In My Tribe

October 5, 2009
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Lesley Hyatt

I was raised by a devout tribalist. My mother worshipped the god of family but like many personal gods, hers was a particular invention — the seasoned product of her own fantastic yearning. My mother’s family disappointed her: my grandfather traveled six months a year, leaving behind his wife and three daughters in Los Angeles, while he sold novelties throughout the Southwest. My mother, the energetic and imperious eldest child, swore that her own family would embody rock-solid stability and, above all, togetherness.

My parents married shortly after my mother’s 22nd birthday. My father was a periodontist, seven years her senior. He was a solid, stable man — a golden ticket to an utterly different family life. Soon we were five and living in Encino, a predominately Jewish suburb of L.A. This was the late 1960s. My parents bought a split level ranch house, perfect for young families. We all slept upstairs — my parents at one end of the long, narrow hallway, my younger brother at the other, and my older brother and I occupying the rooms in between. When I was six, my mother took us for a studio photo session, and to this day those black-and-whites line the upstairs hallway like religious icons.

I was one of a tribe of five. The Lesley one. The girl one in the middle. We needed a table for five, a car for five, and, when staying at a hotel, a room big enough for five (two queens with me on a rollaway cot.) As a child I loved watching Sesame Street, and whenever the show was sponsored by the number 5, my heart tingled with recognition.

I understood myself as part of this tribe of five, but I seemed to be in constant conflict with our family god. Early on, this god mandated smart appearances, love of Judaism, and excellent marks in school. By age ten, I began dressing like a street urchin. At thirteen, I was politely expelled from Hebrew school after I was caught shoplifting at the market across the street from our temple when I should have been in class.  By fifteen, I brought home a report card filled with passable grades and outrageous with unexcused absences. Yet, despite my bad behavior — my ratty hair, my Shabbos dinner sass, my ongoing feral tantrums — no one asked me, Why? Why are you so hellbent on blaspheming our family god? Why are you forsaking the tribe?

Or perhaps someone did ask, and I’ve simply forgotten. Regardless, my answer would have been rejected mightily. I loved our tribe but I knew the sum of it could not contain me. I needed friends.  Our family had friends — lovely people who joined us on ski trips or as part of our havurah — but friends always remained outside the tribe.  Even extended family — aunties and cousins, still-living grandparents — seemed wholly other to our family tribe.  Over time, I realized my sensible mother needed a tribe that fit squarely into the palm of her hand.  For her, our small family tribe offered the kind of manageable safety that had eluded her as a child.  But I was a willful, exquisitely sensitive girl with a big imagination, and I craved more — a bigger tribe, one that could stretch to understand and accept boundaries beyond those of our tribe of five.

In 8th grade I met Kara. We attended the same middle school. Kara was blonde; her parents were divorced; she was not Jewish.  She was, however, a deep-feeling, deep-thinking girl, and, unlike me, completely unashamed of herself. She embraced her complex emotions just as she embraced her complicated her teenage body. Kara extended her unabashed acceptance to me — my emotional volatility and my endlessly-growing breasts. With Kara, for the first time in my life, I felt the simple pleasure of recognizing the goodness of who I was, and of liking that self.

Kara’s friendship was my blessed and forbidden fruit: Once I tasted its sweetness, I knew my own tribe would be larger than my mother’s. I knew it would extend beyond boundaries of blood, beyond mothers and fathers and brothers and children. It would reflect my own interior mosaic. I knew, too, that my tribe and its big-hipped god would often butt heads with my mother’s god, but as I grew and evolved, I understood the two would manage a truce.

Today my tribe contains a multitude. It includes my parents and brothers. It includes my children, my husband, and his family. And it includes an extraordinarily large number of others — women and men I consider other parents, other siblings — people who honor and broaden the demarcations of my heart. People whose hands I hold in mine.

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Lesley Hyatt lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.

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