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Family Gatherings of a New Kind

Well, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Mom’s already worrying about where we’ll find room for Auntie Sue and Cousin Bill when they fly in for Thanksgiving, commercials are beginning to boast Black Friday deals for gifts to make Junior light up with joy, and you are busy wracking your brain for the best (and in my case as a broke recent college graduate, the cheapest) holiday presents for all the loved ones on your list. Each landmark of the season emphasizes the same message: the holidays are a time for family. Yet in spite of these same old indicators, this holiday season isn’t going to be quite the same for mine. These past few months I’ve lost some of the most pivotal and, to be fair, completely kooky figures in my life: my headstrong grandma, her kleptomaniac sister, and a fiery aunt. It has been a disturbingly unbalanced year of grief-stricken moments, with the loss of one family member hitting right after the other like a terrible game of dominoes. So at first, this impending family-focused season seemed like nothing but a looming reminder of those I had lost; of how our holidays, our traditions, and our whole family had changed forever

Growing up, I was never much a fan of change, and so the holidays each year were my heyday; it was a time of year I could always count on, with the same old traditions repeating in their perfect pattern. Every Thanksgiving I could expect loads of mashed potatoes prepared by my all Irish-blooded grandma, a plea from my dad to get a potato pot that wasn’t missing a handle (and threatening to topple boiling water all over him), and the mandatory pumpkin pies that no one ever touched. I knew there would be secret-family-recipe-stuffing made by my aunt, which we only discovered years later was taken straight from the back of the Pepperidge Farm box, and a bowl of it prepared for both the “kid table” and the “adult table.” I knew my grandma would grumble when she realized we’d forgotten to put the cranberry sauce out yet again this year and that there would be the frenzied drawing of the Secret Santa before relatives began to depart. I knew my cousins would leave before dinner to make it back home in time to greet their opposite side of the family, and that my uncle wouldn’t pay the pricey airline fees to attend Thanksgiving but would sure as hell be up for Christmas. And all of these nuances—the loving, the nit-picky, the bizarre—they were all A-Okay by me because I knew them. They all made up a collective signature, signing off on another successful family Thanksgiving.

Christmas was always packed full of sacred traditions in much the same way. Each Christmas I could bet there would be buttery sugar cookies baked to perfection by my mom and topped off with festive red and green sugar. I knew my brother would guess at each present before he opened it Christmas morning until my parents decided to start placing rocks inside the packages so he couldn’t decipher the gifts with a simple shake. I knew my grandma would protest if we didn’t save the wrapping paper or blacklist you if you dared throw away leftovers from Christmas dinner (she was not one to waste anything, even the watery remnants of an old Caesar salad). I knew we’d pass around the phone taking turns saying “Merry Christmas” to distant relatives who couldn’t join us, and that my dad would offer me a taste of the Christmas ham before it was served to anyone else. These were the facts of my life.

Even the get-togethers that didn’t go quite according to plan still somehow squeezed themselves into the label of a forevermore family tradition. One year, for instance, my dad chopped his finger nearly clean off while grinding coffee beans for Christmas dessert; now, each Christmas is not complete until someone calls out “And don’t let Glenn make the coffee!” and the room breaks out in laughter as we retell the story yet again.

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You get the picture: the traditions of our annual family gatherings are essential to me. But I’ve been scared about how these get-togethers will change. Will all the grandchildren still go to the movies on Christmas Eve now that our grandma is gone? Will the rest of my aunts and uncles still come to Thanksgiving now that we have lost one of their siblings?

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But in all my worrying and pondering and plotting about how to preserve our traditions, I’ve realized something: our traditions were always in flux. They’ve always had to morph to fit new circumstances as our family has grown and changed. When my great aunt became too frail to leave her nursing home to join us for Christmas, a new tradition emerged of a small group of us going to visit her each year. When my grandma’s arthritis got too bad for her to peel and mash potatoes anymore, she taught me how. When my brother went off to college, we rescheduled our Christmas tree picking for Thanksgiving weekend so he could be home for the event. And when he got married, his wife joined us in the tradition. When my cousin had kids of her own, we added new stockings with their names on them to the wall and readjusted the Secret Santa accordingly. When cousins grew older and had to work through Christmas Eve, we set aside a plate of food for them and saved present opening until they got there. When the grandkids got too old to be amused by Christmas caroling for grandma, we developed a new tradition of taking grandma to play laser tag. And when she got too old to run around the course with us, we put a chair in the arena so she could play from the sidelines.

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You might rail against the change like me and struggle when those kooky traditions you count on one year are gone the next. But change isn’t all bad. It’s inevitable. And it leaves room to create new traditions. Cherish those long-held family traditions while they’re still around, and when they have to change—because now you’ve got to split time between the in-laws, or divide holidays over a set of divorced parents, or account for new grandchildren in your Secret Santa, or even recalibrate after a death in the family—cherish those new traditions too. They’ll be the ones you’re looking forward to at next year’s family Thanksgiving.


 

**Erin Kane is a graduate of Marist College where she studied English, creative writing, theatre, and social work as well as a recent graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course. Published in both the academic and creative writing fields, she is thrilled to now be pursuing a career in the publishing profession.

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Carmen Morales: A Story of Survival

March is Women’s History Month, so in that spirit I wanted to explore my own family history, or more specifically, the history of my mother’s family.

My mother was raised in Texas, the youngest of nine children. She grew up in an area that was predominately white, which made it difficult for a Mexican family in the middle of the 20th century. My mom tried her best to assimilate and fit in with the other white “All-American” children in her neighborhood, and was constantly embarrassed by a mother who didn’t speak English and didn’t act like the other housewives.

But what she could not appreciate as a child and teenager growing up in Fort Worth, was that Carmen Gonzales Morales (her mother, my grandmother) was an amazing woman who had defied incredible, unlikely odds, living an impossibly difficult unhappy life and coming out the other end stronger and wiser.

I was always told that my grandmother’s life was similar to Cinderella’s story, but without the happily ever after or the charming Prince. Born in Mexico in 1910, Carmen was the oldest girl of five: three older brothers and one younger sister. After her mother’s death at the age of three, her father remarried and a stepmother brought along two other young siblings. Her stepmother was jealous of my grandmother’s relationship with her father (she was the favorite), and though she was still quite young she was made to cook, clean, and watch over the younger children. If she was unable to do as she was told or didn’t do a good enough job, her stepmother would complain and then her father would punish her. Her new stepmother was incredibly cruel and did her best to turn her husband against his own daughter, making him believe that Carmen was “no good” and a disobedient, disrespectful child. Despite his love for his eldest daughter, he always took his new wife’s side, and Carmen was left with no one in her corner, no one to believe in her or stand up for her.

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From left to right: Carmen and the godmother of her first born, Thomas – Texas, 1927

After suffering years of emotional and physical abuse, Carmen was finally propositioned by one of the family’s ranch hands—a man nearly twenty years Carmen’s senior named Juan Morales (my grandfather). He told her that they could run away together if she married him, that he would take her far away from her difficult life with her family. Believing him, she eloped with Juan and was married at 16. He lied about their ages (making Carmen older and lowering his own age) so she wouldn’t need parental consent and there wouldn’t be such a large difference in years between them. Together, they traveled across the Mexican border into Texas, but life was not fated to be a bed of roses—out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

Carmen immediately started having children. She gave birth to her first son, Thomas, shortly after they were married, and then another son followed not even a year after. Juan worked for the railroad and was often away from home, leaving Carmen alone in a small house in the middle of the dusty Texan desert with two small children and no one to help her. Juan was also a drinker, and was rowdy and violent when he’d had too many. On many weekends he would disappear on booze-filled binges, spending the money he earned on liquor, women, and God only knows what else, then coming home and scaring the life out of his poor young wife. I was told there were times she feared for the safety of her young children and would have to sneak them out of the house, hiding outside while her husband raged through their shared rooms, screaming and tossing things around.

She was incredibly unhappy, but she had no way to get out of her situation. Despite her wishes, she continued to have children—one after another, all the way up until her 40th year when she gave birth to my mom.

She’d had no formal education, she’d never really learned English, and yet she raised nine healthy children (the tenth child, who would have been my mom’s closest older brother, was stillborn after Carmen fell down the stairs on her 8 month pregnant belly). Despite her hardships, despite her misery and difficult life, my grandmother survived. As my mother grew older and learned more about her family history, she developed a new-found respect for her mother, respect that the young embarrassed teenager could never have grasped or understood. Carmen Morales was a survivor—a female warrior who fought one of the only ways a poor woman at the beginning of the 20th century could: she carried on. Though she was oppressed from an early age simply because she was born a girl, she lived 96 years and was the head of what is nearly a dynasty (nine children led to 21 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and even great-great grandchildren in her lifetime).

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Her story has fascinated me since I was a young girl. Though the time and place is so different from my own life experience, there are important lessons to be learned: it is possible to live even amongst the unhappiest of situations—where there is a will, there is always a way.

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Children Should Be Seen, Not Heard

AlexandriaCMother was religious. As a child she, herself, would be sent every Sunday along with her younger brother and elder sister to church. Unfortunately, over time we moved around too much, so dedicating our Sunday to a congregation, in addition to God, was a bit much. My faith was as strong as the voices of the choir.

Determined.

In reference to me, it left a young girl with only her mother to look to, although the world seemed to rely on her as well. I became selfish, wanting her attention and her conversation as I had seen on Disney channel shows or more directly, the Cosby Show. This was what I wanted more than anything.

During my teenage years I frequently I voiced my opinions, although they were blocked out as if I were still a toddler mumbling fragments of words. I obtained responses on the lines of, “Get out of my face, I don’t have to be your friend–I’m your mother.”

The constant drilling of this concept influenced my very disruptive rebellion. If it was not punishment enough that I had no family outside of my mother and the families of her childhood friends, I somehow felt that I couldn’t fully claim her either. You can say I followed my mother’s lead and adopted my own external family through friends, teachers, and mentors.

She didn’t like that either.

Realizing that I had finally released my grasp of normality, she clinched her role of seennotheard-2authority. In finding my own views of the world I was no longer obedient to the commands my mother barked at me. I questioned her, asking for explanations, but would only receive a “because I said so.” This was the root of my frustration. Is it better to discipline without acknowledging the reason?

I absolutely did not think it was fair, but somehow I had forgotten where that had developed. I had forgotten that we did not have the same opportunities to challenge and question the world that surrounded us. I had forgotten she had grown up in a worse environment than the one I was unsatisfied with. It was from the tradition of “children should be seen not heard,” that I was rooted.

It took me a while to understand the relationships that my mom nurtured and the truth behind her cloak. Throughout the duration of my adolescence, I wanted her to be someone else, but she was damaged the entire time. She hid behind fear and disciplined hard because I was her constant variable. Her universe was unbalanced and shaken up easily, but I would always be her child.

I learned to love my mother’s imperfections and admire her strength. Although her words were harsh, I now understand the “method to her madness.” She would always say, “Sometimes, there is insight behind an insult.”

I am forever wise.

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Displaced and Confused: Growing Up Feeling Like an Outsider

I didn’t know I was different right at first. It wasn’t until I moved from Florida to Chicago, from Chicago to Detroit that I started to realize I wasn’t like other children my age.

My difference wasn’t incredibly significant, on the surface you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but as the other children spoke of their families that had lived in the same area of suburban Michigan for decades, as they spoke about Irish or Polish pride, showing me traditions I had never heard of or been a part of, I started to realize the truth: I didn’t fit in.

For one I was Hispanic in an area that was predominately black and white—but even then, I was only half Hispanic. If there had been a Mexican community near us, I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt like I belonged there either. My mother had never taught me Spanish; she’d never raised me to feel that close to my heritage. My biggest claim to being Hispanic was going to visit extended family in Texas and eating authentic Mexican food my aunts and uncles would make.

My father’s heritage was always a bit of a mystery to me growing up—I didn’t even learn his people came from Appalachian, Scotch-Irish territory until I was in college. Though I had been told as a little girl that my great-great grandmother was the daughter of a Cherokee chief, sold to an Irish man (who turned out to be a Scotsman—my father didn’t even know his own history).

So this left me with no real cultural identity. I was part Mexican, though I barely understood what it even meant to be Mexican. I was part “hillbilly” as my dad used to say—a vague term for a family ancestry he was uncomfortable discussing or just uninterested in. I was growing up in a place where I had no extended family, no grandparents (my one surviving grandmother lived in Texas until she passed away in 2006) and no siblings. I was a stranger to the ways of the Midwest. I was a stranger to the ways of the suburban Detroit middle-class. I simply didn’t fit in.

As I grew, I craved some sort of community. A part of me craved a large family, a culture that I could be a part of, but I felt like I had none. In stead I searched out social communities. I jumped on a variety of bandwagons, went through many phases and different identities, always looking for like minded people, people I could call my own, people I could say “really got me”, who were like me, who understood. But nothing seemed to fit. I continued to be the odd one out—a bit of a black sheep.

Finally I ended up in New York City and a new kind of cultural displacement fell upon me. I had moved into an area that was very big on race and culture, and a bit exclusive. In Crown Heights I live right in the middle of a large Hasidic community and a large Caribbean and Jamaican community—though both are made up of very kind, hard working people, there was no place for me in either. It was very clear I was still the outsider. Around the time of this relocation, I also started getting interested in Korean culture, even deciding to start learning the written and spoken language. But what did this all mean? In the end, I found it confused me more than ever. Who am I in this big world? Where exactly do I fit? Will I ever find a community, a “family” where I can belong?

I had a brief period of feeling plugged in, feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself, part of a true community. In college I was a part of a large group of artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians and for the first time in my life I had thrived, no longer the lone black sheep but one of many black sheep. Together we were different, and therefore we were the same.

But all good things come to an end. I parted ways with my group of artist friends and we all scattered to the four winds.

Now, living in my interesting, diverse neighborhood I am sans community once more. Not that I don’t have friends—I have many and I love them all dearly; they are my family more than anyone (except for my mother who I still speak with daily). But there is still no sense of belonging, no cultural identity like I always craved as a young child growing up. It’s certainly not the worst thing in the world, but it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Maybe the answer is to start my own community, one that will welcome all those who are displaced, confused, and feel like outsiders. A new culture for those without a culture. Who wants to join me?

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Did My Mom Make Me Fat?

Much of my life has been spent struggling with my weight. It’s only been the last couple years that this has changed. Though I continue to work towards better health, the real challenge has become one of forgiveness: the struggle to forgive myself, and perhaps most importantly, to forgive my mother.

It sounds ridiculous, even accusatory saying I need to forgive her for my weight problems—like I’m trying to avoid responsibility. It is my body after all; I am responsible for how I treat it, the foods I consume, the exercise I do. I can’t say my mother was force-feeding me that extra serving, or telling me to stay indoors reading and writing stories while my friends were outside running around playing soccer.

No, in that sense it has nothing to do with her. But in a way, I realize now, she is partly responsible, and I know that all I can do is forgive and move forward.

For me, the problem started when my mom moved out of state for work and my dad took care of me by himself for several months. My father, who’s eating habits were never particularly healthy, didn’t put much care into what he gave his six-year-old daughter. Pizza, French fries, soda and candy—by the time I reunited with my mom I was significantly larger than I’d been when she’d left.

I’ll never forget the way she looked at me after that several month separation—her eyes darkening, her smile fading. In my mind, I didn’t understand what caused this change, this cold expression, but I knew it was something I had done. The look couldn’t have lasted more than several seconds though, and then she was all smiles and hugs. Still her reaction stayed with me.

After that, my parents had trouble reversing the baby fat I’d acquired. By the age of 9, I was fairly pudgy, and my mother decided to take matters into her own hands. I can’t remember how it even came up, but between the two of us, we decided I needed to go on a diet. This was the beginning of a trend that would shape the rest of my life.

Dieting at this age had an enormous effect on me. I was too young physically, but more importantly—emotionally—to really understand what dieting even meant. I began to believe there was something wrong with me that desperately needed fixing. Though my mother was kind and supportive, she fed this belief by encouraging me. But nothing seemed to work; the harder she pushed, the harder my body resisted.

By the time I was 14, I had already been dieting off and on for five years and was starting to develop serious body image issues as well as a borderline case of anorexia. I knew something was wrong with me, I knew I wasn’t good enough—I was constantly reminded of this by my mother’s never ending push to change, to get into shape, to be thinner and prettier. In her mind thin=happy, and so that’s what I believed too.

I’d had personal trainers, dieticians, therapists, doctors, and plain old weight loss clinics try to help me shed pounds. My mother would even share fad diets that she used when she was young, ways of starving yourself to lose small amounts of weight—three pounds here, five there. I was still a girl and I’d already been through it all, but still nothing worked. My struggles only made me hate myself more; and the more I hated myself, the more I ate. The more I resisted. The unhappier and unhealthier I became.

The same habits continued throughout my teenage years and into early adulthood. I was going up and down with my weight, crash dieting, crash exercising, constantly insecure, constantly unhappy. All the while, my mother was by my side, but for some reason I never found her support comforting. She wanted me to lose weight; she wanted me to be happy. But something was missing.

Years later, after deciding to give up on my obsession with weight loss, I had an epiphany. With the help of a phenomenal therapist, I realized something so simple, so clear—it was hard to understand why I hadn’t always seen the truth. My struggles with weight were not simply physical—at least 60% of my difficulties were emotional and psychological.

The reason I had never been able to fully drop my excess weight was because of my mental block, my emotional struggle, and that led back to my mother—that first look of disapproval, those years and years of pushing me to diet and exercise. Two important points became painfully clear:

1) If my mother had simply fed me better food without making an ordeal of it, I most likely would have outgrown the baby fat on my own. It happens to many children, and as they grow they shed their extra weight. But because it had become such an issue, it created an emotional handicap. Because I was shown time and time again that there was something wrong with me, that I had to change to be normal, it made it almost impossible to fight.

2) My mother did not intend to do this to me. She was trying to help and support me, but because she had her own insecurities from the past, since her mother had given her a “complex” as well, she could not help but do the same to me. We do what we know, and what she knew she learned from her own mother.

These truths were pivotal for my growth and healing. Since then, I’ve been working hard to shift the negative self-view I developed over the past twenty-odd years. I want to embrace who I am, love who I am for all that I am, because my weight and emotional scars are not all there is to me.

These past years of work have been slow, sometimes painful, yet ultimately rewarding. Though it’s hard to shed 20 years of negative thought (much harder than shedding 20 pounds), the dark fog of self-disgust is lifting. Love and forgiveness are taking its place. I have more work to do, but self-awareness is the first step, and my revelations and reflections have been incredibly healing.

So is it really my mom who made me fat? There is a kernel of truth to that, but I am choosing to forgive her now for things she did not know and did not mean. I am choosing to keep looking forward and take responsibility for myself. Wounds from the past need to heal, but the future holds endless possibility.

So Mom, I forgive you. I love you for wanting the best for me, and I hope you can share in my joy of self-discovery.

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Mothers, Daughters, and Family History

Anna Chen hit some tender points in her April 1 (how apropos), 2014 blog post on Mother Daughter Conflicts. Chen writes about communication and understanding being the keys to resolving what could be decades-old misunderstandings and hard feelings, and how that’s easier said than done. As the daughter of my mother and the mother of three adult daughters, I’ve lived the truth of those words. Professionally, as a marriage and family therapist, it’s a topic close to my heart.

Gayle Kirschenbaum has said that things started to turn around when she realized it was her responsibility to take the lead in finding peace and common ground in her relationship with her mother. Her mother wasn’t going to change just because she wished it. She, Gayle, had to change first. I’ve also found that to be true. Sometimes our parents, for whatever reasons, don’t want to talk or do things differently, and we need to find other ways to understanding. My parents, for example, immigrated from South Korea shortly after the end of the Korean War. As a teen, and later as an adult, whenever I asked my mother for bits of her history to better understand her (and our relationship), I’d hear: “Why do you want to know about that? I left Korea so you and your brother could have a better life. That’s all.”

Great. So much for communication and understanding. Now what? That’s when I hit the library and researched. I read up on Korean history, culture, and social norms, and things started to make sense. The ways in which my mother tried to shape me no longer seemed arbitrary or just plain weird. And I realized how hard it must have been for her, parenting in a society she didn’t fully comprehend or belong to. Being raised in an individualist culture by parents from a collectivist culture can, in the words of another woman who lived it, “really mess you up. It’s confusing and makes it hard for you to know who you are or how you’re supposed to be.”

We all have our own stories and cultures. Cultural is so much more than ethnicity; it embraces social class, spiritual practices, generational and geographical issues, and more. Part of each family’s culture is its history. This history, whether known or kept secret, influences us in ways we often can’t imagine. Trauma can also be a powerful influence that haunts family members for generations. For instance, as a therapist I’ve worked with many women of different ages working on problems with body image. They will often say that their mothers nagged them about their weight, shape and/or fashion sense. Quite often, they grew up hearing their moms comment on how much they hated their own bodies.

After statements like this, I usually recommend that the women research their family’s immigration story. Who came over, when and why? What was it like for their forefathers (and mothers) in a new land? What did they do to fit in? More than once, they’ve come back with something like: “My family came from Central European peasant stock. One of the ways the women tried to fit in was to conform to the American beauty ideal. They were also taught that being attractive in the American way would give them a better chance at finding a husband. This meant doing whatever they could to literally reshape themselves, losing accents fast, changing their names, and starving themselves out of their natural shapes. I found out women in my family have had a hard time accepting how nature made them for generations!”

With this new perspective, they’re able to see that what once was a survival strategy has turned into family legacy. They can understand that their mothers were living true to these legacies and see how criticisms came from a place of both hope and desperation. And these legacies syphoned down into how they talked with their daughters. The language of love and concern can take many forms.

Gayle was able to pivot in her daughter’s role and respond to her mother differently. By changing her direction, she helped her mother find other options as well. This ultimately led to healing, transformation, joy and mutual appreciation in their relationship. I can’t wait to see Look At Us Now, Mother!

To learn more about Rhonda Berlin, please visit berlin-counseling.com. The find out more about her Rhonda and Harriet Cannon’s book, please visit mixed-blessings.com.

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