THE FRYING PAN OR THE FIRE?

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

I went back to Minnesota the summer after eighth grade with the secret resolve that I was going to stay. I didn’t tell my mother, of course, or she would never have let me leave. I didn’t even tell my brother, though he might have wanted to be included in the plan.

But when my father met us at the bus station, the first thing he told us was how sick he was and how disabled he’d become. That night, in the tiny back bedroom of his latest apartment, I cried myself to sleep, feeling my last hope blasted.

My father complained of a fiery pain throughout his body whenever he exerted himself—his doctors had diagnosed arthritis. He was now an invalid—bedridden except for the few hours he still taught at the university; he’d had to cut back on his classes and relied heavily on his TA’s.

When I think of that summer, I don’t remember any real contact with him at all—he sequestered himself in his bedroom, as distant as my mother had been in the two years after the divorce—but even colder. It was as though he’d walled himself off from my brother and me so he could never be hurt again. (Years later he would tell me that the day we’d left for California had been the worst day of his life.)

I remember trying to engage him in intellectual conversation, asking on one occasion if time could exist without movement, but he dismissed my question, saying a discussion of time would be beyond my comprehension.

Another time I told him about a program I’d seen on mountain lions. “When they’re cubs—even when they’re nearly full-grown—the animals that will become their prey aren’t afraid and will play with them,” I said. “But when they start hunting for themselves, the same animals flee, knowing that they’re dangerous now.” At which point my father laughed scornfully at me. “Your statement is absurd,” he said. “You don’t have the slightest idea of the philosophical complexities of the word ‘know.’ To claim that animals can ‘know’ anything is preposterous.” That’s when I began to feel there were hidden booby traps in language and that I had to be careful of every word I spoke.

In the meantime, my brother and I were left to fend for ourselves; we bought the groceries, cooked the meals, cleaned house—I wound up doing the lion’s share—and played with our cousins, who lived a few blocks away. Sometimes we took the bus to St. Anthony Park to see our old friends. But to me, there was even a sadness about that—they’d gone on with their lives, I felt, and left me far behind.

At the end of the summer, I decided to go back to California, after all. I wouldn’t have been able to go to Murray High with my old friends, anyway, since my father now lived in another part of the Twin Cities. I’d fantasized that he would be willing to move back to St. Anthony Park, but now I realized he wouldn’t. I suppose I was proof of the tenet that children will choose negative attention over no attention at all.

Years later I wrote:

“By the end of eighth grade, three years after my parents’ divorce, I felt I’d lost everything: St. Anthony Park, which would always be home to me, as well as all the people I loved—first Wolfy through distance and circumstance, then Kathy, who rejected me, my father, who withdrew emotionally, and my mother, who turned on me. I lost my belief in myself—in my own goodness, intelligence, talent, and ability to cope, as well as a childish belief in my own indestructibility. And I lost my faith in people—their goodness, constancy, and their ability to triumph over adversity. I lost my belief in love itself.”

LOCKDOWN

 

Ella and I, fierce critics, used to creep furtively upstairs on occasion—after the workers had left—to see how the conversion was progressing. We saw the new configurations of the three apartments above us when only the two-by-fours were in place, and later, the resurfaced white walls, which I coveted, they looked so pristine. Then we saw these same walls painted gold, making the rooms darker. (“This living room is like a tomb! The only light coming in is from one small window facing the looming wall of the neighboring house!”) Still later, we surveyed the new “kitchenettes” installed in the old living rooms, often against the only available wall. (“Where in the world is the living room furniture going to go?”) And (“How are they going to create flat floors now that, after the leveling of the house, they’re so bowed?”)

But no more creeping. A week ago our governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that, because of the coronavirus, we Californians were obliged to shelter in place. The university had already shut down, and Ella had set up her new “office” on our dining room table, working on a geriatric laptop inherited from her brother. Each day we toil, companionably and diligently, on our respective projects—sitting only…maybe seven feet apart?

Meanwhile, the construction workers continue to come and go (they’re exempted from the lockdown), sometimes spending hours in the little foyer just outside our door. Ella and I reuse masks—that Ella was given by a co-worker during the wildfires last fall—when we pass through the foyer to go on our daily walks, and we swab down the front door handles once the interlopers are gone. Still, I’m anxious. My theory, since the coronavirus can be passed through respiration, is that once those droplets fall to the floor, Ella and I are tracking it into our apartment on our shoes.

Initially, we were both worried that we would run out of toilet paper because we heard on the news that store shelves were empty due to hoarders—which reminded me of something I heard many years ago in a folklore class at Cal. The instructor had gone to stay with her Basque relatives in Spain. In their outhouse she noticed a board with brown swipes on it, later learning that was how people wiped themselves! Thankfully, Ella was able to buy toilet paper on her last trip to Trader Joe’s, where they’d drawn chalk lines six feet apart on the sidewalk in front of the doors—for the customers to line up—and only allowed one package of TP and paper towels per. But we still haven’t been able to find hand sanitizer, antiseptic wipes, or 409.

Anyway, I’ve been laboring with particular intensity because, a few weeks ago, I started working with a new graphic artist, Sara, on the layout out of The Poof! Academy. I’d hoped to have it published before Christmas but was so painfully conflicted, I couldn’t go ahead with it. The text was alternately glaringly crowded or gappy throughout the whole book, no matter how many hyphens I asked Lorna to try—until she suggested I learn some InDesign, so I could fine-tune the spacing of the text myself. So I studied a little about kerning, tracking, and leading (pronounced “ledding”), and got a referral to a tutor. And Sara, I’m elated to say, has changed everything!

P.S. I won’t be posting further flowers in the order I see them bloom because…well…I no longer see most of them.

SHAMED

I’d never been verbally abused before (well, except for Mr. Main calling me “an arrogant little snot”).

My father had always been the disciplinarian in the family, and I can honestly say I don’t remember, in all the years before my mom moved my brother and me to California, her ever even scolding me. In the first place, I was a well-behaved child, who naively believed that it was possible for a person to be perfect—and that’s what we all should aspire to be. I wouldn’t even allow myself to say “bad” words. My father could say damn and Jesus Christ and shit and crap, but I wouldn’t venture anything worse than darn. (The f-word wasn’t used in my family at all.)

On the occasions my dad “disciplined” me when I was younger, he stripped me, put me in our old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub, and using a hose, showered me with cold water. Years later, when I heard about how Estelle had stripped his brother Ray and put him in the bathtub where she beat him with an iron cord, it occurred to me that my father was repeating what he’d seen as a child, but since he wasn’t beating me, he imagined there was nothing abusive about what he was doing. Actually, I think there was—because I came to associate nakedness with shame. And I think for a father to strip a female child to punish her is a violation that borders on the incestuous. (My brother he spanked with a belt.)

But if my dad shamed me physically, it was my mom who shamed me verbally. I was fourteen years old and, never having been treated this way before, I knew that I didn’t deserve her vitriol and I felt outraged by it. She verbally abused my brother too, calling us both “selfish,” “manipulative,” and “exploitative.”

What’s more, she flew into violent rages and would chase one or the other of us up the stairs of our little apartment, so frenzied that she could only make grunting noises like a wild animal and try to claw at us with fingers like talons. Fortunately, we were old enough to outrun her and would lock ourselves in the bathroom until she calmed down. Later she would weep and apologize.

The last time I saw my father, he told me he’d seen this rage in my mother once during their marriage and never felt the same way about her again. But I’d never so much as glimpsed this side of my mom before. If I had, as miserable as I’d become in Minnesota, I would never agreed to move to California. In fact, it wasn’t long before I’d made up my mind that when my brother and I went to visit my dad the following summer, I would stay on and live with him permanently. I kept this resolve a secret, even from my brother, for fear he would let the cat out of the bag. Even a father who intimidated me was better than a mom who used her children as scapegoats.

Years later, I would learn what had happened in my mother’s life that precipitated her emotional meltdown. Though she prided herself on having a “self-observing ego,” as she called it, there was a moment when I came to understand she was in complete denial about how abusive she was.

It happened when we were in the stall of dressing room of a department store, where I was trying on clothes. In a neighboring stall, we heard a mother berating her daughter. The moment we left, Mom exclaimed how appalled she was by the way this mother had treated her daughter—which left me dumbfounded because it was exactly the way she treated me. If she could have seen her own behavior, I realized then, she would have judged herself even more harshly than I did. Have I mentioned that in California my mom had become a marriage and family therapist?

FREUDIAN SLIPS

It’s been a little over a year since I wrote in my journal:

Today I made a decision as I was driving back from the Plunge after me swim: that when my website—Eager Reader Press—goes up next month, I’m going to use it not just to sell the children’s books I’ve written and illustrated, but, at least occasionally, as a platform to talk about child abuse and the impact it has had on my life.

The catalyst for this decision was an insight I had the other morning when I woke up from a recurring abandonment dream. Throughout my adult life I’ve made two types of Freudian slips—not in speech, but in writing:

One is to unwittingly write “a” instead of “I,” as though I were an indefinite article rather than a definite one—an error I make whether I’m writing in longhand or typing. I also write “my” instead of “me,” again as though I were a collection of attributes but lacked a cohesive sense of self. On the infrequent occasions I’m feeling a buoyant confidence, however, I’m apt to make the opposite mistake and write “I” for “a” and “me” for “my,” which I see that I did in my first sentence—a promising sign.

The second mistake I’m liable to make is to omit “not” or the contraction “n’t” in a sentence. Why do I try to write a negative statement and find, when I re-read it, that I’ve written a positive one? I’ve wondered for years. After my dream, I think I finally understand: What I commit to the page represents the overt—the public—side of myself, the face I show to the world. I omit “not” and “n’t because they represent the negative side of myself that I try to keep hidden—the anxiety, anger, and shame that are a legacy of my childhood. And so it remains hidden on the page—an unconscious reminder of all that I’m leaving unexpressed.

SHARP NEEDLES

My mother, brother, and I moved from the cavernous old house on Doswell, surrounded by lilac bushes, into a brand new—but tiny—apartment in Berkeley. Mom gave the two small bedrooms upstairs to Doug and me and slept downstairs on the sofa. At last she had the modern apartment she’d always wanted. She decorated it with dispatch, choosing modern furniture with walnut veneers from Montgomery Ward. The carpet was pragmatically speckled black and white and didn’t show the dirt. My main memory of that carpet is of my brother taking a golf swing that tore loose a patch of it that flew across the room. Luckily Mom wasn’t home. I sewed it back on and she was never the wiser.

There was a balcony over the carport that we never used, except for a little tree my mom bought to be our Christmas tree in the years to come. But the needles were so sharp you couldn’t decorate it.

My bedroom was pale green, and this time I chose my own furniture. I got a white corner desk with matching chests of drawers on either side, also sheer curtains that flowed from light blue to moss green over a long slatted window that started just above the floor. My main memory of that window is of my brother murmuring, in a high falsetto, “I love you, Karl,” through the open slats when Karl, the teenage boy who lived in apartment one, was sweeping the sidewalk below. I’d hidden my diary in a box tacked to the back of a drawer, and somehow Doug had found it and discovered my secret crush.

A block away lived my mom’s younger brother Bill, his wife Audrey, and their son Billy, a year older than my brother. Bill and Aud had married at ages eighteen and sixteen respectively, and at twenty-one Bill had contracted polio. For the rest of his life he walked with a brace on one leg. In the years that followed, Mom would spend much of her free time over at their place, forging a life-long friendship with Audrey, while Doug would find a companion in Billy, as well as our other cousin, Nick. But I would never experience, with any of my California relatives, the emotional connection I’d hoped for. As for a stepfather, as far as I know, when the only man Mom ever dated after the move turned out to be married, she swore off men definitively.

As for her verbal abuse, it started almost as soon as we arrived in Berkeley.