It's One Big Happy Family season 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, Mindy Lewis talks about her happy family:
With Passover rolling around, I find myself once again aware of my relationship to this traditional family gathering, gauging the particular breadth of my remove. Always, at this time of year, I'm newly conscious of being single, childless, and without extended family. (That's not entirely true; my mother lives in Florida, and my boyfriend, who lives in Europe, won't be here for the holiday. But my singleness at holiday time is a long-standing tradition.)
When I was little, the annual Passover gatherings at my grandparents' apartment were a special time. Wearing my best dress, my hair pulled back into a ponytail, I felt at once uncomfortable, proud, and excited at the prospect of spending several hours with my grandma, grandpa, uncle, brother, father, and mother. My uncle delighted in getting me tipsy on Manishewitz spritzers; and vying with the savory smells emanating from the kitchen, the dipping of greens and reciting of plagues gave way soon enough to my grandmother's gefilte fish, chicken soup, and pot roast.
As I grew older, it got more complicated. My parents divorced when I was eight, my grandparents passed away, and in my mid-twenties my relationship with my boyfriend of six years (my first live-in love affair) ended painfully around the same time my mother divorced my first stepfather. Now each holiday was a reminder of loss, of bad choices resulting in single-ness and not belonging, as the role of outcast I'd been courting since adolescence bloomed into a karmic, indelible mark of Cain. Passover dinners (we skipped the Seder) at my mother's apartment were tense reminders of my failure to create a family of my own, and little by little what little remained of family fell apart: my Dad passed away after a long illness, my uncle moved west and started a family, my brother moved abroad and ultimately cut ties with family, and my beloved second stepfather passed away fifteen years after he and my mother had relocated to Florida.
Each year, a void looming before me, I anxiously awaited a Seder invitation, which sometimes came at the last minute. I became the stranger, the outsider, the one with no place to go, traditionally invited to join the Seder. I told myself I enjoyed other peoples' families more than my own, but after the second glass of kosher wine, I'd find myself tearing up. During the part about the four sons, my face would inevitably blaze. I knew I was the wicked child, the one who asks, "What is this service to you?" I was an artist, after all, and true artists are solitary, I'd tell myself as I struggled to glorify my exemption from mundane concepts like community and family. In spite of this self-justification, I felt painfully, literally, singled-out.
Over time, my Passovers became more alternative. One year, I purchased a copy of Leonard Baskin's beautifully illustrated Haggadah. Alone at my kitchen table, I dipped, sprinkled, recited, and sang a mournful rendition of "Let My People Go," and it wasn't as depressing as I'd anticipated. Another year, invited to a gay friend's Seder, I helped her insert the words "and men" into photocopies of a feminist Haggadah after the repeated refrain "and all the Jewish women..." which made us laugh hysterically each time the line was read. I think that was the first Passover where I consciously experienced genuine fellowship amongst other fellow refugees from traditional family life, to such an extent that the term itself lost its meaning and became instead something to celebrate. From then on, most of the Seders I attended were composed of single friends. I began to interpret the holiday in a different light. Along with the stale bread I cleaned from my refrigerator, I tossed away the weight of my own self-judgment and sense of isolation.
Although it's a cliché, my family of choice is now my family of friends. One friend with whom I spend almost every Passover places an orange on her Seder plate to symbolize women's place in the tradition: round and colorful against the pale egg, horseradish root, and matzoh. At various points in my life, I've felt as flat as unleavened bread, bitter as horseradish, tearful as salt water, as fecund yet unfulfilled as the roasted, unfertilized egg. More and more frequently, I identify with that fabulous orange who conspicuously takes her place on the Seder plate without wondering whether or not she belongs.
If only it was that simple.
In 1991, after illness brought him back to New York and into my care for eight years, my father died. Suddenly, I wondered who would be there for me at the end of my life and became conscious of being without family ties or next of kin. The fact that I hadn't had children was a painful thorn in my side. I rationalized it in various ways--I hadn't found the right man, and didn't have enough money or maturity to do it on my own; maybe if I'd had children, they'd have wound up estranged themselves, rebelling against a mother as self-involved and contrary as I. Even so, when the onset of menopause took me up short, I grieved my lost chances. I'd even had the name picked out for my daughter, the same name as my grandmother--not a unique choice, judging from the number of little Sophies and Maxes spawned by my generation. I never quite made peace with having squandered my fertile years, and for a long time wandered aimlessly in the desert of my barrenness.
Time has yielded unanticipated oases. Two of my close friends (one my own age, and one almost 20 years younger) have consciously included me in their families. I've known their children since birth, have close relationships with them, and love them dearly. Looking past my own fertility, I see that my extended family of friends will include future generations.
Ancient rituals like Passover, repeated year after year for generations, connect us to the past. But tradition also connects us to the future. There's a place at the table for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest. There's even a place for the obligatory stranger--whether single and solitary by choice or by circumstance; widowed, divorced, or separated from family by geographical or other sort of distance. Nor do you have to be Jewish, as Obama's second annual White House Seder clearly illustrates, with a meaning far deeper and more inclusive than ever before.
Tomorrow night is the first night of Passover. I'm looking forward to an informal dinner with friends. We'll clink glasses of kosher wine, exchange stories, and listen to each others' news while contemplating the table's decorative centerpiece, complete with all the traditional elements and also something extra, round, and orange.
Mindy Lewis is the author of LIFE INSIDE: A Memoir (Atria Books 2002, Washington Square Press 2003) and the editor of DIRT: The Quirks, Habits and Passions of Keeping House (Seal Press 2009). Her essays have been published in Newsweek, Lilith, Body & Soul, Arts & Letters, and Poets & Writers. An adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College and instructor at The Writer's Voice of the Westside YMCA, she has also taught at The Hudson Valley Writers' Center and as a visiting writer at George Mason University's MFA program. Visit her website: http://www.mindylewis.com