Monday, October 11, 2010

The Case for Siblings (continued)

I read The Kids Are All Right, by Diana, Liz, Amanda and Dan Welch as a participant in the online bookclub, From Left to Write. The following blog is not a review of the book, but a blog inspired by this absorbing memoir.

Siblings are the only true witnesses of our childhood. They experience what we experience. They see what we see. They hear what we hear. They know what it was like. Whenever I have questioned a memory of my childhood, I can check it out with my sister, Jennifer. Whenever I feel like I’m exaggerating or minimizing something in my mind, I can rely on her to validate my perception.

This is something that Sophia may never have.

That thought was present for me, as I read The Kids Are All Right, a memoir of a difficult childhood (sudden, mysterious death of their father and the subsequent slow, painful loss of their mother to cancer) told in four, alternating sibling perspectives. It was an engrossing conceit; I took in these tragic events from four different angles: sibling position, age, and individual resources each playing a role in how The Kids experienced and coped with the death of their parents. Most of the time, their memories matched up…but occasionally, they contradicted one another or were completely different in content and feeling. It got me thinking, what would it be like to write about my childhood memories alongside my sister? What insights might come of it?

So, I turned to Jennifer and asked if she would participate in a little writing experiment with me. This week, my sister guest blogs as we recall a slice of our childhood.


Almost every weekend after brunch, a spread of bagels and lox and the occasional six layer chocolate cake (my father had a sweet tooth), we would venture into NYC to spend the day.
Both my parents enjoyed exposing us to the arts, culture and rich experience no other place like the city had to offer. I loved strolling the Lower East side and the Village with my family. Melissa gossiping and in step with mom, and me skipping next to dad, my father's warm hand reaching for mine. I had a feeling of great security and contentment. We would window shop, visit a museum or park and then usually have Chinese. I liked the warmth and steaminess of the restaurant inside as I people watched. After dinner I would have pistachio ice cream and Melissa, chocolate. Jazz would play on the car radio lulling me to sleep. Home would come too soon.


Though my parents disagreed on nearly everything, from how much one should spend on a grapefruit to whether or not my mother should work…they were united in their love of the arts. My mother was an artist in her own right. She had studied fine art in school, and took a job in commercial art after college, drawing pillows for Comfy. By the time I was in school, her portfolio was moldering in our unfinished basement, though she still incorporated art in her nursery school teachings. My grandmother displayed my mother’s self-portrait (in oil) prominently on the far living room wall. I would study the painting--my mother’s face, forever young, her ponytail pinned in a “plotch” on top of her head--for traits that resembled my own. But I was the spitting image of my father. Dad was less a practitioner of the arts than an aficionado. He loved jazz, antiques, modern art, flea market finds. There was nothing pretentious about his tastes. He liked what he liked. So our forays into the City were wild and varied. I remember, one time, Mom and Dad took us to the Guggenheim. There was a transgender exhibit going on. Paper dolls had swinging sex parts affixed with paper fasteners. Jenny and I gawked, less intrigued by the fact that there were male dolls with female sex parts and vica versa than that there were sex parts on display at all. Dad suggested releasing a bag of marbles at the top and letting them roll down the spiral museum promenade. We either giggled or were appalled, the way we either giggled or were appalled at most of my father’s behavior. Whereas other dads might joke about this, our Dad might actually do it.

My mother was usually appalled. We always drove into the City. Dad had a Dodge Daytona that he drove like it was a Ferrari. He would weave in an out of the traffic, while my mother clutched at the sides of her bucket seat, arms tense, body lifted several inches into the air. “Lenny! Slow down!” she’d beg/nag as, Dad would cut off three lanes of traffic, making a beeline for the shoulder, which he’d speed down until his intuition would tell him we were getting too close to a cop. Jenny and I were wedged into the backseats and mercifully couldn’t see much of what was going on. We had to divine from the increasingly tense exchange when we had narrowly avoided disaster. “You almost went into him!” “Will you relax and let me drive?’ Once, the arguing got so bad that Dad jumped out at the light, just as we emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel. I was stricken. Where would he go? How would he get home? My mother, seething, was determined to carry on with the day. We went to the Museum of Natural History and communed with animals long dead. When we got home, Dad was there. I never found out how he made his way back.

When we managed to make it through the day without someone bailing, we went to Chinatown to get dinner at Hong Fat’s. (No longer there, and what has been described on Chow Hound as “one of NYC’s legendary bad restaurants,” though, to it’s credit, many came out in defense of this comment). Afterwards, Dad would prefer to drive through the city streets than to take the West Side Highway back to the tunnel. Jazz on the radio, neon lights bleeding in rivulets of rain on the windows, it was soothing. Invariably, though, I would get sick in the tunnel on the ride home. When I got old enough, I blamed it on the MSG. More likely it was a combination of family drama agita, too much grease, motion sickness, and fear of returning to school the next day. I think Jenny doesn’t remember this because, mercifully, she had fallen asleep.

It’s probably hard to believe, but I do share her nostalgia for these trips. I think it’s because they were formative. Like Mom, Jennifer became an artist, coaxing graceful sculptures out of clay. Like Dad, I developed an appreciation for beauty in odd corners. If I dug far back enough, to the time when I was as old as Jennifer during these trips, I might have had sweeter, more harmonious memories of the four of us together. But that period is blank. Empty for me. And so I rely on Jenny to fill it.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received The Kids Are All Right from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

1 comment:

liz welch said...

I got lost in this post, in the best way. What a writer you are and I hope you do write a memoir one day! The scenes you conjure are so vivid! I am at the Guggenheim with you, in the back seat of the weaving Datsun and shocked when your dad storms off--at the lincoln tunnel! (How did he get home?) Your memories are such a hilarious and stark contrast to your sister's! And remind me of my relationship with Amanda. Everytime I wanted to get Amanda to do a new chapter in our book, I would simply tell her my own memory, say of the Christmas after dad died, or of the summer we moved into the cottage, and Amanda would always start her own memory with: That's not how it happened... and then launch into her own recollection. What we all learned is EACH memory is correct. Jennifer's security and contentment is your remembering disagreements and fights! At least you two agree on the chinese food... one of the most stark mis-matched memories Amanda and I have was the night before our mom died. I distinctly remember being alone that night. And my big sister remembers sleeping in the same bed with me. Go figure?! Thanks so much for the thoughtful musings, and for getting your sister to guest blog! We really hoped our book would inspire siblings to share and compare memories. So cool to see it in action! All best, liz welch