Family Affairs

A professional Phoenix woman wanted to help one poor, "at risk" family. It was the type of private initiative that both political parties say will ease the harsh impacts of welfare reform. Her three-year experiment in personal responsibility rescued an 1

"You have to power your way through a hospital. You cannot wait. It's more than just being assertive."

No detail was too small. Was there any space left near Carol's bed for another vase of flowers?

But once she believed everything was under control, Esther returned to Phoenix on business. Incredibly, Esther was not at the hospital when Carol went into surgery. Just one year later, she cannot even recall the nature of the business that called her from her daughter's bedside.

"I don't remember," says Esther today. "It might have been a speech. I don't know."

Sarah said her mother was a force for change at UCLA but she, and Carol's biological father, John Wesley, provided her sister's emotional support.

Sarah walked Carol into surgery.
"It was terrifying," said Sarah. "She was so strong, just like Mom."
Esther tried to put her absence into perspective.

"I'm experienced with surgery," said Esther. "There is nothing you can do. The worst place you can be is in the waiting room with everyone else worrying together.

"I should have been there to walk her into surgery. I feel bad about that. But Sarah was there to do that.

"The truth is I could stop myself from going to pieces by taking care of another aspect of my life. It was a mental-health thing for me."

Esther returned before Carol regained consciousness and then departed again to Arizona when her daughter was released.

"She had to rush home as soon as I was out of the hospital and well. In that sense, she was not a typical homemaker mom nurturing me through a long convalescence," Carol said.

Both daughters agreed at the time that Esther's departure during surgery was an issue.

One year later, however, the young women believe that their mother's absence was understandable and that people who have a problem with Esther's behavior simply do not understand the complexity of the relationship between mother and daughters. They both relate to the pressures on career women in general, and to their mother in particular.

"Sure, there are times when I wish Mom would fix a home-cooked meal instead of taking us out to Houston's," said Carol. "But that's not my mom."

Esther was unusual--even unfeeling--in another sense.
When Esther returned to Los Angeles to check up on her recovering daughter, she unthinkingly brought Richie along, despite Carol's resentment of the boy. Carol admitted that she was "shocked and surprised" by the tagalong.

Esther said Richie had called her and asked if she could take him in because his mother, Barbara, was throwing all the kids out of the apartment.

"I didn't know what else to do," said Esther.
Carol and Sarah insist that Esther's absence during the operation itself, and Richie's unwanted presence later, had nothing to do with the emotional opera that played out at that first Thanksgiving, when Richie joined the Goulds and the Goldsteins at their table of plenty.

By Thanksgiving Day 1995, just three months after Carol's dramatic operation, the hair on the small patch of scalp over Carol's entry wound had barely grown back.

The First Thanksgiving
Though Richie was still living at home with his family, his situation was tenuous. When Esther visited his apartment on Thanksgiving Day, Barbara told her that someone had stolen the family's turkey.

So Esther brought Richie home with her.
Both daughters had flown into Phoenix and were already at Dr. Goldstein's house for dinner. All three of the doctor's children as well as the wives and grandchildren were there.

All of these strangers and in-laws--and Richie, too--put Esther's daughters on extreme edge.

"Which is totally how my mother works," said Sarah. "'I have no bias, let's blend everything,' that's Esther. But it isn't comfortable because we aren't all so open-minded."

Carol was just as chagrined. And her focus was the little boy who'd come between her and her mother.

"None of us had anything in common with Richie," said Carol. "His knowledge base was how to make crack and live on the street."

Richie knew that something was wrong.
Carol and Sarah argued with their mother and he could almost taste that he was the problem.

"Esther invited me to the movies," said Richie. "Then Esther told me her daughters wanted to go to the movies with just her, not me. They were in a room like 20 minutes talking about it."

Sarah found Richie's demeanor during the Thanksgiving dinner impenetrable.
"I didn't think he understood, or appreciated, what my mother was doing for him," said Sarah. "I couldn't say he was in awe of the strange situation, because I never saw an expression on his face. He was quiet and hardened, totally non-emotive."

For herself, Sarah was completely staggered by the crowd at her mother's turkey dinner.

"I just got drunk."
Richie told Esther that he could see that her daughters did not like him.
Now 13, he was still too young to drink his way out of the situation.

"'I tried not to eat too much, so they wouldn't hate me,' was what he told me," said a devastated Esther.

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