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Wake Up Call From Cousin Bill

May 29, 2012

In response to my last post about the past, someone who should know what they’re talking about wrote an email to me about his memories of our family.

Some of it is very personal, about his recollections of my mother, and his own. They were sisters who died two years apart, and too long ago. My cousin Bill’s missive caught me in a deep-hearted place as he recalled how pleased he has always been that his mom could see her granddaughter before she had passed, and could know that his child had been named for her dear, deceased sister.

He went on in his note to suggest that we only learn from our past, and because we’ve been decent people, we wind up only regretting those things we didn’t do, and not the things we did.

And then this man, who had almost died himself several months ago, but has bounced back, wrote something that knocked me for a loop.

“Your writings, while well done and interesting, are littered with sadness.”


And though it may not be my fault, the Sadness Setting has seemed, in my life so far, to be my default.

The mad Italian genius called Ron, my therapist and mentor, might at this point propose a Gestalt experiment:

“What might you feel if you didn’t feel sad?”

The answer is: Angry.

And not a bitter or sour anger, but the kind that breaks the blues and throws off oppression.

For I have always sensed that I was the one in my family to be the repository for all that was unspoken and ungrieved.

What a concept! That families unconsciously transmit messages to their children that, undetected, can burden them a lifetime.

In my family, I’ve been the one who was supposed to suffer and grieve — for those who could or would not do so — the emotional detritus that goes back untold generations. 

Playing as a young child on the living room floor there in Little Neck in the early fifties, as perceptive as any child and as sensitive as they come, surrounded on a Sunday afternoon by old, accented relatives shmoozing about weather and business and the traffic, I could sense the weight of their woes. Sense the truth that stuck in their teeth even as they laughed. Between the lines I absorbed their despair like a vacuum cleaner sucks up dust and dirt. I unwittingly inhaled their sighs, sorrows, and life sentences like toxic fumes. Decades later, after doing some digging, I realized that when my dad’s family matriarch, his grandmother Jenny, had died, there had been no time taken, and no inclination to grieve the loss. Even he, who claimed to have loved her dearly and to have never loved his own mother, was too young to deal with it and never did. Nor, I believe, did his mother or sisters.

And then there was my grandfather’s death, and my maternal grandfather. And the Holocaust. And God knows what else. 

Unfinished family business becomes like so many invisible hand-me- downs, to be worn by the next generation.

And I picked it all up like a radio plucks invisible frequencies out of the air, and I took it all on.

I’ll remember all of you, and everything else. I’ll make you all whole again, I promise.

I took it on, but it never really belonged to me.

It is time for me to throw off this heavy saddle of sorrow. Give back this generational transmission of grief. And claim my true birthright – be that joy or whatever awaits.

I fear I betray something here, but in a way my family betrayed me long ago.

Back when I was about 30, I was in the midst of a relationship crisis, about whether or not to live with a woman named Neema. And I was deeply troubled by it. During that time I had a dream, about being washed ashore, thrown from the sea, exposed and alone. I woke up and realized – that sea was my family. It had carried me through childhood with the unspoken message: Stay true to us, and we’ll always be there for you. I had stayed true by always playing the Designated Mourner, the sentimental one who’d never get over losses, and never let anything go. But they had all scattered anyway, flung by the centrifugal force of modern life across the American heartland, or had died off, or had just forgotten about me. And there I was, at age 30, washed up and stranded on the shore, terribly unprepared for life and how to live it.

Even today, I often feel exposed and alone, like I’m staggering through the desert. And I am sorry, my dear family, but I cannot carry you anymore. You should have dealt with it yourself, all of you! Grandma Ida, you suffered so stoically all your life. Mom, you lost your dad at the same tender age I lost you. I kept your opaque poetry all these years. I read it even today, and I still don’t know what the hell you were talking about. I kept your books because I loved you and needed to keep you alive so I could one day say goodbye to you as a man.

You all should have noticed, shouldn’t have allowed me to take on your years of unshed tears. And now I want a divorce. A break from the family secrets; the invisible sickly and sticky transmissions of pain.

You’ve all become dead weight to me. And I’m too old now to bare the load.

And this hot, salty sadness that’s been such a companion all my years, what do I betray by casting you off? Who are these ghosts I desert? What empty fortress do I abandon? 

In the meantime I have somehow on this journey gathered other,  en-lightening friends:

A woman who has faced death, but has such a bright aura that others on the street or subway often find themselves striking up a conversation with her.  Whose upbeat spunk is a daily defiance in the face of her mortality.

A community of men who are proud to be men at a time when the very idea is held suspect.

And of explorers and cavorters who keep me young.

And I’ve found – how do I say this? – a God or a Force or a Universe that conspires behind my back with the express intent of doing me good.  One that gives me, sooner or later,  everything I want.  You were always there, right over my left shoulder, an Ally waiting to help, until I finally recognized You and started speaking with You daily.

I am so blessed now that I don’t really need these dark and heavy clothes anymore.

Although to be honest I’m not quite sure how to live without them. It may take me a while.

But this anger I feel — it’s useful, as it works against the sadness and breaks it up. I’m not sure it is – at its core – anger at all, but the Force of my life erupting up through all the strata of struggle. For I am tired and will surely die before my time from all this shit if I don’t soon shake it off. 

And one day I will throw off this blog as well. Not that’s it’s a burden. But that it’s more words, more serious struggle, more cerebral hard labor.

As Oscar Wilde put it, “Life is too important to be taken seriously!”

I don’t know where I’m headed now. But I know where I’ve been. And I don’t, as my cousin says, regret any of it.

Thank you, Bill, for helping me break the trance.

And thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me through all of this!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne permalink
    May 29, 2012 12:35 pm

    Well put, Charley. What a powerful wealth of words and thoughts. I happened to hear someone covering the song “The Weight” yesterday at a fair and was thinking hard about what that song is about. I thought perhaps it was about passing along the guilt, the onus. I’m not sure but it was an interesting thought at the time. So I espcially latched on to your words about putting the past in its place. Be well, be joyous. Your friend, Suzanne S.

  2. John permalink
    June 15, 2012 7:35 am

    Quoth Cousin Bill, “Your writings, while well done and interesting, are littered with sadness.”

    Since I have known you for 40 years, I will keep this simple – your cousin is talking about himself, not about you. Don’t fish through your faults with his bait. He sees himself in your writings – as in a mirror; like when someone starts humming to a radio and exclaims involuntarily, ‘They’re playing my song!”.

    You’re not his song. You’re you. And the you of you is thoughtful, usually kind, compassionate, and always wondering about the mystery of the human condition. Is that sad? No. Thoughtful and serious? Yes.

    He’s probably not even aware of the cheap shot he took at you. The townspeople and relatives of Henry David Thoreau did this to him throughout his contemplative life. On his deathbed, they asked him if he was finally willing to settle his quarrel with God. He said he never had one.

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