Sunday, January 21, 2018

Where There is a Will….

The passage of relative time is a perpetual surprise for me; the pool of my past is filling so quickly with years… I can remember well when it was near-empty and the sense of  'brink' was like a permanent slow companion.  Looking at images from yesterday's women's march I remembered how I lived around the corner from Jackie Kennedy in her young widowhood.  She came in and out like a movie star, was civil but not very friendly to neighbors.  Still, despite her aura and the unequivocal celebrity status that seemed somehow to protect her, she was visible and often took taxis like anyone else.  She'd occasionally sit by the Central Park zoo with her children or a friend; people seemed to respect her privacy, from sanitation workers to other socialites.  After all, she was part of maybe the most important American story of her era… and she'd moved on-- she'd stepped outside the drama and assumed life as a regular woman.  She had children-- she had a job.

My mom was close to her age, and like all American women of that generation, she was influenced by her style: the hair, the hats and sunglasses-- her tall, understated elegance.   But what so many of them had in common was this silent acceptance of their husband's infidelities.  My own father's were not as flagrant or exciting; they were not even always centered on other women.  But there was a sort of pact these women kept-- a tolerance for behaviors that undermined and insulted their dignity in some way… and yet they carried on. They had their hair done, their nails manicured,  they met friends for lunch and took taxis to meetings.  They volunteered at schools-- they played bridge and shopped.  But they exchanged few complaints about their marriages.  They were committed, they were locked in.  My own mother feared being alone and made so many concessions I both disrespected her submissiveness and admired her stoicism.  It was the other version of #metoo:  I'm a wife and mother-- my husband doesn't treat me the way I deserve, but I have a sense of dignity.  #metoo.

In the wake of the current epidemic of accountability and blame, of revelations of abuse, I think about the variations and B-sides of the trend.  My son tells me about men-- athletes he knows, who avoid fun and flirtation because they are so targeted, like starlets, by predatory women who plot to cry monster as soon as they entrap.  It's like a reverse #metoo.  And how about the betrayals-- those of us whose husbands cheated, slept with our friends and sisters-- our beloved life partners… and we left-- we had to leave-- the pain, the humiliation was intolerable?  We were not Jackie O or my mom, but women who needed to save our children from marital tension and reinvent ourselves.  #metoo.

On Jackie O's corner, when I was 20-ish, a beautiful boy used to stand between 5 and 6 every evening. I'd return home and he seemed to stare at me.  I thought maybe he was a stalker, or just waiting for a ride or a bus.  But one day, he left me a note… a love note.  He smiled while I read it… and waved.  I ignored him... but gradually he came closer… he rode the bus with me, did funny tricks and made me laugh.  He had this beautiful long blonde hair and different colored eyes, like a huskie.  It was inevitable that we would consummate this little flirtation… it was passionate and innocent.  Without clothes, he was angelic like a boy-- it went on for weeks, until my boyfriend came back from wherever he'd been… Later I learned he was only 17.  I'd actually committed some kind of violation of a minor-- this romantic little game we'd played out of pursuit and conquest.  I could have been prosecuted in some scenario as a predator.  #metoo.

I grew up a little sister.  I followed, worshipped, loved and occasionally feared my older sister.  She was conniving and manipulative; like all first-borns, she'd been the little princess and then had to share.  I gave her anything she wanted, to win her affection and maintain her trust.  I was loyal and lied for her.  She was often in trouble and I wanted to help.  At a certain point, she turned on me-- maligned and backstabbed and betrayed.  She wanted to regain her territory and I retreated-- moved on.  It's an old story-- either fight it out, tooth and nail, or find another place.  I made friends, created my own family.  I missed my mother-- her stoicism and old-school devotion to the fictional hearth of family.  She missed me, too.  Toward the end of her life, I couldn't stay away, despite the threats of my sister.  My mother read my heart and confided her fears and regrets and sorrows.  Now that she has passed, I have to manage the harsh consequences of my lack of involvement in their legal arrangements.  I am marginalized and passed over-- misunderstood and-- again, betrayed.  It is painful to receive this, and yet I know I must 'eat the document', as they say.  I find I am one of a legion of naive family members who are the victims of competitive siblings and a kind of justice of greed.  I am a sentimental party, and I will lose my right to inherit any thing of beauty to keep my mom close to me-- around my neck or on my dresser.  There are many of us, and we seem to be women without men to assert our rights with a loud, combative voice.  A 'will'… the document is called.  It seems to have none.  A won't.  #metoo.

We've lost children, we've been sick and no one showed up-- we've survived without child support, or any support… #metoo.  We've made mistakes with our children, and we've had no one to share in the joy they have given us…#metoo.  We grieve alone, we are misread, underacknowledged and passed over.  We grow old and have to make difficult choices… we remember the victories, the losses, the insults-- the love and the sex and the confessions and the lies, the satisfactions and the frustrations, the fresh beginnings and the hopelessness of the tide running out.  And yet we are still here-- me, my friends, my work… the legacies which may or may not mean something when we are gone… another kind of will.  I do…#metoo…

For several days I have wept out loud watching excerpts of the US Olympic gymnasts describe the disturbing abuse they endured under the guise of medical treatment.  This is not a new story, but the courtroom testimonials are devastating.  The #metoo movement has revealed that the greater majority of women have been subjected to mistreatment in one form or another.  When it targets our entire life's focus-- our dedication and dreams, our passion and talent-- it is that much more heinous and difficult.  I kept silent when I was attacked and threatened by a producer who had invited me to discuss the music I wrote which he had described as brilliant,  only to find he had another agenda.  It was humiliating and traumatizing, and I carried it in silence; I paid a price, and survived.  But what bothers me in the case of the gymnasts-- they were children.  Were their parents completely unaware? Their perfect proud mothers whose dreams were being realized by the prize-winning performance of offspring-- did they fail to rock the boat, did they disbelieve?  Did their daughters keep quiet because they feared disappointing their parents?  Can children actually be raised to keep these dangerous 'secrets' with their moms?  I know I was.  In the 1960's this would have fallen on deaf ears.  My sister acted out in ways that were beyond disturbing, but no one seemed to want to take her for help.  My own father suffered from paralyzing depressions and manic periods, and no one wanted to speak.  I asked to visit a shrink-- to discuss this-- and my Jackie O-esque mom ignored my plea-- what if it went on my perfect college transcript? For the siblings, friends and parents who fail to blow whistles, who worry about consequences and selfish ambition and fail to observe and protect their children… shame on you... #youtoo.

So while I am now excluded from family money because the truth-- awkward as it might have been--was my blood sibling,  I will always choose not to ally myself with the guilty.  Attached as they were to their agenda, they not only neglected to protect, but punished me.  I forgive my mom; she herself was marginalized and disrespected often, and did not have the courage to do anything but enable.  Here we are, horrified at the testimony of these young athletes… and failing to protect so many children in our midst.  We elected a president who is not only abusive to women but ignorant, bigoted and hateful.  What message is this sending?  My mom reached out to me late in life-- she confessed and apologized, opened her heart.  I will love her and miss her forever.  As for the rest of them.. there is karma, but there is also great injustice in the world; we can only try to leave a legacy of truth and compassion going forward… #metoo... our work has only just begun.

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