Saturday, November 10, 2012

800 Words: Dreams from My Mother (Parts 3 and 4)

Every family has its black sheep. Sometimes the moniker is deserved, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes that designation is self-appointed, sometimes it’s a shared sentiment. Sometimes the sheep is only black in relative terms, sometimes the contrast to the white sheep is truly, depressingly clear. Sometimes it’s preventable, sometimes it’s stupid, sometimes it’s inevitable, sometimes becoming one is the right thing to do.

A family is, by its definition, an affirmation of order. And within every family dwells levels of chaos which those who don’t live within their family cannot fathom. Nevertheless, by continuing to live as a family, all the members within it swear to one another a solemn vow that they will navigate life’s most turbulent rapids together.

But no child has a choice of whether or not to agree to such a vow, their oath is taken simply by being born. No child asks to be born into it’s family. And therefore, if the family is a responsible one, it is inevitably expected that the children will renew the vow they were conscripted into making as babies. After a childhood and adolescence worth of care from parents, it is expected of the children that they will administer the same level of care and responsibility to their own children, and if necessary, to their parents and siblings as well.

It’s not an unreasonable request. But what if this newly minted adult is unwilling to fulfill this pay-it-forward obligation, or what if the parents discover that he or she’s simply incapable of doing so?

Inevitably, when the time comes to renew their vow of family alliance in adulthood, there is a sense of deep betrayal and heartbreak if the newly mature child does not elect to remain part of the family. Sometimes the children escape passively by moving away or not returning phonecalls and emails... or letters in a time not so long ago; sometimes the children actively refuse to speak to their parents. In any of these cases, the sense of betrayal which most parents feel at such a decision is overwhelming. Indeed, the potential volatility in the battle for independence between parents and children can be so explosive there’s often scarcely less sense of betrayal if matured children want to remain part of the family while rejecting the fundamental tenets of their upbringing - or even some of the tenets while upholding others.

Every disagreement between parent and child is a war of attrition that - assuming the child outlives the parent - inevitably ends in the triumph of the child; who then goes on to lose his own war of attrition with his children. Every responsible parent is a custodian of his and her children’s burdens until the child proves himself ready to assume them. But how children decide to assume those burdens is entirely up to them.


The circumstances under which my parents met in 1969 are kind of hilariously morbid. They met each other while sitting at the same table at a ceremonial dinner at Baltimore Hebrew University honoring worldwide venerated Holocaust survivor and writer Ellie Wiesel. I like to picture their initial spark of love flowing as Ellie Wiesel was reading some particularly grim and dry passage about the work detail in Auschwitz.

It couldn’t have been too long before my father realized that he’d found a rare girl who had an enormous amount in common with him. They both spoke Yiddish and Hebrew (and French, and German...), were both tremendously interested in politics and history and literature and music and movies, could laugh at the same jokes, and had a serious (though not too serious) commitment to preserving Judaism for the future.

And yet, as in all relationships, there were clear night-and-day differences between them. Dad was the first generation of his family raised American, and maintained (maintains) an immigrant’s skepticism about the customs of the old world. In the sixty-five years since his family left Poland, he’s refused to make a return visit to Bransk or Bialystok or any other part of the country which birthed him in an era during which it killed so many other Jewish babies - including his sister. And yet, sixty-five years later, he still sees America (perhaps rightly) as most first-generation immigrants do: a morally weak, spoiled nation, obsessed with selfishness and consumerism, spending beyond its means, and driven insane both by privilege and in reaction to other people’s privileges. He came to America at the age of one, and at age sixty-six still looks at America with immigrant eyes. His younger brother Gerald (a pseudonym), was born a year after the Ticoczki’s (Tucker’s) arrival in America, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a child of immigrants who embraces an American identity more easily. Gerald is chief of medicine at one of Baltimore’s best hospitals, suavely projecting the consummate professional image with an easy manner which only those truly comfortable in their own skin can manage. He’s now sixty-four, and been happily married for forty-three years and already has four grandchildren. He has two twin sons who’ve become successful lawyers and a third son who’s a journalist for the Associated Press, all of whom seem happily married themselves. America was built for people like Gerald. Dad is, intentionally, anything but suave, and, like his father, has done about as well as any greenhorn immigrant could in a country he never understood. Gerald is routinely cited as one of Baltimore’s best doctors, whereas Dad tried to make it as an academic, but quickly learned that academia held little promise of a decent career, and abandoned it to take over the family business. Gerald married his college sweetheart who went on to have a distinguished medical career in her own right, whereas Mom was tremendously unhappy in her government job and abandoned it at the first opportunity to become a stay-at-home full-time Mom. Gerald sent his children to general private schooling, whereas Mom and Dad sent us to parochial Jewish schools and raised us all to speak Hebrew (and me to speak Yiddish... quite badly). It seems likely at the moment that all three of us children will inherit his rather nebulous business interests as a career. None of us are married yet, and at least two of us didn’t do very well in school and seem to have difficulty getting to the long-term relationship flagpole. For some lucky families, America became very nearly a paradise. For the majority, it’s a country just like any other.

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