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Monday, September 21, 2009

Group Therapy

My aunt Ruthie doesn't come around much, but, when she does, we take notice.

Living in Australia as she does, it's challenging to make the trip to Pennsylvania, especially when you're a round, short woman in your mid-sixties. But she manages, and I'm glad she does. She has a mountain of rotini curls atop her head, a genuine, toothy smile, and a voice that sounds just like my father with a helium addiction. Because, in Hebrew, there is really no "th" sound, we call her "Rooti" and it's appropriate, because she certainly is fresh and fruitty.

The dinner conversation was certainly swinging by the time she got to her tale of a group therapy session she attended after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

"Everybody was in therapy then!" she said, laughing. I sometimes am driven to inquire whether she's serious about some of the flip comments she makes, but it would ruin the mood, so I don't.

"We were all there, there was a man who was in the war... not doctor... eh...." uncertain of a word, she turns to my father. "-- eh, ma azeh in English...?"

"Nurse, Rooti. Fuckin' nurse," my father offers helpfully, extending his knowledge of the English language like an olive branch.

"Ah, okay. Nurse. He... was in the war, and was with a doctor, and there was an explosion, yeah? And the doctor, he died right away, but the nurse was not hurt. So he was in the therapy, okay, because he was.... you know... he lived."

"Survivor's guilt," my wife, the psychiatrist's daughter, helps out this time.

"Yeah!" nods my aunt, grinning her comforted smile. She is ready to continue. "So, there was also this Romanian woman, who was totally controlled by her husband-- just like my mother was by your grandfather," she says to me. I am instantly hurt by this statement. I know little about my paternal grandparents, whether because of my father's reluctance to speak about it or because of my prior disinterest, but, tonight, I want to know more about their relationship. Again, though, I am silent. I don't want to ruin the mood.

"So, this Romanian woman was agoraphobic, so her husband had to drive her to all the group therapy sessions! It was so funny! And there was this soldier there who sat there like a Chief, you know, with the arms crossed in front of him, and he said nothing the whole time, and finally I started yelling at him one day. Really yelling! 'You asshole! You just sit there! Why don't you say something sometimes!' But he just sat there smoking his pipe."

I looked at this woman as she was telling this story. I looked at her teeth and her curls, her rings and her ringlets-- this woman who is my father's sister, who I first met when I was fifteen years old, and had only seen one other time between then and now, at my wedding, and I tried to picture her, in the 1970s, yelling at some shell-shocked Israeli soldier in her hinge-squeak of a voice. It was hard to imagine.

"And then there was this man from Morocco, and we all knew he had this very dark secret. But nobody knew what it was, because he, it was very hard for him to talk about it. But, we all wondered, what could it be? Finally, at the end, he talked and it turned out that he.... liked to fuck....


My entire family burst out in hysteria at the dinner table. I had my head in my arms, pounding one fist on the table. When I looked up, my wife was laughing with her hand covering her mouth. My oldest sister was wiping tears away from her eyes. My father was smiling, shaking his head, either at his sister or at the cow-fucker. My mother giggled like a little girl, listening to older kids telling a naughty joke.

"And he couldn't do it... with a woman!" my aunt added, for good measure.

We laughed for a long time about that one. I love my aunt Ruthie. She's a little like a three-year-old in certain respects-- she's small, and cute, and you never know what the hell she's going to say. Last time she was in America visiting, she told us a story about an attractive sports reporter in Australia who entered a soccer team's locker room, "and they were masturbating!" she exclaimed, except, the way she said it, it sounded more like, "ehnd they vere mister-bating!" With her voice scaling new octaves and her eyes popping out to the lenses of her glasses, she is the consumate story-teller, as long as it's obscene. You know you want to hire her out for your next black-tie affair.

Unfortunately for Ruthie, this tendency to be inappropriate and humorous can sometimes tend to make people not take her very seriously. Admittedly, it's hard taking her seriously when you ask her a question about the Yom Kippur War and she replies with a story about a Moroccan cow-fucker. Maybe, though, it's what we really want to hear. After all, it's been very serious around my family's house lately, with my sister getting pregnant, getting married, basically shotgun style, and immediately thereafter having her son, maybe levity is what we all needed on Friday night-- a little group therapy for us, too.

Of course, Ruthie isn't just a naive humorist-- she's the secret-keeper, too. An all-knowing mystic from a land before time, a land before Israel. She knows the family stories that my father doesn't know, or doesn't tell. She knows about the tragedy surrounding my grandmother's first, very brief marriage, she knows about how my grandfather mistreated my grandmother, and blamed her for all of his failings, occupational or personal. I am sure that, some mornings, when she wakes up and goes to get dressed in her little one bedroom unit in Australia, she sees four pair of children's shoes, all perfectly shined and buffed, waiting for her, her sister, and her two brothers-- all prepared the night before, and ready every morning by my grandmother. Every morning.

She tells these stories, too, and I want more of them, but I think she worries about saying the wrong thing, and upsetting my quick-to-anger father, so she mostly keeps it light. And I guess that's okay. I did get to find out where my family is really from, a small town in Iraq called "Amara." She also remarked, before being quickly cut off, that my father was extremely popular with the young, Israeli girls. But I already knew that. I didn't know that she tried tirelessly to teach my father English in preparation for his Toefl exam, but that he refused to learn and constantly made jokes to distract her.

"He would make jokes and make me laugh, and then I would get so angry at him, because he wouldn't leeeesten!" she said, as my father's face contorted in displeasure.

"What are you talking about? You didn't teach me fuckin' English!" he yells.

"Yeah, I know! Because you wouldn't leeeesten! How did you pass the Toefl test anyway?" she asks him.

"How did I pass? I showed them my ass, okay? Jesus!"

"Some girl probably took the test for him," my mother offered.

"Yeah," Ruthie nodded her head, "probably he cheated."

My wife and I stayed at my parent's house until 10:30, which is unprecedented, largely because the two of them are in bed and snoring by 10:00 but, when we left, we left feeling good. I was happy because I got to spend time not just with Ruthie, but with my family. I got to learn and laugh and think and remember. And I guess that's what makes a good group therapy session.


  1. I loved this blog. I felt like I was at the table too.

  2. I love Ruthie.

    Group trip to Australia!!!

  3. She sounds like a riot!
    Hooray for group therapy!

  4. Everybody should have at least one relative like that. And I swear, the smaller they are, the bigger the mouth! Always. She sounds like a fun lady.


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