It's One Big Happy Family month here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Jessica Berger Gross talks about her happy family:
Why I Stopped Speaking to My Parents
I haven't talked to my parents in almost ten years. I didn't invite them to my wedding and didn't tell them about the birth of my son.
I grew up in the suburbs, on Long Island. My father, who had a PhD in educational psychology, drove my two older brothers and me to games and music lessons and rehearsals and picked us up from Hebrew School three times a week. My mother taught in my public school. She worried about the bump on my nose, bought me new clothes she couldn't afford, and convinced my father to take out loans so I could attend a private college. They loved me in their way.
But we had a secret. My father had a temper. He turned red when he got mad, his face a crinkle of dry skin and rage. In my earliest memory I am four years old and running upstairs to find my mother. In the mirror in their bedroom, I see his pink handprint stamped on my back.
My father's rages returned every few weeks. He threw shoes, kitchenware, whatever was nearby. His words hurt more. On normal days, I was his star. On other days, when I was nine or ten or eleven, I was a difficult child, a troublemaker trying to break up his marriage, a cunt.
Later, when I was a teenager, my mother liked to gossip with me and told stories of friends and fellow teachers whose lives seemed to be filled with more drama and trouble -- intermarriage, infertility, divorce, alcoholism, children with bad grades, Jews with Christmas trees. She and my brothers never acknowledged the violence in our house, which dissipated as quickly as it came on. Sometimes I thought I must be crazy to be so affected by it.
I wasn't the type to run away from home or cut off contact. I was raised to be a good Jewish girl -- to get good grades, marry well, and honor my parents. I went to Vassar, just a couple of hours from Long Island, and came home on breaks. After college, I lived in New York City.
By then my father had stopped hitting me. But every so often he'd anger without warning and I'd hear the familiar threatening tone on the other end of the phone or the dinner table. My relationship with him and my mother was a dysfunctional mess.
I grew brave by baby steps. I read books about abuse, and started seeing a therapist. I decided to leave New York and go to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin where the rent in my hippie housing co-op was so cheap I'd never have to ask my parents for help. One day in a class, I met my husband Neil.
After graduation, I returned to New York for job interviews, staying with my parents for the week. I thought I could handle the visit, that I'd grown strong enough to not be hurt by them anymore.
That Sunday morning my father was in a bad mood. He started slamming the kitchen cabinets, raising his voice, ordering me around.
I wouldn't have it.
"Don't you ever talk to me like that again," I said. This time, I went after him. Like a prosecutor, I recounted specific incidents, episodes.
My mother joined us for what turned into hours of sitting in the family room on the familiar red plaid couches, talking and crying until we couldn't breathe. My father said he was sorry and that he loved me desperately, but he wouldn't spend his life apologizing -- and besides, I really had been a difficult child. My mother said she wished she'd left my father at the time, but it was too late for that now, wasn't it?
Exhausted, I went into the city to stay with a friend.
"I love you," I told my father, saying goodbye. "But don't call me. I'll let you know when I'm ready to talk."
I never was. Over time I came to realize that my relationship with my parents was no good for me, no better than a relationship with an abusive (or formerly abusive) husband. Why not end it? What outdated rule of familial obligation required me to continue being involved with people who'd so mistreated me?
The break wasn't easy. In the months that followed, I gained twenty-five pounds, was stalked by my father in my nightmares, and, in my bleakest moments, considered suicide.
Neil, an academic, found a one-year teaching position in Williamstown, Massachusetts and I followed him, hoping the country setting would help. We rented a house in a rural town just over the New York state border and slowly I learned to take care of myself. I practiced yoga, read eastern philosophy, took long walks through the country roads, and began eating healthy foods. (See my book "enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer.")
After that we moved around a lot -- Los Angeles, Boston, back to New York City, and then, in the end, to Vancouver, British Columbia, a land of forests and sea and community centers.
I'm stronger now, able to withstand more. I could have reconciled with my parents, or at least my mother and brothers (the sibling part of this is its own story), kept our relationship within certain rules or parameters -- a phone call a month, a yearly visit. The simple, selfish truth is I don't want to. The more time I've spent away from the family I was born into, the better my life has become. Unencumbered by people who would weigh me down emotionally, I've pursued my creative dreams, taken an overnight train through India, planted vegetables in my backyard, made friends who are like sisters. Most important, I've made a new, healthy family.
After years of trying, I gave birth to our son. He is all curls and cuddles, a lover of pine needles and living room dancing and backyard make-believe. He loves to point out the sunset to us before bedtime, wants to wait up for the moon and the stars. Now that I have a child of my own, it's unfathomable to me that the first time my father hit me, according to my mother, I was two and a half years old. On the other hand, I can begin to understand how painful it must have been for my parents -- my mother, especially -- to lose me.
Sometimes, when friends are making plans to visit family during the holidays, or when I long for free child-care on a Saturday night, or when we both have the flu, or when Neil and I argue, and I feel alone in this faraway place, I wish I had a mother and a father to turn to, that kind of family. One day, in not too many years, my son will ask about his grandparents. How could he not? When he's older, I hope he'll understand that when I made the decision to stop speaking to my parents, I made the decision to be happy.
Jessica Berger Gross is the author of "enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer." Her anthology, "About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope" was awarded a National Parenting Publication Award in 2007. Jessica's writing has appeared on Salon, in Yoga Journal, Yoga International, and in a regular column on Literary Mama, the online magazine. Jessica lives with her husband and son in Vancouver, Canada and teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Find out more at www.jessicabergergross.com. Follow Jessica on twitter @jbergergross.
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