This is a disappointing and sad Christmas story. It didn’t have to be, but it just turned out that way. For some reason one simple, uneventful comment issued on Christmas Day forever changed my relationship with my mother-in-law.
On the outside it didn’t look that way, conversation continued for years with its normal banter. There were hugs and kisses, but deep within the sinews of my soul, I felt a detachment and deep disappointment with this famous lady. This woman who, in her youth, had played in films a sweet, innocent, delicate beauty. She was a legend, an Academy Award winning star of many distinguished films. Hitchcock adored her; William Wyler showered praise upon praise upon her. She was greeted with accolade after accolade, a star from her very early youth. And yet despite this applause there lay in her heart a deep fissure that was never healed between me and the life I had lived, and she, the life she had known as a child.
Teresa Wright was born in the early part of the 2oth century and grew up in Maplewood, NJ. Her mother left (abandoned) her at birth, and she was raised poor by her father, a traveling salesman. She gravitated towards theater in high school, and by the time she was 18 she had been discovered and on her way to a distinguished career.
It happened on Christmas Day, many years ago, when we were sitting comfortably around a fire opening Christmas Presents in our small house on the Connecticut shore. As usual, I don’t remember what preceded it, but what I do remember is as follows.
Teresa turned to me and said, “How could anyone with your background have any problems.” This seems, in retrospect, a fairly harmless comment, but it was filled with metaphor and distain. Her husband confronted her and said that was a ridiculous comment. Just because one has privilege in their youth, doesn’t mean that privilege can’t nurture severe emotional problems. In fact, in many cases the privilege may cause more problems than it alleviates. But Teresa held her ground and looked at me as if I would never know what true hardship was.
This simple comment felt like an outright dismissal, whether correct or incorrect, of my longstanding struggle for independence. This comment also felt like a rejection of any accomplishments I was able to achieve distinct from my parents honors. And finally it lessened all the suffering and my near total emotional breakdown that had occurred over my struggles with my past. Although, this simple comment which with the passage of time doesn’t feel as powerful as it did then, these fleeting words still to this day feel somewhat like a window into my mother-in-laws true feelings about me and my past.
In the years that followed, in one way or another, it became clear that my background, despite the extreme financial hardships of the present were this rift between us.
So this sad little story ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. This celebrated film star, who had success ladened upon success from her teenage years, could never outlive her the anger she still felt from early childhood. Nor could this photographer who then lived close to the poverty line, ever escape the background he was struggling so hard to live past.
As Teresa had gone from poor to rich, and I from rich to poor, you would have thought our paths might have meet somewhere in the middle. But alas, the baggage we each carried was simply too heavy to bear.
Merry Christmas. See you next year.