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February 2013

Posts from January 2013

A Small Family

Both of my daughters are here, and later in the week my mother will come down from New York for a few days, which means that my whole family will be together. Four women, three generations: a family, not as much modern as realistic.

The men are missing. My father has passed away. My boyfriend is gone, somewhere. My ex-husband is gone, somewhere. My brother is where he always is, in his house that is 30 minutes from where we grew up, with his wife and two children; he seems incapable of expanding his active compassion to more people.

So it is the four of us.

My older daughter is visiting for a week; last month she graduated from an LA-area college with a BA in English and next month she is headed to Vienna to study German and possibly stay there permanently. She will be going with her boyfriend, who, since he is much older, I refer to as her man-friend. In August my younger daughter will be going to college, probably in Colorado. My mother is in the process of selling the apartment in New York where I grew up and moving year-round to Florida.

There will be a dispersal of us women, but not a disintegration. It saddens me that my family doesn’t fill my dining room table when we sit round it for a meal. It saddens me that I couldn’t give my daughters the boisterous family full of close cousins and aunts and uncles that I had dreamed of for myself, but didn’t get, and so had hoped to create for my children. It did not come to pass. It is we four.

A cousin of mine recently adopted a baby, but she never notified me. Another cousin did, which is good that at least one person has a sense of keeping a link alive, but that is all it is, a tenuous, very occasional email link.

The sister of the cousin who adopted the baby tried to friend me on Facebook about a year ago. Since I don’t use Facebook, I contacted her via email, hopeful about reconnecting a childhood friendship. It turned out that she just wanted me to be a Facebook friend/number and possible client of her artwork.

My ex-husband’s two sisters are not in touch with my daughters; it seems that they decided that since their brother is not around, they have no hold or responsibility toward his part of the family.

But while I might feel inadequate about this paucity, my younger daughter gave me her decidedly different perspective. She had gone to a friend’s grandparent’s house for Christmas dinner. Round the table were relatives who her friend only sees at the annual holiday meals, but they felt it incumbent upon themselves to tell her what to study in college, what college to go to, and what to do with her life. There was arguing and interference, and my daughter was appalled; “I’m glad we have a small family” was her reaction.

I looked at her, stunned, that she wouldn’t want something that I thought would be so integral to her desires and that she was endorsing her life—which is what I give to her. It’s hard sometimes—okay, always—to separate your desires and perception of their needs from your child’s, and it’s hard, too, to learn from your children. But that was a good lesson. The grass over here is the grass she knows, and that is comforting to a child. They want—at least at the fundamental level—what they have, because the unknown is frightening.

So the next time I have family-envy, I need to remember that the four of us sitting round the table means a bigger piece of pie and talking time for each of us. 


Young-Womanicide

How much can a society violate its young women?

How much can a society free its young men of blame for violating its young women?

Is it an equation: a woman sacrificed for a man?

Is this our version of female abortion or infanticide—young-womanicide?

Are we standing before a pyre, with flames that are stoked through the clearest of skies by the twisted and the seemingly-sane?

If these men—and their enablers and supporters and bystanders—violate all that once was held sacred and we let them, then what are we?

How can I not hate these people who are so arrogant as to think that sons are better than daughters; that the despicable actions of boys are of greater worth than a single tear/tear of a girl’s?

Are there any mirrors to look into that don’t cloud over with shame and anger, and regret?

Who let these boys and men enter our public places as beasts?

How is it that their excuses and blaming drown out voices of remorse and sorrow and repugnance?

Go for a walk run jog. Attend a party play concert. Wear pants shorts skirt. Fear of being raped should not accompany every woman every day everywhere forever. 


Defensive Mothers and Innocent Sons

The world has always been as we know it now: violent, cruel, inequitable, and ceaselessly pressing upon us. Has there ever been a moment of Garden of Edenesque tranquility, except in individuals at moments of supreme joy? Why is there always a battle for supremacy—in everything—rather than a field of wildflowers stretching beyond the horizon? It’s stultifying to acknowledge that this is how the world is meant to be; it’s also stultifying to think that this is how it will be past time imagined.

Is the reason for this pre-evolutionary way of being to be found in a simple explanation, or at least a logical explanation albeit with an, as yet, unknown way of resolving it?

 

Every year since I started teaching about ten years ago, there has always been one problematic student. That student has always been a boy. This is the student who would not take directions from me; not only would he not listen to me, but he seemed determined to undermine my authority and take it for himself. That student was often of African or African-American descent or Muslim, though not always, last year’s bad boy was white. I am a 51-year-old white Jewish woman. In the past I have commented, part jokingly, that those students had a hard time accepting a woman’s authority—dominance—over them. I’m not joking any more.

When the student would disrupt class, I would send him out to the hall for a one-on-one talk with me, and then, after the next time and the next time, I’d have his counselor speak to him, and his assistant principal, and I’d meet with the parents (though more often than not it was only with the mother). But rarely was there lasting change.

At the beginning of the school year I have my ninth grade students write an essay about someone they know well. In my second year of teaching, one student, as many do, wrote his essay about his mother. Generally, these essays exalt, with a tiny critique, the mother. Not this boy. His perception of his mother, as it came out in his essay, was very condescending. That perception of his mother seemed to carry over to how he treated me.

Two years ago the mother of the student I couldn’t manage or teach asked why I was failing her son (as in putting in the grade book the Fs he earned). This was during a conference with him, his mother, his assistant principal, his guidance counselor, and me. Everything that I said to her in explanation of adhering to my grading policy (which is based on school policy) was irrelevant to her, since she only saw me as undermining her son. Never mind, apparently, that her son didn’t do his work and what he did do was of poor quality, and that he came late to class, and cursed me in class. Never mind, she implied, for surely I was trying to deny his essence with my insistence that he adhere to my rules, which did not accommodate him.

Last year’s problem son suffered, apparently, from me being too hard on him. You know, expecting him to be quiet in class and not talk back.

I haven’t yet figured out or been told what this year’s problem son’s issue is. Perhaps it relates to his coming to class without a pencil and not paying attention. It was when I was speaking to his mother recently that I realized that herein lies the problem of mankind—yes, mankind: the mothers of these problem boys are always defensive of them. The boys are never at fault: it’s always either the teacher, or the system, or a diagnosis.

This light bulbish moment came to me less than a month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. There was so much talk about how the murderer’s mother had tried to do her best for her son. She looked for the right schools and the right programs and, it seems—from so far outside of their truth—that she ended up helping him create his own cocoon.

Are these mothers who protect their sons against the impositions of the world helping them or hurting them, and, consequently, hurting all of us by setting upon the world men who are boys—boys who think they are above reproach. Once among us, instead of being sheltered by their mothers, they are the storms from which we need protection. They have been sheltered for so long that their interactions and reactions are off-kilter, but only if you aren’t looking at the world from the prism of their own eyes.  

I wonder if the mothers who create this barrier around their sons do so from love or need. It seems odd that, at least according to my perception, these fierce momma lions come out with sons and not with daughters. (Disclosure: I am the mother of two daughters.) Could it be that women are lacking something from the men in their lives and the only way to get it is through their sons?

When I talk to my mother, and if I happen to casually bring up the fact that my brother does not visit her or do enough for her, she will generally brush it off with excuses for him and the myriad constraints upon his time. Yesterday, tired of me and my barely-veiled accusations against him, she simply put a wall between my criticisms and my brother by saying, “Stop turning the screw.” Once again, the mother took the fall for the son.

The question to be asked, I realize, is not why he doesn’t visit her, but what happened in his childhood that made him think that he didn’t owe her anything? Friends have noted this about their brothers or husbands (ex or present): they are often disengaged from their parents. Many have said (and I said it myself) that the vast majority of these grown boys would never call or visit their parents without their wife’s prodding. These mothers devoted their lives to wiping their son’s noses, and yet demands are placed on their daughters, to whom they passed the box of tissues, and not the sons.

Obviously this is too big of a theory to figure out neatly in a short essay, but the reality of so many sons mistreating (or not treating properly) their mothers, has led to our world, a world in which men oppress women—in country after country, and generation after generation—and in which there is always so much imposed suffering. I have to wonder if the source of this anger and pain and struggle is to be found somewhere in mother-son relationships.

 


Suicide Threats after Love Is Gone

Not long before Kenny left, we took our last Saturday drive together. As usual, we stopped at the 7-11 near the house, but instead of the usual extra-large coffee and two apple fritters or donuts, he only got coffee. I got a plain donut and an extra-large coffee, so that he could finish it later. I was clinging to old habits, but he wasn’t.

We drove in silence a couple of hours south to Montpelier, Virginia, to see James Madison’s house (aptly named Montpelier). Unlike our early-romance silences that were comfortable and interrupted with the occasional conversation, revelatory or observational, this was a two-people-in-their-own-world’s kind of hard silence. Even when I drove down a country lane leading to a farm’s fruit and vegetable stand, there wasn’t any banter about what we would find—it felt like we were going to the supermarket.

When we finally ended up at Madison’s estate, we discovered that the entry tickets were $18 each. Since neither of us felt like spending so much money to wander around what had once been a plantation that we were only going to use as a backdrop to whatever conversation had been percolating within each of us during the drive, I turned the car around and continued driving. We got lost some more looking for a place to eat, until we found a country store selling barbeque. The barbeque wasn’t ready yet, so I ordered a Virginia ham sandwich and potato salad. Kenny didn’t want anything.

When I finally got my sandwich and finished talking to the proprietor (something I never did before Kenny came to town), we sat at the picnic table in front of the store. Sure, there was a tractor parked there making a lot of noise, and we were facing a two-lane road, but there were farms all around and the tractor added the appropriate background white (really black) noise to the scene, so we sat down.

I ate and he cried.

It is odd to think that you are an emotional and sensitive person, only to discover that the man in your life is more emotional and sensitive than you are. It makes you feel like a Beast, inside and out, while he gets to be the Beauty.

He told me, as I took a bite into my thick ham and cheese sandwich, that he saw no reason to live if he wasn’t able to make me love him. Looking out, past the tractor and the road to the sunlight trees lining the fields beyond, and then to the dirt under the bench, he said that he was contemplating committing suicide.

I was shocked, and then I was scared, hurt, and angry. I’m just a woman, I thought, as I tried to figure out what to say, why is he giving me more power than I have, and why is he making me feel guilty because of the way I feel. His statement was so supremely selfish that I was tempted to walk away, except he was obviously in so much pain.

When he moved here twenty months earlier he had said that his intention was to make my life easier because he had always loved me (we had been friends 28 years earlier) and because he was devastated by what I had told him and what he had read (on my blog and other writings that I gave to him) about my relationship with my ex-husband. Much of that was about how my ex-husband had tormented me emotionally, and how I perceived the origin of the abuse as his need to control me and my inability to move my STOP IT! thoughts out of my head and into words and actions that would have stopped him before there was nothing between us except the gulf between the moment we met and the moment he said he would spit on my grave.

When Kenny told me a few weeks earlier that he would be leaving, he said that it was too expensive for him where I lived and that he felt it would be better for us (or did he say for me?) if he moved. I had thought that things were good between us, but as soon as he said that, I knew it was right—that living with him was not right for me as a woman or as a mother. It was as if I had been at the optometrist’s office for endless hours of “Which is clearer: A or B,” but nothing was ever clear, until that moment of absolute clarity. Since then I had only seen clearer why I needed him to leave.

It had been too hard for me to make that realization since he had moved so far to be with me (from Belfast to Northern Virginia) and completely changed his life-plans in that move (graduate school in England to a great unknown). It was also hard for me to formulate my thoughts because he kept telling me that he loved me with all his heart and that I was all that mattered to him. After a while, hearing that didn’t make me feel loved, it made me feel imposed upon. Maintaining and protecting his love took precedence over whatever I might feel toward him. His love was not for me, but for himself—it became an unspoken demand for me not to do anything that would hurt him, that would open the open wound of his love for me because, after all, all that mattered was me.  

If my divorce had taught me anything, it had taught me to be clear about my feelings and thoughts and to not suppress them, but knowing that and acting on that turned out to beyond my ability. Not only because Kenny was so sensitive, but because I still put other people’s emotions above my own.

The first time that I told my ex-husband that I wanted a divorce, he said that he would commit suicide.

Between these two declarations of suicide there was all manner of working on relationships, and readings, and writings (a lot of those) focusing on faults (theirs and mine), with the occasional nod to strengths.

At the moment of Kenny’s despair, I reached for the compassion that he wanted, but I didn’t have any. My supply of you-first was gone, as was my sense that he was a sensible man. At that moment he was the desperate child that he kept telling me was hiding within him, ruined by a brutal childhood that he was never able to overcome. In arguments I had been instructed how he must be handled. I had tried to fit my needs into his, but at that moment I couldn’t—I felt manipulated, not consciously and maybe I only think that because I failed him and I am trying to take care of myself, but I had reached the point when all I could do was hand Kenny back to Kenny, and me back to me.

 

Things only went downhill from there until he left. I withdrew and he tried to take back his leaving. For me there was no going back: I needed him to leave.