19 August, 2010

The Omission

(Top) Myron Elias (circa 1918)
(Bottom) Victoria Tinney Elias (circa 1935)
Tonight I want to write about empathy. About finding it. About embracing it. 

But first a family story. Actually a "family" story, with inverted commas,  because some of the people I'm going to write about are not related to me and are therefore most decidedly NOT my family. 

This is a story about my mother. My mother was born in 1925 in New York City. Her parents were ridiculously wealthy young people -- the Sephardic answer to Fitzgerald's careless Gatsbys. They sang and danced and drank and probably had outrageously passionate sex. They were gorgeous, both of them. Dark, mysterious, glamorous Victoria (my mother's mother) and sensual, handsome hedonist Myron (my grandfather). My grandfather's father put the glass in the Chrysler Building; Victoria's father was a Ziegfeld Follie, pulling down over a thou a week back in 1912. Imagine it. 

They married. They went out dancing. They had two kids, my aunt Marion and then my mother. Shortly thereafter, probably around 1930,  Victoria and Myron decided to call it quits. Victoria took the kids and relocated to Beverly Hills, where Mama Edna (Victoria's mother) was nursing her wounds after the demise of her fifth marriage. Myron stayed in NY and later moved to Connecticut. They told their daughters, seven and five at the time, that "Daddy will be coming to California soon." 

In those days, people regularly lied to their children. No one talked about abandonment or the effects of promising that a parent would be there soon, knowing full well he/she wouldn't. Couldn't. Because he was now supervising a glass job in Connecticut and was falling in love with someone else. 

Victoria met a man named Elliot out in California and fell in love. 

Great. Both of my biological grandparents were now safely in love with other people and ready for divorce. 

Except Victoria got pregnant. In 1936. By a man who was not her husband. She was carrying Elliot's child. So she made arrangements.

Victoria Tinney Elias, my grandmother, died on 23 May, 1936 of complications from an illegal abortion. She was 36 years old. Beautiful, glamorous, elegant. She died on my mother's 11th birthday.

My mother and her sister Marion were sent East to live with Myron. But don't rush to conclusions here. Don't mistakenly think that my grandfather came out to California, as Prince Charles went to Paris to reclaim Diana Spencer's mangled body. No. He arranged for a virtual stranger to accompany my mother and her sister on the five day journey from Los Angeles to Hartford. My mother never saw her maternal grandmother again. Or any other relatives from that side of the family. At least not for many years. That was it. Done. 

My mother arrived in Hartford sometime in early June, 1936. She was eleven years old. She had lost her mother roughly one week earlier. She hadn't seen her father in six years. And there he was, standing at the train platform, ready to greet his girls. By his side....his new wife, Roz. And Roz's daughter, my "aunt" Judy. (There is some question as to whether they married before or after Carol and Marion arrived in Hartford. Either way, my mother got a "new" mother within a very short time of losing her own.)

I wish I could say that it got better from there. That my mother found the love and attention and care that she so obviously needed. That her father rose to the occasion. That her family environment gave her what she must have needed. But that is not what happened. Roz took one look at Marion and apparently hated her. The feeling was mutual. So that was the first battlefield. Roz took one look at my mother and apparently adored her. My mother was beautiful, easy-going, no fuss. Judy and Marion hated each other from the start. World War III on the domestic front. 

So there was my poor mother, book-ended by sisters who hated each other. She was adored by her new mother because she was pretty (that's how my mother saw it) and because, as my mother told us many times, "I never made waves." Waves? She never even made the slightest ripple. My mother was willing to stuff the emotions away and pretend that she wasn't really hurting inside and wasn't really frightened and lonely and very, very, very, VERY angry. 

Over the years, my mother learned to call Roz her mother.  And she learned to love her. For her part, Roz adored my mother and doted on her; she threw her a huge, elegant wedding with dogwood in April and a satin gown from New York City.  When Roz and Mike (as Myron was known) moved to Palm Springs, my mother would go and visit, and she really enjoyed herself. They had fun together.

When my mother died this past May, I wrote the obituary. I followed a template, asking for the names of the deceased's biological parents. I wrote that my mother was the daughter of Victoria Tinney Elias and Myron Elias. I completely forgot to write Roz into the obituary. It was an oversight. Probably understandable when I think about the fact that I was writing the piece in a state of grief. 

This past Friday, after not speaking to us for more than three months (since the day of my mother's funeral), Judy called and left a long and vicious message on my voice mail. I won't record the details here; she was venomous and vicious and crass. Her language was coarse. She clearly believed -- without ever asking me what really happened -- that my sisters and I had intentionally left out all reference to Roz. She brought up events from the 1940's, monies paid, monies not paid, attention paid, attention not paid, dining room sets and wedding bills. She insulted my sisters with words that should never be repeated, and she told me she was "ashamed" of me. 

I listened to her vitriol. Then I played the message for my sister Betsy, and then for my psychiatrist. I played it for my younger nephew, who couldn't believe a "relative" could speak in such a tone or with such language to someone she claimed to love. I told my sister Ruth about the call. And we all agreed: Done. Finito. Basta. Punto y Aparte.

And like that a family becomes smaller. 

And like that I suddenly felt a surge of empathy for my mother. 

My god, what she endured. What a lonely, silent hell it must have been for her, growing up in a household where her father was a weak-willed man who would never stand up to his new wife and never insist that his daughters have contact with their real mother's side of the family. Where her biological sister descended into psychosis and ended up as domestic help to wealthy NYC families. Where her step-sister secretly resented the attention my mother received and grew angrier and angrier with each passing day. "I was the step-daughter in that house, as far as Mother was concerned," said Judy in her message.

My mother found her way. She found my father, another victim of a loveless household. They married and never looked back. I see this all now from a new vantage point. With empathy, with love, I begin to see what she overcame and what she managed to give. I've concentrated for so long on what I didn't get that I have missed something very important: that my mother gave the love she could. The love she knew how to give.

I am humbled by the knowledge of what my mother survived. We are frail, we human beings, and we are mighty and capable of amazing things. We do the best we can. Tonight I understand that that is all we can ask for in another person. It is a lot. 

I know one other thing. I never meant to leave Roz out of the obituary. She was my grandmother, as far as I was concerned. We didn't see Roz and Poppa (as we called them) very often, but they were our grandparents, no questions asked. 

But...I believe my unconscious self wrote down Victoria's name for a reason. As I puzzle through my mother's life -- and therefore my own -- I am keeping sight of that thin line: the one that stretches from Victoria through to Carol and now to me. In that obituary, I was identifying my mother, really naming and acknowledging her. Seeing my mother as a child, as a daughter, as a woman. As a person.

It is late, Mom, and I understand a lot more. The journey continues.


  1. only one thing to say: holy s*%$!

    maybe another: got a "novel" in you, amy?

  2. It really is quite a story, isn't it? There is so much more. Side characters, famous people (my mother's cousin is Robert Elias, who changed his name to Robert Downey...yup, father of you know who). If I hadn't been so in love with Hollywood and the old films, my mother would never have shared ANY of this with me.

    A novel...hm...maybe!

  3. Please start writing. Your readers are hungering for it.

  4. Thank you. I'm thinking this is my next adventure...

  5. I think the adventure is already underway.

  6. Amy, This is just wonderful. Thanks for sending me the link. I need to read everything you've written! Maybe it's a mutual fan club, but a fan club it is!

    Love it!!!!

  7. Denine, Right back atcha. You know I love your blog. And I'm delighted that you're enjoying mine! x

  8. Fan club, indeed! Count me in! I love reading your blog entries! Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts with us! I had to pause before writing a comment to catch my breath. No kidding, Amy. You can write! oo

  9. Thank you, Kate. I am really flattered and deeply touched by all these kind words.