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Weekend at Mom’s – or – She Ain’t Goin’ Gentle

What would we do without our mothers? copy

Everybody needs a mom. Image credit here.

Day I

Mom greets me at the door with life-changing news: She has ordered green-lipped mussel oil!

“Larry King uses it.”

Mom’s intentions are golden. She is going to cure a family member of a chronic illness. She has found the solution the doctors have missed. I am to learn all about the oil from her and then deliver it to the intended recipient along with the proper instructions.

We sit together, and I listen.

“Here, read the booklet.”

I read the booklet. I open the jar and sniff. I think about popping a capsule into my mouth and biting it when a vision intrudes, and I change my mind. A sea of terrified faces implores me with countless sets of tiny green lips. The word “lips” has personalized the creatures whose juices I am about to suck.

“And it comes with this DVD.”

“Well, that is very thoughtful of you, Mom.”

“All the way from New Zealand!”

“I see.”

“Now make sure Susan takes the oil each day for 30 days so I can call and have the next shipment cancelled if it doesn’t help. Well…they might have already sent the second shipment by then, so I would just have to cancel the third one. I gave them my credit card, you know.”

“Have you mentioned this to Susan? I really think you should discuss this with Susan.”

“They say 4-6 capsules daily for the first 30 days but I think that’s too much. Just tell her to take 2-4.”

(sigh)

Day II

The following day, I get up early and make breakfast. After that, I squire my Mom to Sunday school and church. My stepfather Seamus takes us all out for a hearty lunch. Following a gorgeous walk with my husband Henry, the family eats a dinner prepared by my sister, Gwen. We make sure–Gwen, Henry, and I–to be kind, attentive, and helpful throughout. Mom is a big talker, and we listen actively and respectfully. She has stored up many words and opinions, and the pressure has to be released. What is Wrong with the World Today receives special attention. We take care of all of the cooking and washing up.

At long last, it is time for me to curl up and introvert. Luscious!

“Jane, are you ready to watch the DVD about the mussels?”

Uh oh.

“Actually, Mom, I think I’ll pass.”

(exhales loudly) “Well, I’m surprised at you, Jane! Why not? This could be the key to Susan’s recovery.”

“It would feel like work Mom. And I’ll be taking the DVD to Susan anyway. I think I’d rather relax.”

(huffs) “Well, I bet Henry would like to watch it with me.”

He takes one for the team. I owe him big time.

Day III

Mom produces a page-and-a-half of yellow legal paper. She has handwritten a recipe she has been wanting to try.

“Here is the tuna casserole recipe. Thank you so much for doing this. I really need to lie down for a bit.”

“Sure, Mom! Happy to!”

Mom is worn out. She wanders over to the sofa for a nap. Mom is thrilled that we have finally come to visit but entertaining is exhausting. Who knows what we might get up to if she isn’t there to assist? Did I mention that Henry is 53, I am 52, and Gwen is 50? Mom is…it would not be polite to tell you, now would it?

Mom starts to drift off to sleep. But for the sounds of cooking and the subdued drone of the news channel, the house falls silent.

Following her directions religiously, I place the flaked tuna in the bottom of the pan and dribble the lemon juice–fresh squeezed!–over it. The shredded cheese, peas, and cooked noodles are mixed together and stand off to the side, waiting. I am halfway through cooking the sauce.

The silence does not last long. I feel a disturbance in the air and–

“Did you sprinkle the lemon juice over the tuna?”

“Yes. I used fresh lemons like you said to.”

“How much did you use?”

“The recipe didn’t give an amount. I just guessed.”

Mom’s gaze releases the Pyrex pan and fixates on the stove top.

“I think you are going to have to double that sauce recipe. It doesn’t look like you have enough to cover everything going into the pan.”

“Ok, Mom. No problem.”

I double the sauce recipe, and Mom disappears around the corner. For a moment.

Gwen enters the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. She turns the washer knob, activating a siren call. Mom materializes.

“Be sure not to overfill the washer.”

“Ok, Mom.”

“Here, let me. I want to make sure the load is balanced.”

“Ok, Mom.”

“Now remember. Once the washer fills, you have to use this plunger to push the clothes below the water level.”

(sigh) “I’m not going to do that, Mom.”

Gwen and I engage our psychic connection.

“No, really. You want to be sure the clothes are good and wet so they get clean.”

(silent lip biting)

“Just stand here and wait for it to fill so you can plunge it.”

(silent lip biting + rapid eye blinking + quivering nostrils.)

My mother is providing instructions in the use of her top-quality, high-capacity machine in excellent condition.

My mother is providing instructions in the use of a washing machine to her top-quality, high-capacity daughter in adult condition.

Mom pads out of the kitchen and back to the sofa. Gwen is watching the washer fill. I am crushing potato chips for the top of the casserole. We feel the pressure of each other’s eyeballs, look up, and silently message one another.

The washer has filled and begins to agitate. Gwen is not-plunging, and the sound of not-plunging pierces the air.

The end of the world still has not come. Gwen leaves the laundry room and steps around the corner. I relax and begin to arrange my potato-chip blanket.

The washer lid flies open. Plunging happens.

Mom, risen from the dead, has sneaked behind me to save the load of laundry and the future of the Western world.

Satisfied, she starts for the sofa a third time. But first, she checks my work.

“Are you sure you have crushed enough potato chips? I think you need more.”

Exit Mom. Enter Gwen.

(stage whispers above the kitchen noises) “Mom was plunging.”

“No!”

“She was. She was plunging.”

We are wound too tightly. We have swallowed exasperation, suppressed disrespect, spared feelings, and avoided mutiny. We have painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out.

Gwen and I lock eyes in agreement.

I begin first. I bob my head like a chicken to the rhythm of the washer. Gwen joins in, swaying. We dance tentatively at first. Naughty snickers escape our lips. Shh, Mom is trying to sleep! Shhhhhh!

Soon we are stepping, gyrating, and waving our arms, our tribal dance growing in fervor. Pig snorts and raspberries escape in spite of tightly clenched lips.

We can’t stop, and we don’t want to.

By the time Mom rounds the bend a fourth time, our recovery is nigh.

Mommy! She laughs at us and with us. Mom is as she always was, though we may have to work a bit harder to find her. In the end, it is a small price we pay, a light yoke we bear, to uphold this sacred trust. It is our honor to protect her from inconsequence.

Postscript.: In my last post, I promised I’d publish a shout-out to the first person to guess the rationale behind my naming of a particular silly photo. The winner was Elaine Hill of Burtonsville, MD. She correctly guessed that the woman had not yet been “deflowered.”

Is green-lipped mussel oil is any good? I don’t know. Do Olympic athletes use it? I have no idea! But apparently a good number of Olympians trust Shaklee nutritional products. I know this because I became curious after talking with Elaine, and I did a bit of googling. Elaine is a Shaklee distributor, by the way, and she seems to know her stuff. Feel free to stop by her website and pick her brain.

Just so you know–I am not affiliated with Shaklee, and I have not been compensated for this mention.

 

 

 

 

 

Wintergreen

Wintergreen.jpg

Photo credit here.

Feb. 2, 2016

For some time I’ve toyed with writing about my grandparents and the magic of the Island but I haven’t known where to start. I’m not sure I have a cohesive story. It’s more a collection of memories and impressions.

Today, I have been thinking about thimbleberries. I guess I’ll just start here and see where I end up.

My grandmother Luisa grew up in the North, on an island attainable only by water (or ice) until sometime after WWII, when an airstrip was cleared. Luisa went on to teach grades 1-12 in a one-room schoolhouse on the mainland. Harry, who was predestined to become my grandfather, barnstormed his way north with his best friend; and you can guess what happened next.

Luisa and Harry moved to the East Coast and raised their children near Harry’s extended family. Whether Luisa was more intent on moving towards adventure on the East Coast or away from heartache on the Island is not entirely clear to me. An old maid by the standards of the time, she had been ripe for the picking. I believe she loved my grandfather. I also suspect that, rather than fight for what was hers, she had grabbed at her chance to flee.

Death and scandal had left Luisa in the position of family outsider. When it came time to lay claim to her Papa’s possessions and exercise her rights concerning the family home, she chose to withdraw her claim without fanfare. I am certain she felt bitterness at the time, though she later chewed it to softness. I know this because empathy amplified this bitterness in my grandfather and extruded the excess in comments and gestures which caused my grandmother to blush and squirm. I know this because I can taste it in my own mouth. It has the flavor of unripe persimmon.

I can say with confidence that once she determined to do so, Luisa continued, until death, to work at positive relationships with those who had wronged her, and, in time, with those who had innocently benefited from those wrongs. My beautiful grandmother was a gentle woman–and a gentlewoman–who did not want to hold a grudge against her much younger sister. It was not Darlene’s fault that she was cosseted and petted even as Luisa settled into the role of poor relation. Still, I imagine my grandmother’s kind and circumspect behavior provided both the warmth of kinship and a thorny poke to draw a bead of guilt.

I can also say with confidence that tensions remain to this day. As a young child, I felt frustrated and puzzled at our short, well-managed social calls. We kept a polite distance from the family so as not to wear out our welcome while visiting my grandparents at the house they eventually built for themselves on another part of the Island. It was not long before I grew into self consciousness and entered the awkward games myself.

As did her German father before her, my grandmother endured her losses silently. Her reservoir was, nonetheless, full enough to leak into us. My mother; then my sister Gwen and I; and now my daughters Lindy, Bec, and Claire; have received and transmit Luisa’s melancholy and unfinished business in ever diminishing waves and often without benefit of conscious awareness.

I have lost touch with that branch of the family. I do not doubt that they continue to summer in “the Old House,” as it was called, with no thought of us, as they enjoy their little beach and look across the street any time they please to smile at the Church of Christ, which Papa’s capable and calloused brown hands helped build.

I used to grieve. I had grown up with stories of Papa, and they had become as my own memories. I loved him. He was quiet and good and honorable. He worked hard, felt deeply, and suffered without complaint. His presence echoed throughout the Old House, silently beckoning me as a daughter. He whispered that I belonged there, that I should curl up under the eves at night with cookies and Charlotte Brontë.

As I write this, I know that my grandmother never fully recovered from the loss of Papa Karl. He had been lost to her too many times for it to be otherwise.

Young Luisa lost a part of her father when her mother died. She lost Papa again when she was farmed out to an aunt and uncle in another state. A widower with small children had few options in those times. Her relatives had wanted to adopt her but Papa had said no, he would not give up the “cream.”

My grandmother returned home to lose another part of Papa to Anna, the beautiful, sharp, and too-young woman who dazzled Karl at a time when he desperately needed a helpmate. No shrinking violet, Anna made the home her own and raised their daughter Darlene to be a princess.

Luisa lost Papa twice when his final illness took him. She had not been informed that she should come one last time, and she grieved from a distance without any of his belongings for consolation. He would never know his granddaughter Carol, my mother, or her younger brother. As if these injuries were not enough, Luisa lost her brother, Karl Junior, to Anna as well. Having lived under the same roof as mother and son, they wasted little time on their way to the altar to seal their covenant as husband and wife. I try to imagine what this meant for Darlene.

Generations after Papa’s death, I begrudged my relatives the family property and the stilted cheer which held me at arm’s length. By the time I arrived on the scene, the wagons had long circled Anna and, by extension, Darlene, whose emotional fragility and need for protection were understood as fact.

If there were villains, they are no longer. I say these words, and the taste of persimmon lingers. In truth, the high-strung Darlene became a devoted spouse and the loving, capable mother of four. I suspect now that she was without guile. Her childlike heart, so carefully protected by spectator pumps and silk blouses, was revealed the moment she arrived at the Old House each summer. Her first act, always, was to drop everything, put on her swim suit, and baptize herself in the clear and frigid Lake. I witnessed this ritual several times myself. Her face was unguarded.

This (his)story has grown as wavy as an old window pane. It is as true as I can achieve without stirring up old hurts. Though I experience longing, the longing I feel is rooted in a time which can never return. If I possessed the Old House, I would not have money for regular visits and necessary upkeep. And by this time, the family tree has branched so widely that any gain on my end would spell upset to whole families who have grown numb to the degree of privilege they enjoy. If the tables were turned, it would be my cousins telling this tale.

I last visited the Island 20 years ago, and it was much altered. The town beach was fouled, and the naked red mud of fresh driveways marred the untamed perfection. Perhaps my island is no longer haunted. Perhaps my island no longer exists. At the very least, the ghosts are hiding behind a new face.

The Island had long attracted summer regulars, its harsh winters inhospitable to all but the locals. Aspen by aspen, its soul was sold to the well-heeled few, its mystery giving way to a sort of Newport of the North; and I was struggling with the change. This is progress, I remind myself. Time does not stand still. Surely the Native Americans, now warehoused in reservations, have much more to bemoan than I. What was my paradise if not a despoiled version of their own?

So today I will think only of thimbleberries.

My grandparents eventually returned to the Island and built a house near McDaniel’s Point. At length, Harry had convinced Luisa to return to the Island. He loved, loved the Island, it is true. But he also possessed a streak of pride which would not allow him to feel bested.

My grandmother named their home “Wintergreen,” though it also became known as “the Little Big House.” The uncanny two bedroom, one bath cottage and its detached garage cum guestroom, could accommodate any number of bodies without feeling cramped. As long as some of us agreed to bathe in the Lake. And use the Boston bean pot.

Wintergreen was situated deep in the woods, open sky visible only above the winding drive, the garage and double parking spot, the house with its postage-stamp lawn, and the patchwork series of steps to the lake below. Oh yes, and the ravine which descended along the edge of the property. Due to the climate, the deep shade, and a preponderance of creatures, attempts at traditional gardening were doomed. I recall my grandmother’s judicious transplantation of forest ferns to line the pathway to the house.

The sunniest spot on the property was right at the nose of our station wagon Betsy, stopped, as she was, on the brink of disaster. My father had to pull into the parking spot carefully lest he push past the log boundary, plow through the brush, and tumble into the steep ravine which fed into the lake.

Why tell of that wild green patch which bowed to my grandfather’s pampered Bonneville and tickled the chin of our own family car? Because that was where the thimbleberries grew. We competed for the few precious berries. Too tasty to hoard and too delicate to store, we enjoyed them on the spot, their soft flesh melting on our tongues.

Too soon gone.

A Sorry Translation

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

One legacy my father left to me was the Book of Family Rules. Since his death in 1990, the important role of Keeper has fallen squarely upon my shoulders.

This isn’t a book which can be read and followed as, say, a cook book or the instructions for assembling a bicycle. To the uninitiated, the Book would seem a hodgepodge of family stories and remembrances, assembled for mild-mannered entertainment on a rainy day and without thought to cohesiveness or purpose. On the contrary! This sacred Book has instructed my family in proper living for generations. So potent are its formulas that they must be hidden in plain sight.

A few of the rules are pretty straightforward and discernible, even to the untrained eye—A Lie is a Spank and Food is Love, for example. For the most part, however, a proper exegesis requires the Decoder Ring, which, I am sorry to report, was not among my father’s personal effects or in his safety deposit box. As a result, I am required to spend untold hours hunched over the brittle pages of this text, extracting what I can.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my younger sister, Gwen, has hidden or destroyed the ring. She won’t say. Gwen never has cooperated. She never did like the Rules, and she refused to follow them no matter how many times my father spanked or pinched her. But then again, she is one of those annoying people who speaks of therapy as a positive thing  and uses words like “dysfunctional,” “enmeshment,” and “abuse.”

All that is by way of background.

What I want to share with you today is my most recent discovery. I found another Rule, and it wasn’t even buried! I had suspected I’d find this one if I just kept reading, and I did. Days like this are so exciting that they give me the strength I need to keep coaxing the Book to give up its secrets. I must not lose courage! How will my future generations live if the code is lost?

When we were small, my father took the time to translate certain Rules from the Book. He had hired a German tutor to prepared me and Gwen for our move overseas, so we were familiar with the concept.

Danke = Thank You

Junge = Boy

I’m sorry = I’ll never do it again

“I’m sorry” is actually a promise. And promises cannot be broken.

I took this Rule very seriously. I did. I tried to be a good girl. But this law was absolute, and I was a repeat offender. I became skilled at hiding my guilt from others—and myself.

Don’t. Tell. Gwen. I’m having an inkling of doubt about this Rule. I haven’t yet made up my mind. I’m not in any hurry to add the title Heretic or Dumbbell to Recidivist on my resume.

But here’s the thing….My father rarely apologized for anything. He seemed to prefer his own rule: Do as I say, not as I do.

This post belongs in the thread Family Rules. You can find the prior installment here. Earlier essays can be found under the Family Rules tab.

And the Winner is….

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

I’m still trying to comprehend how “We’d love to have you visit but we have certain guidelines,” came to be viewed as “For years, I smiled and told you what you wanted to hear so that once you had emptied your bank account and arrived on our doorstep feeling warm and fuzzy; I could turn on you, my captive audience, and exorcise my pent up rage against you at my leisure.”

By Day 3, the trust between us had been grievously compromised. A few of us complained that stress was causing hair loss. No, this is not an attempt at humor.

Hanna and Niko said it wasn’t so much that I had refused Niko my laptop; it was that I hadn’t told him ahead of time, and now they were stuck without options. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t told him beforehand; it was that my failure to do so had caused Niko to lose face. It wasn’t only that I had caused Niko to lose face; it was that, in maintaining through the years that all was well between us, I had lied.

Three days down and 28 more to go.

No two ways about it. They had been tricked. They had spent thousands of dollars to pass their summer in jail. Jail being our basement apartment without a computer. They began to sequester themselves, eventually reversing their days and nights, in part–I believe–to avoid us. They surmised they had become persona non grata (personae non gratae??) and were the last fools on earth to learn it. This was not the case. At least not yet.

We experienced good moments. We shared some laughs. We had some conversations memorable for reasons other than distress. Even so, trouble was always lurking stage right.

Everything I did and said was now suspect. Things I had said and done in the past came under suspicion as well—as though past behaviors had taken on new meanings given this epiphany about my character.

I’ve seen this response in couples counseling many, many times.

Spouse A admits to an affair long past. Spouse B, who is learning of it for the first time, responds as if the infidelity had ended just yesterday. As the initial catharsis begins to settle, the reality of the affair sinks in. Spouse B will now spend months to years poring over reel after reel of old footage, looking for missed clues. Forgiveness and reconciliation may or may not follow.

It goes something like this:

“Three years ago, you canceled our dinner plans on Valentine’s Day because of a crisis at your work. I bet you weren’t working at all. You were probably fucking your mistress!”

Hanna and Niko were looking for confirmation of my infidelity, and they found it.

In times of extreme stress, I shut down. If you do not know me well, you might not even notice. I will continue to walk, talk, smile, listen, and laugh. I will perform my roles as mother, wife, and hostess. But I will do so with clinical remove. I become prodigious in my cooking and cleaning while the person behind my eyes goes dormant.

I did not intend to vacate during that 2011 visit. My psyche made the decision of its own accord. My soul balled itself up and locked itself away deep in my belly until such time as it felt safe to emerge and expose its tears, fears, and thrashing limbs.

My demeanor was evidence of malice, or, at minimum, indifference to their feelings. Hanna had seen me this way twice previously: immediately following a brutal semester of undergraduate studies and in the weeks following a trauma within my family. I believed she would understand my absence and hold a place in her heart for me until I was able to return.

I felt misunderstood, and I was in good company. My household found itself engaged in a protracted competition for the coveted title, Most Misunderstood and Maligned. Niko, Hanna, and I were the front runners but our daughters threw their hats in the ring as well. They were much quieter in their bid but I felt them jostling.

“Uncle Niko is being a baby, and you know it. He’s got the whole household revolving around him, and I can’t take it any more! You won’t speak up but if I do, I get in trouble because he’s The Guest. Gaaaaah!”

“Mom, why are you being so hard on Uncle Niko? I’ve been talking to Aunt Hanna, and I think the problem might be that you aren’t trying hard enough to understand him. Why are you looking at me that way? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Aunt Hanna and Uncle Niko aren’t fun any more. And you aren’t either. There’s nothing good to do around here. Are you even listening?”

Henry was the only one who didn’t enter the pageant.

In the end, Niko won. Hanna stuffed the ballot box.

Some days I wonder if I am seeing matters clearly or just positioning myself for a grab at Niko’s tiara.

This is part of The Story of Hanna. The episodes to date can be found under the tab of the same name. The previous installment is here.

Family Math

triangle

We do math, together. It is a fun family pastime. In fact, it is a Family Rule*.

Geometry is our favorite. Because WE. LOVE. TRIANGLES.

Geometry can be a great family activity. You might want to try it yourself! I’ll type out some of our math problems for you so you can get the hang of it.

Exhibit A:

I.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Have you heard from your sister lately?

Me: Not since last week. Why?

Mom: Oh. It’s just that she seemed so angry. I was hoping you had resolved things.

Me: Gwen’s angry at me?

II.

The phone rings. Gwen picks up.

Me: Gwen! What’s going on? Mom said you were mad at me.

Gwen: She wasn’t supposed to tell you.

Me: Why are you mad at me?

Gwen: I can’t talk now. I have to call Mom.

III.

The phone rings. My mother picks up.

Gwen: Mom, what did you tell Jane?

Mom: I did not tell her about the restaurant thing.

Gwen: Mom! That was a private conversation!

Mom: You know she didn’t mean to. She can be insensitive but it’s not her fault. She inherited it from your father. You should just forgive her.

Gwen: Mom!

IV.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Your sister is mad at me. What did you tell her?

Me: Well, you told me she was mad at me. I just called her to find out what was going on.

Mom: I know she can be a bit dramatic but she can’t help it. It’s her artistic temperament. Just let it go.

Me: Mom!

Or maybe Exhibit B will help:


(Translation is included, gratis, for the uninitiated. Take it with a grain of salt—Seamus is actually a really good person.)

The phone rings. It’s my stepfather, Seamus.

Seamus: Hi, Jane. It’s Seamus. Your Mom’s fine. How are you?
This is not an emergency. This is a friendly chat.

Me: Hi Seamus. I’m fine. How about you?
A friendly chat is good.

Seamus: Fine, thanks.
Chatting.

Me: Great!
Chatting.

Seamus: I mowed the lawn today.
Watch how I subtly steer this conversation.

Me: Uh.
And I scratched my bum.

Seamus: And I weeded the garden.
I’ve got this.

Me: That’s nice.
Scratching.

Seamus: I picked up the mail too. And bought milk.
Because I am a good person.

Me:
You may have one gold star.

Seamus: Don’t worry about your mom. I’m taking good care of her.
Because I am a really good person.

Me: That’s great. I appreciate it.
I smell a rat.

Seamus: We haven’t heard from you in a while.
Your mother feels neglected.

Me: I called Mom last week. And you know, I told her to call me on my cell any time but she—
That’s not fair!

Seamus: You need to call your mother.
So she will stop sighing loudly.

Me: Uh, ok. I’ll do that.
Grrr.

Seamus: Actually, she’s just right outside feeding the birds. I’ll get her.
I am a hero.

Me:
Punked!

Seamus: Carol! Carol! Jane called for you!
I’ll even let Jane take the credit!

Mom: Jane! How wonderful to hear from you!
Jane! How wonderful to hear from you!

Me: Sure, Mom. How are you?
Sigh.

Gwen and I have had a lot of therapy over the years, and we are graduating from triangles to lines and rays. Conversation is a lot more efficient these days but nowhere near as fun.

Thus, Exhibit C:

I.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Hi Jane! Have you heard anything from your sister lately?

Me: Nope. Bye.

II.

The phone rings. It’s Gwen.

Gwen: I’m mad at you, and I don’t want to talk to you.

Me: Ok. Bye.

III.

The phone rings. My mother picks up.

Gwen: Hi Mom! Jane and I had a fight but we worked it out.

Mom: Then why are you calling me? Bye.

IV.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: I miss you.

Me: Well, then! I’m so glad you called!

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here.

Infidelity II

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Summmer and Fall of 2012

There are many kinds of unfaithfulness.

As I examine my failed relationship with Hanna, I can trace the beginnings of my own infidelity to a time long before things between us reached a crisis point. I hadn’t wanted to see this. I felt too ashamed.

I can explain it simply: I pushed and shoved until I got my way. I didn’t appreciate what my agenda might cost my husband and children. In some ways, I think it cost Hanna and Niko as well.

She was my oldest friend, my first soul mate. She had the prior claim. When it came to Hanna, I just couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to say no. We saw each other so seldom that I wanted to spend every moment with her. I would have done just about anything to please her. Fortunately, Hanna was modest and demanded little. It was I who offered. My husband Henry knew this when he married me. He knew it would be easier to dig his way to China than tell me no when it came to Hanna. When she visited, he played host from a safe distance while Hanna and I ruled the roost.

Whenever Hanna stayed, Henry trudged off to work while Hanna and I shopped together. We cooked together. We cleaned together. In time, we tended the children together. Our daughters adored Aunt Hanna, and the feeling was mutual. Life was a vacation when Hanna was around! Occasionally we went visiting or sightseeing. Mostly, though, we talked, and talked, and talked. We started when we got up in the morning and finished in the wee hours over a glass of wine. This worked fabulously for many years.

My husband was a real trooper. Henry is good natured and generous, and he loves Hanna. He managed these finite periods of neglect with good humor–not that we gave him much choice since all of our conversations took place in German.

Hanna and Niko married in 2004 after several years of togetherness. When they asked to come from Germany in June of 2006, it was with the intention of permanently relocating to the U.S. I know now that both parties suffered from a case of Wishful Thinking.

Our friends hadn’t properly researched what was necessary for success and were ill prepared when they pulled up stakes (and burned some bridges) to come live in our basement with their cat Schnurzel. They didn’t have the proper visas, and Hanna was unable to work. I hadn’t considered the negative potentials should their bid fail. More to the point: I hadn’t been willing to consider anything beyond the delicious promise of a visit–indefinite in length–from my best friend and her husband. Who cared how long it might take them to get established? I was all in.

Henry had examined the situation levelly and made his concerns known. This is not to say that he had attempted to bar the way. He saw how much Hanna struggled to provide, and it was clear to him that they both felt isolated and stigmatized because of Niko’s mental illness. They complained about their lack of opportunity and the poor treatment they received in Germany. They were certain life would be better here.

Henry was all for lending them a hand or two or four. They were his friends too. All he asked was that I come down from Cloud 9 long enough to participate in an adult conversation. He wanted to discuss how best to help them, to consider the pros and cons of open-ended cohabitation, and to partner in some advance planning. I refused. I bullied and stomped: Why all the catastrophizing? You’re always so negative!

As it turned out, Henry had predicted the outcomes nearly perfectly. I imagine he felt quite alone as they unfolded, one by one, before his eyes: Within a few weeks, Niko relapsed into psychosis and ended up in the state hospital hours away; and Hanna began dividing her nights between our house and the parking lot of the state park nearest the hospital. We got her a phone, loaned her a car, and helped with the cat. She mastered station wagon camping, perfected the art of bathing at McDonald’s, and tried to make the best of her unscheduled “vacation.”

I feel weepy when I remember Hanna’s loyalty, patience, advocacy, and tenderness for Niko. She was a rock. She remained cheerful and determined even when her visa ran out and she was forced to leave Niko here while she returned to Europe for a period to straighten things out.

All of these happenings were predictable and manageable.

What was predictable but not manageable was my absence during this period. It tore at the security of my family. I gave my smiling best to Hanna and Niko. I denied them nothing. I gave Henry and the girls whatever I had left over. And not always gladly.

This went on for months.

I can see this now, and I am sad. I paid lip service to my marriage, and I shooed and shushed my children when they sought me. I set myself up as the perfect friend, and I set up Hanna and Niko to expect a level of availability and care which no healthy friend could sustain. I think I did harm.

My neglect of my family was easy to justify. I was being a good hostess. I deserved to spend time with my best friend. Our friends needed help, i.e., they needed my help. Mine, mine, mine. Me, me, me. Henry and the girls could wait until after Hanna and Niko were gone.

This is how I kept the family rule—”Friends Before Family”*—and betrayed my husband and children.

Both Hanna and Niko said many times throughout the years leading up to our painful parting in 2011, that their 2006 visit had been an incredibly positive experience. They said they had felt so safe and loved and welcomed. Inclusion in the hum and rhythms of family life had warmed them. At first, I wholeheartedly agreed: The visit had been a smashing success despite the complications. It was true. I wasn’t lying. There were many beautiful things about that summer and fall. But it is also true that my mind did what had to be done in the moment. If it had allowed me to feel my stress and fear, I would have fallen apart.

Once Hanna and Niko were able to return to Germany that November, the dust began to settle. The protective anesthesia wore off. In no time, Henry and I were at each other’s throats. It became clear, too, that the girls needed help to process Niko’s frightening descent into psychosis and the fruition of our family dysfunction. We required therapy and several months to recover.

Well being was restored but something was shifting. My skyrocketing panic when our friends asked to visit exactly five years later told me we could not afford a repeat. The cost to all of us was just too high. Henry and I wanted them to come but we decided we had to approach this visit differently. Do you hear the we in this?

I’m not sure I communicated this shift to them as well as I should have, and as the politicians in D.C. are wont to say, “Mistakes were made.”

This is the eighth installment of The Story of Hanna. Please see the tab of the same name to read the others. Installment seven is here. Installment nine is here.
You can find Infidelity I, a very silly post, here.

*You can find this Family Rule here. Please see the Family Rules tab for more rules.

Full Plate

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I created a rule for myself called “One Friend at a Time.” I had to.

This is one of the junctures. It’s one of the joints where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna dovetail. They lean against each other like a house of cards.

I have explained trying, and failing, to create closeness and safety within my family of origin. You can go back and read about it if you want but I’ll sum up here: I was never going to get everyone in my family to get along at the same time AND the effort was taxing AND I kept trying. Just call me Sisyphus.

This dynamic is one I have played out many, many times: finding, or happening, or arranging myself between two individuals–or as a hub for several–who then begin to relate to one another through me. I try to be all things to all people. I don’t do it on purpose. At this point, I have become so conscious of this trap that I rarely get too far into it before I smack myself silly.

I see my counselees doing this all the time: they unknowingly recreate their painful pasts in the hope that their story will eventually end happily. This madness even has a name: repetition compulsion. ‘Round and ’round and ’round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows….It can’t be an accident that I sought specialty training in couples therapy. At least now I use my damage for good. And in most cases, we all get a better outcome.

Back to the rule.

I knew how to be a friend. That wasn’t the problem. I just had a hard time being friends with more than one person at a time. I sought one-on-one interactions because they were the safest. Being with one person made it less likely I’d disappoint, annoy, or get stuck in a triangle in which I had to manage more than one relationship at once. I do mean manage. Parties gave me palpitations well into my 30’s. I had to have a single neat box for each friendship. On my plate, the peas; carrots; and mashed potatoes weren’t supposed to touch. Mixing them could get too messy.

The best way to work the one-at-a-time method was to have only one really close friend. I took the title “best friend” as gospel. I had to find one person—Karen was my first best friend–and squeeze close enough so that we practically heard each other’s thoughts.

I don’t think I would have betrayed my family in any serious way; but in in day-to-day matters, I chose my best friend over my family every time. When Karen came over, I played cruel pranks on my sister and made rude gestures at my mother’s back while she stood at the kitchen sink. When Karen went home, I behaved differently. My conscience troubled me but my best friend thought I was funny; and securing her was paramount. I needed a sure thing.

Hanna was my last best friend. I am no longer willing to use that designation for anyone except my husband. I’ve retired her jersey.

I always said my husband was my best friend because that is what wives are supposed to say. I’m not sure I was completely truthful. Maybe I crossed my fingers behind my back because he was my best male friend and there was no competition.

Hanna and I had been “family” for over a decade by the time I met Henry, and it was as though we agreed to shove over a bit and make room on the plate. Did I love him? Yes! Did I want to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Yes! Did I want to have his babies? Oooooooh, yes! He was and is the only guy for me. But did I actually leave and cleave?

Well.

Yes.

It just took me decades to complete the process.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trouble this hanging chad has caused. Maturity came late in this area of my life. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit but the collateral damage has been considerable.

This post belongs both to Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. You can find the prior post in the Family Rules series here and the next post in the series here. You can find the prior post in The Story of Hanna series here and the next post in the series here.

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