It’s Easter Sunday and I’m back in L.A. I’ve been sitting here in the warm sun (bless you California) trying to figure out why I was unable to write in this blog while I was in Chicago. Oh sure, I was busy and also sick as a dog, but it seemed more than that, as if the me that exists here in Los Angeles, the one who is capable of ruminating about my life, disappears when I return to the actual geography of my past. I love being with my family but find myself in a constant battle to avoid regressing to my Nixon-era emotional states. Whenever I’m in the Midwest my current life recedes into a foggy haze and I feel like I’m floating in some kind of netherworld, not belonging to my past or my present. Who is that unfamiliar woman sitting at our family dinner? Oh yeah, it’s Kendall, my wife! Someone asks how Leah is doing. Leah? Oh, Leah, my ten-year-old daughter back home! Am I the victim of some kind of “Manchurian Candidate” post-hypnotic suggestion, with my adult identity programmed to vanish at the first whiff of a Fluky’s hot dog or a Lou Malnati’s pizza?
As my sister packed up her house for her move, the tangible remnants of our shared memories were all around us. While my adult self flickered in and out of consciousness, long dormant sensory images came rushing to the surface. When I saw this forgotten 1960s picture of me and Sue taken at Lincoln Park Zoo, I found myself tumbling into the sepia tones like Alice in Wonderland. I remember every detail about being placed atop this real (but stuffed) bear and I can feel the coarse fur on the exposed parts of my legs. I remember grabbing onto the dead bear’s ears, scared that I was going to fall off, and being comforted by the touch of my sister’s hands on my back. I even recall the zoo photographer disappearing under the black curtain on his old-fashioned cameras as he told us to smile for the birdy. After the photo was taken, I bent over and kissed the bear’s head, feeling sorry for its miserable existence as I watched the next group of unruly children climb aboard.
My tendency whenever I’m in my hometown is to idealize the past. Everything was perfect when we were children and my family members were young and healthy and strong. None of us had a care in the world in those pleasure-filled days, right? Sorting through the countless boxes in her attic, my sister found a stash of old diaries from the late 60s and early 70s. She read me a few of the entries which, even when you take into consideration the overly dramatic nature of a teenaged girl, revealed a family history that did not always line up with my version, the one that was scrubbed clean of all dysfunction. My sister's account of one especially hideous Friday night dinner at my grandparents’ Lake Shore Drive apartment was so full of detail that I was able to break through my “Past Is Perfect” shell and allow the events of that long-ago evening to re-enter the soft tissue of my memory. But then my all-or-nothing psyche kicks into gear—if I acknowledge that those weekly Shabbos dinners were not all bathed in the golden light and sweet-tempered nostalgia of a classic Waltons episode, does that mean that all of those evenings (and by my last count I attended 1,454 of them before I moved away) are tainted and must be reviled instead of cherished? Among my well-stocked palette of neuroses, my all-good/all-bad polarization is the trait I most need to work on. I have different demarcation lines in my all-good/all-bad timelines, the most popular being my parents’ divorce. Perfect fantasy childhood on one side of the line and deeply troubled adolescence on the other. Other defining moments lead to equally inaccurate before-and-after histories: when my grandfather’s successful business went down the tubes, when my sister got cancer, the end of my first marriage, my mother’s diagnosis and death five months later, the sudden progression of my father’s blindness. Why do I have this need to see my life in black or white when I know that it has always existed in infinite shades of gray?
I found this picture of me and my sister eating soup in my grandparents’ breakfast room. Unlike our date with the bear, this image produces few sensory memories. Oh, I can smell my grandmother’s exquisite soup, something I haven’t tasted in decades, but I feel very disconnected from the little boy in the picture. Did I ever have that haircut? Wear those sleeveless t-shirts? I remember the taste and texture of the delicious tomatoes my grandmother would add to this soup and yet here is my mother scooping out the offending red chunks and depositing them in another bowl. Why can't I see myself in this boy? When I look at my sister I see the same person who dropped me off at O’Hare Airport yesterday morning. I instantly recognize the vulnerable look in her eyes, the bemused twist of her mouth, how her hand is resting on her cheek. Perhaps I feel so disassociated from that little boy because of the sad, depressed look in his eyes, a look which does not mesh with the mythology I have of myself during those years. This photo was taken years before my parents’ divorce when I was supposedly in the middle of my idyllic, carefree childhood. Yet this same haunting stare gazes out at me in many of the early photos I’ve recently found. I have no choice but to conclude that my tendency towards angst and depression did not emerge fully formed the day after my parents announced that they were splitting up.
What I do know in my heart of hearts is that throughout my 45 years, there have always been moments of excruciating pain, sadness, and despair as well as moments of intense joy, warmth, and hope—sometimes on the same day, the same hour, the same second. I must learn how to relinquish my irrational either/or view of the world. Why can't I just accept that life is a series of painful losses punctuated by occasional happy moments and discoveries?
On a side note, I must mention the conversation I’ve been listening to at the table next to where I am writing this. Two parents in their 60s are talking to their son who is about 25 or 26 years old. They are clearly Jewish and the son speaks with such heavy Yiddish inflection I wonder if he is a Yeshiva scholar. I hear him telling his parents about an older aunt of his new girlfriend who has a “mark on her arm from Hitler.” “What?” his father asks, “you mean a numbered tattoo from a concentration camp?” “Yeah, it’s a number,” he replies, “but it’s from Hitler. That’s what she told me.” The mother explains that the woman was using a figure of speech and that she most likely received the number on her arm when she arrived at Auschwitz. “Auschwitz? What’s Auschwitz” the young man asks, causing my hands to freeze in mid-keystroke and look up in disbelief. After the father’s patient description of the largest of the Nazi death camps, the son shrugs and says, “Nah, I know for a fact that Hitler tattooed the number on her himself.” OY. What are kids learning in high school and college history classes these days? I’m suddenly proud that Leah can name at least half of the concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Hmm, let’s review: wordy posts in desperate need of editing, stream-of-consciousness ramblings about my emotional makeup, meditations on my childhood fantasies, sudden non-sequitirs about Hitler and Auschwitz. Hooray, I’M BACK!!