Generosity and Intimacies

I’ve been sick this week which means that I was productive in unusual ways. I slept a lot. Coughed a heck of a lot of phlegm out of my lungs (sorry to go literal on you there). Sat with the husband and completed year-end tax-deductible donations. And I finally managed to finish a book and a TV binge that had been on my list. Oddly enough, the donations, the book, and the TV have catalyzed some ideas.

The TV binge was Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. My husband and I watched the show regularly while it was on the air and we own all the seasons on DVD. I’ve been excited but trying not to get my hopes up too high ever since the reunion was announced.

I liked the mini-series as a whole and it did a great job of wrapping up the “what happened to” questions about the lives of characters I loved.

It wasn’t all perfect. I thought Stars Hollow The Musical was a huge waste of precious screen time. I thought Luke’s character was written dumber than I always thought he was and I was disappointed that Paris never mellowed. I would rather have had more Hep Alien, a Paris and Doyle reconciliation, more Luke n’ Lorelai time, or even more Stars Hollow Gazette.

The re-boot definitely had moments for wincing on behalf of the characters and some for the writers, but what was most interesting to me was how painful it was to watch Emily be “taken advantage of” by Berta and her family. Here’s this rich grandmother who loses her husband and in her grief, also releases her driving need to control her life. Just as she did back in Season 5, when she and Richard became separated, Emily begins to show kindness and gratitude towards her maid. Presumably out of loneliness,  a desire for connection, a need to be taken care of…grief is what it takes for her to see “the maid” as a human being.

In the new series, there is a fascinating progression for Emily’s character, from frustration that Berta the maid doesn’t do what she tells her (perhaps doesn’t even speak English), to acceptance of whatever Berta does. By the end of the mini-series, Berta has essentially adopted Emily into her family, utilizing Emily’s fortune for the good of her extended clan, and oh-by-the-way, also to take care of Emily.

When I watched this on television I was horrified. Why would Emily succumb to allowing a perfect stranger to decide what she eats, when her home is a playground, and who changes her lightbulbs? Unthinkable! At first, I interpreted it completely as an example of poor Emily, “brought so low” by the death of Richard.

Then I finished reading Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. The book is about an heiress who left a fortune of over $300 million dollars upon her death. I have been very curious about the controversy surrounding her reclusive habits and the final years of her life because the family owned an “empty mansion” in my home town of Santa Barbara.

Huguette’s real-life story might as well have inspired Emily Gilmore’s character arc.  Both women become dependent upon their caretakers and use their finances to take care of them in return. In  Huguette’s case, she gave her nurse, Hadassah, many millions of dollars over the course of 20 years of caretaking. The book lays out the clearly slippery slope between patient and caretaker. The gifts begin innocently enough with talking about daily life. If the person who you spend the most time with, the person who spends 12 hours a day caring for you (just the way you like) needs something that it is in your power to provide, wouldn’t you willingly offer?

Reading the book I was again, initially horrified at the huge amounts of money that Huguette was bestowing upon what Emily Gilmore would call “hired help.” Wasn’t a salary enough for Hadassah? So what if she worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, that just meant she was not taking care of herself, allowing Huguette’s needs to overshadow her own.

But by the end of the book, I began to realize that my judgment about the right and wrong of the fictional Berta and the real-life Hadassah was one-sided and I was coming down very hard on a side I didn’t like. My side.

Being a caretaker is a very strange relationship. It can involve an intimacy that is as emotionally binding as marriage. Discussing BMs as casually as whether or not to carry an umbrella will do that for a relationship.

Caretaking is intimate by necessity (or by habit), but it is not always comfortable. I know first-hand the level of gratitude my father felt when he found he needed help, especially at the very end of his life when he was no longer able to care for himself. I found myself needing to be confidently “okay” with his body as if it was my own in front of doctors and nurses. It wasn’t easy. Nor was living in the same house with him after a 20+ year hiatus. But it made him happy. It made the last few years of his life better. It showed him he was loved. And he left me the sole executor of his estate.

Now, I’m not talking about big money. And what he did leave me I’d give back if Dad could have had a few more years to spend it himself before he died. He made choices, I honored them, and I was honored by them. So how is my situation different from Huguette’s, or even Emily Gilmore’s fictional scenario?

First, I am family. Clearly, I was raised with the belief that family comes first, is all important, and blood is the tie that binds. So it made sense for me to help my dad when he needed it. That wasn’t necessarily the case for Emily or Huguette. They had difficult family relationships, and many immediate family members were gone or estranged. So who could they turn to? Whoever filled the void. Second, the scale of the wealth. Where there’s tasty scraps, there are vultures.

In the case of Empty Mansions, I’m very grateful that the authors took the time to present the evidence for and against Huguette’s caretakers and blood relations. It allowed me to forgive myself.

The courts are there to decide what is right and fair, based on evidence and law, and in our hearts, we can also decide what is fair and right and aligned with our morals. The horror and anger I felt watching a strange foreign family envelop Emily Gilmore in their midst, the same disbelief and outrage I felt when millions were left to Huguette’s nurse and lawyer, well, that’s the same self-loathing and undervaluing buried inside me, the beneficiary my father’s trust. Money is security, power, and love. If a fictional character like Emily can portray that, if a millionaire could gift away her fortune to those she believed took good care of her (withholding it from the undeserving), then probably my father trusted me and my ability to use his gift wisely. There’s hope for me.

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