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!

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.

THE PEOPLE, PLACES, CRITTERS WHO MATTER … Marilyn Armstrong

A Photo a Week Challenge: The Things that Matter Most

There are quite a few more people who should have pictures than I have room for but suffice to say, I have forgotten no one.

It has been a hectic year, at end of which — Garry can hear. Our deck is full of birds. The Duke roams the woods at will. Short of rebuilding the fence, which is out of the question, I have to hope he’s not planning to go anywhere — like the road. He doesn’t go anywhere. Duke roams the front and backwoods, then jumps into the yard and come home for a treat. He’s been good, hasn’t he?

Garry and Dr. Remenschneider. When your doctor is not much older than your grandchild, you know you’ve put on a few years.
Chef Owen, master of turkey
Bonnie with Garry
The Duke
Gibbs
And let’s not forget the birds …
Home

There’s not enough room to include all the friends and family and everything … but you are all remembered and loved!

AS ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE SAID, “WHAT FAMILY DOESN’T HAVE ITS UPS AND DOWNS?” – GARRY ARMSTRONG


“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” – Eleanor of Aquitaine, “The Lion In Winter” (1968)


Family!

We are always in the middle of dealing with our relatives, especially this time of year. It can be a challenge. We love them but brokering who is going where while trying to avoid the inevitable battles which will last until the next century leaves us having “loud conversations” with each other.

Which is not fair. It isn’t even our drama. I suppose that’s why some families just give it up after a while. The drama overwhelms the joy.

Dublin, September 1990

We don’t have Mom and Dad, Gramps or Gramma, Uncles or Aunts to consult for help. We’re it!

July 2012

I look at the old photos of my family from long, long ago. I wonder how they dealt with these things. They look so young and carefree. I know things were not always easy for them as my brothers and I grew up. I still recall “loud conversations” between Mom and Dad.

I used to wonder why they didn’t resolve things easily like they did on family TV shows which were forever playing as we were growing up? You know, where father definitely knew best? I once even asked my Mom why our house wasn’t like Donna Reed’s home. You can guess how she answered me.

1963

Why didn’t the clock stop for Marilyn and me when we were younger and healthier with some of those beloved family members still around to help us deal with stuff. We’re the “old folks” now, the senior members of what was once a lot bigger bunch of relatives.

Family are us. It’s more than a little disconcerting.

HOW A FORTUNE TELLER RUINED MY GRANDFATHER’S LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My father was a scientist and a very rational man. He didn’t believe in religion or have any superstitions, except one. He told me to never, ever go to a fortune-teller. He had a logical reason. HIS father had told him an eerie story about HIS experience with a fortune-teller, which had haunted him throughout his life.

My grandfather, on a lark, when he still lived in Russia, went to a gypsy fortune-teller in a nearby gypsy camp. He was given a long, detailed story about his future life. Most of the story seemed outrageous, if not impossible at the time. He forgot about the incident. Until, to his dismay, the predictions started to come true, one at a time. I don’t remember all the details but here are a few.

The gypsy told my grandfather that he would serve in the army. At the time in Russia, only first-born sons were conscripted into the army. My grandfather was the third son, so this would never happen. Except that his oldest brother shot off his toes to avoid military service. Then the second oldest brother died suddenly and young. So it fell to my grandfather to take up arms. Just like the gypsy told him. What are the odds?

My father’s father

Next, the gypsy told my grandfather that he would take a long journey involving a boat. He had no intention of ever leaving Russia. Until he couldn’t make a good living as a tailor when he finished his military service. Then he decided to come to America – a very long journey, part of it by sea.

The personal details the gypsy told him were the creepiest part of the story. The gypsy told him that he would marry a young woman who would bear him seven children, including a set of twins, but only two of the children would survive. Believe it or not, my grandmother had exactly seven pregnancies, including a set of twins. The oldest and the youngest, my Dad, were the only ones to survive infancy.

By now my grandfather was freaking out! The next prediction by the gypsy was that his wife would die young and leave him to take care of two children on his own. She died of tuberculosis when my Dad was three. The gypsy said that my grandfather would struggle for a few years but would eventually marry a strong woman who would be a good mother to his children. This happened exactly as predicted. His children, aged three and eleven, were latch-key kids until he met his second wife who, my father always said, ‘rescued’ them.

The rest of my grandfather’s life also played out pretty much as the gypsy had told him. He started making a good living. (He was the first to bring the pleated skirt to America). He lived comfortably until his death as an old man for the day – he was in his 70’s.

The story doesn’t end there. My father understood his father’s aversion to clairvoyants. But as a young man, he fell madly in love with a woman who was ‘beyond his reach’. He was a poor, Jewish medical student and she was a proper WASP who wanted a comfortable and respectable life. He was not in a position to give this to her.

My Dad as a young man

My Dad was so smitten, that he took a year off from medical school to pursue the woman full-time! During this period, he came across a fortune-teller. He couldn’t resist finding out if he would ‘get the girl’ in the end. The gypsy told him that the woman would never marry him. She said that the woman would string him along but eventually would marry a man from Chicago who was ‘like a locomotive’. Dad remembers this phrase because it was an unusual way to describe someone.

As predicted, again, despite a long courtship, his paramour eventually sent him a letter breaking off the relationship. She said that she had found a well established, well-off man and was moving to Chicago to marry him. She described him as strong and commanding, ‘like a locomotive!’

Unbelievable! My father had no rational explanation for any of this.

Neither do I.