A memoir on family, care and redemption: “Some things can be deleted, but often not the memory”


Deborah J. Cohan’s Welcome wherever we are: a memory of family, care and redemption shows the complexities of unconditional love.

“I’m still a girl who tries to do the right thing for my dad, both in writing and in life,” writes Cohan, pictured here as a child with her dad. (Courtesy)

Extract of Welcome wherever we are: A memory of family, care and redemption by Deborah J. Cohan. Published by Rutgers University Press on February 14. (Read Karla Strand’s book review here.)

Years ago, I attended a talk given by psychologist Carol Gilligan, who said, “The problem with patriarchy is that it takes place in the midst of intimacy. I think the reverse is also true – this intimacy takes place in the midst of patriarchy.

She went on to say, “The ability to tell our story is interrupted by trauma.” Patriarchy. Privacy. Capacity. Tell. History. Trauma. The trauma disrupts the ability. Trauma mixes, blurs and pulverizes history. The trauma dislodges, dislodges and decimates the voice. I think the trauma also makes the story and the voice possible… ultimately.

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Cohan and his father. (Courtesy)

Coming home from Mount Pleasant on a Monday morning after taking turns lazing with Mike on the beach, in bed, and in a hammock all weekend, something my childhood friend Erica told me weeks earlier m hit like a ton of bricks. She and I had been on the phone to talk about a writing conference I had attended where I felt someone had seriously misinterpreted my writing. Stunned, Erica said: “I can’t believe she didn’t get it; it’s just about a girl who tried to do the right thing by her father.

And then in the middle of that drive back to Bluffton, it occurred to me that it was exactly that: I’m still a girl trying to do the right thing for my dad, both in writing and in life. I realize that writing about his terrible qualities may make me sound like a fool to adore and miss my father. But you have to understand my father’s erratic nastiness, which merged with his erratic kindness. The erratic nature of it all has in fact become predictable – predictable erratic, erratic predictability.

The phone is ringing. My machine picks up.

“Hi, it’s Deb. I can’t come on the phone at the moment, but leave a message and I’ll call you back ASAP. I look forward to communicating with you soon.

Beep.

“Hi, Deb, it’s dad. I hope . . . you are the best . . . I can’t believe you. . . why have you . . . How can you . . . how dare you . . . little shit. . . Beep.

To play. Believe it. Rewind. Do not believe it.

Replay. Do not believe it. Rewind. Believe it.

Wipe off? Save?

Wipe off.

Some things can be deleted, but often not memory. One night, long after my parents and I left the Morley Road house in Cleveland and lived in Waltham, Massachusetts, I decided to call our old number, just to see who would answer. I dialed and got the recording that the number was disconnected. Disconnected. Well, yes, of course. In fact, the threads had been tangled for years. Cross. Fried. Burnt. People have tripped over ropes. Over the discord. Who was still listening?

Bound. Disconnected. Disconnected.

My father was financially generous, but he also controlled financially in a way that came with conditions and left me feeling indebted to him. It was in August 2000, almost a year after my parents separated, and I was doing my doctorate. He had offered to help me pay for the health insurance, so one night we were on the phone to find the best arrangement, and I suggested that he go to the bank and put the deposit in one go, just to make it easier for him. He replied, “You would make my life easier if you kill yourself. I was speechless. He went on to say, “Your mother is a slut. She ran off to fuck someone she hasn’t seen in 50 years.

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Cohan and his father at his wedding.

Yes, my mom had left my dad and immediately ran into the arms of her first love, Allan, a guy she met at night camp when she was 14. At the time, I couldn’t figure it out either, and I – and everyone – wondered if theirs was an affair that had just been going on for years. My mom always claimed that wasn’t the case, that they really reconnected in 1999 after Allan lost his wife to complications from chemotherapy and a mutual friend at the camp told her that my mom would soon be single. And I’m still moved by what my mom has told me over the years, that Allan is the first man she really loved. So at 64, when my mom moved in with Allan, she came full circle.

There were times when I wondered about the real sequence of things, but in reality, I never really cared. I understand that monogamy is a tender social construct that is often difficult to defend, and I would have forgiven him if having an affair was part of the story. In fact, my father’s behavior was too often so impossible that I questioned her loyalty and why she stayed; I never really understood them together. Now at 49, I understand him better, through the prism of my own love for my father, my own loyalty to him, even in the midst of everything that has happened. And at the same time, their union made sense. When I was a kid, that was my definition of family.

What was complicated – and still is today – was how I learned that my mother had made such a big change in her life, leaving Cleveland after being there all her life. Before my mom told me that she had already moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to be with Allan, I had already found out for myself. My parents’ wedding was a second marriage for both of them, and they each knew the names of each other’s ancient flames relatively well.

Shortly after my parents separated, I was in Cleveland helping my dad clean everything in the family home, prepare a real estate sale and house sale, and move into his new apartment. It was then that he told me that he suspected that my mother had found Allan and that he remembered that Allan lived somewhere in Massachusetts. My dad knew Allan’s last name, knew he was a dentist, and thought he might be retired. They all got together when I was a little kid when Allan came to Cleveland for some sort of dental conference. My father believed that Allan still longed for my mother.

I decided to call the information for Allan’s number to hear what his voice sounded like or see if my mom would answer the phone. It was around 9:30 p.m. she answered and looked half asleep. I hung up nervously. I got my answer.

Extract of Welcome wherever we are: A memory of family, care and redemptionby Deborah J. Cohan. Published by Rutgers University Press on February 14.

In this gripping memoir, Cohan tells her unique personal story while weaving her expertise as a sociologist and domestic violence counselor to address broader issues related to marriage, violence, divorce, only children, intimacy. and at loss. (A room of your own)

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