When Saturday Night Is Enough

My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.

My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).

And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.

I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.

I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head  I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:

Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister.  What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.

When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).

Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).

I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!

But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?

“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.

Just us.

I look for what’s missing.

My daughter sees what’s there.

I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.

And Emmy needs me.

And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.

Next week, Working Girl.

Just us.

 

 

 

 

 

The Solid Ground I Walked On And The Safe Air I Breathed

When I was 6 years old, my mother and father divorced. He vanished like a sorcerer’s trick and she, until then a stay-at-home mother, went to work. She was very glamorous, dressing each morning in silk and wool, donning tall leather boots and statement jewelry. I had only the vaguest idea of what she did, but I imagined her as one of the career gals I saw on TV, a cross between spunky Mary Tyler Moore and cheerful Bonnie Franklin on One Day at a Time. A bus took my mother to Manhattan every day, where she rode an elevator to a high floor. There were late nights at the office, business trips around the country, and something called “market week,” which demanded all her time and energy several times a year.

When she was gone, I was entrusted to her mother’s care. No wrinkly bubbe, my grandma was young and charming, only 46 when I was born. I adored her, the way swing music seemed to play wherever she went, her delight in bawdy jokes, and the endless stories she told about her audacious youth. We had the most glorious time together.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

But despite the love and care lavished on me by my grandmother when my mother was away, and my mother’s own playful affection when she was home, I was furious with my mother. In the dark fairytale I told myself, my handsome, charismatic Daddy’s strange disappearance had opened a door for her, and she had deserted me for a glittering life that lay elsewhere—in offices and on airplanes, in hotel rooms and tall buildings. My rage grew between us like brambles. I thought I knew the truth of her, that she was distant, and selfish. I believed I mattered to her, but not as much as everything else.

To call me a fool would be too kind.

In recent years, I have pieced together my mother’s version of this story. She resisted telling me, not wanting to upset me, but I have pried it out of her, a sharp-edged treasure.

On the day my mother kicked my narcissistic, philandering, thieving father out of the house, she was 30 years old, possessed only a high school diploma, and was in a mountain of debt she knew nothing about, because my father had “managed” their finances. She was movie star beautiful (I have seen photos and she was a dead ringer for young Elizabeth Taylor), deeply intelligent, and so terrified she could only manage to exist from one breath to the next. She began her career as a secretary at a company that manufactured underwear, and with nothing but her formidable grit, nimble mind, and unshakable determination, she rose to become Vice President of a lingerie company that was known around the world. Her success was personal, certainly, but it was also political. She was one of the women who cracked the glass ceiling so future generations could shatter it.

She did this not for vanity or ambition, but because there was no one else to take care of us. She divorced my father and settled his debts. She fed, sheltered, and clothed us. She bought me books, took me to plays, sent me to camp. All the while, she sheltered me from the painful realities of our life, never letting me know about the years of financial precariousness, my father’s cruelty, her exhaustion and sadness. She accepted my rage to spare me the weight of the truth—the Daddy I pined for had abandoned me utterly. He never called to ask how I was; he never sent a dime of support. My mother was the sun that warmed my shoulders and the moon that lit the dark, the solid ground I walked on and the safe air I breathed, and I never knew.

I see her with new eyes now; my anger replaced by awe for all she accomplished, for her courage and ferocious compassion. When I revisit our shared history, the thought of her — so young, so overwhelmed — makes me hurt. But there is one memory I treasure as a talisman and a comfort. When I was little, I would sometimes weep and beg her to tell me where my father had gone, ask why he didn’t love me anymore. And she would rock me in her arms and soothe me with the names of all the people who did love me, always starting with herself. “Mommy loves you,” she would whisper. “Mommy loves you most of all.”

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

This post originally appeared on the blog “I’m Just Sayin” as part of a series about the often complicated love between mothers and their children. 

Pantheon, One Fallen

I have been trying, and failing, to write about the Bill Cosby abuse allegations for weeks. I am finding it nearly impossible to talk about, because I am so sad.

On the surface of things, this story doesn’t touch me personally. I’ve never met Cosby. I don’t know any of the many women (23 at this writing) who have accused him of drugging and assaulting them. I believe these women, without ambiguity. And while I am distressed at how familiar this narrative is — the powerful man, the vulnerable girl or woman, the fear of not being believed, the threat or payoff to stay silent — that doesn’t account for how bereft I feel.

I am desolate over what has been revealed here, because Bill Cosby is one of my pantheon of fathers.

I’ve written before about my biological father, about his particular damage and how it made him behave in thoughtless, cruel ways. He and my mother split up when I was 6; I ceased all contact with him when I was in my early 30s. In-between, we waged a war of love and fury, estrangement and dark intimacy. He was, in many ways, a great love of mine. He was, in others, a malevolent force that nearly destroyed me. He was so many things to me, but a good father was not one of them.

For that, I had Pa Ingalls. James Evans. Atticus Finch. And Cliff Huxtable.

. . .

Michael-Landon-Charles-Ingalls-stars-in-Lionsgate-Home-Entertainments-Little-House-on-the-Prairie-The-Complete-Television-Series-2

Charles Ingalls, a father who fiddled so you could dance.

I was about to turn 5 when the 2-hour Little House on the Prairie movie premiered in 1974. Like many little girls, I was obsessed with Half-Pint and her braids, perfect Mary, the dinner pails and single room school, that bitch Nellie Oleson. (For the record, I met Alison Arngrim once, and she is delightful. What? Yeah that’s right, I interviewed Nellie Oleson when I worked at TV Land and it was even more amazing than you think it was.) But the real draw of this show, for me, was Pa. Charles Ingalls was a man you could look up to, a man who could shoot and ride and plant and reap, who could build his family a house and then fill it with music he played himself. This was a father, and I turned to him the way sunflowers turn their open faces towards the sun. I never read the books, because someone told me that Book Pa was actually sort of strict and a disciplinarian, and I wanted none of that. For me, Pa is bright blue eyes, moppish hair, social liberalism, a charming sense of humor, and a faithful, enduring, enlightened love for his wife and children.

. . .

GoodTimes_Getty

James Evans, whose daughter was always his Baby Girl.

Good Times also premiered in 1974, and I fell in love with the Evans family immediately. As an adult, I wrote about this show for TV Land, and I was shocked — I mean genuinely shocked — to realize they were poor and lived in a dangerous housing project. As a child, all I saw was they love they shared, the wholeness of their family. I wasn’t an idiot, I knew they weren’t wealthy, but anything they might have been lacking, might have been wanting for, was made insignificant by James Evans. Here was a deeply proud man who was willing to do what needed to be done, who worked two jobs at a time to provide for his family. And when that failed, he was cool enough to make money playing pool. He was a man who called his daughter Baby Girl in a way that felt protective and kind, that made the world safer. A man who was there for for his children, adored his wife, and navigated a brutal world with a steadfast power that awed me. This was a father. Poor? Hell, these people were rich as far as I could see.

. . .

imgres

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

There were years when I carried a copy of Harper Lee’s  To Kill A Mockingbird around with me wherever I went, tucked into my backpack. Atticus Finch made the world bearable. His humility, his passion for justice, his brilliance. The way he could shoot. The way he chose not to. His uncomplicated, profound love for his children. His compassion. His courage. His dignity, and the way he offered a sort of grace to everyone around him. Atticus was the definition of a good man, a gentleman, a man whose fundamental decency was the truest thing about him. This was a father, someone to look up to, who could guide you to the next right thing, the hard thing, every time. He would not fail you.

. . .

01_top10tvdads

Which brings us to Cliff Huxtable.

I was 15 when The Cosby Show premiered in 1984. By then, my mother had remarried, and my biological father had come back into my life after disappearing for several years after the divorce. My stepfather is a good man, and he has treated me with kindness and love from the start. But it was complicated, being the daughter of these two fathers, both sort of strangers. It was messy, confusing. It was hard to know whom to trust, whom to love and how to love without feeling I was perpetrating some kind of betrayal against one of them.

For the Huxtables, life held no such complexities. There was no mistaking how comfortable these people were, no mistaking the joy and playfulness in that house, the saucy love between the parents, the comical throng of siblings. Cliff was present for his family — literally present, his office was downstairs — and he took such clear pleasure in his children, their achievements and quirks, their adorable babyhoods and teenage dramas. This was a father, one who would talk to you, listen to you, make you laugh. One who was genuinely engaged with who you were, and whom you might be someday. One who didn’t give you secrets to keep, unless it was that he’d given you chocolate cake for breakfast.

And he is lost to me now.

. . .

One of the largest parts of growing up is accepting the fact that your parents are people, with flaws and passions and hungers of their own, with their screwed up histories and regrets. Sometimes you realize  they are dangerous, and the only thing for it is to build a wall between you. Maybe you forgive. Maybe you can’t. But at some point, if you are to have anything for yourself, you find a way to stop blaming them. You take responsibility. You take up the threads of your life and weave a tapestry of your own design.

I know this.

But it is hitting me hard, this realization about Bill Cosby. It is a fresh hurt in a place I’ve been wounded before. Because I believed Cliff Huxtable was like Pa and James and Atticus. I believed he was the kind of father who could keep me safe from men like Bill Cosby, men like my own father. And as much as I want to separate the character from the man, they are inextricable. When we talk about Bill Cosby we are talking about someone who, by reputable accounts that I believe, would drug and abuse more than 20 women while publicly joking about hoagies. Cliff feels like a lie now, the kind of lie my father would tell his friends and colleagues about our relationship, the kind of lie I was meant to agree with, about how close we were and how proud he was of me, while all the while he was hurting me in ways no one could see. This is personal. It is a tangible loss in the father-shaped place I have been trying to fill since I was 6.

Make no mistake. I stand with the women who accuse him. But I stand with a broken heart.