Tag : relationships

October 3, 2018 by

Love at Second Sight

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.27.23 AMWhen I was a child, my mother gave me orange slices to suck when I threw up, to take away the bad taste. She sat on the floor, pincushion in hand, to shorten the hemline of my junior-high graduation dress. Other times, she turned my world upside down by screaming, “Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is Mud!” She hit me with a wooden hanger sometimes because, “It hurts me when I hit with my hand.” She also tried, with varying degrees of success, to act as a buffer between my strict father and me. In this, I felt we were allies.

Our relationship was complicated.

One afternoon when I was 15, I was shopping on Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway with my mother’s cousin Mildred. All at once, she clutched my arm and said, “Doesn’t that man look exactly like your mother’s first husband?” 

Mildred had always been a little off. “My mother was never married before,” I said. 

“You didn’t know?” 

An hour later, my mother confirmed Mildred’s story with a simple, “Yes, I was.” My initial shock turned to joy at the implication. Only days before, I’d asked why she tolerated all my father’s raging and irrational rules. “I’m surviving,” she’d said, “I’m coping.” She spoke as if she had met her goal. She didn’t realize I was asking why she tolerated it for the whole family, not just herself.

“Who’s my real father?” I asked, “Daddy or your first husband?”

“Daddy. I didn’t have children in my first marriage.”

That ended my interest.

We didn’t discuss it again for 45 years.

When I was 30 and my mother was in her late 50s she retired from a career as an educator. Listening to the PTA president’s speech at her party, I gained a new respect for her. “When Mrs. Conan came to this school, our children could not read. Now our children read!” she said.

My mother soon started a new career, as an interviewer with the Social Security Administration. She also embarked on what would become a decades-long quest for personhood, reading self-help books and filling index cards with sayings like, “We expect from each other only what we are able to give of ourselves.” Over the years, I had felt alternately angry and cordial toward my mother, though never really close. Now I sensed she longed for a deeper relationship. While I understood what she was doing, I wasn’t ready for more intimacy. She didn’t push it.

Little changed until my mother’s early 80s, when she visited me for a sleepover in my summer bungalow. It was three years after my father’s death. As I was drying the dishes, she said, “On Yom Kippur, before you ask God for forgiveness, you’re supposed to ask the person you wronged. So I’m asking, do you forgive me for all the bad things I did when you were growing up?”

This took me by surprise. Our conversations usually consisted of news exchanges, telling each other about places we had been or errands we had run. I didn’t want a give-and-take beyond that.

“Yeah, I forgive you,” I said, dabbing a stray drop on a cup.

“That doesn’t sound like forgiveness.”

Her voice was one I’d never heard before. It was vulnerable. Looking up, I saw an earnest face that scared me. I wanted to bolt. 

“I forgive you,” I repeated, meeting her eyes. 

“That still doesn’t sound like forgiveness.” 

Suddenly, I realized what a risk my mother was taking, and that she was in pain. I had the power to take it away or make it worse. I put down the towel, hugged her, and said, “I forgive you.”

She hugged me back, saying, “Now I know you mean it.”

I wasn’t sure how much I did mean it, though I was glad she thought I did, because I felt I ought to mean it. But in the months that followed, I felt lighter than I had in a long time. My mother had given me a gift. She had acknowledged that the things she’d said and done had really happened, and she knew that they were hurtful.

Until then, I had never wondered what made her the way she was. I’d been too busy surviving myself. Now I began to be curious about what had shaped her, and asked whether she would share her recollections. She was very willing to answer questions. In fact, she seemed to welcome them. Our exchanges, a few minutes here, a few there, added emotional depth to what I already knew.

My mother was the sixth of nine children born to the doting Greek-Jewish grandparents I called Nona and Papoo. I’d never imagined they might not have been that way as parents, being so preoccupied with paying the mortgage they couldn’t give much attention to any one child. My mother didn’t start school until she was seven, because Nona kept her home to care for her brother, four years younger. When she graduated from elementary school, Nona and Papoo came to the ceremony. Afterward, the three of them walked home together, the first time my mother was alone with both parents. She told me how proud she felt making her way down the block between them, for all the world to see.

Nona’s greatest wish for each of her daughters was a husband. My mother craved Nona’s approval, so, at 21, she married her college boyfriend. But Nona wasn’t pleased, because he didn’t have a job. The marriage lasted three years.

Two years later, my mother met my father. She was captivated because he spoke several languages, played chess, and listened to classical music, and because his attentions were a balm after her divorce. Nona was satisfied with my mother’s second match: he was a postal clerk. They were married in four months.

Things deteriorated quickly. When my mother bought an inexpensive dress without first asking my father, he took her name off the bank account. A sewing-machine operator in a factory, she had to turn over her salary to him, and he gave her an allowance for household expenses.

Then came World War II. My father left for Europe when I was two and my brother just days old. Within weeks, my mother got a job as a substitute teacher and opened her own bank account. When my father returned a year later, he resumed his role as the boss at home, but my mother kept her bank account and her career.

I asked why she had never divorced him. “I didn’t want to be unmarried,” she said.

In her late 80s, my mother requested my help managing her paperwork. Once a week, I drove from Manhattan to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. We sat at a bridge table in my brother’s old room and reviewed bills and bank statements, then went out to eat. She always insisted on paying, and on giving me a little extra for myself, because “It shouldn’t cost you anything to visit your mother.”

I looked forward to these visits. My mother felt our togetherness, too. “It’s love at second sight,” she said.

One day, in the course of a meandering conversation, she mentioned her first husband. I asked how the marriage had ended. “He left me for my best friend,” she said.

I visualized my mother as a young woman feeling the pain of abandonment and lost love. “How long did it take you to get over it?” I asked. 

“I never got over it,” she said.

I was stunned. The marriage had ended over 60 years ago. I asked what her husband’s name was. 
“Sam Langbert,” she said.

After dinner, as I began my drive back to Manhattan, I saw my mother in my rear-view mirror, waving from the top of the stoop. When I got to my apartment, there was her usual message on my answering machine. “Vivian, this is your mother. You just left. I hope you have a safe trip home. I had a wonderful time with you. And Vivian, I love you. Iloveyou, Iloveyou, Iloveyou. Bye-bye, Vivian.” 

That night, I did an Internet search for Sam Langbert. After I determined he was still living—he wasn’t in the Social Security Death Index—I looked through directories and found a listing in Florida. I called my mother and told her I had an address for a man who might be the Sam Langbert she married. “Do you want it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but don’t throw it out.”

A week later, she called. “Viv, if you still have that address, I’ll take it.” She wrote a letter that began, “If you are the Sam Langbert whose mother lived on 18th Avenue in Brooklyn and whose father had a shoe-repair shop on 34th Street in Manhattan, near Macy’s, then I was your wife.”

Sam’s reply arrived in eight days. He wrote that he had thought of her often, she was a fine person, and he felt bad about what he had done. Her friend left him after a few years, and he had been married several times since. “So you see, I don’t have a very good track record as a husband.”

My mother answered, telling him she had been married 52 years, her daughter was a librarian, her son a psychologist, and she had three grandsons. She wrote that she had been a school principal.

“I wanted him to know I was successful,” she told me.

I asked how she felt having gotten in touch with him after all these years.

“I finally have closure,” she said, looking more peaceful than I had ever seen her.

Two years later, just before her 90th birthday, my mother was reminiscing about her childhood. “I have a picture of my mother in my bedroom,” she said. “And I look at her, and I thank her. I thank her for being my mother. I enjoy her more now, I think, than I did when she was alive.”

I was enjoying my own mother now, and glad she was alive to know it. 

Vivian Conan has written for the New York Times and New York magazine. She has just completed her memoir, Losing the Atmosphere.



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The Lilith Blog

August 23, 2018 by

Googling Won’t Solve My Abandonment Issues—But I Can’t Stop


When it comes to healthy relationships, sometimes I think my parents screwed me out of any chance I may have had at one.

My parents and I stopped speaking when I was 20. It had been a slow-build up, a growing rift, and then suddenly one day… I just didn’t have parents anymore. This isn’t an exaggeration: my mom called the police on me when I showed up to my childhood home. Today, she still forbids me and my grandparents –with whom I remain close—from seeing my siblings. As for my father, he once told me I deserved to be abused by her.

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July 15, 2014 by

Hear, O Israel: How My Church-Going Boyfriend Made Me a Jew

I started attending synagogue out of revenge. In the mid-1980s, while living in Texas, I abandoned a Ph.D. program. My research involved hours alone in the lab with a speech synthesizer, building and rebuilding single syllables. I hated it, but I resolved to finish my Masters project because I didn’t know what else to do. During this period of waking every day with gritted teeth, I met Chris, a computer science undergraduate who hated his work, too. We fell in love, and I moved into the apartment above his.

Chris came from a long, documented line of devout Episcopalians. I’m Jewish. Fascinated by each other’s religion, we enjoyed discussing our concepts of God. Chris’s explanation of the Trinity went over my head, and he seemed to regard my “one God” upbringing as primitive, but we each liked being close to someone who, like ourselves, felt connection with a force we could sense but not see. 

The chief conflict in our relationship was over time, not religion. I spent every spare minute on my research, and Chris’s heavy course load wore him out. We had only Saturday nights together—or at least we did until Chris announced he planned to get up early for church in the morning and every Sunday thereafter. In fact, he said, he was thinking of teaching Sunday School.

We were lying on my bed, the Jewish futon of earthly pleasures. I’d lit the bedside oil lamp. I lifted my head off Chris’s chest and asked, “Can’t we talk about this?” 

“About what?” His voice sounded to me like a viola played on the lowest string.

“You’re making a unilateral decision,” I said.

“You know there’s only one thing more important to me than you, and that’s serving God.”

The idea of “serving” still didn’t make sense to me: I’d been taught that people are partners with God. But I knew it made sense to Chris, so I said only, “Why now?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “I just feel the need.”

“Couldn’t we figure out a way for you to have both me and God?” I asked. “We do have a conflict here.” I sat up.

“We do?” he yawned.

“Saturday nights and Sunday mornings are our only times to make love.”

“Maybe we stay in on Saturday mornings?” He yawned again, deeply. “You never go to synagogue on Saturdays. Look, I’m sorry, but I want to get out early tomorrow. Can we call it a night?”

“If you like.”
He kissed me on the nose, blew out the oil lamp, and turned over. I lay awake a long time. It surprised me that, although I had

never attended Saturday morning services regularly, I resented Chris’s assumption that I would give up the option. I felt anger, not for our dying sex life but for my lack of religious life. As Chris lay breathing beside me, I came to a decision: I’d start attending Shabbat services. If I countered his unilateral decision with one of my own, we’d have to compromise. Maybe we’d become more spiritually intimate, relieving the growing silence between us. Maybe I’d learn whether he wanted to be included in my future, and whether I wanted him there.

That week, I located a promising synagogue. I got up early Saturday morning, showered, and put on upgraded clothes. When I kissed Chris’s cheek before leaving, he smiled in his sleep. I reflected that it didn’t take much to make him happy. I thought myself unreasonable by comparison.

The single-story synagogue stood on a flat lot on a quiet street across from a creek. The flame-like sculpture of Hebrew letters over the front door spelled out the word Sh’ma (“Hear!”—the first word of Jews’ foundational prayer: “Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One”). I thought this a good omen for a speech scientist. Waxy-leaved shrubs, past flowering, nodded against the brick walls. The building seemed humble compared to the synagogue of my childhood, which had a granite façade and floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows. I’d been bullied there because I enjoyed my studies. This synagogue, in contrast, appeared a peaceful place for a bookish girl to learn Hebrew without being spit-balled. 

The service was to begin in 10 minutes, but no other cars occupied the parking lot. Perhaps I’d heard the receptionist wrong when I called: perhaps there was no service. Or worse: perhaps the congregants didn’t drive on Shabbat and were taking their time walking. Perhaps they would ostracize me for having driven. I tried both doors and sat down on the front steps. I wished I’d stayed home with Chris, or even gone to the lab. 

Then I saw a man pushing a stroller down the sidewalk with a vigorous gait. When he saw me, he nodded and headed my way. A small boy walked beside him and a smaller boy rode in the stroller. All three wore kippot. The man wore a neatly pressed suit and shoes as scuffed as a grade-school teacher’s. He didn’t look older than 30. 

“Hi, I’m Marc Blumberg, the rabbi here,” he said, extending his hand. “Who are you?” I heard no Texas accent—nor Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, or any of the other accents I’d come to know.

I gave him my name and wished him gut shabbos.

He introduced the boys, Jed and Aaron. Yes, there was a service today, he said, but people commonly arrived late; and yes, most people drove. He unlocked a side door and hoisted the stroller up the stairs. I followed him in.

Daylight from tall windows illuminated the sanctuary enough for me to make out the bimah and a portable lectern standing to one side. The rabbi lifted the younger boy out of the stroller and set him feet-first on the thick carpet, which absorbed all sound except for our voices. It reminded me of the soundproof booth in my lab, except the booth felt as confining as a coffin. The older boy climbed onto a high-backed chair against the back of the bimah and opened a picture book. The rabbi sat down on the bimah steps and I sat down, too.

“Where are you from?” he asked. “You talk like I do!”

I laughed and told him I’d grown up outside Boston.
He and his wife had come from Connecticut.

He asked whether I was single, and I told him no. He glanced at my unadorned ring finger and asked how serious the relationship was. I told him, “Very,” but the question rang in my ears. Then he inquired after my Jewish history. I told him about the perfunctory quality of my family’s observance, how we never talked about our spirituality even though we felt it. He said, “Your grandparents were the first generation born here, right?”

“As far as anyone knows. How did you —?”

“It’s a common pattern of assimilation. Your family sounds like mine.” Startled by this comparison, I expected him to tell me that joining his synagogue would be the best decision I could ever make. But he didn’t. Before I could wonder why not, he stood up to prepare the sanctuary.

The rabbi flicked on light switches: the work of kindling fires on Shabbat is forbidden, but it is better to break a rule yourself than to force another to do so. The light brought paintings alive on the sanctuary walls. A dozen watercolors depicted elderly men at what looked like an Orthodox synagogue. In one paint- ing, a gaunt man arranged silver goblets in a case while other men in magnificent tallitot prayed in a circle behind him. The painting focused on the gaunt man, who looked reverent, proprietary, and a bit tattered compared to the others. I thought, My mother’s family name is Levinson: “son of the Levite. The Levites were temple caretakers, like this man. He could be my great-great-grandfather. I had never seen photos of my ancestors, nor known their names, nor which Eastern European villages they had fled. For a few moments, I regarded my history. 

Congregants began to enter. I moved to an aisle seat halfway back. Elderly members labored down the aisle, and the rabbi stepped down from the bimah to assist them. Younger people came next, though none were by themselves like me. Some cou- ples came with adult or teenage children who broke away from their parents and sat with one another. Then came couples with young children, the toddlers stepping proudly. All the babies reached for the rabbi. It seemed as though everyone belonged here, individual and matching, like notes on a musical scale.

Once everyone had been seated, the rabbi climbed the bimah steps, and conversation stilled. He produced a velvet bag from behind the lectern, and every adult—even the women, to my surprise—took out a bag, too. The rabbi drew out a bundle that unfolded into a tallit as long and wide as he was tall. Everyone else did the same, gold threads glinting against ivory backgrounds, fringes hanging from the corners. They kissed the top edge, then wrapped them around their bodies with a swift, swirling motion, covering their heads. I felt as though white cranes had suddenly alighted in sacred space. The rabbi began singing softly in a clear tenor with perfect diction, and everyone followed.

I didn’t know the melodies, so I listened. The man next to me sang like my father’s father, Marks Blicher, with a deep baritone, a slight Yiddish accent, and a wet quality that made it seem as though his throat needed clearing. The woman in front of me squawked with the nasal Brooklyn accent of the only great-aunt I’d ever met. The asthmatic wheeze of the baby in her arms resembled my brother’s. Here in Texas, on a random Shabbat morning thousands of miles from home, I stood among a chorus of unclaimed kin.

That afternoon, I would tell Chris I needed to attend synagogue every week. He would support me, so the conversation I’d hoped for would not happen. Eight months later, we’d end what little remained of our romance. A month after that, my Masters thesis would be officially accepted, so I would pack up my apartment. I would cry all five hours of the flight back to Boston, missing Chris and fearing the unknown.

Now, in the sanctuary, surrounded by lost relatives, I heard whispers of this future. I lifted my voice in grief and praise. 

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