Little Larcenies, White Lies, Sarah Bernhardt, and Other Lessons from my Parents
I grew up watching George Reeves play Superman on television in the 1950s. The show’s introduction, forever imprinted in my mind, told me that heroic Superman “fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” My parents reinforced this lesson, lecturing my brothers and me on the importance of honesty in all things. Imagine my shock as a kid when I saw them throw a set of luggage into the rising waters flooding our basement.
When I asked why they were doing this, my never-tell-a-lie parents explained that they needed new luggage and now the insurance company would pay for it. This was my first encounter with the little larcenies that were considered acceptable, even to my father who was honest to a fault in his job as an accountant. The deception was fair in their opinion because they paid for insurance year after year. As a kid, it was my first inkling that even my parents weren’t always honest.
My mother also schooled me in the importance of little white lies. Not being honest to avoid hurting someone’s feelings was considered good manners. Tell your friend you like her dress, even if you hate it. Compliment a classmate on doing a great job on his speech, even if it was a garbled mess. My favorite little white lie involved one of those fortune tellers made by folding a piece of paper. We called these Cootie Catchers.
The idea was to write “fortunes” inside and, after asking someone to tell me a number, then a color, then some other nonsense, I would reveal their fortune (which I had written inside when I made the catcher). One of my clever fortunes was, “You will be an old maid.” To my pre-teen self, this must have seemed like a fate worse than death. I was playing the game with my 28-year-old aunt, who was considered to be on the verge of being a spinster, and that is the fortune she chose. Except that by now, I understood the importance of dishonesty in situations like this. So yes, I lied and pretended she had landed on a different fortune. My mother would have been proud.
My parents also believed emotional outbursts, not even at the total meltdown level, were unacceptable. As a child, whenever I became upset or voiced a strong opinion, my parents told me, “You’re a real Sarah Bernhardt.” I had no idea who she was but the message was clear. As a good girl, I was to keep the drama to a minimum and comply with whatever was expected of me.
My friends who also grew up in the fifties and sixties have shared that they were told the same thing whenever they expressed strong feelings. All of us assumed Sarah Bernhardt was an over-the-top actress our parents saw in films when they were growing up. Not so. Sarah Bernhardt was a French actress who died in 1923, the year my mother was born. It is more likely my grandparents who saw her silent films and admired her stage performances, many of which included dramatic death scenes designed to wring tears from the audience. Bernhardt was the illegitimate child of a Jewish, high-class prostitute who had little to do with her. Although Bernhardt was educated in convents and once aspired to be a nun, her mother was Jewish, making her Jewish in my parents’ eyes and therefore someone they admired for her fame and fortune. She has been called the first international stage star.
Since there was no way my parents would have seen her perform, the practice of branding emotional outbursts Sarah Bernhardt behavior must have originated with my grandparents’ generation. All I knew as a child in my parents’ home was that any angry outburst or expression of emotion or opinion that contradicted my parents would result in the label, which I hated without really understanding its origin.
It was clear to me that if I protested drying the dishes because I needed to study for a test or became upset about anything said at the dinner table, one of my parents would play the Sarah Bernhardt card. My reaction was to flee in tears, slam my bedroom door, and cry. No one came to console me. The rules of the game required me to emerge, apologize, and comply with whatever it was that set off the storm in the first place.
As I grew older, I learned to embrace the Sarah Bernhardt in me. Rather than seeing it as being undesirable, a drama queen, I saw it as having the courage of my convictions and the ability to stand up for what I believed. I’m glad that my daughters felt they could speak freely and emotionally. And I love that my granddaughters will never have to hear this label and lock themselves in their rooms to cry.