She’s a character I know well. So do my readers, from my own stories and TV sitcoms. She’s the typical Jewish Mother who adores her son (The Anointed One), takes on the world’s burdens and worries. She calls Irving at the worst possible times and always for the most noble of reasons. She wants only that Irv be happy, meet a Nice Jewish Girl, live happily ever after and grow grand children that visit her on weekends.
Well, guess what.
In Irv’s Odyssey, Irv strayed from accepting his anointed birthright, marrying a nice Jewish girl and making babies. That’s pretty much how my life went as well. But I did find happiness, a best-friend-forever wife, a lifestyle sans kids, and many reasons for optimistic tomorrows. And through the years that bridged the gap from my teens to almost now, I related to Mom as the Jewish Have-you-eaten? Are you working? Protector I described in my stories. As the dutiful first born, I told Mom what she wanted to hear because doing so created a sense of order in her life.
At least that’s what I thought.
Why else would she rewrite our family dramas with excuses that excused the inexcusable? My mother’s version of home, which included my aunts, uncles and cousins, was one of love, harmony and something very Jewishy-special; something a non-Jew would never understand nor emulate. We were the Chosen People, the Bearers of Chicken Soup, Mazel Tov and Bar Mitzvahs. We were characters in Isaac Bashevas Singer novellas. And so was I…until…Mary Kay nudged some “light” inside me.
I was her graduation project for Shaman School.
Humm… I jumped ahead.
Let’s return to the early seventies when I was living alone in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. I got a call one morning from Mom. “Irv, your father and I were talking. Did you ever feel neglected? Your sister and your father’s business demanded so much of our attention, but you never asked for it. We were wondering if you grew up feeling abandoned.”
“Oh, no, Mom, not at all. I never minded doing stuff alone. I knew you loved me.”
That’s what I had always felt…and thought…until a week later when I woke up out of a dream of rage, trembling with hatred, my pillow wet from sleeping tears. My parents had in fact, set me drift in a sea of aloneness and I had pretended it never happened, suppressing contempt, anger, and childhood pain. I never realized it until I got that call from Mom. And staring at the ceiling, it occurred to me, if I didn’t let this bubbled up loathing go, I would scald my heart forever.
To kill the fire, I had to break out of my role as the obedient son. I had to stop feeding Mom’s fragile fantasies and lead her back to the real world. Her lovey-dovy family story was a mask for sibling envy, old grudges and ruthless competition. My aunts and uncles were always warring. My cousins were nowhere in my world, or each other’s. And Mom and Dad fought a lot.
Then there was me, a Visitor pretending to be part of it all. How was I going to tell Mom I didn’t want to marry a nice Jewish girl, that I didn’t even want to be Jewish, that I had no allegiance to a culture that separated people more than it brought them together, at least for me.
How was I going to break the news that they did abandon me, emotionally and psychologically? How I could I tell them that? Would I break hearts? Would I cause pain? SHOULD I cause pain? Did they deserve it?
They tried their best to give me a safe and secure home. They fed me, housed me, clothed me, educated me and gave me the freedom to THINK THE WAY I DID! Why would I want to tell them they alienated me, that they taught me to trust no one, or anything for that matter? (As a child, if you can’t trust your parents to be close when you need them, whom CAN you trust?)
Could I tell them the truth? No, I couldn’t. So I didn’t, for many years.
And then Dad started his trip toward senility. And my sister was falling into her own distressed hole pulling away from Mom, Dad and me. This meant, that when my parents could no longer fend for themselves, that job would fall into my hands. If that care came from obligation rather than love, it would damage us all.
So about ten years ago, when my parents planned a short stay with us in California, I told my wife I was going to confront my parents about my feelings, starting with Dad. I would tell him that he found little value in me as a child, as a boy, even as a teenager, that the time we spent together was minimal, and that his estrangement hurt…a lot.
What did I want from this admission? Just a few words from Dad: “I’m sorry, son. I had a lot going in my life back then. But I loved you.”
That would have given me closure. A simple acknowledgment would have restarted the clock with a new Dad and a new me.
But my father was not about apologies. He responded with stern advice. “Irv, you’re unhappy and delusional. You need psychiatric help.”
I grew angry. He grew angry. And then he said I wasn’t grateful for all he had given me, and he reminded me that his dad had never given him anything and that he had sacrificed so much to provide me with a start in life. Yet I had become a thankless son.
That little talk was one of the most disappointing confrontations I’ve ever had. My resentment of Dad deepened. And so I gave up any future attempts for connection, even with Mom. Subsequently, I also gave up needing to love them.
My wife was sad about this. So was I. I tried to forgive them. I could not. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t.
Then, three years ago, another houseguest changed my life.
Mary Kay stayed with us overnight. She was a friend we hadn’t seen since 2007, when she lost her ability to talk and moved out of town. That’s right. Mary Kay crashed in a nervous breakdown, and like a stroke victim, she changed and could barely articulate her thoughts. No brain damage was found, but she spent two years looking for medical solutions. Money was no object. MK traveled to every major medical Center in the US. Still, not a single brain impairment was detected.
So what was blocked? And what was doing the blocking?
Mary Kay sunk deeper into despair, until she found the answer and cure within the healing powers of a shaman living outside Nashville. The dis-ease was ethereal, not physical. And after three bell-shaking, feather-waving, incent-burning sessions, MK’s voice returned.
Mary Kay’s story fascinated me. She had been a successful corporate businesswoman, amassing wealth, but along with it, overwhelming responsibility. And that’s what did her in; too much, too fast. When she broke free of that life and got her speech back, she decided to become a shamanic healer herself. She enrolled with the Four Winds Society and took classes. I was a practice client before her graduation, and even as a student, she magically helped to break away all that negative emotion I had accumulate since…birth.
Birth? It started at birth? This I didn’t know, until my mother opened her heart to me this past year.
After Mary Kay’s help, with my resentments dropped, I was now able to show Mom my box of secrets and let her open it. I confessed my aversion to Judaism, conventional morality, drug laws, my sister’s behavior, Dad’s rejection, and those motherly stories she wove to make the world a better place. I told Mom I would no longer pretend to agree with her if I didn’t, and I admitted that her weekly calls all these years bugged the hell out of me because many times there was nothing relevant to talk about and I accepted those conversations out of duty, not out of interest. That kind of dishonesty, on my part, I could no longer accept, and I didn’t think she wanted it either.
She listened, she thought, and she answered in ways I did not expect. She was ready to change, she said. She wanted to change. She said she loved me and she apologized for falling below the mom I needed her to be. She then opened her own box of secrets and gave them to me one by one.
“You were not a planned baby,” she said. “We couldn’t afford you, and emotionally we weren’t equipped to be your parents.”
When I arrived, she continued, I was squeezed into their life. Dad was starting a business and Mom became my only caretaker, Dad’s secretary, AND my grandfather’s secretary. My dad was working for his dad. No one was happy.
Eighteen months later, Mom collapsed in mental exhaustion, spending seven days in the hospital. I was given to my grandmother. Four weeks later, when Mom felt she could again change my diapers and feed me, I refused to leave my grandmother’s arms. Back in my own crib, I cried and cried and cried. Eventually I slept through the nights and by the age of two and a half, they sent me to daycare so Mom could return to work. There I learned to live without them, accept my situation and bury the hurt.
Mom wept when she told me that story, admitting she has been trying to right the wrong all these year by calling me week after week and writing letters. In college, I got them daily.
Wow. This revelation explained everything. How did I feel about it? Relieved and validated. Dad was wrong. I was not delusional. And Mom was not a controlling Jewish Mother.
Mom and me, we had finally exchanged the truth. Now trust could build, perhaps even a friendship. I’d have to get to know more about her, of course. And she would have accept the real me as well.
Did I want that kind of relationship?
Yeah, I did.
We talk about everything now, and I’ve gotten to know my mother as other’s perceive her. She never had an easy life, but she never complained. If Mom reshaped negatives into false positives, that was her way of coping. She recognized what she could control, what she couldn’t, and what her conscience would not allow – like leaving Dad. Had she, he would have crumbled. So she stayed at home to steer our ship, disguised as the glass-is-half-full wife/mother.
Behind all of Dad’s blustery demands and the loss of his jobs, it was Mom who kept us afloat by taking on more work for more income while minding my father’s All-About-Me shrinking mentality. She did all this, uttering not one word about it, to me or my sister. She was Mom. At the time that’s all we needed to know.
Dad is now senile, Mom is his cook, nurse and chauffeur. He’s ninety-three. She’s ninety-one, yet still handles all home chores and finances. She’s also a mentor, local hero and role model of her community. Nobody says “no” to my Mom so she’s the go-to lady for fund raising and advice. Her friends adore her and she has many.
Some of this I knew. Most of it I didn’t.
My mom is cool.
I never did get that honest break-through with Dad. But in my mind I have made peace with him. Not for who he is, but for whom he wanted to be. I now understand his failures, disappointments and disgrace. He wanted respect. In his own mind he never achieved it, or the big bucks and power that went with it. Poor guy. He hated every day he struggled to get it.
As an adult and author of characters, I now accept his condition. I tell him I love him, because that makes him happy. It’s such a simple thing to do. Maybe I do love him. He deserves it.
How well do you know your parents? Are they real people, or characters in your life’s story?