So I was on the phone this morning with my father. He's not happy with my sister's choice of boyfriend. He goes so far as to call him a fraud; he suggests that Janis misrepresents his education and his accomplishments, and that his history (and I suppose therefore motivations) is unclear.
So we spoke about accomplishment and education, and of course the discipline that comes with pursuing a proper education. That's a big one with him. I suppose discipline is one of those things he feels he got from school. (I suppose it is also something he sees as my not having got out of my own education). He likes to recall a Herr Doktor something or other who was his math teacher and drove the class until they got it.
I mentioned that my Yakov is finally seeing through the Mist (the German meaning is more appropriate) and seeing that our system of education isn't all it's professed to be. So we got around to my own education. I don't know how we came around to it, but he mentioned that I couldn't even write my own damned college essay.
He is of course right, but it wasn't out of lack of discipline, at least not in that case. What was missing was that I could not find my own voice, that I would not even have been sure of my own voice if I'd heard it screaming at me.
And Susan was there for Thanksgiving, beautiful and always larger than life, and I took down her story, and it became my essay. But I did not have the balls to properly attribute the work. As I was later acknowledged in a different context, hers "was a contribution more akin to authorship than editing."
It's Thanksgiving. My mother always assembles strange assortment of people, but the one constant who always materializes is Susan, whom we, the kids, call Tante Susan. She is not really our aunt, but a strange elfin-like woman who has been my mother's friend since before my birth. My mother was a nurse at Doctor's Hospital in New York City when Tante Susan had her first plastic surgery. There were others to follow, but Tante Susan is determined to retain her Peter Pan type quality till the day she dies. My mother and Tante Susan are nothing alike, but there is between them a bond of love, that rare quality that exists among too few women of loyalty, of respect for the differences, and knowledge of sameness. Tante Susan is an original, a Bohemian, who would have been at home amidst Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury crowd or Gertrude Stein and the Paris Salons of the 1930s, or certainly Dorothy Parker and the crowd at the Algonquin.
Whenever Tante Susan appears, instant screaming arises between her and my father, for Tante Susan is at the core, a women's libber, and my father is patriarchal to the core, which isn't to say that my mother is the clinging vine . . . far form it. She is clever enough to run the family while letting my father think he does, but Tante Susan is not so subtle, and she sends my father's blood pressure soaring. Tante Susan has always maintained that it is my generation, the young men, who are to be the saviours of the women's movement for liberation. So I was brought up to be able to cook, to sew a little, to cry if I needed while still longing for a gun at the holidays. Tante Susan holds out little home for the younger women in my generation, like my sisters, who still seem to measure their worth by the men they marry.
Susan had been married when I first met her, a mistake to say the least for somehow she was never "Sadie, Sadie, married Lady." The divorce was horrendous. My mother was summoned at three in the morning to our local Howard Johnson's where Susan, in a fit of anger - for a chauvinistic judge had continued to treat her, as so many of his generation did, as a wife, the personal property of her husband, and not as a citizen - had attempted to destroy her room. The divorce had come about because, after thirteen years of marriage, Tante Susan had become involved in a Vita Sackville-West kind of liaison. Her Victorian husband felt that this was "UNAMERICAN," and failed to realize that they hadn't slept together in ten years, primarily because Susan's success in her career had surpassed that of his own.
As horrendous as the divorce was, she was not nearly the victim the women with whom she had come in contact were: those whose husbands had left them at the age of forty, with grown children, for younger women, those who had not the faintest idea how they could provide for themselves or even survive alone for they had no identity of their own alone in their large stately homes in Connecticut. After the divorce, Tante Susan bought houses and antique sports cars the way other women bought hats. My father moaned and groaned and was certain that she was headed toward bankruptcy, but somehow she pulled it off. It took its toll and Tante Susan went in for her third plastic surgery. She went back to college and got her Ph.D., restored her houses, restored her cars and hung her mink in the closet while she donned a denim jacket and drove a taxi through the New York City night to pay her bills.
She promised me faithfully when I was twelve that she would wait for me, and damned if she didn't, but somehow we have both agreed that she has grown to young for me, and that I should find a woman, not unlike her, that I can go through life with together but separate for as Robert Frost one wrote "Good neighbors like good fences."
So I have spent a lot of time living up to and living down that essay at the same time. It has become a part of me. For a long time, it was a symptom of my own conversation (hidden script as Sethi would say, little voice a la Landmark) that I don't matter, that my own words are not good enough. Therefore, I used those of another. The funny thing is that when I look at my own writing of the time, it really was quite good, but I'll never know if it would have been good enough.
So I completely identified when my father suggested that Janis is a fraud. I have been no different, too often telling my father only what I thought he'd want to hear, or more often sharing nothing, because what I might have to say "is not good enough." It has taken a long time and a lot of work for me to get that I am okay, even great, in fact exceptional.
I have learned from lying, and taking it all too personally, the cost of deceit, the worst part being the doubt I have sown about myself and my own ability. But I have also grown.
The essay has given me an ideal to live into, one of contribution and love of my neighbor, an acknowledgment of the contribution and strength of my mother, though perhaps a bit harsh on my father (and my sisters and the rest of the world), who has also been a model of commitment and contribution.
So what's the point? I share this in the hopes that my own children - and the rest of their generation - will find the freedom to hear and follow their own voices, to trust themselves, it is hoped somewhat free of the type of drama that Susan brought into her life. And perhaps, unlike Susan, to get the true point of "Mending Wall," that most fences are in fact unnecessary.