Sunday, January 29, 2017

From Toni: A Short History of My Life Before Chronic Illness

When big events happen in our lives, it's easy to forget that there was life before we were married, or before we had kids, or before we got into an accident.

When you meet my mother it's hard to believe that she has ever been anything other than the loving, gentle, adult person that she is now. If you met her after she became ill, then it might not occur to you that she was once a high-powered professional, working in a high stress environment as the dean of students at a law school and as a law professor.

But as is the case with everyone, the life experiences we accumulate form who we are. They become the roadmap that guides our future decisions. 

So here's a piece my mom wrote about her early life. She has written extensively about the years when she became ill. But this is the first time she is writing about some of the critical events from her formative years. 


Thanks for this idea, Mara. It's certainly been odd for me to write about my life before I became ill, but I've enjoyed it a lot.

I’ll start with my father. I always start with him because he was one of the great joys of my life...and one of its great sorrows. When he was an infant, his family fled modern-day Ukraine to escape the pogroms (government organized or condoned anti-semitic riots in which thousands of Jews were killed). 

He grew up in a poor area of Los Angeles. He didn't have money to go to college so he started a business and became very successful. He and his sister, my Aunt Jen, opened one, then two, then three, then four upscale gift shops throughout the Los Angeles area. As a little girl, it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary to me, but looking back, it was an impressive accomplishment.

Their offices were on the second floor of the store on Hollywood Blvd. This was when the boulevard was still glamorous. As a young child, I’d go to work with my dad when school was out. He’d give me “grown-up” things to do in the store. Then we’d go to our favorite lunch place and always order the same thing: a hamburger and a vanilla milkshake for each of us. Afterward, I’d spend time on my own walking up and down Hollywood Blvd. I wasn’t even 10 years old, but it was completely safe.

My dad was always fun to be with, whether I was going to work with him, or watching him in his little backyard carpentry shop, or just hanging out together. He was soft spoken and gentle. I have not one memory of his being unkind to me.

Then, suddenly, my world fell apart. My dad got leukemia and died within six months. I was 10 years old. I mourn that loss to this day, although I’ve come to terms with it in the sense that I’m able to see our life together as a complete life, even though a short one.

My mother tried to take my dad's place in the gift shop business, but it was too hard. (They were an interesting match: my dad with his high school diploma and my mom with an M.A from Stanford—a rarity for women at that time.) The strain of raising two children on her own, running four stores in different locations across the L.A. area, and having my domineering aunt as a business partner was too much for my mom. 

She told me about the day she decided she had to get out of the business. She was driving home from Hollywood to West L.A. where we lived. She was so tense and exhausted that she suddenly found herself driving on the wrong side of the road. That was it. She told my aunt she was finished, and they sold the business. The result was that we became downwardly mobile instead of continuing the upward climb we'd been on due to my dad's success in business. While our family friends moved to more upscale neighborhoods, we moved to a more modest one.

My junior and high school years were not happy ones. I missed my dad all the time, and I was embarrassed because I was the kid whose parent had died. I felt guilty about that embarrassment because it contained an element of anger at my dad for dying and making me stand out like a sore thumb, as the expression goes. 

That guilt lasted until I read Dick Cavett’s memoir when I was in my late teens. He lost a parent when he was ten, just like I had. It was his mom. He wrote that he felt guilty because he was angry at her for dying and making him feel embarrassed around other kids. Knowing that someone else felt how I did made the guilt and the embarrassment go away, just like that.

When I was in the 10th grade, my mom was swept off her feet by a man named Nathan who was, shall I say, not honorable. He was handsome and charismatic—and she was very lonely. They got married and life became miserable for me and my older brother, although as a senior in high school, he didn't live at home for long. I have dozens of stories I could tell about Nathan, but I’ll only share two. 

The first is that he made a pass at me. I fended him off thank goodness, but it was traumatic. I told my brother in secret but he went straight to my mom about it. She told me that the reason Nathan had tried to seduce me was that I reminded him of her when she was my age. She actually wanted me to feel sympathy for him.

When the story got out, my mom and Nathan were "driven" out of L.A. by relatives (on both her and my dad's side of the family). The two of them moved to England where they lived for the rest of their lives. He died about 10 years before she did. After his death, my mom and I tried to mend our relationship. She visited me in California every other year or so, partly because I was now married and had a baby. 

It took a long time, but eventually I forgave my mother for how she handled the incident with Nathan. I realized that her taking his side reflected how desperately lonely she was…and how desperately in love with him she was. Forgiving her was something I did for myself. I know, because it felt so good.

A second dishonorable thing that Nathan did was to raid a trust that my dad had set up for me and brother. We were to come into a sizeable amount of money when we turned 25, but the trust had a provision that allowed my mom to get at the assets if she needed them to support her children. Well, she didn’t need money to support us, but Nathan talked her into going to the bank trustee and convincing that person that she did. And so, the money that my father so carefully set aside for me and my brother went to Nathan in large part.

When I went to college, I felt reborn. Not only did I get away from Nathan (they hadn't moved to England yet) but I entered a whole new world of learning and friendships. It was at the University of California—Riverside, that I met Tony, my husband. We were dating each other’s roommates and so found ourselves hanging out a lot together while we waited for our respective dates. That friendship slowly blossomed into love. We became a couple the night of Kennedy’s assassination. At the risk of giving you TMI, our friends had gathered, in shock, at someone’s house. All of us were drinking heavily. I got so drunk that I threw up, not in a bowl, but on Tony. We’ve been inseparable ever since.

We moved to Davis so he could go to graduate school (he has a Ph.d. in Sociology). Four years after giving birth to our son, Jamal, we adopted Mara from Korea. My brother was adopted, so it seemed like the natural thing to do after having had the experience of one pregnancy. Life was good in our family, although we had the typical problems: money was tight, Jamal and Mara didn’t always get along when they hit their teens. Still, those were wonderful years in retrospect. I love my children with all my heart.

After Mara had settled into our family, I went to law school and then joined the faculty at U.C. Davis School of Law. When Jamal and Mara went off to college, I agreed to go into administration and became the law school’s dean of students. I stayed on that job for six years. I like to joke that that’s when my hair turned grey.

When I returned to teaching, I loved being back in the classroom and, based on my evaluations, the students loved having me. My children were in good marriages with spouses whom I loved. In short, I'd never been happier, both personally and professionally. Then Tony and I took that trip to Paris where I got sick…and that brings me to 2001 and the chronic illness that I write about so often.

Thank you so much for reading this brief story of my life.

Some last-minute editing on the bed


  1. Loved reading this, so interesting. Thanks for sharing. I think so many of us can relate to having rich and complex lives prior to our illnesses... lives that weren't necessarily only happy, as we too often imagine them to have been at times in our current struggles.

    1. Thank you for this insightful comment, Jacquie. You're so right. All of our lives have been complex...and a mix of joys and sorrows. Warmest wishes to you. Toni

    2. Thanks, for sharing this. I came to live in West LA, Mar Vista. after spending 6 months at Brotman Hospital where I was declared disabled. That was 1974. I managed to teach in elementary school in East LA as I spoke Spanish. Spent so much time at the museums, etc. I never improved and it's been a long time. It helps to read about others. Thank you. Merry

  2. Thank you for sharing your early years.....we all lead such interesting lives. I love having a window into others. These experiences build who we eventually become.

    1. Thanks for your comment. All of us have had rich lives...except for those we know well, we don't have much of a window into other people's lives. Warm wishes, Toni.

  3. Thank you for those memories. You allowed me to peek back to the me I used to be. One of my fondest memories is sitting on the porch with the Sunday paper, reading articles about actors or artists. I can feel the sun and breeze and hope that covered me in those days. I knew that I, too, would be a famous one. I knew that everything was possible. The world was at my feet.

    1. I think we all had those wonderful, sun-filled dreams, Eliska. Thanks for reading my piece.

  4. Interesting. You have done well with your life. Sorry about the illness. Best wishes.

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  6. Thank you Toni for sharing. I am not sure what your chronic illness is/was, but you seemed to overcome in your life, many hurdles. Each one took a great deal of strength, both physically and emotionally. love judi xoxo