You know how sometimes the difference between anticipating something and the reality of that thing can be so wide that it’s hard to reconcile yourself to the fact that they refer to the same thing. Well, that’s what happened to me when I listened to the interview tapes two of my cousins made with our grandparents (my paternal, their maternal). It’s possible that my reaction to the statement that turned the experience tearful in a bitter way instead of a poignant way (though there was that too) proves that what my grandmother said about me is true, but it’s possible that it proves it is not always wise to say what you think, especially to a tape recorder, and that wisdom and insight do not always reside in our elders who can be as petty as the rest of us non-octogenarians.
So there I was, listening to my grandmother’s tales of living in and then leaving Zitomir (Jitomar), Ukraine, Russia, and her arrival in the States in 1922 when she was ten-years old after a three-year journey. The story that stands out from the tape is that she, her siblings, and her mother (her father and one sister had already come to the States) had to hide for a couple of weeks to escape a pogrom (in about 1918). When they returned, what hadn’t been taken from their home had been destroyed. When she went to a friend’s house, she saw some of their furniture, and naively thanked her friend for saving them. Only to have her friend say that they’re keeping everything and that she will not be friends with a Jew anymore and to get out of her house.
My grandfather, who left Grodno, (Belarus), Russia , at around four-years old told stories of growing up mostly on a farm in upstate New York (who knew I have dairy maid in my genes) and that my grandparents owned a candy store (that I can imagine) in Brooklyn, when they were first married.
Then there was plenty of time to reminisce about spouses and grandchildren. There was the requisite statement by my grandmother that she was committed to caring about the spouses her three children picked, and then, oy, onto the grandchildren. There was the grandson with sensitive skin, the hellion grandson, the two quiet granddaughters, the granddaughter who was interviewing them was upset that she was not remembered (couldn’t the woman make something up), there was the nice granddaughter, and then there was Laura. With nary a moment’s hesitation she stated, “She was selfish and spoiled, her mother thought she was the best.” Now I am aware that this statement refers to a visit that a quiet granddaughter and I made when we were twelve to visit them in Miami Beach. I also became aware, many years hence, that there were grownup issues before and after this visit. But for me there was just the vaguely aware reality of my grandparents clandestinely buying things for my cousin and not for me. I don’t remember doing or saying anything that indicated that I was aware of being treated differently, except I do vaguely remember my cousin getting a jeans jacket like mine. So kill me for not liking that. Then my grandmother went on to say how difficult that trip was. Was that really my selfish, spoiled fault?
That trip was about forty years ago, the interview took place almost twenty years after that, and my grandmother has been dead for nine years. I’m going to assume, just because I like to torture myself, that her impression of me never changed. Since I always thought of myself as an obedient, quiet girl (even my teen rebellion was a retreat into books, bedroom, and lone walks), I find her long-held assessment disturbing.
When I told two colleagues what my grandmother said, one of them proclaimed that I must be like her sister who is very un-self-aware. As a person who considers herself very self-aware (as, I hope, is evident in this blog), I found her comment unsettling and slightly offensive. When I told this story to a good friend, her immediate reaction was that I am neither selfish nor spoiled; the horrified look on her face will forever endear her to me.
Those comments pushed me to wonder about the possibility, not of knowing ourselves, but of knowing other people. We live parallel to most of the people in our lives, rarely intersecting enough to acknowledge them as more than accessories to our own lives. How often are we able to separate our filter-of-self enough to recognize the person standing opposite us? Both my grandmother’s and my colleague’s comments reflect more on the blinders within than my actions. How often are we able to see others for who they are rather than not being us?
If I think of my marriage (which would have reached its 29th anniversary this past week if things hadn’t fallen apart) I realize that initially we were opposites attracting, but at some point, how I saw him and how he saw me was not out of respect for thoughts and personality, but a recoiling from them because they were from the other side of a gap that could no longer be bridged by attraction. Hence, no anniversary.
Is that why most of our friends are like us (at least in my experience)? Not because like seeks like, but because like is only able to drop the filter-of-self to peer into another when it trusts that it will be honored in the interaction. Is this internal distance why people are always coming up against each other?
What would have happened if my grandmother had spoken to me, at that time or even years later, about the visit and her impression of me, and if she gave me a chance to express and defend myself? Would my memory of her now be overlaid with this hurt?
One of the key concepts in conflict resolution and mediation is that each side must tell her story and that the other side must repeat it back, indicating that it has been understood and not just heard. Is that why stories are so powerful, because they give us a chance to leave our gated community and peer into someone else’s compound? Stories are how we practice not being me long enough to realize that other possibilities are not wrong, they simply are variations.
For rich and ever enriching lives, it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves, and those whose lives intersect with ours, as well as those whose lives run parallel to ours, to try to be as naïve and trusting as a twelve-year old. We need to try to remember what it was like before judgments were made on who we are and how we are. We need to peer around the corner, trusting that we stand on solid ground even if the wind is doing strange things over here.