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90'S FAMILY | FIRST PERSON

It's Official: She's Turned Into Her Parents

November 24, 1996|ANDREA HEIMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I inherited my mother's blue eyes, my father's smile. And a combination of their neurotic habits. It seems those very parental preoccupations that aggravated and baffled me most as a child have metamorphosed themselves into me as an adult.

My father has an obsession about electricity and the importance of preserving it. Any nonessential bulb left lit drove him to distraction. I have memories of sitting in the dark as Dad zipped through the house, happily flipping switches. Mom's pet peeve was feet on the furniture. I swore I would not be so nit-picky when I reached adulthood.

Never say never. I often find myself roaming through my apartment--and even other people's apartments--shutting off lights, muttering, "Tsk, tsk, what a waste of electricity."

More frightening still, I've internalized the feet-on-the-furniture phobia. I discovered this recently as a friend and I sat chatting on my couch. All was fine until she casually lifted her heels and placed them on my coffee table. I cringed. I tried to ignore them, but I became fixated on her socked feet, propped on my wooden table top. I couldn't concentrate on the conversation. Her toes tormented me. "Could you, uh, not put your feet on my table?" I asked. Her feet came down. A wave of relief passed through me.

I've picked up other peculiarities from Mom and Dad. Like saving things. My dad saves every piece of uneaten food. Even a bite-sized piece of potato kugel winds up in a tiny piece of Saran Wrap, neatly folded and stacked in the fridge.

My father learned that habit from his grandmother, who lived with him when he was a child. An immigrant from Russia, where food was often scarce, she saved every bit of food. My father certainly never needed to worry about having enough food. But that didn't matter.

I don't save tiny pieces of uneaten food, but I save nearly everything else. As a child I collected coins, pine cones, key chains . . . pretty much everything that came across my path wound up stashed in a dresser drawer or under my bed. I'm in recovery from my hoarding habit. Still, I often need a friend's support to help me throw away a pair of jeans from junior high or a belt that's two sizes two small.

It's not just habits I've picked up. It's tastes.

My father used to eat chopped herring nearly every morning for breakfast. Nothing made him happier. I can still see him clearly, with a dollop of sour cream, a pumpernickel bagel on a bright orange plastic plate and a jar of chopped herring in front of him. Climbing cholesterol has slowed that habit to weekends and holidays. But it's how I remember him best.

Herring looked disgusting to me, and the combination of herring and sour cream seemed fouler still. I never even tasted the stuff. Until last week. I was at a friend's for lunch, and she served herring as an appetizer. If I hadn't been ravenous, I wouldn't have even looked at it. But my stomach called, and I tasted. It wasn't so bad. In fact, I liked it. A lot. I ate half the plate of it. When I found myself thinking I'll bet this would be good with sour cream, I was horrified.

Our parents imbue us with our morals, with our outlook on life, our conceptions of ourselves, our worries and fears. It makes sense that they also program our peculiarities and pass on their own fixations. In a way it's comforting. Although many of these idiosyncrasies have no inherent meaning, they will keep my parents alive in me.

And I suspect I will transmit many of them to my children one day, if I'm lucky. And when they get older, they'll think of me as they sit in the dark, feet on the floor, eating herring with sour cream.

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