Updated: Apr 30, 2019
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Tolstoy; Anna Karenina
Family: Oxford English Dictionary: A group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit.
Not a useful concept for us psychological orphans. While later definitions broaden to include variations on the primal unit, like single parent families, there’s lots left out. And as gender identity becomes more nuanced, leading to as yet unrealized possibilities for human closeness, the conventional notion of family exhibits its meagreness even more.
In addition, for some of us the word ‘family’ is loaded with near overwhelming associations, many of them crazy-making.
My crooked life’s journey in pursuit of elusive wholeness began with the ongoing attempt to escape my family of origin, those who brought me into the world with, I assume, the best of intentions.h Actually, they didn’t have intentions. In those days, and until relatively recently, when you married, you produced children. Period. You didn’t think about what it meant to have children, how you would rear them, pay for them, guide them--let alone psychologically what they would do to you and you to them.
So in the early nineteen forties in Orange, New Jersey, my thirty-two year old mother Florence and twenty-seven year old father Max did what was expected: they produced two children. They were not young when they had us, certainly by the standards of that time. And it was not easy, constrained as they were by the demands of their parents, upon whom they relied for material support. Emotional support was in short to no supply.
Their marriage was arranged by my grandparents who met at a Jewish resort in the Poconos, each lamenting the unmarried status of one of their offspring. Pressure was brought to bear on two people whose emotional fragility might have made it far more sensible for each to forswear if not matrimony, at least child bearing. My father, I was unintentionally informed by an aunt, had been married once before. I speculate the childless union ended when his partner discovered his depression, often debilitating.
My mother, the middle child, was sandwiched between older brother Carl and ten years younger sister, Truda. Carl was awarded pride of place, a position often accompanying the status of being eldest child, comma, male. Truda was the bright-eyed baby, indulged and adored. Mother Florence picked up the pieces of a family business needing an extra pair of hands. In my grandparents’ small New Jersey inn, she helped the housekeeper polish silver, set tables, prepare rooms for guests. All this done under the commanding presence of her mother, Anna, whose steely resolve and domineering temperament made it unwise for anyone to cross her.
My mother never did challenge her, living much of her life under the weight of this unyielding matriarch, born in Russia and part of the early twentieth century’s Jewish emigration to America. Anna’s husband, my beloved grandfather David, was a benign figure, spending his days reading the Talmud. I still remember him with love and my grandmother with fear. But looking at all of this from my strong womanist position over seventy years later, I wonder how he managed to let her do most of the work while he studied and kept aloof from the business of the inn.
My father finished grade eight, and made his living as a labourer. My mother, a secondary school graduate, was a bookkeeper. When I was six, the inn was sold and we moved to south Florida.There we all lived in a house with my maternal grandparents, where Anna’s controlling presence made itself felt daily. My mother kept books for small businesses, writing numbers neatly on ruled sheets. My father unloaded trucks, chopped vegetables in the overheated kitchens of small restaurants, delivered furniture. They all lived and died in that house. I left for university and didn’t look back.
A writer’s memory is both a blessing and a curse. However inaccurate, memories of my early struggles feel like yesterday. Now there’s an urgency to put things in place, the wind no longer at my ageing back but in front of me.
Almost everything has changed since childhood and early adulthood-and way beyond that now. I’ve found enduring new families--more than one, for I have collected new families of one sort or another ever since I fled my early one. They helped make me whole. But my origins remain vivid. I look back over a wide chasm at mother father grandparents. Their imprint remains strong. I no longer wish to run away from them; harder, though, is loving them. Now I understand their agonies, I seek a more compassionate heart with which to honour my long-dead forebears.
I’ve come to believe nature plays a dominant role to nurture. The conviction comes from my struggle to be a different person leading a fuller life than my ancestors. I’ve worked hard breaking out of restricted places; progress has ensued. But I cannot escape the genetic lottery. I see a line of domineering women stretching back in time. There’s my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother’s youngest sister and myself. My mother, alas, couldn’t compete in the strong female category. Her frustration came out in anger, continuous jabbing at her husband and eldest daughter--me.
Unlike mother, I occupy a place in the strong female category, a perch often challenging-- to myself and others. I’ve forsworn trying to be the appealing ‘girl next door’ or the friendly grandmother who hands out cookies and smiles kindly upon noisy, messy children. I’m desperate to be liked and put out endless energy to engage others (using intellect and charm, not beauty). But if I have to choose between being liked and being opinionated, between being served or being heard, between being pretty or being strong--I choose the second option every time.
To the memory of my parents, I give a wistful salute, a begrudging thanks, a lingering, never-to-be-completed good-bye.
Rose Levinson, April 2019