JACK

I’d always thought that my mom divorced my father because she felt he disregarded her, but there was more to the story, which I didn’t learn until I was an adult. She’d fallen in love with a man named Jack, whom she’d hoped to marry.

She’d met him at work, where she’d been his supervisor. He was engaged at the time but pursued her anyway. She showed me a picture of him she still carried in her wallet—a moderately good-looking man with a crooked nose. She claimed they never became lovers because of her scruples about cheating on my father. After she had her partial hysterectomy, Jack visited her in the hospital and told her that he couldn’t marry her now because he wanted children. Besides, his fiancée had threatened to kill herself. “But I know that you’ll be OK,” he’d told my mom. She admitted to me then that part of the reason she’d taken Doug and me to California was to avoid seeing him—because they moved in the same circles. The only other thing she told me about him was that his mother used to beat him when he had asthma attacks as a child.

And what seemed perplexingly apparent to me at the time was that my mom didn’t seem to harbor anger at Jack for his shabby treatment of her. When it came to my father, however, she couldn’t talk about him without fury. Refusing to believe he’d become as incapacitated as he was, she continued to see him as malingering. She’d only agreed to such a small amount in child support, she explained, because she’d imagined that she would remarry.

I, on the other hand, wanted to wring Jack’s neck for breaking up my parents’ marriage when he did. He couldn’t have been more wrong about my mom being so self-sufficient, although no doubt it was convenient for him to think so. Though I’ve never blamed my mother for divorcing my dad, I believe that, if not for Jack, it probably would have happened later rather than sooner, which might have made all the difference to Doug and me. Because, as damaged as my mom and dad both were, when we were a family they were able to compensate to some extent for each other as parents, so that Doug and I mostly got the best of them. After they divorced, all we got was the worst.

What my mom had always showed to the world—and to me—up until that moment, with a kind of bravado, was the façade of an independent woman who didn’t need a man in her life. So it was a revelation to me that she was so in Jack’s thrall that she used to call him long distance just to hear his voice—then hang up.

She’d been ready to exchange one deeply troubled man for another, I finally came to understand, and considered him the love of her life.

MY MOTHER’S STORY

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

My grandmother Edith—I called her “Granny”—was raised on a farm with fruit orchards near Sonoma. Her father died of TB when she was little, and her mother never married again, saying there would never be anyone like her Tom.

Because my grandmother was raised in the country, she didn’t contract all the usual childhood diseases but got them as an adult, instead, when she moved to San Francisco and married my grandfather. In a photo of her as a young woman, her face is plump and round—in another, at forty-something, she looks emaciated. Throughout my mother’s childhood, my grandmother frequently took to her bed.

As a result my mother, the oldest daughter of four children, had to take care of her siblings. Despite the responsibilities she shouldered, too young, she never felt appreciated by either of her parents—it was her pretty, musical younger sister Dory and especially her baby brother Bill they loved. My grandmother was disapproving, my grandfather aloof. He was a machinist and could only get part-time work during the Depression, so for a number of years they lived in poverty on the wrong side of the tracks. What’s more, all my mother’s siblings were strikingly good-looking, while she had decayed and protruding teeth. Even when she developed a voluptuous figure as a teenager, she still felt like the ugly duckling of the family. She was happiest at school, where she made good grades and was encouraged by her teachers, and at the “ranch,” where she spent summers with her grandmother, who, she felt, did love her.

When her father reneged on his promise to help pay for her higher education, she got another job and tried to put herself through college­—but her grades slipped and eventually she gave up, feeling like a failure. She joined the army, became a staff sergeant, and worked in the psychiatric ward of a hospital—an experience that led her to choose the profession she did when she was able to resume her education after the war. In the meantime, she had all her rotting teeth pulled and began to wear dentures, which turned her overnight into a beautiful woman.

But a fear she had ever after that was being seen without her dentures. If, as a child, I started to open the bathroom door, not realizing she was inside, she would yell frantically for me to close the door—and in all my life I never did see my mother without her teeth.

BETRAYAL

As I mentioned before, I had a huge crush on my homeroom teacher, Mr. Anderson. Besides being handsome and funny, another thing I liked about him was that we had serious discussions in his American history class. One of these end-of-the-day discussions prompted me to stay after school. I’ve talked in my blog about how shy I was—how invisible I tried make myself after being humiliated by Mr. Main in sixth grade. When I didn’t leave with the other students at the end of class, Mr. Anderson walked over to where I was still sitting, casually leaned back on his desk, and asked me what was going on.

I told him what my mother had confided to me a few days before. I’d known that it was her dream growing up to go to college—and, of course, she had, thanks to the G.I. Bill—and she’d gotten a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology. But I’d never heard the story behind it—that my grandfather had been opposed to her getting a higher education. For a woman, he argued, what was the point? He, himself, had had to drop out of school as a teenager to help support his family when his father abandoned them to go gold-digging in the Klondike. (Maybe it was hard for him to allow my mother to have an opportunity he didn’t?) Nevertheless, he eventually agreed to help her pay for college if she would work for a year first. My mother said she still had nightmares about her factory job, where she was clumsy and frantic on the production line and needed help to keep up. The following year, as she prepared to go to Cal, my grandfather reneged on his promise, telling her he’d only made it because he was so sure that once she was earning her own money and could afford to buy herself things, she would give up her dream of college. She wept when she told me about his betrayal.

It was the first time I’d seen the vulnerable side of my mom in years, and it had had such an impact on me I’d needed to tell someone about it.

GOODYCAT

Since child abuse has been an issue in my life, many years ago I wrote a story called Goodycat. I only drew a few illustrations before I decided that the story, as written, was too dark for young children.The two drawings above, plus the illustration I sent to Maurice Sendak (below), are the only ones I’ve ever done in chalk.

 

GOODYCAT

There was a cat called Baddycat

Whose naughtiness was such,

His owners, the McMeanies,

Didn’t want him much.

He shredded the upholstery,

He scratched the bathroom door,

He scrambled up the curtains,

And piddled on the floor.

He chewed on things he shouldn’t,

He howled for half the night,

Made messes in the kitchen,

And gave the dog a fright.

They whacked him with the Herald,

They yelled and stomped their feet,

And locked him in the basement

Without a bite to eat.

And still he misbehaved,

So when his fleas were found

In everybody’s blankets,

They dragged him to the pound.

“You’re nothing but a nuisance!”

The family cried with scorn

And left him in a cage,

Feeling quite forlorn.

He cried himself to sleep—

He didn’t mind the noise—

And woke up in a box

Among some kitty toys.

His new home was a marvel,

Full of smiles and pats.

He soon began to think himself

The luckiest of cats.

He scratched his fuzzy post,

And no one ever hollered.

He used his private door,

Where no one ever followed.

And when he wished to climb,

He had his pick of trees.

He often wore his collar—

And hadn’t many fleas.

He piddled in his box,

He slept the whole night through,

And gnawed his catnip mouse

When in the mood to chew.

His family the McKindleys,

Were pleased as pleased could be

That he was such a Goodycat,

And frankly, so was he!

 

I intended the illustrations to provide a subtext, showing that Goodycat was neglected—that his original owners forgot to feed him, change his litter box, or provide for any of the natural needs of a cat.

MAZE

 A few years ago I read Joan Brady’s autobiography, The Unmaking of a Dancer—her account of how her mother destroyed her dream of becoming a ballerina. I identified with her so much, I considered calling one of my vignettes “The Unmaking of a Singer,” though it occurred to me that the more global “The Unmaking of a Daughter might be even more apt. I got so much negative reinforcement from my mother after our move to California that whatever good feelings I’d ever had about myself faded from memory.

Looking back, I realize that she couldn’t control me through intimidation the way my father had—I wasn’t as afraid of her as I was of him. So she used shaming instead. When she berated me, I didn’t take it lying down. I fought back, trying to defend myself. But while arguing may have felt necessary at the time, in the long run it eroded my self-esteem still further, I felt so bad about the angry person I was becoming.

When I went to my mother for support, she used to tell me that after a day of ministering to her clients’ needs, she had nothing left to give. If I asked her advice about a problem I was having, she found a way to make me feel I’d brought it on myself. If someone had hurt me, she was liable to take their part, saying if I hadn’t done such and such… A curious aspect of what she conveyed to me by always making me the culpable one was that the world was correspondingly benign. I was so deeply conditioned to perceive things this way that I still have a hard time recognizing potential danger—either psychic or physical—from a person or situation.

When I was younger, my mother had told me children were too self-centered to love. So throughout my elementary-school years, all I’d wanted was to grow up as fast as I could so I would be able to love. I felt that as long as I couldn’t, I was only a fraction of a person, and I longed to be an adult so I could feel whole. During my teenage years, however, the picture my mother presented of adult life was so bleak that I became afraid to grow up.

In high school, when I belatedly found out my homeroom teacher was married, I went around feeling desolated for a month. I’d entertained the fantasy that maybe, when I was older, he would marry me, and the thing that so powerfully attracted me to him was his playfulness. He was the one grownup in my life who gave me hope that adulthood wasn’t necessarily unrelieved toil and travail.

When I think of the complexities of my relationship with my mother, the image that comes to mind is a maze with no exit. I’ve tried, as an adult, to tell her how unhappy I was during those years, but she has dismissed my suffering, saying everyone is miserable as an adolescent.

As for her rages, she denies she ever had them, despite the fact that my brother remembers them as well as I do. The first time I brought up the subject as an adult, she became so infuriated, she stomped up the stairs, screaming that I was trying to destroy her. The second time, she yelled that I wasn’t welcome in her house if I was going to dredge up the past, though a year later she called me to reconcile. She said then, with a stoical sigh, that she’d realized I had a need to believe what I did.

SERENADE

Two years ago on May 1st, I wrote the following blog:

Yesterday was my birthday.

At noon, I decided to treat the day like any other Monday and go swimming at the Plunge, where my mom used to swim as a child. One day several years ago I drove all the way to Point Richmond, a tiny town built on a steep hill, to see the pool while it was being renovated.

The building had stood empty for years, according to a gal I met there recently. When her friend, actor Robin Williams, asked why it wasn’t in use and found out the city didn’t have the funds to renovate it, he made a considerable contribution.

The Plunge still has a huge neon sign on the roof that lights up at night—Municipal Natatorium—and stands between two old tunnels: one for the trains that still wind—quaintly—right through the middle of town. The other for cars headed for Miller-Knox Park that has a little lake with an island in the middle of it—and is a hangout for Canadian geese, egrets, and a great blue heron.

As you can see in the photo, the entire the far wall of the pool is a mural of the park, great blue heron and all, painted by the husband of an acquaintance of mine from the pool—Susie. She’s a retired art teacher and liberated redhead, who wears all the colors we carrot tops aren’t suppose to, like magenta and purple.

On the first Wednesday of the New Year, when I went there to swim, two black gals were hanging out, chatting, in the water-walking lane. Though they were strangers, one of them asked cheerfully how I was, as I descended the ladder. Impulsively—I’m trying to be more visible, as I’ve said—I told her the truth. “My mom just died.” Immediately their faces filled with concern. “Come into the water,” said Z’ma, whose name I didn’t know at the time. “This is your mother—it’s her womb.” And she stretched out her arms to me. Gratefully, I hugged them both. As I wrote in my journal:

I can’t say how comforted I was by their warmth. But it was only later that I made the following connection: When my family moved to New Haven for a year so my dad could get his Ph.D. at Yale, my parents put me in an all-day preschool run by three black teachers. I came to love Ms. Green and felt she loved me too; even after we moved back to Minnesota, she wrote me a few times.

Though I don’t remember much about my kindergarten year back in St. Paul, I do remember the emptiness I used to feel going up the stairs at bedtime in the big old two-story house on Dudley Street that we rented for a couple of years. It was loneliness, maybe even depression, I’ve come to believe, and I’ve always thought it was because I was missing Miss Green.

Now it strikes me that I’ve come full-circle, as I have at so many other times in my life. When I missed my parents—the days felt so long at the preschool at first—there was Miss Green to welcome me into her arms. And now that I’ve lost my mom, there were these two black strangers at the pool, doing the same thing.

Yesterday Z’ma was just coming out of the shower after swimming while I was changing into my suit. We gave each other a hug, and when she asked how I was, I said, “It’s my birthday!” The next thing I knew, she had all the other women in the changing room—most of them strangers—singing Happy Birthday to me.