I was born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family on both sides. My paternal grandparents left the old country prior to the pogroms. Think Fiddler on the Roof when Jews were ousted as a result of persecution. My maternal grandparents were American born, but their parents came from Russia as well. Both worked hard to make a good life for themselves and their children in this country with streets fabled to be paved in gold. When they arrived at Ellis Island, their adopted homeland welcomed them. Both couples raised families. Jacob and Rebecca Weinstein brought into the world four children- my uncles Dave and Phil, my aunt Jeanette and my father Morris. My grandparents Edward and Henrietta raised my uncle Jim and my mother Selma. Both families grew up in Philadelphia in working class neighborhoods.
As far as I know, none of them experienced addiction or mental health issues. Both marriages ended when my grandfathers died, likely in their 50’s or 60’s, so my grandmothers were widowed early. Both women learned to be independent and never remarried.
My parents met at a party of a mutual friend. My mother had been dating a man that I referred to as ‘on again/off again Freddie’. He stood her up for their date on New Years Eve and needless to say, she was angry. When she arrived at the shindig, he beckoned her over. She retorted, “If you want me, you come to me.” My father witnessed this and thought, “That girl’s got chutzpah!” It is a word that means ‘guts’ in Yiddish. He approached her, talked all evening and asked if he could drive her home. When she arrived, she told my grandmother, “Tonight I met the man I’m going to marry.” Their first date was at a Chinese restaurant and her fortune said, “You’d better prepare your Hope Chest.” Less than a year later, they married. My sister and I came along a few years afterward and were raised in a loving home with parents who showered us with attention and affection, seeing to it that our needs were met for food, shelter, clothing, toys, education, travel and activities.
There was no substance abuse, no violence; rarely a harsh word spoken. There were, however healthy and unhealthy patterns that I fell into.
Try as I might, I was not able to emulate my parent’s marriage, as well as their seeming ability to manage it all, including working, volunteering, raising us, sustaining a loving 52 year union that ended when my father died in 2008, as well as having a social life and taking care of their aging mothers. I was, however, inclined to be like my workaholic father who put in ‘crazy hours,’ like my mother who claimed she had ‘broad shoulders’ and could listen to anyone share about their woes and like both of them who sometimes put the needs of others before their own. When I was asked by a former co-worker how I developed co-dependent patterns, I pointed to those qualities. I also recognize that I often at a loss to notice what I am doing that is less than self loving.
I did become a gym rat like my father, and a good listener like my mother, for family and friends and in my role as a therapist.
When compared to family legacies that include domestic violence and addictions, my childhood was idyllic. I often felt I had no right to complain about anything. My well-meaning father would say, “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you, you’ll be OK,” as well as “Your life is in the hands of any fool that makes you lose your temper,” and “What hurts you, hurts me. I diminished my reactions to life events, since I reasoned that other people had it worse than I did and I had resources to handle any challenges that might come my way. I wouldn’t often show anger or sadness, since it might have caused my father to be unhappy. I went above and beyond the call of duty to provide for others. Even as an adult, I can see where I would refrain from asking to have my needs met, in favor of doing what others wanted. I would often attempt to be all things to all people. I would do what I could to keep the peace. I ended up becoming a chameleon or, as my husband, who died at 48 when I was left to raise my then 11 year old son solo, used to say, “an emotional contortionist who would bend over backward to please others.” I literally worked myself into a heart attack at age 55.
It was only then that I realized fully, the impact our ancestors, whether close to us or at a distance, have on our mindset as well as our predisposition. I have also learned that change is possible and that our history is not our destiny.
Russian dolls photo available from Shutterstock