My mother’s childhood was a montage of plaid prep school uniforms and blonde hair and polo matches and summers in Hawaii; my “tall, dark, and handsome” father was a self-made man who had put himself through Yale and come to make his name on the West Coast. They were introduced as a good society match, married, and moved to a small town outside of San Francisco to rear their three adorable and efficiently spaced children, of which I am the midpoint. (We always called it a small town, and not a suburb, eschewing that word so reminiscent of strip malls, bedazzled jeans, and Coors Lite.) It was basically a fairytale (because the definition of fairytale is a concrete and attainable reality). (By now you are likely aware that this is going to be one of those poor little rich girl monologues. In fact, growing up, my parents told me we were middle class, but I don’t think I ever really interacted with anyone that wasn’t in the 1% --or the 0.1%-- until I went to college. This probably explains – at least partially – why I’m such an egregious snob with a powerful guilt complex.)
My parents clearly hedged their bets with me. I showed some early aptitude in reading and math (the latter of which is now lol-inducing), so I was enrolled in gifted programs, online Stanford classes, and the like –those academic pastimes that early on solidify the opportunity chasm between the advantaged and the less so. We were all also entreated to thrice-weekly tennis lessons at the country club (later golf, for those of us who went on occasional hunger strikes to protest running), and swimming lessons, and ski trips. My childhood was a bit like a Henry James novel. I spent a great deal of time engaged in learning impractical pursuits suitable for a gentlewoman (hence my suspicion that my parents intended to, at the very least, marry me off if “that school thing” didn’t work out): piano practice, sewing lessons, knitting, calligraphy, embroidery, and ballroom dancing classes as I got older.
My parents, likewise, filled their gender roles efficiently and effectively. For my mother, who did not work but also employed a nanny until I was seventeen, this centered on the book club. My mother was part of a good book club. This meant that the other ladies were all well dressed and had rich husbands and threw good parties and were “cool,” not unlike the “cool” girls at my high school, an affiliation I briefly flirted with and then determined to be much less entertaining than being deeply scornful of just about everything. The book club was allegedly formed for the purpose of reading books and discussing them, and while my mother always did make an effort to listen to the book on tape (reading is not her strong suit), the gossip on my classmates that I always dragged out of her posthaste made clear that very little literary analysis went on. My mother always required my help setting up for these functions; arranging flowers and navigating a cheese plate are essential qualities for a young lady in le burbclave, and I was proud of being her little princess. It was also understood that none of the book club ladies actually ate cheese, all being on a strict diet of grapefruit and Pellegrino.
The masculine foil to the book club (and by that I mean, another small town phenomenon specific to the fairly wealthy) was, of course, golf. As my older brother had failed in this arena, I had a unique viewpoint into this male bonding activity as the vaguely charming sidekick (“your daughter golfs?”) on many of these male bonding outings. As my father described to me, there were two types of golfers at our country club: those who were “weekend golfers,” and those who had the liberty to play whenever they chose. He, alas, having no family fortune, was the former sort. My father liked to maintain an allegiance to his blue-collar roots while at the club, though I have yet to come across a single one of his friends or acquaintances that was not a fellow member; furthermore, he has been spotted wearing double-layered polo shirts with the collars popped (and subsequently mocked ferociously).
For me, therefore, growing up in a small town was about the reinforcement of those pesky gender roles of the upper class. Despite my close relationship with my father, I was always reminded that my proper role was closer to that of my mother – and not unhappily so. We had built the American dream: the embodiment of that theoretical possibility of being white, accumulating wealth, and using it for those experiences and accompanying emotions that money is thought to buy. Though my vociferous reading was encouraged and it was expected that I would attend college to converse more intelligently, a man’s wife should never work – but this was presented as a gift, given to me by the hard work of my father and my future husband, rather than as a gilded cage.
Everything was about appearances, in my family more so than in many others. My mother has always envisioned her life as a series of snapshots, and every photo must appear perfect. This included a custom-made white couch in a living room that I was only allowed to enter on Christmas morning and to practice piano and flute (30 minutes of each a day, every day, signed off by my nannies on an elaborate chart) and a similar white settee upstairs that my prom date projectile vomited all over at the after party. This included my mother’s strict veto privileges on any outfit I chose to wear to school, especially any that might include sweatpants.
This included my mother being most upset about what people would think of her, a divorcee! This included Sunday brunch at our country club on the every other Sunday that my father had custody, where it didn’t matter how hungover I felt as long as I was on time and appropriately dressed.
It was their divorce that changed everything. It was a nuclear fission reaction, releasing far more energy than one would have imagined inside that tiny familial atom.
The literally picture-perfect world my parents had created (briefly interrupted by my childhood pudginess, but quickly remedied by a diet instituted at age six) shattered, and everyone in town knew about it. People remembered all of those stupid details that are supposed to fade away as you grow up, because there wasn’t much else to do than remember. We were a tiny, wealthy, white island in the sea of poor, black Oakland and surely weren’t about to wander outside the city gates (metaphorical gates, of course, but there truly was a recent proposal in city council to put video cameras at all the portals). It didn’t matter how many photographs we had of smiling on family bike rides or catered parties at the house. Suddenly my dearth of childhood memories of my parents ever speaking to one another came to the forefront.
After all the bullshit that ensued – and there was a great degree of it, much of which I have repressed, with my therapist’s blessing – there were actually positive aftereffects. (And this is coming from me, a girl who actively declines to find the bright side in most things.) My parents essentially became self-actualized, after having failed the oppressive expectations of their social set.
My mother went back to work. My mother had graduated with honors in a degree in economics, and yet above I did question her literacy. She escaped the boredom of an empty nest through a high level job at a top architecture firm (“they don’t even give us Fridays off, if you can believe that. When am I supposed to get my stuff done?”), remodeling every bathroom in the house, and marrying a man who loves her egregiously (I am referring here to public canoodling, which is truly alarming to the WASPish sensibilities with which I was raised, but also potentially adorable).
My father married a woman he describes as smarter than he is, a lofty compliment indeed. This has allowed him to completely check out of the affairs of the home to make his gin and tonic in peace, except when teaching me to perfect this essential craft. My father is very good at his job but terrible at multitasking – we children were brought into the world based on the same decision making that procured him his Porsche and his wine country house: he could afford it, his peers were doing it, and it sounded like fun. However, my father is a man of many phases of hobbies: rock collecting, photography, tidepooling, fixing things (this was short lived and not particularly prolific), and of late, stargazing and art collecting. The allure of fatherhood was similar in its brevity; he has been a far better friend to me than parental support.
So yes, nuclear fusion might release even more power than such fission, but no one on earth has figured out how to do that yet. I found that my own revelation of my parents’ flaws to be ultimately far less disappointing than their impeccable suburban socialite identities would have been. While my disillusionment came at age ten and transformed me into the little fucked-up ball of joy that I remain until this day, my understanding is that we have all been disappointed by our parental illusions at some point. I came to all my parenthetical comments only after the bombshell exploded: growing up, I truly believed in my fairytale.
At least my cynicism has been productive – it allowed me to realize that my skill at hemming dresses and arranging a truly excellent cheese plate could accompany a career as well. It allowed me to slip through the divorce-imposed cracks in wealthy protectionism and pursue a number of truly excellent adventures – motorbiking through Thailand, courting diplomats in Budapest, fainting in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – that my friends’ helicopter parents would never have allowed. By no means do I undervalue the relevancy of a good photograph (see my uncomfortably fertile Instagram for verification), but understanding the occasionally unsatisfactory mortality of my parents has come, too, with the recognition that nothing is ever as perfect as it seems, and usually for the better.
I also understand that these are not “real” problems. I’m writing about my childhood experience because I cannot pretend to grasp about anyone else’s. I find humor in the idiosyncrasies of the world in which I was raised, because despite the occasional psychological pain, I understand that I am absurdly fortunate in many ways. I can’t give back the unearned material wealth I was given, and I can’t apologize for that – I can only hope to make something of my advantages, rather than taking the easy route and curling up next to Daddy’s gold bricks every night.
My childhood was replete with many opportunities that allowed my so-called achievements to come easily; it was also missing some things that many of you take for granted. My house was never a home, and this taught me fierce independence. However, I still sometimes ache for those aspects of family that led to the inception of such fairytales.
When my mother’s diagnosis came, I had no adoring father to turn to, and no friends to confide in – she still doesn’t want anything to ruin what is left of that perfect family photo, so she keeps her illness a secret because it isn’t perfect.
At least our lives still look beautiful from the outside.