Ending Estrangement – 5 Acts of Kindness in 5 WeeksPosted: January 26, 2011
“Hope is an orientation of the spirit. It is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” -Vaclav Havel
This post is a bit late. Truth be told, it was a bit hard to write. As part of my commitment to “live my yoga” every day for a year, I’ve decided to complete 5 Acts of Kindness/Charity in 5 Weeks.
I have what I like to call a “bad dad”. Dark, mean and larger than life, my dad loomed over my childhood. Ruined holidays, birthdays and graduations were par for the course. My dad was a magnificent liar. He had business cards printed up naming him as a Reverend of the Church, and distributed them to whoever needed convincing. He was a slumlord and a newspaper hustler. At age 7, my dad had me reading and parroting back Rush Limbaugh books, much to his delight. He threatened violence, and sometimes made good on his threats. He was mean to my mom. She divorced him and I lived with her, but he still saw me on weekends convenient for him.
When I was old enough for college, I decided that I no longer wanted my dad in my life. It proved difficult and dangerous to escape him, but after a few years of stalking me at my job, he marginally accepted the estrangement. His mom, my grandma, was heart-broken. “I’ve talked to him,” she’d plead over the phone. “He’ll be better now. If you meet with him, you’ll see.” I loved my grandma, but I never believed her. She had used the same script on my mom after she’d call during family fights. I remembered my dad turning up with a diamond necklace and all would be forgiven until the next fight. My grandma had a perfectly passive aggressive way to get what she wanted – a happy family. Who could blame her? True, she’d raised a monster in my dad, but she got her first grandchild out of the deal.
I felt enormous guilt in distancing myself from my grams. I’d loved her and she loved me for many years before The Estrangement. She’d slipped me sweet treats in the kitchen and fed me traditional Middle Eastern foods. She taught me the few Arabic words I know. She’d tell embroidered tales of my heroic great-grandfather, a famous horseman in Damascus. She was a natural grandma – endlessly forgiving, unconditionally loving and forever delighting in her grandkids. But as long as she kept defending my dad’s abuse, I knew I’d always be pressured to “come back” to him. It’s a much longer story than I’m telling you here, but I’m sure you understand, don’t you?
Until last week, I hadn’t seen my grandma in eight years. Occasionally I’d written her a letter or two, just to let her know I was alive and well, but I had to obscure my whereabouts and anything that could lead my bad dad to my door. I used an anonymous post office box as the intermediary. I was in hiding from my dad and his family. But my grams was patient, and she played by my rules of engagement. And I grew up. I threw off the Rush Limbaugh bullshit of my childhood, and replaced it with Allen Ginsberg. I pursued fine art and received my degree in painting and drawing. I began a yoga practice. I supported myself. I met and married my kind, wonderful husband. We moved around the eastern seaboard, testing out regional accents. I always missed my grams though.
In considering my 5 Acts of Kindness project, I knew my grandma would love to hear from me, but it would be hard to talk to her. What would I say? Should I hide my wedding ring? Would my bad dad spring from a closet? Would the whole thing be a set-up? “I want my family to come back together before I die,” she’d write me. Arab grandmothers can seriously school you in guilt. But I thought about it, weighed the risks, and decided to open myself up to reconciliation.
Last week, I typed her name into the computer and came up with the phone number for her new home in northern New Jersey. After nervously dialing, I was relieved when her voicemail picked up. I left an awkward message, introducing myself, and hung up. Less than ten minutes later, she called me back. Couldn’t get to the phone quick enough. “It’s so good to hear your voice,” she cried. We talked for hours.
A few days later, I went to visit her. As I was coming up in the elevator, I straightened my hair, preparing to see my funny old gran. Was she crippled? Did she stop dying her hair? Had she shrunk? Eight years is a long time when you’re in your eighties. As the elevator doors rolled open, there she was, waiting for me. The doorman had called up and she’d hustled over to the elevator to greet me. I couldn’t believe it. She looked almost exactly the same. Maybe it has something to do with the unconditional love from grandparents and the way grandkids view them as saintly, but she looked lovely. A purple cardigan set off her chestnut hair, which, thank God she still dyed. She burst into tears, reached out for me, and called me her baby. I was overwhelmed by her and took her soft, papery hands in my own. It was like the end of a family movie. One that took eight long years to make.
For something to qualify as an act of charity or kindness, you have to get over yourself. I had to put aside my fears, and the control I held in the estrangement. I had what she wanted – me. I could either keep myself from her and let her worry about her first grandchild (a big deal in Arab families) until she died, or I could branch out towards reconciliation. Whether she relays everything to my bad dad is less the point. My hand reaching out towards hers was the act of kindness. One which took me away from myself, my protection, the wall I’ve built over the years. I can talk a lot about trauma and recovery and familial estrangement, which was the topic of my grad school thesis. But in that moment, and even now after the fact, it didn’t matter. I’m no Mother Theresa, but I knew I was doing the right thing. And it made a lonely old gran very happy. There’s yoga in everything.
My grams turned 83 yesterday. We’re not a big happy family by any stretch of the imagination, but she and I are making do with what we have. As we’re slowly reopening our relationship, I’m realizing that the act of kindness here wasn’t just for gran. Turns out, showing myself compassion was as easy as allowing myself to receive grams’ love.
You can learn a lot by watching how you choose to interact with your family. Ending the silence of family estrangement was a powerful experience for me. In my research on this topic, I found the book “I Thought We’d Never Speak Again” by Laura Davis to be an immense resource.