My J. D. Salinger Family

July 27, 2008

When my wife and I married, I was 21 and she was 18, way too young to get married. We didn’t hate each other, but I don’t know that we were “in love.” Perhaps not having much romance at the start of our marriage saved our marriage.Without meaning to, and even though we used protection, we conceived a child on our honeymoon. We probably would not have ever had children if it had been up to us, but having a child probably saved our marriage some more.

When our child was born, I thought, “I have no idea how to deal with being a parent. All I know is that I will not do what my parents did.” Surprisingly, I stuck to that vow to at least an 80% consistency. As I struggled to figure out how to be a parent, I developed what I now call, “Mad Scientist Parenting.” Even more surprisingly, my daughter, who will be 42 in August, still speaks to me and visits us voluntarily without nagging.

When I have to deal with my very extended family (siblings in Maine, Vermont, Missouri, and California, aunts in Australia, New York City, and Connecticut, obscurely famous uncle also in New York City), I feel great anxiety. When I was invited to a family reunion about eight years or so ago, I resisted going. When my travel and lodging expenses were mysteriously paid, I went; it seemed ungracious to refuse to go. (I didn’t realize at that time that my cousin Joanna had gone to Taiwan to learn Chinese and had turned into a millionaire and to please her mom, my Aunt Naomi, had paid for the entire reunion.) I teach computer classes; I tell my students, “Don’t worry so much about learning about computers; study your Chinese if you want to get rich.” As a fair number of my students are native Chinese speakers, they regard me with some bewilderment, or at least inscrutable expressions.

Relatives wanted me to call them on Saturday. I put it off for a couple of hours, and then forced myself to act like a family member.

I started with my aunt Henriette. A year ago or so, her husband died in her arms as she tried to carry him to an alternative health practitioner. Her son had already moved as far away from her as he could. As everyone in my family detested her husband (whom she married and supported because he said he would train her to be an opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera), and he felt the same way about my family, she is rather isolated from other members of my family. As I was first nephew, and as someone who knows a (very) little about computers, she has focused on me as the family member she can reach out to. One of her sisters (Diana, the most like their awful mother, Agnes) is in an home for people with Alzheimer’s. Her other sister, Naomi, who was a ballet dancer and teacher and health food and exercise fanatic, is now living in Australia and crippled.

I suspect that Agnes, their mother and my grandmother, was a narcissistic personality. (David is certain his father is also a narcissistic personality.) Diana (who fled her family because their dad, dentist turned naturopath who was at the least, a crackpot, insisted on trying to provide enemas to most of Chicago, including to his three daughters and his son-my father)-had lots of personality. I figure as a way to stick a finger in her parents’ eye, Diana married a conventional doctor. When I met Diana and her three children at the reunion, they told me that she had “destroyed” her husband, by then dead. Although Diana did not strike me as being as dreadful as her mom, there was still a lot a lot of firepower present; I could easily imagine her doing in her husband by sheet force of personality.

Naomi, the ballet dancer, married an engineer from a Hemet, California cowboy family. He had probably grown up roping cows and riding bucking broncos; he was at least a match for Naomi. He was about ten years younger, as well. I am not exactly sure of the dynamics of their marriage: most of the time Donald is quiet but exudes confidence and an air of inscrutable profundity. Naomi speaks of him with respect and dominates everyone else in the room.

Naomi had two daughters. Joanna became the Chinese-speaking millionaire.The other, cousin, Valerie, is a chiropractor educated in Australia but now living in Spain. I had met Joanna’s husband, an Australian chiropractor, who joked around so much he dismayed even me. Joanna has since kicked him to the curb.

Compared to her older sisters Diana and Naomi, Henriette is merely a turbine-powered drill who quietly wears away at whatever is in he way. Since I last talked with her, she has gotten a part time job at a senior center. As her son Carl (much more of a computer nerd than I) refuses to talk to her any more when she has a technical support question, I am her main source for computer assistance. At 82, she is more adept with computers than 80% of the students I work with who are over 70, which means that she knows enough to get herself in difficulty. She taught herself some Excel to use in her job; so Saturday, she had some Excel questions which she tried to describe over the phone. Every time she wants computer help over the phone, she drives me crazier.

I bought her a computer and a fancy inkjet printer. She is repaying me at $35 a month. Now that she has a job, she proudly informed me that she is going to pay me $70 this month.

She made up some calendars to sell, using fine art reproductions she copied from the web. She sold a fair number of her calendars; unfortunately, with the cost of ink she loses money on each calendar she sells. She asked me to find a way to get the printer company to sell her ink more cheaply because she is in business. I suggested she find someone from SCORE to give her advice on running her business.

After I talked with Henriette, I called my youngest brother, J, just diagnosed as suffering from bi-polar disease.

His wife had written to me and my other brother:

J will be getting out of the psych. unit this afternoon. They ran more blood tests this morning, checking levels of medication, cholesterol, etc. and if all is well then he is good to go!!! He is very happy about this and will be coming home after a week and a half of being away. The psychiatrist told me that J followed the program really well.

Please understand that he needs to be on medication and please be supportive of his recovery. It is his choice to take the meds and to go through therapy. There are chemical imbalances in his brain. He will continue with psychotherapy [at the clinic]. He plans to get back to working with vocational rehab. and ARC of the Ozarks, an organization helping to find job placement. He may also get an extension on his unemployment which would help financially. Even with insurance, which I pay an unreal amount of premiums for, we have hospital bills that are mounting up. I am so glad that we bought up to the “premium” insurance plan. I am certain that this will pay off in the long run – whew!

I am trying to be positive and am hopeful that we will see differences in J’s mental stability within the next 6 weeks (time for the meds to work). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he was able to think more clearly and to function and be productive. A brilliant mind is too beautiful of a thing to waste!

I talked with J. There is almost no affect in his voice. As at the last time I talked to him (at the family reunion about eight years ago), he strikes me as almost entirely out of touch with his feelings.

I told this to my wife. She looked at me. I said, “Why do you think it is so difficult and threatening for me to talk with my brother? He’s like me, except worse,” I said.

7 Responses to “My J. D. Salinger Family”

  1. Average Jane Says:

    Hmm…I find it uncomfortable talking to my brother and dad too, possibly because I am so similar to them. It frightens me. Sometimes I wish you wouldn’t write stuff.

  2. modestypress Says:

    Me, too, Jane. At time over at the World on the Web evangelical Christian web site, wher they often wish I wouldn’t write stuff, I told them that one hand grabs the other, Dr. Strangelove style, to keep the other hand from typing.

  3. Pauline Says:

    The one thing that strikes me most odd in your post is that you’re comfortable telling the world how strange your family is. I freely admit my parents were pretty strange, but I know they also had friends who thought they were wonderful people, and I generally avoid providing examples of what made it such an unpleasant home to grow up in.

  4. David Says:

    I’m not sure even JD Salinger could do justice to this group … they’re downright Dickensian.

    Sounds like your brother’s wife is at least prepared to stand by him, which may say something positive about their marriage, or something worrisome about her own state of mind.

    Uncomfortable though it is, I think it’s useful to keep our shadow sides in sight, so to speak. Often, relatives serve this purpose; sometimes friends do. And, though I think people often don’t quite realize it, people whom we focus on as enemies are often personifications of our own frightening selves. Not always, of course, but often.

    As for me, I just watch Frasier. That’s a great reminder of how I’ll end up if I’m not careful.

  5. pandemonic Says:

    Maybe that reflection is hard to acknowledge.

  6. modestypress Says:


    The one thing that strikes me most odd in your post is that you’re comfortable telling the world how strange your family is.

    It took me a long time to get there. When I was a child, I wanted to fit in with my family, especially my parents, and I wanted to fit in with my peers. I ended up doing neither.

    So far, what I call the “Barely extended family,” is working out fairly well. This relaxes me about my anxiety about my extended family. However, my wife and daughter want nothing to do with my extended family, and I stay as far away from them as I can.

    As a parent, I tried to raise my daughter so she would not think back on her childhood and her parents with anger, dismay, regret, confusion, etc. I did not entirely succeed (as is becoming a little clearer to me), but I did pretty well.

    I don’t know how that is going to play out for my granddaughter. She seems to be doing pretty well, so far, but she is a person with a lot of capacity for angst and strong emotions, so we will see how it plays out. (Stay tuned for my three science fiction stories about her future.)

  7. modestypress Says:


    When I last met my youngest brother, and met his wife for the first time, their relationship also made me anxious. It seemed like my wife’s and my relationship, except worse.

    For one thing, she pretty much has supported my brother the entire time of their marriage.

    She has worked as an elementary school art teacher most of her life. As they have no children (which I think is a good thing), this may be an outlet for maternal instincts.

    My brother told me that next year she starts teaching high school art instead of elementary school art. The reason: terrible relationship with her current supervisor. Having been a high school teacher, I can’t imagine this will be a good thing for her.

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