I had a secret to confess to my mother, who was coming from the Midwest to California to visit me. The year before, I had broken my engagement to a man. Mom knew this. What she didn’t know was the reason: I’d fallen in love with a woman.
My mother and I had always been close, but I sometimes felt there were things about my life she could not understand. In her mind, my happiness and well-being were synonymous with marrying the right man. Still, her visit felt like the time to come clean; after all, my girlfriend lived with me.
The day my mother arrived, I poured myself a glass of wine, took a deep breath, and blurted out the whole story. She was surprised but not as shocked as I’d thought she would be. It turned out I was the one about to be shocked.
Before meeting and marrying my father, my mother said, she’d had a five-year relationship with a woman.
“Does Dad know?” I asked.
“No!” she answered, making me promise I would never tell him or anyone else in our family. I promised but felt sad that, after nearly fifty years, she still needed to be so secretive.
My mother told me she had met the woman in college. After two years, their friendship turned romantic; the woman already had a young daughter, and they became a family, but it didn’t last. My mother said their breakup so devastated her that she saw a therapist for months afterward. Only their closest friends knew about their relationship — after all, it was the 1950s, and though my mother and her lover lived in a big city, they dared not even hold hands in public.
My mother admitted that, though she’d been married twice, she had never felt that same kind of love for anyone else since. But she said she wasn’t sorry she’d married my father, because she had my brother and me to show for it.
So I was not the only keeper of secrets in the family. The guilt I’d experienced over leaving my fiancé and hiding the truth suddenly seemed like nothing compared to what my mother had endured. I still wish things could have been different for her, and I am thankful that they are different for me.
San Diego, California
During World War II my grandfather Frank died aboard his submarine while it was stationed in New London, Connecticut. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the stomach, and it was ruled a suicide, though there was speculation in my family that he had been murdered or that the death had been accidental, because he’d shown no symptoms of depression.
I am named after him and grew up feeling that I had inherited his mantle, which carried with it the mystery surrounding his death. When I was fifteen, I asked my grandmother, then in her sixties, exactly how my grandfather had died. She could still barely talk about it. An inquest had been held to determine the circumstances of his death, she said, but she’d always felt that some kind of coverup had taken place.
In the winter of 2000 I found myself with a three-hour layover in the Honolulu airport, and I decided to visit Pearl Harbor. At the submarine museum a helpful curator produced a thick file on my grandfather’s sub. (It had been transferred to the Pacific and had gone on to great fame in the war.) In the file I found a letter written by a former crew member stating that my grandfather had shot himself on board the boat while it had been stationed in Connecticut. I photocopied all the papers in the file and returned to the airport just in time to catch my flight to Los Angeles.
The next morning I began looking up phone numbers for names listed in the file and eventually tracked down Captain S., my grandfather’s immediate supervisor, now in his late eighties. He told me the rest of the story.
My grandfather Frank, he said, had been sexually harassing one of the enlisted men, threatening to make his professional life miserable if he didn’t accept my grandfather’s sexual advances. The young man had decided to report the incidents to his commanding officer. Another sailor testified to similar treatment, and the captain arrested Frank and held him on the boat until he could be transferred to the base brig. He was confined to quarters when he shot himself.
Had his death been classified as a simple suicide, Captain S. told me, my grandmother, who had five young kids to raise, would not have received wartime widow benefits. So, during the inquest, the ship’s officers had closed ranks and sworn that Frank had endured severe mental hardship on their most recent patrol in the North Sea, making his death “war-related.”
“It seemed,” Captain S. said, “like the honorable thing to do.”
Port Townsend, Washington
I was attending art school outside Los Angeles and had been up for thirty-six hours working on a painting when the phone rang. The voice at the other end said, “Is this Susan?”
I said yes, though I was immediately suspicious. My adoptive sister had been having her druggie friends call me on her behalf to ask for cash. I steeled myself for another appeal.
“My name is Margie Grey. I’m your sister. . . .” I waited for her to finish and say she was my sister’s friend, but instead there was silence.
“You were born in May 1961, right?”
“Yes . . .” Her voice sounded familiar. In fact, it sounded like my own when it was recorded and played back to me.
Margie said she had been looking for me for almost ten years. She was my biological half sister.
Contrary to what I had assumed, my birth mother had not been an unwed teenager when she’d given me up for adoption at birth. She’d been thirty-six and married with a four-year-old daughter — Margie — and I’d been the result of an extramarital affair.
Margie’s father (my birth mother’s husband) was mentally ill and had admitted himself to a hospital. While he was institutionalized, my birth mother, Kathleen, met a GI at the local army base and had an affair with him. The GI, who was transferred to Alaska just after he learned of the pregnancy, assumed Kathleen would have an abortion across the border in Mexico. But Kathleen was Catholic. She decided to have the baby and keep it.
After her husband found out, he sent her a letter from the mental hospital, threatening to divorce her and take Margie away if she kept me. So Kathleen gave me up for adoption by a well-to-do family who already had one adopted daughter.
When I was born, Kathleen was the society editor for the newspaper in her small Southwestern town. To help her save face, a colleague arranged for the paper to report that she’d had a stillbirth. Even Margie didn’t know I existed until she became pregnant at seventeen and Kathleen told her about me.
Now Margie said Kathleen wanted to call me in a half-hour. Was that OK?
How could I say no?
Thirty minutes later the phone rang again, and my birth mother and I talked for more than an hour. I was astonishingly comfortable with her. We had the same sense of humor — even the same laugh.
We met in person during the Christmas holiday. Margie came too. Kathleen had tracked down my birth father, who was now married and had two sons. So, with that one phone call from Margie, I acquired a birth mother, a half sister, a niece and nephew, a birth father, and two half brothers.
Kathleen died of leukemia just eighteen months after I’d met her. One of the things she left me was a white box with “1961” written across the top. It was full of sympathy cards sent to her after my “stillbirth.”
Maplewood, New Jersey
I was teaching English as a second language in Japan when Haruko joined my class. She told me that she’d recently had a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t hard to believe: she was pale, seemed perpetually nervous, and spoke with a slight tremble in her voice.
In class Haruko’s English was sometimes formal or stilted, making it incomprehensible to her classmates. She didn’t seem to care. From the start she was focused on me, the teacher. She was always the first to arrive and would talk to me until class started. After class she’d make conversation with me until we got off the elevator and turned to walk different paths home. Although it seemed unfair to the other students that she dominated my time, I enjoyed our discussions and hoped I could help her through a rough period.
At the year-end party I sat at the same table with Haruko’s father, who was a professor at the university where I taught. After a few drinks he confided to me that he was worried about Haruko’s mental health and future. Could I look after her? I felt moved that he would ask me and told him I would try.
Over the winter break Haruko got a secretarial job in my department. Meanwhile I found out that my live-in girlfriend was pregnant, and we made plans to be married that summer. I felt a superstitious need to keep a lid on the pregnancy until we got past the first trimester, when miscarriages are most common. But I told one colleague, who hinted to Haruko that I had “big news,” but he couldn’t say what it was.
“What’s your big news?” Haruko asked me the next day. I told her it was still a secret, but I would be able to tell her soon. When I asked Haruko whether she would be taking my class that year, she answered, “It depends on your news.” Her reply seemed to confirm my suspicion that she had feelings for me.
At the start of the new year our department had a party to celebrate, and I got a little drunk. I was talking to Haruko and her fellow secretaries when one of them asked about my girlfriend. Unable to contain my joy at the prospect of becoming a father, I shared the news. Haruko went to the ladies’ room looking upset. The party was winding down; I thought about sticking around to make sure she was OK, but I worried I would make the situation worse. Only time can soothe unrequited love, I thought. I got on my bicycle and rode home.
A few days later I opened my e-mail at work and learned that, right after the party had broken up, Haruko had committed suicide. She’d jumped from the top floor of a building. Some department members were planning to attend her funeral that afternoon. I insisted on going even though I was dressed in faded jeans and didn’t have anything to change into.
Seeing Haruko’s picture above the coffin broke my heart. I spotted her weeping father and, recalling our conversation, felt a sense of failure. I began to cry too, soaking my handkerchief. It was a beautiful spring day. I just wanted Haruko to be there to enjoy it.
My stepmom, Betsey, made me do things that my mom and dad never had, things that were, to my teenage point of view, stupid and pointless, like changing my sheets, scrubbing the bathroom floor, and writing thank-you notes.
When Betsey’s first grandchild was born many states away, there was a scare during delivery, and our household was on edge all night. Betsey overheard a phone conversation I was having with a friend and misinterpreted it, thinking that I was planning to wear a skimpy outfit to the mall behind my dad’s back. Later Betsey and Dad came marching into my room, and my father stood by as Betsey laid into me with a fury I’d never experienced in my sixteen years. “Your dad carries you around on a satin pillow,” she shouted. “For all I care, you can go to hell!” I tried to explain that she’d misunderstood, but they turned and left.
The next afternoon Betsey picked me up from school. In the car, while waiting for the light to change, she broke the silence. “I know what I said last night hurt you.”
I felt my chest tighten, but I stared straight ahead and said nothing.
She cupped my chin in her hand and turned my face to meet hers. “I didn’t mean what I said, Angie.”
I tried to twist out of her grasp, but she held firm, apologizing and explaining the stress she’d been under the night before with her grandson’s birth. “I do love you,” she said.
I felt sure she didn’t. How could she? I certainly didn’t love her.
When I was in graduate school, I grew depressed and went into therapy to discuss my parents’ divorce, the growing rift between my dad and me, and my unresolved anger toward my mother, who’d died six months after I’d started college. Many sessions, however, revolved around my relationship with Betsey. It had been seven years since that day in the car with her. Why couldn’t I just get over it?
During one session my therapist asked me to imagine Betsey was in the room with us. Then he asked me to pretend to walk over and hug her.
“OK.” I did it. “So?” I said.
“No, I mean really hug her. Hug her until you want to let go, and then keep hugging. Hug her until she tries to pull away.”
Tears wet the corners of my eyes, and I started to make excuses: “Why do I have to be the one to do it? She’s the one who . . .”
My therapist gave a knowing smile. “You cannot change other people, Angie,” he said. “You can only change how you respond to them. And sometimes you have to go first.”
“But how do I know hugging her is going to do anything?”
“Because you are afraid to do it.”
Several weeks later I went home for a visit. All weekend long the thought of hugging Betsey nagged at me. I wondered if I would chicken out. I wondered what Betsey’s reaction would be.
On Sunday I got set to head back to school and exchanged the usual pleasantries with my dad and Betsey. I knew the moment had come. If I didn’t do it now, I never would.
I hugged my dad, who planted a kiss on my cheek. And then I hugged Betsey. The customary hug time of a few seconds passed, and I felt her try to pull back, but I didn’t let her. She uttered a small laugh of surprise. I kept hugging until she hugged me back, which caused my tears to come, and then sobs. Rubbing my back, she whispered into my neck, “It’s OK. Let it out.”
When we finally parted, Betsey held my face in her hands — just as she had that day in the car — and smiled as if she’d been expecting this. And that’s when I found out she really did love me.
Angela S. Weisser
When my parents called me into the living room, they had their “serious-talk” faces on.
“What would you think about going to Disneyland?” my dad asked.
I was eleven — a little old for Mickey Mouse, but game. I asked the question I always did when my parents offered to take me on a trip: “Can I bring a cousin?” I was an only child, and vacations with just my parents could become tedious.
“No, Aunt Patsy is coming,” said my mom.
Good enough. Patsy was my mom’s sister; she had never married, and she spoiled me rotten.
We spent two days at Disneyland riding in teacups and listening to annoying dolls sing “It’s a Small World.” On the third day my mom surprised me by taking one of my dresses out of her suitcase. “Put this on.”
I balked. I didn’t like to wear dresses.
“We’re going to see Alecia today,” she said. Alecia was a friend of my mom’s who had recently moved to Los Angeles. I protested weakly but soon gave in, knowing that I was not going to win this battle.
Alecia lived in a small apartment an hour from our motel. On the way there, Mom and Aunt Patsy pointed out sights to me, but I was still in a snit and refused to be awed by the big buildings and busy freeways.
When Alecia answered the door, her eyes were moist. We had a long and boring visit. As Alecia walked us back to our car, she pressed a piece of paper into my mom’s hand. “He’s a miracle worker, Martha,” she said.
“Good. I need a miracle,” Mom replied. I noticed that Aunt Patsy’s eyes were wet, too.
As we pulled out, Mom started reading directions from Alecia’s note to my dad. I assumed Alecia had supplied us with a shortcut back to Disneyland, but after a few wrong turns, my dad pulled up in front of a church.
I was appalled. It was just like my mom and Aunt Patsy, both products of Catholic boarding school, to drag me to church on vacation. I decided to sit it out in the car with my dad, a proud agnostic, but then Dad got out, too, and I was forced to join their small procession as they climbed the steps of the church.
A priest met us at the door. “We’re here to see Father Aloysius,” said my mother quietly. He nodded and led us through a chapel and into a dark room. “Have a seat. The father will be in soon.”
I sat in silent fury that church had hijacked my vacation.
Soon an elderly priest walked in, and my mom made the introductions. He asked us to hold hands. Then he began reciting prayers in a heavily accented voice. When my dad joined in, I was dumbfounded. Once the praying was over, the priest turned to my mom and asked, “How can I help you?”
“I have cancer, acute lymphocytic leukemia,” my mom said softly. “My doctor has given me six months to live.”
Here are a few things I found out about my parents after I came out to them as a lesbian:
- They house a tremendous amount of rage.
- Homophobia can transform loving parents into hateful foes.
- The promise of heaven, coupled with the fear of hell, dictates their beliefs.
- Their relationship with their daughter is of little importance compared to their relationship with God.
- One of the three of us will probably die before I ever see them again.
Sometimes I wonder who came out to whom.
Late that Friday night my husband, our houseguests, and I were discussing the serial murders of several children in Michigan, where our guests lived. I remember saying, “I can’t imagine how a parent survives the death of a child.”
After we’d gone to bed, the telephone woke me, and I stumbled to the other room to answer it. The call was from the regional advisor of a religious-youth-group convention my two oldest children were attending in upstate New York. There had been an accident, and my daughter Ruth had been hurt. “Two girls have died,” the advisor said, “but Ruth is going to be OK. We’ll take care of her.”
I must have shrieked, because my husband rushed to my side. The advisor said that the doctors needed our permission to remove Ruth’s spleen. We gave it — what choice did we have? — and said we’d be there as soon as we could.
Leaving our sleeping ten-year-old in our friends’ care, we began the two-hour drive to Utica. About halfway there, my stomach did a flip, as if my body knew that Ruth was not going to be OK.
At the hospital we learned that the injury to Ruth’s spleen was a minor issue. The real damage was to her brainstem, and I could tell from the doctor’s voice that it was devastating. We were allowed in to see Ruth, who, despite a variety of tubes, looked far more peaceful than we felt. The only outward sign that she had been hit by a drunk driver was a chipped tooth.
For the next week and a half I alternated between weeping at Ruth’s bedside and sobbing to friends over the hospital’s pay phone. A trusted neurologist, who’d come from Rochester to examine her, confirmed that there was no brain activity, and we consulted rabbinic authorities about disconnecting Ruth’s life support.
Twelve days after the crash, and one week before Ruth’s fourteenth birthday, doctors removed the tube connecting her to the machine that breathed for her.
How does a parent survive the death of a child? It’s been twenty-seven years, and I’m still finding out.
Rochester, New York
After eighteen years of marriage, I had an affair with a novelist I’d met in a local writers’ group. Jim wrote me long letters and understood me in a way my spouse never had. I was a stereotypical stay-at-home soccer mom of three, my marriage a facade that stayed intact only as long as everyone did his or her part. Jim’s wife of eight years worked while he stayed home and wrote novels, two of which had been published. They were childless by choice.
After I’d slept with Jim, I no longer wanted to be with my spouse, but Jim wasn’t so monogamous. He and his wife had met in a commune whose members had swapped partners each night. He was used to the idea of loving more than one person. After all, he explained, didn’t I love all three of my children equally?
But Jim’s wife no longer felt that way. When he told her about us, she filed for divorce the next day. My husband and I were divorcing too, and since I was the one who’d had an affair, I worried I wouldn’t get a dime. Jim assured me that, if it came to that, we’d live in a refrigerator box and he’d write his novels on McDonald’s napkins. I fantasized about going from my unhappy life of luxury to a happier life of poverty with this man.
My husband ended up treating me fairly in our divorce, and I got to keep the house. It was a good thing, because I’d discovered that, had it come to the refrigerator box, there would have been another married woman sharing it with Jim and me.
Jim had also been having an affair with someone named Laurie. She and I met only through the items we accidentally, then intentionally, left behind at Jim’s place: a pair of earrings on the nightstand or a pink razor by the sink. I judged her by her jewelry, which was cheap, not real gold like mine, and loud, the way I imagined she was. I couldn’t get her out of my head when Jim and I made love. I’d seen a picture of her in his apartment. Her breasts were bigger than mine, but my legs were longer than hers. She was blond to my brunette. She had better teeth, but I was taller and thinner. I dug in my heels, sure she would give up on this crazy arrangement.
But after two years it was Jim who said he couldn’t do it anymore. He’d had enough of dividing his time and energy between us. Monogamy, he’d found out, made life a lot simpler, and that was what he wanted now: to be monogamous. With her.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
I never knew my father and was told he had died in a car accident just seven months before I’d been born. Perhaps because of his death, I was always looking for clues that would help me piece together the mystery of my origins.
My mother kept all our important papers in two file folders in her desk — one for me, one for her. I liked to go through my folder and read my birth certificate, my baptism certificate, and the document that declared I was a naturalized U.S. citizen. (I was born in the Philippines.)
One day, bored with my papers, I decided to see what my mother’s folder held. Near the top, not concealed in any way, was my father’s death certificate. I’d never even known there was such a thing. I scanned the entries — name, height, weight — and stopped at “Cause of Death.” Typed on an old typewriter were the words “gunshot wound to the left ventricle.”
Having watched too many Columbo episodes, I jumped to the conclusion that he’d been killed by the Filipino mafia.
I brought the document to my mother, who looked at it and gave me a weak smile. “I don’t want to talk about this right now,” she said. “OK?”
“OK,” I said, scooting out of the room to return the paper to its file.
A few weeks later we were at the mall, grabbing a quick dinner, when my mother asked, “Do you want me to tell you how your father died?”
“Only if you want to,” I answered, readying myself to hear a sordid tale of crime and intrigue.
Instead, in that fast-food restaurant, my mother told me that my father had committed suicide. Bedridden with an undiagnosed neurological condition and unable to hold a job or provide for his new wife and the baby on the way, he’d taken a handgun and shot himself in the heart.
My grief-stricken mother nearly miscarried. My father’s family blamed her for his death, even accusing her of pulling the trigger. She suffered through the ensuing scandal and my bittersweet birth and infancy without my father.
That day in the restaurant, I learned not only the truth about my father’s death, but also the type of woman my mother was: a person of great strength and courage who, with only two suitcases full of clothes and two hundred dollars, brought her two-year-old daughter to America.
My first summer home from college, I lay in my girlhood bed listening to Cat Stevens on my Walkman and pining for the boy I had a crush on, who was in Vermont for the summer, teaching Quaker kids how to canoe — and surely seducing several cute counselors. Mom and I were struggling to get along after my nine months away. It seemed as if we had nothing to say to each other — or, rather, Mom had lots to say, but I was unable to follow much of it. She went on and on about the inspired programming of the local public-radio station, and how, when she selected cassettes on our kitchen counter, she was able to “control” their playlist. This was bizarre to me, but it seemed to please her to think it was true, so I dropped the subject.
My mother and I fought all the time and spent most evenings behind closed doors in our respective bedrooms. I avoided coming home until late, but even when I got home after midnight, Mom’s bedside light was on. I would hear her get up at 4 A.M. to make crackling fires in the fireplace with fresh limbs she’d ripped off neighbors’ fruit trees. She blasted sixties folk music on the stereo and wore bright printed caftans from her college days. She wrote letters to her old teachers and boyfriends and made collect calls to my dad, though they’d been divorced since I was twelve. Her eyes were glassy, and she stopped brushing her hair, tucking it under the same dirty bandanna every day. Whenever our paths crossed, she accused me of sponging off her and not helping with the housework or expenses. My promiscuity and sense of entitlement disgusted her, she said. I started to internalize her scoldings and felt guilty for being a bad daughter.
One night I found my possessions in cardboard boxes on the porch, and I retreated to my aunt’s house. “Mom evicted me,” I sobbed when my aunt opened her door. She brought me inside and offered me some tea. When I was done telling her what had happened, my aunt put down her cup and said, “There’s something you should know: your mom is mentally ill.”
She’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder during her first year in college, my aunt said. My family had decided not to disclose her condition to me, lest it cause me shame or anxiety. Now her illness was mine to understand. I’ve been trying to do so ever since.
Brooklyn, New York
My mother left us when I was four, in the late forties. For many years she flitted in and out of my life, never showing up when she’d promised. I was ashamed and lied to the other girls at school, telling them I had a mother at home. I always imagined that, in due time, my mother would take me to live with her and her new husband and their children.
Then one day when I was eleven, I was looking in my father’s closet and found a large leather suitcase with a lock on it. I knew my dad kept assorted keys under the ashtray in his bedroom, and I located the one that opened the luggage. I’d thought I would find treasure inside, but instead there was a bundle of letters tied with string.
They were letters my mother had written to my father during their separation. In most she spoke of her reasons for leaving. The one reason repeated in each letter was that she didn’t love him anymore and wanted to start a new life without him. The last letter in the bundle was dated just before their divorce was finalized. In it she wrote, “I don’t want the children, as they are only a reminder of us. They are yours to raise and to care for. I want my new life, and it has no place for them. So don’t worry about that. I don’t want them and will not fight for them.”
Their divorce papers were underneath that last letter. I tied the bundle back up and returned it to the suitcase, which I put back where I’d found it. I never told my father of my discovery.
Clayton, New Jersey
After having spent the better part of 1967 and ’68 in San Francisco, I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, to finish my studies and pursue my goal of teaching high-school English. When I unpacked, I discovered some marijuana seeds from my final pot purchase in Haight-Ashbury. I put some dirt in an old breadbox, sprinkled the seeds on top, and placed it in my front window. Nine seeds germinated.
A few weeks later fifteen cops armed with a search warrant stormed my tiny apartment. I was taken to the county jail and booked for “possession and cultivation of marijuana with intent to deliver.” An incident that probably would not have turned heads in San Francisco was big enough to make the front page in both Salt Lake City papers, complete with photos of policemen proudly posing beside my nine scrawny seedlings.
Fortunately my brother, who had recently begun to practice law, managed to work out a deal: I waived my right to a trial and was placed on probation for a year. At year’s end, if I hadn’t gotten into trouble, the judge would dismiss the charges, and my record would be sealed. I worried about my desired career — not many high schools would hire a felony pot grower — but my brother told me that if I kept my nose clean, no one would find out.
He was right. I taught for thirty-five years and underwent an application-and-fingerprint process each time I moved to a new state or renewed my teaching certificate. No one ever found out.
Last May I decided to retire, and a fellow teacher suggested that I might enjoy substitute teaching in my spare time. Once again I went through the application-and-fingerprint process. I don’t know whether it was heightened security after 9/11 or just bad luck, but after all those years of silence, the FBI reported my crime to the state department of education.
I’ll bet substitute teaching wouldn’t have been all that great anyway.
The summer I was twelve, my family moved from Illinois to southern Florida, where my father was taking a new job. With school out of session, I had difficulty making friends, so I corresponded with my old ones back in Illinois. My mother also spent a lot of time that summer writing letters.
One day in August my father quit his new job. Several things he’d been promised hadn’t been delivered, and he had reached the limits of his patience. He was able to get his old job back, and he and my sister returned to Illinois while my mother and I stayed behind to sell the house.
One day my mother was in the middle of writing a letter when a real-estate agent came by. As my mother led the realtor on a tour of the house, I picked up the letter she’d been writing and read it. It began, “Hello, love.” It was clear that my mother was writing to a man with whom she was having an affair. She praised his sexual technique and labeled my father’s lovemaking “crude.” I put the letter back, feeling ill. Was Mother going to leave us for this man? Where would my sister and I live? Did my father know? Would he leave us if he found out?
I decided not to tell anyone what I’d read. We settled back in Illinois, and I kept the secret of my mother’s adultery. To this day my mother doesn’t know that I read that letter. I never found out how the affair was resolved. My parents have been married for fifty-five years.
When I got married, I made a private vow not to repeat the sins of my mother. I would not risk my marriage for something as fleeting as an affair. In my youthful self-righteousness, I judged my mother and felt that I was better than she was.
But this morning I composed an e-mail to a man — not my husband — with whom I have shared intimacies. As I paused to reread what I had written to him, the memories of my past judgments moved beneath the surface of my thoughts like fish in deep water. I am beginning to see my mother differently.
My daughter is twelve years old.
For our honeymoon Jason and I took a month-long road trip across the U.S. in an old Volkswagen Beetle, ending up in northern California, where we’d planned to start a commune with friends on an organic fruit farm. We spent one glorious and confounding summer in our little Eden, then left with two hundred dollars in our pockets to start over in San Diego.
Jason found work as a carpenter, while I pursued my ambition of becoming a professional musician. Our lives developed separate trajectories: I was constantly seeking quiet and solitude, whereas Jason was always up for a good time after a hard day’s work. Although there was still a great deal of passion between us, it revealed itself more in arguments than in lovemaking.
When I went on tour with a band, it became apparent that Jason and I were happier apart. After the tour I got an apartment in Brooklyn while he stayed in San Diego with our two cats and all our possessions. Finally free from the stress of trying to get along with him, I had plenty of time to write songs and pursue my career. Jason seemed happy to be able to get together for drinks with his fellow carpenters. I met someone and had an affair, but it was short-lived. Before long Jason and I were sending each other care packages and talking on the phone daily — never about our previous problems, only about our new lives. We ended each call with “I love you.”
After a few months Jason came to visit me. I got my hair cut and my legs waxed in anticipation. I had decided not tell him about the affair, even though I’d never been able to lie to Jason.
On the third night of his visit, there was a movie on TV about infidelity. A half-hour into it, I knew I had to come clean. Just as I was about to speak, Jason began telling me how he’d slept with someone and had immediately regretted it. We exchanged confessions and both cried. We had just heard the worst news imaginable, yet we felt relieved.
I moved back to California within a month, and two years later our marriage is strong and happy.
San Francisco, California
I was an undergrad at the University of Washington when Mom called to tell me that my brother had been in a small-plane crash. He was in intensive care. Three others were dead. A fourth had walked away.
My brother belonged to a sky-diving club east of Seattle. All the members on the plane that day were experienced skydivers and licensed pilots. Their plane had been only three hundred feet above the airstrip when the wing dipped, an engine stalled, and the aircraft spiraled into the side of a hill.
My brother didn’t die, despite severe head trauma and shattered bones in his legs and ankles. But he was changed. There was a fatalistic quality about him, almost as if he wouldn’t mind dying if he ever came that close again.
In the years that followed, I never dug too deeply into why and how a reliable aircraft had crashed during a routine climb with five able pilots aboard. I suspected substance abuse may have played a role.
This past Christmas, when my brother and I were sitting alone in front of the gas fireplace at my house, I asked about the crash that had changed his life all those years ago. Trying to sound offhand, I wondered aloud: had there been any drinking or drug taking that day?
“No,” my brother said, “it was simple pilot error.”
Who’d been flying the plane, then?
“I always thought you knew,” my brother said with mild surprise. “I was.”
I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. The two main Sabbath meals were dinner on Friday evening and lunch on Saturday after synagogue. For each the whole family dressed in special Sabbath clothes, shoes polished and hair combed to perfection. Our mother prided herself on beauty and cleanliness. The table was always covered with a starched white tablecloth, and at the center were the sacred candlesticks that had been handed down from my grandmother to my mother. When I was grown, they would come to me, the oldest daughter.
These meals lasted about two hours, with prayers and blessings throughout and hymns sung between each course. No one was ever allowed to leave the table until the meal was over and the final blessings had been chanted — no one, that is, except my mother, who always left after the main course to go to the bathroom. Although my parents’ bathroom was down the hall, the noise of her retching was so loud it was impossible not to hear.
My siblings and I had been told that our mother had a sensitive stomach and that “aggravation” caused these bouts of vomiting. I remember feeling guilty, since I frequently talked back to my mother.
After the noise had died down, my mother would return to her seat and pass out dessert: a small portion of kosher gelatin with a piece of canned peach in the center. Whenever my father asked my mother why she didn’t eat the jello, she would say, “I’ve already had my dessert.”
Two weeks before my mother’s death from ovarian cancer at age sixty-nine, I walked into her sickroom and discovered her making herself vomit. “What are you doing, Mom?” I cried in horror.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “It just doesn’t matter anymore.”
She told me about her lifelong eating disorder, her struggles with her weight, and her overwhelming desire to be thin and beautiful.
After her death, all four of us children got something of hers. I got the candlesticks and the bulimia.
My cousin Rosie had always been far better informed than I was. In the summer of 1980, just before we turned ten, she spent a month with my family, and during that time she taught me how to dance, the right way to dress, and what sex was. (I had thought it had something to do with which public restroom you used.)
I was a quick study when it came to dance steps and why designer jeans were superior to little-girl dresses. But sex was a different story. Rosie was patient as she explained what men and women did together in the dark. She used the chalkboard in my room to draw multicolored diagrams explaining how babies were made. I followed along, interested but unable to see how any of this was relevant to me. Then Rosie dropped the bombshell: “We,” she said in a professorial voice, “came from sex. From our parents doing it, you know?” She raised one eyebrow and smiled a knowing smile. Suddenly her lecture topic had gone from an academic subject to something naughty.
My parents? Mine? But they were Sunday-school teachers and went to PTA meetings and didn’t curse. The notion that they were having sex behind my back was unbelievable.
After Rosie had gone home, I confronted my mother as she stood at the stove making dinner one evening.
“Do you have sex? With Daddy?”
She smiled a kind smile and, rubbing her hands on a kitchen towel, led me to the table for the first in a series of long and revealing talks.
My live-in college boyfriend was an offensive tackle for the university football team, but he was stuck on the second string and never got much field time during games. One day, rummaging through a closet, I found a box containing bottles of anabolic steroids and syringes. I moved out until he promised never to use steroids again. He swore he wouldn’t, but I could never be sure that he had really stopped, and my lack of trust contributed to our breakup later that year.
I met my future husband in graduate school. After our wedding, I discovered that my spouse liked to wear women’s clothes. We had many discussions about his cross-dressing, and he explained how creating a female persona relieved stress and allowed him to express his feminine side. Though I didn’t exactly like this, I came to understand and accept it — until the day I found a box hidden behind some books on our bookshelf. It contained birth-control pills that my husband had been taking in an effort to grow breast tissue.
He promised to stop taking them, but of course I couldn’t completely trust him. I didn’t leave this time, though, because we had two children and an otherwise happy marriage. Also, a part of me thought, What’s the point? If I were to leave, surely my next lover would have secrets of his own.
The tough part about a blighted ovum is that it is a pregnancy — just not a viable one. After three years of invasive surgeries, hormone injections, and megadoses of fertility drugs, the best I could muster was a dark blotch highlighted in silver on the ultrasound monitor.
I was devastated. Dr. G., my reproductive endocrinologist and a man young enough to be my son (if only I’d been able to produce one), told me to go home and wait.
So I did. For five weeks I waited for searing cramps and blood-soaked underwear to signal the expulsion of my clotted clump of cells. But all I felt was extreme fatigue and nausea, the “normal” symptoms of pregnancy.
Waiting for a miscarriage put me into a deep funk. I withdrew from friends and family. Hormones, both natural and artificial, exacerbated my depression.
Thanksgiving approached, and I still felt nothing but the same cruel queasiness and exhaustion. When Dr. G. told me to schedule a D and C — a procedure in which fetal tissue is scraped from the womb — for the Friday after the holiday, I snapped at him, “I’m sick and tired of screwing up my holidays for some damn baby-making stuff.” He was quiet, then told me if we delayed much longer, we would straddle the shaky deadline for a legal abortion. We scheduled the D and C for the following Tuesday.
I insisted on an ultrasound the day before the procedure. I needed to see this precious piece of dead flesh I’d been carrying around inside me. I needed to say goodbye to what might have been.
The long weekend was interminable: Four sleepless nights filled with drinking and crying and yelling at a God I was no longer sure I believed in. Four long days of sitting a bizarre sort of shiva.
On Monday I drove to the clinic alone. I was surprisingly calm; somehow my heart had accepted that I would not be a mother.
When the receptionist called my name, I was ushered into the dim ultrasound room. I lifted myself onto the cool stainless table and covered my lower half with the flimsy tissue-paper garment. “Eleven weeks, huh?” the technician said. She didn’t know. “Now, this might be a little cold.” She slipped the vaginal wand inside me. Eyes scrunched up, I breathed deep and prayed.
“Gorgeous,” she said.
I opened my eyes and saw on the screen the dazzling white image of life.