Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Family meetings

Taking in the sunset along the Hudson River. 8:10 PM. Photo: JH.
May 25, 2010. An overcast day with the slightest, softest rain. But nice. The Sun came out in the late afternoon and shone a golden haze through the trees just before sundown. The entrance to Carl Shurz Park looked as if it had been lit for Technicolor.

This is the first week when the charity/social scene begins to let up. Next weekend is Memorial Day when the town empties out and people begin to anticipate summertime elsewhere.

Yesterday afternoon a reporter from the New York Observer named John Koblin called to tell me they were doing a story on Michael’s and its clientele including a Twitter “survey” on who went there most often, and how many times. I was surprised when I asked who went there the most, he replied: “You.” Thirty-one times so far this year, said Mr. Koblin.

Geez. He wanted to know why. One, a habit – I’ve been lunching there since 1997 when I was working for Judy Price at Avenue. She went there all the time. The appeal was obvious: it’s a restaurant with a big media and publishing clientele. The second most visits is Alice Mayhew, the editor at Simon & Schuster. Alice is Old School with a sharp eye for the contemporary market. When you see someone lunching with Alice, if you don’t recognize them you can assume they are very successful writers planning or pitching or discussing a new book. If you’re like me, you’re impressed. I retain the same romantic mental image of a writer that I did when I first read O’Hara and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and later on with Trollope and Balzac. Alice Mayhew makes me think of all that.
One of the many (1/30/08): A Michael's lunch about one of the School of American Ballet's upcoming benefits, l. to r.: Alexis Tobin, Jon Marder, Coco Kopelman, DPC, Joanne de Guardiola, Somers Farkas, and Marjorie Vander Cook.
Why else Michael’s? The staff is excellent and very friendly and very (but not overly) courteous. A man or woman can walk in off the street without a reservation, and if there’s a table available they’re welcomed with open arms and treated like everyone else. The menu is Southern California Exotic. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I eat the sexy salads and pastas and occasionally the soups, especially the summertime staple, a chunky gaspacho.

But mainly I go to Michael’s to see who’s there and what’s going on. If I have nothing specific for the next day’s Diary, the scene down at Michael’s might just take care of the matter. All kinds of people come and go besides the likely suspects and the big time politicians and bankers and lawyers and plastic surgeons and social committee ladies and Mick Jagger and Sarah Palin. You never know what you’re going to get and you never know how important (or un-) it might be.

Mr. Koblin asked me where else I’d go to lunch. There are lots of wonderful places if it’s not for “business” for this writer. There’s also home sweet home.

Yesterday I went to lunch at Swifty’s with my brother Bob and his wife, two daughters and a son-in-law. It was a family lunch, unusual only in that I’ve only known Bob a few years.

About five or six years ago one of my sisters called and asked me if I knew that “Mother had another son.” I didn’t. He was born a little more than a decade before me. She was unmarried at the time, (that much we could figure out), and I don’t think had yet met my father. She put her son whom she named Robert out for adoption at birth. She never spoke of this to me or my two sisters, although I suspect my mother’s sisters (all of whom are now deceased) knew and kept her secret.

My mother had been orphaned at a young age when her mother died and her father put her and her siblings into a Catholic orphanage. A Dickensian ordeal that was common for the time followed, and Mother never really recovered from the early losses of parent. As a result we all grew up with a strong sense of the effects of “abandonment.” So I was not shocked, but surprised, that she herself had another child whom she delivered to the fates outside herself.

Shortly after my sister’s phone call, a day or so later, I got a call from an adoption detective. She told me she represented the daughter of Bob who was seeking information about her father’s genetic background, etc., and would I be interested in meeting her? Yes. I wanted to meet my brethren. This happens to be not a new experience for me because on my father’s side of the equation there were once great surprises that extended my natural family. The experience of “new” relatives, especially close ones – issue of one’s own parents – is enlightening and in its unusual way, joyful.

Among the things I learned from learning about and then meeting Bob was more about my mother who was only 24 when her son was born. It was at that time (the beginning of the Depression) as a single woman without profession or family to fall back on, had only the hardest choices. I’m also certain that the exposure of this great “secret” would have freaked her out, to put it mildly.

However, that was then, and this is now. I have another friend who was adopted into her family and long after her adoptive parents died, she decided to seek her birth roots. She was only curious. By the time she discovered her birth mother’s name and whereabouts, her mother had died (at an advanced age). But she did meet two of her half-siblings who greeted her with enthusiasm as well as the fascination of learning about one’s parents as real people.

It is often not a happy story. I have a friend who refuses to meet her (now grown) son. I have another friend who sought out his birth parents only to learn that they were married, had four or five children before him and when he came along they put him out for adoption. They didn’t want any more children. And when my friend tried to make contact with them as adult, they refused to meet him. I find it unfathomable.

I asked Bob how he felt about his daughter’s “genetic” investigations and the discussion of a mother he never knew (versus the one he grew up with). He said it was “something over there” to hear about. Now a grandfather, retired from business but an active family man, his beginnings are a very distant past, and fortunately for him he had a good home and two parents who loved each other, as well as grandparents who loved each other.

It occurred to me when we first met, and I first knew about his story, that he had far better good fortune in the parents he got than the parents he would have had (mine), because my parents’ lives were difficult and fraught with lifelong contention and sorrow. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to know these siblings and nieces, etc. I often think of James Watson and the DNA (which is how Bob and I could conclude we were indeed our mother’s sons) when thinking of these matters of family and siblings, and who we are; and who we were. I also think how much our mother would have loved and been charmed by the granddaughters she never knew.
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