Late in the evening the two of us sat on the steps away from the rest of the guests, Grace’s wedding dress absorbing all the empty nooks between us and around us in the narrow space of the stairway. It was cozy and nice to have my beautiful niece drag me off to a quiet place on her big day.
“Do you know why I was late for the wedding?” she asked, her fingers fiddling with the folds of her dress. I could tell she wanted a cigarette. Shaking my head, I leaned in close. “I had an absolute panic attack. I couldn’t move. It wasn’t about marrying Ro, it was about everything in the whole world.”
As Tolstoy writes at the beginning of Anna Karenina, every happy family is the same but every unhappy family is unhappy for its own reasons. For my brother’s family things began to unravel with the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. When Grace was two and her sister and brother were five and six, my brother left his family and moved to Alaska. But miraculously his children, all in their twenties now, are doing well and still want him to be a part of their lives. Earlier that day, contrary to what everyone in all branches of the family had expected, my brother walked Grace down the aisle. When she finally arrived at the church, that is.
So Grace and I talked on the stairs while my husband hung out with the menfolk on the porch, the early summer breeze off the finger lakes stroking the trees and blades of grass in the park. Inside our sons, at their first wedding reception that went past their bedtime, were horsing around on the dance floor with their new-found friends.
We talked about how a nameless anxiety needs a place in our hearts to light upon. We talked about her meds and therapy. We talked about the many parts of your life a momentous event like a wedding dredges up, all of your various worlds are represented whether they have anything to do with one another or not. I told her about a puzzling photo taken at our wedding reception in 1985: my sister’s husband, a physical plant guy at a hospital in Utica, New York, is shown talking to my father-in-law’s old friend, a high-powered investment banker on Wall Street. They seem to be deeply absorbed in conversation. Over the years, as Scott and I have looked at that photo in our album, one of us always says to the other, “What in the hell were they talking about?”
For Grace and Ro, a wonderful young man who was born in India but grew up in the States where his father served in the diplomatic corps, this mixing of worlds was more than just puzzling. With careful attention to seating arrangements there was Ro’s family from India; the tiny contingent of Grace’s father’s family, i.e. my brother, my husband, our two sons and me; the huge, generous but protective family of her mother -- most of whose members my brother and I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years; and the couple’s own school friends and current friends. No wonder she was terrified. It wasn’t just putting her father and mother in the same room for the first time in many years, it was absolutely everything.
After Grace’s wedding last June, I picked up Small Wonder, a book of essays that Barbara Kingsolver began to write after September 11th. (I’ll have you all know that there was no small amount of time spent burrowing under my bed with near fatal dust inhalation in order to find that book for this essay.) I was astounded by the first paragraph of her foreword:
“I learned a surprising thing in writing this book. It is possible to move away from vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper – by “diving into the wreck,” to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they’re assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes manageable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief.”
How I wish I had read that paragraph one week before so I could have whispered it in Grace’s ear on those steps. “This is grief you’re feeling, Sweetie. It’s loss. It’s the regret and grieving for all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have beens’ of your 24 years. You are a strong survivor but you can be stronger yet. You have real things to grieve but nothing, nothing to fear.”
I’m reminded of this moment because I just finished a novel by James Carroll titled Secret Father. It’s about three teenagers from an American school in Germany who cross over into East Berlin in the spring of 1961 just before the wall goes up. It’s told in turns by the father of one of the children and his son. As I read the last line of the book, “I had to look away,” I recalled that the father had written the same line earlier in the book. I spend a good deal of time when I should have been attending to other things trying to track down that earlier iteration. Finally I found it. What the father character, Paul Montgomery, looked away from was spoken by the mother of one of the other teenagers, a German woman who had suffered greatly during the war: “Fear, Mr. Montgomery, can be an expression of grief.” Oh my. How ideas do pile upon us.
The week before Mother’s Day, I engaged in several telephone battles with my 82 year-old mother in upstate New York. A few months before she had promised she would drive to Maine to hear our son Marty play alto sax in a jazz concert. On Monday, she called to say she had a doctor’s appointment rescheduled for Friday and couldn’t come. She felt fine but didn’t want to inconvenience the doctor. I told that a regular check-up should not stand in her way of doing something she wanted to do. “Break the trip up into two days. Spend the night in Springfield, Mass.” I told her. I told her she had to come and laid the grandchild disappointment on thick.
“Okay,” she agreed. “I guess I can do that.”
“Right you are, Mom!” I said brightly. “Gotta go now. See you on Thursday.”
On Wednesday she called again. “I can’t come,” she said. “I feel nervous about the drive. I’m happy here reading and playing the piano and I can get around so well. I’m not scared. I just feel funny.”
“Anxious?” I asked twirling the phone cord impatiently.
“Okay, whatever. Marty will be disappointed.”
“Tell him that I love him and I’m sorry.”
“Okay, Mom. Do what you need to do.”
“Will you still come out in June?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.”
I went back to my desk, steamed and frustrated. How big of a goddam deal is it to get in a car and drive a route she’s driven dozens of times? I hate that she is anxious and fearful. But then suddenly I was able to name it. I wasn’t mad at my real mother, I was mad that my real mother wasn’t my script mother. For years I’ve recognized that I’ve always wanted my parents to be different people than they really are or, in my Dad’s case, were. I don’t want a fearful mother. I want a strong mother. I didn’t want a foolhardy father, I wanted a wise father. Sometimes it’s been enough to remember that they’ve loved me and supported me greatly, but other times the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have beens’ overwhelm me.
But until I sat at my desk, here where I’m writing this just now, I’d never thought about my parents’ fears and anxieties, their own ‘what might have beens’ and the constant play, throughout the years, of the congenital worry gene as it courses through our veins – to each generation.
Just yesterday I walked down to the mill pond and lay flat on the sun-warmed dock. The spring current is swift down to the dam. I put my hand in and found the water shockingly cold. A bald eagle flew low overhead to its nest on the far side of the lake. I felt, for that moment, that I had nothing to fear.
Before long, I thought, we will set out the fake Adirondack chairs. After work we will sit in them, drink Coronas with lime and judge the kids’ jumps and dives off the dock. “Come in! Come in! Come swimming!” they’ll call to us. “The water’s great!”
Their script parents would already be out there frolicking with them, but their real parents are comfortable and lazy. “Come on!” they'll call, ever hopeful.
And this time, this moment, I’ll try, try, try to say, “Okay, okay, hold your horses, let us go get our suits on.”
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