Friday, December 31, 2010

Depression Is a Disease

I was in the midst of writing a year-end, "lessons learned" blog post, when this tweet popped up on my screen, from @adamslisa:

".@ amazing u could tweet something that so clearly displayed your lack of understanding of a mental disease. it's no choice."

This immediately caught my attention because one of my (many) pet peeves is a misunderstanding of mental illness in general, and depression specifically. So I did some backtracking and I found this tweet from a Twitter account called (ironically, in my opinion), @TheDailyLove:

"Depression exists in selfish people. Step outside yourself, help others & you will feel better!"

This is around the time I lost my cool. 

Many of you know that I've struggled with depression. It's not something I'm ashamed of, and it's not something I think I or anyone else should have to hide. In fact, I think it's something more people should talk about, because if more so-called "normal" people discussed their experiences with depression and other mental illnesses, more sufferers might feel bold enough to seek out help for themselves.

The tweet by @TheDailyLove only further contributes to the senses of shame and self-loathing so many people who suffer from depression already feel. It says, "You are a selfish person, which is why you feel the way you do. If you were just a better person - less selfish, more oriented toward others - you would automatically feel better. In effect, your character flaw is why you feel awful. You earned this condition." This belies a common opinion among many people who have never experienced the depths of depression: that really, it's within someone's control to simply suck it up and pull themselves out of it, if only they truly wish to be better.

Surely, this is true for some people - there are no absolutes, after all. But for many, many others - and certainly the vast majority of those suffering from clinical depression - it is not something one can simply think one's way out of. Doctors and scientists suspect that clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Much like a diabetic, whose body is unable to regulate blood sugar, or a person with cancer, whose body is unable to check some types of cell growth, a depressed person's brain is not functioning in a way that we consider "normal." It's not something they can just will themselves out of; it's a disease.

Some people tout the mind-body connection and the power to think positively in order to change one's physical condition. I don't doubt that one's attitude can influence one's health to some extent. But if someone recently diagnosed with diabetes said, "You know, I'm going to forgo regular blood sugar checks and insulin injections and just think my blood sugar into a normal range," most of us would raise our eyebrows. We understand diabetes as a disease; we need to understand depression in the same way.

If positive thinking and "stepping outside oneself" could fix depression, if a desire to be less selfish - and I would argue with the notion that depressed people are necessarily selfish - cured this disease, I do not know a single person who has suffered from depression who would not leap at that opportunity to fix it. To have been truly, deeply depressed; to have stared into the darkest depths of one's soul and questioned one's desire to go on living; to have known absolute despair for weeks, months, even years on end - I don't know anyone who doesn't wish that it was as simple as thinking it away.

Mastin Kipp, the man behind @TheDailyLove, did every clinically depressed person in the world a huge disservice when he called them selfish people. Selfishness doesn't cause depression; if anything, it's the other way around. In my experience, when the weight of living is so heavy that I can hardly stand the thought of another day, let alone actually compel myself to get up and live my life, my pain makes my life so difficult that I can barely look outside myself. It is not that I am an inherently selfish person; it is that my pain is so deep, my disease so severe, that I literally cannot look past my borders.

Kipp attempted to clarify his statement in a much longer blog post. He did not do himself, or people who have experienced clinical depression, any favors in doing so. He elaborated, 
"What I should have said was: 'Selfishness can contribute to depression, being of service to others can help you feel better.' I have found in my own life that when I am helping others, focused on being of service and not thinking about my problems, I feel better. I have experienced that my depression starts with repression. When I isolate myself and just think about 'my' problems or what other people did 'to me' it only feeds the beast. So my conclusion has been when I am 'repressed', I end up 'depressed'. I am not a medical doctor; I am not a psychiatrist - but I have overcome depression."
While I appreciate that Kipp puts his assertion that "Selfishness can contribute to depression, being of service to others can help you feel better," in the context of his personal experiences, I would point out that once again, he ignores the very serious implications of blaming the afflicted (to call us victims does many of us a disservice, I think). A clinically depressed person is not always fully in control of his or her thoughts and behaviors. Our brain chemistry is out of balance; many of us can barely get out of bed every morning without the proper regimen of drugs and therapy and support systems, and that's if we're lucky to find something that works for us. To call that selfishness, and to suggest that volunteering at the local soup kitchen would solve that problem, is beyond inaccurate; it's cruel.

It is cruel to suggest that a clinically depressed person's condition is caused even in part by selfishness or any other controllable behavior, or that it can be fixed by learning to just be less selfish and more focused on others. Clinical depression is a disease, just like diabetes or cancer or any other diagnosable medical condition. We cannot just think it away.

I'm not saying that people who have clinical depression should wallow in dark pits of despair, moaning "Woe is me," day in and day out without ever doing anything to help themselves. That is not what we need to heal. What we need is a voice that truly advocates for us and our healing. What we need is people who say, "You are not wrong for feeling this way. You are not broken, you are not selfish, and you did not bring this on yourself. You have a disease, and it is treatable. You deserve a better version of life, and there are resources out there to help you find that." Each of us should be encouraged to seek a treatment that works best for each individual's unique condition, whether it be group or individual counseling, medication, inpatient treatment, or a combination of the above or other treatments and medical procedures available. Some people will be able to go it alone; many of us will not. And that's okay. We are not flawed or weak for not being able to fix ourselves alone. What is not okay is for any one of us to be made to believe that we caused this condition, that we brought it on ourselves even in part, through selfishness or other character flaws.

I am willing to give credit where it is due. Kipp does get one thing right when he implies that we can change our condition. There are resources available to us. We can seek treatment, we can ask our friends and family for help, and we can learn to love ourselves. It's a long and bumpy road, and it's definitely not one that I'm done traveling. But I believe, through a combination of therapy, medication, and a dedication to self-improvement, that I'll keep getting better. And no one - not Mastin Kipp, not society, not anyone - will ever make me believe that I did this to myself.

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Asking for help was one of the hardest things I ever did. I still struggle with it when I have recurrences. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, be it situational or clinical, please seek help. In addition to the many friends and family members you have who love you and want to help you - and trust me, they love you, even if you don't see it now - there are many resources available to you. You have local crisis centers, therapists, and medical professionals who specialize in exactly what you're experiencing. The links below provide some general information, but they do not substitute for the opinion of a qualified professional. And as always, if you are considering hurting yourself or others, please seek emergency medical help immediately or dial 9-1-1.

1-800-273-TALK (8255)



Lastly, I am not medical professional or a therapist, and my advice should not be taken in lieu of theirs. I can only tell you about my personal experience and share the lessons I've learned. I hope they're helpful to you, but I also strongly recommend that you seek out professional medical and/or psychological opinions. 

If anyone feels that my commentary is inaccurate or has done more harm than good, please leave me a comment below. I only want to share my own experience and advocate for what I believe is true. If you believe I am doing a disservice, please tell me - even if it's in the form of an anonymous comment. 

And as always, polite and respectful comments are always welcome.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Dog Days Are Over

I've been mulling over a year-end blog post ("working on" would be an overstatement, I think), which I plan to write and post tomorrow or the next morning. In the meantime, I want to share a fabulous new artist I heard on the radio earlier today, Florence + the Machine. I'm not quite sure how to describe her style: part pop, part rock, with a soul influence on some tracks. I heard one of her songs, and I haven't been able to quit her ever since. Conveniently, the song of hers I most love also captures many of the conflicting sentiments I have swirling around right now: a regret for the past, and a readiness to get the future started.


Dog Days Are Over

Happiness hit her like a train on a track
Coming towards her, stuck still no turning back
She hid around corners and she hid under beds
She killed it with kisses and from it she fled
With every bubble she sank with her drink
And washed it away down the kitchen sink

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
The horses are coming
So you better run

Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father
Run for your children, for your sisters and brothers
Leave all your loving, your loving behind
You can't carry it with you if you want to survive

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
Can you hear the horses?
'Cause here they come

And I never wanted anything from you
Except everything you had and what was left after that too, oh
 
Happiness hit her like a bullet in the back
Struck from a great height by someone who should know better than that

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
Can you hear the horses?
'Cause here they come

Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father
Run for your children, for your sisters and brothers
Leave all your loving, your loving behind
You can't carry it with you if you want to survive

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
Can you hear the horses?
'Cause here they come

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
The horses are coming
So you better run

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas to Me!

It was such an exciting Christmas in our household that we could barely contain ourselves. 

Not.

It was, however, a quite pleasant day. Juliette's Christmas gift to me? She let me sleep in until 10am, and then let me lay around in bed for another hour. I finally got up and made myself some brunch - spinach quiche lorraine. It is quite possibly the ugliest quiche ever, but I don't care - it was delicious.


Eggs, milk, cream, bacon, spinach - what's not to love?

Then there was the requisite napping, followed by a thoroughly lazy afternoon, and then, the big event: Christmas dinner at my favorite local Chinese restaurant, First Chinese B-B-Q. I figured since it's Christmas it was okay to go all out and order a bit more than I normally do. I had the B-B-Q pork & wonton soup first. 

This bowl was huge - probably about 8 inches across. It could have been a meal all on its own.

Next up: B-B-Q pork fried rice. 


For my last dish I meant to order the crispy chicken with lemongrass, or A29. But all I said was "A29," which I think the waiter mistook for "529" - the fresh fish sauteed in bean sauce. I didn't realize the mistake until I started eating it, but the fish was so good I couldn't send it back.

The fish was really lightly breaded and fried, the vegetables were tender crisp, and the sauce had a super delicate garlic and black bean sauce flavor. A happy accident!
I ended up with enough leftovers for at least the next couple days, which is half the point of getting Chinese food in the first place, if you ask me.

And of course, it's not dinner at a Chinese restaurant without a fortune cookie. It contained an actual, real fortune, which I think would make Allison over at Not-a-Fortune pretty happy.


I was a little nervous about going out to Christmas dinner all by myself, especially because I forgot my book at home. And I'll admit, I was one of the few solo diners in the place. But I wasn't the only one, and I didn't feel out of place or conspicuous. It was actually perfectly pleasant. Perhaps not the way I want to spend every Christmas, but not a bad way to have spent this one.

I'll leave you with a scene from one of the many Christmas light displays in my neighborhood. It's a little confused on the timing of the Industrial Revolution if you ask me, but who am I to argue with the Bible?

Apparently, soon after the birth of God's only son, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all run over by a train. Who knew?

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas Eve!

Earlier today I told Juliette what my mother always told me on Christmas Eve: that if you're awake when Santa comes down our block, he will skip right over our house. Juliette took this quite seriously and went straight to sleep - at 1pm. This put a bit of a kink in my plans to take and post a family Christmas Eve photo, so instead I had to settle for the picture below, which I have artistically titled "Juliette in Holiday Repose." Honestly, it's not much different from her regular repose, but just humor me here, okay?


I also want to share my absolute favorite Christmas story ever (okay, well, of the moment). It's called "6 to 8 Black Men," by David Sedaris, and it appears in his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. You can hear his reading of it by clicking "play" below. If you don't guffaw loudly while listening to it, you're a Communist. Simple as that.



I've been informed that some of you on Macs can't see the player above. If that's the case, you can click here to either play or download the audio file.

Merry Christmas from Juliette and Me! 

P.S. - If you can't find us tomorrow, put out an APB for the former Bishop of Turkey dressed like the Pope, and six to eight black men. I guarantee they had a hand in it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hey, OkCupid: Quit Ruining My Holidays

Dear OkCupid,

It is the end of what has been a very long, very trying, very emotional year for me. And so I'm asking you, from the very bottom of my heart, as your Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year's/winter solstice/belated birthday/just plain humanitarian gift to me, to please, for the love of God and all that is good and right in the world, please stop matching me with my ex-husband.

It's not as if I don't still sometimes pause to question whether separation and divorce were the right decisions, because I do. Regularly. So I certainly don't need you reminding me of the many wonderful ways in which we were compatible. In fact, we were 95% compatible according to your most recent calculations (up from 83% when you first matched us four months ago). And I definitely don't need you going out of your way to send his profile to me so that when I check my email three short days before Christmas - my very first Christmas as a newly divorced woman, in fact - I am confronted with his photograph and description and the news that he could be the one for me. 

Thanks, OkCupid, but we already tried that.

I thought you would have gotten the message when, after you matched us back in August, I blocked his profile from my view. It's not that I don't like him - I actually hold no grudge against him - but I don't need memories of our relationship popping up every time I try to restart my dating life. Nevertheless, you seem to feel pretty strongly about this match, because you bypassed my blocking his profile and made him one of my "Quiver" matches, which means you specially selected him just for me, mailed his profile to me, and told me to go ahead and "message him sweetly."

Frankly, I don't think he'd appreciate that any more than I do.

I'm not going to argue the merits of our supposed 95% match. We did get along quite well most of the time, but the other 5% was a deal-breaker for me. I loved him as best I could. I really did. But we just didn't work out. I will always have doubts and questions about our relationship and its demise, but it's time for you to let me move on with my life. 

And so, I'm asking you, with all the politeness and grace I can muster, to please stop matching me with my ex-husband. Please, leave me to my holiday season in peace.

Love,
Erin

Update, 12/22/10, 10:30pm: OkCupid just sent me yet another email (two in one day!) with a list of matches, and my ex-husband was at the top again. They are officially making me stabby.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Going Meta (or, Writing About My Writing)

Lately I've had occasion to think a lot about my writing, and this blog in particular. Over the last year, I've grappled with a lot of big questions. I have had to reconsider my values and beliefs, reconceive who I am, and redefine who I want to be. Writing has been crucial to that process. It's how I take a jumbled mess of thoughts and emotions and make sense of them - the equivalent of taking a classroom full of screaming six-year-olds running amok and transforming it into a peaceful space where all the children are seated quietly at their desks in neat, orderly rows. Writing through a conflict, an internal debate, or a painful memory is my way of making sense of myself, my thoughts, and the world.

Not all of my writing winds up in this blog. In fact, the vast majority never sees the light of day. I'll sometimes email something to a friend if I want her feedback on it, but nearly everything else stays in my journal. Often, it's just the process of writing that is most valuable to me. However, there are times when I write something that I want to share with the wider world, and that is when this blog comes into play. The blog allows me to  enter into a dialogue with the larger world. I connect with readers via comments and Twitter and gain new perspectives. I feel like I am contributing to a conversation that is bigger than myself. And most importantly, I grow from all of this in ways I never anticipated but that I now find invaluable.

The ability to write honestly and openly in this blog is crucial to everything I've described above. Without a sense of authenticity - something I've come to value very much over the last year - it rings false and loses much of its meaning for me.

This is not to say that I write without regard for others. I purposely omitted some of the details of my separation and divorce because I knew they would be particularly embarrassing or hurtful to my ex-husband. I have chosen my words very carefully when writing other posts to be sure not to express judgment of others or to portray my perspective as anything more than just that - my personal point of view. And at times I have emailed drafts of posts to people whom I am describing in some detail to make sure they are comfortable with what I'm saying and not revealing any personal information they would prefer kept private. Most of the people in my life trust my judgment in these regards.

Beyond just trusting my instincts, I also hold myself to certain standards in my writing. I always try to refrain from being malicious, spiteful, defamatory, or hateful. I try to be up front that what I am writing is from my perspective, and I avoid trying to articulate anyone else's point of view for them. If I do have reason to recount someone else's thoughts or beliefs (and off the top of my head, I can't think of a time when I have), I would make clear that it is my understanding of those thoughts and beliefs. I don't go into great detail about other people's personal lives and identities because it's both unfair to them and, generally speaking, irrelevant to my purposes. And perhaps most importantly, I won't air anyone else's dirty laundry beyond that which relates to my life, and more specifically, to the part of my life that I'm writing about in that post.

This last one is tricky. It's difficult to know what one person considers dirty laundry and another considers the sad truth. Extreme examples are easy enough to address. For instance, I wouldn't post the details of a friend's divorce, and particularly not the fact that he got a divorce because he walked in on his ex-wife having sex with two other men. (FYI: This is a hypothetical situation I am presenting. If this has happened to any of my friends, I don't know about it, and I apologize for possibly being inadvertently psychic.) But beyond such extremes, where is the line between one person's perceived right to tell a story that is hers on her own terms, and another's perceived right to be left out of it, to only be cast in a positive light, or to selectively edit the story?

Oftentimes it's easy enough to address such a conflict by simply omitting the person. Normally, I err on the side of caution and do just that. But it's not always possible to do so and still tell the story in a way that is honest, accurate, and authentic. And for me, as someone who values this blog and all the wonderful things that have come with it - the connections to others, the self-discovery, the challenge of writing for other writers, and all the new ideas I've grappled with along the way - as someone who values all of that, I also value the freedom to write honest, accurate, and authentic entries. Without that ability, this blog loses much of its value for me.

And yet, none of that answers my question about where the line is. I'm curious to know what other writers have done, and if anyone has any insight, I'd love to hear it. I'm beginning to think there isn't a single, clear, one-size-fits-all answer. I sense that this is something I will continue to have to deal with on a case-by-case basis.
 
I guess that some will dismiss the notion that my need for authentic experience on this blog requires me to have the freedom that I've described above. In fact, I think those same people will probably dismiss the idea that I even have a need for an authentic experience via this blog, mostly because they don't understand it. I can't expect them to see everything from my point of view, and I don't think I can say anything to change their minds. They simply see things differently. However, I know that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this, and that what I have said is true for me. I know that I need to protect this space as a place where I can be truthful. I know that doing so is more important to me than many, many other things.

Most importantly, I know that I will always hold myself up to the high standards I've described above, but also that I will defend my ability to be the one doing the holding up.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Searching for My Tribe

I was talking with a friend the other day about how the definition of family changes over the course of our lives. I noted that for me, when I first married my ex-husband, I went through a very conscious process of redefining my primary family unit. It was no longer my immediate nuclear family, my parents and sister and me; instead, it was my new husband and me (and the cat, Juliette, of course). Because I live halfway across the country from my parents and don't have what some would politely call an overly meddlesome mother, this process was relatively uncomplicated for me. I just reorganized a few priorities, trying to think of my husband and myself as a single unit that needed to be respected as such. I was lucky that my parents instinctively understood my need to do this.

I was also lucky that when my marriage failed, my parents immediately welcomed me back into my old family unit as if I had never distanced myself from them in the first place. The process felt very seamless - in fact, it felt like there was no process at all. Unconsciously, I think I assumed that they would continue to be my "family" until I remarried. But now that I'm a very different adult with more life experience under my belt and some very strong beliefs in my head, I find myself questioning whether that is possible.

Part of the process of separation, divorce, and beginning to define myself as an independent human being required me to clarify who I am, what matters to me, what I want out of life, and ultimately, who I want to be. While I remain a work in progress, I have begun to develop some clear ideas about these things. However, some of those ideas have become cause for conflict with some members of my family. We're not talking about anything extreme or bizarre here. I haven't joined a secretive cult or decided to sell all my possessions and rechristen myself "Starchild Moonbeam, Daughter of the Mountain Spirits" (not that there's anything wrong with that, I just happen to like my possessions and my name perfectly well). The ideas I've embraced are relatively simple and straightforward: valuing honesty and authenticity highly in my life, embracing my sense of self and my voice, honoring my inherent worth, and not allowing others to pressure me into abandoning those things. I have paused several times to ask myself whether these new values, beliefs, and self-images I am asserting are worth the potential strife; I have repeatedly come to the conclusion that for me, yes, they are.

This leaves me wondering how I can successfully operate within a family that, for whatever reasons, doesn't share some of the values that I have. And I truly mean it when I say I am wondering how I can do this. The notion of extracting myself from my nuclear family altogether is unappealing. However, right now it seems highly unlikely that I can be the person I want to be and remain a fully integrated member of it. 

And this brings me back to the changing definition of family. Perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that the family that worked for me before my marriage would be the same family that would work for me after my divorce - I am a different person, after all. Perhaps, in this phase of my life, my new "family" will be a cobbling together of my blood relatives and the cluster of friends who have been so supportive of me. Perhaps, as part of my exploration of who I am and who I want to be, I also need to consider a redefinition of the family I embrace.

Note: The title of this post was borrowed from a good friend of mine who described the process of finding her core group of friends who share her values as "finding her tribe." 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Little Victories

I am very, very bad at being alone. It makes me uncomfortable. I just feel an intense need to connect with other people, and to immerse myself in those connections and define myself by them, at all times. So I took a big step yesterday: I went to lunch completely alone. I got in my car, drove to a restaurant that I've been dying to try, and sat down at a table all by myself. I ordered a latte and sipped on that for a while. Then I had a salad (mixed greens with pistachios, paper-thin cameo apples, and goat cheese), a pizza (super thin crust with prosciutto, gruyère, fresh oregano, and white truffle oil), and a glass of sauvignon blanc. I didn't rush; instead, I read a book as I ate and took as long as I liked. And I didn't obsessively check my phone, either. I purposely left it in the car so that I couldn't distract myself (this is also why I don't have any photographs of the amazing food I ate). I chatted with the waitress some, but for the most part, I was alone. No one looked at me funny (who's that loner eating all alone?), and I actually quite enjoyed myself. And it didn't once feel awkward or uncomfortable or any of the horrible things I thought it would be. For the first time I can remember, I enjoyed just being with me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Things That Move Me

I've found comfort and enjoyment in many new things over the past year, and one of the more unexpected ones has been music. I've always liked listening to music well enough, but I never really felt compelled to explore it before. But suddenly, I've discovered that sometimes the simple act of listening to a particular song or a singer-songwriter has the ability to transform my mood, or give me comfort, or even simply provide a pleasant backdrop to my everyday life. 

The process of discovering musicians I've never heard of before has been fun. It turns out I like types of music I had no idea I liked. I discovered a new one yesterday that I just can't quit: Laura Marling. The song below is the one that seems to suit my mood best right now. Love it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

She Loved Me, Fat Ass and All

Three years ago today, my great-grandma Stella died at the age of 97, just one month shy of her 98th birthday. I say "died" because that's what we say in my family. We don't say "passed away" or "passed on." We say "died," because that's exactly what she did. She would have appreciated this directness.

For a variety of reasons, I didn't go home for the funeral. First of all, she didn't want a funeral. She stated this explicitly several times. What she wanted was for us to take the money that the family would have spent on a funeral and have a party instead, but the Jewish cemetery she was being buried in required a service officiated by a rabbi. She would have called this "a waste of money," along with the fancy coffin she was buried in. At any rate, I didn't feel particularly inclined to attend a funeral she didn't even want.

Second, I don't do funerals. I have been to exactly one in my life and I did not enjoy it. I did not care to repeat the experience.

The third reason, and perhaps the biggest, was that I anticipated a major blow-out with my sister if I did go home. The way I chose to comfort myself about my grandma's death was to remind myself that her death was not a tragedy. She was not struck down in her prime, she was not a mother to seven young children all depending on her for survival, and she was not someone who had not experienced life. Instead, she had raised children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had traveled all over the world and run a successful small business. She smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and loved her dogs and loved her family more (we think - we're not entirely sure about this last one). So while her death was certainly sad for all of us, it wasn't a tragedy in the usual sense of the word.  When I shared this sentiment with my mom, she sensed that my sister might not agree. I worried that with emotions running strong my sister and I would get into a fight of some sort, and that, combined with my aversion to funerals and especially to a funeral my grandma didn't want, was enough for me to stay home.

I didn't let her death pass unmarked. My grandma lived in a condo that looked out over the water, an estuary that fed into the San Francisco Bay. When we visited her as kids, she always had a loaf of day-old bread on hand for us to take down to the dock to feed to the ducks. It's something she always made sure to have ready for us, and it was one of the many rituals of our visits. And so on the day of her funeral I went down to Town Lake, the body of water that slices through the city and separates north from south (and yuppies from hipsters - she would have hated hipsters), and fed the ducks a loaf of bread while remembering all the wonderful family gatherings we had in her home. I actually had to kind of chase the ducks because they wouldn't come to me, and goddammit I was going to have my moment, but still - I did something that reminded me of my visits with my grandma and said goodbye in a way that I could feel good about. And to the best of my knowledge, no one in my family objected.

_________________________________________________________

My Grandma Stella was hard to describe. She was direct and assertive and told it exactly like she thought it was. She was fiercely dedicated to her family, but sometimes that dedication took the form of blunt criticism. These are some of my favorite stories about her.

_________________________________________________________

I don't know how old I was or what led to it, but my grandma was the one who christened me with one of my earliest nicknames, "schtick pisk." My understanding is that it's a Yiddish term, and means something along the lines of "big mouth." Not "big mouth" as in "blabbermouth;" more like "sassy and talks back to elders." Which sums me up pretty well. 

_________________________________________________________

"Get your hair out of your face" was a common refrain of my grandma's, almost always directed at me. I didn't have bangs, and she didn't seem to understand that the "style" I was going for was for my hair to hang in my face and partially obscure my vision. Her admonitions often resulted in exasperated sighs and lots of eye-rolling from me. After repeating this exchange dozens of times over several years, my mom finally explained the trick to avoiding conflict with my grandma: "Just say, 'Yes, Grandma,' to whatever she says." And so I did. To everything.

"Erin, get your hair out of your hair out of your face."

"Yes, Grandma."

"Erin, quit biting your nails."

"Yes, Grandma."

"Erin, quit stuffing your face."

"Yes, Grandma."

Now, I am not usually anywhere near this acquiescent as an adult, let alone as a teenager. In fact, this was nearly a 180-degree turn from my normal responses, and my grandma, not being a stupid woman, knew exactly what I was doing. She responded in the only way she could. She gave me a look, then smiled and laughed to herself.

_________________________________________________________

In addition to explicitly requesting that she not have a funeral, my grandma had one other request for after her death. She wanted to be buried in her favorite bathrobe (which was covered in burn marks from dropped cigarette ashes), with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in her pocket. She got her wish.

_________________________________________________________

During one of my visits to California during my mid-twenties, I was seated on the couch directly across from my grandma, who was sitting in her recliner. I was snacking on stale M&Ms from the candy dish - her candy was always stale - when she shouted across the room at me, one finger raised.

"Erin! Stop!"

"What?"

"How do you expect to get a husband with that fat ass?"

I paused for a moment. "... My winning personality?" I asked.

It was her turn to pause. "Pshhhh!!!" she said with a wave of her hand and a slight smile - the best I could hope to get from her. "Get outta here!"

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When I was in seventh grade, my dad was laid off for the first time. It was scary for us, as kids, because my dad had always worked at the same job with the same company for our entire lives. As a kid who craved stability and predictability, it was especially alarming for me. My mom must have informed my grandma at some point, because the next time we visited her she pulled me aside as we were leaving. "If you ever need anything - clothes, books, food - and you don't have money for it, you call me," she said.

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I'm not sure I ever heard my grandma tell me she loved me. I clearly remember saying goodbye to her at the end of one visit and telling her, "I love you." Her response was a smile and "Okay." But I never doubted that she loved me in her own, perhaps slightly dysfunctional way. Her concerns about my husband-repelling fat ass were as much a show of her love as her making sure our family had everything we needed to get by.

And so today, in honor of my Grandma Stella, I will keep my hair brushed out of my face and wear something that camouflages (or at least doesn't accentuate) my fat ass.


I love you and miss you, Grandma, and I know you loved me too.

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