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Family's Holiday Concert Was Child's Secret Hour of Dread

November 28, 1985|JUDITH S. FEIGIN | Judith S. Feigin is an assistant U.S. attorney living in La Jolla

LA JOLLA — It's revealing to reminisce across the generation gap. I did that recently with an aunt of mine. As she waxed prolific on her memories of our family Thanksgivings--big feasts with more relatives and food than anyone could handle--all I could remember was the annual family concert.

After all the food was cleared, and the visiting complete, the younger generation put on a "concert." Each of us had, in the grand tradition of Jewish families everywhere, dutifully taken weekly music lessons.

In my own case, this was no mean feat. I spent about an hour commuting each way to the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City, an organization begun at the turn of the century by social workers to provide culture, entertainment and enrichment to economically deprived children. This it did with dedication and vigor, becoming renowned not only for the scope of its programs, but for the quality as well. I was fortunate to go there.

There was only one problem. I had absolutely no talent. And never was this brought home to me with more force than on Thanksgiving, when I had to perform for the family, along with various and sundry cousins, each of whom was better than I and two of whom have since made their careers in music.

All Were Applauded

Of course, the family applauded and encouraged us all, but even as a young child, it was easy to see where the talent lay. So, to me, Thanksgiving was awful. I would swallow each bite with the dreadful knowledge that it brought me that much closer to the hour of doom.

Discussing this with my aunt now, 25 years after the fact, I was amazed to find that this was all news to her. She had loved these Thanksgiving dinners and remembered the concerts as the highlight of the day. The adults (or, more accurately, the women) could finally relax after all the work was complete, and bask in the reflected glory of the younger generation. For my own parents, of course, there wasn't much glory to bask in, but I realize now that this didn't matter to them nearly as much as it did to me.

Reviewing this with my aunt held more than academic interest for me. I began to wonder what generational memory disparities there will be between me and my own kids. There are some I know already. Like the time my husband took care of the boys for a week while I was on a business trip and reported that the week had gone really well. He had enjoyed the opportunity to spend extra time with the boys and felt closer to them as a result. In fact, he was so euphoric over the experience that he told me not to hesitate if other travel opportunities present themselves: He and the boys could handle it all.

My younger son had a different version of events: The week went fine, he said, but had I heard about the bath towel? No, I had to admit that I hadn't. Well, he solemnly reported, daddy had yelled at him for leaving the bath towel on the floor after a shower, and since he never hung it up when I was around, he didn't know this was wrong. How could he know? he plaintively asked me.

Just Those 2 Minutes

I told my husband about this conversation and he was flabbergasted. The towel incident had occupied perhaps two minutes during the week, and it had been an uneventful two minutes at that. As he remembered it, no one had been shouting or crying or showing any particular emotion. And yet, it was those two minutes, of all blocks of time, that my son highlighted. Why?

Every family has a myriad such stories. I've always looked upon them as amusing anecdotes, nothing to dwell on. But as a result of my discussion with my aunt, I'm not so sure anymore. While we may agree across the generations that an event is significant, what makes it significant to one generation may not be at all what makes it so to the other. Yet we blithely assume that the importance of an event is so obvious, that it can have no significance other than that which we attach to it. Similarly, what one generation dismisses as trivial may be pivotal to another. In short, the significance we attach to events varies, often in unexpected ways.

There's no way to prevent this divergence of views; it is inherent in the generation gap. But I think that from now on I will handle these incidents somewhat differently. Rather than just passing them off as cute tales to repeat as cocktail conversation, I am going to take some extra time to discuss them with the kids.

In most cases, I'll never know about the (mis)perceptions, just as my aunt, and my parents, never knew about my Thanksgiving fears. But in those few cases where it does come up--as with the towel--I am going to try to adopt the solemnity of the younger generation. They deserve it, and my visit with my aunt showed me why.

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