DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was raised by well-educated, well-read, New York City intellectuals. My mother was a psychologist and my father was a psychoanalyst. In addition to seeing patients, my father wrote books and articles in the inter-disciplinary fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

From the time I was old enough to sit at the dining room table, I remember lively intellectual discussions. Like most families, we’d talk about our day and share personal news. But we always eventually got around to current events or what my father was currently writing about.

Me, Larry, David, and Sarah. Sarah was eight. David was thirteen

My parents talked about the social trends of the day with my father’s unique inter-disciplinary approach and talked about the day’s news through a historical perspective. We’d talk about everything from science and history to the current trends in the arts, movies, and TV. Our conversations took on a life of their own.

A conversation about child rearing practices might morph into a discussion about parenting in other periods of history or in other cultures. A discussion about the growing Feminist movement might end up about the social and psychological effects of changes in gender roles on individuals and on the family.

Me and my parents when I was about eight years old

I was always included in these talks. If I had something to say, no matter my age, I was respectfully listened to and all of my questions were taken seriously and answered.

When I was in high school, I regularly had friends over for dinner. They always commented on the fact that a famous psychoanalyst and a published author like my father, always asked their opinions. They were included, as I was, in all conversations.

This made a huge impression on my friends. At my 40th High School reunion, an old friend told me she still remembered the conversations at my house and the respect she was shown by my parents, who were both genuinely interested in what she had to say.

Me and my dad when I was about eighteen

Dinner time was also when my parents shared stories and asked for advice about their patients of the day. My parents openly talked about their patients’ lives, relationships, and problems, though no names were ever used to conform to doctor-patient confidentiality. Because of this, I learned early what not to do in relationships. This knowledge served me well when I started dating and after I married.

When talking about patients, my parents didn’t shy away from talking about sex. When I was young, much of what they said went over my head. But I joke that I learned about sexual perversions before I knew how ‘normal’ sex was performed. I knew the man was not supposed to do ‘it’ in a shoe, but I wasn’t quite sure what ‘it’ was or how or where ‘it’ was supposed to be done.

My mother continued this openness about sex as a grandmother. I remember her talking about AIDS and anal sex at a Passover dinner, sitting next to my eight-year-old daughter and my thirteen-year-old son. I think it was highly inappropriate, but totally in character for my mother.

Grandmothers rule the Passover table. Really. They do.

My ex, Larry, and I were both lawyers. So our discussions about Larry’s work revolved around the law. We made a point of teaching our kids how to analyze problems and argue their positions clearly and persuasively.

My daughter, Sarah, remembers that if she wanted to do something or wanted not to do something and we objected, she could get us to change our minds if she presented a good enough argument.

Sarah was always asking questions, like most young children and Larry and I made a conscious decision to answer all of her questions. None of her questions were considered stupid or irrelevant. If she asked why we never just said ‘because.’ We always gave her the best answer we could.

Me, Larry and the kids when Sarah was eleven and David was sixteen

We also continued the open discussion policy with my kids when they were growing up. So Sarah too remembers being included in ‘grown-up’ conversations from an early age. Her contributions were heard and commented on. She and her brother grew up to have inquisitive and analytical minds. Sarah also has an immense curiosity about a wide range of topics and approaches them with a similar perspective to mine.

So the tradition of including children in sophisticated conversations has served me and my kids well. I hope if my kids have children, they will continue the family practice with their offspring.

NANA VIGNETTES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first mother-in-law, Dorothy, was a complex person with strong positive traits and equally strong negative ones. Despite all of her issues, she was beloved by her whole family. She babysat all of her grandchildren, even when it meant coming to New York from Florida to stay in our house while Larry and I went on a trip. She kept up with what everyone was doing and was always encouraging and proud of everyone’s accomplishments, however small.

She told everyone how much she loved them and made sweaters and needlepoints for her kids, grandkids, and in-laws. I was close with her before her stroke and loved her dearly. She was affectionately called ‘Nana’ by everyone.

1986 – The whole family wore the sweaters Nana had knitted for each of us

When we announced our engagement, my first husband, Larry, and I went down to Florida so I could meet his Mom. When we got there, Nana took out the family photo albums and started going through them with me. There were lots of pictures of kids but none that looked remotely like Larry. I patiently waited for her to get to the interesting photos of my betrothed.

Finally, I lost interest and patience and asked her to please show me some pictures of Larry. She was puzzled. “What are you talking about?“ she asked. “These all ARE Larry!” To this day, I don’t see even a trace of the Larry I know in his childhood photos, at least until he’s around fifteen!

Larry, me and Nana in the early 1980s

As I said, Nana could be a sweet, caring, giving and supportive person with a sense of humor and a silly streak. But when her husband of 33 years, Bert, left her, she was devastated and became consumed with anger and bitterness for many years. She had been a housewife and mother for most of her adult life and in return for her dedication and devotion, she had been verbally abused and cheated on. And now, to add insult to injury, she was abandoned! Yet in her endless rantings and ravings against Bert, it seemed that the worst thing he did to her was … he left her.

We tried to tell her that she couldn’t have it both ways. He was either a wonderful husband and it was a tragedy to lose him, or he was a lout and good riddance. But for the rest of her life, even after she had a sweet and loving man as a life partner, she trashed Bert for being an abusive cheater AND for leaving her.

She was particularly obsessed and hysterical about her recent separation when she met my parents. In their first encounter with Nana, Nana talked incessantly about how horrible Bert was and then added that Larry was just like him! Very disconcerting and alarming for my parents.

My parents

As we were planning the wedding, Nana started calling all the guests from Larry’s side, threatening she’d never talk to them again if they so much as spoke to Bert at the reception. This caused so much distress to Larry’s family and family friends we almost canceled the reception entirely. We eventually decided to have the wedding party and assigned a few of Nana’s close friends to shadow her and try to rein her in.

It didn’t work.

Nana spent the entire reception telling horror stories about Bert (who was also there) to anyone who would listen, even to my family and friends. People kept coming up to my mother offering condolences on the crazy, dysfunctional family I had married into.

Nana and Sarah as an infant (1985)

Nana also tried to turn her kids against their father. Larry refused to take sides and continued his relationship with both parents. But his sister acquiesced to her mother’s demands. She didn’t talk to her father for two years. During that time she had a baby. Her father didn’t see his second grandson until the child was more than two-years-old.

Nana was a very anxious and obsessive person and a neat freak. She lived across the street from the beach in Pompano Beach, Florida, but she didn’t like her grandchildren to go to the beach. Why not?

Because they might track sand into her apartment. Larry and I took our kids to the beach anyway when they were little.

Nana and David at the beach

But then Nana had a stroke in 1993 when Sarah was eight and David was thirteen. Nana’s speech was affected and she basically had to learn how to talk and read again. Her speech was never the same and from then on she struggled to find words, a constant frustration for her.

The stroke sent Nana’s OCD into the stratosphere. Now she had to leave the house at least a half hour earlier than necessary wherever she went to make sure she wouldn’t be late. She would literally get hysterical if everyone else wasn’t ready to leave on her schedule. She became convinced that no amount of showering in the pool area could wash all the sand off the grandchildren. From then on, we all stopped going to the beach and just spent time at the condo’s pool.

Nana with Sarah at around 1 1/2 years old

One Passover at her house, we were reading through the service in the Haggadah. Suddenly Nana got up and started vacuuming under and around the table because she saw some crumbs on the floor. We tried to get her to stop and sit down with us to finish the service, but we finally gave up. We just shouted our portions of the Haggadah we could be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

Another of Nana’s quirks was avoiding handprints on her walls. All four grandchildren remember constantly being yelled at, throughout their childhoods, “Don’t touch the walls!” When Nana died, David and I went down to Florida to help empty her condo and get her estate in order. We took pictures of David with his hands on the walls and sent them to the three other grandchildren!

Nana with Larry at her 75th birthday party

When she turned 75, Larry and I gave her a party and I wrote a poem for her, which she framed and kept prominently displayed along with the numerous family photos in her condo.

I still miss her unconditional love and her enthusiasm for everything I did. Her daughter and grandchildren also miss her and when we get together we fondly tell stories about her.

Despite her flaws, she left a legacy of love, affection and warm memories.

SOLVING TWO FAMILY MYSTERIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

We’ve had two family ‘mysteries’ that involved genetics and inheritance of traits. The first involved my first husband, Larry, and his blood type. He always said that his dog tag from the army (Texas and Vietnam postings in the early 1970s) listed his blood type as O – the universal donor.

Normally blood type is at most a not very interesting fact about a person, but it became an issue when my second child, Sarah, was born. I don’t know why it didn’t come up when my first child was born, but it just didn’t.

The OB-GYN who delivered Sarah came in after her birth to talk to us about our new daughter’s health. As part of her report, she mentioned that Sarah’s blood type was AB positive. I am type A and Larry suddenly realized as type O, you can’t get an AB child. Not from an A parent and an O parent. He started to get upset.

Sarah’s birth announcement

The doctor pulled me aside and furtively asked me if I wanted her to pursue the issue. She was politely asking if the child could have a father other than Larry. I told her emphatically that the child was Larry’s and asked her to please do everything she could to find the obvious error as quickly as possible.

Larry, Sarah and I all had our blood drawn for testing. It was very tense between Larry and me while we were waiting for the results. I knew that Larry was the father but he believed that he couldn’t be, so what should have been a glorious day for us turned out to be strained, at best.

Larry and Sarah when she first came home from the hospital

Thank goodness the test results came back quickly. I was confirmed as type A, Sarah was confirmed as type AB positive and Larry turned out to be AB positive too, just like his daughter. The army had made a serious error. Larry’s blood type was listed as the universal donor type instead of the universal recipient type. So if they had ever asked him to donate blood, he could have killed someone with an incompatible transfusion!

Larry was shocked that the military had made such a serious error but he was greatly relieved. In fact, both of our kids have their father’s blood type. So, marital crisis averted!

Another picture of Larry and a newborn Sarah

The other genetic mystery we had in our family was my son, David’s, left-handedness. David was an eight-week Preemie and was part of a study of Preemie development at New York Hospital. A researcher came to our house once a month during David’s first year of life and gave him a battery of behavioral and motor development tests.

He was about a month behind in most things but he was way ahead on one – favoring one hand over the other. That usually doesn’t happen till the end of the first year, but from the time David could reach for things, he strongly favored his left hand.

My mother, me and David when he was an infant

The developmental testers were surprised and so was the family since being left-handed is genetic and no one in either family was left-handed. We quizzed every family member on both sides but David still remained a mystery. Then one day, when David was about one and a half or two years old, my mother was playing with him and the topic of his left-handedness came up again.

Suddenly a light went off in my mother’s brain. “Oh my God!” she said. “I forgot that I was born left-handed!”

My favorite photo of my mom and David

In 1916, when my mother was born, being left-handed was not considered to be a good thing. It was a ‘problem’ that had to be ‘fixed’ to make the child ‘normal’ and like the majority of the population. When Mom was of school age, she was forced to use her right hand instead of her left.

This was so traumatic for her, as well as being neurologically challenging, that she developed a stutter. A ‘psychologist’ of the day told my grandmother to cure Mom’s stutter by smacking her in the face every time she stuttered. This barbaric tactic eventually worked and Mom grew up to be a right-handed adult with no stutter.

My mom as a two-year-old in 1918

But the experience so scarred her that she buried the memory. Even a year of talking about David’s inexplicable left-handedness didn’t trigger her memory. I don’t know what finally did, but now we know that David inherited something directly from his grandmother.

Another family mystery solved!

THE QUESTIONS WITH JUST ONE ANSWER – Rich Paschall

No Mystery Here, by Rich Paschall

Many questions may arise throughout each week in your household.  If it is a multi-person household, it may be difficult to ascertain the answers, but in a two-person household, there is just one option.

You probably know all these questions.  They are standard and customary in life.  People everywhere are asking them.  Some will need to be repeated often during the year.  Each response, if you get one in your multi-person home, may surprise you.  If you have multiple teenagers, for example, you may think you know who caused _________ (fill in the issue), only to find out later that a different teenager, or even your mate, is responsible.

Arriving at Chicago O’Hare

When my mate joined me here, all things were fine at first.  I tried to accommodate my friend as best I could, and he tried to fit into the routine of his new house.  Each of us, I do believe, was conscious of the fact that changes and concessions needed to be made.

Then something happened, as it does with all mates.  We got comfortable with one another.  This meant we reverted to old habits from when we lived alone or picked up new ones based on our new environment.

This inevitably led to the type of situations that most of us face. These situations give rise to the questions you certainly have heard, and/or asked throughout your lifetime.  Now, here in our humble lodgings, I have those same questions, and of course, so does my mate.  We both know the answers to these questions, as there can be just one answer, but we sometimes ask them anyway.

“Who left the empty milk carton on the kitchen table?” The answer to this is the same as the more frustrating variable, “Who put the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator?” Usually, the response is the “I don’t know” look.  You know, the same one the dog will give you when asked who knocked over the garbage can and spread its contents about.

We also have “Who used up the paper towels and did not replace the roll?”  We always have paper towels on hand  One of us did not grow up with the concerns about waste as the other.  Three rolls of paper towels would have lasted me a year.  Now we buy a six-roll pack every few weeks.

That question is not as frustrating as the similar “Who used up the toilet paper and did not replace the roll?” Yes, we keep toilet paper in the bathroom, but I never discover there is none on the roller until I need it.  Furthermore, someone often removes the old roll and puts it in a basket in the bathroom.  No, not a wastebasket, but one of four small metal baskets on a stand used for various toiletries.

I guess that would give rise to the “Who did not put this empty roll in the recycle bin?” but that really is not the more important question, is it?

Each of us prefers to do the dishes because quite honestly, we both think the other one sucks at it.  Seriously, rubbing a soapy sponge over a dish does not necessarily clean it, but I digress.  Unlike my mate, I have lived in the apartment for many years and know exactly how much of something we have.  So, when I am doing the dishes, I know what is missing.

“Do you have one of the wine glasses in the bedroom?”  This might actually go along with the protestation “No!” “Well we are missing one and it is not in the cabinet, not in the kitchen or living room, so it must be in the bedroom.”  Once again  I may get the same stare your dog has perfected for “Who, me?”  “Oh, yes it is here, sorry.”

Now I will confess that I too can be on the wrong end of our household questions.  I may hear “Rich?”  Actually, in our case, it is more likely to be “Reeeeech?” This may come in a somewhat ominous and accusing tone.

“Yes?”

“Did you eat the other pastry I brought home from the Colombian bakery yesterday?”  I can not accuse the dog since we do not have one.  And I can not blame the cat since he never comes in the house anymore since John is here.  He has taken up residence in the basement.  Besides, the cat does not like pastry, as far as I know.

Since we are both drivers on the same car, we can now ask “Who drove the car last and left the gas tank on ‘E,’ as in empty?”  Fortunately, roomie is willing to right this particular wrong, if I am willing to hand over the cash, or the credit card.

There are many other questions.  “Who left their socks on the living room floor?  Who left their gym shoes in the middle of the kitchen floor? Who broke my coffee cup?”

You can see each of these questions has but one answer.  Sometimes, I do not bother asking them as I do not need to drive the point home…again. But I will ask all of them again soon because that is the way of modern life in our household.  How about yours?

IT’S GOING TO BE A BUMPY RIDE – Marilyn Armstrong

Life is a road which urgently needs repaving. It’s full of pot-holes, rocks, broken branches, quicksand, and mud. It’s amazing how anyone can navigate the distance. What makes repaving plans tricky is no two people travel the same road.

There are far too many roads. All of them need grading and paving.

Okay, sure, sometimes paths cross … even run side-by-side occasionally for miles — years — at a time. But even when they cross or run parallel, they aren’t one road.

It’s like a family with three kids. Say you’ve got an older brother and a younger sister. Your brother becomes a businessman and lives a pretty normal life.

Your sister discovers her own version of chaos theory. She proceeds to live a life of crisis and yeah, chaos. Not theory, but the real deal. As for you, you’re not entirely sane, but compared to your sister, you’re solidly grounded and compared to your brother, you’re a wild child. That’s worrisome because you know how much weird stuff is going on in your head.

All three kids had the same parents. As far as anyone knows, you also all had (more or less) the same upbringing.

So, I guess that road is going to stay uneven. Life will continue to be unfair. It will leave many of us looking skyward, searching for answers and sometimes, for questions.

We have great parents, crappy lives. Horrible parents, amazing lives. That’s just life. Infinitely variable, lumpy, bumpy, and charmingly uneven.

ORGANIZING THE PAST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I just spent three weeks with my 34-year-old daughter, Sarah.

She lives 3000 miles away, in LA, so this was a rare treat. We have so many interests and views in common, we never run out of things to talk about, even when we spend 24 hours a day together for three weeks!

Sarah

Beyond great conversation, visiting with friends and family and watching TV and movies together, Sarah provided an invaluable service. She is a world-class organizer and loves going through the boxes and boxes of photos and memorabilia in the attic.

She organized our family photos going back to my grandparents from the early 1900s. Everything is now in plastic containers, organized by category, dates, properly labeled. We had a serious mouse problem so the plastic boxes with lids are life savers.

Organized boxes in my attic

We found wonderful treasures buried in the attic boxes.

We found the hospital bracelet I wore when I gave birth to my son in 1980. We found a large photo negative of the Surgical Army Hospital my ex-husband ran in Vietnam in 1970-1971.

Letters I wrote to my Mom from my first trip to Europe with friends in 1965 were a hoot to read. We also found a sterling silver cup with my name engraved on it – a gift to my mom in honor of my birth in 1949.

The oldest find was a series of love letters to my grandfather dated 1914. They were from someone who was clearly in love with him and equally clear was the fact that her feelings were not reciprocated.

Letter to my grandfather dated 1914

I was blown away by a particular set of writings from my early life. I had saved my teachers’ comments and evaluations (given in lieu of grades) from third grade through sixth grade. Most interesting was the fact that my basic personality has not changed much since then. I apparently had only a few close friends then, as now. I was considered a leader in small groups but faded into the background in large groups. Like now.

I was curious, inquisitive, creative and intelligent but lacked confidence. I seemed to have constantly sought the approval of adults. I’m better today but still lack confidence and undervalue my talents and accomplishments.

My senior thesis in college

The second category of writings we found, were papers I had written from grade school through college. I was thrilled that Sarah actually read some of these – my early evolution as a writer. She was impressed by my organization, persuasiveness, and writing style. I was impressed too. I was very sophisticated for my age, in writing and thinking.

Our exploration of our family history was gratifying. I’m very happy my daughter will keep our family treasures and pass on our stories. In fact, Sarah encouraged me to write about the many family stories from my grandparents down to my kids. I spent about a year writing and posting autobiographical blogs for Serendipity. I have over 330 pages of these blogs.

Sarah and my dogs

Sarah helped me put them in roughly chronological order, copy them, and put them into large three-ring binders. We added tabs to indicate stories from different people and periods of time.

For example, my life is divided into my early years, living with my first husband before kids, my kids’ childhoods, and life with my second husband.

My Family History with Tabs

I gave a copy of the Family History in Blogs to both my children, so we all have a collection of the most interesting stories about everyone in the family. I feel great that I’ve preserved in writing what the photo albums preserve in pictures. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments.

Binder I had customized for my Family History

And you, Serendipity readers, came along with me for this amazing ride. You gave me the motivation to write all these stories and sharing them with you has been fantastic.

Thank you for reading them and commenting on them. My children thank you too!

FAMILY FIXERS – Marilyn Armstrong

Everyone needs help sometimes … so where do you go to get that quick fix? How about your family?

If it isn’t something I can fix myself or Garry can manage, I usually ask my son for help. He’s not shy about asking for my assistance if he needs it. We are good at different things. Also, he is tall and I am not.

My granddaughter can sometimes be cajoled into cutting or dying my hair … and occasionally, can be urged to come out and take some pictures with me. She’s a good photographer and has a great eye.

Kaiti

When my brother was alive, if there was anything that had anything to do with printing he was always my first call. I do miss him very much. Too many have died too soon.

Other than these folks? The rest of my family was more or less stuck in the 19th century. They were already past middle age when I was a kid and they never made it into the computer era.

I had Uncles. Jack, Abe, Herman, Louis, Mickey, and Sam. I still have an Uncle Sam, come to think of it, but I’m sure he’s not related by blood.

I cannot imagine under what circumstances I would have called any of these uncles to help me with anything at any point in my life, not even when they were still alive. Their current lack of aliveness makes them even less likely to be helpful in a crisis than formerly. It’s hard for me to picture big, bluff Uncle Abe, the guy who used to toss me in the air to make me giggle and scream, giving me advice on Men, Marriage, Career … or how to fix a computer.

uncle-sam

Or even asking him to read something I wrote to see if he liked it.

He wouldn’t have liked it. None of them would have liked it. Or understood it. Their brows would have furrowed and I am sure they would have found my interest in Such Matters perturbing and disturbing. At the very least.

So here’s the scenario.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

“Hello?”

“Uncle Herman, hi. It’s Marilyn.”

“Who?”

“Marilyn. Dorothy’s daughter.”

“Oh, Dorothy. How is she? Is she coming to visit? I haven’t seen my little sister since … ” Long pause.

“Last month,” I offer helpfully. I’m nothing if not helpful.

“Yes,” he agrees.

“Uncle Herman, I have a problem. My laptop screen seems to have an intermittent connection to the keyboard and I can’t figure out how to fix it. Can I bring it over and have you take a look?”

“Sure Bubbala. Your Aunt just made a big batch of the jello you like so much.”

I really did love the jello Aunt Ethel made. It was never too hard or too soft — always perfect. And she used bunny rabbit-shaped molds so the jello wriggled and jiggled, as jello should.

Jello notwithstanding, I cannot imagine a positive outcome to this encounter. Although in his day, Uncle Herman was good with machines, especially sewing machines (he was a cutter and tailor, as were most of the men in my mother’s family in that generation), computers were … well … not his thing.

July 1963

He could give it a good whack, which might cure the problem or finish off the computer. A simple, fast, permanent fix. Not exactly what I had in mind.

Or they could have served me jello and we would talk about this and that, forgetting the reason for the visit because seriously, when you have a problem, do you call your family to help you out? Really?

And as a final note of caution, quick fixes are rarely good fixes. Just an observation.