Because John made us promise it would only happen once.
On December 12, 1996, my family did something we’ve never done before or since. We had dinner together. Alone. We made it, ate it, and cleaned up after, by ourselves. No chef, no housekeeper. No spouses. children, or friends. Just Mom, John, Shanda, David and me.
The year before, we were joking around (laughter was the lingua franca in our family), and I said, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we had one meal where it was just us?”
“What do you mean?” John said.
“You know, we decide on the date. Then we come to Reno from San Diego and Vegas and Seattle on that date. We make, eat, and clean up after the meal. But it’s just us. No help, no strangers or hangers on. And no phones.”
After the derision, the riffing, and the laughter died down, I dropped it. But over the next year, I pushed, gently. One dinner. How hard could it be?
Our mother lived extremely well, but there was almost never a private moment with her. Always, her housekeeper or the head of grounds or the chef were either in the room or in the background. Of course, these were people we loved dearly (most of them) and they became like family for us.
But we rarely had our mother to ourselves. Even as children. Which is where I think this idea came from.
It took an entire year to negotiate. I’m not kidding. Shan was so worried about her emotional safety that she wanted someone there to mediate, just in case. That’s how afraid we all were of each other.
The Four Subjects —John, Shanda, David and Me My eldest brother, John, (12 years older than me) was the black sheep of the family. We just lost him last March. He was the brave one who expressed his anger and was psychologically and physically maimed for it. He was disinherited. As long as I knew him, he had a cruel side that would come out unpredictably, and you had to be ready to laugh hard at it or you were toast. He also had a fantastic, dry, if brutal, sense of humor. It was merciless, and it protected one of the tenderest hearts you could imagine.
At that time in his life, he flew cargo. On the face of it, that was pretty logical; he was the son of Bill Lear, creator of the Learjet. It’s not a stretch that he’d find himself working in aviation. But here’s what I found interesting. He flew “junk cargo.” His planes carried all the highly toxic, contaminated, or radioactive material (cargo that nobody wants) to its final destination.
I think John also carried a lot of the junk cargo for our family.
My sister, Shanda, ten years older than me, left her successful Italian husband and her three young teenage children in order to establish herself as a singer. At 53, and heavier than this culture allows, especially in the music business, she was a fascinating combination of determination and obliviousness--the latter quality a coping mechanism from living with ridicule most of her life.
First, she was ridiculed for her name: Shanda Lear. Then, in high school, Dad used to predict she'd have a wonderful old age, because that's when she'd be getting all the jokes she was hearing then. Later on she co-founded the La Leche League while living in Rome. Generations of healthy, Italian breastfed children have my sister to thank for that. This is the accomplishment of a courageous and intelligent woman, working against terrible odds, and winning. I was so proud. But then she went and wrote a rap song about breastfeeding, 'white girl' ebonics and all. We never let her sing it. Ever.
Is it a wonder that she wanted someone to mediate at this one-time-only dinner? Truth be told, though, she was not alone. I didn't think it was such a bad idea, either, even though I knew it was a nonstarter idea for everyone else.
Bottom line--in this family, none of us were listened to in any meaningful way. So Shanda represented, for me, our collective need to be heard.
My brother, David, (only five years older than me), had a company for years called LearVision. He manufactured and marketed a type of eyeglasses called “suspension eyewear.” If you look at it metaphorically, he was very interested in seeing what was going on. At the same time, he was a pretty heavy user of marijuana and other natural drugs, which I thought kept him out of touch with potentially valuable emotional information. He wanted to see, but thwarted his own efforts.
David carried for us the desire to know, coupled with the fear of what we might find out.
Where does that leave me? During that year, I was completing my degree in Applied Behavioral Science. I was headed for a helping profession. I was terrified of not being needed. The word for it today is codependence.
In being the helper within my family of origin, I could focus on everyone else’s problems. I denied my own toxic rage, I resisted speaking my own voice, and I did not admit that I was afraid to see things as they were. I let John, Shanda, and David carry all that — and they let me carry the helping energy.
It seems like a fairly neat package; but on a deeper level, we were islands of masked hostility and harsh judgments. We were a mess of undifferentiated children, drowning in our unmet needs, clinging desperately to any floating debris we could find.
All this accounts for the fear I felt as our family dinner approached. We’d negotiated for a genuinely private dinner — no therapists allowed. I lit my candles and said my prayers. I worried. I made an extra appointment with my therapist beforehand. But I also paid special attention to some salient wisdom I was gaining from the courses I was taking at the time in leadership within organizations:
Give the work back to the people who have to do it.
I vowed that, when the day of the dinner arrived, I would not try to change or console myself or anyone else. I would simply witness.
Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul (1992) says, “…if our purpose is to observe the soul as it is, then we may have to discard the salvational wish and find deeper respect for what is actually there.”
While there were little moments of difficulty before and after our coming together on December 12th, 1996, the dinner itself turned out to be something perilously close to a miracle.
We were four siblings, working together in the kitchen all day long, eating with our mother, and cleaning up afterward. It sounds like a nothing. But, John had said he would only do it if we all promised we would never do it again. So, it only happened once, ever. And I think that says volumes about who we were, internally and to each other, as a family.
Even just the once was incredibly useful, however, because were all so used to blaming Dad (by then, dead for almost 20 years) and/or Mom for the way we were. This dinner gave us a chance to see how try to interact differently regardless of how we’d been raised.
Snapshots of our day together.
Generally, the phones never stopped ringing at Mom’s house. They were a constant source of disconnection, no matter the activity. (God knows what she would have done in the age of cell phones. Fortunately, we weren’t there yet.) David, our secret weapon, found the main switch for the phones and turned them off at around noon. Mom was pretty nervous about that, but it soon proved a wonderful tactic.
Now there was nothing to interrupt or distract us from each other. This was difficult new work we were doing. We were understandably subdued, all of us practicing completely new behaviors. We stayed on fairly safe, superficial subjects. But that was ok. We were babies at this. Baby food was appropriate and nourishing at this stage. We could always eat the solid food of our conflict when we had the teeth to chew it.
Mom walked around in something of a daze. She who had always run the show, and who had always planned enough activity and hoopla to ensure that nothing would get too real — she was at a loss. She seemed contentedly bewildered at this loss.
She worked with us as much as her energy would allow (she was 80), and occasionally looked around with unbelieving eyes. She had wanted this forever, but hadn’t known how to make it happen. She didn’t realize it would never happen if she made it happen. It had to come from us. All of us.
John, whose cruelty I had feared, was actually quite dear. He’d gone out for an errand and came back with a bunch of McDonalds bags, fake filled. It was a good joke for the woman who was used to having caviar with champagne before dinner. But then, he shocked us all and actually peeled a potato — an event so rare that it required photographic documentation. The positive attention was so much fun for him, he went all out and broke up lettuce for the salad as well!
David helped to organize, chop, sauté, boil, roast, and baste. He went wherever he was needed. We made each other laugh. Plus, don’t forget, he was the one who knew where the telephone shut off switch was in the basement.
As for me, I refrained from anticipating situations that might call for my help, so none arose. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I just stayed with the ambiguity as I set the table and cleared it later. It was uncomfortable and liberating.
I mention Shanda last, because I think she had the most information for our family. I’m not talking about recipes — but she was by far the best cook among us, and it was amazing to learn her tricks and taste her food. I’m talking about the invisible information.
For instance, the day before the dinner, she literally lost her voice. Was she embodying everything we couldn’t say to each other? Was she manifesting the fact that she still had no real voice in the family? (It’s sad but true that before our coming to Reno and afterward, she was still — still the unwittingly subject of ridicule.)
What broke my heart was a moment that summarized the effect of all that ridicule, known and unknown. At one point, she leaned close to me and rasped, “It’s probably a good thing I lost my voice. That way I won’t say anything stupid.”
Even with her lost voice, however, Shanda was different. Where he had been bossy and tyrannical, she was now simply well-organized. Where rigid, she was now flexible and giving.
One meal, one time only. It took a year of preparation, lots of therapy, and a commitment to all kinds of détente to accomplish this one, simple dinner. Ten hours total that we were together, alone, in one place. It’s not like the Good Fairy of BeneFunction waved her wand, and now we got together all the time, and our children (the cousins) attended each other’s milestones.
But we were all new, in a subtle and irrevocable way. There was one tiny new molecule pulsating in us, one that held the memory of at least one meal from start to finish with no distraction, no ugliness, and no shame in it. There was hope. It was a small amount of yeast, a tiny live coal in the ashes, a little seed in the ground. There was a feeling of promise. I had a family. I belonged.
Epilogue That was 1996. Now, Mom is gone and John is gone. Twenty-six years is a long time to leave a seed in the ground untended. Sure, the sun has come up and down countless times. Rain has fallen. But there have been backhoes and concrete trucks and who knows where that seed ended up.
Certainly not as a field of fruit or a viable crop. Dave and Shan and I have gone in dramatically different directions, and the only common ground we might have now is genetic. And we’re all basically good hearted. But it’s not like we could easily sit at a table and laugh about the old days.
Still…that December 12th in ‘96? Where we were padding around in the kitchen, making dinner, laughing about what we didn’t know how to do, amazed at what we did know…it really was a blessing. It was probably the best gift we could have ever given our mother. And each other. And ourselves.
P.S. Does every family have to show up like the storybook kind? Couldn’t our Once Only Meal be remembered as this great moment in our family — without patholigizing, minimizing or ‘other’ing it?
I’m lonely. I wish I had the kind of family I see in thousands of commercials.
But you know, today, for no reason whatsoever, I honor the family I had/have. I send a blessing to my family. I send it backward in time, to all five people in a kitchen, making coffee, doing dishes, checking the oven, tasting the mashed potatoes, rummaging around for ice cream in the freezer, discovering we only have vanilla, and sending Dave to 31 Flavors to get the Jamoca Almond Fudge, and the Rocky Road. May we all be happy and free.