Tag Archives: family

Short fiction – Burying the past

The sun was hot and I was sweating. The velvet chair cover against my bare thighs felt strange, like wet dog. The Rabbi finished herding the guests into a semi-circle behind the chairs, which were reserved for family, and began to speak. The gist of it was that we were all invited to help bury the deceased. I’d been to Jewish funerals before so I knew the drill; we’d file by and toss some dirt onto the coffin. According to this Rabbi, though, it was “…customary to put in three shovelfuls and to turn the shovel upside down for the first one.”

How did you shovel upside down? Did you hold the shovel end and balance a bit of dirt on the handle? I tried to picture that and instead flashed on the first and only time I’d seen Deborah doing drugs. She’d forgotten to lock her bedroom door and I opened it just as she used her very long pinkie nail to scoop up some powder, bring it to her nose, and inhale. I was too young at the time to fully understand what I was seeing, but there was no mistaking what she did next. She put her index finger up to her lips to indicate that I wasn’t to say anything. Then she narrowed her eyes, pointed at me, and slowly drew that same finger across her throat. That I understood. I was only six, but I knew what she was capable of.

That was a lifetime ago. I’m forty now. Deborah had just turned fifty. My parents were quite young when they had her; it was a shot-gun wedding. You would think, with a ten year separation between us, that I had been a mistake, and you would be right. That was never one of the family’s secrets, nor was the fact that Deborah was their favorite. I glanced to my right. My mother had her head on my father’s shoulder; his arm wrapped around her. I couldn’t hear her crying, but I could see my father’s arm moving up and down as her shoulders shook. He sat stoically, staring at the Rabbi, with tears streaming down his face. I flicked a fly off my skirt, unmoved.

Deborah’s drug problems consumed the family. They chipped away at us until there was no family left. Even after she moved out, ostensibly to go to college, she absorbed everyone’s attention. Her absence was as large as her physical presence. In and out of rehab she bounced, ruining lives along the way. During one rehab intermission she lived with my grandmother in Rockaway. When she left, all of Grandma’s jewelry went with her. She stole from everyone and sometimes when she wasn’t in rehab she was in jail.

The Rabbi touched my father on the shoulder and gestured toward the grave. My father stood up and pulled my mother with him, propping her up as they walked the few feet to the mound of dirt next to the hole in the ground. My father let go of my mother long enough to take the shovel, turn the rounded side up, and stick it into the pile of dirt. Now that I saw how it was done I felt foolish. I may even have blushed a bit in my secret shame. My father handed the shovel to my mother and she flinched as if she’d been burned.

“I can’t,” she moaned. “I can’t.” And then, just loud enough for the family in front to hear, she whispered, “I can’t bury my favorite child.”

My throat tightened, as if there were an obstruction that made it impossible for me to take a breath. I stood up, peeled my skirt from my legs, and did what I should have done many years earlier. I walked away.

A writer’s responsibility

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, once said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Quoting a Nobel laureate makes me sound terribly erudite, doesn’t it? The truth is, I’d never heard of Czeslaw Milosz until I read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. Shteyngart used that quote in his book and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since.

It’s certainly true that we writers often use our families for material, if only because we draw on our experiences, many of which, particularly from our formative years, are inextricably entwined with theirs. If we borrow physical aspects or behavioral characteristics from a family member, the average reader will never know, but the borrow-ee will. Nervous family members may even find resemblances where none were intended.

In my blog, I often write explicitly about my family, making no attempt to hide a subject’s identity. I try not to “out” anyone’s secrets, or get too close to a subject that I think will upset someone, although it happened once. I wrote a post that hurt someone’s feelings and I was chastened, even though it wasn’t intentional and certainly not done with malice. I think if you’re going to claim as Milosz did, that the family is finished, the writer’s intent should be considered before guilt is assessed.

As a writer, I am intrigued by the feeling of power the quote gives me. As a reader, it is the phrase, the family is finished, that tugs at my heart. It sparked this thought: When a family member leaves, the family as you know it is finished. Since my first blog post in January, 2010, I’ve been remarkably restrained when it comes to writing about my estranged sister. A search of my posts confirms that not only have I never mentioned her by name, but this is the first time I’ve used the word estranged. When I read Milosz’ quote, the writer in me got tangled up with the child in me. I always thought that if I wrote about my absent sister I would be blamed for upsetting the family. And the fear of that has always been stronger than my urge to use her as material. But I’m over that.

In the earlier years, my sister was estranged from everyone in the family—except me. In deference to my other sister’s feelings, the absent sister was not spoken of at family gatherings; she was effectively “disappeared.” I was desperately unhappy with that decision, but no one seemed to care. That period was very painful for me, even when I, too, eventually became persona non grata.

My sister’s withdrawal from the family changed all of us. Her absence even had an impact on those who had not yet been born when she left. In her absence, the family reinvented itself. We are smaller, but no longer diminished. It’s been almost eighteen years since I last spoke to her, and I no longer want to. My heart was broken, but it has healed. I’m not interested in a rapprochement.

As a writer, I’m grateful for the material she left me with. Perhaps it’s true that, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” but my original family, the family I knew as a child, was not finished off by this writer.

Ho, Ho, Harrumph

Have you heard this one before? Her birthday is on Christmas, and she’s Jewish!

Since the season is upon us, I thought I’d share a little rant about what a drag a Christmas birthday can be. In case you haven’t guessed, I know from experience. Yup, I’m what the world refers to as a Christmas baby. Whenever I need to supply my birth date, the response is, “Oh, a Christmas baby!” Then, with barely a pause, the person will add, “You must get screwed on presents.” (Really, they say, “You must get gypped,” but that is not politically correct, and I wouldn’t want to offend anyone, especially not in a post that is partly about my taking offense.)

“I’m Jewish,” I used to say huffily. “I don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“But,” they would always say, eager to help, “you don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas,” (which, by the way, is not something a Jew would ever say).

I’ve reached the age where I’m no longer offended. Nowadays, after the expected reaction, I’m likely to mumble something like, “Oh yeah,” or, “You bet,” so we can move on gracefully.

What I haven’t outgrown is how lonely I can feel on my birthday, even though my husband goes out of his way to try to make the day special for me. The problem is that he can’t make the rest of the world not celebrate Christmas. Stores aren’t open, most restaurants are closed. I understand; people want to be with their families. But it is a little sad that on my special day, everyone else is otherwise occupied.

My little family usually spends the evening of my birthday with my parents and my sister’s family. They come over for dinner and we order Chinese food. My mother brings my favorite cake from the Royal Pastry Shop in Lexington. (The cake part is nothing special, but the frosting is to die for, creamy with a slightly crusty layer on the top. It’s pure sugar, delicious.) There was one year, when I was around ten, that we didn’t get back from a ski trip on time for my mother to pick up the cake from the bakery before it closed for the holiday. There was no joy in mudville that year.

And I don’t recall ever having a birthday party as a child. My little friends were busy eating their figgy pudding and breaking their new toys. To be fair, I don’t recall my siblings having birthday parties either so maybe the day on which I was born had nothing to do with it, but it sure didn’t help.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, my final complaint has to do with presents. I hate it when someone gives me a present and says, “This is for your birthday and Christmas.” It makes it painfully clear that if I did celebrate Christmas, when it came to getting presents I’d be screwed.

Just because you’re paranoid…

I got in the car this morning to drive my daughter to the bus, and pushed the button that turns on the Prius. Nothing happened. I looked at the dashboard and saw that the only light that had appeared was a small key icon with a line through it. That didn’t do it for me. I said, without expecting an answer, “What gives?” And my fourteen-year-old daughter, who does not drive, replied, “Do you have your purse?”

The Prius has what’s called a ‘keyless entry’; you carry a fob that communicates with the car and as long as it’s in the vicinity of the ignition you’re good to go. The fob lives in a zipped pocket in my purse. I never leave the house without my purse. My purse was in the house.

Last week, I was working out with my trainer, and he demonstrated something he wanted me to do. Then he went to get a floor mat and I immediately forgot the specifics of what he had shown me fifteen seconds earlier.

I recently read a book called Still Alice, about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s. The protagonist was about my age, but much more accomplished, a professor at Harvard (which underscored how much she had to lose compared to the rest of us). Literary criticism aside, I found the book disturbing, primarily because now I have something else to worry about.

I’ve had a bad memory all my life. I inherited it from my mother, who, by the way, is still sharp as the proverbial tack. I always make lists of things to do so I’ll remember to do them. If I run to the store for a couple of things without writing down what I need, I’ll recite a list of the items all the way there so I won’t forget. I always knew this behavior indicated a somewhat compulsive nature, but I didn’t think it foreshadowed Alzheimer’s.

Since reading Still Alice, that’s all I think about. I fantasize about what life would be like for my husband and daughter if I did have that disease. I wonder if I’d have the courage, not to mention the wherewithal, to check out before it became too problematical for all of us. When these thoughts get overwhelming, I chastise myself for being maudlin and melodramatic. I remind myself that there’s no family history of Alzheimer’s, and the likelihood that I will fall prey to it is slim. Then I remember the old chestnut, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, and I start to worry all over again.

Shop ’til you drop, or not

I am hardly what you’d call a conspicuous consumer. It’s not surprising given that I have little tolerance for shopping. I walk into a department store and immediately feel overwhelmed. I’m instantly reminded of all the things I’ve been meaning to replace; elderly, shapeless sweaters, my worn-out purse, the leather jacket with the tear in the shoulder. And then there are the things I think I’d enjoy; some kind of makeup that would make me feel, if not look, younger, gloves that are warm and stylish, a party dress (and a party to wear it to). If, however, I stop to look at something other than what I came in for, I use up some of my limited supply of shopping energy, which I need in order to execute the intended purpose of the trip.

Despite the fact that I lack a ‘shopping-for-pleasure’ gene, I don’t deprive myself. I splurge on all sorts of things. Why just yesterday, I threw out the bar of soap in my shower because it had gotten too small. Someone else might have been able to wring a dozen or more showers out of it, but that didn’t deter me. I like a bar of soap with some heft to it.

I splurged at the supermarket today. I bought a bag of baby carrots. After turning up my nose at carrots for most of my life, I discovered that it’s not carrots I dislike, it’s carrot preparation. Per pound, I’d undoubtedly pay less for a bunch of unpeeled carrots, but then I’d never eat them. So now I buy baby carrots. You know the ones, they’re pre-peeled and can be eaten without guilt by the fistful. Nor do I any longer wash and tear lettuce. Whoever invented pre-washed bags of mixed greens should be awarded some sort of prize. Life is too short to spend any of it managing lettuce consumption.

Much of my splurging is done on food. Since I’m typically in charge of feeding my little family, I’m responsible for many of our takeout meals. Andrew lives for Friday night when he can eat pizza, but Hannah’s not a big pizza fan, so I try to give her equal time with Chinese or Thai food. Then there are the days when I’ve spent too long doing, I’m not sure exactly what, and run out of time for food preparation. And if I haven’t gotten to the supermarket, and there’s nothing in the refrigerator to eat, can you really call takeout splurging, or is it a necessity?

Sometimes I buy things online. (If you’re not doing it where someone can see, does that make you an inconspicuous consumer?) For instance, I always buy the book my bookclub is reading (next up is Little Bee, by Chris Cleave). I like the tangible evidence of how long we’ve been together as a group, almost twenty years now. I’d prefer to buy those books locally, but every time I turn around another local bookstore has disappeared. If I promise to splurge on books more than soap, or carrots, or lettuce, do you suppose I can lure a bookstore back to the neighborhood?

Here’s an idea, someone should open a bookstore that also sells soap, vegetables and clothes. But then there’d be too much variety, and when I walked in I’d just get tired and have to walk right out again. I have to stop now; I’m exhausted.

Everyone’s a little bit snobby

I’m just back from a vacation in Lake Placid with my husband’s entire family. The weather was wonderful and the hiking was fun. And while I’m sure my mother-in-law is waiting with bated breath to see what I’ll write about the week, I’ve decided that what happens in Lake Placid, stays in Lake Placid. There was, however, one interesting discussion that bears further exploration; the difference between being a snob, and an elitist. We did not reach consensus (or perhaps we did, and I can’t recall it because I was besotted, thanks to a 1983 Chateau d’Yquem Sauterne with which we were toasting our gathering). Strangely, though there were half a dozen iPhones in the group, and as many laptops, at the time, no one thought to look up the meanings of those words.

According to my trusty paperback edition of The Merriam Webster Dictionary (circa 1994) a snob is, “one who seeks association with persons of higher social position and looks down on those considered inferior,” and elite means, “the choice part; a superior group” (and “a typewriter type providing 12 characters to the inch,” which has no bearing on the discussion, but I’ve thrown it in to see if you’re paying attention). It seems clear from those definitions that if one feels no pressing need to associate with those higher up the class food chain, then they may well be the elite, which does not, however, preclude them from looking down on those they consider inferior, hence they are also snobs.

I embrace the philosophy originally espoused by Groucho Marx (though often incorrectly attributed to Woody Allen) that I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. I guess that makes me a snob. But then, I maintain that we are all snobs; we all look down on those we consider inferior to us. If we consider them inferior, then we must, by definition, be looking down on them.

One of my favorite modern musicals, Avenue Q, has a song called, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. I encourage you to read the lyrics for yourself, as a quote taken out of context here might cause a flap, but the point I’m making is, it might just as well be called, Everyone’s A Little Bit Snobby.

There’s no doubt that the word snob has horrible connotations. Most people accused of being a snob would probably object strenuously, while glancing around to make sure no one overheard the accusation. Instead, maybe we should just embrace our inner snobs and comfort them with the knowledge that there’s always someone who is snobbier than we are, thereby making us look positively well-adjusted.

Fleeting beauty

My husband and I visit with family in southern Vermont frequently throughout the year, and that’s where we were for Memorial Day weekend. The house has an extensive garden and it was blooming like crazy with purple and pink flowers that I’d never seen before. “Those are beautiful,” I said. “Did you plant them this year?” The answer was no, the lupins (which is what they turned out to be) had been blooming at this same time of year, every year, for many years.

How could we have missed them, I thought? We’ve seen the garden in bloom before, many, many times. I realized that we must not have visited in late May or early June which is, apparently, when the lupin are in bloom. Every year this beautiful display happens, and depending on the family’s various schedules, there are some years when no one sees it.

I understand the fleeting beauty of flowers. My own house has a wisteria vine that runs the length of our front porch, trained along a metal rod that was hung for just that purpose. For a couple of weeks in May, when the wisteria is in full bloom, I feel like I live in a chateau in the Loire Valley. The bright yellow forsythia bushes that border our property seem to bloom and disappear within days. They come and go so fast that some years I doubt that I saw them at all. And our apple tree, old and tired and broken down as it is, still manages to produce flowers every other year, presaging the small crop of apples that I’ll have to pick up before mowing in the late summer.

Also in bloom at the house in Vermont, but with some evidence that their days were already numbered, were the lilac bushes. They were alive with so much activity that I was content to watch, inhaling their perfume, for long stretches at a time. The most colorful visitors were the yellow and black monarch butterflies. They would land with their wings spread open and stick a long thin proboscis down the lilac, pull it out covered with yellow pollen, and immediately poke it into the next flower. One of the butterflies was missing half of its left wing, and yet it didn’t seem deterred. It performed just as the others did, and flew off when it was done. Later we saw another butterfly missing half of the opposite wing. It must be a dangerous business, being a butterfly.

Before we left Vermont I stood in the yard where I could smell the lilacs and admire the lupins at the same time. The sun was perfect, just warm enough to warrant the shorts and tank top I was wearing, but not so warm as to risk driving me back inside. For a few moments I was in my idea of heaven. I wondered how I could keep that feeling with me; the sights, the sounds, the smells.

Maybe if I try very hard, I’ll be able to find something fleeting to appreciate every day, and in that way, I’ll be able to keep the spirit of that feeling alive. After all, flowers are not the only things with short seasons; in the grand scheme of things, ours are short as well.