As I turn back the pages of my memory to recall the significant events of long ago, I’ll occasionally look at what was happening around our family as we made our way through the world. “Jurassic Park” came out that year along with “A Few Good Men,” “Dave,” “The Fugitive,” “Groundhog Day,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Schindler’s List.” As lifelong avid moviegoers, we saw everything, although Michael barely made it through “Schindler’s List.” My tender husband always loved rom-coms, action films and comedy better than those painful dramas. I was good at suffering through my entertainment. Whitney Houston scored the biggest musical hit of the year with “I Will Always Love You,” closely followed by the song with the best hook, “Whoomp There It Is,” by Tag Team. I was partial to “Two Princes,” by the Spin Doctors.
The world spun with its usual assortment of events. Tuberculosis was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization. Nelson Mandela and FW deKlerk were awarded the Nobel Peace prize for their cooperative efforts against apartheid in South Africa. River Phoenix overdosed outside the Viper Room nightclub in Los Angeles, cutting short a brilliant acting career. President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act which mandated federal background checks on those purchasing firearms in the United States and also enforced a five-day waiting period on purchases. Feels like a million years ago.
The World Trade Center was bombed, foreshadowing the tragedy of the future. I could enumerate so many more moments in time but I’m writing only a small backdrop for a few key moments of the year in my family’s life.
Michael and I were 44 and 42, respectively, while our kids were turning 12 and 6. Our daughter was a sixth grader, a middle schooler, a young girl who’d started school young, on her 5th birthday. Meanwhile our son, who’d missed the cut-off date for entering kindergarten the year before, would enter 1st grade in the fall at age 6 but would quickly become one of the oldest kids in his class in November. From our perspective as parents, we both felt that they were each well-suited to their places in their classes. Childhood should be longer but don’t tell that to the kids waiting for driver’s licenses.
I suppose it’s fair to say that we were fairly settled into our lives. Michael still worked at his record store in addition to beginning his second term as alderman in our city, while I’d been in my job as an appointed public official for fifteen years. My job was primarily valuation of commercial property for real estate tax purposes, not the most popular work around. But I was certified by the state and our office was known for its fairness, efficiency and being immune to pressure from “the haves” who always wanted more breaks. It was not my vocation but I liked the work and most especially my friend/boss who was wonderful and who amazingly, had been a high school classmate of Michael.
This year was an election year. I was Michael’s campaign manager as I’d been in his previous campaigns. My boss had no opponent which made life easier for all of us. Nothing like job security. By April, we were set for another four years in the work arena. Meanwhile, my younger sister and her husband were in the midst of an adoption process. With my mom still getting used to being single after my dad’s death a few years earlier, and my sister’s world about to drastically change, family was front and center in my life. Everyone lived near me. Big events with new demands cause subtle internal shifts in the moorings of life. As much as I’d felt like we’d been residents in the adult world for some time, this forties decade was the one that solidified the feeling that we’d arrived in that space where self-doubt and uncertainty were replaced with more confidence and the experience to manage the inevitable bumps in our roads. I’d been through deaths, my best friend’s, my cousin’s and my dad’s. Michael and I had been together for over twenty years. The kids were having the expected growing pains of life and we were teaching and guiding them. I felt ready to fully assert myself and that’s what happened next.
We’d begun going to our annual visit to Michael’s parents in Florida at the end of the school year, rather than at Christmas. Our daughter’s first year of middle school was classically bumpy. She was fortunate that she was a good student, musician and athlete. The social side was harder. She decided to chop off her hair at about the same time she got braces. Young girls have so much insecurity during those days. In addition, she was well-known for delivering her opinions straight-up, with little thought for niceties. I remember her telling me I talked in a telephone voice which she thought was a waste of energy. Yup. Good times. Our son, meanwhile, was the guy who thought that he could be friends with everyone and thus, make all those friends, many of whom couldn’t stand each other, be friends too. Those were interesting days. I think awkward was the word of choice. Our parental approach was to stay as close as possible to our kids during difficult times, rather than doing what we often really wanted to do, which was run for the hills. I think our plan was best for the long haul, albeit challenging at times.
Michael’s parents lived in a beautiful location on the Gulf side of Florida. A gorgeous and peaceful spot, it never was enough to dampen the almost instantaneous friction that arose when everyone was together. I couldn’t have been more different than his parents if I tried. We shared virtually no common beliefs about the way we wished the world would be. They were wealthy, privileged, entitled racists, who looked down their noses at virtually everyone. Michael had been in conflict with them since he was a kid but held fast to a concept of family which didn’t exist in reality. Kind of like being in the film “Groundhog Day,” every year’s trip started out with a positive outlook which rapidly devolved into discomfort, arguing and sniping. The dissonance between the glorious digs and the hideous conflicts were wearing me down after all those years. Usually a peacekeeper, I bore up under the insults and tone-deaf comments, trying to smooth things over. As the kids got older, that got harder. The older generation’s disdain for our lifestyle and their negative attitude about our worldview got to be more than I could bear. They thought we were kids stuck in the ‘60’s instead of adults living by a well-thought-out set of principles. I didn’t know that the 1993 trip would be the last time I went to one of my favorite places on the planet. Here’s how that happened. But first, a photo dump of that late May, 1993 vacation. I make only rare appearances in these pictures. I preferred hiding behind the camera.
So here we were on the annual vacation which I always approached with trepidation. I wasn’t the skinny, tennis-playing blonde who was bright enough but certainly not intellectual that my mother-in-law would have preferred in her elite family. I’d say my frequent frame of mind back then was simmer. I was always simmering. My in-laws had done some remodeling that year which changed the sleeping arrangements, so Michael and I were staying next door in a small apartment, actually quite a relief. In the middle of the night a few days into the trip, our daughter called us. She’d developed a bad earache and went to her grandmother for some Tylenol to get relief from pain. She told us that my mother-in-law had lain down beside her to help her back to sleep with quiet conversation. The gist of it was that instead of choosing to live in a crummy town, attending a middle school where there were so many fat black kids, my daughter could make different choices. She didn’t have to be overweight like her mom, and could go to classy schools with “the best people,” whoever they were. As soon as she was alone, our kid called us crying, asking why her grandmother was telling her such rude, confusing things. We soothed her but the second we hung up the phone, I had crossed the line from familial tolerance into familial elimination. I told Michael that night that I’d finish the vacation quietly but that I was done with participating in such a phony toxic relationship. I’d done it out of love for him but I got finished. He told me that had our situation been reversed, he’d have lasted maybe six months with my parents. We packed up and went home. The next day, I called his father, who at least had a more pleasant disposition and a better fake veneer than his arrogant mean-spirited mother. I told him that absent the fact that we had all had feelings for Michael, we had nothing else in common, and that I had too much self-esteem to participate in any further contact. We’d had issues before but at last the rude, thoughtless interference with my daughter had exhausted my last drop of patience. He tried to convince me to give us another chance but I’d done twenty years by then and was finished. I never went back to Florida again. For a few years, Michael went with the kids but eventually he got done as well. We let our children make their own choices but nothing was ever repaired between Michael, me and them. I let them come to my daughter’s graduation after not having seen them in years and was sorry I did, as they managed to spoil the celebration with their rudeness. That was the last time I ever saw them.
I never dreamed that I’d arrive in an emotional place that I couldn’t fix. Back then, I don’t know how much psychology was focused on getting rid of the toxic people in your life. But that’s what I did. Michael and I were strong enough to navigate the mess. I felt like I’d crossed an invisible line between finally growing up and being a fully evolved adult. I could never understand how Michael survived his upbringing in that family. He was certainly wounded but our life together over so many years helped heal him. I know forgiveness is supposed to be the ultimate accomplishment in life but I never got there. They lived well into their 90’s, years beyond Michael. I still resent life’s unfairness.
We moved into the routine of our regular summer. The kids went to camp while we worked. We slipped away for a few weekends, one in St. Louis for Six Flags and the wonderful city zoo, and another in the Wisconsin Dells. In August, we again joined our old friends and their families for our raucous annual gathering in Michigan, always good for the soul. Then suddenly it was back to school for a new year.
I think that having gotten started on our family after having a long time alone together, coupled with the lessons we’d learned from our bumpy starts in life, made Michael and I work extra hard to cement our little family unit. Some of our excursions were outside our budget and often wound up with me, who’d only had one family vacation in my childhood, crying my way to the parking lot ahead of everyone else, after sibling bickering and Michael’s hot temper got the best of me. But we kept at it. And the two of us made time to be alone. I still remember these photos from an October fall day in Allerton Park, a lovely place not far from home, where we hung out with our dog, Sydney. Always a place of peace. Thankfully, our relationship was undamaged by my departure from his family.
After we hosted Thanksgiving which had become our annual big family holiday event, for the second year in a row we were able to head to New Orleans for a trip wrapped around a conference for me. We had a wonderful time, rolling on the Big Muddy, eating great food and listening to lots of music. Was that the year we saw Maria Muldaur, the Neville Brothers and Michael, a crazy time middle of the night show with The Meters? Well, it was either that year or the previous one. The end of 1993 was at hand. I had come totally into myself. On to the next events.