When our extended family was seated around my grandparent’s thick, oak dining table—one given to our great-grand-father as debt payment during the Depression and that had been elongated by inserted leaves for the gathering— the discussion would inevitably escalate until one of the men slammed a fist on that table and stomped out of the room. Usually this was Pop, my mother’s father, disgusted over where the political discourse had gone. Incredulous that these people in his house were so damn backward thinking. Not infrequently, it was my own father who’d set him off. My father had a prickly relationship with Pop. On the other hand, Mama, my grandmother, loved everyone, brought out the best in all, including my father (plus he was Catholic!) and that was reciprocated. But she’d get pissed at theatrics. “Oh N.S.!” She’d hiss, always calling my grandfather by his initials. “For god’s sake!” She’d toss her napkin down and go through the swinging kitchen door to retrieve the desserts for the rest of us.
My father got into it with my uncles too. Later, my sisters, who are a decade older than me, battled it out with Pop, a white, upper class, college-educated man who’d lost his fortune in the second big market drop of the Depression in ‘34. Throughout adulthood, he’d had a rough ride with substances but finally committed to sobriety on the day his first grandchild, my sister, was born. Those drunken years deeply affected his family and were especially ugly for Mama, whose wifely duties were primarily to cover for him. My sisters, however, brazenly challenged Pop’s views on charged topics like civil rights and Middle East politics. They were living and attending nearby colleges and had fresh, compassionate, vibrant minds with perspectives my grandfather couldn’t possibly fathom. But despite fundamental differences in their belief systems, he relished their verbal sparring and witnessing his granddaughters passionately debate. He always believed that as they matured, they’d come around to see the world as he did. On that point, he was wrong about my sisters.
I was too young to get in the fray and, frankly, too interested in getting to the dessert course. Mama had a special technique for swirling cinnamon into her pumpkin pie. But the gentle, old-married- couple bickering, sometimes all-out barking, between my grandparents remains in my memory, as does the way Mama plied my father, her son-in-law, with the fig preserves he loved to eat for breakfast while patting his shoulder lovingly, even on those mornings after a blow-up with Pop. Food has always been currency in our family culture.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sitting around that big table with my uncle who knew it irked my disciplined, raised-on-nothing father when he ate an entire roast beef in one sitting, or made us hysterical with the jokes thirteen-year-olds tell that no polite person would repeat. Especially at the dinner table. Mama’s children, my mother and two uncles, often joked about the horrific events that had happened in that house with a raging alcoholic. Or when there was no money. And it was hilarious. These were flawed and scarred adults who, along with the kids, shared a love for one another despite the chaos and ancient familial grievances; we also shared in our love for Mama and her pound cake, apple pie and the chocolate sauce she taught all her granddaughters how to make (for the record, and contrary to my cousin Janet’s assertion, mine’s the best rendition). I can still hear the din from the television console and smell the sweet pipe smoke wafting from that tiny den, where my grandfather would plant himself in that squeaky leather recliner whether after storming out of a room or just because it was that time of the day. Or because Jeopardy! was on and we’d all compete to show him who was the most clever.
Of course, Mama and Pop are now gone. Many heated discussions amongst family members outlived them. Raised voices. Storming out of rooms. And likely there are more to come. At more recent family gatherings, cousins laugh about the differences; we roll our eyes, grateful we’ve even stayed connected (thank you Facebook). It goes unsaid that we share a deep love for our flawed grandparents who we are sure would love us as much today as ever, even though we casted votes for candidates they would certainly consider ghastly.
Mama had a way of cutting through it all with a sense of humor. I wish I had her talent. On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful my grandfather lived his later years sober, and that I now understand how difficult this was for him. I am grateful we have recipes. And most of all, loved ones to feed.
Here’s wishing that you too find that which surpasses the ugly discussions in life on this day of gratitude.
As always, we welcome your comments:
Recently our family attended an art show of two women painters, Ellen Litwiller and Angelique Benicio. Calling them “women painters” as opposed to simply, “painters” can elicit a whole conversation about noting that their gender makes them somehow different. Because do we ever say “men painters”?
It’s curious that when we think of a man who is successful we don’t usually say, “And he’s a father!” But regarding a successful woman, we say, “And she’s a mother!” A prolific male painter who is also a devoted father is remarkable. A woman painter, who is a devoted mother, is praised for the fact she does paint. We tend to see motherhood as “natural” and a woman who awkwardly holds a newborn to be odd. Either we underestimate men as fathers or overestimate women’s aptitude and inclination for parenting. Here we risk sweeping generalizations. When a family breaks apart, it is statistically more unusual for a mother to leave her children to be cared for full-time by their father than the other way around. But thankfully, our ideas about these roles are slowly changing.
They do not include the descriptor “women” to identify their work as being lesser or better than that of other painters, but it does, intentionally or not, highlight the complexity involved in their career arc.
But I call attention to these differences because the fact that these painters are women has dictated their journey. Litwiller and Benicio, who are part of a women painter collective, are working in collaboration to garner exposure. They do not include the descriptor “women” to identify their work as being lesser or better than that of other painters, but it does, intentionally or not, highlight the complexity involved in their career arc. They are, in fact, wildly talented and disciplined painters. They are special, though, because they are also mothers. And devoted ones, at that.
In order for them to find the block of hours for their work, they first created space in a garage, cordoned off from their children. This space is also sometimes metaphoric. Ellen tells me she created a sculpture from yarn while also watching her sons at the skate park. Hey, everybody in the family has needs and when there’s a will, Ellen finds the way. But family life is always the constant and not necessarily predictable or controlled. It is no small feat to organize the schedules of two adolescent boys, grocery shop, and be present to acknowledge successes and manage meltdowns. And then, in the limited time that is the school day, she pulls from somewhere deep within to create something else. But their work is also what saves them from the pressures of family life. The act of creating can be highly therapeutic.
Where the story of these two women painters connects to the rest of us is that their lives exemplify the creativity and discipline involved for all women to transcend motherhood in small and grand ways. As if motherhood is not a large enough role. But a woman’s life is an integration of identities—mother, wife, professional. And then when life at home becomes more challenging because a child has become ill, for example, a mother must rise to meet that challenge also. Some of us are fortunate to have support of a spouse, sibling or dear friend. But what mother, no matter how well supported, doesn’t feel the constant emotional and practical pull to meet the needs of our kids, maybe a partner, and of our own ambitions?
Motherhood presents an ever-changing landscape. Just when a mother feels she’s got this thing down, it changes. When our children are very young, the needs require physical stamina. Later, mothering becomes increasingly more psychological, at times heartbreaking, as we witness our children suffer what life delivers. If the lack of sleep in those early years don’t get us, the anguish of teenage rebellion just might.
There are many mothers who never get the chance to fully explore their ambitions. Sometimes, their child’s needs are too great to allow much more personal exploration. Or, maybe a mother isn’t supported. Some women quietly find fulfillment or success in less public ways. Knowing that motherhood presents complexity, how can anyone judge a woman’s choices in parenting? One of our Behind The Wall mothers whose daughter lives with borderline personality disorder once said, “I know others judge my parenting because of my daughter’s behaviors.” But to those who are doing the judging, one should ask, “Do you even know what’s going on behind the walls of that home?” Mothers are humans who are figuring it all out as best they can. And when we have our own successes, it is downright remarkable. It is.
This post is our first that is not centered on addressing mental illness. But it is about mothers, who are often the primary advocates for a child who lives with any chronic illness. For this Mother’s Day, perhaps we should contemplate what one can do to support other mothers in their journey to integrate their many identities and to bend to meet the needs of those they love. One way is to respect the hard choices she has to make to meet the needs of her children and herself. And another is to celebrate the brilliant accomplishments of other mothers we know.
Thank you, Ellen and Angelique.
To learn more and view the portfolios of Ellen Litwiller and Angelique Benicio, please go to:
As always, your comments are welcome:
Our guest blogger is writer Michael Ross. His sister Michele lived with bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Over time, the side effects of the medications necessary for Michele to function took their toll. In his eulogy for his sister, Ross makes sense of what her much too brief life meant for him and her loved ones.
While my sister Michele was deathly ill and in limbo, I was struggling to find a way to think about it. My wonderful wife Markie, who has helped me immeasurably with Michele, out of the pure conviction of her belief system said something like, “I think her soul is waiting to break free. And after that happens, she’ll be purely Michele without all the burdens.”
In that moment I felt a sense of release. The situation remained crushingly sad but now it was fitted into the context of nature eventually taking care of us all.
To honestly and righteously celebrate my sister, I turn to the soul of the girl. And to do that, we have to jump back into the 1960s…
Michele was the first person I ever knew who was truly avant guard. Creativity flowed through her. It was “stream of consciousness” in nature. In 1966 when she was fifteen, she won an essay competition and was invited to read her work in front of the congregation at our Temple— Temple Beth Hillel. It was called, “Fairytales in the Grass— a surrealistic sermon.” This was the moment I learned she was avant guard, although I didn’t know what that meant back then. While Michele was on the pulpit spinning her psychedelic metaphors, I sat next to my dad who seemed to have restless leg syndrome. The poor guy was unsettled by the force of what she was saying. I was too young to get her story, but I knew there was music in her words. She finished by quoting the end of the Diary of Anne Frank where Anne says, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” There was complete silence… then a stirring in the congregation at which time my dad issued a one-word critique under his breath: “Jesus.” But after the service he was met by a wave of people, a lot of whom were his age and were genuinely moved by his daughter’s speech… And “Jesus” turned to, “Thank you very much.” I realize now he was completely flummoxed. Because she was avant guard.
In her high school years she played piano, guitar, wrote songs. One of them seared itself into my memory. I’ve remembered the first verse my whole life:
Frankenstein’s in the womb of the mothers of invention. He’s silent and still as the luminous rays. As the sun piercing through my eyes to my brain. Telling me there’s no rain.
Now, I still don’t know what that means. But I do know that in 1967 it was as arresting as the song “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane. At this time, along with being avant guard, Michele started an alternative spiritual journey from being the girl who was bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel to the relentless Hare Krishna chanter in her room. All night, “Nam yo ho renge kyo.” And then early the next morning, I’d hear her quick footsteps to the front door. She’d open it and look outside at the empty curb in front of our house. She had not been rewarded with a car. So then, back into her room. “Nam yo ho renge kyo…”
In 1969, Michele went to college in Arizona and certain trappings of being avant guard, namely, drinking and taking drugs, overtook the creative part of being an artist. And here’s where I mourn. If she’d applied study and technique to her wellspring of talent, Michele might have become… you could fill in the rest of that sentence in so many ways. But this is where we have to re-calibrate what was success in the life of my sister. And see that her soul, which became weighed down more and more, always tried to find new ways to show itself.
After living in Portland for a number of years, she moved back to Los Angeles in the summer of 1976, admitting that she had addiction problems. A cycle began of staying sober, slipping, rehabbing, slipping. My mom and I wrestled with this new notion of “tough love.” Louise attended to Michele and advocated for her. I’m not saying theirs was the healthiest of relationships, but by God, my mom was steadfast and remained so, as it became clear that Michele’s problem was more than addiction and now included the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which brought a much heavier challenge. But through all of this, Louise and Michele had a life— dim sum lunches, going to their favorite coffee places, bonding over my familial shortcomings.
Lucky for me I married Markie and we have our beautiful children. They were a tonic for everybody. Michele showed her sweet soul with my kids. When they were little she was “Aunt Michele,” who always made them things and was always interested in what they were doing. They didn’t spend a lot of time together, but my girls loved her. And when they got older, although Michele never explicitly said this to them, she once told me that she hoped her mistakes would keep them from making the same ones. I remember the moment I conveyed this to Kate and Daisy. I was proud of Michele. Proud of my big sister.
Success for her was in the work she did at TobinWorld, this wonderful school for developmentally disabled children. A couple days a week she made them lunch— hamburgers—which she did great her whole life. While the job may have at first been a kindness offered to her, the staff came to truly appreciate Michele. Because the kids loved her. Because she loved them and she’d say, “I get a kick out of ‘em.” She also found success in her work at the dog shelter where she volunteered, grooming and playing with dogs. Like with the kids, it was a pure connection. Most people love dogs. Nobody loved them more than her.
When our mom died in 1997, I became Michele’s conservator. Now that was a weird deal for both of us. Challenging for both of us. It’s not the natural way of things. But, it wasn’t without its humorous moments.
Some years ago, along her spiritual journey, Michele turned for comfort, unfortunately, to the televangelists. I’d give her spending money for lunches with her friends, for movies, Starbucks, and for cigarettes. Periodically, she’d ask for more money more often. When pressed, she’d admit it was for the guys on TV, that sending them twenty-five or fifty dollars seemed like a pretty good deal for getting into heaven. We’d debate this for a while. She’d make her points. I’d make mine. And finally, we would arrive at the same place. I would say, “If you’re gonna buy your way into heaven, you’re gonna do it with your cigarette money.” I’m proud to say she’d always pick tobacco over Pat Robertson.
Now… as I write this, at this point I’m feeling stuck… how do I close out a tribute to a life that seemed too soon to end?
I want to tell you guys, my family, my cousins, that while Michele couldn’t connect to all of us in a way that felt substantial… she was connected to us, in her own way. She always welcomed news about all of you. She always wanted to tell me when she had spoken to Aunt Ruth, or Chris, or Evelyn. She always enjoyed saying that they sent me their love and regards. And she always would tell me when she sent my regards back. Her life was hard work for her. It was often hard work for me. But, with maybe more objectivity than I had while I was her brother/conservator, I can see and appreciate that until recently, Michele was always trying to move herself forward.
In the days since she died, I’ve been listening to the 60s channel on satellite radio. The 60s were her time, and that music connects me to what I remember as her essential self. So, while I know what she was hoping would be her reward, here’s my version of it… It’s 1967 and she’s going to San Francisco with flowers in her hair.
For the last twenty-four years, Michael has been a writer/producer for network television comedies. Prior to that, he was an actor. Prior to that, he and Michele played guitars and sang together.