Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More than a good cause

Looking towards the 79th Street tranverse in Central Park. 4:30 PM. Photo: JH.
October 27, 2009. A mild sunny day in New York.

I live in between two girls private schools – Brearley and Chapin. So five days a week during the school year, in the early morning and in the mid-afternoon, the avenue and side street are jammed with cars, buses, limousines and the like, dropping off, picking up. And the girls (often with nannies, occasionally parents) move in small crowds.

Sometimes they’re funny to watch. I’m reminded of when I was a kid and thought I was so grown up. Then “grown up” sounded confident, powerful, independent and in control. Not having to deal with parents’ personal problems. Now it sounds like a condition that eludes most of us most of the time.

I was also reminded that when I was growing up, I lived nearby the high school. The street on which I lived was a main route to the school. So every weekday during the school year in the early morning and the mid-afternoon, the world of my contemporaries passed by on foot, by car, by bus, by bike.
Deborah Norville talking to a guest before dinner.
Last night I went to the annual fundraising dinner for the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). It was at 583 Park for the first time and it was a very pleasant place, indeed, to go to one of these gala dinners.

Deborah Norville was emcee, as she has been for several years. She recounted the story that has been in the news this week about the four-year-old Jayden Lenescar who was beaten to death by someone in his household (the boyfriend? The mother? The both?) in Crown Heights last Friday.

I have a hard time with those stories. They bring out in me the kind of rage that was expressed in the murdering of that child. I think to myself the murderers should get it but worse, if that is possible. My rage may be understandable but it’s still insane.

When I was about three, maybe just four years old I witnessed for the first time my mother and father fighting. I still have a picture in my head six decades later of them arguing, face to face. He was threatening her physically.
The room, bathed in pink, before dinner.
Since it’s one of those memories that has stayed with me throughout my life, I somehow had the idea it started over me but that may be the child’s natural interpretation. It seemed to have had something to do with me and some dirty laundry. As if my father was angry that my mother hadn’t taken care of her maternal responsibilities.

It was to be that I grew up with these two fighting, so I soon learned that my mother was far from irresponsible about her maternal duties. And my father was entirely irresponsible about anything domestic or related to any of us. This was the dynamic of their relationship, as it turned out, and later in life I learned that it is a common dynamic in a relationship between a man and a woman.

This first remembered fight between my mother and father came back to me last night when I was listening to Deborah Norville talk about little Jayden who was murdered, never knowing anything about life except the abuse part and the fear it fills you with. The child lived in intense, helpless fear all the time. That in itself is criminal in my book.
Susan Lucci and Liz Smith Jonathan Ingham and Susan Lucci
The argument that night with my mother and father when I was three or four years old turned into something very dramatic. Most of it is blocked out. I recall my mother crying, putting on her coat and getting her handbag and leaving the apartment. This was very worrisome for me.

I was afraid of my father’s anger because it was loud and he could be violent (punching through a window, kicking a panel out of a door), but he never threatened me physically (although he spanked me once for playing with matches, but that was understood). I was more afraid of what he would do to my mother. My mother, I needed, that I already knew; and on this night, whatever it was, she left in a well of tears.

Lisa and David Schiff
Deborah Norville and Karl Wellner
Mark Stroock and Barbara Carroll
Children take all matters seriously and literally. I was suddenly terrified that she was going to go away, the person who took care of me. A few minutes later, my father picked me up and carried me out to the car. It was a used blue four door Ford V6, probably vintage 1939 or 40. We drove down the street. It was nighttime and the only light came from the occasional street lamps.

My father spotted her walking along the sidewalk and stopped the car at the curbside. He picked me up and held me at the window so she could see me. She looked at me and started to cry again. I could see she’d been trapped. I got the message: I was the pawn. He used me to get her to come back.

She did. Fourteen or so years later, now leaving for college, I’d lived through a lot of their dramas and his rantings. I later, learned that that night when they were fighting he had pushed her down a flight of stairs. Fortunately she did’t break anything. That turned everyone in the family against him (her sisters – he had no relatives that we knew of). He cooled it, at least for a while.

The household he and my mother created was fraught with drama and rage, and the sense of lack and deprivation and fear. As a child, I was part of it because I was in the middle of it.

Children are defenseless and helpless and have no alternative choices. And at the same time they are very much aware of the need to survive. My father was violent, although he was very rarely physically violent. But he could storm into a rage at the dinner, get up, take the chair and smash it against the floor. I can actually laugh about such things now but for the child it was far more than frightening.

My father lived long enough for me to see him become old and ill. His life was such that the seeds and roots of his rage eventually became known and obvious to me. It had preceded him and he never got out from under it. As a child, I was very angry at the state he put us through. As a man I can still find it intolerable but I also see that he was never able to get himself beyond it. It was a tortured life, ultimately, and his issues were only resolved by death.

Recalling all this last night, listening to Deborah Norville, I was aware that I was one of the lucky ones. The violence and its causes around me came close but not enough to cripple me. I even know that kind of rage because I’ve seen it in myself, especially when I was younger. In time, through various channels, it has diminished although every now and then I get a glimpse of it. I’m reminded of my father. I see a man who was helplessly impotent in his own mind, and perhaps in reality. He didn’t drink. He didn’t do drugs. He just had a very hard time living.

Deborah Norville pointed out last night that whatwith our economic situation it’s getting worse especially for the children. Just like the child in my father’s house. It was always about the money. The lack of it. Or where it had gone. And when was it coming back. Never.

The child (and the animals too, lest you forget) knows about the seriousness of all this. His or her existence is on the line too. And then there is often the clear and present danger of Asshole who will not find a way to save him or herself from harming the little ones who can only need.
John Farr Lloyd Gerry and Mrs. Gerry
The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Children is a child protective agency. Half the homeless families in this country are women who have had to leave with the children to escape domestic abuse. The NYSPCC is in the business of helping these children recover from trauma and also helping prevent child abuse through its work with parents, teachers, children, and foster care agencies.

My attitude and feelings about my father have evolved over the years. When I was very young I only wished he’d go away – a simple solution to too much noise and emotional harassment. It was very difficult to deal with inside my head, an aspect that was never discussed. I never knew, for example, that other people had this problem. When I got older and he got older and sickly, he was then completely vulnerable and almost helpless too. I was for a long time unsympathetic but I was seeing the tables turned. It was payback time.

However, for some reason, after fifty I began to see him in quite a different light (he died when I was thirty-three). I began to see his life as something he never got ahold of, never had the means to get ahold of. And in his wake he left a lot of wounds that were ultimately unintended. When he died he was fearful and yet still unable to come to terms with what had happened.
Peter Shreckinger and David Sherrill Joy Ingham The back (courtesy of Narciso Rodriguez) ...
But I was lucky, as I was thinking last night. So many children (and little animals) are not. The NYSPCC, 134 years on, is out there. Last year almost 5000 children and famiies were helped by them. Dr. Mary Pulido, Executive Director of the NYSPCC told us last night: the children can be helped and assisted and recover, with our help. If you know you’ve been lucky, it’s time to put something out there to help the child who isn’t. It’s a vote for right and good.

This year’s steering committee was Karl Wellner, Elizabeth Mayhew and Betsy Bartlett. Co-Chairs were Jacquie and Jerry Storch and Amanda and Neil Friedman.

They honored Andrea Jung, Chairman and CEO of Avon Products, in the tallest high heels I’ve ever seen/wow, and Susan Lucci who needs no introduction. Although the irrepressible Ms. Liz Smith presented the award to Ms. Lucci but only after giving her a long, detailed, irreverent and extremely funny introduction. It was fun, and they were all out there for a good thing, more than a good cause.
The Talk ... Jones Yorke and Pat Patterson
Last night I was unable to get over to the Municipal Art Society’s annual Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal award dinner at The New York Public Library (thankfully Ann Watt was there to photograph for NYSD). This is a very important organization for the community also, but very different. The award is named after Mrs. Onassis who became involved in the society many years ago when she lent herself public image and influence to saving Grand Central Station.

Her power in effecting a change of policy was probably an eye-opener for her but it was also for many others. She then made it her business to support this organization that supports the maintenance of the city as a living, breathing element in all our lives.
Cocktails at The New York Public Library.
Dinner is served.
Last night they honored Peter Malkin, a New York real estate owner, and Robert A.M. Stern, the architect whose new work has been especially prominent in the city in the past decade.

The medals were presented by Rocco Landesman. Caroline Kennedy and Vincent Scully were Honorary Chairs. Co-chairs were David M. Childs, Philip K. Howard, Frederick Iseman, Tony Kiser, Janet C. Ross, Stephen M. Ross Jerry I. Speyer, and Wade F. B. Thompson.
David and Annie Childs with Helen Tucker Alexandra Schlesinger and Minor Bishop
Peter and Isabel Malkin Frank Sanchez Tina Kromer and Souraya Hamdi
Edwina Sandys and Richard Kaplan Susan Henshaw-Jones, Richard Eaton, and Peg Breen
Richard Meier Andrew Malkin, Paul Beirne, and Shelly and Tony Malkin
Judith Ginsberg and Richard Kaplan Isabel Malkin and Cynthia Blumenthal
Diana Chapin and Diane Coffey Gillian Miniter and Christine Cachot
Peter Pennoyer, Grant Marani, and Randy Correll Robert A.M. Stern
Coco and Ari Kopelman Alexandra and Philip Howard with Janette Sadik-Khan
Benjamin Zapp and Erin Crotty Jean Tatge and Randy Lawson
Jim Liao and Charlotte Armstrong Anya Pechko and Lee Kosmac
Sharon Patrick, Bonnie Burnham, and Bridget Restivo Sanjay Shirke and Amy Shore
Gloria Paris and Joel Kolkmann Robin Lynn, Steven Raison, and Tamara Coombs
Cary Koplin, Janet Ross, and Sherry Koplin Richard and Ronay Menschel
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