The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

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MY BEST FRIEND

 Jeanette was my best friend – the big sister whom I never would have.

She was the youngest of the five children my dad’s Chinese business partner and his wife had brought into the world. She was beautiful and the kindest, most soft-spoken and gentle person whom I have ever known. Jeanette was Kwan Yin, one of the eight Immortals who had come to the earth to illuminate all of mankind.

She was twenty-four and I was twelve when we first met.  I had come with dad to work one Saturday at his business and Jeanette was manning the switch board. I was immediately struck with the warmth of the way she greeted me.

I would later find out that Jeanette had serious health challenges. Her parents had taken her on three separate trips to Switzerland to try to correct the congenitive heart defect with which she had been born. Three major operations by the time she was ten years old.

Jeanette took me under her wing and showed me how to operate the plug-in switchboard at which she was stationed. I quickly mastered the procedure under her tutelage. And I remember the feeling of warmth that she emanated as we sat side by side at the little console.

I used to try to rearrange my weekend schedule so that I could go to work at dad’s place and was always gratified when Jeanette was there – and always disappointed on the days that she was absent. Finally, I got smart and began asking dad, “Will Jeanette be there tomorrow?” If she wouldn’t be, I found reasons to do something else.

As happens with beautiful people (and most of the rest of us as well), Jeanette found love with another person – a Chinese man named Peter. Dad came home one day to let our family know that the two of them were going to be married. I remember that I selfishly thought this would deprive me of her continuing friendship and I remember feeling a great anger toward this Peter intruder.

But my anger mutated into a hope that my good and sweet friend Jeanette would find happiness. I realized that I hadn’t lost her but that we had simply transitioned in our relationship.

I went to Jeanette and Peter’s wedding and although I cried, it was mostly tears of joy rather than tears of loss. And I remember when six months later I heard that Jeanette was pregnant I was happy for the two of them.

Because of her previous heart issues, Jeanette had been advised to avoid pregnancy. But “Man proposes and God disposes.”  Several months after that she was diagnosed as having a virulent form of cancer. Her doctors doubted that the child within her would be born since Jeanette was given only a few months to live. Yet she struggled with the dual issues of her cancer and her pregnancy and, I believe, was able to carry on because of her never-wavering cheerfulness.

 Seven months into her pregnancy, Jeanette entered Lenox Hill Hospital – just across the street from our apartment. I went to visit her every night.

Our conversations were always the same. “Hi, Jeanette. How are you feeling today?”

I’m fine sweetie. How are you.”

I could see that she was anything but fine. She was rapidly wasting away. But she never gave a hint about the pain which I believed she must be feeling and she never said anything to undermine her positive spirit. (I didn’t realize the strength that she had until many years later).

Jeanette passed away after two months in the hospital – but not before she brought her daughter Amy into the world. I truly hope that this child has inherited her mother’s optimism, love and joy.

I hope that “Jeanette Kwan-Yin” has moved forward on her journey toward greater enlightenment and peace. And I want her to know that she will always be my very best friend.

 

THE FAMILY DINNER

 As I mentioned in an earlier post, every night at the appointed time our little family would gather together for dinner. There was nothing really exceptional about this as this scene was repeated all across the nation. Dinner came from the kitchen – not a little bag from a fast food restaurant. It was the norm – not the exception.

A few years ago I began noticing ads that appeared on television in the fall. These ads, promoted by a number of Hollywood celebrities, advocated a specific night when all members of our families should gather to enjoy an evening together at a “Family Dinner.”

When I first saw the ads I thought it was a joke. Then I realized that it was a serious appeal to the families of America. And that’s when I realized that, far from being funny, this was a statement about the tragic decline in family bonding and values.

While I applaud this effort to re-enforce our familial interactions, doing so once a year is like brushing your teeth one time every twelve calendar months. I’d hate to see the report you got back from your dentist if that’s how you maintain your oral regimen.

Whatever happened to the role of parents in setting the agenda for their family? Have we abdicated that responsibility to our friends in the entertainment industry? If so – how do we justify that to ourselves?

I realize that there are so many more extracurricular activities available to our children today than when I was a child. But I was able to participate in sports, take a weekly piano lesson, practice piano an hour a day, do my homework and still be with my family every night for dinner. There were other things in which I could have participated, but my parents and I decided what activities I could enjoy and which would interfere with our family’s evening schedule.

Both my parents worked, but my parents made sure that they were there for our dinner together. Our evening meal together was one of those certainties which formed a part of the rock of stability on which I relied as a child. And it had a profound effect on my development as an adult.

The other day as I was taking my groceries to the car, I helped a lady who had dropped the mail she had picked up from her post office box. She thanked me warmly as I retrieved the letters that had fallen to the sidewalk. I pulled the four bags from my cart and offered it to her to use for her two large packages and the loose envelopes. What does this have to do with a family meal?

At those family dinners I learned the basics of manners and courtesy and respect. “Dad, would you please pass the string beans?” And at the meal’s conclusion, “Thank you for dinner, grandma. That was delicious. Can I help with the dishes?”

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this nightly dinner ritual helped re-enforce the behavior which has been my guide throughout my adult life. And while I thank those in Hollywood who are promoting a greater sense of family, I believe that ultimately that responsibility must come from those of us who are parents.

I thank my parents for recognizing that way back then. They took responsibility and they did the right thing. For that I am very grateful.

 

 

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