Copyright © 2021 by Annabelle Gurwitch, from You’re Leaving When?: Adventures in Downward Mobility. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
There are times in our lives when the story we tell ourselves about who we are no longer matches up to the story we are actually living. At fifty-five, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore.
Annabelle Gurwitch, one of our favorite authors, will be speaking to us about You’re Leaving When? on Thursday, March 25th. Click here (then scroll down) to sign up for the free event to be eligible for one of the 10 signed books we’ll be giving away.
So many of the daily activities that defined my identity—my life as a daughter, wife, and mother—had fallen away. Someone meeting me just a short time earlier would have known me as a caregiver for my aging parents. A regular in my mother’s chair exercise class, I’d even spearheaded the addition of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake, Shake, Shake, Shake Your Booty” to the instructor’s all–Bing Crosby playlist. My ex and I had been so joined at the hip that it seemed only appropriate to post this update on Facebook: “After twenty years, The Jeff and Annabelle Show has not been renewed. Thank you for all of your love and support over the years. We hope you will continue to tune into our new solo projects.”* I was a perennial room parent, leading the intrepid crew who’d chaperoned the fifth-grade camping trip. Parent volunteers were required to sign a contract pledging not to drink during the entire trip. You know when you really want a drink? When shepherding fifth graders into the wilderness for four days.
Pursuits both small and large seemed to take on outsized significance. I’d observed this in friends who were also carving out new identities or conducting wholesale reinventions in midlife. Alicia, who’d been an accountant with a spotty meditation practice, was now a prayer warrior leading womyn’s workshops in the ancient Art of Circling, which as far as I could tell consisted of inviting girlfriends to download about their day while sitting in a circle. Another friend chucked her corporate consultancy because it no longer reflected “who I am in the world,” which was better expressed by becoming a sudsy, fur-covered mobile pet groomer. A college classmate beat pancreatic cancer and hit the cancer-survivor speaking circuit, while a colleague who let her hair go gray was conscripted as a foot soldier in what Glamour magazine termed the “Silver Revolution.” When my friend, ubermom, and hiking buddy Gia’s third son applied for college, with one child left at home, she saw a future that didn’t, as she put it, “rise to the level of chaos I function best in.” She cooked up a plan to add six more years before her nest would empty. She and her husband adopted a daughter, and then deciding that “this boat can hold one more,” they folded another daughter into their brood. “I’ll be almost seventy when they’re all launched!” she told me with manic glee. Her plan misfired when the two older sons boomeranged back home and the first-year college student got “canceled on campus” and returned for a gap year. She wound up with six offspring under her roof and a perennially glazed look on her face.
The Best in Me
I wasn’t going to follow her lead, but motherhood had brought out the best in me. Not that anyone would characterize me as the warm and fuzzy maternal type, but after years of solipsistic career building, I endeavored to instill upstanding values and model good citizenship in my child. During grade school, Ezra and I had faithfully volunteered in the school’s community soup kitchen and marched for peace.** It was the buildup of crappy plastic party favors in the back seat of my car that had sparked my environmentalism activism. I was that dinner party guest who could be found sorting through my hosts’ trash to find that one stray potato peel or sliver of tinfoil to transfer to the compost pile or recycling bin. I carried soda-can-tab crocheted handbags stitched by Indigenous fair trade artisans and drove a hybrid. One fall I insisted on freecycling (a form of locally sourcing or scavenging pre-owned goods) our back-to-school supplies in lieu of shopping. Between raiding our neighbor’s junk drawers next to the fridge and hitting up our local freecycling fellows, we ended up with enough crayons, markers, and construction paper to open our own arts and crafts store. Even though Ezra refuses to remember this teachable episode with anything other than an exasperated eye roll, I stand by this as one of my finest moments.
But without Ezra to model behavior for, I fell into bad habits. My mercurial recycling habit got iffy; what did I do when my La Croix pamplemousse sparkling water cans migrated into the regular garbage? I left them in there! Who was this depraved reprobate? At the same time, I was facing down the annual Gurwitch Thanksgiving foodgasm. Navigating holiday travel and running the gauntlet of safe topics that can be broached with family members tests even the most sainted amongst us. Even more daunting can be living up to—or living down to, in my case—the role you play in your family’s dynamic.
Despite whatever improvements motherhood had inspired, my place in the tribe as the unreliable, overly dramatic, if not beloved then at least be-liked family member was cemented decades ago. In my early twenties, I’d attended a cousin’s wedding at a conservative synagogue in Houston wearing a pink polka-dotted strapless lamé minidress with a hoop skirt. On another occasion, I’d turned up with a surprise spouse, having just eloped. Later, as a harried working mother, I’d arrived late or canceled at the last minute. At one nephew’s bar mitzvah I missed the religious ceremony entirely—granted, it was due to a work commitment, but my rental car ran out of gas, and I wound up hitchhiking to the reception. The story of my rescue from a dusty mountainside freeway exit ramp by another tardy guest is a family favorite.
Any glamour added by my minor public profile was subtracted by the oxygen I typically sucked out of the room, either by my own doing or as a feature of the annual Jeff and Annabelle Show Holiday Special. During our marriage, we took few vacations. Thanksgivings were an exception. We’d book a hotel, rent a car, and split our time between family obligations and leisure activities. You know what’s an expectation that never pans out? That a family confab will double as a much-needed getaway. With our more liberal political stances, rejection of organized religion, and Stiller and Meara–inspired bickering, our presence ratcheted up tension around the dinner table.*** Providing an entertaining distraction was useful when my mother was alive. Loosening of internal filters has been linked to dementia, and it’s possible that’s what we were seeing, but we didn’t realize it at the time. There were always relatives that she already wasn’t speaking to, and every gathering was an opportunity to goad another unsuspecting reveler into not speaking to her. She had a talent for mentioning things that folks already knew, like inquiring if they’d gained weight. Had they put on a little weight? How much weight had they put on? How much weight did they think said cousin had put on? Once, she felt it necessary to inform me that my cat had gotten husky.
The Worst Sin
But the worst sin of all was that I’d always shown up without homemade provisions. At family meals, card games, coffee klatches, or any gathering of more than one person, my grandmother Rebecca rolled in with her legendary meatballs, stuffed cabbages, and enough banana bread to feed a small army. My nephew Max once brined a turkey and carried it on the plane, cradling it like an infant. Some people fly with their service animals; the Gurwitches travel with pies, kugel, and three-bean salads. My sister, the CEO of a worldwide charity, regularly makes her own risotto—from scratch! Me? Everyone in the family knows that “I don’t cook, I heat.” I prefer to travel with a neck pillow.
* Some friends were disappointed that our marriage was ending. “But what about your book about making a marriage work, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up?” I guess we ran out of tomatoes and had too much shut up was the best answer I could offer.
** At the first march we attended, Ezra and the other children’s chant of “No More War” somehow morphed into “No More School.” Still.
*** When I called Anne Meara, a dear friend, to share the news that Jeff and I were planning on performing together like her and Jerry, Anne warned me of how hard it could be on a marriage. “Oh, my God, Annabelle, that’s a terrible idea, don’t do it!”
ANNABELLE GURWITCH is an actress and the author of I See You Made an Effort (a New York Times bestseller and Thurber Prize finalist); Wherever You Go, There They Are, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up (with Jeff Kahn); and Fired! (also a Showtime Comedy Special). Gurwitch was the longtime cohost of “Dinner and a Movie” on TBS and a regular commentator on NPR. She’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Her acting credits include Seinfeld, Boston Legal, Dexter, and Melvin Goes to Dinner.