Our daughter Annie was still young when we stopped going to most family parties. Some I refused to go to, many we stopped being invited to. But I can still see her, a little girl on my grandmother’s lap, mesmerized by my grandmother’s intense blue eyes and firm, smooth, stroking hands. What does she retain of this? What has she missed by my self-imposed family exile?
I’ll begin in 1986. Three weeks after Bill and I got together, I took him to a family party. This was unusual. I’d only let The Family meet one of my too-many boyfriends, and then only after we’d lived together for a year. The family party was a Labor-Day-picnic-slash-birthday-party for a great aunt, a well-known San Francisco labor activist. Before we went, I drew Bill a family tree of my mother’s side of the family.
“Here,” I was saying. “Here is what you are getting into, here is how I’m going to woo you, here is a Map to Me.”
Besides Aunt Reeva, I told Bill, we’d meet my great uncle Leon, one-time head of the printers union who went to jail with Cesar Chavez in the seventies. “I was at that march, too,” I told Bill. “And I got arrested at Livemore for anti-nuke stuff, once.” I really liked Bill — his vivid blue eyes, his strong opinions, his passion for justice. I was laying it on thick.
And my parents would be there: Dad, still with a ponytail, a precision machinist who sold hand-wrought jewelry at crafts fairs; Mom, a professional dancer. My grandparents Jack and Tillie Olsen would be there, I told Bill. Grandpa Jack was a local labor leader and sage. Grandma Tillie was a famous writer. He’d also meet my aunt who ran a college child development department, another aunt who lectured nationally on immigrant education rights, and their husbands, the archaeologist and the Maoist musician. And some of my cousins would be there: Karl, a First Amendment attorney; Margaret, who used to go by “Darooda” and take me to Sufi dances; Baby Joshie; Little Jesse; Rebekah, the brilliant poet.
Bill studied the family tree I’d drawn. He internalized it — and he kept everybody straight. At the party, in a green meadow in Golden Gate Park, we ate potato salad and sang Spanish Civil War songs. My cousin Rebekah and I danced “Tzena, Tzena” to the applause of the crowd. Bill was dazzled. “What an amazing family you have!” An ex-hippie communications teacher, my lefty “Red Diaper Baby” family credentials were not wasted on him.
“Yeah, they’re amazing,” I muttered as we drove back to his apartment in the Mission District, wiping the “Family Party Face” off and reverting to myself. I had pink streaks in my hair then. I was 25, and my sullen reaction could still pass as late-model teenage rebellion. But it wasn’t rebellion — it was deep ambivalence. I loved my family, and I hated them. With all that dazzle of strong personality and righteous accomplishment, I struggled to find room for me.
Twenty years later, Bill and I are still together and the oldest generation of the family is almost gone; Grandpa Jack died years ago, Aunt Reeva last year, Uncle Leon a few months ago. My larger-than-life Grandma Tillie has disappeared into dementia and stoops with a collapsed spine. Long before she forgot who I was I’d stopped speaking to her anyway. My cousins have scattered across the country, and I rarely see my vibrant aunts and their quiet husbands. But this family — my mother’s family — still influences how I mother, how I love, what and how I write. They’ve shaped my sense of moral responsibility, even though these days I only scan the headlines and snap off NPR whenever I hear George W. Bush’s voice.
They haunt me. They impede me. They’re one reason I’m still — after all these years — in therapy. They’re my legacy.
I’m a fourth generation “Red Diaper Baby,” born into a family — on my mother’s side — of atheist, culturally Jewish, Marxist, Feminist, West Coast lefty union leaders. But after years of exile from my family, my legacy is no longer clear to me.
Annie is thirteen now, a beautiful elf-girl with wise eyes, pointed ears, and a vivid imagination. And a lot more than the family legacy now defines the “Map to Me.” I’m a tail-end boomer, a fiction writer, a parenting author, a solid member of the PTA. I’m well-traveled and moderately-educated. I turned in my skeptic badge a long time ago with nothing to replace it with. I’m also a stepmother and stepgrandmother; an ex-stripper, ex-actress, and ex-picture framer; a sporadic gardener, a long-time teacher, a longer-time wife. I practice yoga and hike and pet my dog and struggle with chronic intestinal problems. I play backgammon and laugh with my husband every day. I write. I have strong left wing political convictions, but I am not an activist.
When I was little, we had family parties for every holiday, every birthday. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap, my younger sister and I groomed impeccably by my nervous mother. I’d wear a beautiful and serious face, my Family Party Face. My grandmother’s cool hands stroked and stroked me. My aunt Julie played the guitar, my dad the banjo. We’d sing the family songs: “Union Maid” and “De Colores” and “Drill Ye Tarriers Drill.”
“Let’s sing ‘Nellie Gray’ and watch Ericka cry,” somebody would suggest.
There’s a low green valley by the old Kentucky shore
Where I whiled many happy hours away
Just a sitting and a singing by that little cabin door
Where I first met my darling Nellie Gray
… and I’d cry. For the injustice of Nellie Gray, sold to another plantation to slave her life away and her lover never to see her again. And I’d cry because they wanted me to, and because of the feel of my grandmother’s hands holding me, and the warmth of her lap.
I remember that feeling of wearing the Family Party Face — “Sensitive Ericka, Brilliant Ericka, Ericka Who is Destined for Great Things.” Decades later, I still struggle with the public face and the private, my need to carve a place for myself in my mother’s family of offbeat achievers.
For my daughter, I want the power of the legacy without that terrible pull of off-beat family conformity. For myself, I want to strip away my Family Party Face and be honest about who I really am. I want to incorporate — into both of us — the dharma of my “red diaper” heritage. What in me comes from this family legacy? What do I pass on to my child? It takes a lot for me to cry now. But sing the family songs with me: “Red River Valley” and “Russian Lullaby;” sing “Nellie Gray” with me, and I will weep.