Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dreams of the Past


As immigrants, we lived for the unknown. This thing called the future held out the promise of a better life. When it stretched out its arms in possibilities, as limitless and amorphous as the word itself, we latched onto it because there was nothing else. The future was synonymous with becoming, an unknown that represented all that the present was not.

Our present was a musty dry cleaner’s. A cocktail of perc, human odor, and disinfectant. Pipes caked with grease, chemicals, and dust. Ever swirling fans in constant hum, creating a sense of chaos in the background. Clothes creased with wear, folds fanning out from the joints and the crotch. Sequined party dresses rumpled and twisted, with misshapen bra pads. White office shirts with stiff necks and yellow rings of perspiration on the armpits, and trousers stained with dirt and other bodily fluids. Light yellow sweaters splattered with bearnaise sauce and bloody mary. The remnants of lives lived, of parties enjoyed, of gatherings concluded.

As teenagers, we rummaged through their pockets, like scavengers, searching for forgotten items: receipts, bunched up cocktail napkins, torn theatre stubs. Here, we got a whiff of life's offerings. Our parents’ job was to remove the stains, press them, and package them in films of plastic to reset them for another outing.

Such outings were not for us. Our present was lived from inside the windows. The world existed outside, and we watched it pass by without us. On Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, after we had handed out the last evening gown or tuxedo, we wiped down the counters, emptied the cash register, packed up our empty lunch containers, and arranged the hangers for the next day. When we stepped out onto the empty street, our father locked the door. Then, he grabbed the handle with both hands, checking, double-checking, and triple-checking the lock, throwing his weight into the push and pull. Safeguarding this store was his focus, because it was the source of our livelihood and security.

In silence, we scurried to the car and drove home to eat some food hastily foraged from the refrigerator. We didn’t speak about the celebrations happening in other homes, for other families. We didn’t articulate any longing for an evening different than the one we had. Celebrations were not for people like us. They were for families who wore khaki pants and took annual holiday photos. For people who dined out and ordered wine. For those who knew how to carve a turkey.

Once, when I asked my mom why we didn’t invite people over for dinners, she said, “Inviting people requires spending.”

We couldn’t afford the luxury of celebrating. We were too poor. Too exhausted. Too desperate. Too busy preparing for the next day.

There were glimmers of hope, however. The hope came embedded in incessant messages. If you go to law school, your dad and I will be able to retire. If you become a doctor, you could help us so much. Our hardship will be worth it. If you do this, if you do that…

It was there, for me to grab. Some hope of a better future -- all in my hands, as if I held the key, the secret code, the magic dust. I never questioned that a financial solution would be the answer, even though I had no understanding of the problems to be solved. And I never challenged this assumption that my parents' dream of financial security would be something I would help deliver.

I clung to this hope of a reprieve, a break from the ever-present anxiety that loomed over us. I longed for a day when we could while away our time in a coffee shop like others, buy a trinket without worrying about how much it cost, indulge without feeling guilty. These longings were so pedestrian, and yet out of reach. Still, I never doubted that those days awaited us in our future.

The other day, I suddenly realized that I am living in that future. I am now almost 50. I obtained my law degree, practiced law for 10 years, and have a beautiful family of my own. Over 15 years ago, my parents sold their dry cleaning business and retired with an adequate nest egg. Just four years ago, they moved out to San Diego to live near us.

Despite all that, the present has no semblance to the future that I had imagined for my family of origin. It’s hard to even call us a family. My sister does not talk to me or my brother. We never get together for the holidays anymore, not all of us. We have never vacationed together. During the past 13 years, the family has never gathered as a clan. The quality other families may have that draws them together is elusive for us. We’re not at ease with each other. There is no obvious affinity. We have no family rituals, no running jokes, no matching ugly sweaters.

Any effort to get together as a family, even a faction of us, however sporadically, has been instigated by me. No one else initiates, including my parents. My parents seem complacent enough to see the family in its current state. It is incomprehensible to me.

For a long time, I rallied against this baseline state. I carried dreams of us vacationing as a family, going on cruises, eating holiday meals together. I imagined us restored, a family who suffered but healed, a people who can look back with satisfaction at all that they endured but survived. I have been playing out these scenarios in my head for as long as I can remember.

As I look back, I now wonder about this audacity, naivete, the gall. Who was I to presume that we carried the same dream, as if I spoke for us all? And who was I to believe I could weave others into my dream, as if I were the puppeteer.

From the crevass of our failed family relationships, I now reassess the past. It is my relationship to my dream that requires scrutiny. Perhaps, it was never my prerogative to dream for all of us. Maybe it was never a part of their hopes for their future. That dream embodied my own hopes, expressed my own needs. It is humbling, this reminder.

A part of me rebukes myself for having carried this dream at all. It adds to my unhappiness and frustration because it highlights how far we fall short. At the same time, I tell myself that this dream carried me forward as well. It provided focus, a goal. It is this dream that drew a sharp line around the past and made it bearable.

I wonder about the role of our dreams and the purposes they serve. Perhaps it is dreams that draw us together as a people, and they carry us forward as if on a dinghy. During those rough days when my family worried about every quarter spent or every customer lost, I clung to this dream as I fought to stay afloat in the sea of anxiety that was my family. We lacked the ability to soothe and allay each other's fears; instead, all of us shut our eyes and held on to whatever was within reach. When both hands are needed for one's own survival, there is none left to extend to others. And as obvious as our needs must have been, we never spoke of them. We never learned to say, "I am scared" or "I need some help." Instead, we lashed out in resentment at those who failed to meet our needs -- and learned to do without.

Perhaps that dinghy was not big enough, not refined enough, not sophisticated enough to carry us all, not in the way we each needed. Now that I find myself having to examine this dinghy, I can see how inadequate it is, how decrepit, how flimsy. I also remember how precious it felt when there was nothing else to latch onto. How I urged others to hold onto it as I did. How desperately alone our family was in this unknown territory, and how little I had to offer. I can now surrender to the unknown. From where I currently stand, I think about what it means to weather the storm, to survive, as I release the dinghy back out to sea.

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