At Thanksgiving, people come together and share a meal. It is an occasion for gratitude and celebration of families of origin and families by design. A luncheon last month at The Patterson Club paid tribute to this type of bonding.
The October 18 event was hosted by Project Return of Westport, which runs a local, residential home for adolescent girls and young women in crisis. It is a place for them to go to in order to heal and rebuild their lives.
The theme of the group’s inaugural Gather Round the Table luncheon was the centering power of home — a topic that was woven through the anecdotes provided by the guest speakers.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author, lecturer, social justice advocate, and founding editor of Ms. Magazine, spoke. She was joined by her twin daughters, Robin Pogrebin, a New York Times cultural reporter, and Abigail Pogrebin, an author and former 60 Minutes producer.
Robin said the dinner table is a worthy topic for a luncheon for a group like Project Return that nurtures young girls.
“It’s where we came together,” she said of her family. Abigail said that their dinner table growing up was where she learned skills that have helped her in her career by “having to compete to get your point made.”
Their family also learned to connect to one another over meals.
“We had attentiveness to each other,” she said.
And this way of learning about your children’s lives is something Abigail appreciates as a parent.
“I notice it now,” she said. “It’s when something plops out of their mouth. It’s really a crucial time, mealtime.”
Abigail said that in some ways her parents might have known too much.
“My parents were over-involved in our lives,” she said. “My father remembers who slighted us at 9. He hasn’t forgiven them.”
Another way Letty learned about her children growing up was by roaming onto their turf.
“I would just hang out in their rooms,” she said. This type of attentiveness and care is something that Project Return tries to carve out in its residential program.
It is equipped to house up to seven girls at a time and has a full-time staff.
Letty said she was impressed that Project Return is able to give that level of nurturing to the girls at the home.
“I’m not sure how Project Return manages that,” she said.
A part of empowering the children in the Pogrebin household was to treat the two daughters and one son equally, raising children without sex role stereotypes.
“My husband and I were committed to that,” Letty said.
Impartiality when it comes to gender is important to Letty, and she has come up with a simple test to determine if you are sexist.
She suggests standing at the doorway for a girl child’s room and asking the question, could a boy move into this room without changing a thing?
“If not, you are sexist,” she said.
The Pogrebin children were encouraged to make of their futures what they wanted. Both girls went on to pursue successful, “lofty” careers and be wives and mothers their own way.
“Our future was what we made of it,” Robin said.
Robin learned a lot growing up with a feminist for a mother during a time when women were just beginning to have doors open to an array of opportunities in the world.
“My mother was a huge role model,” she said.
Robin has made the choice to give up certain things in her career in order to be home at night for her children during their formative years. But she still knows the world is her oyster.
“It’s not about having it all at once,” she said. “It’s about having it all eventually.”
For Letty, being a feminist is not about replacing one set of expectations with another. It’s about having options. And that is what she has wanted for her daughters.
“I’m thrilled with their choices,” she said. “Why? Because they’re happy.”
Letty hopes that one day there will be no need to use a gender distinction in a profession description.
“I’d like to see a world where you don’t say, ‘woman doctor,’” she said.
Project Return has been around for 26 years and tries to help the women placed there reach for their own dreams.
The group plays a life-changing role in the lives of its residents by helping them develop self-esteem, confidence, values, and the life skills they need to thrive.
Even after leaving the group home, its former residents receive services and a welcome when they come back to visit.
Lorin Klaris, a past president of Project Return, thought the Pogrebin ladies were a perfect choice as speakers for the event.
“They’re what a loving family should look like,” Ms. Klaris said. “A family that has an understanding of being there for each other.”
She said the staff and services of Project Return will always be there for the girls and young women who come through the doors, “just like a real family.”
And just like the message of choice that Letty infused her children with, each of the residents is encouraged to ultimately make her own life what she wants.
This is a skill set Ms. Klaris wants to see the residents incorporate into their lives.
“It is our hope that each girl who comes through the door gains a better understanding of herself,” Ms. Klaris said.
Information about Project Return may be found at projectreturnct.org.