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. 

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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.

. . .

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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.

. . .

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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.

. . .

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“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.

. . .

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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.