I’m continuing to spend days with dreary slate skies going through old boxes of stuff, tossing and scanning and reducing. Much to my surprise, going through tens of thousands of photos wasn’t quite the walk down memory lane I expected. I loved revisiting my children as toddlers; photos of my parents then younger than I am now; fancy birthday parties when I was four and decked out in numerous layers of petticoats and lacy white gloves. Yet it was bittersweet too: wistfulness about so many people gone, so many wonderful experiences and travels now in the past, unlikely to be repeated. I am grateful for it all yet it was simply an archeologist’s documentation of a life spent, and the knowledge that realistically, there are more years behind me than there will ever be ahead of me. It was terribly disconcerting to find pictures and even names of people who must have meant something to me once upon a time, but that I could no longer remember or place, nor recall just why they were relevant to my life in the first place.
I wasn’t expecting to find a box that my mother must have saved: correspondence from 1972 – 1973 when I spent a gloriously adventurous year in Israel as an 11th grade high school exchange student, far far away from the comforts of home in America.
I made many wonderful Israeli friends that year. It was also the first time (I thought I) fell in love. Reading the letters my boyfriend wrote me all throughout the first year after I returned to the US to finish high school was quite a revelation, although not the rose-colored one I’d imagined.
Anyone who knows me would say that I am a strong person: strong-willed, opinionated, focused, independent. They would be shocked to know what a doormat I became when I fell under the spell of this young man. I won’t get into the sordid details here, but reading the letters with a distance of time and space (42 years and 7,000 miles!) provided me with an emotional and physical objectivity that wasn’t possible back then, and suddenly I was gobsmacked by how I not only did not recognize his controlling and abusive nature because I was so blindsided by my infatuation, but worse, the realization that if something like this could happen to good ol’ strong me, it could happen to anyone. No, he did not abuse me physically; but consistently, using poisonous words, attitude, and control he rendered me a person insignificant and inferior, and into a sad state of decline and self-destruction, doubting my own sense of worth and trying so hard to become the fantasy person he demanded. (Of course, any therapist will tell you that he didn’t do this to me – – the sickness was that I allowed it to happen.)
When this young man dumped me, I was completely devastated. Little did I realize at the time that by rejecting me so cruelly, what a huge favor he did for me. Reading letters from one of my girlfriends from that time, I was amazed by how many polite hints which evolved to direct warnings about him she wrote to me – – all ignored because I refused to see. I became someone so changed that my friends no longer knew me – – but I no longer recognized myself, either.
Every teenage girl has a fantasy checklist of “requirements” that she’s looking for in a boyfriend/soulmate. Unfortunately in my case, “kindness” and “mentsch” somehow got smothered and lost behind “brilliance” and “looks.” The good news is that when I finally felt like I could once again make myself vulnerable to another person, “kindness” and “mentsch” were at the very top of my checklist and I never again repeated that first, very horrible mistake. (Disclosure: the man I’ve been married to for 38+ years is indeed a kind mentsch, but he’s not ugly or dumb, either.)
For so many women, abuse and cruelty from the hands and words of another becomes an unrelenting, escalating cycle. I am so thankful that I never again allowed myself to be demeaned in this way, and that with time, I was able to learn to love myself enough to allow myself to experience what it is to be truly loved.
The letters went into our woodstove.
Tossing them into a container labeled “recycling” just seemed way too ironic.