Friday, December 24, 2010

Mother and Daughter: Reading Each Other's Lives

"This is not about you, Mother," I say but of course I know it is. "Didn't you see the title of this blog? I call it "her own terms" for a reason."

I had been writing this blog for over two years and for all of this time, somehow, I'd been able to keep it from my mother. After all, at a healthy and active 81 years of age, she'd managed to live her life without computers or the Internet. This, despite the fact that my sister and I had bought her a computer when her husband died six years ago, with the promise that she could be in regular contact with her grandchildren via email.

That wasn't enough of a motivation and she sold the computer along with much of the other contents of her home when she remarried and moved into the house of her new husband, a very hearty octogenarian, who is actively engaged in the world- including cyberspace -- which he visits regularly.

So I'd been writing about my life, my family, my childhood, with little concern that my mother would ever see what I'd written. Her using the Internet seemed as unlikely as her suddenly swimming or riding a bike - two things that she'd never learned how to do during her Depression era childhood.

It was at the family Hannukah party where my seventeen year old niece announced, "Aunt Marsha, I have been reading your blog and I really like it. It's very enlightening."

I was totally shocked that Sunni, a pre-med major and freshman in college would have found anything of interest in my writing. But she told me she was most interested in the pieces about teaching and writing and that were she not studying to be a doctor, her next choice for a major would have been English.

I was gratified by this conversation, happy that my niece would find something of value in my blog, but it was my mother whose ears had perked up.

"How can I read this blog?" she asked and I got a queasy feeling inside. For the past few months, I had been writing pieces about making peace with my childhood and the impact of my parents' painful divorce on the trajectory of my life. Most recently, I had written about the devastating effect my mother's brief yet harmful addiction to prescription drugs, during the period immediately following my father's abadonnment of his family for another woman had had on my life.

I had written other pieces too, more positive ones about transition and change, the life lessons I had learned from her as well as other pieces about my grandmother and great grandmother and the impact their lives have had on mine.

"Next time Irving's at his computer, ask him to type in and you'll get to it," I said.

"Why did you do that?" my husband asked later. "You know what's going to happen." And sure enough, two days after the party, the phone rang.

"How could you do that?" she screamed into the phone. "How could you shame me like that on your blog??"

I knew exactly which line in which entry she was referring to.

"It wasn't you," I said. "Did you read the whole thing? The villain in that piece was the doctor who presribed the valium to you as if it were candy."

"How can you say I didn't love you? I was doing all that I could to keep a roof over your head and food in your mouth."

"I know that," I replied. "But it doesn't change the way I experienced what was happening as a loss of love. I was eleven years old."

"You know, a psychiatrist at the time told me that you would always blame me for your loss of a father. That you would always see it as my fault," she said, softening a bit and becoming more reflective than defensive. "You're fifty eight years old, when are you going to get over it?"

"It's always been less significant to you than it is to me. For you it was a lifetime ago. He was your first husband. You've had others - good marriages and you've had a good life. But he was my father. My only one."

There was silence on the line for a bit and then I heard my mother say, "I read the other one too. The one you called Chasing a Dead Man's Story."

In that piece I had written about how I'd finally been able to see my father's refusal to tell me why he'd left as a gift that fueled my mightly need to know, my insatiable desire to get to the bottom of things and how that had helped me in my professional and personal lives.

"You know, he told me," she said.

"Told you what??"

"He told me why he left."

"He did?? When"

"Sometime before the divorce, when Arline had broken up with him, before she took him back and they got married."


"He said it wasn't me. It was him. That he just couldn't live as an imposter any more. That he was tired of trying to live up to the expectations I had of him. That he was never the man I thought he was."

"He said THAT?? Did you understand what he was telling you? Did you believe him?"

"Not at the time. I was just too hurt."

"And now?"

"Well now I realize that I could have gotten over the betrayal a whole lot faster... I could have moved on with my life. It was the poverty that destroyed me. The worry about money and survival. How I was going to take care of you three kids on my own."

"Tell me more. I need to know."

"He bragged to me about how when he went to court for the child support hearing, he wore old clothes and didn't shave so he'd look like a bum and the judge would believe he didn't have any money. And after it was over, when he'd won and had the support reduced, he laughed in my face and told me how he got his boss to pay him under the table."

There was silence on the line again, as I let her words sink in.

"That's just another thing I will never know. How could he do this to his own children?? Trick the judge. And brag about it!!!"

I couldn't get the image of my father , wearing baggy pants, and a torn flannel shirt with two days' growth and a self satisfied smirk on his face, out of my mind.

"What kind of man does this? God, I'm fifty eight and this still hurts."

"I'm sorry," she said and in that moment, something happened between mother and daughther that had never happened before.

The conversation sparked by my mother's foray into cyberspace and the story of my life on my terms lead us both to a place where we were tentatively if only momentarily on the same page.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Before I posted this, I asked my daughter Ali to read it. I wanted her to know the story but more importantly, I wanted to ask her if it seemed fair. This blog works both ways, I know. Mothers and daughters from different generations, reading each others' lives without shame - with love and understanding.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Terra Bound and the Poetics of Space

Last night in writing group, the prompt was to write a fifteen line “mirror” poem in which the first seven lines are repeated in reverse order. Here is what I wrote:

Her celestial husband is not terra bound
as he makes his home in the sky.
Each night, she climbs the stairway of trees
entering their bed of secrets in the clouds.
They do not always find themselves there.
Sometimes they bounce from sirius to cumulus,
adrift in the intimate expanse of the heavens.
Adrift in the intimate expanse of the heavens,
sometimes they bounce from sirius to cumulus.
They do not always find themselves there
entering their bed of secrets in the clouds.
Each night, she climbs the stairway of trees.
As he makes his home in the sky,
Her celestial husband is not terra bound.

I spent the entire day reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, losing myself in his meditations on the ways poets daydream through, within and beyond the spaces they inhabit.

Most intriguing to me was the distinction between metaphor and image. The metaphor, he writes, comes into being after the idea has been formulated. The poet dresses her idea in imagistic language, to enhance the concept she wants to convey.

The image presupposes nothing. It just is.

Bubbling up from the depths of the unconscious, the image arrives unheralded in moments when the poet allows the walls between her conscious and unconscious to lower so what lies beneath can be seen.

Once when I was having terrible writer’s block, I asked my friend Tobi, a painter, if she'd ever experienced a similar phenomenon. She said yes, but she’d recently developed an antidote.

She’d stand before the white canvas and ask it questions waiting patiently for the answers. She might inquire, “What would it look like if I painted a hand coming through a wall?” or “What would happen if I coiled lines of purple and green around on another right here?”

And she’d wait in wonder, while the canvas would tell her what it needed to see next or what story it needed her to tell. Then she and the canvas would engage in a reciprocal dialogue until before she knew it, she was deep inside of her own creative process, bringing images to light.

I tried the same thing recently. Just sat in front of my computer screen and asked it what it was seeing and what else it wanted to see. That’s when a stone house at the edge of the forest appeared inhabited by the woman with a stone fetus inside of her body, looking and longing for a girl named Ephemera.

The image of the celestial husband came to me while I was reading the Poetics of Space in Borders yesterday, and last night I wrote of a home in the sky with no roof and only the wind for walls enclosing a welcoming bed of soft, warm clouds sitting beneath prattling stars inhabited by two people with no bodies, only voices, singing a home of their own.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inside the Composition Book: The Stories We Tell

The summer before I entered 7th grade I wrote a book. I wrote it in one of those ubiquitous marble copy books that all American adults of a certain age will forever associate with school. But instead of writing my name, grade and subject on the appropriate box on the front cover in the spaces provided, I wrote “The Blind Love of Kirk and Ellen: A Love Story of Courage and Hope” by Marsha Rosenzweig.
If you opened the first page you would have seen a Table of Contents, the chapter titles written in ink in several different styles of handwriting. At twelve, I was shaping my identity as much as I was crafting my script, experimenting with flourishes and loops on the empty lined paper just as I would play with the thickness of black eyeliner and shades of lipstick on my blank face. Through all of the shape-shifting, there was one part of my identity that was a constant. I was a writer. Even before I had learned to write my letters, my mother told me that I would take a pencil and scrawl inscrutable symbols on whatever paper I could find, then “read” her the “stories” I had written. “The Blind Love of Kirk and Ellen” was just one of many books I wrote during my childhood and early adolescence.
Kirk and Ellen were both seventeen years old when they fell in love. They had known each other all their lives, living across the street from one another in almost identical split level semi-suburban shingle roofed homes, not a whole lot different from the one I lived in. Ellen’s bedroom, where she would talk to Kirk for hours on the telephone, hiding under the covers so her mother wouldn’t hear, was painted the same lavender color as mine and her bed spread resembled the flowered comforter I had wanted my mother to buy for me instead of the white chenille cover that didn’t provide nearly enough privacy when I would call my girlfriend Jackie on the phone and read to her by flashlight the latest chapter of my burgeoning oeuvre.
I don’t remember whether it was my idea or Jackie’s to send my manuscript to Berkeley-Highland. All of the books we owned at that time were published by Berkeley Highland Books. With authors like Rosamond du Jardin and Betty Cavannah and titles like Trish, A Date for Diane, Showboat Summer and Class Ring, these books with their signature scotch paid symbol in the upper left hand corner offered their twelve year old readers glimpses into the romance-filled world of their popular boy-crazy older sisters. What I do remember is that with Jackie’s encouragement, I bought a large envelope and lots of stamps, looked up the publisher’s address inside my copy of “A Girl Like Me” and placed my entire marble copy book inside. Along with the marble manuscript, I wrote a letter that said something like the following:

Dear Publishers:
I have been reading Berkeley Highland books for many years and I think it is about time for you to publish books for teenage girls written by teenage girls. We are better able to write about what our lives are REALLY like…. Enclosed is my book….etc.etc.
Marsha Rosenzweig, a REAL teenage girl.

Never mind that this realistic teenage novel was a love story between young adults whose love is tested when the young woman Ellen is blinded after being hit by a car and the young man Kirk tracks down the man driving the car who just so happened to have been Ellen’s estranged father who is then brought to justice, serves jail time, escapes, tries to run down Kirk who ends up paralyzed. The book ends on their wedding day as a brave Ellen pledges to be Kirk’s legs, while a courageous Kirk promises to be Ellen’s eyes forever.

Seventh grade began several weeks after I sent my novel off to be considered for publication (the first and last time I ever sent an unsolicited manuscript to anyone) and I soon forgot about my authorial aspirations, instead caught up in the exigencies of the junior high school social scene. So it came as quite a surprise when several months later, a package arrived for me from Berkeley Highland Publishing Company. I opened it hopefully until I saw the tell-tale black and white markings of my copy book attached by a paper clip to my very first rejection letter.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Vanity of Memory

Somewhere deep in my memory, there is a carved mahogany vanity.

Do they even make vanities anymore? I wonder.

The name of the furniture presupposes its use and describes one of the attributes of all of the women who’ve sat before it, gazing into beveled mirrors, rubbing their faces gently, trying to erase lines real and imagined.

There are always other vain items on a vanity: a mother of pearl comb, brush and mirror set - the comb standing erect, its teeth tucked between the brushes bristles, carefully placed next to the oval mirror always face down, showing off the beauty of the delicately carved edges and graceful handle.

And no vanity would be complete without the silver filigree tray, filled with crystal perfume atomizers of varied shapes and sizes, ready to be squeezed gently into the air by perfectly manicured fingers.

In this memory I can see my mother -- no – look again, it’s my grandmother - before her gums became diseased, her teeth rotted, her jowls sagged, before her breasts dropped to meet her navel, before she developed an allergy to dye and could no longer restore the bright red luster to the beautiful hair of her youth – before she was Bubby. Before she was old.

When I knew her, she was already Rae, but before that she was Rebecca. She had changed her name herself, Americanized it, sometime after 8th grade, which was the highest level of school she’d attended. And the only reason I know that is because I once found her 8th grade diploma while rooting through the bottom drawers of her vanity. There it was – her name in proud black calligraphy: Rebecca Feinstein.

If it’s hard for a child to imagine her mother as a girl, it is even harder to conjure the image of her grandmother, brimming with life and possibility, bouncing on the knee of a man she once lovingly called Papa, known to me only as a name on the family tree - an ancestor for whom I was named.

In this memory, I tentatively take hold of the pearl hand mirror and turn it on an angle towards the one before me atop the vanity. A line of reflections appear, starting with me and stretching back to Shirley my mother, to Rae, hers, to Fanny, hers - before history stop us cold in our tracks.

“You look just like Aunt Rae,” my mother’s cousin Jerry tells me every time he sees me.

And I wonder. What does he see in my face that looks to him like hers? No matter how we fight it, our genes will hold sway on our faces. One day, we turn towards the mirror and we’re startled to catch a glimpse of a strange version of ourselves - noses thickened, eyes down turned, chins gone slack.

I wonder what Jerry sees in my face that recalls my long deceased grandmother, his favorite aunt from his youth. She was always an old woman to me, though she must have only been in her late forties when I was a child.

Today, I am fifty-eight.

So another memory.

When I was a girl, I would sit before my Bubby’s vanity. I would try on all of her costume jewelry, brush my hair with her mother of pearl brush, and if I were sure she wouldn’t catch me, smear my face with her pancake and rim my mouth with her bright red lipstick. At age 6 or 7, I was searching for the resemblance that today I try so hard not to see.

I think I remember a photograph - maybe it was in the same drawer as Bubby’s diploma, or maybe it was in my mother’s old cedar chest, another place I would spend hours rummaging through yellowing letters, and photo albums searching for my family history, my life story.

Four generations of women: Fanny, large, grey, solid and foreboding in her broadcloth coat; Rebecca, now Rae, her hair still red, her breasts still high in her wool gabardine dress, and her teeth askew as she smiles unabashedly into the camera; Shirley, beaming with black lustrous hair and Bette Davis eyes wearing a tight-fitting white cardigan with rhinestone button, holding a round faced chubby infant in her arms.



I am nothing if not linked to these women whether I want to be or not. Their stories intertwine with mine, and at times provide the counter- narrative for the one I try to compose of my life .

That picture is gone, if it ever existed outside of my memory. I have another, this one sans Fanny, three generations, the fourth one already gone.

Sitting here, holding up the mirror to the vanity of memory, I see the lines on their faces, working their way right through the blood onto my own.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making Amends: Ringing the Bells That Still Can Ring

Amends, he wrote. Please let me make amends to you. My program requires it. The 9th step says that we must make direct amends to people we have harmed except where to do so would injure them or others.

I didn’t understand, though later I would spend hours upon hours googling AA sites learning all I could about steps, colored chips, acceptance and giving oneself over to one’s higher power.

When he wrote that he had become an alcoholic, that he had never married, never had a family, never been as successful as he had hoped he might be, I felt my heart start to burn. When he wrote that he had been well on the way to becoming that alcoholic when we were together in college, I couldn’t take my eyes off the words as they appeared on the screen. It was as if they were written in a secret code I had seen my entire life but only now, in this instant, could I decipher.

Who knew from alcoholism at 18 in 1970? Who knew that it was possible for a sweet fun loving boy to be drinking and getting high to numb himself and to keep from feeling anything – including the intense love that I felt for him – that thin wiry boy with the shaggy brown hair, dancing blue eyes and enough charisma to fill an entire dining hall. Who knew that as he lay with me on my dorm room cot atop the comforter I had brought to college from my childhood bed that he would only remember fragments of my first time - this memory blown from his head along with so many others by years of drinking and getting high.

So he asked me if he could make amends and I said yes, not knowing about dry drunks and 13th stepping and the uncanny ability alcoholics have of lying to themselves. I’m present now, he wrote. I’m whole. I’m here. Tell me our story.

I can’t say why I assented, why I went back into my memory and wrote to him about my heartbreak and humiliation any more than I could say why I looked him up on the Internet in the first place and sent that first terse and tentative message. How are you these days?

I had not been prepared for his answer.

I have a picture of you, said the latest email. I will send it to you . I cringed at the prospect and had to brace myself before opening the file. I was shocked that he even had a picture of me. I had been an ugly girl and hadn’t let many photographs be taken. I was terrified to see that pathetic image again – the one I had worked so hard my entire adult life to transform.

When the email came, I shook as I opened the attachment then quickly turned away from the computer without looking. Slowly I worked up the courage to glance back at the screen and there, in an instant, saw before me the image of myself at 18 – the soft curly black hair framing a heart shaped face – the glowing white skin with pink cheeks, the deep black eyes and pink lips bowed into a tentative smile.

I wanted to embrace this young girl who hadn’t even realized what the doctors had done to her mother. Didn’t know it because back then in the 60’s who knew of addiction to prescription drugs, the kind the doctors kept writing for her after my father betrayed and abandonned her, the kind that numbed her and made her emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, and completely incapable of loving anyone while under the influence, especially her ugly, angry and difficult daughter.

So when I was 18, barely out of my unstable childhood, I went seeking a lover I could love with fierce desperation - one who couldn’t love me back.

All of those years, I’d seen my younger self as totally unlovable and unworthy of anyone’s affections, rejected by my first lover who eventually made his way into the beds of so many of the other girls in my dorm.

It wasn’t you, he wrote. It was me. I wasn’t capable of loving anyone at that time in my life. You were standing in the light and I was standing in the darkness.

Ah, I breathed, rereading his emails, holding myself tight and loving for the first time the girl in the photograph.

When I finally saw him in person, months later, after nearly forty years, he took both of my hands in his, looked me straight in the eye and said two words I had been wanting to hear from so many people my entire life.

I’m sorry.

That’s what he said. Followed by,

I’m sorry I hurt you.

In that instant, I felt something shift inside of me.

Leonard Cohen sings, “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

It wasn't until much later that I realized how hard that was for him -- how much courage it took to reach out to me in this way. But he must have known the impact it would have on me and I will always be grateful to him for taking that step.

His simple but heartfelt apology opened up a tiny fissure in the thick defenses I had erected around my bruised and broken heart for nearly fifty years - a wall I had plastered with anger, and fortified with self righteousness and regret.

And with the sliver of light coming through the crack serving as my guide, I saw all of the possibilities for healing, love and forgiveness that could be mine.