed? Couldn’t a reasonably intelligent person be trusted to handle being pregnant without anyone’s help?
One day I overheard a pregnant woman talking about another mother’s advice to trust her own instincts. Brilliant, I thought. From that point on I would rest when I felt tired, eat when I was hungry, and stop doing anything that caused me serious discomfort.
My daughter turned out just fine, and I continue to follow that advice as I decide when to stop nursing, when to start potty training, or what to offer her to eat. The more I do it, the easier it becomes, and the less I feel that everyone but me has it all figured out.
“Never leave in a hurry,” my older brother told me. Whenever he left in a hurry, he explained, he’d always forget something: his gloves, his checkbook.
The notion probably came from family vacations when we were children. Each time we left town, our father would drive slowly around the block while we all thought about what we might have forgotten. As we came back by the house, someone would always run in to grab a swimsuit or let the cat out.
At our family cabin I was usually the first one in the car when it was time to go home on Sunday afternoon. Once, however, when I was ten, I stayed behind to help my mother pack while the others went ahead to the car. The record player was on, and I set the needle down on an Andy Williams album to play my favorite song, “A Fool Never Learns.” I proceeded to dance around the room. To my surprise Mom dropped what she was doing, and we hopped and spun together, just the two of us, laughing and singing, all because I hadn’t been in a hurry to get home.
That advice has proved useful to me as a photojournalist. I make it a practice to linger awhile after an interview and chat about the news of the day. Many times, by staying a few extra minutes, I get that golden quote or click off a candid shot that ends up being the best.
When I was growing up, my parents often gave me advice, and I often ignored it. For example, they told me not to follow the crowd if my friends were doing something dangerous or foolish. Actually I was usually the fool who went first and suffered all sorts of injuries. I have fallen out of more trees, jumped from more roofs, and perpetrated more pranks than most.
In school I was told almost daily that if I didn’t bring up my grades, I wouldn’t be able to go to college. Today I’m the only person in my family without a degree.
But there’s one piece of advice I did take: Before we were married, Gladys and I flew from Texas to California so she could meet my parents. At the end of our one-week visit my father took me aside and said, “Don’t ever come back without that woman.”
We’ve been together for forty-three years.
Margie had a cocaine problem and spent her bathroom breaks masturbating. Angela was a pathological liar with six DUIs. Shae had done time in jail for dealing methamphetamines. I was an oncology nurse who drank from morning till night and impersonated doctors. But in my mind I was better than the rest of the residents at the halfway house.
I judged them all, right down to their cuticles: Sluts. Fuckups. Lunatics. But I needed to get along with these women if I wanted to get out of this facility as soon as possible. So instead of fighting with them, I gave them advice.
I recommended Margie consider yoga or martial arts as a healthier outlet for her energy. I advised Angela to take her sleeping pill earlier so we wouldn’t have to shake her awake every morning. I told Shae she ought to start a résumé to impress her probation officer after she landed a job at an ice-cream shop.
One Monday morning the counselor held me out in the hall before group. I wasn’t going to make it if I didn’t stop trying to control things, she said.
I blinked at her.
“You are a patient here, not a nurse, and you have nothing to offer these women but the truth about who you are.”
What the fuck is she talking about? I thought.
She gave me instructions about what I was to say in group that day to begin undoing the damage I’d been causing. Then she opened the door.
We sat in a circle to introduce ourselves. When it was my turn, I said, “My name’s Deborah. I’m an addict and an alcoholic.” I swallowed. The counselor stared at me, waiting. “And I give bad advice.”
Asheville, North Carolina
When my son was four, he asked me why white boys didn’t have to like brown boys — repeating something a child had told him at day care.
Being a white woman married to a black man, I had experienced plenty of prejudice over the years, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I guess I had known it would happen, but I hadn’t thought it would be so soon.
That evening I wrote an e-mail to the host of a radio show, explaining the situation and suggesting it as an on-air topic. The following day, while driving to work, I tuned in to his radio show, and he was replying to my e-mail.
The radio host said that my son would encounter racism throughout his life, and I would not be able to shield him from it. My task as a parent was to love him unconditionally and to teach him never to apologize for who he is and never to hate anyone.
I’ve followed that advice for nine years, and it has served both my son and me well.
New Hempstead, New York
My father was a microbiology professor and one of the original back-to-the-land pioneers in the seventies. He was also a Republican, although he always voted for Democratic presidential candidates. In addition to teaching, he farmed eighty acres to help put us through college. One of his goals was to pay as little in taxes as possible. He raised his own beef cattle and vegetables and told us that, short of pushing old people off cliffs, he was for any possible means of population control. He made me learn Spanish instead of French because, he said, Spanish-speakers would be about 50 percent of the U.S. population by the time I grew up. (People in rural North Carolina got a good laugh out of my BA in Spanish back in 1984.)
My father also made us learn to type because he foresaw that we would all have to use computers — not something many people could imagine before the Internet. We wrote on scrap paper to save trees. He was concerned about the then-new greenhouse-effect theory and advocated using less fossil fuel.
When I went off to college, my father advised me to get a canned ham and eat off it for a week. The only advice he gave my sister when she struck out on her own was to be sure always to save rags because you never know when you might need one. That was it. But that was all the advice we needed. We had already seen how he lived.
Asheville, North Carolina
My pragmatic Chinese-immigrant parents told my brother and me from the time we were young that we had only two career options: doctor or engineer.
In high school I loved writing, drawing, and martial arts, but I never considered them to be legitimate pursuits, much less career choices. My parents dismissed them. “You can’t eat them or wear them,” they would say. “Don’t waste your time on useless things!” Despite my guilt I practiced my hobbies in secret, saving bus fares and lunch money to pay for lessons.
As my parents wished, I majored in chemistry at a top-tier university and eventually became a dentist, but I always felt alienated from my more ambitious classmates and colleagues.
Even my becoming a dentist didn’t satisfy my parents entirely. In the next episode of their script I was supposed to find a successful — and traditional Chinese — husband, buy a suburban mansion next to the mall, and have them over to play with the grandkids.
After graduation from dental school, however, I moved into a hippie co-op, and my disagreements with my parents escalated. When I started working at a community clinic, my mother said: “You help the poor? But you are poor yourself!” She accused me of “turning the elbows toward the outside” — a Chinese expression meaning to treat strangers better than one’s own family.
After many heated arguments I distanced myself from my parents. We have been at “cold war” for almost six years. All of my non-Chinese friends support my decision, but I feel estranged from my cultural roots. Over the past several years I have relied on my old hobby of writing to clear my mind and help me formulate thoughts and ideas. I still support myself as a dentist — my parents weren’t totally wrong — but I’ve continued providing care for the poor. I have worked for the Inupiat people in Alaska and spent a year volunteering in Guatemala’s Mayan villages.
This year I’ve enrolled in an undergraduate Asian American–literature class, where a majority of the students are at least a dozen years younger than I am. One day the gray-haired professor, a Chinese American, recounted his own conflict between his parents’ wishes and his own desires. Then he told a story of a friend who’d dropped out of medical school to be a writer and activist but now, in his sixties, scrambles to find odd jobs. “He could have become a doctor and a writer,” the professor said. The two professions didn’t have to be at odds.
Suddenly I was aware of how much my professor looked like my father, and I had the urge to hug him. I wished I had heard such advice when I was my classmates’ age.
San Francisco, California
My Yiddish mama had an expression: A nar redt a sach. (“A fool talks a lot.”)
I’ve always had trouble following her advice. The more anxious I feel at a job interview or in an unfamiliar situation, the more words fall from my tongue. Even as I notice the pained looks on the faces of my listeners, I continue my compulsive chatter. My husband’s granddaughter remembers me as the “lady who talks a lot.”
When the teaching profession looked less and less like what I’d expected it to be, I blamed the deans or the atmosphere at the school. Then I asked one of my sixteen-year-old English students what was wrong with my class. Without a moment’s hesitation he told me that I talked too much and never relaxed. “All we want is someone to listen,” he said. “Our teachers don’t. The principal and the vice-principal don’t. Our parents don’t. You think you could try it with us?”
“I’ll do my best,” I replied, and I did. I spoke less in most classes, and we all laughed more.
But I forgot this advice when I signed on to intern as a clinical pastoral chaplain more than a decade later. Reverend O., a black Presbyterian preacher from Mississippi, supervised the other interns and me. At our sessions we read transcripts of our conversations with patients. Soon after I’d started to read mine, he stopped me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, startled.
“I don’t wish to be vulgar, but . . .” The reverend hesitated.
“Shut up and listen!”
The other chaplain interns laughed. My cheeks burned.
I was in the patient’s room for only half an hour, max, Reverend O. said, and maybe just once. How could I get to know him or her if I preached a sermon?
I fell silent. What could I say? I had heard it all before, but still I’d slid back into my comfort zone of words, words, words. Like an alcoholic who can relapse at any time, I need to remain vigilant. I need to remember, one day at a time, to shut up and listen.
In graduate school I became depressed. I had just suffered a breakup and had gone off my medication. One night after class I began sobbing and decided I wanted to drop out of the program because I was stupid, old (I was thirty-three), and miserable.
I walked down the hallway to talk to the counseling program director, Maria, an intellectual, motherly Latina whose support for her students was palpable. Maria suggested I talk to her husband, Denny, a foul-mouthed chain smoker who resembled Santa Claus. He was a part-time lecturer and intimidated the hell out of me, but he seemed to have a rapport with many students and was known to be an excellent counselor. So I called him and set up a meeting.
Denny was quiet as he answered the door and led me to the room of his house where we’d talk. He sat across from me, sighed heavily, and stared for what felt like hours. Finally he said he didn’t want any bullshit: if I was honest with him, he’d be honest with me. Though he was brusque, I could tell that he cared. My previous therapists had all had chilly, professional demeanors. Denny’s gritty authenticity put me at ease, and I revealed years of insecurity, anger, and self-hatred. We set up a standing appointment every Thursday.
At our second meeting Denny pointed out that I was an expert at lying to myself.
Lying to myself? I thought. I was getting a master’s degree in counseling. How could I be a person who lied to herself?
After I told Denny that I drank to feel less insecure, he asked why alcohol appealed so much to me. Though I often drank to the point of blacking out and losing friends, I saw it as recreation and told him so.
Denny’s advice was simple: I needed to quit drinking so I could stop lying to myself.
When the school year ended, I thanked Denny for the free counseling. All he said was “Pass it on when you’re in the same position.”
Denny died of cancer two years ago. Even though I am on Prozac and can rarely cry, I sobbed at his memorial.
I still drink. I am drinking as I write this. I did not become a counselor, either; I am a flight attendant, an occupation where alcohol dependence is rampant.
I wish I had taken Denny’s advice.
I was thirty years old, a single mother with one daughter and one dog. I had survived a three-year relationship with an alcoholic and had reached a time in my life when I felt like a full-fledged adult, ready to make major decisions about my future.
I chose to move from Virginia to the mountains of Colorado. Hired for a year as a temporary teacher, I rented a house in town and learned to cross-country ski and to drive on snowy roads. The harsh winds whipped off the Continental Divide, and my electricity went out because mice chewed on the wires, but I loved my new life and was ecstatic to receive a contract to become a regular teacher on the tenure track. I decided to take all the money out of my retirement account and buy property outside of town, someplace I could build my own house and live for the rest of my life.
The first piece of property the realtor showed me was perfect: five acres with aspen groves, towering ponderosa pines, huge outcroppings of granite, a good well, and a southern exposure that looked across a valley to more mountains. I bought it. A friend who was an architecture student promised to design and help me build my house.
My mother visited that summer. She looked at the blueprints and said that I should rethink the design: there were too many stairs. Four flights, to be exact. I listened politely and continued with my plans.
Forty years later the house still stands, a spectacular beauty. It receives passive solar heat through huge windows that overlook the valley. With its vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, spiraling wooden staircase, and generous decks, it is like a home from a magazine. But I have had hip and knee replacements. With all the stairs, I am forced now to move out.
I wish I had listened to my mother’s words all those years ago. She was not trying to control me; she was pointing out that my house would not accommodate an older woman. I wonder what other good advice of hers I have ignored.
My adopted son was a charismatic, successful child up until the age of twelve. I adored him so much that I failed to recognize the early signs of trouble: playing with matches, cutting the tails off lizards and fish. I thought he would outgrow the lying, the explosive outbursts, the secretiveness. I was his mother, and I loved him.
By the time my son turned fourteen, he’d accumulated many arrests, brought tattooed older delinquents into my house, and bragged about his drug use and ability to outwit the cops. His father and I hired therapists, sent him to drug-rehab programs, and revised our parenting strategies, but our son laughed at our interventions and proclaimed, “I am what I am, and you can’t change me.”
By eighteen he’d spent time in an adult correctional facility and was a flagrant drug addict. Everyone I knew gave me advice. Some told me I’d done my job as a parent; he was an adult now, and I needed to let him go and break this dysfunctional pattern. Others said that if he were their child, they’d do anything they could to save him. My second husband said my son would never grow up as long as Mommy and Daddy kept rescuing him, but my son’s father insisted we couldn’t give up. My rational mind knew that what I was doing was insane, unhelpful, and destined to fail: my son didn’t want to be saved. But my heart knew that I would die for him. He was my beautiful baby boy and always would be.
All this diametrically opposed advice left me paralyzed. Anytime I began to lean toward one solution, I feared it was the wrong one and went the other way. Nothing I did felt right.
My son went to prison twice and was in and out of more drug-rehab programs than I can recall. He died at the age of thirty from a drug overdose.
I wanted to breast-feed my daughter, but I encountered every possible obstacle: I was not a natural. Her mouth was “too small.” The hospital’s lactation consultant was on sabbatical. The nurses were busy with a sudden rush of births.
My baby lost a lot of weight, and the doctor recommended formula. Then my newborn developed “nipple confusion”: she tried to use the bottle-feeding technique on the breast. I bought shields to counteract it. I brought her to my breast-feeding class. I endured the indignity of constant pumping, though I did not produce much milk. I met almost daily with her pediatrician, who was also a lactation consultant. I corrected my technique, and my daughter’s, but she continued to struggle and to prefer the bottle.
Concerned about my stress levels, the pediatrician asked, “Can I give you permission to stop?”
I was floored. Here was a woman who knew all the benefits of breast-feeding, suggesting I give my baby formula. “All you need to do is love her,” she said.
I continued to pump milk for my daughter, but I gave up on breast-feeding. When she was two months old, my production dwindled, and I quit pumping entirely.
“Love her” turned out to be the best parenting advice I received.
My boyfriend, B., has brought me to meet his parents. They are older, having had children in their forties. In some ways they’re old-fashioned too. What strikes me most is how demanding and obstinate my boyfriend’s father is. Thank God B. is nothing like his dad.
B.’s mother is a virtual slave in the kitchen. She doesn’t enjoy cooking, but she puts three hot meals on the table every day and toils alone at the sink long after her sons and husband have retired to the “family” room to watch football on TV. I stay in the kitchen to help her. When she goes to ask her husband a question, he snaps his fingers angrily and points to the television. His meaning is clear: no distractions while the TV is on. He also snaps his fingers at the dog, who drops flat to the floor, his head down. He knows when to be quiet, too.
In the privacy of the bedroom, I break down sobbing at what I have witnessed. I expect B. to comfort me, but he is angry: How dare I judge them! They are happy with their life and too old to change anyway. I should stop crying.
I spend the rest of the visit with B.’s mother, preparing meals, working in the garden, walking to the library, picking fruit in the orchard, and discussing politics and relationships. She is an amazing woman. I discover that she has often worked two jobs and sometimes been the sole supporter of her family, borne the brunt of child-rearing and housekeeping, been politically active, started book clubs, organized the Friends of the Library, and single-handedly maintained their social relationships.
I also come to see that she has an equanimity about her marriage that to me would feel like resignation. For her it is simple acceptance of reality: He won’t change. He has his limitations. Let him live with his illusions.
B. and I get married, and I continue to believe that he is nothing like his father — until our son is born. Then I watch in astonishment as the laid-back, carefree hippie I loved turns into a tense, authoritarian father and a harsh, controlling husband.
As we move toward divorce, I remember the advice my mother gave me ten years before I met B.: “One day, when you get serious enough about a guy to consider marriage, make sure you take a close look at his parents when he brings you home to meet them. The way his father treats his mother — that’ll be your future staring you in the face.”
The plane lifted off from New York’s JFK airport bound for London. It was September 1969, and I quietly cried as I watched the city skyline disappear. My family was moving to London because of my father’s new job. I was fifteen years old and couldn’t find anything positive about leaving my best friends for a place where it would take almost two weeks to receive a letter from the States. Even the thought of being in the land of the Beatles didn’t lift my spirits.
My father, who was seated next to me on the plane, leaned over and tried to comfort me by listing everything I had to look forward to on this new adventure. He ended by saying, “Never look back.”
It wasn’t until I was older that I understood why my father had given me this advice. In 1939, when he was only thirteen, my father had been forced to leave Germany for England. He was the youngest son of a prominent Jewish family in Hamburg, and his older brother had escaped to England the year before. My dad left behind a father in prison and a mother trying to find her own way out of the country. By that age he had already witnessed acts of unspeakable violence and humiliation.
Eventually his parents were able to flee Germany, and the family was reunited in New York City. A few years later my father returned to Europe wearing the uniform of an American soldier. When he came home from the war, he married my mother and built himself a new life. His past haunted him more than he would admit, so he focused on the future. To look back was to remember, and that would be too painful.
I thought of my father’s advice many times over the years: as I moved from England to France, then to St. Louis for college, and then to Boston, San Francisco, and now Vermont. Each time I started over, I realized that, although I share my father’s optimism about the future, I also embrace my past: my wedding day, receiving my doctorate, being diagnosed with cancer and recovering from it. Those experiences made me who I am today.
At my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary I gave a speech in which I reminded them of the many events that had brought them joy and love and even sorrow. I told my father that I couldn’t agree with his advice to “never look back,” because it implied that none of these experiences mattered. This time the tears were streaming down his face.