I don’t remember much about my bat mitzvah, but I do remember this: my father’s side of the family and my mother’s side of the family, seated around a long table in a hotel dining room that had been rented for the occasion. At the end where my father’s family sat, there was silence. At the end where my mother’s family sat, there was laughter. I remember looking back and forth, wanting to bask in the warmth of my mother’s family while feeling like I owed it to my father’s side to affect some approximation of misery.
It didn’t make sense to me: my mother and her two sisters had lost their parents decades earlier, first to a heart attack on a golf course and then to a car accident the day before Thanksgiving. But here they were, as light as champagne. My father and his brother still had their parents, and yet here they were, looking like they were undergoing a colonoscopy.
I remember looking at my father, who seemed the unhappiest of all. How, I wanted to ask him, can you feel so lost when you’re surrounded by your own family?
It was my Aunt Barbara who decided that our family reunion would take place in Selma in August, and that the main dining room of the Selma Country Club would best accommodate all fifty-one of us for dinner.
Barbara is extremely good at deciding things; the younger of my mom’s two sisters, she’s got the smile of a debutant and the resolve of a dictator. She’s the keeper of my maternal family’s history, the one who can tell you that we made our way from Bavaria and Prussia to deepest Alabama in the mid-1800s, settled in Selma, and went into the hardware business. She can show you our ancestral home, our long-abandoned foundry on the outskirts of town, and the former Harmony Club, a 107-year-old building on the Alabama River that began its life as a Jewish men’s social club cofounded by one of my great-great-grandfathers.
As a child, I neither knew nor cared about my family history beyond its relevance to my immediate present. My maternal grandparents had died before I was born or too young to understand, so all that mattered to me was the holy trinity of my mother and her two sisters: Kaydee, Sue, and Barbara, said always in that order, with my mom wedged right in the middle. Barbara is the baby but I always saw her as the boss, the planner, the one who people said yes to. I also saw her as fun incarnate: she was the one who let us eat Apple Jacks, forbidden fruit in our own household, and drove her midnight-blue Buick Special convertible up and down Birmingham’s hills at thrilling, inadvisable speeds as I sat in the back seat, white-knuckling the black vinyl upholstery. She was the one who would flirt with beefcake waiters half her age and whisk us off to her beach house on the Gulf of Mexico. She was the one who would tell us how much fun our mother was before she met our father.
Barbara and my dad didn’t get along, and hadn’t since before I was born. Their grudge match began, according to my father, in December 1975, two years after my parents got married. My mother’s family was celebrating Christmas, as was their custom, and my father couldn’t understand why: Southern Jews, after all, were still Jews. So he told Barbara in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want any Christmas presents, then or ever. Things went downhill from there.
But really, you could say that the problem began with my father’s parents, two generally well-meaning people with a resolutely dim view of humanity and a knack for withholding information from their two sons, even as they freely dispensed judgment. Growing up, I heard stories: there was the time my grandfather’s Army job took the family to Germany after the war, and my grandparents decided not to tell my father that this thing called the Holocaust had happened a few years earlier—instead, he was instructed not to tell anyone he was Jewish. There was the time my grandparents intercepted and destroyed an acceptance letter from a college they didn’t want my dad to attend; he only realized what had happened when the same school subsequently invited him to apply to its graduate program. To be fair, my grandparents may have lacked the language to talk about the Holocaust—plenty of people did, and still do. They may have thought they were protecting my father and, by extension, themselves from a horror whose dimensions they couldn’t quite comprehend or accept, let alone describe to a child. And their general approach to communicating with their sons—or rather not—wasn’t unusual among parents of their <em>Father Knows Best</em> generation. For his part, my father didn’t question them; he was quiet and studious and terminally obedient and, above all, trusted his parents.
It was only when he met my mother’s imperfect but exuberantly tight-knit family that he realized there were other, healthier ways to communicate, and that perhaps the dynamics that had shaped his upbringing weren’t exactly the norm. And then he got really angry. But he didn’t know where to put that anger; at the time, there was no nice therapist urging him to share his feelings. So for years he stewed and stewed, a pressure cooker without a release valve. He couldn’t form the words to tell his parents how he felt, so instead he incubated a deep resentment towards anyone who told him what to do. And Barbara, unlike her two sisters, was so good at telling everyone what to do.
Over the years, the relationship between my father and aunt devolved to the point where, if Barbara called and he answered, she’d say only, “Let me talk to Sue,” and he’d wordlessly hand the phone to my mother. She in turn bore their animosity with the long-suffering forbearance of a classic middle child and reserved equal amounts of exasperation for both of them. “Your father,” she’d sigh when we asked what was wrong. “Your Aunt Barbara,” she’d grumble. As a kid, I was alternately indifferent to and perplexed by their behavior. So long as Barbara was in Alabama and my father was in Michigan, where we’d moved from Birmingham when I was five, their mutual distaste was abstract enough to be vaguely comical, like a “Spy vs. Spy” strip. But on the rare occasion they breathed the same air, it grew unbearably heavy, with Barbara ignoring my dad as he fumed, refusing to speak unless spoken to.
It embarrassed me, my father’s inability to lighten up and fit in. Barbara, her two daughters, and her husband, Larry: they were all fun. Everyone in my mom’s family was fun, with their loud laughter, distended “y’alls,” and easy hugs: they were, after all, the kind of Jews who put up a Christmas tree, just to enjoy the lights. They knew how to assimilate while somehow losing nothing of their identity; they could communicate with the world around them, considering its terms while choosing their own. My father, on the other hand, seemed trapped in an unpleasant conversation with himself, which only enhanced my suspicion that there was something deeply weird and shameful about my family. <em>Why can’t you just be fun?</em> I silently, furiously asked my father each time he sat glowering at a family gathering, leaving the rest of us to orbit around him, carefully avoiding the gravitational pull of his discontent.
A few weeks before the reunion, Barbara told us that we’d be eating at the country club. Although the reunion would entail other events—a visit to Temple Mishkan Israel, Selma’s sole synagogue, another to the old Harmony Club, and little interludes where distant cousins could eat caramel cake and mull over their common ancestry—the dinner, or, more accurately, The Dinner, was to be its centerpiece.
How did we know the country club wasn’t segregated? My father wanted to know. It wasn’t an unreasonable question: even in 2010, we had no reason to assume that the country club in a small Alabama town welcomed blacks as anything but employees. But while I understood that my father was genuine in his unwillingness to support a potentially racist institution, his ambivalence toward the reunion was just as real. “Your father never understood the point of family reunions,” my mother later told me. “Because his own family never wanted to see each other.”
He called the Selma Museum of Slavery and Civil Rights. An employee confirmed that the country club was segregated and volunteered that the museum had a banquet hall and a reliable caterer. My mother had Barbara call the club, which informed her that there was a policy of non-discrimination: blacks could apply for membership and go through the same vetting process as anyone else. That said, there were no black club members though there were rumors of an Indian family.
Barbara believed the club; my father believed the museum. I believed in the <em>New York Times</em> and emailed its incumbent Ethicist for his opinion on the matter. He responded the next day: “No honorable person can do business with a segregated institution,” he wrote. Meet the rest of the family someplace before the meal, or after, he advised, “but I wouldn’t betray my principles to keep peace in the family at dinner.”
The speed of his response was somewhat soothing; it suggested that he was used to dealing with all sorts of familial dysfunction, and that contrary to what I’d believed as a child, my own family’s conflicts were no more embarrassing or shameful than anyone else’s. The advice itself was sound in theory. But in the practice of a family reunion, where things like principles and historical grievances are supposed to be hastily shoved under the rug to encourage a happy show of unity, it had its issues. No one goes to a family reunion in the hope of encountering past shame and current self-righteousness, even if that’s what most of us end up finding once we get there. And my family was no different. Mr. Ethicist, I later realized, could have commanded us to dine at the possibly segregated country club and it wouldn’t have changed anything: Barbara was going to forge ahead with her plans, and my father with his own.
It wasn’t until he reached middle age that my father, in his quiet but determined way, began to change. He found a therapist and a copy of the Talmud and began to spend his evenings studying rabbinical Jewish philosophy. He voiced dissent toward policies he didn’t agree with at work and papered his office with posters of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix that delighted his medical students and mystified his colleagues. He earned a reputation as something of a shit-stirrer, albeit one who wore a bowtie. You could say he was a late-blooming hippie, or that his stymied youth finally caught up with him and demanded answers. Or you could say that he’d simply had enough of who he’d been. Gradually, he became less prone to the furious outbursts that had punctuated my childhood and more inclined to explain himself.
One evening when I was seventeen, my dad came home from work and told me and my sister a secret: he was a middle child, just like my mother. He had an older brother named David who, the story went, had either suffered “birth trauma” or had cerebral palsy. My dad couldn’t say for sure because my grandparents refused to talk about it, even in the privacy of their own home; all he knew for certain was that David had been a ward of the state since he was a toddler. My father had met him once, in 1956, on a visit to one of the institutions where David would spend his entire life until he died in 2004. He didn’t remember much about his older brother except, he told us, that “he drooled a lot.” But he did remember the crushing shame and silence that filled the hole that David had left in his parents’ lives.
It was only then that I began to understand why my father wasn’t fun, and why, in his eyes, the family you were born into was not something you inherently enjoyed. It was something you survived and spent the rest of your life trying to reconcile with the person you hoped to be. And if you encountered people along the way who, like your parents, made decisions you didn’t agree with, you didn’t lie down for them. You fought, and you turned a country-club dinner into a line drawn in the sand.
In August, the air in Selma feels like the inside of a mouth, so hot and damp and thick that you don’t so much go about your business as calculate the shortest distance between two air conditioners. Not much happens in Selma: it’s a sleepy river town, the kind made drowsy by unhealed wounds and economic woe. Its present is of far less interest to outsiders than the day fifty years in its past when police officers attacked a group of peaceful civil-rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a show of institutionalized brutality that helped lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Because this is the one thing that most people know about Selma, the idea of a bunch of Jews having a reunion there doesn’t really track. When acquaintances realize that my family hails from the Deep South, they typically respond with some variation of “There are Jews in Alabama?” Yes, I tell them, there are, but admittedly not many: in Selma their numbers are so few that, as of 2013, Temple Mishkan Israel’s congregation totaled seven people. Still, the South belongs to us, too, even if most people’s shorthand version of it—black, white, sweet tea, sweet Jesus—doesn’t grant us our real estate.
On the first day of the reunion, my dad unpacked his Leica and decided temporarily to abandon the festivities to go out on his own and take some photos. My sister and I accompanied him to the outskirts of town, stopping by the side of the road to observe rusting car skeletons and swollen clots of kudzu. The heat lent everything a brittle, shimmering quality and seemed to sap the air of noise. As we wandered listlessly along while the rest of my family gathered a few miles away, I could almost ignore the nervous anticipation that had colonized my stomach for the past week. The Ethicist’s letter had made it easy for me to side with my father in the dinner debate, but it hadn’t warned me that once I actually arrived in Selma I’d feel like I was ten years old again, trying to please my dad while wanting nothing more than to be sitting at Barbara’s glass-topped kitchen table, spooning Apple Jacks down my throat.
Before the reunion, my father made plans to have a dinner separate from the one at the country club; this one would be catered and held at the civil-rights museum. My sister, brother-in-law, and I would attend, and my mother possibly would too, though by this point she had so wearied of the pissing match between my father and aunt that she no longer wanted to go to the reunion, much less dinner. Still, I chose to imagine that our splinter dinner would be held in a magisterial hall in the civil-rights museum and be joined at the last minute by a small but merry band of dissenters who had foregone the country club in favor of upholding some kind of principle—one whose symbolic power would both negate family responsibility and renounce larger historical wrongs. Our absence would speak louder than words, and our dinner would reject both the racist past and its lingering hold on the present, pointing the way toward a more enlightened future.
But when word gets around that you’re skipping dinner, your reunited family doesn’t look upon you with admiration. They look upon you, as they always have, as the child of the man who refuses to get along with everyone else. The only symbol they’re thinking of—in part because they likely have no idea of the small drama that has transpired about the country club—is rain on a parade. And they certainly don’t join you for dinner. Particularly when it turns out that your dinner will not in fact be served at the museum, which had apparently already been booked for an event, but in the hotel’s breakfast room.
The only time a hotel breakfast room assumes even a whisper of festivity is in the morning, when it smells like syrup and sausage patties and hums with the hopeful energy of people fueling themselves for a new day. At night, it becomes the hotel’s vestigial limb, a place you end up only if something else hasn’t worked out the way it was supposed to. The Holiday Inn’s breakfast room was next to the lobby, which allowed me to watch the rest of my relatives, dressed in their Saturday-night finest, file out into the Selma twilight as I hovered around a table with my father, sister, and brother-in-law, waiting for our catered dinner to arrive. Some waved as they left the hotel, and some looked at us with quizzical, faintly embarrassed smiles, but not one person joined us.
Principles or no principles, what we were doing didn’t make sense to them: and indeed, why choose a weekend dedicated to unity to separate yourself from the only people contractually obligated to make you feel less alone in the world? As I watched everyone leave, I didn’t feel like I was taking a stand so much as being slowly trampled. So I went to look for my mother.
I found her in my parents’ hotel room, lying on the bed fully dressed and crying. “Aren’t you coming to dinner?” I asked. It was a stupid question asked out of fear; I was afraid to see my mother looking so crumpled, and more afraid that we had done this to her. “Just go and eat,” she said. “But aren’t you hungry?” I asked. The question made her cry even harder. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my hand on her shoulder and watched her cry. She was wearing a yellow button-down shirt, tucked into the waistband of a long khaki skirt, and a pair of black patent-leather flats. I recognized them as the ones I’d worn in the seventh grade, the last time my mother and I had shared a shoe size. I’d always teased her for wearing my old shoes, and my eighth-grade Esprit jean jacket, but she didn’t care; she hated shopping. My mother is the least vain person I know, and also the least judgmental, and as I sat there watching her cry, I began to suspect that I didn’t deserve her.
When I returned to the table, the caterers had arrived: three black women carrying covered aluminum pans. The pans were large—too large—making it painfully clear that they had expected far more than four people. The women peeled back the covers to reveal mac ’n’ cheese, greens, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed appreciatively as we piled it all on our plates, but the whole thing felt like a dance with no music; there was nothing to guide our movements but some ingrained sense of duty to see this endeavor through to what was shaping up to be its bitter, bitter end.
We took our seats, and the women retreated to another corner of the room to bide their time while we ate. Realizing that they had to wait there until we were done, I felt ashamed and embarrassed: after the weeks of grandstanding, letter-writing, and taking sides, all our show of protest had amounted to was three black people having to wait on four white people. No one understood why the hell we were here or what my father was trying to say because, again, language had failed. He couldn’t say that what had been presented as political dissent was also on some level an attempt to protest a much smaller personal history. There was no way to explain this. So instead, he tried to eat.
As we picked at our food, my dad, never much of a dinnertime conversationalist to begin with, settled into a silence so deep it seemed to assume physical proportions. My brother-in-law, easily the most voluble member of our family, did his best to pave over the quiet, but there was nothing, really, to say. The food wasn’t doing its part to encourage cheerful conversation because it was awful: the mac ’n’ cheese was mealy, the greens had been cooked to the consistency of wet toilet paper, and the chicken was as tough as a fist. The fact that there was so much of it, cooling slowly in the aluminum pans, was its own form of shame; it would be thrown into the trash, unloved and wasted.
I watched my father eat, his head bowed to reveal the balding patch on the back of his crown. He’d always had a lot of hair; watching the insurgent spot shine under the breakfast room’s bright lights, I wanted to reach over and shield it, from both the light and something else I couldn’t name. Sitting here, abandoned by the certainty and pride that had led him to take a stand against his family, my father was just an aging man eating bad food in silence with his children while his wife cried in another room. And while I’d seen my dad in a similar state before—stranded somewhere between simmering anger and furious shame—there was something different this time, a sense, you could say, that things were well and truly fucked.
I don’t remember how long we sat there; it could have been ten minutes or an hour. I don’t remember leaving the table or what was said the next day. I only remember the phone call I got a few weeks later from my dad, telling me he was thinking of asking my mom for a divorce.
“I’ve realized how much I really hurt your mother,” he said. “And I’ve hurt the family. I think it might be better if I just bowed out.”
When I was in elementary school, my parents had fought so much that I felt sure they would get a divorce; at the time, I even wished for it, just so they’d stop fighting. Back then my dad was angry about a lot of things I couldn’t understand. Now, I finally understood that he was angry with himself, so disgusted and sad that, in his eyes, the only sensible way to fix our family was to subtract himself from it. The thought was so preposterous that my first instinct wasn’t to take it seriously. My second instinct was to cry, because in that instant, I saw how hopeless my father felt and how, on some level, he truly believed it would be easier to walk away from thirty-seven years of marriage than to spare himself a bit of mercy.
“What does Mom say?” I asked.
“She was surprised,” he said. “I don’t think she wants me to.”
“Please don’t,” I said. “This is crazy.”
It was crazy, but if I viewed my father’s crisis within the larger context of his own family, it assumed a certain virulent strain of logic. He’d watched his parents nurse grudges over decades, preferring to cut themselves off from those who aggrieved them rather than mend their wounds. And eventually, he watched his mother reject him, too. After my grandfather died in 1999 at the age of eighty-three, my grandmother moved to our Michigan town, where she came to depend on my mother to take her to doctor’s appointments and provide a sympathetic ear. But in the last year of her life, her fangs came out; nothing my mother could do was good enough anymore. “All she does is go to lunch,” my grandmother complained to my dad. That, to him, was a bridge too far; his mother could criticize him, fine, but his wife was protected territory. And so, he told his mother, in so many words, that she was full of shit. That, to my grandmother, was a bridge too far. “I only have one son now,” she told him; not long after that conversation, she pulled up stakes and moved to Maryland to be closer to my Uncle Gordon. A month before she died, my dad called her. “Well, I hope you’re happy now,” she said. It was the last thing she would ever say to him.
So while I told myself that my dad wouldn’t divorce my mom in some kind of grandly insane attempt at self-flagellation, I wasn’t as certain when I considered his parents’ own predilection for acts of masochistic lunacy. I wondered if the dinner had snagged a first thread that would unravel the decades of work he had done to undo my grandparents’ legacy and if the act of gathering around a table would ultimately drive him away from the family he had built for himself. The idea of my family without my father didn’t seem real, but the idea of him trapped by self-destructive impulse seemed like simple genetic continuity, the tired, ugly déjà vu of history doomed to repeat itself.
But then it didn’t.
When I tell people the story of how my father and aunt reconciled, no one believes it. I can understand why: it sounds too sweet and easy and in no way complements the narrative that preceded it.
What happened was this: a few weeks after the reunion, my aunt called and my dad answered, but instead of handing the phone to my mother, he decided to ask Barbara how she made her signature chocolate roulade. After a brief pause, Barbara decided to tell him, and they spoke for the next twenty-five minutes or so about nothing but chocolate roulade. And that was it: by the time they hung up, everything, for whatever reason, had changed. It was, my dad later told me, “like the sun came out.”
See? It doesn’t make sense. Even my father can’t say, six years after that phone call, why he asked Barbara about the roulade; he certainly didn’t get off the phone and make one, and still hasn’t. This isn’t one of those stories about food healing all wounds.
I think that what really happened is that after years spent navigating the hostile territory inside his head, my dad decided to try to build a home where he didn’t think one had existed. The family he had built with my mother, my sister, and me had been a good, strong home, but it was truly safe only so long as it remained isolated from his family and my mother’s; without quite meaning to, my father had built a fortified panic room. It took eating dinner in a Holiday Inn breakfast room for him to see that, just as his parents had done, he was slowly destroying his home from within.
And so, at the age of sixty-two, he chose to rebuild a stronger family, one that could bend and breathe. He reached across three decades and seven hundred miles to ask Barbara if she would forgive and help him, and she said she would. And then, for the first time in thirty years, each stopped to listen to what the other had to say. For the past six years, they have continued to listen and rebuild and, in the process, have become friends, the kind who email each other terrible jokes and try their best to understand one another.
A couple of years ago, my dad asked Barbara if he could be part of her family. “You always have been,” she told him; he just hadn’t allowed himself to see it. Now he sees a lot of things he couldn’t see before, like the contours of forgiveness and acceptance, and the shape that a family takes when it broadens itself to welcome you in, lifting you up like you’re light as champagne.