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The Curse

May 8, 2009 | by Varda Branfman

Little did I know that my professor's curse would turn into a blessing.

My whole adult life I wanted to be a poet. Then my poetry professor of all people cursed me, saying, "You'll probably end up as a housewife with a bunch of kids."

I was stung by these words coming from the very person who was supposed to be validating my need to be a writer. Only last week he had applauded one of my poems and called it a masterpiece.

There were other young women among the students who were more domestic and more likely candidates for the epithet of "housewife," and yet he was cruel enough to single me out for his curse which summarily wiped me off the map and assigned me to the dustbin.

I was whipped into action by that curse. Furiously, I wrote my poems and sent them out for publication. When I finished the MFA program I got a job as the Director of the local Poetry in the Schools Program and appeared on television to explain about how to encourage creativity in children. My poetry mentor's curse added fuel to the fire of my ambition.

Then I built the little three-room house big enough for one person with a writing loft overlooking the sea. However firmly it was planted on the ground with its concrete foundation, its orientation was skyward with skylights everywhere. It was a perfect home for an artist wedded to her imagination where she could dwell undisturbed and uninterrupted. It was designed and sized for one person -- with the addition of a husband, it would be a close fit, and really tight with extras like children.

Granted I was occasionally lonely, but it was the price I paid for not being tied down. I valued my freedom to go where I needed to go as an artist. I could never relate to politics, but I gladly reaped the benefits that washed up in the wake of feminism.

Even if I didn't identify myself as a feminist, I could draw my conclusions from simply observing married friends. When Ellen Willis wrote about her feelings towards marriage in an article published in '79, she described my sentiments exactly: "Domestic life as most of my peers lived it made me feel claustrophobic… better alone than trapped."

I encountered little resistance except for the lone dissenting voice of my mother who asked me every few months if I had any plans to get married and tried to fix me up with her friends' sons. It wasn't that she objected to my absorption with my craft, but she wondered why it kept me from realizing what she considered was my main purpose in life. .

I would answer her with the four words: "It isn't for me." She swallowed her recriminations because she knew that things had changed since 1959 when my older sister married her college sweetheart in a June wedding two weeks after graduation. She had been editor of her college literary magazine, and now she wrote an occasional poem on the back of a napkin between putting the kids to bed at night and doing the dishes.

On the other hand, it hit me that a number of the women poets whose work I admired had suffered from such serious depression that they ended up taking their own lives. I didn't know how to handle that information, but I was still determined to stay single, stay in control of my life, and at all costs, avoid my professor's curse. .

Now the Blessing

All through the Seventies, I thought I was heading for self-sufficiency, mastery over my craft, and bringing creativity out to The People. Little did I know that I was heading to a place where curses turn into blessings, a place where I was no longer defined by what I happened to be doing, a place above the labels we give to people according to their profession, i.e. "poet," "lawyer," "housewife," or "Congressman." There were clues along the way about my real destination, but only in retrospect would I be able to read the messages they concealed.

I didn't know it, but I was heading into soul country. After trying so many other paths, I had ended up taking the traditional Jewish path to get there. It was unfamiliar, but at the same time, it felt so natural as if the roadmap were written in the very cells of my body.

I realized that marriage would be a major step towards self-actualization; it would turn me into a "giver," a necessary ingredient for a full human being. I now wanted to find my soul mate and raise a family. I had thought I needed to obliterate the curse to keep me free, but in the end, the curse itself turned into a way to true freedom and genuine blessing.

My long-standing doubts and resistance to marriage did not have to be addressed one by one -- they dissolved in the rarified air of this new planet where I had landed.

I was suddenly surrounded by families with new ones cropping up all the time. These husbands and wives emanated mutual respect and fidelity. Not out of obligation, but out of love, and it was the same with the old couples who had passed their golden anniversaries.

I looked for signs of the generation gap, but it was hard to find any. The children even liked the same music as their parents. They spent Shabbos together, having warm family meals that we might have had once or twice a year, if we were lucky, when I was growing up. When I sat at their Shabbos tables, the family love overflowed to the guests. It was a transcendent experience, and I wanted "in."

My mother and I were suddenly on the same page. Even more than my desire to create poems, I wanted to create a viable home like the ones I was seeing. Let them write "housewife" after my name in the alumna magazine. All I wanted was that my professor's "curse" would now come true.

Thirty Years Later

At my 19-year-old daughter's engagement party, her fiance's mother carries in a giant cake. I am fascinated by what I see. There is a big chocolate sheet cake that serves as the ground for a tree made out of challah dough with fruit laden branches made from candies. In one branch, two turtle doves hover over their nest.

Everything about it is edible down to the grass and flowers on the ground. I take several photos since I know that there's no way to preserve it forever. Later at home, I draw its likeness with felt-tipped pens. It's the two turtle doves that rivet my attention.

My children are much younger than I was when I married, and it never ceases to amaze me that they don't even have a trace of the ambivalence that I once had about marriage. They have learned to be "givers" at an early age as they helped to take care of their younger brothers or sisters or participated in other acts of loving kindness. Their idea of fun is making a festive meal for a bride and groom during their week of Sheva Brachot or organizing a summer camp for neighborhood children.

They don't have the starry-eyed expectations that one accumulates from watching movies and listening to love songs. Without that ambivalence, those expectations, and romantic images, they slowly fall in love after they get married and take in stride the responsibility of raising children when they are still just a few years past their own childhoods.

The Trade-off

Sometimes I think about what might have been if I had stayed ensconced in my little house built for a solitary writer. I would probably have written at least a few volumes of poetry and developed innovative programs for teaching creativity. There would have been time left over to spend countless hours of fertile solitude sitting up in the loft looking out to the sea.

Has it blunted my creativity to have spent so many hours instead ministering to the children and husband? My time for writing is squeezed in between making meals, receiving guests, nursing wounds of the physical and emotional kind, and all the small and large actions that keep the home running like a microcosmic nation state.

Much of the writing and creating I've done has not been on paper but rather on the lives I've touched and been touched by. This kind of creation stretches my previous limitations and pushes me into vast unchartered soul territory. I experienced childbirth a number of times, and it was never the same. There were also no formulas when it came time to take those same children who had sailed into my arms and let go of them as they embarked on their own lives with their own soul mates.

At the most recent wedding of one of our children, my husband and I stood together on the side, looking at the married children, the unmarried children, and grandchildren. We were emotionally exhausted and physically weary, but above all, we were grateful beyond words for the privilege of bringing these generations into the world.

My curse had blossomed into the fullest of blessings.


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