The Other Side

Someone recently asked me about my mother’s family. I have written quite a bit about my mother herself, and my father’s family, but I don’t talk about my mom’s side of the family—“the other side.” If you were to simply go by the things I write, then chances are you wouldn’t have much of an impression about the other side of my family, other than the fact that my mom’s parents, to a certain extent, disowned her after she had me. That’s the short version of the story that really amounts to nothing more than the first half of the first chapter of a much longer story that I don’t tell that often. And I realized that in not telling other parts of the story, I was making the other side out to be a family of villains, when that is not the complete truth.

My mom, Bonnie Walker, is the second of four children born to Jack and Edith Feldman of Schenectady, New York. Compared to my father’s side of the family, I know very little about the other side. Jack and his family emigrated from Russia when he was about three years-old. Edith was born here in the United States, but her family was from Poland. And while I can name all the siblings of Grandma and Grandpa Walker, the children of the siblings and their children as well, I can’t do the same for the Feldman side of the family. Aside from the immediate members of the family, my mom’s siblings and their children—my cousins—I’m at a loss for knowing anyone on the Feldman side.

My mother got knocked up with me while she was away at college, and when she returned home for the first time with a baby the color of a Milkdud, there was a certain amount of explaining to do. My grandmother knew the truth about me—that there was Negro blood polluting my veins—but nobody else really knew. And that’s how she tried to keep it. My grandmother tried to pass me off as everything from some kid my mom was babysitting, to being part Italian. My mom seldom talks of this experience, but I like to imagine the whole thing like some bad episode of an even worse sitcom. I can see my mom sitting around the dining room table, all of her relatives passing the cute little baby around, with my grandmother proclaiming, “Isn’t it great that my daughter is taking care of her friend’s little Italian baby?,” and the totally fake laugh track playing to remind the home audience that this insipid crap is supposed to be funny.

My grandmother’s attempts to hide the truth surrounding the mysterious baby that returned with Bonnie from college was a miserable failure, and when my grandfather learned the score, my mom was pretty much disowned. She wasn’t completely shut out by everyone, but it was made known by her father that she was not welcome in the family. My mom was pretty much on her own, floundering through life as a young mother trying to figure out how to take care of her child. Things took a dramatic turn after my father’s death, when his parents took us in. My paternal grandparents adopted my mother, helped her get through nursing school, and when my mom was finally on some semblance of stable footing, my paternal grandmother encouraged my mom to make peace with her parents.

I was around three when my mother resumed her relationship with her parents. They lived in Schenectady, and we only saw them a few times a year. I have very early memories, none of which were all that negative, but that began to change around the time I was maybe six or seven years old. Neither Jack nor Edith were the most affectionate of people, especially compared to Marshall and Nannie, my other grandparents. But Grandma and Grandpa Feldman bought me presents, which at first made them seem really cool to me. I distinctly remember telling my mom that I liked her parents more than my other grandparents, because they gave me more toys. This statement aroused in my mom an anger I had never seen before, nor have I seen since. Honestly, I thought she was going to beat my ass as she explained in a very stern voice: “Grandma and Grandpa Feldman give you toys, but Grandma and Grandpa Walker give so much more, they love you. Giving you toys is fine, but it is not the same as loving you. It is how they treat you that matters. I want you to look at how Grandma and Grandpa Feldman treat you, not at what they give you.”

Shortly after this incident, I noticed that there were no pictures of me to be seen in the Feldman family household. There were pictures of all of my cousins, but none of me. I was the second born of the Feldman grandchildren—there are eleven of us total—but there was never a picture of me until I was about 12 years-old, by which time there was already six grandchildren. It wasn’t until my Uncle Ned demanded that grandma put a picture of me up with those of the other kids that I was put on display with my cousins.

It was this and other things throughout my youth that made me think of the other side in a completely different light—a light that has always been somewhat dark for me. But as I’ve grown older, and now that nearly twenty years have passed since the death of Jack and over ten since the death of Edith, I realize that I’ve held on to negative feelings for far longer than I should have. Even more important, having those negative feelings for my grandparents allowed me to forget from time to time how much I love my cousins.

My cousin Jessica, who is about nine months older than me, is an amazing person. We never see each other, and don’t talk often enough, and I often worry that she doesn’t realize how much I love her. When we were both very young we spent part of a summer at my Uncle Ned’s place deep in the mountains of upstate New York. It was one of the worst summers of my life, made pleasant only in that it was an experience shared with Jessica. Seeing Jessica was always the thing that I looked forward to the most whenever my mother and I would visit.

Jessica didn’t have the best relationship with her mom, my mother’s older sister, Esther. As a result, she was shuffled around a bit, living most her childhood with Uncle Ned, and also with our grandparents. I always felt bad for her, because I was never sure if she was all that happy when we were kids, but I secretly admired her, because if she was hurting inside, she never let it show. Jessica just seemed like the bravest person I knew when we were kids.

Jessica’s brother Paul, who is a few years younger than us, wasn’t around as much. He too had a bad relationship with Esther, and had trouble finding a place for himself when he was younger. I was never that worried about Jessica, because even as a kid, she embodied “survivor,” but I did worry about Paul. He struggled though life for many years, but he seems to be doing great. He is married with a family, and though I don’t talk to him nearly enough either, I’m proud of how he’s been able to grow into being a good husband, father, and person in general.

I don’t talk to Jessica, Paul or any of my cousins nearly enough—two of my cousins I haven’t seen or talked to in close to 25 years, and two others I have never met in person. Once in a very blue moon I talk to Uncle Ned’s kids. But with all of my cousins, I feel there is a tragic disconnect that culminates in us all loving each other, but having no clue how to express it. And that is a partial result of how our parents were raised by our grandparents.

I can say in no uncertain terms that the Feldman family was not exactly what you consider the most loving people on the planet. I honestly don’t know if Jack and Edith loved each other, or their children—at least not in a nurturing way that helps people lead moderately functional lives. If there was ever a dysfunctional family, it would have to be my mother’s—complete with verbal, psychological and physical abuse. And I think this upbringing made it so that my mother, and probably her siblings as well, never quite felt loved.

My mother told me she loved me every single day when I was a kid. She still says it to me every day. Every phone conversation ends with her telling me she loves me, and me telling her the same. If there is one thing I am certain of, it is the fact that my mom loves me. And the reason she has been so persistent in making sure that I know how she feels is because she didn’t know it herself when she was a kid. Both of her parents died, and she never really knew for sure if they honestly loved her.

Understanding this as I do now, makes it impossible for me to hate Jack and Edith Feldman. Don’t get me wrong, because for many years, I didn’t really care for them. But I now understand that it wasn’t so much that they had difficulty accepting me as the literal black sheep of the family, or that I was not sure if they loved me. Their own children were uncertain of that. As I have grown older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I realize that Jack and Edith were people who miraculously came together, despite the fact they didn’t seem to like each other, had four kids that were not sure if they were loved, and then continued on with business as usual as far as most of their grandchildren were concerned. That’s just how they were—two very flawed people. But they are my family, and while it has been somewhat easy to cast my grandparents as villains in the story of my life, that’s not really fair or accurate, and it has led to a certain disconnect with other family members that I care about tremendously.

It is our parents and grandparents that make us and break us. Jack and Edith Feldman did their fair share of breaking, but in doing so they also helped make some of the greatest people I have ever known. It would be easy to blame them for the damage they wrought, both directly and indirectly, but there is no point in doing that. There is no point in wondering how things might have been different for their kids if they were better parents, who in turn may have been better parents to their kids. Maybe Jessica and Paul’s childhood would have been better if Esther had been raised differently. Maybe my childhood would have been worse because my mom would not have been so determined to do things differently than her parents. But there’s no point in wondering any of that. Jessica and Paul have turned out absofuckinglutley great in my book. I love them both more than they will ever know. And I feel the same way about all of my other cousins. Sure, we’re all screwed up, but who isn’t? The point of a family is that we love each other despite the insanity.

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