This piece was originally published in the New York Press in 2007.
Oprah often speaks about her “aha” moments. Mine came when I was eleven-years-old and realized that my parents were total potheads.
I was a smart, chubby Jewish kid from the suburbs of Long Island who was enrolled in honors classes and always stayed out of trouble. So it was pretty shocking to me to discover during an anti-drug D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) assembly in elementary school, that my parents were "tokers," just like the burnt out, no-good, teenagers depicted in the movie I was shown in afternoon assembly. The police were there too. According to them, anyone who used drugs would soon be dead, in jail or in a mental institution. This information, as you can imagine, was cataclysmically alarming to me.
The worst-case-scenario fantasies began immediately: My parents would be taken away; I would have to steal food for survival while roaming the mean streets of New York; our dog would be confiscated. I was truly convinced that the jig was up.
Trying not to call too much attention to myself, I sat in my seat pretending to be as disinterested in the presentation as the rest of my classmates. In truth, I was as riveted to the low-production D.A.R.E film as I would have been if it were an episode of The Facts of Life. As the film progressed, I began ticking off in my head all of the "telltale signs that someone you care about is using drugs:"
Strange smells coming from underneath closed doors. Check.
Pipes and other drug paraphernalia lying around. Check.
Glassy eyes and short-term memory lapses. Oh God. Check.
It was all making sense now. My little, neurotic eleven-year-old mind was doing somersaults trying to piece together what I then realized had thus far been my outlaw, drug-hazed family life. I had always thought that something weird was going on with my parents, but I had never put the pieces together before with such clarity. I was mortified, embarrassed and paranoid. I felt personally attacked and exposed. How could my parents do this to me!?
I actually remember wondering if the entire assembly was put together as a ruse to ambush me with the sordid details of my life in front of the principal, the police and all of my non grass-smoking parented classmates. I thought of my grandmother, who I had recently overheard chatting with her friend Sylvia after a particularly fierce rumor about an old Hebrew school teacher of my mom’s ending up in the big house was circulating through our neighborhood: “there aren’t any Jewish people in jail!” she assured us all. I prayed she was right.
After my unsettling D.A.R.E eureka, I began to obsessively notice all of the tell-tale signs of parental ganja smoking that I had previously ignored. It was almost like learning the definition of a new word and then, all of the sudden, seeing it pop up everywhere. Well, my word was M-A-R-I-J-U-A-N-A.
While eavesdropping one day, I overheard my mom telling a story about when I was four and went off to play by myself in the backyard. Shortly thereafter, I returned with an old baggie I had found, filled to the brim with dead leaves and twigs, which I offered up to my mom as a special present because I knew how much "she loved the stuff." I suppose this was my kiddie version of a faux dime bag.
I never said anything to my parents or anyone else about the D.A.R.E film. I have always wondered if my straight A grades and goody two shoes M.O. while growing up was, in my own way, like giving my hippie parents the middle finger. “A BIG EFF YOU! I’m on the Honor Roll!”
After the initial shock, it got easier and easier to pretend that my family was just like everyone else’s. At some point during college, I realized that having pothead parents was actually considered pretty cool. Upon hearing this juicy nugget of family gossip, my friends would usually quiz me on the particulars and then let loose with a flurry of “No Ways!” and “Totally Rads!”
Last February I was cleaning out my mom’s closet after, at the age of 55, she lost her battle with Multiple Myeloma--an incurable and unforgiving blood cancer. Amongst the piles old art projects and school photos, I found her much beloved denim jacket, the existence of which, my friend Jodi Levine assured me in sixth grade meant that I had “a really cool mom.” The sleeves were frayed and the pink Kool-Aid stain from visiting day at sleepaway camp was still there on the elbow, but, I noticed something that I had never seen before: a little button pinned to the left-hand corner of the jacket’s collar that read “I’m a D.A.R.E Mom.” In that moment, laughing through my tears, I wished that just once when we had the chance, mom and I had toked up together.