2 Childhoods, 2 Challenges

Elizabeth Nearing fought with her sister, until her parent’s health problems made them learn to make peace. Lee Cruz learned to fight for his education after his parents moved to Puerto Rico

Nearing and Cruz recounted those lessons at the latest “Storytellers New Haven” held Monday night at the Orchid Cafe in ConnCAT’s offices in Science Park.

Storytellers New Haven hosts monthly events where two speakers share often soul-baring stories from their lives to help New Haveners get to know each other and share their experiences. Founded by Karen DuBois-Walton and Kevin Walton, the organization grew out of community conversations held in the wake of the 2016 election.

Two Sisters

Nearing, who works on community engagement at Long Wharf Theatre, talked about how personality conflicts with her sister eventually became a source of strength in their fraught relationship.

Nearing’s sister, Gina, who is two years older, is more reserved than Nearing, who described herself as the only extrovert in a family of introverts. Nearing loves the theater; her sister loves science. Nearing talks about her problems and lives her life outwardly; her sister is much more reserved.

“She needs to escape. I need to dig deeper,” Nearing said. Her sister needs to engage with problems in a solitary, detached fashion, while Nearing prefers to do it emotionally and in public.

Nearing said their conflicts went further back than she could remember, originating when as a toddler she “stabbed her [sister] in the ankle with a fork.”

When her sister went to middle school, Nearing found the change hard. Her sister stopped playing with her, and Nearing would sometimes sit outside of her door hoping for her sister’s attention.

Soon after Nearing fell into adolescent depression. She said she is driven to understand her ailments, so she researched adolescent depression. She even gave a presentation on mental illness to her seventh-grade class.

Her sister, meanwhile, thought Nearing’s depression was a form of attention-seeking behavior. When Nearing developed an anxiety disorder at age 15 her sister’s suspicions only deepened.

The conflict between the two sisters’ ways of interacting with the world came to a head the night Nearing’s sister was to leave for college. Nearing had a massive anxiety attack at two in the morning; her sister just rolled her eyes.

They would not reconcile with each other until Nearing’s sister developed a similar anxiety disorder while working at a robotics internship after her junior year in college. Still, they fought, arguing endlessly on the phone. Slowly, two steps forward and one step back, they approached reconciliation.

Then disaster struck. Nearing was hit by a car. Her father was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Her mother underwent a major hip surgery, and the family’s three dogs died, all in the last year or so.

Nearing’s sister called her every day. Sometimes they fought, and sometimes they were able to plan a more effective response to the family’s crises, with Nearing focusing on short-term consequences and immediate emotional health, and her sister looking after longer-term logistical issues. Over the holidays Nearing and her sister helped their parents deal with the strain of medical crises and the sudden deaths of their three dogs.

On their most recent night together in 2017, Nearing and her sister built a pillow fort, playing as though they were children again.

She said her fights with her sister taught her that opposing strengths and weaknesses don’t always have to be a source of conflict in relationships.

“The push-pull conflicts can become something really beautiful,” Nearing said.

Making The Grade

Lee Cruz also spoke about how formative his childhood was. Cruz, who is the director of community outreach at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and a longtime Chatham Square/Fair Haven organizer, said his family’s frequent moves taught him how to advocate for himself, and how his mother’s determination to help him showed him the value of a bible.

In 1969 Cruz’s family left New York City for Puerto Rico at the end of the school year. Cruz’s father worked as a diamond cutter after he was recruited by a Jewish jeweler’s firm. Cruz’s parents decided to move because of the simmering social crisis in the United States, which saw assassinations and riots rock the country in the 12 months before their decision.

The political violence and urban decay of mid-century America were far from Cruz’s mind.

“My focus was on the fact that Star Trek wouldn’t continue,” Cruz said.

Cruz took great pride in his school work, particularly after his principal liked his fourth grade essay. Cruz had written about wanting to become a combination of JFK and Spock.

The move to Puerto Rico changed that. For his parents, it was a homecoming, but for Cruz it was a hard time. He could speak Spanish, but he couldn’t read or write it. When he was informed at the start of summer break that he would be repeating fourth grade in the fall, he was devastated.

But he was also determined.

“I can’t let this happen,” Cruz recalled himself vowing.

His mother, who had completed only the ninth grade, decided to help him. She taught him to read and write with a bible written in side-by-side English and Spanish. In just one summer Cruz learned to read and write a new language.

But the world seemed determined not to let Cruz get ahead in school. In 1971 a miners’ strike in South Africa brought the global diamond markets to a standstill, putting Cruz’s father out of work. Trying to support five sons and one daughter proved impossible, and Cruz’s father moved them back to the U.S. mainland, but Connecticut instead of New York.

Cruz, now living in Meriden, found that Puerto Rican students were confined to a trailer with other immigrant students. But Cruz was fluent in both languages. He had learned to advocate for himself as well and convinced the school’s counselor he was fluent in English.

After a farcical meeting with a psychologist, who was baffled by the idea that Cruz had to prove his obvious fluency, Cruz was allowed to join classes for English-speaking students. More than three decades later, after high school and college, Cruz would meet that psychologist again, while they were both serving on the board of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice.

Reflecting on the challenges of moving across an ocean, even in the best of times, Cruz expressed hope that some 800 people displaced by Hurricane Maria would be able to find a new home in New Haven, as he once found new homes in Puerto Rico and Connecticut.