“I feel a little guilty – like I manipulated her” – seriously? Is there a manipulative tactic I didn’t employ? Easter was my father’s favorite holiday and one of the busiest days of his year. Monday was his day off and I stole this one without a second thought.
That said, part of me doesn’t feel guilty – because every minute my children spent with their grandparents was blessed – and I’m pretty sure my parents treasured those times too. They were young grandparents, age. I’m not sure I was ready to be a grandparent when I was their age.
However, more than a decade later, I am so ready I have baby fever. Facebook friends post adorable pictures of their grandchildren and I ache and think, “I want that!” I see cute babies in restaurants and think, “I want that!” I have quite the opposite reaction on airplanes, when an infant breaks the sound barrier for the entire flight. When that happens, I shudder and think, “Thank God that’s not my problem.”
These conversations may not sound “deep” today (or was the word “heavy”?) I’m glad I wrote them down – otherwise, I’d have no idea what my sisters and I talked about as kids. Do you remember childhood topics of conversation with your friends? Your siblings? Your parents? Do you ever wish you’d written it down?
I have zero independent recall of the vast majority of days described in my diary. They sound vaguely familiar – like something I might’ve overheard or said – but it’s my diary telling me what happened, not any real recollection.
Oddly, I do remember this conversation with my father – it started with my short story and evolved into a discussion of coming of age. I can see him on the floor, repairing that cupboard in our Del Monte kitchen. He made such an effort to meet me on my own turf. He listened to my Beatles records, listened to the Doors. Being young and selfish, I didn’t respond with reciprocal interest in his world. I wish I had; he had more to teach me than I could ever teach him. That said, his purpose was never to indoctrinate – he wanted to know me.
As I understand it, millennials – and, for that matter, gen-xers too – get to write their own ticket when it comes to senior pictures. Not only can they choose their own wardrobe, they can select the location(s) of their photo shoot – the better to accurately convey their personality.
Back in the Dark Ages, things were different. All the graduating girls in my Wilcox yearbook flaunt the same black drape – it had been a tradition for decades. As a child in my grandfather’s house, I revered the four framed 8×10 senior portraits of my father and his siblings that adorned the wall. The implicit message was, your senior picture is for life – it will follow you to your grave.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. Name a celebrity who hasn’t been mortified by the reappearance of his or her senior picture. Like the driver’s license photo that could double for a mug shot, a senior picture is forever.
I invite anyone reading this blog to post their own senior picture in the comments section. If you went to Wilcox, it’s in my yearbook, but rather than embarrass anyone, I call for volunteers. Any takers?
Looking back, the symptoms of clinical depression are in neon lights – but in 1968, I didn’t know what that meant. If anyone had asked, “Are you okay?” I would’ve said “I’m fine” – the correct Norwegian response to any inquiry about mental or physical health, even on one’s death bed.
I felt terrible about disappointing my father but powerless to level up my game. Was it more important for me to make it to school or look human? They wanted both? I couldn’t do it anymore. Sure, other people managed it without too much difficulty – I did it once myself, but those days were behind me now.
I saw darkness everywhere, even when babysitting. Two little girls spent hours play-acting “drunken father coming home.” Another couple, who left me with their daughter, urged me to have fun with their cat. The kids appeared in desperate need of affection. They begged to sit on my lap but I was too lost in my malaise to respond with genuine warmth. I felt guiltier for what I couldn’t feel and do than anything that I did – because I couldn’t do much.
That fall, I had a recurring nightmare, in which I was stalked by an unidentified killer. Just as he was ready to strike, I’d wake up screaming. The trouble was, no one heard me. Surely, someone would have comforted me if they’d heard. If I really screamed out loud.
My brilliant niece Carly wrote an essay in high school about how their family’s animal hierarchy suffered a seismic upheaval every time a new feline entered the household. When a new human being joins an existing family unit, the reverberations can be – and usually are – far more extreme.
In the case of S and CD, not so much, unless both of them have successfully hidden their trauma for years. In my mind, the seven-year gap in their ages was as responsible for the smooth transition as their respective temperaments. CD was more engaged with his peer group, less dependent on his parents, therefore less inclined to resent her intrusion.
However, just because sibling rivalry didn’t rear its ugly head doesn’t mean our home avoided an earthquake. I’d repressed all memory of 3 AM feedings and dirty diapers but total recall returned with a vengeance. We all rose and slept to the rhythm of a baby. Sometimes the sheer exhaustion was overwhelming.
What I wouldn’t give to live through those golden days again…
There was nothing remotely amusing about this entry on May 13, 1964. I was so beside myself with rage I wrote the word “darn” four times, However, reading it – and similar entries– today makes me smile. Why? Because the fears, feuds, worries and daily mortifications that tortured me when I was twelve and thirteen – traumas I believed I’d never recover from – are so awesomely trivial today.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I stayed incensed for very long. I never reference my rage about the injustice of those dance and piano lessons again. Perhaps that’s not surprising, considering who I really am – a klutz with no interest in or aptitude for piano or dance. Obviously, when I wrote this entry, I confused myself with someone else.
My sisters claim that as the oldest I was actually the spoiled, indulged child. As evidence, they cite roughly five thousand more photos of me than the two of them. (Baby pictures only – the photo ops dried up once adolescence arrived). However, facts are facts. My mother’s cold smack-down – “your father and I will decide, not you” – says it all. I rest my case.
This is one of those days with more significance today than when I wrote it; there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t let ourselves imagine. This breakfast/lunch would be the last time I’d see and speak to my father while he was still mobile and able-bodied. Sam and I were lucky to get there at all. I was sound asleep on a Saturday morning when Sam darted into our room and said she just received a text from Janet – we were invited to breakfast for Daddy’s 89th birthday, starting five minutes ago. We threw on our clothes and raced over – even so, we were last to arrive and CD and Alex missed it entirely.
The word I used to describe it in this diary entry is so bland – pleasant. Foxy’s is a long-standing Glendale coffee shop on Colorado Blvd. It was another sunny day in California. In a large group like ours, it’s hard to indulge in much intimate conversation but – as he always did – my father engaged everybody at the table individually about what was going on in our lives. As usual, he said next to nothing about what was going on in his. He certainly didn’t mention he was in pain.
If anything, he might’ve urged us to spend more time with my mother, who was struggling to adjust to the nursing facility where she landed. (It would be weeks before we could move her to Solheim, the Lutheran nursing home they had selected for that far-off day in the distant future when they might need one.) Right now, all my mother wanted was to return to her life at their condo. None of us knew that life was already over. None of us knew we were already counting down hours and minutes.
If I’d known, what would I have said? The question haunts me because contemplating what I would’ve said if I’d known makes the banality of what I did say painfully obvious. We probably said “I love you” in the casual hello-goodbye way we always said it, not in the heartfelt way I wish I’d said it. Not like I’d say it if I’d known it was the last time. I would’ve told him he was the best father ever and the greatest blessing in my life. I would’ve said, please stay. I need more time to study the kindness in your face, so I can reflect a fragment of what you gave to me and anyone else who was lucky enough to drift into your orbit. I would’ve said, the world is a colder place without you. Nothing will be the same when you’re gone. I hunger for the sound of your voice. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.
Instead I said, happy birthday. Thanks for lunch, what a great idea. Let’s do it again for my birthday and Janet’s, coming up in less than two weeks. We didn’t have two weeks. In retrospect, I see his tumble during the photo shoot as foreshadowing but on that sunny day in February, it seemed like a careless mishap, nothing to worry about. We had years of sunny days to brunch in our future. Next time, the whole family – including my mother, who’d surely soon be ambulatory – would gather. We’d get everything right next time.
This is one of my most vivid memories. My father’s caustic criticism was the angriest thing he ever said to me – which says a lot, because I gave my parents plenty of reasons to be angry. They tended to be “disappointed” instead, which more effectively motivated me to change my behavior.
Most parents would respond to my obnoxious attitude somewhere between irritation and fury. I suspect very few would have the grace to apologize when he was in the right. (At worst, he tried to manipulate me into being more generous. Hardly child abuse.)
Unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time I behaved like a selfish brat. I’m the one who should’ve apologized to him and my sisters. At most, it would’ve cost me a couple hours to do the right thing but I was fifteen, stubborn and intent on doing “my thing.”
I don’t remember if I said I was sorry but I think he knew I was (the tears were a give-away.) My father taught me all I know about how to act with integrity in this world – simply by being himself. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t measure up to his example – I haven’t known many people who could – but growing up with him made me a better person than I could’ve been otherwise.
All of my life, I’ve been lucky – blessed. My father and mother were the biggest blessings of all.
It’s typical that my mother and father asked about me before dropping their terrible news. If the situation had been reversed – if I’d been mugged – they wouldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise before I recounted every last detail. This particular episode shocked me on so many levels. Even though I know better, it stuns me when bad things happen around churches. As a child, I believed they were sacrosanct, safe. (That’s why I didn’t lock my first bike when I stopped by to visit my dad at his church office when I was 10. Of course it got stolen. I couldn’t believe it.)
It’s also typical of them that instead of crying about the injustice of it all, my father expressed gratitude it wasn’t worse. I couldn’t find much gratitude in my own heart. Forty years later, I’m grateful that this is one of few – if any – episodes of random violence to impact my family. Writing those words is a little scary – by calling attention to our good fortune, am I jinxing us? (That’s a silly, childish superstition. I hope.)
I’ve written elsewhere about how right UCLA was for me (link) but I knew little more than its four initials when I applied. For all I knew, it could’ve been located in the dregs of downtown LA. (Except then it would’ve been called USC. Whoops, my snark is showing.)
My parents were equally ill-informed – their now-void plan had been to send me to a Lutheran college where I’d meet and marry a guy at least half-Scandinavian. To their credit, they hid their disappointment well and didn’t try to change my mind.
Consequently, on Friday after Thanksgiving in 1968, my parents and I left my sisters in Santa Clara and drove to LA. It wasn’t often I spent significant time with them without my sisters as buffer. It was exhilarating to reclaim their undivided attention but also unnerving. Too much focus on me risked revealing defects I sought to hide, especially from them. Based on the most formative experience, which took place when I was two years and two days old, imperfections – the failure to entertain, for example – were cause for replacement. Either one of my younger sisters – both less flawed than me – could easily take my place.
It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d done it before and could do it again.
Click this link to view family photo albums illustrating the inner torment of a highly sensitive recently displaced first-born child. You’re not being disloyal to Janet or Joyce. They signed off on my weird obsession decades ago. I’ll add new photos and captions in the near future.