• Haim Omer

How I built myself a village to raise me

My mother loved me and admired me deeply. She was sure I’d get the Nobel prize. And I loved her back. We were so close, that when I talked to her I used her Polish accent and made willingly the mistakes she made in Portuguese, although I knew better. It was just my way of expressing our special intimacy. But apparently this close and loving relationship was not enough for me. From a very early age I yearned for other contacts, especially with adults that gave me a feeling of otherness. Actually, the one who seemed “other” to me, was actually my mom. She spoke Portuguese badly (my parents arrived in Brazil as refugees in 1947 and I was born in 1949). The food at home was not like elsewhere. Our family was terribly shrunken. There were no grandparents, and we got disconnected from my only uncle because of a family conflict. There were no Brazilians among my parents’ friends, but only Jewish refugees, most of them from the same concentration camp. The feeling of being foreign and isolated may have explained my endless yearning for contacts with people outside the family. The contacts to the world outside were my first “trips abroad”.

My uncle Yechiel left a black yearning hole in my soul. He was there when I was little. I have a photo with him from when I was about two and this picture was very dear to me throughout my childhood, although I didn’t see my uncle for many years because my mom was angry at him for having married another woman (I believe my mother was in love with him, but had to take my father as consolation prize, because my uncle didn’t return her feelings). My yearning for my uncle is clear from some of the stories about him that I deeply cherished. There was the story about the ship in which they came to Brazil, where my uncle was holding my brother Mauricio naked in his arms by the pan where they were cooking spaghetti. My brother, who was 10 months old, pissed in a tall arch into the spaghetti. Uncle Yechiel (so I was told) not only didn’t tell anybody about it, but also ate the spaghetti with the greatest pleasure. I think I also wanted an uncle who ate spaghetti with my sauce. Anyhow, uncle Yechiel became a magnet that attracted me powerfully. When I was 10 years old I learned to travel by bus on my own, and I would go and visit him at his home, although I needed two buses and more than an hour drive to get there. When I started going to my uncle’s home, something deep calmed down within me. I guess the yearning for a larger family was simply burning in my heart. My uncle and my aunt (Marta) broadened my life incredibly, providing me with a model of a functioning family, completely different from my problematic one. I spent every Sabbat eve with them, I traveled with them on vacations, and in the building where they lived I met with my great adolescent love (unrequited as it should be for a would-be poet, as I felt I was). Many things happened there, it was as if life had stronger colors in their vicinity. Surprisingly, my mother softened up. With me serving as a bridge, the relations between the two families were renewed. This was the contrary of the usual process: Instead of the parents bringing the child closer to uncle and aunt, it was the child who brought them to the parents. If there is no village to raise the child, the child will have to find one. The only problem is that many children find their village in the bosom of problematic groups. Belonging to a network of uncles, aunts, grandparents and family friends may sometimes serve as an antidote against that danger. The research on risk factors in adolescence backs this assumption: children who grow in families in which grandparents are involved are in less risk of incurring dangerous peer associations.

Those who have read my writings about children’s fears have heard of Dona Olga, our beautiful neighbor, who taught me how to swim in an unforgettable way when I was 9. Although she was 40 (I remember well her round fateful age), I was totally in love with her. You may think it strange, for a boy of 9 to fall for a 40 years old lady, but then well... you haven’t seen Dona Olga. All of Dona Olga’s family played a role in my childhood. In her home I first tasted and came to appreciate many kinds of Brazilian food, like artichoke, shrimps, and other unknown delicacies, about which I talked about at home, asking Maria, our unforgettable housemaid, whom I can duly name Holy Maria, to add to our home diet. Dona Olga sometimes heard my mother calling me in Yiddish, so she asked me to talk a little bit in Yiddish. I told her I could sing her a Yiddish song. However, I didn’t really know the words, so I sang in gibberish. She told me I should sing more clearly. I said: “Sure Dona Olga, I’ll go and sing in the sun!” Mr. Otto, her German husband, taught me to play chess. He spoke to me at eye level. I remember him telling me about the Nazi enthusiasm that broke out amid the German colony in Brazil in the 30’s. He told me with disgust how they would chant “Heil Hitler!” and stick swastikas on their cars, their doors, and their asses. I don’t know if this reflected his real attitude at that time, but it made me a lot of good. Mr. Otto knew how to talk to a Jewish boy who was born when the ashes were still warm. Since I had no grandparents, I’d sometimes go to Dona Olga’s parents, a family of Italian origin, from whom I learned my first Italian expression “mangia, mangia che ti fa bene!”. There I met with Luizinho, their Japanese neighbor, a brilliant football player, maybe the first in São Paulo to play with contact lenses. Dona Olga’s daughter, Norma, was of my age, she was the chief companion of my childhood games and anatomic explorations. I’ve tried to find her in the Web, but with no success.

There is something upside down in the kind of nostalgia reflected in my memories about my uncles and neighbors. We usually feel nostalgic about our home. What I felt was a yearning for what is foreign, a feeling that haunted me whenever I felt the confines of my home to be too narrow. These early experiences may have protected me against the psychological creed that it is chiefly the intimate relations with one’s primary “object” (meaning the mother, as fathers were born pretty late in the world of psychology) that are crucial for development. My experience taught me otherwise. I felt anchored in my growing up, precisely because I was attached to very special people over and beyond my nuclear family. I am deeply grateful to them for everything they gave me. Therefore I see it as mission to teach about the need of children and parents for a wider network of support over and beyond the core family. The “religion of intimacy” in which we have come to believe, encloses us in very narrow bubbles. No wonder that in some popular psychological theories, the process of coming out of the bubble is termed “separation-individuation”. I think the antidote against remaining locked up in a symbiotic relationship does not have to be a painful process of “separation-individuation”, but developing a broader network of belongingness from start. Parents need this network no less than the child.

(Those who are interested in reading in more detail may look at my book “Courageous Parents ”)

(In the picture above: my brother, my uncle Yechiel and I)

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Haim Omer \\ Founder of the NVR