What is it about graduation that brings out the worst in parents?
Reading the reports of Caroline Giuliani’s high-school graduation, with her father and his wife sitting stone faced while she received her diploma, ducking out early without congratulating her, avoiding his ex-wife and his son, brought back to me some of the most painful memories of my life. You don’t have to be a famous politician’s daughter to suffer from parental selfishness on what should be a special day.
My father didn’t come to my college graduation. My parents, like Caroline’s, were divorced. My father had remarried a woman I couldn’t stand, mostly because she saw every occasion as a contest between she and his children as to who came first. She resented the time alone with him that we craved, and the support we still needed, not to mention my mother, who was no threat to her.
It rained on my graduation day, which meant that instead of the unlimited number of tickets we would have had for an outdoor event, every graduating senior was limited to two guests. I offered my two tickets, one apiece, to my mother and father. But on the morning of my graduation, my father called to tell me he wouldn’t be coming. At first, I was overcome by worry: Something must be really wrong with him. Was he desperately ill? Naively, I assumed only illness could keep him away. But he wasn’t sick, as I later learned. His wife had insisted she had a right to be there, that it was her place, and if I couldn’t come up with a ticket for her, neither of them would come.
To say it was a painful day for me doesn’t begin to describe it. I had been raped 36 hours before. I could barely sit because of the penicillin injections I’d been given to prevent venereal disease. I was near tears. My seatmate for the important moments of my college career, Sue Esserman (nothing comes between Ess and Est in the alphabet), a wonderful woman who has gone on to an enormously successful career in international trade, looked at me fidgeting in my seat, obviously dejected and in pain, and whispered that I needed to sit still. I told her what was wrong. She held my hand. She was the only one who did that day. My mother sat with her then-boyfriend, whom I also had nothing to do with, but at least she came.
My father had bought me a graduation present, but he kept it in the trunk of his car so his wife wouldn’t get jealous. Then his car got stolen, before he had a chance to see me. The gift was gone when he got his car back, and he never replaced it.
My father promised me that whatever happened, he would come to my law school graduation three years later. But he died that spring, of a heart attack at 54, and with no money and nowhere to live after the school dorms closed, I had already moved to Washington to start working by the time my classmates were marching in caps and gowns. My mother didn’t care one way or the other, she told me, and certainly didn’t offer me the airfare to fly back home to be with my classmates. On the day they graduated, I worked, and cried.
Later, when I became a professor, I found every excuse I could to avoid going to graduation. I couldn’t face the happy families, or my own memories. But eventually I was asked to speak at a graduation, and I went. I talked to the kids who were suffering that day, the ones whose families couldn’t pull it together, the ones caught between warring stepparents who cared more about their place than the comfort of their graduating seniors. And I discovered how many of us there were. I was mobbed after the speech, inundated with letters, reminded that what happened to me was happening to so many others.
And it keeps happening. A few years ago, one of my goddaughters wrote to me about her graduation. She didn’t have a ticket for her father’s wife, and her father was making noise about not coming as a result. I called him and told him how, 30 years later, I could still remember what it was like to look around and not see my dad applauding me. He listened and went alone, even though his wife was angry. He did it for his daughter. It was her turn.
It’s no secret that the Giuliani children have a hard time with their father’s wife. They are not close to her. They probably blame her for the breakup of the marriage. Fair or not, that is how it is. She is the wedge that divides the family.
Judy Nathan-Giuliani had no place at Caroline’s graduation. She shouldn’t have come. For one day, the children, their sensitivities, their needs, should have come first. Rudy Giuliani could have come alone, and if he had, he could have stayed to the end, applauded his daughter’s triumph, greeted his son, been civil to the mother of his children. With his wife there, none of that could happen. It doesn’t mean he’s not qualified to be president. But it certainly doesn’t speak well of him as a man. And it’s not something his daughter will soon forget.
©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.