I was born in Toledo, Ohio and don’t ask me why. I never felt I fit in there or that I belonged. I achieved in school and did the things I was supposed to do to be good, but the ground under my feet never felt like home. Toledo became my shadow, a place to be locked away and kept a secret as I became an adult. After leaving to go to Northwestern University in Chicago, I really never went back, except for short visits to my parents’ friends, a day or two at most. I never went to a reunion. Why would I? I know I was afraid to go back, afraid of my shame of not belonging.
When I was one year old, we moved to a poor neighborhood, in a teeny house; my grandparents helped my folks with a down payment. I remember you would sit on the toilet in our little bathroom and your knees would touch the tub. The neighborhood was not diverse in any way. My brother (who was five years older than me and I were the only Jews in my all-white neighborhood. I would walk home from school, by myself, and have rocks thrown at me. Bullies shoved me to the ground, called me dirty Jew and asked where my green horns were. One day my mom went to school with me to discuss this with my third-grade teacher who merely said, “Well you ARE Jewish, aren’t you? What do you expect?”
I guess that’s where my idea of not belonging began. I really had no friends, except a neighbor brother and his sister.
When I was fourteen, my parents had saved enough money to move to a different community with bigger homes and I got to go to a more diverse high school. I loved all the differences. There were People of Color, all kinds of religions and cultures, and though I was still a bit of an outsider, I found my crowd in the hippie dippy theatre peeps. With my red hair down to my waist, my bell bottoms and thrift store finds, and crazy cool funky jewelry, I found a kind of niche, and could don that role, while secretly still feeling I didn’t belong. After all, I was a good actor.
This last weekend I was compelled to visit my parent’s friend Ed, who is now 86. His wife died a little over a year ago. As my husband and I drove to Toledo, I could feel that uncomfortable pit in my stomach, hoping fervently that I wouldn’t run into anyone I had known before. We took our friend out to dinner and I was grateful to go unnoticed. But when I woke up the next morning, I just knew I had to visit the two houses I had grown up in.
I made my husband drive down my walking route to grade school only to find that the school had been torn down, now an empty field. Though our old house was a different color, it had not changed. In my dreams I experienced it as having had additions made to it, as if it had grown as I had grown. The front lawn that I had mowed with a hand mower was only about five feet deep. I had remembered it as huge. I could see my distorted memories were pronounced.
Then we drove to the second house. It looked beautiful. They had enhanced it so much. It felt grander than when we lived there.
I was taking a photo of it and a woman opened the front door to take in the newspaper. She looked up, had a moment of recognition and shouted, “Ruthie! It’s Kim. We went to High School together!” I was shocked. How could she recognize me? And with such welcoming joy! We had been acquaintances and not really friends. She told me she and her husband had bought the house twenty-seven years ago.
She invited us into her beautiful home. It was warm and glowed with their lovely aesthetic. As I walked through the rooms, ghost-like moments flashed in my mind. I was holding my sweet dog on the kitchen floor when she died of a brain hemorrhage. I was climbing out the window of my bedroom onto the roof doing stuff I won’t mention here. I was up in my treehouse in the backyard with boyfriends…bleep, bleep. I was cooking in the kitchen. I was receiving a phone call from Chicago offering me my first professional union acting job in a David Mamet world premiere. I was packing the house when my parents were moving to Chicago, where I live, returning to their roots.
Kim and I reminisced a bit. It was such a warm feeling. She was so accepting and kind. She remembered me with such a smile on her face. At one point she said, “I don’t know if I’ll go to the reunion. I guess I feel I am really happy with my life choices.” I could feel the goosebumps down my arms. We were both happy with our life choices. There was nothing to prove, or regret, or compare to others.
But I did need to make a rewrite in my life script. Certainly, as a little girl I had good reason to not feel that I belonged, with the rampant anti-Semitism I experienced. But that story clearly did not need to stick, a story I have carried with me through my life. Kim’s warm perceptions of me showed me that I was perceived differently than I thought I had been. The truth is, I must ask myself, did I block my feeling of acceptance by others needlessly, through some kind of unconscious protection? It became clear that that old story was over. At this stage of my life, I can “belong” in so many places I never imagined possible. I need to see “belonging” with fresh eyes.
By the way, the series on Enneagram and clutter will be resuming perhaps next week. I have been giving away books and things like crazy since writing #1-#3!!!