When Families Destroy Themselves From The Inside

On Tuesday of last week, I helped move my mother to her new house in New Jersey. This means that I am the last member of my family left in New York, and if you had told me fifteen years ago that I was going to settle in an apartment in the building next to where my grandparents lived, where my mother and her brother grew up, across the street from where they both went to junior high school, I would have laughed out loud. Not that there’s anything wrong with the neighborhood, or my apartment. It’s huge–four bedrooms, three baths; high ceilings, a fire place, pre-war hardwood floors. If we were looking to buy a place today, the price these apartments are going for would almost certainly put them out of our range. It’s just strange to live in this co-op, and walk these streets, where there are still people who remember me when I was a little boy and we would visit my grandparents every Sunday, which we did religiously from as far back as I can remember until I went away to college; and it’s strange that I say hello to people even now who knew me when I was a teenager and wanted to be a rabbi. I’m thinking especially of the chazan (cantor) of the local synagogue who, when he found out who my grandmother was, said sotto voice, “Anne Berner’s grandson lives just a few blocks away, and he doesn’t come to shul? What an embarrassment!” And I am thinking as well of the man whose father was the sandek at my bris, who gave me my first job as a busboy in his catering hall, and whose son once tried to introduce me to hallucinogenic drugs. That son’s brother still lives here, though I see his wife walking around the neighborhood these days more often than I see him.

Other memories that are crowding in on me this morning: I had sex for the first time when I was sixteen with a girl who lived on the first floor of the building where I am living now, and, that same year, I set foot for the first time inside a gay bar. I remember playing football in the backyard with a little girl who lived in the building across from my grandmother’s, and, while I don’t remember it per se, I have pictures of the photo shoot that a local clothing store tried to do with me when I was maybe three or four (or a little older, I am not sure) to promote the line of children’s jeans that Lee’s had just come out with. (If I’d been able to stand still long enough for the photographer to get a couple of shots with the Lee’s label clearly visible, who knows where I’d be right now?) This is one of the pictures. I have some more that I will perhaps eventually get around to posting:

me modeling

I remember also my sort of friendship with Robbie, from whose parents we bought this place, and I remember, of all things, being in Mrs. Dollinger’s third grade class in the local public school and getting scolded in front of all my classmates because my mother dared to teach me to write in cursive before we started learning it in class. For some reason, though–perhaps because we are having some major renovations done in our house, and the one room that needs renovating, that we haven’t really touched, is the one I am sitting in as I type this–I am thinking most about my great-grandmother. When these apartments were built, back in the 1920s, this room would have been the maid’s room. At that time, you had to be white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to live in this neighborhood, and these were the luxury apartments, precisely the kind where people who employed “help” would choose to live. (It is one of the very sweet ironies of history, I suppose, that this neighborhood is now among the most diverse in the country, and that–I am sure the original builders are turning in their graves–we have the second largest LGBTQ population in New York City, and that we have our own annual gay pride parade.) When I was a little boy visiting my grandparents, whose apartment had the same number of rooms as ours, though in a different configuration, this room, which is the one bedroom in the same place in both apartments, was my great-grandmother’s bedroom.

Her name was Sophie, and she was, from everything I have heard about her, quite a character. She was ninety-eight-years old when she died and that happened when I was six. So she was already quite old by the time I met her. My two most vivid memories of her are the soup she used to make, which I liked a lot, and a game we played, where she would give me a quarter–which was not a small sum for a kid back then–and I would try to find a way to talk her into giving me four of them. Apparently, though, she had lived quite a life. She was married three times–my grandmother was the  youngest of her children, the first one born in the United States–and it’s the third marriage that I will tell you about in a minute; but my great-grandmother Sophie also ran a restaurant, marched for women’s suffrage, had an abortion, if I understand it correctly, because she did not want to have a child with her second husband and then promptly divorced him–she was, in other words, a strong, independent woman, and it must have been a hard thing for her to swallow when, after her third husband died, she had little choice but to move in with her youngest daughter’s family, into the maid’s room, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Sophie’s third husband had money; he owned a string of funeral homes. The problem was that his children–all sons, I think–resented his marriage to Sophie because it was too soon, for their tastes, after their mother had died. They were so angry, in fact, that they set about swindling their father out of his money and his business. He was an illiterate man, and so they would bring him documents to sign, that they told him were financial documents for his business, and he would put his X on them–because you could still sign documents that way back then–not knowing that he was, in fact, signing his business and his money away. He never dreamed that his own children would cheat him in this way. Eventually, Sophie figured out what they were doing and threatened to take them to court. Someone talked her out of it, though–maybe her husband; because who wants to do that to their own children?–and an agreement was reached whereby Sophie and her husband would get the house where they lived in Brooklyn and an amount of money per month that, while I don’t remember the exact amount, was sufficient (and maybe more than sufficient) for them to live on.

I don’t know how long that situation lasted, but the next chapter in this story that I know about took place when Sophie and her husband were visiting one of her daughters and her family in their house in the country. Sophie’s husband got up in the middle of the night, went into the barn that was on the property, got an ax and was on the way back to the main house when someone, thankfully, discovered him. Precisely how they figured it out I am not sure, but it was apparently very clear that his intention had been to murder everyone who was sleeping in the house. Sophie had him institutionalized, but the place she could afford–or maybe it was the place the government had set up for people who couldn’t afford anything else, I am not sure–was a real shit hole. His situation did not get better until his children, who were still capitalizing on his name and his reputation as the owner of the business they’d swindled from him, realized that people might one day want to see him, and how would it look if it got out that they were keeping their father in anything less than the comfortable conditions he deserved?

They put him in a private facility, where my great-grandmother visited him every day until he died, bringing home-cooked food not only for him, but for all the other patients around him. After he died, she did not, or could not (I don’t know), hold onto the house anymore, and, since she had nowhere else to go, my grandmother and her sisters arranged that she would spend a third of the year with each of them. That agreement soon fell apart, however, and Sophie–whether by force or by choice, or some combination of both, I don’t know–moved into the maid’s room in my grandmother’s apartment. I can’t imagine that it was easy for my grandmother to live with her mother, and I am sure that my grandfather did not appreciate having to live with his mother-in-law; and I bet it was especially galling since each of my grandmother’s sisters had a house with a good deal more room for an extra person than the apartment where my grandparents were also raising two children. Difficult as it must have been, though, my grandparents took her in; they did what needed to be done for their family, a lesson I didn’t even know I’d learned, really, until I started thinking about my own aging mother and what would happen to her if she suddenly could not live on her own anymore.

It’s not my mother that I’m really thinking about right now, though. I’m thinking instead about Sophie’s stepsons (and stepdaughters, if there were any), and what it must have done to them to cheat and betray their father the way they did. Because what they did had to take its toll. If you are willing to cheat your own father out of his livelihood, out of everything he spent his life building, then not just whom, but how, can you trust, ever? How can you expect from your own children, or their spouses, or even your grandchildren, anything different? How do you do what my great-grandmother’s children-in-law did and not carry a corrosive guilt for the rest of your life? I cannot imagine that this did not eat away at their family from the inside out, though I could, of course, be wrong. Or the version of this story that I have heard might be my family’s more or less self-serving version, one that leaves out details that would change the picture entirely. I have no way of knowing. All I do know is the story I’ve been told and that, even now, all these years later, despite the fact that Sophie was the only one I knew of all those who were involved, the story makes me very sad, more sad than angry in fact.

If my own life has taught me anything, it’s that romanticizing family bonds is a fool’s path to take, and yet–all else being equal–there is something about maintaining the parent-child relationship, however it may change as children grow into adults, that seems to me a fundamental building block of what it means to live at peace with yourself–never mind what it means to live ethically in the world. I don’t care how angry your mother or father makes you; I don’t care how resentful you may be of the life he or she had  led or the life he or she is leading; there are some things you just don’t do to your parents.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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