Below is an excerpt from Jillian Lauren’s memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted, as recommended by Longreads contributor Sari Botton. Read her interview with Lauren about memoir and family.
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In a one-bedroom apartment in West Orange, New Jersey, late winter 1973, my mother, Helene, is home in the middle of the day, dancing to the Hair soundtrack while cleaning the house, when she gets a call from an old college friend named Jillian. Jillian married a fertility specialist after graduation and lives in Chicago now. My mother called her years before, seeking advice. Helene is on a list for a study in experimental fertility drugs, but the process seems to be dragging on forever. After nearly four years of trying to conceive, her diagnosis is unexplained infertility.
Jillian says, “Look, Helene, I don’t know if you’ve considered this yet. I don’t want to overstep my bounds, but we have some friends who just used this lawyer out here to adopt a healthy white baby and it was fast and relatively painless. I just saw them at temple and that baby is so cute and I thought of you. I got the lawyer’s name, in case you’re interested.”
My mother prepares a special dinner that night. She’s been doing that a lot lately to cheer my father up, since the stock market has been lousy and he’s been coming home dejected, dissatisfied, looking like a trapped animal. She doesn’t bring up the lawyer until after dessert. He is surprisingly amenable to the idea. Sure, what the hell. Let’s adopt a baby. We want a family, right? What’s the difference how you get one?
There are the interviews and the paperwork and the planning. My mother is good at this; she’s meticulous and organized and likes to color-code and label. It gives her something to take her mind off the wait.
My parents finally receive the call. Your daughter has been born. They board a flight to Chicago. The lawyer hands my mother the baby, sweet and perfect and pink, in the waiting room of the hospital. It’s a closed adoption, meaning that the records will be permanently sealed, my birth mother Sherri’s name expunged from any documents as if she never existed.
They fly home from Chicago and the stewardess offers my mother a bassinet but she declines. She doesn’t want to put the baby down. Ever. She never will put this little girl down.
I’m a pretty baby, with steady brown eyes that are melancholy from the get-go. When my mother walks through town with me, she’s instantly the most blessed and shining of things: a new mother. In 1973, the birth mother in an adoption agreement legally has six months to change her mind and reverse the adoption. Every single time the phone rings, my mother’s stomach drops and she has a sense of vertigo on her way to the phone, as if, on the other side of the kitchen wall with the tiny blue flower wallpaper, there is a precipice. If, by chance, it is the lawyer’s voice on the other end (there are little things he has to call her about now and then) her mouth becomes immediately parched and her hands tremble.
My mother keeps a suitcase packed and hidden away in the back of the closet. In it are a couple of changes of clothes for herself and for me, diapers and bottles and formula, travel toiletries, and five thousand dollars in cash. If the call ever comes informing her that she has to give me back, she’s taking me to Mexico. This nice, accommodating, middle-class woman would rather be a fugitive in exile than give me up.
It is a grand and powerful thing, the love my mother has for me. And yet. It has its limits.
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Scott and I face my parents across the office of a highly recommended New York therapist, decorated with the requisite leather chairs, potted plants, erudite books, and tasteful paintings. My mother’s hand shakes as she lifts a glass of water from a Moroccan end table, inlaid with mother of pearl.
I’ve brought them here to tell them about my memoir. I’ve made a list of every single point in the book, both related to them and not, and my plan is to run through them in a safe and neutral space, with a mediator present. Two hours have gone by and I’m near the end of the list. It’s been abysmal.
“Why can’t you just get over this stuff?” they ask, again and again.
“I think it’s really sad that you can’t shut the door on the past,” says my father. “You dwell. You’re obsessed.”
“I’m not obsessed. I’m a writer.”
Which is not strictly true. I am also an obsessive dweller, of course. That’s why I’m a memoirist. My past is the vein of gold that I mine every day when I sit down to work. It’s just not true in the sense that he means it. It doesn’t indicate the emotional reality in my present life. It’s not like I sit around angry at my parents all day long. Just when they vote Republican.
“We give and give and give and all you have ever done is take. I don’t see any love from you. Any caring,” he says.
“Wait, wait,” says the therapist. “You’re misunderstanding. There is a lot of love for you in the book.”
I tell my father about a passage in the book in which I fondly recall going with him to buy cinnamon doughnuts in the early morning, during our yearly trips to the Jersey Shore. It was something we’d do just the two of us, when the rest of the world was still asleep.
“After everything,” says my father, deeply hurt, stammering, quietly now. “After everything, the doughnuts are what you remember?”
“The doughnuts,” I say, “weren’t doughnuts. The doughnuts were you and me.”
I’m asking the impossible—for a crushed and enraged man to understand a metaphor.
Months of negotiating and wheedling and cajoling and threatening and crying follow the therapy session. When none of that works, my parents disown me, emotionally holing themselves up in a storm cellar until this whole book thing passes them by.
“I cannot deal with this,” says my mother in a sort of hysterical wheeze, during our final conversation.
It’s nap time and I’m lying on my living room floor in a bra and a pair of sweat shorts that say Hanalei Bay across the butt, a relic from the Kauai honeymoon that seems a thousand years ago. Her phone call catches me in the middle of changing clothes.
“You have always been so ungrateful. I need time away from you. I do not want to hear from you anymore.”
Like Chava, the daughter of the Jewish patriarch, Tevye, in my father’s beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof, I committed a sin that caused my family to respond by killing me off, in spirit at least. By writing a book that portrayed the clan as less than perfect, suffering from the same dysfunctions, violence, addictions as our neighbors, I perpetrated an unforgivable betrayal, not just of my parents but also of the entire community. When my mother tells me that they have taken down my pictures, rewritten the will, want no further contact with me, I think of Tevye’s famous debates with himself, repeated over and over again throughout the course of Fiddler, like a mantra. On the other hand . . . On the other hand . . . ending, finally, tragically, with his rejection of Chava for marrying out of the tribe. NO. There is no other hand.
I hang up the phone and imagine my father, like Tevye, going back and forth between his love for me (Little bird, little Chaveleh . . .) and the deep hurt I have caused him, and siding, eventually, with the hurt.
Write a book about an unsavory past, about an imperfect family?
NO. There is no other hand.
I don’t argue. I don’t protest. I’m grateful to put the phone down. The silence that follows has a new sort of texture to it—this silence in which I no longer have parents. I’m sad and have a hollow sickness in my gut, yes, but I’m also relieved. An enormous burden immediately lifts when I realize that I will have a reprieve from hearing myself described as ungrateful no matter how many times I say thank you.
Just how grateful are we supposed to be to our parents exactly? Grateful enough to never pursue our own dreams? Grateful enough not to tell our own stories?
“He is so lucky!” is one of the most irritating things that people say to me about Tariku. I get it at least once a day.
This “lucky” is laden with multiple shades of meaning. It’s meant to be congratulatory to Scott and me. He is lucky because we’re so very benevolent, because we’re so very generous. Oh, and also because he’s not dying from malaria in a developing country. Lucky little guy. The implication always seems to be that he’s indebted to us, that he owes us some sort of obeisance. Gratitude isn’t as simple as it sounds.
When I was a kid, my father used to say to me (usually when I was tearfully begging for a pair of Jordache jeans or a Joan Jett cassette tape), “I cried when I had no shoes, until I saw the man who had no feet.”
“Why should I stop crying because of some poor footless schmuck? What kind of shitty way is that to think? I should cry harder.”
“Ach. Do-gooder.” This was meant as a sort of insult, as if having a bleeding heart made you a fool.
If I argued cleverly enough, sometimes I’d get the jeans. Not because he agreed with me, but because my dad liked a good debate.
When people tell us how lucky T is, we say, “We’re lucky.” It is both a memorized response and the absolute truth.
There was a time my parents felt truly lucky, too. Now, they have assured me of radio silence. It’s not an idle threat. They’ll stick to their guns. As I lie with the now-quiet phone next to me, my feeling is twofold. First, how sad it is that my parents and I never manage to meet emotionally. It’s not for lack of trying on either of our parts. I do love my parents. If they never talk to me another day in my life, still I would not trade them. But I also feel relieved to stop living in a story in which I am different, selfish, troubled, and, above all, ungrateful.
My arm and shoulder ache from carrying my toddler around. My head is full of too much hot and heavy static. I go stand blankly in front of the fridge, as if the answer is inside a frozen York Peppermint Pattie. I stick a piece of cheese in the mayo and shove it in my mouth, like my father in so many ways, including our fondness for stuffing our emotions by shoveling food down our gullets.
Grunting and rustling come from the baby monitor. I forgot about the monitor for a minute, while I was being flattened by this latest emotional steamroller. Usually I have the monitor volume turned way, way up, so that T’s breathing creates a rhythmic soundtrack for whatever else I’m doing. Panic washes over me. I stopped paying attention to it for a heartbeat. What if he stopped breathing—I wouldn’t even have heard. I know that this is not exactly the healthiest of behavior—my running fixation with every possible horrible thing that could go wrong with him—but I can’t help myself. Scott has suggested I see a therapist about this ghoulish brain chatter, but I haven’t done it yet. No time, I tell him. Maybe I am wary of letting it go. This is my equivalent of the suitcase my mother kept in the closet when I was an infant. The anxiety that is also a badge of honor in some ways. See—I have a love so profound it is driving me crazy. I run in to pick him up out of the crib and cling to him for dear life, like some deranged mother from a Philip Roth novel. He hangs on me like a little monkey for a heartbeat, before squirming, demanding to stand on his own two feet, ready to greet the remainder of the day at 120 mph, as he always does.
T and I go to the Long Beach aquarium that afternoon. It’s soothing for him. He likes to watch the octopus, the penguins, especially the sharks. I follow him as he runs from tank to tank, shafts of sunlight hitting the water and shattering into a wavy grid. I’m so attuned to the edges of his little form, so hawkeyed and intent on not losing sight of him, that my own edges are almost nonexistent.
I wonder if this is the fate of mothers: to dissolve ourselves into the needs of others. Is this why my own mother is so furious? Somewhere deep inside are we moms inevitably keeping tabs, expecting payback for our sacrifices?
When I’m out in public with T, I don’t just have to watch him to make sure he’s not escaping; I must also be within range of intercepting the surprise right hook he could throw at any moment, for the most invisible of offenses. I watch the other mothers with envy and a measure of self-pity. How come they get to sit there and drink an iced tea and chat with a friend while their kid happily plays in the fountain? There’s no iced tea for me, just constant vigilance.
Scott and I have been going for regular counseling and parenting classes at the echo Center and it has at least given us some language to talk about what’s going on with T. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be changing anything. Much like the cocooning, many things about the philosophy are helpful, even essential, but it’s not a panacea. The echo Center is a good start, but it’s becoming clear that we have to look further and pursue more specialized help.
I have the same thought at least five times a day—I wonder if I should quit working. Would his behavior be less extreme if I quit any pretense of writing and threw myself, every minute of my every day, into being with T? Nearly every night, I talk to Scott about putting my writing on hold for a while. A year, two years. True, I have a book coming out, but that can be the last for a while. I can go back to writing someday.
“Why do you keep bringing this up?” he says. “It’s not just that you shouldn’t quit; you can’t quit. You are psychically incapable of stopping.”
He is probably right. I write and it draws a thick black line around all of these dissolving, hazy edges; it delineates me. Then the day with Tariku begins the process of eroding that line again. And so we continue.
I know what’s the best choice for me, but I am honestly not sure what’s the best choice for him. How is a mother ever supposed to know that?
In front of us, a mom yanks her whining little girl by the arm too hard. The girl drops to the ground screaming. With an embarrassed tuck of her hair, the woman leans down toward the girl, speaks in her ear, sets her on her feet again, and they continue on toward the turtle tank, both looking a little weary. Her palm lingers behind the girl’s blond curls with tenderness; I can feel the apology in her hand. It never ends, the stuff to be sorry for.
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