Now it was all making sense, or at least I could see how everything lined up. The childhood that seemed so dramatic, The parents who alternately tried to come off normal and then were unapologetically super crazy. The many lectures about how it was the fault of my younger sister and myself- the endless lectures that seemed to go on for hours. Eventually my sister would rise up and spout something like “fuck this” and disappear downstairs. If she went downstairs to escape, that must have meant she was already old enough to be downstairs in a room off the basement. What age was I when I moved downstairs to one of those rooms? I know I was there in high school but when did I end up down there? Why can I not remember simple things like that?
A few years back, I had an operation. It wasn’t life-threatening but it was last minute. That same week my second son’s grandfather died. The following week my parents took my older son and went to lake Tahoe. I begged them to please take his little brother, who was then 8 years old -not that I needed to explain, but because everything was fairly hellish. Of course they said no, it would be too much work. He was an average 8 year old, no special needs or other health issues.
I made the mistake of staying at my mother’s house after the operation- I seemed to be ok, I didn’t even stay the night, but her house was closer to the hospital if I bled too much after. I remember her saying at some point during one of these late-night smoking sessions in their back room, at a point where I finally felt maybe I was getting somewhere with her, like maybe she cared about what happened to me after all. She said “Is your helping us when we’re old dependent upon whether we help you now?” It was a weird statement/question to ask then and it has only gotten weirder over time.
Is it normal for a mother to ask things like that? It sounded like lawyer-speak. It sounded like hedging her bets. It sounded like any hope I had for escape I could kiss off. The morning of the third day, the day I was supposed to go back home she started in about how I shouldn’t get comfortable and that I couldn’t stay (this was never the plan, it was only about recovering from the operation, if I was bleeding badly to be nearer the hospital. I felt like the nights we stayed up talking, about what I’m not sure about now, I can only remember the things I really had questions about, she would only get all uptight and say things like ‘I’m not going to talk about that. I listened to her go on and on about her father and how she missed him and how she felt my grandmother and her two sisters excluded him and didn’t treat him as well as they should have, and whatever other things were bothering her. I started to feel like I was getting somewhere with her, maybe.
When it came to my turn to tell her things I was having problems with, she didn’t want to hear it. I felt like she wanted to relate to me as if I were a friend- and not in a every-kid-grows-up type way, but as if I never had been raised by her, as if we had no history, as if we were at some kind of bar or coffee shop and she could spill her guts anonymously, without explanation, without investment. God, I remember how that feeling sucked. I didn’t want her to be my friend, I wanted her to be my mother, or at lest act like a mother, even retroactively. Maybe even to cop to things like the middle-school janitor thing (I’ll tell you about that later) and other lousy stuff she either did or didn’t do but show in her actions she did care about me now.
We would be driving somewhere and she would say “see that little studio up there, that’s the kind of place I would do my painting if I hadn’t had kids.” She did paint though, she painted at home. I don’t know if my sister felt like we had stopped her from some great mission, but I did. I didn’t feel guilty though or sad, I felt angry. I still feel angry. Just like when she had to tell me the story of how she used to let me cry in my crib until I threw up when I was a baby. It didn’t even sound like she was telling me this because she felt bad about it, like a confession, it felt more like she was complaining, like what a needy pain in the ass I was. I saw photos of myself as a baby. She told me she couldn’t breast feed. Ok but how could you let me look like that? It’s hard to think about it now. Was she that clueless? I looked like I was borderline starving as a newborn.
It’s really true as a kid you don’t really know how good or bad you have it because it is all you know, you have no comparison until you see other families or have your own. You don’t know it is horrible because you think it is normal, or you say to yourself, well, here I am, it must not have been that bad, ‘cause here I am, I’m alive, aren’t I? Or ‘oh my poor mom, she must have been pressured by society to breast feed blah blah’ or’ oh I feel bad for her, because of me, and my dad avoiding the Vietnam war, I ruined her life as she saved my father’s. And perhaps I saved him too, because at one point being a college student or married wasn’t enough, you had to be married and have a kid to get bumped down the list.
I don’t look at my own shortcomings as her fault or whatever I have done or neglected to do as completely because of her, like you see at AA meetings or in a shrinks office. I see her total weirdness as something unto itself and yeah maybe I would have been different but who knows? I know I’m at least mostly not like her, although I don’t want to be like my dad either. He’s not like her, but he is deathly afraid of any kind of conflict. No matter how crazy, mean or childish, he goes along to get along.
I don’t know if my paternal grandfather beat the crap out of him or exactly what happened. Pretty sure it was more along the lines of some kind of punishment and not anything molestery. When my parents used to fight, he would go into some kind of weird coughing fit like he was going to choke to death if he had to stand up for himself about anything. I learned that he would sooner say ‘maybe’ or put something off indefinitely than say no at the outset, which only made the disappointment worse, because there was hope.
I think they both kind of hate me now because I figured out all the crap they were up to back then. That and they know that I know that they will never help me and have written me off, though I was never in trouble with the law or drugs or did anything bad to them. I’m either just not loved, not worth it and/or my dad would rather keep what little peace there was to keep than oppose her, even if I could help them as time goes on, even though it is in their interest to help me.
If they didn’t want me to figure things out later, maybe they shouldn’t have told me things like “oh your father is going over to so and so’s house, because she has lost her tampon inside her” WTF My dad was not a doctor. If I asked her how my dad was supposed to help I got no answer- I wasn’t even sure what a tampon was at that point, I was too young. Was this a passive-aggressive move on her part, so that I might have asked him about it. I can’t remember if I did or not. By the time he got home she was probably too drunk and likely they had another fight, which would either be about her drinking or things we couldn’t understand. All of these people were younger than I am now when all this was going on. But they were old enough to not have dragged kids under 10 into it. As fucked up as I am in some ways, I look back at them and say, well gee, at least I never dragged a kid who had hives all over them to someone’s house for dinner, when it was so bad that after they left, I had to go to the emergency and have a shot.
I had a best friend, whose parents were much older than mine- her mother would be watching Lawrence Welk on tv when we would go over there after school and they actually had certain foods for dinner according to what day of the week it was. My friend thought they were boring and terrible, even as she for years would write down the top 40 in a binder every Sunday for the four hours that Kasey Kasem would be on and she was borderline OCD about her stuff and how we did anything. I liked the quiet predictability of her house.
They were nice to me. There was no drama there ever. I think they were from Minnesota or South Dakota. They didn’t seem especially fond of my best friend but at least it was peaceful and that was enough for me. I thrived on their boringness. When she would complain about her relatives coming over and her mom making some awful jello thing and how lame it was I was jealous. I loved that they could be counted on for routines, that her dad wore this grey outfit for working in the garage and that her mom seemed eminently sensible and never said inappropriate things or took jibes at us. They didn’t fight like my parents did. When they seemed exasperated about something or would sigh, it seemed like something to hope for rather than what later I would learn was looked at as par for the course of long-term marriage/suburban ennui. They were not into any of the hippie stuff that my parents liked. It was ironic that while I’m not sure they met my parents in more than passing, they were probably worried that because my parents were relatively young in comparison to them, that maybe I would be a bad influence when in actuality it was my friend who was the party-till-you-puke girl and it was I who had to drive everyone home, or pretend to be the mother calling people in sick to school or otherwise devising a plan.
My mother would ask us weird things occasionally like “if you found out me or your dad were with someone else would you hate us?” or later “Do you enjoy (insert whatever sexual thing). If we said yes, she said we were like our father. I kept thinking in my head, my mother is missing something- why does she always look like she is fake smiling in photos? why does she only get nice or sentimental to my sister and I when she drinks? I hated the smell of wine on someone’s breath for years because of that. How did I not know that using sun-in and having partially bleached hair wasn’t cool? How did I not know that I wasn’t really the school janitor’s sorta girlfriend and it wasn’t ok? I mean, if my mom knew I was a 12 year old up there at the school alone, it was because it was OK, right?
And why was the Vietnam vet guy living with us with his toddler when my sister and I were in the early years of grade school? The guy with the plate in his head who also used to drink? Why did the mom leave? Was she dead? why when I came back from school was he sitting on the sofa in a towel and you could totally see his junk. Why did he have a special name for my mother, the name of a flower? Why did he act so familiar with my mom and make stupid jokes I didn’t get? Why did my sister and I have to drive up to this farm up in the north bay and sit in the car for hours while my parents took turns talking to this couple they were friends with, the woman was the one with the stuck tampon. Why did so many things never seem to make sense?
What was wrong with my mother I still don’t know. The strange childishness, the mood swings, the staying in bed all day, the calling me by the name of her youngest sister, whom she did not like, or by the name of someone whom my dad was probably seeing or once when I was sick, she called me ‘Carmen’, some character from an opera. She was the same physical type my dad had a thing for. Probably the same type he was hoping my mother was, maybe Ingmar Bergman or a Hitchcock blonde or a Julie Christie- but it turned out mother wasn’t actually the type she looked like. Once she said wasn’t I glad she married my dad because what if she had married so and so and then I would look like my best friend- whatever that meant. They both attributed much to astrology, but I thought whatever was happening was way beyond the stuff my dad was into with his charts and discussion groups.
At times I thought she actually was pleased that she ruined something of mine, once it was a plant I was growing in a bottle, once it was a pair of pants she bleached a hole in, once it was a magazines featuring my favorite band that she gave away. I learned not to talk about anything that mattered because she kept track of everything. It was as if one side of her brain was all but dead, the one that would have been ‘a normal mom’- but the side that was practical and could remember every detail was working overtime. She knew I wasn’t like her, that I could see the details she could, but I could also pick up all these things she was blind to and it seemed she both resented me and feared me, though what could I do?
There were a couple occasions where I wished out loud something would happen- one was a drive somewhere, I can’t remember where it was but it seemed like it was out in nowhereland of northern California. My father seemed to like the driving somewhere better than the actual getting wherever we were going, whereas I hated it. Wouldn’t you, with a younger sister that was prone to carsickness in a datsun 210? Though I was never great at math I could tell by the signs and his speedometer we weren’t actually going anywhere, or in the time he stated it would take.
In any case, during one of these drives, I wished something would happen like the road would be closed, or we would have to turn back, anything to stop the endless driving. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I made the mistake of saying it out loud. We got to this area which looked like a dead end, I don’t remember if we had to pee or why they even thought we should all get out-even get out. It was hot, there was all this dry wheaty type grass stuff, it sucked. I was really feeling bored, mad and like my parents were stupid for even liking to do this.
We got out of the car, it was quiet and hot. Well, it was quiet for about 10 seconds maybe. We started to hear a sound, it started low and became louder. I thought I knew what it was, I could not believe my parents didn’t know right away. “Kind of sounds like snakes, rattlesnakes ” I said. My mom actually attributed the snakes to me and was mad, though of course she was mad like a little kid as usual, her mouth all tight. Unexplained things always happened in our house, I didn’t care what caused it, lightbulbs exploding, stuff falling out of cabinets. Of course I didn’t believe I was doing anything, or had caused the snakes, but weighed if her maybe believing it might somehow help me make her less crazy- mind you this is someone who acted as if inanimate objects ‘wanted’ to be placed here or there, or had opinions or liked or disliked other inanimate objects, like stuffed animals or salt shakers.
How he could not notice what she was like when they met I don’t know. I guess because they weren’t living together first, or maybe he did notice something was ‘off’ but so desperate was he to avoid Vietnam that he didn’t care- and I don’t blame him for that. She probably looked like an ok deal compared to swamps, bombs, entrails.. My mom wanted to move out of her house too, she even said she was tired of looking after her middle sister, whom she told some story about how when she was born the nurses tried to hold her in because the Dr wasn’t there yet- (how could they make a woman hold a baby in anyway?) and her youngest sister, who is only seven years older than myself.
I did feel bad for grandpa, her father. He seemed like a decent guy, if a little eccentric, possibly a touch autistic and set in his routine. He kept his classical music cassettes and albums alphabetized. He used to give my sister and I life savers when we would stay over and sleep on the fold out couch in the living room at the San Francisco house and say ‘good night boys’. Maybe he was disappointed at the second generation of girls but I don’t think so, rather it seemed to be his only joke. We would lie on the fold-out sofa and watch the lights of the cars go through the metal blinds and across the plaster-textured wall, across all the Catholic stuff my grandmother had in the little indentation above the fireplace.
I still remember when he died, about ten years ago-how he was on a respirator. I think he is the second person I have seen on one of those things. It seems like it’s horrible. My sister and I were on either side of the table/bed thing he was on in the ICU each holding his hand – we were saying for him to get better and we loved him and were waiting for him to get out of there, He was shaking his head back and forth like no and squeezing our hands.
None of his side of the family was there when they took him off the respirator. True to form, my mother made my dad go alone. None of them said anything when he passed at the funeral. It seems like it has become my job to write something and get up and read it when anyone goes. As time goes on and all the grandparents have passed it has made me wonder if they all secretly hated each other and that is why no one gets up to say anything but me. I get really mad when I think of how he was supposedly in bed for like a week and no one made him go to the Dr, they called my mother when apparently he got really bad and they needed to call an ambulance.
The fact that they called my mother when things got bad (of course at the last minute) was worrisome, why would they call her, she rarely even goes over there. She used to call them when she would panic about something. Then she was mad at them for not helping him. I try to look at it like he still won, because he used to smoke and drink until the dr said when he was in his 50’s -if you don’t quit you don’t have long, but he lived till he was about 85, limiting himself to one smoke a day and like one highball.
It’s like all of them are afraid to do anything, even if it is something that helps someone. Maybe especially if it helps someone. They all prefer to quietly whisper and conspire and basically not do anything. I told them years ago to stop telling me horrible secrets (like the thing about my mom and the vietnam vet, or that one of my aunts has the blood type of grandpa’s brother, or that grandpa’s father, my great grandfather was married three times to women with the same name and they all died). I told them that from here on out if they kept telling me things I would not at all promise to keep it secret.
I want to try and hold on to the good parts, or the parts that at least save them in my head-the parts that while not absolving them made them at least interesting but it seems like when I try to it’s like I’m drowning and the bad parts keep filling my pockets with rocks and my throat with tears sucking me down. Ok back to the ‘good’ they were educated, they had friends over to discuss writing and poetry, the solstice parties, that both of them had published random things or taught writing classes, that there was always tons of books around, although I probably shouldn’t have been reading Heller’s ‘Something Happened’ when I was like 9 or 10, not to mention the Shere Hite books.
No one could say my sister and I could definitely say we were not spoiled, not in the least little bit, or that we never learned how to entertain ourselves, although because they didn’t get up in the morning likely led to me overdosing on Flintstones vitamins once and baby aspirin as well as finding my sister with a taken-apart kaleidoscope, her pinky finger hanging by a thread and blood everywhere.
They would eventually take myself or my sister to the doctor and fed us. I know and hate the fact that either my dad didn’t leave because of my sister and myself, or at least I like to think that, it’s better than thinking he was just too afraid. Maybe he couldn’t afford to leave. I remember during their fights hearing him threaten to and half rooting for him, half hating him for not inviting me to escape with him, but I knew the hope was fake, as were the threats to leave.
They didn’t make us go to church, though when I stayed with my paternal grandparents I actually didn’t mind that much, as the orthodox church on Brotherhood way in SF was quite beautiful. That and my Yiayia made clothes for my sister and I. I remember staying with them and not wanting to come home. It makes me feel better to think of the good points or sometimes think them both into an alternate universe where we are all someone else’s who aren’t somewhat fucked up , even if that meant wishing away the Vietnam war, my parents getting together and my own possible existence as this version of myself.