It’s almost impossible for me to be here in Chicago and not regress into an earlier version of myself. No matter how much I’ve evolved in the 21 years since I left this city, no matter how much work I’ve done on my “issues” or how much therapy I’ve had, being in this environment can instantly transform me back into a 12-year-old…or younger.
I think the nadir of my regression came a few days into the trip when I was in my father’s basement with my sister (in the house where we grew up) and we started pulling out old family photos and other mementoes. My sister and I immediately launched into our longstanding scarcity routine in which we each lay claim to the item in question. “That’s mine!” I insisted, barely considering the content of the object. “No way! You’re NOT taking that!” Sue countered with equal passion. This exchange quickly escalated into a King Solomon-like match in which we came close to tearing priceless artifacts in two with me thinking that I am the true family archivist and therefore all such objects are rightfully mine, and my sister worried (not without reason) that as soon as something lands in my possession and leaves the state she’ll never see it again. We both came to our senses in the end and simply left the items where they were. My behavior forced me to realize that we weren’t fighting about “stuff” at all, it was more a desperate desire to hold onto a past that that no longer exists. Maybe if we possess the photographs of these departed loved ones, we can bring them back? Can we somehow transform back into these younger, thinner, prettier versions of ourselves?
Not that I’d ever want to go back to being that clueless, scared kid. Our friend Ellen, who lives in New York and had flown with me to Chicago for my sister’s birthday, said to me point-blank after the basement episode, “I like you so much better when you are with us in Brooklyn. You act so differently here.” Gulp. Today, after being here for a week, I feel a lot more in touch with my adult self. I love being with my family but it’s often a fight to stay conscious and not revert back to the patterns I mastered in the 1960s and 70s where I either checked out completely or else adopted the persona of a spoiled brat.
At least now I’m more aware of these patterns. I feel more of the adult me coming through during this trip than it ever has. But why does there have to be any struggle at this point? Is it related to the guilt I feel for leaving in the first place? The grief at the absence of my mother, grandparents, and others who once inhabited these spaces? The unresolved pains of childhood that prevented me from experiencing so many things because I was too terrified? We just got back from picking up my nephew Spencer from camp in Wisconsin and as I walked through those grounds watching all the exhausted, dirty, mosquito-bitten kids saying goodbye to their friends and counselors, I found myself welled up with sadness and regret that I never went to overnight camp. My brother and sister did, but I never wanted to go. Why did I always deny myself the kind of bonding experiences that I would then spend the rest of my life craving? Why didn’t my parents make me go to camp? Did anyone notice how I was increasingly closing myself off from the outside world?
We had a wonderful Shabbat dinner last night at my cousin Sarah’s house that so reminded me of the Friday night dinners we spent every week with my grandparents when I was growing up. Sarah was only nine years old when I left Chicago and now here she was with her husband and three children. I think part of me somehow thinks that time should stand still when I’m not there to see it. Is that the rallying cry of the narcissist? It’s always a shock to see how life has simply gone on, year after year, with a whole new generation of people present in this city who were not born when I left, and a whole other generation that has mysteriously disappeared from the canvas. Where did they go? I love being around the remaining representatives of this generation and I can never stop asking my dad and other relatives questions about the past.
But enough of my self-diagnosed therapy. Kendall and Leah arrive late tonight which should go a long way towards reminding me that I’m 47, not 7. Among the new cache of family photos I discovered during this trip (and thanks to modern technology I can simply scan what I find and avoid my sister frisking me as I leave), there were several shots of me at Universal Studios during our 1971 trip to Los Angeles with my Super 8 movie camera in hand. Leah finished her filmmaking camp at Universal Studios yesterday and this morning attended a screening of her first film which I’m very bummed to have missed. It’s incredible to me to see how different she is from me at that age—so much more mature, more aware of the world around her, fearless about trying new things, and eager to meet new people. Thank God for that.
My dad is calling to see where we all want to go to dinner. Has eating always been my family’s religion? Why does all of the self-control I have in L.A. take a hike whenever I’m in this town? By the time we head back to California next Friday I will be in desperate need of a sensory deprivation tank and a gastric bypass. But until then, I will continue to see if I can break my old patterns and remember who I really am.