Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. Alix Kates Shulman disagrees. In her tender book A Good Enough Daughter, home is suburban Cleveland, where her elderly parents resided and where they died. She left this home and these parents forty years before, wrenching herself out of their lives, noting that “nothing they did” could bring her back until she was ready. It is the story of a journey from rebellion and struggle for independence to reconciliation and unexpected renewal.
Young people leave home every day and for many reasons: to go to school, to get a job, to live with other people; or because home is a ghetto, a poor rural town, a hostile environment, an impossible place to stay. Nevertheless, the act of leaving is usually preceded by the need (conscious or not) to separate, to attempt self-sufficiency, to flirt with becoming an adult. Many left home in the sixties to become involved with the political movements of the time. They fled parents whose values were anathema to them. Home was the antithesis of their burgeoning worldview in which material goods and making money were eschewed for a less individualistic ethos.
Shulman tells us that she left home because life was too secure, too sheltered, too good to find fault with while living there. She needed to separate herself from an everything-taken-care-of existence in order to become her own person. “That ambitious lust for freedom that tempts each successive generation of Americans to obliterate its past propelled me in my rush toward independence to identify my family with everything I’d renounced.”
She left Cleveland for New York at age 20. After a short marriage, in which she spent some time abroad, she returned to New York and found herself drawn into the political turbulence of the times. However, the book is less about the life she led during her forty years away than it is about returning home to care for her elderly parents, a process that proved both painful and enriching. Her narrative interweaves scenes from the present with scenes from her years growing up.
For Shulman the experience of returning home as an adult provoked a set of surprising reactions. She looked at her parents and the house itself with different eyes. At one point, after her parents were safely ensconced in a skilled-care facility, she entered their house: “Fishing out my key and the secret code to the alarm, I felt an illicit excitement: In the forty years my parents had lived in this house, I’d never stayed in it alone. Now I could search out its secrets without asking permission.” Once-taken-for-granted household items were suddenly transformed into belongings collected by her parents.
There they hung, my mother’s pride… the de Kooning, the Motherwell, the Frankenthaler, the Avery…resplendent in their colors and forms, embodying my mother’s ambition, resourcefulness, and taste, and, despite his ambivalent mix of disapproval and pride, my father’s security and solace.
Shulman realized “too late…I should have admired her things more openly, accepted her gifts of love. After so many years apart it was foolish to feel that my independence could still be compromised or might melt away in love’s heat. How old would we have to be before I would finally let down my guard?”
When she goes through drawers full of snapshots, clippings, letters, manuscripts and records, they, too, take on new meaning. “Delving into them, I was sometimes so overcome by emotion that I had to stop–that’s what your family can do to you.” Indeed, they can. But what also brought tears was the knowledge that her soon-to-die parents were the last buffer to her own mortality; in such moments she saw herself growing old and her children crying for her. But no matter the reasons, the ties binding her to her parents were powerful, and Shulman ponders them with honesty and wisdom.
Her father, a respected attorney and consummate gentleman (he would not tolerate her saying even the word “bull”), was also loath to spend money; he would not permit her to buy clothing with the same frequency as her teenage friends. In one episode, she so longed to have a cashmere sweater that she worked out a scheme to steal it from the town’s department store. Of course, she was caught red-handed. When the store manager asked which of her parents he should contact, she was horrified. He was “asking me to decide which heart to stab in order to be saved.” She was always more worried about causing her parents anxiety than incurring their disapproval.
When Shulman learned on one of her first trips back home in the early nineties that her father was unable to satisfy her mother sexually and that her mother had had extramarital affairs, she was neither shocked nor dismayed. She did not judge either one of her parents for their behavior. How could she? Shulman, a feminist, believes in women attaining fulfillment, including her mother. She remembered as a child watching her mother dress: “The complicated ritual… began with her wriggling her way into a formidable elastic girdle stiff with stays, from which hung six garters.” However, this is not a romanticized flashback; Shulman is grateful that her children will not need to describe such a ritual.
The rendering of her relationship with her adopted brother Bob remains murky, partly because Shulman does not illuminate the reasons behind the ample resentment between them. Bob’s mother, Shulman’s aunt, died in childbirth. He was adopted by her parents a few years before she was born. If the brother were telling the story, we might learn more about his feelings, particularly of displacement. From Shulman’s point of view, he was never her comrade, and she seemed to accept this as a fait accompli without probing any further. Consequently, their differences were never bridged, although Shulman mourns this fact. Her brother died of lung cancer several years before the death of her parents, before Shulman began her exploration into their final years.
Although A Good Enough Daughter is categorized as memoir, it amounts to more than we have come to expect of the genre. It is a rumination, a contemplation, an unsentimental journey into the past without the baggage that usually accompanies such undertakings. So many of the memoirs published today conjure up the dysfunctional, sensational or celebrity life, or the up, down and up again lives of recoverees. In such works the past is less revealing than titillating, and the context is usually no larger than the moment, leaving the reader with no greater understanding of the ways in which the personal, cultural and historical threads are woven into the tapestry of a life. However, Shulman’s book teases out and examines these threads.
Shulman’s name became synonymous with feminism in 1970, when she published an article calling for “A Marriage Agreement” (after all, she was the daughter of an attorney) that would divide housework and childcare equally between husband and wife. In the Agreement she stated that “in a marriage complicated…by the presence of…children, I came to see domestic equality not only as simple justice but as one means of transforming society by reforming the rearing of the young.” And the first item of the Agreement declared, “We reject the principle that the work that brings in more money is more valuable.” (Shulman’s essay on the piece appears in The Feminist Memoir Project.) In A Good Enough Daughter, she reminds us that the Agreement was an idea so “controversial as to merit a six page spread in Life, more than two thousand letters from Redbook readers, and attacks by Norman Mailer and the New York Times.”
Shulman is also the author of eleven books. Her acclaimed 1972 novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen revealed the intellectual and sexual longings of so many young women in the sixties. It was one of the first works of fiction to be written by a feminist of that era, and as such was a breakthrough book. More than twenty-five years have passed since her first novel. A Good Enough Daughter could not have been written any sooner, one senses. It needed the experience of a life lived and a vantage point from which to look back without compromise. Shulman’s sensibility, maturity and indeed her patience and understanding were all brought to the task of becoming the caretaker of her former caretakers.
This predicament, if that’s what it is, is faced by many. More and more men and women are now alive in their 80s. They are the last of those to have come of age during the Depression and are so vastly different from their children that it must often feel as though the terrain is too wide to reach across. One wonders, though, if aging itself will change all relationships.
Here Shulman’s journey is informative. Having parents who lived long lives in fairly good mental and physical condition until the last years gave her the time to grapple with what it meant to be their daughter. Between dismantling the family home and visiting them in their retirement apartments, she went after as much of the truth as she could get. During one visit she made herself ask her father, “How did you and mom feel when I stayed away all these years?” His response–wished you were here but understood why you weren’t–took her somewhat by surprise. Could it be that she, the adored daughter, had been merely missed, but hardly wrenchingly? That they, too, had been busy carrying out their own full lives?
Such a perspective could be a blow to the ego, but when faced with the imminent death of parents, it can also be a gift. In Shulman’s case, it permitted her to refocus old images and relinquish her guilt for staying away so long to lead her own life. So maybe she wasn’t selfish after all. In such refocusing begins the telling of the story, and the daughter and the writer coalesce. “I think of my memory as a secret storeroom at the heart of a maze; there’s only one key and I have it.”
After reading Shulman, one understands that if done well, living through the final years of parents’ lives can be an enriching experience. Of course, doing it well demands a great deal of time and effort. Shulman did not resent either the interruption of her solitude or the many trips made to Cleveland. In fact, she relished being needed. Forty years before, she had fled her parents’ suburban pretensions and discovered women’s liberation. Returning to help them in their last years, she discovered that in “the scales of fulfillment, devotion may sometimes outweigh freedom.