When documentary filmmaker Doug Block began interviewing his parents several years ago, he thought he was just making a family record of their 54-year-old marriage. The Blocks lived in a suburban home outside of New York and seemed a fairly typical Jewish family. Doug and his two sisters had always assumed their parents had a happy marriage, but when Doug’s mother died suddenly, and then three months later his father married the secretary he supposedly hadn’t seen in 35 years, all sorts of questions about their family history bubbled to the surface. As the father made plans to sell the family homestead and move to Florida with his new wife, Doug began sifting through decades of accumulated memories in his attempt to ferret out what really happened in his parents’ troubled marriage. He hit the motherlode when he found boxes of journals that his mother, Mina, kept for many years; thousands of pages of her innermost thoughts, fears, and hopes. Block debated whether he should read the private journals and ultimately decided to dive in and share portions of them in his moving documentary called “51 Birch Street.”
I just watched the DVD of this film and don’t know how on earth I missed it during its theatrical run. If ever a film had my name on it, this one did. One of the things I love most about the documentary is how we first think we are going to learn about the duplicity of Doug’s father, Mike. Was he carrying on with his secretary all those years? Was he the bearer of all the family secrets? I won’t give it away, but suffice it say that after Mina’s diaries are found, the story changes dramatically. Isn’t that often how family secrets go—we think we’re chasing one lead and then we’re slammed with something we never expected?
The tagline for this film is “Do we ever really know our parents?” I say no, we do not, especially not as the complex and flawed human beings that they are. I suppose as kids we desperately need our parents to play the roles of omnipotent protectors, seemingly without any needs of their own. As we get older, getting to know what made our parents tick can be an illuminating, maturing, troubling, and ultimately poignant journey of discovery.
How I envy Doug Block for finding his mother’s voluminous diaries. If my mother had kept journals, would I have read them after her death? No question about it. As with Doug, no matter what complexities and struggles they revealed, I think that reading my mother’s words would only make me feel closer to her, and it would help me better understand the more difficult chapters of her life. Would I share my mother’s diaries with the public as Block has done? Probably not. At least not passages that I felt my mother would not want known. Does that sound hypocritical coming from me, Mr. Public Family Archivist? I already got into serious hot water with my clan earlier this year when I printed excerpts of letters between my grandfather and uncle that were written during the 1960s. My “defense” at the time was that they were fascinating relics of another time and place and therefore I did not need to check with my uncle regarding their public dissemination since I was only including them as sociological artifacts. Oy, was I wrong, and I would expect people to get MY permission before uploading any of my own personal documents. But what about the dead? Block’s family members came to view his documentary as having a positive impact on their family but his sisters still wonder whether he should have included excerpts from their mother’s diaries. After thinking about it, Mina’s best friend Natasha, who is interviewed in the film, decides that Doug’s mother would have approved since she was so desperate to be truly understood by her family and the world.
Unlike Mina, who spent many years in analysis, my therapy-fearful mother was not eager to share her dirty laundry with anyone, she was far too guilt-stricken about many of her choices. I’m sure she’s quite relieved that she did not keep a written record of her life for us to pour over now. She died before blogging reared its ugly head and I’ve often wondered how she would have reacted to some of the things I’ve shared about our family. I think she would have enjoyed my blog, but there are probably topics I would have avoided entirely (like this one) if she were alive. My father, on the other hand, LOVES talking about painful episodes from the past, so he is on board with any online revelations. Lately he keeps threatening to write a book, or at least talk into a tape recorder about his life, and I hope he does it.
People say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I get just as excited when I discover any fragment of paper written by my departed loved ones. This morning I found three random pages of a draft of a letter that my mother penciled to an event planner in the Catskills when she was planning my brother’s 1967 Bar Mitzvah. What could be less intimate or revealing than such a sterile, 40-year-old document, right? Au contraire—my mother’s words from this long-ago time provide a rare and treasured window into who she was. Reading these pages I am amazed at her attention to detail, her humor, and the fact that she wrote a draft of this letter which I assume she later copied over and mailed. There are funny passages about what Jews like to eat, amusing digs at my relatives, and countless details about the plans for the event that I would’ve sworn my mother had nothing to do with. My brother’s Bar Mitzvah was a combo celebration, a sideshow to my great-grandparents’ Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba’s 65th wedding anniversary. I had always assumed that we were an add-on to this momentous occasion and that my parents had little to do with the plans. And yet here is my mother going into endless details about the flower arrangements, the tablecloths, making sure there are people around to greet the guests as they arrive at the resort, even her worries about the color of the drapes in each room to make sure everything matches. Huh? That just does not reflect my image of my mom at that time, more proof that our memories are not a hard disk of truth and accuracy.
My favorite passage involves the presence of kids at the event:
…I hate to keep bringing this up but there will be lots of kiddies present (get the tranquilizers ready, Mel) and although I don’t intend to aim this Bar Mitzvah at seven year olds, an unhappy seven year old is notoriously more vocal than an unhappy fifty year old (except for a few of my aunts who shall remain nameless). We adults were all content with the meals on our last trip to the Pioneer but I distinctly remember moaning and groaning from assorted juveniles (my own included, I’m ashamed to say). There are many solutions to this problem—everyone could leave their kids at home (count one vote right here) or we could set up tables at Grossinger’s for the kids, or we could tell them there are starving people all over the world who would be more than happy to eat vegetable goulash and creamed spinach (that never works for me—my kids always want to pack up their spinach and liver and send it to India!). However, I think our motto should be ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ I think if you have something as simple as PB and Jelly or cream cheese and jelly, and tuna fish or egg salad sandwiches available for the kids and cupcakes and cookies included with the desserts, that should take care of the lovey-doveys.
I am fascinated by my mother’s tone in this blurb. As a parent I can so relate to everything she said, including the good-natured jabs at her unruly offspring (and since I was the only one of her kids who was seven years old at the time, I can’t help but think her comments were aimed at me). Still, even forty years later I have to admit it’s a bit shocking for me to think of MY mother expressing anything other than total joy at being in our presence 24 hours a day. The crack about leaving us at home is obviously a joke. Reading it as a parent, I laughed out loud. Reading it as her child, I winced. Why does it take something as benign as a letter to a caterer to make me fully appreciate the fact that my parents were terribly young and were probably often stressed out by their roles and responsibilities? I remember what one of Doug Block’s sisters said about their mother in the documentary. “That she loved us there was never any doubt. But perhaps she shouldn’t have had three kids in four years.”
I wish I could have seen my parents as real people back then. Maybe it would have made all the awful times that were to come a few years later during their divorce a little more understandable. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent a lifetime ignoring all of my own feelings in my attempts to “defend” my mother from criticism and instead just have accepted that we are all flawed individuals. I think we show more of our true selves to kids these days than our parents did in the 1950s and 60s. But would I go so far as to say that children today know who their parents really are? Probably not—and perhaps that’s as it should be.