Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Happy Birthday Memory

It was a day and night I'll never forget: April 25, 1965 marked my 20th birthday and my first and only prom.

My birthday prom was the result of a delightful conspiracy between my sophomore year suitemates at Northwestern -- Cheryl Martindill, my roommate of two years, and Lorraine Plomondon and Lorie Condon, who shared the adjoining bedroom.

In our warm little circle, I was the odd one.

They were all in sororities. I had balked at even going through Rush, convinced that sororities were, at best, throwbacks to my girls' high school with way too many candlelight ceremonies and songs of idealized sisterhood. And, at worst, I would rant that sororities were "fascist", that they dictated who one's friends and what one's activities should be at a time when we were supposed to be exercising our newfound independence.

They all had social lives. Mine was pretty sparse since my freshman year heart throb Bob McVea, after a few dates, had moved on in search of more agreeable company.  Okay, I had to admit that I was prickly, filled with raw, angry ambition. I demanded equality and intellectual respect from my male classmates. At the same time, I felt wounded that, while guys tended to like me as a friend and colleague, there tended to be little, if any, romantic interest coming my way.

They were all veterans of high school proms and college formals. I had no such experiences. True, my Catholic girls' high school had junior and senior proms, but I never knew any guys to ask -- and so never went. And at Northwestern, in the Sixties, there were neither formals nor informal mixers for those few who chose not to affiliate with the Greek system. Although I would never admit it, I felt wistful as I watched my friends get gorgeous for their formals while I waited up for them at the dorm, feeling like Cinderella wallowing in hearth ashes.

But all that was about to change.

Alpha Delta Pi, the sorority to which Cheryl and Lorraine belonged, was having its Spring Formal on my birthday that year and, in a loving, Pgymalian-style endeavor, my suitemates conspired to transform their prickly, ranting, casual dressing, date-challenged friend and, for her birthday, give her a total prom experience.

I was skeptical. "I don't have anyone I can ask," I said. "I don't have anything to wear and I can't afford to buy anything just for this. I really appreciate your idea, but....."

"But nothing," Lorraine said, contemplating a makeover as she ran her fingers appraisingly through my hair. "It's all set. Lorie is going to lend you her new formal and will wear her old one. I'll do your hair. We're making arrangements for dinner. And we'll fix you up with a date. This won't cost you a dime. It's our gift to you. Don't worry about anything."

I worried -- a lot. What if they couldn't find someone willing to go out with me? What if he didn't like me once he met me? What if I messed up and couldn't dance well? What if....?

One "What if?" was answered a few hours before the formal when I received a delivery from the local florist. It was a corsage. And the card inside read "I'm so happy to be your date tonight. Love, Bob."

I was filled with relief and joy: Bob McVea was my date! I understood, without being told, that this was a "one night only" date, that it didn't mean that our brief romance was re-kindling. But Bob was a friend and a classmate. I could talk with him easily. I greatly enjoyed his company.

"Thank you! Thank you!" I cried, embracing my three suitemates. "I'm so happy and relieved!"

Cheryl smiled. "We wouldn't have asked anyone else," she said. "This is an evening for you to just enjoy -- and we knew you would with Bob by your side."

And I did enjoy it -- from the festive Chinese dinner complete with decorated birthday cake at a fancy Chicago restaurant before the formal to the dance itself. Dancing in Bob's arms that evening was the culmination of all my secret prom fantasies, all the glamor and fun and excitement I had missed in high school (and was missing in college as well.)  For one grand, memorable evening, I was Cinderella at the ball with her Prince. I knew it wouldn't be forever -- but, for an evening, it was just perfect. I felt uncharacteristically beautiful -- and I felt loved in so many ways by this circle of caring friends.

                 April 25, 1965: from left, Bruce Scace, Lorraine Plomondon, me,
                 Bob McVea, Fred, Cheryl Martindill, Lorie Condon, John

                Happy 20th Birthday with Bob McVea, Fred and Cheryl Martindill

                                     Cinderella for a night: Bob McVea and me              

Despite my initial nervousness, despite the fact that I never did become a sorority convert, despite the fact that Bob McVea and I would never have another date (though we would become lifelong friends), this was one of my best birthdays ever -- thanks to a sweet conspiracy among some very dear friends.

So many years have passed. All three of my wonderful suitemates are gone. Lorraine died of an aneurysm at 42 and Cheryl of colon cancer at 60. And Lorie, with whom I had lost contact, recently showed up, too, on the list of deceased from Northwestern's Class of 1967. I cherish their memory. Bruce Scace, who married Lorraine five weeks after our lovely evening together (which he also helped to plan) enjoyed 22 years with her until her death in 1987 and has been happily remarried for many years. He is a loving father, stepfather and grandfather. Bob McVea, who now prefers to be called Robert, is a white-haired grandfather who retired from his successful newspaper career with no regrets and moved with his wonderful wife Mary to Florida several years ago. I cherish their warm and enduring friendship.

Yes, so many years have passed. But some moments, some nights, live on forever, shining bright in my memory. As I celebrate my 67th birthday today, I look back and remember turning 20, being a real life Cinderella-at-the-ball that wonderful night. And, once again, I think of Lorraine, Cheryl, Lorie, Bruce and Robert with love and gratitude.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Real Friends

Tom, a friend of ours whom we often see at the gym in the mornings, looked troubled when I said "Hello" the other day. He said that he was worried about a mutual friend who had been hanging around with some women who are aging "mean girls" and who seem to be having a negative impact on this sweet friend's self-esteem. "Why doesn't she seem to understand that these aren't real friends?" he asked.

It isn't always easy to tell the genuine article, especially when you're new to an area, have left old friends and family behind and feel you need all the friends you can get. It can be difficult at first to tell a prospective real friend from a friendly acquaintance or, worse, a friendly potential enemy or someone who simply isn't good for your own peace of mind.

A real friend wants you to do well.  He or she encourages you to try, to enhance your skills, to take a positive risk. A real friend truly wants good things to happen for you and life to go well. He or she isn't competitive and jealous when life is good. Or judgmental and critical when life isn't going so well for you. A real friend wants to help with your sense of well-being, wherever you may be on that continuum at the moment.

A real friend respects the other positive relationships in your life. A real friend doesn't insist on exclusivity of affection and attention. A real friend realizes that our lives are enriched by a great variety of relationships. We can love each other without having to love everyone else in each other's lives. But respect is an important part of friendship. A real friend respects your other friendships, including the ones he or she does not share. A real friend encourages all of your positive relationships (and may question only those relationships he or she sees as harmful or hurtful).

A real friend is quick to say "I'm sorry" When there is a misunderstanding or a conflict, real friends apologize and seek to work out differences. Even if she secretly thinks that the problem is mostly your fault, a real friend will try to open a dialogue and start resolving the problem between you by taking responsibility and apologizing for his or her part in the difficulty.

A real friend is gentle with your feelings.  Such a friend doesn't use you to dump negative feelings or as an emotional punching bag when he or she is in a bad mood. And even when you disagree, a real friend respects both your feelings and your opinions.  I have a number of friends -- including one of my dearest friends, Mary -- who do not share my somewhat Leftist political opinions at all. But that is no impediment to our friendship and no reason for hurtful political exchanges. I understand and respect her beliefs and Mary understands and respects mine. There is no need to try to convince each other to think or feel or believe otherwise. Real friendships mean much more than a personal feeling of being right.

A real friend will be honest with you in a caring way. People who claim to be your friends will sometimes put a premium on telling you the truth -- and proceed to be brutally honest. A real friend will tell you the truth, but in a way that helps you hear and take in what she is saying -- and to be open to positive change.  I remember an instance many years ago when I was caught up in the excitement of a friendship with an actress who was starring in a popular television series. I enjoyed her company greatly, somewhat to the exclusion of some other treasured friends, and I talked about her more than some other people in my life could bear. Finally, Robyn, a friend and co-worker, took me aside. She put her arm around me and I could see that she had tears in her eyes. "Kathy," she said. "I care so much about you and it pains me to see you losing yourself in this friendship. It's all about her -- and nothing about you. You have so much more to offer as a person and as a friend. I miss you."  I was both stunned -- and warmed -- by her words. I knew that she was speaking from her heart -- and that what she was saying was true. I embraced her and thanked her for her courage and caring. And to this day, so many years after the friendship with the actress ran its probably quite predictable course, I still feel gratitude and affection for Robyn, as a friend who cared enough to speak up.

A real friend doesn't bail when the going gets tough.  Real friends are with you long-term, through misunderstandings, through temporary standoffs, hurt feelings and differences. Any relationship worth having takes effort and, at times, patience, humility and the ability to make changes in the dynamics of the relationship or one's own behavior. A long-time family friend has declined to speak to anyone in our family since reading something in one of my blog posts a few months back that she apparently interpreted as a criticism. My brother and I had discussed the post early on and had agreed that, if she recognized herself in it at all, this might provide a basis for a discussion long overdue and the resolution of some painful differences. Instead, she has distanced herself -- precluding any possibility of resolution and causing both sadness and disappointment among some (though not all) family members.

A real friend is there for you -- and happy for you -- in your triumphs as much as she is during your tribulations.  It's far easier -- though valued, too -- to comfort a friend in distress than it is to celebrate a triumph. That, perhaps, is the most important aspect of a real friendship: to be happy for you when your life is going well, even if his or hers is not. Or to be happy for you when a positive change in your life may not bring quite so much happiness for your friend.  When Bob and I bought our new home in Arizona -- nearly a year before we actually left California to move here -- my friend Mary was genuinely happy for me, even though it meant I would be moving away.  She shared my excitement as we poured over floor plans, as I showed her pictures of the house in progress and all the community amenities. "It's perfect!" she would say. "It's just so right for you. I'm so happy and excited for you!" Then we would look in each other's eyes and tear up, realizing anew the separation to come.

"But I really am happy for you, Kath," Mary would say, as tears streamed down our faces. "This is a dream and it's going to happen for you. You'll be in a place where you can get healthy and active and just enjoy your life every day. You so deserve all that and more!"

That is a real friend.

Monday, April 9, 2012

What I Miss, What I Don't

I retired two years ago today.

It's interesting to think about how life has changed in these two years and how distant the time before seems. The changes in April 2010 were profound: I retired. My husband retired. We closed escrow on the sale of our home of 29 years. And, bundling our three surprisingly calm cats into the back seat of our Honda Civic, we relocated 500 miles from L.A. to rural Arizona. All in a nine-day period.

Life was too frantic for prolonged goodbyes and looks back then. Now that we're settled into our new life, I think about the time before -- what I miss and what I don't. One list is shorter than the other.

What I Miss.... 

I find I miss certain people the most -- friends since childhood, friends from 42 years of work, my commuter bus buddies -- from joyous driver Nelson who actually loved navigating the 405 freeway and my friend Irene Rodriguez, with whom, over five years of commuting to work at UCLA, I shared so many impassioned political discussions as the bus crawled through endless hours of freeway congestion. Lately, there have been many times when I've heard a bit of political insanity and have longed to carry on about it with Irene. Email and phone visits back and forth are fun. But nothing quite beats the joy of whispered ranting  -- and laughing -- with Irene on the bus.

There are times when I miss those heady days of my writing career when Oprah and The Today Show and USA Today were calling.

And I miss those days when, as a therapist, I felt deep satisfaction in making a difference to a patient, perhaps easing their sadness, perhaps helping them to rediscover their own strengths.

But such times had largely faded into warm, personal memories well before my actual retirement.

I miss the easy availability of favorite places -- the beach, the mountains, favorite stores and restaurants.

But mostly I miss being geographically close to family and some treasured friends.

What I Don't Miss At All:

Horrific L.A. commutes and planning life events to avoid getting stuck in traffic

The stress of multiple jobs and responsibilities or --to be honest -- working any job

Sunday afternoon depressions, knowing the next day started another work week

Getting up at 4 a.m. for the commute to work

Fear of layoffs

Office politics

The times of not seeing the light of day, of missing whole seasons because of my frantic work schedule, never feeling my time was truly my own

General workplace pettiness and insanity -- especially the instances -- in several workplaces over the last 20 years of working-- where I was sternly instructed to keep my previous (or ongoing) writing achievements a guilty secret lest the knowledge of these upset, threaten or cause resentment among co-workers

The heartbreak -- largely because of such secrets -- of not being authentic, not being myself  for too many of those last years

Although I'm grateful to have been continuously employed -- except for one awful year in the early Nineties -- and to have met many wonderful people in the course of 42 years of working, I don't miss the times of working for others at all.

And while I loved working for many years as a full-time freelance writer, I don't miss the financial anxiety of dealing with the ups and downs of the publishing industry. Only now, when I have a retirement income that doesn't require huge investments of my time and energy, can I write with a sense of freedom and joy in finding my own voice, and taking the risk of writing what pleases me.

I'm so grateful for the opportunities that come with retirement.

I feel so blessed to have these years of relative good health and lingering young old age, to write with an open heart and mind, to embrace each day as my own, to be fully myself perhaps for the first time ever.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Looking Out for Each Other

"I think Bob's C-PAP machine is on the way!"

It was the voice of my neighbor Phyllis, who lives three doors down on the first corner of our street. "It's a red car with "Medical Services" on the side. And it's's parking in front of your house. Oh, good! Call me later and let me know how things are going!"

Half an hour later, just before the respiratory therapist from the C-PAP supplier left, we got a call from our next door neighbor Louise.

"Is everyone all right??" she asked. "I came home and saw that Medical Services car in front of your house and got worried. I hope you guys are okay."

I smiled as I hung up after reassuring Louise that all was well  -- once again amazed and delighted at how neighbors here look out for one another.

It reminds me of the caring neighbors in the small town in Kansas where my grandparents lived. Their farm was about half a mile out of town and the nearest neighbor was Mrs. Boone, whose house was down the road. One night, when I was visiting my widowed grandmother during one of my college spring breaks, I stayed up late reading in my upstairs bedroom.  The phone rang and I heard my grandmother answer. A few minutes later, she came up the stairs smiling. "That was Mrs. Boone down the road," she said. "She saw a light on here and was wondering if someone was sick."

Grandma laughed when she saw my shock. "This is small town Kansas," she said. "And we do look out for each other."

A native of Los Angeles, that has not always been a fact of life for me. True, when I was a child growing up in a suburban L.A. neighborhood built quickly after World War II for returning veterans, I enjoyed a friendly and amazingly economically diverse neighborhood. One next door neighbor was a used car salesman, the other a college professor. Our neighbors across the street included a lawyer next to a waitress at Foster's Freeze. And everyone had kids -- and we were in and out of each other's houses constantly. Our parents were all friends. There were neighborhood parties and spats and celebrations. We all knew each other well. I thought it would always be that way.

But when Bob and I bought our first house in Valencia, a lovely planned community north of Los Angeles, we were stunned to find that, most of the time, we barely knew our neighbors. 

There were some exceptions: We were friendly with our next door neighbors Pete and Carol, a gruff older couple, though we never really socialized with them. But we had some nice talks over the backyard fence after these former cat-haters fell in love with our cat Freddie. Pete sometimes called after a hard day at work and asked if we could hand Freddie to him over the fence so he could have a stress-reducing "Freddie Fix." We watched each other's homes during vacation times. And our hearts broke when they died -- he of bladder cancer in 1994, she in a fire that gutted their home eight months later.

We also befriended Dan and Lydie who moved into the house after it was rebuilt. But we didn't see each other that much. Dan and Lydie worked long hours and commuted by train to Los Angeles. Bob and I had horrible commutes and long work hours, too. Like all the others, we would pull into our garage at night, closing the door after us.

Only disasters seemed to bring us all out into the open: the Northridge earthquake in 1994 that devastated our area, the fire that killed our neighbor Carol in 1995, made us aware that we were surrounded by lovely people we didn't know. A neighbor down the street, observing that we really ought to get together when a disaster wasn't happening, hosted a potluck party not long after the 1995 fire. We laughed and hugged and promised to get together again soon. But we didn't. The mind-numbing commutes, work hours and inertia proved to be too much.

When we sold our home of 29 years and left Valencia two years ago, only Dan and Lydie knew us well enough to say "Goodbye" and to keep in touch. 

Things are very different now.

We know our new neighbors here well and, despite differences in life experiences, political opinions, religious beliefs and interests, we've become an extended family with all that implies -- from celebrations to spats to comfortable drop-in visits and stories and feelings shared.

It's delightful.

Sometimes it can be life-saving.

My friend Kim recently told me that a neighbor of hers who is an insulin-dependent diabetic had a foot wound that he had been ignoring -- until several neighbors, including Kim, nagged him repeatedly to go see his doctor. And his doctor said he had sought treatment just in time to prevent more serious complications.

It is often life-enhancing.

As neighbors, we share special moments and sad times. We have a chance to experience and to see acts of kindness and times of courage.

The other day, my next door neighbor Louise baked a cake and hosted a birthday party for our neighbor Padma -- despite the fact that Louise had a houseful of kids and grandkids visiting from Seattle and that she was also suffering from a kidney stone. She smiled through the party -- with 23 invited guests -- and very few realized her personal agony (from the kidney stone not from visiting family!)

And neighbors grieved this week when Phyllis' sweet and beautiful 12-year-old canary Nelson died. News travels fast: I was driving down the main boulevard this morning in our golf cart when I spotted Marsha walking her dog. Marsha, who lives about a block away from Phyllis, flagged me down to ask anxiously about Phyllis' latest heath crisis and also to double-check the news about Nelson. "I heard that Nelson has passed away," she said. "Is that true? Oh, no. Of all her pets, Nelson was my favorite. He was such a sweet little bird who sang so beautifully."

And everyone has been concerned this week about Phyllis herself, in the hospital for the fourth time in as many months, this time for emergency surgery. We're all hoping and praying that this surgery, at last, will help her to regain her health and vitality.

And I wonder: is our new-found closeness with our neighbors the result of all of us having more time now that most of us are retired?

Is it because we all come from different places and are willing and eager to create a new circle of friends in this new community?

Is it because we have new priorities now that the demands of our jobs and commutes are gone, the kids raised and we can focus on connecting with neighbors, on building new dreams and re-discovering old pleasures?

Maybe it's all of the above.

Walking down the street, as I pass each house, I think of the people who live there and marvel. I know their names. I know -- to varying degrees -- who they are. I enjoy every one of them and feel comfort in their warm friendship.

In some ways, it feels like a trip back to my childhood, visiting my grandparents' small Kansas town and back home in suburban Los Angeles, in the exuberant years after the end of World War II in a neighborhood filled with my childhood friends and their parents who befriended my parents. We were all extended family, sharing life's ups and downs, together.

All these years later, it's truly wonderful to have re-discovered a real community of new friends who feel so very much like family.

I love the fact that we look out for each other.

Friday, April 6, 2012

And The Winner Is....

We have a winner of the digital scrapbooking software (see my "Memories to Keep" post from January 26)!

Shelly from La Tejana will win the free software from MyMemories and is choosing the Holiday Memories template.  Her plan is to build an album of family Christmas pictures and memories from her parents' childhoods. Shelly says she has lots of pictures, but that -- up until now -- they've been like pictures a lot of us have: sitting around in boxes without any organization at all.  She plans to give this album to her parents as a very special gift.

If you have similar dreams -- whether it is to have a digital, printable scrapbook of your children, grandchildren, family vacations, family history or sporting victories -- could be the answer.  Just click on the My Memories icon at the bottom of my blog (the blog itself, not this post) for a $10 discount!

That way, you. too, can be a winner in all ways!

And warm congratulations to Shelly and the best wishes for much fun and many happy memories as she creates this special gift for her parents!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Gift of a Less Than Wonderful Childhood

A friend recently told me that her daughter -- a freshman at a major university -- will be returning home  to stay this June, dropping out of her dream college and choosing to attend our local community college next year. This decision isn't based on academics. She's a smart kid and has been doing fine, though B's mostly have replaced the A's she used to make in high school. There are no romantic ties luring her back home. The issue isn't money: the family is affluent and can afford the tuition, room and board. She hasn't had any traumatic setbacks, though she hasn't been keen on sharing a dorm room, hates dorm food and hasn't made many friends this year. She just loves the idea of being at home with her parents, her dog and living in her own room once again.

As I listened to my friend's mixture of disappointment and weary acceptance of her daughter's choice, I struggled to understand. Why would a young person give up a chance for an excellent education and the experience of living in a very different, stimulating environment to come back home to dusty, rural Arizona to attend the local community college? Now that she has had a taste of being on her own, why is she heading home?

While I believe that this young woman knows what's best for her -- and it could well be that she just isn't ready to be so far away right now -- or ever -- from those she loves most, I felt a twinge of sadness for her.

I felt sad for her both despite and because of the fact that her parents are so wonderful, her home so beautiful and comfortable, her dog so endearing. With a home atmosphere so inviting, it might well be difficult to break away.

Sometimes, it seems to me, becoming an independent adult is easier when you don't have such wonderful parents. Certainly, parents who encourage a young adult to be independent and who also provide a safety net for those times when he or she truly needs one are the best. The young person can go out into the world, secure with the knowledge that she has a worst case scenario option that isn't bad at all.

But there are some of us who have thrived because we didn't have such an option.

Growing up in a tiny, cluttered, over-crowded house and in a volatile, abusive family atmosphere, I started planning my escape early.

When I was only 8 or 9, I would grab the Sunday want ads and, in a blissful hour of fantasy, would pretend I was a new college graduate and would look for a job, an apartment and a car, totaling up what I could afford and making a practice budget. I dreamed of living and working in New York City - just about as far and as different from L.A. as I could imagine at the time.

And when I actually made the break to go to college -- even though I was scared and cried the first day -- I was in heaven.

I had chosen to go to a college -- Northwestern University in suburban Chicago -- nearly 2,000 miles away from my Los Angeles area home. I had never visited there. I didn't know a soul. I was terrified -- but determined to make a new life for myself, to build a family of friends, to become more independent. And, indeed, all of that happened just as I had planned and dreamed.

It wasn't easy: I worked throughout my college years to supplement my scholarship and loans. The classes were challenging and the atmosphere of Northwestern's famous journalism school was both competitive and supportive. At first, I was stunned and a bit depressed when I realized everyone was at least as smart as I was and I wondered if I'd ever feel special again. But, only a few weeks later, I was excited and happy to be among accomplished peers who were quickly becoming treasured friends.

While other students, who had grown up with rooms of their own, might have bemoaned the sudden lack of privacy, I reveled in the fact that I shared a room with only one other person -- my wonderful roommate Cheryl -- and that I had my own bureau drawers and my own little closet -- a major step up from sharing a tiny bedroom, drawers and closet with my brother and sister.

And dorm food was a major improvement over the fare at home. In bad times, we went to bed hungry.  Even the good times weren't splendid. My mother, mortified by her lack of organizational skills, didn't want an audience in the kitchen and so consistently refused all offers of help in meal preparations. She could never quite make all the elements of a meal turn out at the same time. So we grazed through the evening. "Does anyone want green beans?" she would call from the kitchen. "The meat won't be done for an hour or so and I have to go to the store to get butter for the mashed potatoes, so why don't you all go ahead and eat the green beans now."

At the dorm all the components of a meal were there for my choosing -- main dish with sides and salad -- all at once. And there were bonuses I had never had at home, like crusty rolls and dessert. It was divine.

And while professors could be demanding and some dorm mates harder to like than others, there was no criticism or psychodrama that came close to what I was used to at home.  People could be cranky or indifferent. But they never threatened my life or general well-being. People had good and bad days, but no one had mood swings, screaming rages or physically and emotionally abusive rampages like my father did. There was no constant atmosphere of anxious vigilance and fear. I could breathe. Despite my crammed schedule, I could relax inwardly and feel warm acceptance. I was convinced that I had won the roommate lottery with Cheryl, a delightful kindred spirit, and was truly blessed with a wonderful group of friends.

I felt I was living a very good life.

Looking back, I think I had a significant advantage: my home life was so uncomfortable, so bizarre and, occasionally, so horrific that just about anything -- from a small dorm room to, later on, a grungy studio apartment -- was better.

In fact, my parents' reassurances that if I wasn't happy, I could always come home only increased my resolve to maintain independence.

Once, two weeks into graduate school at Northwestern, I had a banner bad day: I found out -- through a classmate I had never liked -- that the love of my life had fallen in love with someone else over the summer and was now engaged, a fact that he had yet to share with me. And a visiting professor who didn't know any of us well mistook me for another student and screamed at me in front of everyone that I had no writing talent whatsoever. I was totally shocked. I was already selling articles to national magazines. I had won a special award at graduation the previous June. My classmates clustered around me and told the professor "There must be a mistake!" There was.  And, when he discovered his mistake, there was no apology, just more yelling, this time at the poor soul who was the real target of his displeasure.

Angry, shaken and generally distraught, I rushed back to my apartment and called my mother in tears. She spoke the magic words. "Oh, Sweetheart," she said. "You could get a perfectly good job without a Master's degree. Why put yourself through this? You know you can always come home."

My tears dried up instantly. "No!" I cried, a bit more vehemently than I had meant to. "I can't...I have to finish. I just can't come home...."  I could feel my mother's puzzlement over the phone. But the fact was that no matter how hard life was or would be during that difficult year, the thought of going home was infinitely worse.

And while my brother Mike, sister Tai and I sometimes talk about what our lives might have been like and what more we might have achieved with less pain and hardship in our shared childhood, it occurs to me lately that those of us with less than wonderful childhoods may well have some unique advantages in making our way through life.

  • Freedom has a much broader meaning for us.  As young adults, and even later on, we celebrate our freedom from fear and abuse and chaos as fervently as our freedom to make our own choices. And we've learned to treasure all of these freedoms throughout our lives.
  • We don't expect others to be perfect. After a childhood with extreme behaviors all around us, roommate (and later, spouse) personality quirks or habits that might unhinge others don't register with us. While most of us don't seek out friends and partners sharing the dysfunction of our families of origin (though some do feel drawn to the horribly familiar, consciously or not), we also tend not to be quite so picky about personal habits. Unlike some bickering couples on the Dr. Phil Show, we tend not to go ballistic about towels not hung our preferred way or toothpaste tubes squeezed in the middle. Our requirements are different. My own personal tolerance limits are simple: I don't want to be with someone who doesn't treat me kindly and I could never tolerate a partner who, like my father, was addicted to alcohol or drugs. But I don't require friends or my husband to share my political or religious beliefs or all of my interests or inclinations.
  • Our motivation can be fierce and undeterred by setbacks. Our freedom feels hard won and we may be more motivated than most to maintain it. While moving back home during a time of financial, occupational or relationship upheaval may be an option, our horror at such a prospect may keep us moving forward. Thus, I was able to grit my teeth and stay on for my journalism Master's at Northwestern. It was one of the worst years of my life -- mostly due to my unrequited love for a classmate and a truly punishing work schedule in addition to school -- but fleeing back to L.A. would have felt much worse. And I would have missed some valuable lessons in writing and in life. 
  • We are infinitely grateful for small -- and not so small - things. We don't take freedom or happiness or functional relationships for granted -- ever.  To this day, I find myself thankful for the quiet -- either the silence of solitude or the comfortable feeling of quiet time shared with someone dear. I'm still grateful for the freedom to plan and organize my own time. I continue to treasure time with friends (as well as with my husband, my siblings and cousins) -- time to get close, time to hang out, time to laugh and enjoy each other -- all pleasures that tended to be elusive when I was at home and not allowed to have friends over or to spend much time with them outside of school. As a young adult, I treasured the freedom to be myself, to discover who I was outside of my troubled family of origin -- and that still means so much and has also enabled me to embrace anew the surviving members of my family  - Mike, Tai and my cousins Caron, Jack and George. 
 One college summer when I was uncomfortably back at home and working, my sophomore year suitemate Lorraine and her new husband Bruce stopped by my parents' house while honeymooning in California. My parents wouldn't let any visitors in their house, so we sat out on the front porch, talking and laughing. My mother quietly joined us for a time. Later, after Lorri and Bruce had left, she smiled at me: "I had no idea what a sense of humor you have," she said, with a trace of wonder. "I'm seeing a whole new part of you now with your friends. I guess it has been hard to express yourself freely here. And I guess it's hard to find much to laugh about here at home, too. I'm so glad you have a place -- and friends -- where you can laugh -- and be yourself."

I looked at her with gratitude and love and a touch of sadness. For, in that moment, we both knew that I could never, ever really come home again.