Sometimes I think about Teta, the short old lady with the coke-bottle glasses and Clairol-red hair. My grandmother.
I have to admit, I don’t often think about her anymore, even though she is in my bones and in every fiber of my being. I treat my Little Pillow the same way. My mom sewed Little Pillow for me. It is made of white fabric dotted with pink rosebuds, fringed with lace, and my name crookedly embroidered in green thread across one side. I slept with it pretty much every night until I was married and having my first child, when its threadbare fabric finally gave way and ripped and I had to retire it to a memory box in the garage. That’s kind of what I did to Teta. Tucked her away. It might be a self-preservation thing.
I was Teta’s first grandchild, and she never hid the fact that I was the princess. She literally addressed my birthday cards as “To My Princess.” My sister scornfully recalls being told to her face that I was the favorite. When Teta came out of surgery to repair her shattered shoulders from falling down a flight of stairs, the others waited eagerly for Teta to recognize them first, but as she stirred amidst the fog of anesthesia, Teta looked around confusedly and said, “Teresa?” And there I was, waiting by her bedside too, smiling so smugly because yes, I was her favorite. I was her prize grandchild, yet as she was dying in a hospital several years later, her children almost called security on me.
That’s my family.
Oh, they love their games. My life with them has been one long, drama-riddled whack-a-mole of silent treatment, choosing sides, shunning, ultimatums, rules, emotional blackmail and self-righteousness.
I loved Teta more than anyone else in this family. At least I did at the time. I would have done anything for her. When she broke her shoulders, I didn’t hesitate to help in her care, taking shifts at night, never flinching twice about having to wipe her butt. She wiped my butt. I spent many afternoons on her couch, watching soap operas while she made my favorite Arabic food, followed by a lemon cake she’d bake just for me. When I had been sick over the years, she would come over and help take care of me. She’d nag me about needing to wear a sweater or needing to eat more.
When she died, I got the news through the grapevine. From other people who meant nothing to Teta. They got to know first. I also heard through the grapevine that she wrote a letter for me, which the relatives opened and read, and then never gave to me. Probably tossed it in the trash after they were done trash-talking.
That’s my family.
My uncle lived one street over for a good chunk of my childhood. My family would often stop speaking to each other over issues that were too complex for us to understand as children, but now as an adult I know they were really just too juvenile to wrap one’s mind around. When they were not on speaking terms, sometimes my siblings and I would be outside playing and notice my uncle’s car coming down Victoria Street. We would wave excitedly at him– my godfather– but he’d just keep driving, pretending not to see us. Sometimes Teta was in the car, and she’d ignore us too.
That’s my family.
I had a grandfather, but he died when I was in the third grade. Sometimes he came to our house, but I can only recall that happening once based on my fuzzy recollection. I remember something about him making small talk with my dad about a lemon tree in our backyard, much in the same way strangers search for something to talk about. His residential home was across the street from my elementary school. Sometimes we’d see him from the playground sitting in front with the other smokers.
“That’s my grandfather,” I’d tell classmates. But I didn’t know much beyond that. He was a feeble stranger with blue eyes, who died in his early 60s after a stint on dialysis. Apparently that’s what happens when you drink too much. Later I’d hear the stories and I would piece together why my teta hated him so much they got divorced despite that being relatively taboo for Arabs at the time.
I got to keep a small plastic Christmas tree that they found in his room after he died. I would set it up in my bedroom each year, making my siblings jealous that I was the one who got it. Now when I think about how pathetic that plastic Charlie Brown tree was, I feel sorry for the grandfather I never really knew. I imagine him sitting alone in his room, spending the holidays by himself. I don’t remember him at any of our Christmases. The summer after my junior year in high school, my dad and brother threw away that tree when the rest of us were in Israel for the summer, and that was it. My only connection to my grandfather. Gone.
That’s my family.
A few months before Teta died, she had written me a letter which I still keep in a file folder, tucked away in a place I don’t have to see, but know that it is there. At the end of the multi-page handwritten letter, she asked to see me and my firstborn, who she had only met once for less than an hour when he was still a 2 lb preemie in the NICU. Shortly after his birth, she was upset at having to compete with my mother in my new life as a mom. Apparently I was supposed to choose one over the other, yet I had never made it a habit to choose sides in my family. She cut me off anyway.
That’s my family.
One thing I learned about human beings from my family: if they do something to other people, one day they will do it to you. After years of Teta cutting off other family members, she inevitably did it to her princess.
For two years I raised my son without his great-grandmother, but when she extended the olive branch, I immediately picked up the phone to tell her that yes, I wanted to come over. I greeted her with the customary kiss on both cheeks and inhaled her cheap perfume, wanting the moment to stretch forever. She prepared us food and my son toddled throughout her tiny apartment in the senior citizen complex behind my favorite library, where she had lived for decades. My son looked at her knick-knacks like the rest of us had done throughout our childhoods, and my heart swelled with relief that I had this piece of me back. She let Ethan pick one of the Beanie Babies she had in her closet, and he chose a brown bird, which we still have. Teta liked birds. I like birds too.
Shortly thereafter, I heard through the grapevine that Teta told the rest of the family that I imposed myself– not that she invited me. I was enraged with anger and shame and worthlessness, and I didn’t call her again.
That’s my family.
(Also, do you notice the active role that the grapevine plays in this family? It’s a necessary component of a toxic family, a channel for gossip and scheming and bad-mouthing and strategizing how to pit people against each other. The grapevine is the pipeline where toxicity ebbs and flows.)
Months later, Teta called me out of the blue. I was at Disneyland with my in-laws, suffering from morning sickness triggered by the smell of fried chicken in the restaurant we were eating in. I stepped outside to talk to her. She said she wanted to see us again, except she wasn’t feeling well, but when she felt better she’d definitely have us over and make lunch.
“You don’t have to cook, Teta,” I said. “We can still come over.”
“No, no. I want to cook for you,” she insisted. That had always been her love language. Cooking for us. Doing our laundry. Cleaning our rooms. Convincing us that we needed to eat more.
But she never did cook for me again. Weeks later I heard through the grapevine that she was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma. At least I think that’s what she had. Nobody officially gave me a real answer.
When I got the phone call from the grapevine informing me secondhand of her passing, I remember getting out of bed and throwing up. I didn’t even throw up when I watched my husband unexpectedly die four years later. But losing Teta was a different kind of loss. A loss without a proper goodbye. A chapter that ended abruptly without a resolution. Part of my childhood on a platter.
At her funeral, I sat in the back with the rest of her acquaintances. I was not included in any capacity. The rest of the family sat gleefully in the front, and I could feel them reveling in the joy of excluding me as I flipped through the cheap funeral program they put together with photos taken from my social media, from my camera. I sat outside at the reception like someone infringing upon a stranger’s gathering.
“Your family is so weird,” my late husband said at the time.
He didn’t like my teta. He only witnessed the tale end of our relationship, the one marked with ultimatums and silence. He didn’t like most of my family, to be honest. And I’m not sure they even really liked him. That’s how toxic families operate. It’s always us vs. them.
As we pulled out of the church parking lot, one of my younger cousins who was not allowed to talk to me waved to us. He kept waving until we disappeared from sight. I never saw him again.
Spoiler alert: none of this toxic behavior ended with Teta.
In fact, it still permeates the family. It is the one thing that binds family members together– even ones who have gone decades without speaking to one another. It is in everyone’s genes. Part of their DNA.
People inherit things from their grandparents, but I didn’t even get a photo album. I got a different kind of inheritance. My inheritance was the brokenness that was encoded in my genetic make-up, a gift bestowed upon me the minute I took my first breath outside of the womb.
I see my inheritance in my reluctance to get close to people.
It’s in my perpetual feelings of inadequacy.
The way I can have a tendency to judge other people, or jump to conclusions.
The lack of physical affection I was raised with, and how that has made it more difficult for me to be affectionate with others.
It’s there, in all of my bad behavior. My big, fat, wonderful inheritance of family trauma passed on for who knows how many generations. What started first, the chicken or the egg? Who knows!
(I haven’t even said a word yet about my dad’s side!)
I don’t think often about Teta anymore, and part of the reason is that it is easier to forgive the dead. There are many things I have forgiven my own husband for from our time together. Once they are dead, why not? We wrap it all up with a nostalgic bow and tuck it away in our treasure trove of the only stuff we have left of them: memories that fade by the day. It’s easier to remember the good when there isn’t a living, walking bag of human flesh adding new behaviors and experiences to piss us off.
Teta’s father died when she was 40 days old. She was the youngest of five children. Her mother lived in poverty in what was then Palestine. Teta was raised by an aunt and uncle, and when she was around 12-years-old someone in the neighborhood accidentally revealed to her that she was adopted.
I get it. Hard childhood. Poverty. Loveless marriage. Domestic violence. Immigration to a totally new place, away from her family and friends. More poverty. I don’t blame Teta for any of it. Even the parts that she perpetuated. Who am I to judge? Because of her and that grandfather I never really knew, I got to be born here in the USA, earn college degrees and have a career and own a home and have a family. A real American Dream, minus the dead husband. We have a trampoline and a minivan and a refrigerator full of food and an overall wholesome life.
Teta liked to tell the story of her friend, Sara, who had one arm. (The other arm got cut off by a food processor.) Teta babysat me during the first year of my life when my mom worked. Her friend Sara would frequently visit. Teta said when I was a baby, I would point to my arm and make a sad face. She was convinced I had empathy at an early age. She was so proud that I would always do this, and because she repeated it so many times she made me feel proud. That’s who I want to be. Someone who has empathy and compassion for others. The one who notices the one-armed people.
But every time I turn around, my family inheritance rears its ugly head, and I’m back to the drawing board trying to do better. Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be able to be that kind, gentle person I want to be.
If there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that I do not want my children to inherit the family treasure box of toxicity. I love this quote: if trauma can be passed down through generations so can healing.
It’s difficult to do when the tentacles of toxicity lurk nearby. It can feel impossible to escape. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We make our own hell out of the people around us.”
I struggle with the balance between having loving kindness for others and drawing a hard line when their actions disrespect my existence. It’s easier to enforce with strangers; less so with family. It has been tremendously difficult not to take the actions of family members to heart over the course of my 38 years. To this day, I constantly battle feeling inherently unworthy.
I don’t know why I started thinking about any of this. It’s a tricky rabbit-hole to go down. Maybe I’ve been mulling over my wounds because of this pandemic and how isolated I feel lately. Minimal contact with the outside world. Loneliness. Unresolved resentment. A lot of uncomfortable space.
Maybe it’s because fall just started, and that always reminds me of my late husband. His birthday was in October. After October is Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, New Year’s, our son’s birthday, my birthday, my other son’s birthday, my daughter’s birthday, his deathaversary, our anniversary, and then– a respite from the constant reminders of the emptiness until it starts all over again in the next fall.
As a widow, I also suffer from the loss of my number one ally. Kenneth was the first person in my life who would not cut me off just because he didn’t agree with me. He wasn’t just loyal, he saw something in me that he respected. I never felt inherently unworthy around him.
My children are fiercely loyal too, and I’m certainly lucky to have them. That’s why I want more for them. I want the next generation to do even better than I have done. I want them to know that our disagreements are normal. Our uniqueness is celebrated. We are not the same people. We do not have to agree with each other. But we don’t tear each other down. We don’t take sides. There is no grapevine here. Our house is ruled by transparency, mutual respect, boundaries, communication, and a desire to do better. Life-long learners.
It’s fall, and I’m not in such a great mood or place, but I’m trying to do better. I have to do better, because I want my children to inherit the biggest stockpile of healing that ever existed. I want their lives to be filled with healthy relationships and love.
As for Teta and the generations of family members before and after, I can’t resent them. It could have been worse. It could have been better. It could have been a lot of things. I get that it is hard to change. We’re all some degree of broken and fragile. I just wish some of them would have tried a little harder– if only at all.
But now it is time for me to leave it behind. For me. For my children. For the grandchildren I can not even imagine yet. For every relationship any of us will ever have in the future. To do my part in healing humanity, one person at a time.
Pema Chodron said, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know…”