Thursday, September 17, 2009

At Home with the Oblonskys

My cell phone rang yesterday, and I could see that it was my sister calling, and I thought, "Oh just give it up already" because I assumed that she was going to bug me, yet again, about coming to her house in Texas for Thanksgiving. She had been campaigning for some time, with the first invitation coming perhaps six weeks ago. There had been follow up emails with details of low, low airfares, and then, less than a week ago, another phone call which included the following conversation.

TED: It's just such a long way, and I'm not even sure the girls can make it.

Sister of TED: Well, I know, but Mom and Dad are coming from Florida and [TED's older brother] and his family are coming from [whatever Godforsaken corner of Texas they live in], so I thought if we were all here, we could get a big family picture taken for Mom and Dad.

TED: How about if you photoshop us in?

SoTED: I don't think so.

TED: You're right. YFU and EFU will never pose for a picture. You'll have to photoshop in two other children.

SoTED: TED, stop. I was talking to Dad, and he said that he heard Mom on the phone telling someone that since Thanksgiving is just a couple of days after their fifty-eighth anniversary, and since we never did anything big for their fiftieth anniversary, she thought that we were planning something special.

TED: Well. That's transparent, isn't it?

SoTED: I just think we should all get together again, before it's too late.

TED: Yeah, God forbid we should miss out on the opportunity to celebrate fifty-eight years of constant bickering.

SoTED: That is not very nice.

TED: But it's true, right?

SoTED: That is not very nice.

TED: You know, I remember eight years ago, when [TED's older brother] was living in Pennsylvania, and we went up there for Thanksgiving, and we were all saying what we were thankful for, and I said that I was thankful that Mom and Dad went on a cruise for their golden anniversary and we didn't have to plan anything.

SoTED: You're terrible.

TED: Tell me you didn't think the same thing.

SoTED: Did I mention that you're terrible?

So I wasn't all that thrilled about the prospect of having further guilt applied, but then I remembered that over the weekend, I'd had a conversation with EFU:
TED: How much time do you get for Thanksgiving?

EFU: Just the weekend, but I assume that you'll insist that I come down.

TED: Well, I really hope you will. Your aunt is trying to guilt me into bringing you and YFU down to Texas for Thanksgiving.

EFU: Noooooo!

TED: Well, she says that Grandpa says that Grandma said she thought we were doing something special for their fifty-eighth birthday.

EFU: Well, that's transparent.

TED: OMG, I am so proud to be your father.

EFU: Whatever. I really don't want to go to Texas. You're a better cook than she is.

TED: Finally, someone with reasonable priorities.
EFU: Can I bring one of my roommates home with me for Thanksgiving? Otherwise she'll be here all alone.

TED: Oh sweet! An ironclad excuse not to go to Texas!

EFU: Right, but can we act like we're inviting her just because she's my friend?

TED: Whatever.

So I figured it was safe to take my sister's call and that it was a good time to tell her that I was surely not coming for Thanksgiving.

But what she really wanted to tell me was that she had had a call from my parents' cleaning lady, who is also their friend and attends the same church they do. She'd called to tell my sister that she had taken my father to her home because she was afraid that my mother was going to hurt him.

Apparently, my father had expressed similar fears to his doctor, who had been bound by law to inform the sheriff about his concerns. The sheriff had come to the house to follow up earlier yesterday. Fortunately, my mother had been out at the time; otherwise, they'd have surely ended up on the eleven o'clock news. I wonder what my mother's verse of "Cell Block Tango" would be.

My sister arranged for the cleaning lady to take my father to his doctor's appointment the next day (today) and then to take him to the airport so that he could fly to Austin, where my sister would pick him up and take him to her home.

My sister, not surprisingly, was very upset about the whole situation. I told her that she had done exactly the right thing, and that seemed to make her feel better. Then she said, "Well, I'm taking care of Dad. I guess that means you get to take care of Mom." Thank God she was laughing. (I had a moment of abject terror during which I imagined my mother showing up at my new house. Is giving your mother a fake address considered bad form?)

I had hoped to ignore the inevitable fallout from my father's departure for as long as possible (best case scenario: eighteen hours), but b&c told me that I should probably at least call to check on my mother and make sure that her recent change in behavior wasn't due to the onset of dementia. I can remember my mother throwing things at my father as long as forty years ago, so I'm not sure about the whole recent-change-in-behavior thing, but I figured he was right, so I called Mom. She had no idea where Dad was and didn't seem overly concerned about his absence. So without giving her any details that would enable her to hunt him down, I told her that Dad was on his way to my sister's house. It never takes much to set Mom off, so I got the expected rant from her, but at least I got the fifteen-minute version instead of the half-hour version. It seemed best just to let her talk, and when she started saying that my father had abandoned her and that she'd never abandoned him, I deemed it wiser not to mention all of the times that she disappeared for days or weeks at a time when I was a teenager.

When I got off the phone last night, I remembered the opening line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And I was briefly very pleased, thinking, "Well, finally we get to be different." But then I realized that I'm probably very slow. Surely we're not suddenly an unhappy family. We must have always been an unhappy family, and I was simply too thick to recognize it. (Either that, or happy family/unhappy family is a false dichotomy, but that's unfathomable since it would mean that I'd have to abandon this whole line of thought.) And that troubled me because if it's possible to be an unhappy family and not know it, does that mean you could be an unhappy person and not know it? I mean, Mom's an unhappy person, and not only does she know it, but she makes sure everyone else knows it, but that doesn't mean that it's not possible to be unhappy without knowing it. What if I'm going along, thinking I'm a happy person, but I'm actually miserable without knowing it? You will probably spot the cognitive flaws in that line of thinking, but parents can make you a little bit crazy.

It's been a long time since I read Anna Karenina, and whenever someone brings it up, my initial response is to think to myself, "Oh, shit. Is she the one who eats poison or the one who throws herself under a train?" European novels, whether Russian or French, about bored women who take lovers and later commit suicide have never had much resonance with me, but then I have never much thought about them in the context of my mother. (Now that I think about it, I honestly don't remember whether I've read Madame Bovary, though I'm pretty sure I saw an adaptation of it once on PBS.) Anna Karenina, as it happens, is only secondarily about her story. The primary plot -- the one that ends happily -- is more engaging. Perhaps Tolstoy chose the title so as not to give the lie to his first sentence, or perhaps it was a simple recognition that stories of unhappiness are generally more compelling than stories of happiness. That we find unhappiness more compelling likely says something ugly enough about the human psyche that we're better off not exploring the phenomenon too closely.

I'll admit that after I got the call from my sister midday yesterday, I was pretty beat up and had to close my office door for ten minutes or so. And later in the day, at the beginning of a long and brisk walk, I wallowed briefly in the unfairness of the fact that I have only just gotten to the point where my children have started to behave like adults, and now my parents started to behave like children.

Ultimately, though, I'm nothing like my mother, who has wallowed in perceived unfairness for at least the last forty years, and probably much longer. Her unhappiness is extremely regrettable, but it has long been obvious to me that she cultivates it. There's not much that I can do about her unhappiness except not to emulate it, and not to burden my own children. She has taught me much by way of counterexample.


  1. Should we be responsible for our parents' behavior?

    I like Mme Bovary & Ana Karenina for the same reason: both women (and the books) are totally unromantic...

  2. There was a moment a few years back when I was on the phone with dad and he was behaving like a petulant teenager. It was the first time I had to parent him. Probably won't be the last. As in all situations that require complex extrications I wish you good luck sir.

  3. I read this last week and was stunned. The situation with your mother sounds really awful. It may well be that she is exhibiting symptoms of dementia--accentuation of worst aspects of previous behaviour, inattention to absence of husband--which, if the case, will only get worse. I'm afraid you are in for some very hard decisions in the near future.

  4. Jerome--interesting that you invoke both Anna and Emma--both authors chose to send their adulterous heroines to performances of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor as a symbol of deep emotional love with a forbidden man.