Thursday, December 10, 2009

Poetic Justice

At our gala pre-Xmas get-together last weekend, we played Stack o’ Questions. After one guest revealed that, as a victim of childhood sexual and other abuse, she greatly envied anyone raised by sane, loving parents, we began to debate the relative importance of nature and nurture. I noted that my wife and her brother, only 30 months apart, and thus products of pretty much the identical home environment, could hardly be more different. Where Claire is sweet-natured, hard-working, and gregarious, my brother-in-law is corrosively cynical, implacably indolent, and misanthropic, quite happy (in his profound unhappiness) to sit in his gloomy bedroom playing video games and cursing the world for failing to recognize his brilliance as a musician, which he never actually puts on display.

The divergence between me and my younger sister is nearly as great — and great enough for us to have been completely estranged (as in not speaking) for the past year, after not being able to stand one another for most of the present century.

In at least one key way, each of us has embodied the personality of one of our parents. My mother was shy and self-conscious, my dad — to my mother’s infinite discomfort and disgust — an implacable back-slapper and flirt. I can’t remember a morning after they’d gone out socially together that she didn’t slice him to shreds with her razorblade tongue for having either embarrassed her or left her to fend for herself while he did his life-o’-the-party routine.

I’m my mother, and my sister’s my dad. It has often felt to me, when we’ve gone out together, that my sister’s far more interested in being seen as the soul of vivacity by third parties than in her companions’ comfort. We’ve entered restaurants together, and half the wait staff and a couple of fellow diners were her new Best Friends Forever even before our menus were presented. I, meanwhile, wanted to duck under the table. She’s mortally offended when I tell her she’s embarrassing me — to the point of not having invited me to her (third) wedding last year, or even told me it was going to take place.

But maybe poetic justice of the sort responsible for the situation with me and my daughter is to blame. I honestly feel, even while wincing at the thought of a thousand things I said, or did, or didn’t do, that over all I was a fairly sensational dad to Brigitte. God knows I couldn’t have loved her more than I did, and do. But every time I feel like bewailing the hideous unfairness of our ongoing estrangement, which will enter its ninth year next spring, I remember, wincing, how brutish I was with my own parents in the final years of their lives. Am I not getting exactly what I deserve?

Close to 40 years after the fact, I’m consumed by shame at the memory of taking my sister, than 14, to her first concert, the Moody Blues at the Forum in LA, and acting embarrassed about her, rather than a jaw-dropping blonde actress or model, being my date. If I’d had even the faintest sense of self-worth, I’d have been able to revel in her excitement and delight, but all I could do at the time was exactly what my mother, for whom appearances were ever paramount, would have done in the same circumstances — think the world was looking at me and thinking, “God, what a loser, having to come to this with his kid sister.”

I’m so sorry, Lori.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

1 comment:

  1. Do you actually want comments?

    If so, then mine is that your sister and you apparently weren't united against a common familial foe. My brother, whom you've met, and I do not coincide on any shared attributes, yet remain close as always, as we were ineluctably destined to be the relatively saner side of the nuclear family and recognized one another early on as such.

    If you don't want comments, I'll refrain from excuses to use worlds like "ineluctably" in future sentences here.