Tag Archives: Changes

Apartment #17D – An Ode

nick nacks 17DThis is the site of my childhood. Notches on a closet doorway mark my growth. Outside, on the balcony, a dark stain on one brick betrays the spot where Teenage Me hastily stubbed out a cigarette as I saw my father approaching. This apartment has seen my first steps, heard and felt an ocean of my tears, witnessed my friendships and my loves—wholesome, thrilling, sometimes toxic. I said my last goodbye to each of my parents here. For Dad, that was twenty-three years ago. For Mom, it’s been two months.

And now I face the task of packing up, clearing out, cataloging the pieces of our history. The estate sale “specialist” broke it down for me. Everything—every thing—can be placed into one of four categories: Sell, Donate, Trash, and Keep. A simple formula. But wherever I turn, something indispensable catches my eye: An ancient datebook, a ring, the sort of icepack they no longer make. A telegram sent in 1947—my father assuring his mother that he had arrived somewhere safely. I have no idea where or how to start.

We were the Williamsons—Dad, Mom and me. The only family who has ever lived here. Mine is the only childhood these walls have held. The building went up in the late fifties, part of a complex of four red-brick structures with one- and two-bedroom apartments to rent. My parents chose one above their means at the time: A two-bedroom at the end of the hall on the seventeenth floor for two hundred dollars a month. It looked out on the corner of One Hundredth Street and Columbus Avenue, boasting a balcony from which you could see Central Park if you craned your neck. From the dining room window, you had a red-and-orange steam-bath of a sunset in summer; cool, lavender twilights in winter. From one spot behind our dining room table you could gaze past rundown church steeples and the dingy sides of housing projects to catch a glimpse of the Hudson River. Everyone who visited would remark on the view I took for granted.

It took cunning to rent such a place back in the nineteen-fifties. My parents had a system for apartment hunting. Mom would view each place by herself, my father’s long list of preferences and aesthetic requirements in mind. Dad knew about real estate. His parents had owned two homes back in Chicago: One that they rented out, and one where they lived with their sprawling family of children and grandchildren. But Dad could never accompany Mom to view any apartment until she had signed a lease. To rent the apartment of their dreams, my mother needed to present her prime qualification: whiteness. Her husband, she would tell the building manager, was at work—which was true. What was also true, but what she didn’t share at this point, was that her husband was black.

Mel and Lorraine

Mom and Dad moved here ambivalent about children, but not entirely opposed. When they wed in 1950, friends who were interracially married and parenting mix-raced children didn’t recommend it. Their kids were picked on at school, accepted by neither the black kids nor the white kids. No. Best leave well enough alone and enjoy one another without children. My mother was a teacher, surrounded by kids all day long. She claimed that she had no need for her own. Her work taught her all the things that can go wrong with children, the risks of illness and disability, the emotional turmoil they could face in the best of circumstances. Best not, she agreed with my father. Best enjoy the children of friends, to be God parents, to be free. Then Mom turned thirty-nine and changed her mind. “I want one,” she told him. “I want my own.” “Let’s have one then,” Dad replied. And crossed his fingers, hoping for a girl.

Here is another box of photographs, starring me as a newborn, an infant, a toddler. It happened easily considering their ages, the pregnancy, the birth, though my early months were marked by colic. No one slept much until I was at least a year old. But in the pictures of that year, my parents’ faces betray nothing of the challenges, only the joy. In me, in one another, in the life they’d made from scratch. Together they created a joint culture in our home, made of art and music and books. Made of black and Jewish heritage, made of Chicago and New York and Louisiana (from his parents) and Russia (hers). And that was our place.

“You just need to decide what you want,” friends have said. Just. A word offered to simplify, minimize the effort involved. These friends have been supportive, accompanying me to my mother’s place (it hasn’t been Dad’s for twenty-three years), they have washed, folded, tossed and recycled, and again and again, held up some vase or salt box or kitchen tool, eyes questioning.

As my friends exhume relics of our life, as they dust, shine, wash and dry, our dining room table fills with the mismatched decorative pieces—Dutch cookie jars, Egyptian Scarab beads, and Senegalese wooden masks—looking like a life-raft packed with strangers thrown together after a shipwreck.

But through the chaos and clutter, I still see us three, sitting here: Mom to my right, Dad to my left at the head of the table. They trade sections of the New York Times, talking politics over my head.

“That S.O.B.” My mother says, which I know means Nixon. She begins to read aloud, but Dad cuts her off.

“You see? You see?” He sets down the second section of the paper to drum an index finger on the table. “This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

Williamsons 1970It was part of an ongoing discussion in which terms like race and fascism and civil rights were thrown around. When the discussions were too intricate, the words became a soft, spring rain on my shoulders, nurturing, soothing. Because even as they ranted, their joint indignation would keep me safe from whatever evils were out there. It’s what I believed unequivocally.

What do I want? I want my parents back. Of course. But I’ll settle for the obvious things, like my mother’s photo diaries, my father’s memoir, his unsold screenplays, his short stories and articles. The sentimental things. My father’s Panama hat—straw with a colorful pink and green band. My mother’s gold chain belt from the seventies. I want the photographs with all three of us together, but also the ones that predate me, documenting those first sixteen years of their marriage. My parents, living it up at the Vanguard in 1952. With friends on the Maine coast in 1954. I want the photographs that date back even further, to the years before they met. My father at the back row of Class 5B at the Willard School. My mother and her little sister at the 1938 Chicago World’s Fair. Dad in the army, Guam World War II. Mom as the Queen of Hearts in the University of Illinois Hillel Stunt Show, 1945.

Time is running out quickly. The place must be emptied by the end of the month. My parents are gone. I live with my husband and children in another state where we are rapidly accumulating our own memories. It’s time for this apartment to hold someone else’s stories.

There is healing in the going-through of my family’s past, in touching each treasure, each building block of our existence. In both hands I cradle a stone water-buffalo that my mother acquired on a trip to China. I breathe life into it for one final second, then set it down for good.

Me 17D

17D CW photo

Image above: me photographing “Nobody Knows My Name” by my father’s friend and mentor, the great Charles White

 

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Why am I sad? Anxiety in Disguise

I’d been encouraging my normally chipper eleven year old daughter to consider getting a new dresser, a bigger one where we wouldn’t have to annex pajamas to a shelf in her closet.  I’d shown her some in catalogues—which she normally loves poring over.  But she declined, with a defiant no that seemed disproportionate.

“Okay,” I said.  “No big deal.”  Just a dresser, just a suggestion.  Then I took a risk and asked why she’d snapped at me, if something was wrong.  She might have snapped again; she might have denied that she’d raised her voice (it’s what I might have done at her age) but she didn’t.  Instead she confessed to being grumpy lately.

“And I don’t know why,” she said.

My first thought was: uh-oh, here they come: the new moods of early adolescence.  But maybe it was something more fundamental than that.  Maybe it had to do with some Really Big Changes coming up in our family.

First, after nearly a three year sabbatical, during which I wrote two novels, choreographed three children’s musical productions and began blogging, I am resuming my psychotherapy practice which will mean a shift in everyone’s schedule as well as some form of childcare.  My kids are used to me being there all of the time; now they’ll have to adjust to most of the time.  Second, my husband is in the middle of a job transition, which means some extra stress and uncertainty.  On a lesser and more predictable note, my son is turning nine, which to me feels like a bigger deal than eight (“eight” sounds little still; “nine” not so much).

But the biggest change of all, the one we’re talking about the most anyway, is that my daughter is starting middle school, which, in our town, begins in sixth grade.  It’s not just that she’s going to a new school, bigger and further away than her old one, where she’ll have to take the bus instead of walking or being driven by me.  It’s not just that she’s saying goodbye to many old friends who are going to different schools or “hello” to a whole new crop of kids she doesn’t know (and whose parents I don’t know).   It’s all of these things and more: the unknown.  For most people, anxiety—identified or not—is a big part of venturing into unfamiliar turf.  And, as I know from personal and professional experience: anxiety can feel just like depression.  Especially if you throw a little sleep deprivation into the mix.  (My daughter is still recovering from a week of sleep-away camp.)

For me the change is significant too.  Becoming the parent of a middle schooler is the start of some new and really big words.  Adolescence.  Independence.  Inevitably Increased Screen Presence.  On some level, I believe myself to be prepared.  As a family therapist, I specialize in adolescence; for the six years I worked at the former Montclair Counseling Center, about fifty percent of my clients were teenagers; about twenty-five percent were families and couples who’d come into therapy to talk about issues related to their kids and teens.  I felt confident translating between teens and their parents.  I gave talks on the teenager-parent power struggle.

I’ve had countless kids tell me they felt a certain way or were acting a certain way—and didn’t know why.  Actually, my favorite part about being a therapist is tracking feelings.  I don’t know why I’m angry; I don’t know what’s making me sad.  Even in the case where moods are truly biological or chemical in origin, there are always triggers: losses, moves or other life events that contribute (which is why therapy is always recommended along with medication!).  It’s so normal, so common to be grumpy, grouchy, sad or however you manifest stress when things are in flux.  Day to day snapping at people, nightly bouts of tears, feelings of emptiness and I-don’t-know-why listlessness—when you trace them back, it’s not surprising to find something concrete that you didn’t think bothered you all that much.

I remember when I was nineteen, on a leave from college, about to move to the Midwest for the first time to join a mid-sized ballet company.  I was excited about living in an apartment of my own for the first time, not a dorm, paying my own rent, my own utilities, groceries, such as they’d be.  The best part was that dancing with a real ballet company had been my dream for as long as I could remember; now it was coming true.  I’d have my own pointe shoe order, an amazing repertoire to learn, not to mention a paycheck—a real pay check.  But why was I feeling down?  Why these unexpected crying jags at night?  The therapist I saw at the time made her usual quizzical-sympathetic face (a face I swore never to make once I became a therapist, right up there with the phrase how did that make you feel?) as she wondered aloud whether I was having some feelings about leaving home for the first time?

“Absolutely not,” I said.  “I can’t wait to leave.  Besides, it’s not the first time; I’ve been in college (one hour’s drive away) for over a year.”    And then I began to cry anew.

Well how about that?  Maybe I did have some feelings about leaving, about dancing full-time, about living in Ohio … about all the wild and crazy new-ness, the fear that maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.

Most people I know, clients as well as friends and family, suppress fears and worries to a degree, just to get through the day.  But it builds.  It can makes you sad or angry if you don’t explore what’s going on and sort it out.  You take it out on others, if not yourself.

When it comes to transitions, most people have plenty of fears and worries, even if the transition is something they’re thrilled about on some level.  A move to a new house, a new job, a new baby, a new school.  All can be hugely exciting; all can increase anxiety, bring on or exacerbate depression.   In a few weeks, my daughter will have a new school, new classes, a new bus, and new peers.  A Hogwarts-like house system, a specialized arts program, an audition for the school play the second week of school.  Going from a tiny school where every teacher knows and loves her, to an enormous school where no one knows her.  Going from being the oldest in the school to the youngest.  Lots and lots of changes.  Possibly enough to make anyone grumpy.   My therapist training had given me the skills to talk about this with kids.  But those were other people’s kids.  They were in my professional realm, not my personal one.  This was my own daughter.  Since I’m her mother, I am—by status, by role, and by virtue of the fact that I make her do things like make her bed and write thank-you notes—really annoying, which cuts down on the credibility I might have had with a tween client her age.   I had to choose my words and tread more carefully, wanting to be supportive, hoping to get her talking but not wanting to sound too therapist-y.

“Summer is ending,” I said, trying to sound neutral.  A cricket outside chortled its agreement.  “Think you might be feeling a little sad about that?”

“Maybe,” she said.

“And …” a deep breath, “middle school is coming up soon.  Any feelings about starting middle school?”

She assured me it wasn’t that.  “I can’t wait for middle school to start.”

But we talked a little more.  There were some details, she admitted, a few small ones, she might be wondering about.  Like the bus, like being in a House with the friends she’s got from elementary school.  Like some other stuff she hadn’t realized were on her mind.  We talked about the worries that she said weren’t really worries until her excitement about going to this big new place really took over.  Soon she was gushing about the cool things she’d heard from friends with older siblings who went there.  I’ve found this with clients too: when you’ve got mixed feelings about a transition: both thrills and doubts, you can only really enjoy the thrills once you’ve unpacked the doubts.   My daughter had moved on to the thrills, happily speculating about the future.  But I felt like I had to get in my therapeutic mama moment:

“It’s so normal,” I said.  “To worry about things even when you’re happy about them.  And sometimes, worries you don’t talk about can make you sad without knowing why.”  I was saying it after the fact; it might have been moot anyway at this point, but I said it.

“Hmm.”  She said, pretending to think it over, though really I think she was patronizing me.  She rolled over and went to sleep.  But I know she heard me.  And maybe next time the “grumpies” set in, we’ll have a good place to start.

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.