Friends of the Family and Your Old GirlfriendsThomas Beller
Having friends of the family has always been important to me. Growing up, I had many. My father was not an overtly social type but he liked conversation. His profession (he was a psychoanalyst) involved a lot of talking and listening. Also, he was from Vienna, where they know how to sit and talk, or once did. My mother liked to entertain, though I noticed from a young age that she never spoke very much at the dinner parties she threw. She watched and took everything in and radiated a kind of light. At least it seemed that way to me.
To give a random example of a Friend of the Family from my childhood, I will cite Milton Horowitz. He and his wife Carla Horowitz were in our general orbit. Carla was a psychologist who specialized in kids who seemed bright but did badly at school, and I had been to see her a couple of times. Milton I had only met once or twice. He seemed very distinguished. At the time of this dinner party I was about eight.
That night I was allowed to come out of my room, even though it was after bedtime, and socialize a bit. What this ended up meaning was my standing beside Milton while he sat at the table and engaging him in a lengthy conversation. I have no idea what was discussed.I remember not what either of us said but the way he listened to what I said. I talked non-stop for ten minutes. And he listened! Every now and then he asked questions. He was distinguished and looked it. A very sharply dressed man in a dark grey suit, bald but with an elegant head, he looked more like a banker than a shrink. I suppose listening was part of his profession. It made a huge impression on me. I still recall the elation I felt to be engaging an adult in conversation as an equal. That’s how he made me feel.
The way he took me seriously has made me feel good, on and off, for the ensuing forty years.
The whole issue of friends of the family became much more urgent when my father died. All of a sudden I looked to these men who were his good friends, mostly other psychoanalysts, for cues. I think what I was looking for, besides solace in the immediate wake of my father’s death, was some example of how to grieve. Arnie Cooper was very stoic and level. Ray Raskin, my gum uncle, wept openly at the funeral, and this made a huge impression on me — my father must have really meant something to him, I thought. Of course I knew that anyway, but something about the almost sneezy sound of his weeping in the chapel moved me. In the years after that, friends of the family became extremely important. The category is very specific — I had a lot of friends who were not friends of the family. And my mother had some friends who were not friends of the family.
Friends of the family were those people who seemed to not only witness your life, care about it, care about you, but who are somehow poised to help you when you need it, and vice versa. The form this help took, mostly, was just being there. Your team.
I have been thinking a bit about this because my oldest kid is now six. I think she will remember some of the things that happen to her. And I am aware that she is aware — very, very faintly — that we have friends of the family. Instead of seeing the phenomenon through my own eyes as a kid I now see it through hers. And I have many of the same associations — they will be there for not just me but my family. Unstated (except I am about to state it) is the idea that they will be there if I die.
So if you are a friend of my family and are reading this, you now know what I expect — you have to look out for the family if I am not around! This role, ‘looking out,’ is obviously usually filled by family. But let it be said — and I can attest to this this role is usually not filled by family, too — they can let you down.
Friends of the family are not forever. Friendships change and evolve. One of the interesting things about the friends of my family — who were my mother and father’s friends — is how our relationship has evolved as I have grown up and they have grown older. It’s still pretty nice. I was thrilled to be able to include some of the oldest friends of the family we have, Don Meyers, in my current Salinger biography — it turned out he had a few dinners with Salinger’s sister in the fifties. Vogue excerpted that part. We laughed and laughed on the phone that he was in Vogue, this distinguished psychoanalyst. He enjoyed it.
All of this was on my mind when Mr. S came to visit at the end of our stay in New York. It was mid August. He come uptown on a multitude of subways. His wife stayed home, she didn’t feel well. This happens somewhat often and it’s fine. He loves me, and I love him, but he also loves my kids, and even if they do not love him, exactly — they are too young to be that attached to someone they see so infrequently, they really like him and can sense there is something special about him — namely that he is a friend of the family.
Mr. S arrived bearing gifts for both of my children: two beautiful books, age-appropriate, for each. He spent some time marveling over the one with dinosaurs with Evangeline, who on the whole was rather blasé.
Then we all had dinner. It was fun. Then we retreated to the living room where we lay around talking for awhile. Mr. S and Evangeline tossed a little ball back and forth on the couch. It was a tiny beach ball, which is relevant because a real ball would’ve made me totally anxious in the living room. As it was, I could barely enjoy the scene, which was quite lovely, because I was worried that my fierce injunction to never play ball in the living room was being violated by this tiny beach ball. But, I reminded myself, we don’t all get to spend time together that often, Mr. S adores and admires Evangeline, and this was a nice moment.
At some point towards the end of the evening, Mr. S told a story involving an old girlfriend of mine, and he actually used the phrase “your old girlfriend.”
I widened my eyes and did everything I could with my face short of jumping up and waving my arms around, trying to indicate that this sort of language would be observed carefully by my six-year-old daughter.
I have never heard her use the word “boyfriend,” but I am quite sure she has some opinion about what it means. I once said something nice about her hair. She responded, “What does it matter? It’s not like I’m going to the prom.” Then, after a beat during which she seemed to reflect on what this might involve, she added, “And it’s not like I have a date, anyway.”
A kid who says something like that will be sensitive to the word “girlfriend” in relation to her father, especially when it seems to invoke a person other than her mother.
Mr. S got the message and let it drop. My daughter did not bring it up. But I remembered her face when the phrase, ‘your old girlfriend,’ was said. She had that listening expression, as though wondering if that was a knock on the door, or if she had just heard a mouse. Then it went away, to my relief
“What were you thinking when you said that?” I asked Mr. S later.
“I’m sorry I didn’t realize it would upset her.”
“It didn’t upset her. It upset me!”
“Is it some kind of taboo?”
“That’s a good question. I never thought of it before. But it just seems much too complicated. Kids don’t need to know their parents had relationships before they met each other.”
“You don’t think she knows?”
“Ok. I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be sorry. I was probably overreacting. I get very secretive around her, it’s like I feel as though the world and its complications will come rushing in soon enough, why hurry the process?”
“The process will happen at its own pace.”
“Yeah, well I hope it is a slow pace and that reminds me I have to fool around with the parental controls of the computer.”
“What are you guys talking about?” said my wife, coming in from the bedroom where she had put the kids to sleep.
“Nothing,” I said.
Before she could respond a noise came from the bedroom, and she went back to quell the uprising before it gathered momentum.
Mr. S and I sat and talked for a long time. I was faintly aware that I was now doing what I had always fantasized my parents doing with the friends of the family — staying up late and talking, moving between personal affairs and matters of worldly importance, a secretive kind of gravity attending to the whole thing. At some point I stood to close the door to the hallway, worried that our voices were carrying. Yet I also liked the idea of these adult male voices drifting into the bedroom as the children fell asleep. I have a specific memory of such a things from my own childhood— the feeling of being in the dark at the edge of sleep while adults are talking in another room. The feeling that they were in their own strange world, and being pleased to be part of my own strange kid world, apart from them, but still connected.
At the end of the night I walked him to the subway, we hugged and said goodbye. He apologized for the girlfriend remark again.
“It’s no big deal,” I said. Then I continued, “The thing is, something like that is a bit like some comet. It’s a thought that enters her field of vision and then leaves, but in a few weeks it will return, and then return again in a few months. These little impressions — you just never know what kids will make of them or how they play out in their imaginations.”
All of which is more or less the opposite of saying, “It’s no big deal.”
We cherish our children’s sensitivity, and yet we are terrified by it at the same time. That’s why they seem uncanny and spooky, and we even must wonder sometimes … how do they know what they know? Why are their eyes lit with strange knowledge that feels like it has been there all along?
When I was a kid, I liked that my family had friends, a circle beyond itself. And I like that my kids might feel that way, too.
Walking home through the night, I thought of how Mr. S had been so good about bringing those presents. About how he had given his non-ostentatious but heartfelt attention to my daughter (who didn’t seem that impressed as it happened), and the way he persisted in asking her questions (which she wasn’t very good at answering), and the way he threw the tiny beach ball back and forth with her on the couch. These were all expressions of a particular kind of low-key love. And this, too, will make an appearance in the life of my kids, its own bright comet that will circle back and cast its light, just as I now recall the interactions with my parents’ friends, the comforting sound of their voices in the other room. It’s a strange, hard to categorize, but very beautiful relationship — friend of the family. As long as they don’t bring up your old lovers.