Monday, April 23, 2012

Suburbs of Our Discontent

Last weekend, my sister got married in Jamaica. It was a gorgeous affair all around, complete with a lavish rehearsal dinner at Noel Coward's private estate, and a ceremony on the beach where Ian Fleming got his James Bond inspirations. A writerly weekend to be sure--appropriate for my sister who is herself an accomplished TV writer.

The real writer behind the weekend, though, was Mr. Shakespeare. At least, that's how it went down for me. Picture this: It's 1997. I'm about to get married, and am working through how to navigate the trickiness of certain wedding ritual stand-bys. I've just written a dissertation on midwives in Shakespeare's time and plays. It's safe to say that I'm passionate about my feminism. I have trouble with the idea of my father walking me down the aisle and giving me away. I've asked both my parents to walk me down together (because I do like that symbolism), but my mother is uncomfortable with that. We are, for the record, not a religious family, although my father is Jewish and my mother is Protestant.     I sit down a week before the wedding and tell him that I'm not comfortable with having him walk me by himself and ask him if he's okay with that. We are, also for the record, not a family of sharers.

Smash cut to the rehearsal dinner, where he decides to reveal his true feelings about my choice-- his speech is veiled in humor, but devastating in its expression of his pain. It is a blow, one that at the time I equated with Lear's public denial of Cordelia. Then he gave the same speech the next day at the reception. In case anyone missed it the first time. In short, I paid my dues for my choice. Trust me. You can listen to the NPR piece I wrote about it (just don't send me any hate mail. I've already been called a selfish little girl, a heartless anti-Amercian feminazi, you name it.)

So last weekend, I sat back and relaxed as I watched my father take the stage to toast my sister. Finally, there was another bride in the hot seat. I sipped my Goldeneye cocktail, and got ready to watch the fireworks. Except that he started giving the exact same speech. And it was still about me. I felt my self leaving my body, thinking, "Really? How is this happening again? This isn't my wedding, is it? Have I time travelled back 15 years? No, wait a minute, those are my children."

But then something wonderful happened. As I was listening to him, I felt none of the humiliation I'd felt the first time around. In fact, as he retold the story of how I told him I wasn't chattel (a word I would never use outside of a Shakespeare paper, and certainly didn't use with him, but one that clearly represented how he felt), I was able to see him through the eyes of an older adult, a parent and not just a daughter. I'd been given the gift of instant replay, but with the advantage of 15 years' worth of perspective.

15 years. That's about how long Marina is separated from her father Pericles, and Perdita from her father Leontes. Both girls part as infants, and return as young women with their own set of experiences. In fact, you could say Shakespeare had an abiding interest in the topic of daughters breaking their fathers' hearts, separating from them, and then coming back to provide perspective and, sometimes, healing. Cordelia, Lavinia, Juliet. The list goes on and on.

At the wedding reception the next night, I took my father's arm, and we walked to our table. I told him that if I'd known how badly it was going to hurt him, I probably would have done things differently 15 years ago. His eyes lit up, and he said, in the lawyer-speak he knows so well, "A retraction!" We both smiled.

My premise is, of course, untenable. You don't live each moment of your life with the benefit of a half-life's worth of perspective. Nor would you want to. How would you ever learn anything? How would you ever become who you're becoming? How would you ever be brave enough to make unpopular decisions that matter intensely, and for good reason, at the time? I don't know if I would have done it differently to be honest. But it's what he needed to hear. Maybe it's how he understands love. All I know is I'm lucky he was still around for me to tell him. And I'm good with that.


  1. Caroline, you are a highly evolved individual.

  2. What a great piece. Reminds me of the many ways my wife and I disappointed our parents over our wedding 13 years ago. Like, how we didn't get married at all, but eloped. Then put off telling them for two months. And how, at the hippy new age-y California ceremony/party we threw a year later, my mother got up in front of 200 people and told everyone how deeply embarrassed she was that we didn't tell them, and how that forced her to cancel a planned family reunion at the beach in Maine, for which she had been cooking (and freezing) food for months. And for which many out of state relatives had already made plane reservations. Or how, when Sherri's parents asked if they could lead the gathering in some Jewish prayers before dinner, we said no, because we're "not really doing the Jewish thing any more." But how, four vodka tonics in, they did it anyway.

    Once upon a time, I used to fume and rant at my parent's "unpopular decisions." Now, like you, I smile at their imperfections, as well as my own, and try ever more diligently to open my heart to understanding and compassion. It's hard, though. Especially when they refuse to get a phone in the kitchen that works. "You're working on what, dear? Who'd you say? I can't hear a goddamn thing..."