He never said goodbye

When I was a young girl, I was not very happy. Aside from all of the other issues little girls have, I also had a mother who was a perfectionist. It seemed to me that there was nothing I could do to please her. She would find something wrong with me each and every time she was near me. My dress was wrinkled, there was a stain on my skirt, a button was missing, I sat funny, I shouldn’t shake or swing my leg when I was sitting, I shouldn’t touch the fabric on the chair, my button was missing, my shoe was scuffed, I was a “klutz,” etc. etc.

Because she convinced me that I was a failure as a human being, it was a given fact that everyone knew it and therefore I had no friends because I knew the other little girls were judging me and I was found wanting.

When I entered junior high school, I sat in the auditorium where the principal explained to us that unlike elementary school, here we would have to work hard and do our homework and study. I spent much of my time in the library taking one book after another off the shelf that had books about people who had suffered. Among others, I read about Tomy Keitlin and how she lost her sight. I read “Miracle at Carville,” a book about lepers. I read, “My Left Foot” about a boy who was paralyzed. And I read “Death Be Not Proud” where the writer’s son dies. I read these books because at least these people were suffering more than I was, and somehow, it made my suffering more manageable.

But at some point something the principal had said set off a spark in me. He said that if we were having problems, there were counselors who would help us.

I didn’t know how to get the counselor to help me. No one said what to do if you were having trouble. So, I looked for a reason to see a counselor. One day, in cooking class, the twins (two girls whose names I’ve long forgotten) did something that annoyed me. I don’t remember what it was, but it seemed to me that it was a good reason to go to the counselor.

I went to see the counselor. I don’t remember anything about that meeting except that it didn’t end with his telling me that I didn’t have to go back home to my mother.

One day, a week or so later, though, my mother came and picked me up early from school. She told me that she was taking me to see someone I could talk to who would really understand me. I think at that point she was admitting that she had not a clue.

Apparently the school had called my mother and told her that I was seeking help. We went to the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. There I was seen by a therapist and my mother was seen by a social worker and the plan was that they would coordinate with each other.

I was young and didn’t understand much. What I understood was that this somewhat shy and self-effacing man sat in a room with me and listened. I do remember that he told me that my mother was the way she was because of how her mother had treated her and that he hoped that we could work to stop that cycle. One thing I knew for sure: I didn’t want to be the same kind of mother to my children that my mother was to me.

My times with him were quiet and calm. I remember there being toys in the room, but he never suggested I play with them and I never quite knew what I should say.

Once (or maybe more) I felt so terrible between sessions that I wrote him a letter that I sealed in an envelope for him to read at the next session.

Once, when I told him that things at home were, if anything, getting worse, he told me that that meant that I was getting better and that my mother was unable to deal with it. I didn’t understand, but the words comforted me.

After about two years, I stopped seeing him on a regular basis and my mother would call him to consult or to see either me or my sister or her in times of crisis. My sister and I called him her “Prime Minister.”

When at 18 I became engaged, my mother sent me and my fiance to see him. He saw us and explained to us that it would be better for us not to live in the same city as my mother as she wouldn’t let us have a normal married life. She was simply too intrusive.

My fiance decided not to marry me. He thought I was going to end up being like my mother. I was devastated. I finally had plans to leave home and they were shattered.

A year later, my husband, who by my design never really got to know my mother, and I were married.

Ten years later, my former therapist (who had been in touch with my mother over this period) send me a short note and some educational materials he’d produced. By that time, I had 4 children. I was living in Wiesbaden, Germany. He wrote, “My wife was born in Wiesbaden; Good vibes!!”

Ten years later, I was presenting a workshop for family therapists at a conference in Dallas. He was presenting something in Dallas on the same weekend. I wrote him and mentioned the coincidence. He invited me to join him for breakfast on Sunday morning.

We sat and talked, this time as colleagues– about my childhood, about my husband and children, about my professional life and the work I was doing on therapeutic metaphor, and even about his interaction with my ex-fiance. He said, “I just didn’t think he was good for you.”

A couple more times over the next 20 years, we exchanged notes and once along with my sister, I met up with him in Tel Aviv, where he was living at the time.

A few days ago, I came across his obituary. He passed away at age 85. He was a gentle presence in my life. Dr. Sol Gordon will be missed. Goodbye dear friend.