DOUG

As I’ve said, the move to California was the undoing of us all—both as a family and as individuals. In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote a vignette I called “Little Guy”:

 One Christmas I took a picture of Doug—crouched in front of our decorated tree—that my uncle Rob, my mother’s older brother, admired. An amateur photographer, he was impressed that I’d gotten such a beautiful hand-held time exposure. I had it enlarged and proudly sent the framed photo to my father as a Christmas gift, but his only response was to comment in his next letter that it captured Doug’s “coldness.” Among the letters I wrote my dad as a teenager that he sent back to me a few years ago is one that comes as a complete surprise to me:

“Doug did write you a letter—before Christmas. But you never answered it, and he felt really bad about it. He picked out your Christmas present too. I think you’re much too hard on him. He’s not the ogre you seem to think he is—although he is pretty hard to get along with some of the time. If he neglects writing to you, it’s not because he’s unfeeling; it’s just that he doesn’t stop to think how much a letter from him would mean to you. He’s too wrapped up in his own problems—which is natural for kids his age. And you can understand why he would have problems. He has to live with his burn, which he looks at as a major deformity, and he’s growing up without a father and has no one to model himself after or look up to. Here he sees you as practically perfect and defends you to the hilt, and then you reject him. I don’t think you can expect a little guy of fourteen to have mature compassion and sensitivity. I wish you would write him—he needs someone to care about him and what he does.”

Beyond telling the story behind the burn scar on his cheek, I realize that up until now I haven’t said much in my blogs about Doug, who’d never wanted to leave Minnesota in the first place. For one thing, he’d never been as intimidated by my father as I was. For another, he remembers his last year in St. Anthony Park, despite the divorce two years earlier, as a pinnacle in his life—a time when he excelled in school (where he was recognized both for his intelligence and his athletic ability), had good friends, and was popular, even with the girls.

But as the new kid at Whittier Elementary School—a kid with an unsightly scar—he was teased and bullied in a way he never had been in Minnesota. And from the time we arrived in Berkeley, he would treat not just Mom but me as an antagonist. Because I’d wanted to move to California—he would eventually tell me—he saw me as complicit in the loss of his happy life.

In a Patchwork Memoir I also wrote the following vignette:

TARGET

I’ve always suspected that one of the reasons my brother was so angry at me for so many years is that, as his big sister, he saw me as a surrogate parent and expected me to rescue him from our abusive mother. He couldn’t see that I too was just a kid, as miserable and mixed up as he was, who needed rescuing as much as he did.

If our mom was constantly inventing reasons to get angry at us—things she mistakenly thought we’d done or imagined that we were going to do—my brother had a different m.o.: Knowing all my triggers, he would needle and bait me until he got a rise out of me—and once I got mad, he would lash back. He seemed compelled to demonstrate to himself over and over again that I was the heavy—I suppose because, while he needed a target for his own rage, he also needed ongoing “proof” that it was justified. Because all he would ever remember of these transactions was my eventual heated response, and all he would take away from them was the delusion that I was the source of all the contention between us.

Looking back now, he remembers how angry he was and has hinted to me that there were things he did back then that he doesn’t want to tell me. But he still insists I persecuted him for years. “How?” I ask. “What did I do?”

“You said nasty things to me—you said I didn’t have any friends!” he accused me.

Which left me dumbfounded because that wasn’t what I’d said to him; it was what he’d said to me. Is he so bankrupt of anything real to hold against me, I wondered, that he has to put his own cutting remarks into my mouth? And I pointed out to him that it couldn’t have happened the way he remembered it because was the one who withdrew from my friends in eleventh grade, while he always had a circle of good buddies he played sports with.

It wasn’t until we were in our thirties that he was finally ready to have a dialogue with me—and what surprised me most to discover was that we’d both felt, after the move to California, that we’d had to raise ourselves. “I always knew that Mom loved me though,” he said. Astonished, I said, “I always thought she hated me!” And I couldn’t help wondering how different our adolescence might have been if we’d been allies instead of adversaries.

 

LINDA

As I mention in my 4-4-20 blog,”Haven,” Linda was my friend from my first day of eighth grade, when our homeroom teacher asked her to show me around our junior high school. At noon, in the cafeteria, she introduced me to her friends Daryl and Nikki—all of us children of divorce—and they became my “gang” for a number of years, though I put the word in quotes because my feelings of belonging were qualified once Linda had supplanted me as Daryl’s best friend. When I search for a more accurate term than “gang,” the best I can come up with is “tribe,” if you can call a unit of so few a tribe.

Linda was a carrot-top like me, but we couldn’t have looked more different— though, because of our red hair, strangers were always asking if we were sisters. But her hair was bright, while mine was pale, her eyes were hazel, while mine were blue, her skin was creamy, while mine was freckled, her nose was straight and bold, while mine was crooked and nondescript.

Like me she had a younger brother, though unlike the rest of us, she lived with her dad. What strikes me suddenly as another thing the four of us had in common was the fact that our “other parent” wasn’t in the picture. If anything, my friends seemed to have even less contact with their absent parent than I did. In any case, Linda, being raised among males, had a mannish stride and a great boisterous laugh that caused heads to swivel wherever we went. Her father was a high school teacher, while she was the self-appointed little wife and mother around the house—until her father remarried and was prepared to pack her off to a home for delinquent girls. (Little did I imagine at the time that she was the one I would remain friends with over all the turbulent years to come.)

Actually, I’m surprised that I have so little recall of the time I spent with my tribe. I remember a day we all took the bus to Chinatown and got caught in a rainstorm—that we did the Hora down a steep hill, and I bought a silk painting a of bird among cherry blossoms in one little shop and a mirrored box showcasing a small geisha doll in another, which strikes me as odd now. Why would a shop in Chinatown carry Japanese memorabilia?

I also recall a couple of short camping trips together—going skinny dipping at night and being on a river, where I felt—briefly—a transcendent sense of peace.

I have more specific recollections of times I spent with Daryl before she invited Linda to live with her: for one, a trip to Tahoe to ski the winter of eighth grade. When we shopped for a jacket for her, she chose a moss green windbreaker with embroidered leaves that I thought was beautiful. We took a skiing lesson together and learned how to do the snowplow to stop, but I couldn’t get up the rope tow. I tried and failed once, and, realizing I’d created problems for the people behind me, didn’t dare try again—which meant I had to sidestep up the hill after each downward foray on the bunny slope. Back in our cabin, we listened to Ray Charles singing: “You give your hand to me and then you say good-by; I watch you walk away beside that lucky guy; and anyone can tell, you think you know me well, but you don’t know me”—a song that broke my heart.

In our Sunday school class at the Unitarian Church in Kensington, we learned about other religions, and at the end of the year, we each spoke to the whole congregation. I read an excerpt from the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost:    

                     Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
                     That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
                     And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
                     And makes gaps even two can pass abreast….

 

I went on to say that one of the first things that struck me when I moved to California was all the fences between the houses—that where I came from there were no fences and we children ran freely from yard to yard.

Another recollection: Daryl and me on a beach, singing the current hit”We’ll sing in the sunshine, we’ll laugh every day, we’ll sing in the sunshine, then I’ll be on my way.”The verse went “My mother she once told me, don’t you love you any man; just take what they may give you, and give but what you can.” Speaking of which, I recently came across the following vignette in A Patchwork Memoir:

 

The Unitarian Church had a cabin for retreats in Inverness on Tomales Bay. A dozen miles away was secluded McClure’s Beach, which you had to hike to from the parking lot. When I first went to Inverness with my eighth-grade Sunday school class, we roughhoused on the beach like little kids, playing Red Rover—plunging into each other’s lines and toppling the other team like bowling pins. But two years later there were no more games: everyone was too busy flirting, pairing off, making out. For me this change was painful. As I began hearing dirty jokes and listened to how teenage boys talked about girls, I felt powerfully that, as a female, I was no longer regarded as a person, but as merely a sex object. As a child whose chief playmate had been a boy—I’d spent even more time with Wolfy than I had with Kathy—this was difficult to wrap my mind around; it seemed grotesque, and I felt profoundly demeaned. Perhaps I experienced this as keenly as I did because I also overheard my father’s off-color comments about women and absorbed how much he objectified them. A study I heard about recently showed that girls’ I.Q.s drop an average of fifteen points during adolescence—and I can’t help thinking that their internalization at puberty of society’s attitude toward women is one of the reasons.

At the same time I was troubled by the disloyalty and backbiting I began to see among girls my age, as they vied for the attention of boys. In tenth grade, the members of my tribe—plus a new friend, Rianne—started attending the Unitarian Church club for high school kids, but we quickly graduated to the college students’ club, where my friends found boyfriends. Daryl dated Larry, then Stan, Rianne dated Al, and Linda dated Bob, whom she met at one of our church retreats. Only Nikki found a boyfriend elsewhere.

Eventually, I came to feel like the odd man out, and so, for various reasons—because I was painfully shy with boys and felt sexually constrained, because I didn’t feel good about myself and didn’t like the atmosphere of competitiveness—when I was in eleventh grade, I withdrew. (To be sure, I had crushes, intense and long-lasting, but the boys I liked never noticed me.)

SEVENTY-FIVE

Today is Earl’s birthday—and in honor of the occasion, I’m posting a vignette I wrote for A Patchwork Memoir:

I hate shopping for men—I never know what to get—and shopping for Earl is no exception. For his last birthday, he mentioned he needed a turkey platter, so that’s what I bought, but this year he’s no help at all, insisting he doesn’t need anything. Whatever I choose, it’s got to be something special, since he’s turning seventy-five—pressure, pressure. Well, he’s covered his small basement, floor to ceiling, with snapshots—but they’re all of cars and, almost incidentally, people. So why not buy him an album for the nature photos we take when we’re out together? I consider.

I’m squatting on the floor of Radston’s Stationers with albums of various dimensions, trying to figure out which one best accommodates both vertical and horizontal compositions. I didn’t think to bring any of my photos, so I experiment with different layouts, using a 4”x 6” picture frame from the shelf. I finally choose a handsome old-fashioned album with paper guaranteed not to yellow. At home I fill it with all my latest pictures—the spiraling staircase of the Pigeon Point lighthouse, that crazy shingled house in Miramar Beach with a wooden angel on the roof, those bizarre rock formations on an unnamed beach that looked like something from an alien world. Then I search among my collection of greeting cards. “People jumped up and down the day you were born. Of course, the earth’s crust was still cooling back then.”

Earl arrives in a very blue jacket—he’s taken to wearing western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and string ties. He told me to dress up and, since I’m always looking for an excuse to wear glitz, I’ve got on a blouse with a yoke of sequins. He opens his present in the cab of his truck. “You must have ESP!” he says, delightedly. “I was just thinking about putting together a ‘Beautiful California’ album—of your photos and the ones I’ve taken over the years at Tahoe and Yosemite…”

He won’t tell me where we’re going to dinner, though. “Is it somewhere we’ve been before?” I ask when we’re underway, hoping to pry a clue out of him. He tries to throw me off track by taking a round-about route, but pretty soon I guess it’s the Santa Fe Bar and Grill—the “crawdad” restaurant.

(And here I should explain that Earl refused to take me to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill last Christmas Eve because the year before they served him a lobster without claws. I was so disappointed I decided to call the restaurant and demand an explanation but didn’t need to because Igor, my Alexander Technique teacher, provided one first. “If I tell you why your lobster didn’t have claws, will you take me back to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill?” I’d asked Earl. “It better be good,” he’d warned. “Because western lobsters don’t have claws!” I’d said smugly. But it turned out the Bar and Grill wasn’t open that Christmas Eve anyway. And now Earl insists on calling our native arthropods “crawdads.”)

Though it’s one of the swankest eating spots in Berkeley, the Santa Fe Bar and Grill is located along a seamy stretch of University Ave., between a Jay Vee liquor store and what looks like a condemned motel. Once the Berkeley train station, it’s now a pale sandstone color, inside and out, with tall paintings of people on trains, and a grand piano and pianist in the center. We’re seated at a window table looking out on a garden—squat palms and over-sized jungle plants screen out the traffic and ramshackle neighborhood.

“When Kevin and Billy (his stepsons) were kids,” he waxes nostalgic, “Irene and I would pack them and all our camping gear in the MG and go camping at Tahoe. This was back in the days when sleeping bags were really bulky—like army surplus-type stuff—so when we hiked, I’d wind their bags around them and tie them at the waist with string. Kevin was always complaining, so we gave him the Indian name ‘Walking Tongue.’ Billy couldn’t sit still, so he was ‘Wiggly Willie.’”

After Earl and Moira were divorced, he remarried on the rebound—Irene, who was a pianist. She was zealous about a succession of causes, Earl has told me more than once, and he could always tell what their Thursday night fight would be about by the most recent book she had on her nightstand. She would take him to task as though he were personally responsible for the latest social ill to spark her indignation. (He generally retreated to the garage and tinkered with his MG.) Though their marriage only lasted eight years—Irene eventually went off to join a commune—I’ve always thought Billy and Kevin were lucky to have had Earl, if only for a while, as a stepfather.

“My family never went camping,” I say, “but my dad used to take Doug and me to stay at a cabin up in the northern wilderness of Minnesota. It was so wild back then, they were still discovering new lakes—as if 10,000 weren’t enough! One time we hiked through the woods, following red bands someone had painted on the trees to mark the trail, to one of them. I was disappointed it was so small, I remember, and that it didn’t look all that unspoiled—someone had left a rowboat on the shore, though how they managed to drag it through the woods, I couldn’t imagine. Sometimes we’d go fishing at dawn, and Dad would fry up some crappies for breakfast—or if we got lucky, a bass or northern pike.”

When the waiter comes to take our order, I’m still trying to decide. “Why is the duck always the best-sounding thing on the menu?” I grump. I like meat or fish with fruit—Café Select’s blueberry pork chops, Skates’ mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa…and duck usually comes with an orange sauce. Out of deference to the duckling I had as a child, however, I won’t eat its kind. They don’t have crappies or pike on the menu—no surprise—so I settle on the bass, out of nostalgia for those long-ago times, when I still had a father—of sorts.

IF ONLY

My early experiences in life left me believing that whenever something bad happened, it was liable to snowball into an all-out catastrophe. My parents’ divorce, my mom’s cancer, and the move to California precipitated my first tailspin, but it wasn’t my last.

And I’d come to understand that one decision—even one that might have seemed insignificant at the time—can change the entire course of your life. My trying to peek at another student’s answers on a test in fifth grade had ramifications that would ripple down through the years.

If I hadn’t tried to cheat, I would have gone on to sixth grade with the class I’d been in since I was seven—my school “family”; I wouldn’t have concluded that I wasn’t smart enough to be in the gifted group, and I would have continued to have a sense of belonging somewhere, even as my nuclear family was falling apart. My hunch is also that, if not for the debacle in Mr. Main’s class, Kathy and I would have been cabin mates at camp the summer after sixth grade, as we’d planned, and that we would have remained friends. As it was, the loss of that friendship was the final straw. If I’d had even one vital connection that didn’t break during that crisis in my life, I know I never would have considered leaving St. Anthony Park—my roots there went too deep. I’d also come to understand that a decision of mine could change the course of someone else’s life, because Kathy’s rejection of me changed mine.

All of which isn’t to say that if I’d stayed in Minnesota, life would have been easy. I think that, as early as fifth grade, I needed professional help, but if we’d stayed, at least the cost of it wouldn’t have posed a problem.

And there were some positive things that started happening in seventh grade at Murray High. It wasn’t just the choir director who noticed me but a couple of other teachers as well. My art teacher was impressed enough with a drawing I did in class—an abstract of modern dancers—that she took me aside to give me watercolor lessons and chose me to make the crowns for the Homecoming king and queen, which I started but didn’t have the confidence to finish. My history teacher also took a liking to me, attention that I didn’t feel I deserved because I was getting help with my homework from another girl in my class.  Once again, I had a teacher who didn’t seem to like me from the outset—my home economics instructor—but by the end of the school year, she’d done a complete turn-about. I’ve always supposed that, Murray High being a relatively small school, she’d heard good things about me from the other teachers.

Of course, I realize it’s idle to play “what if.” If I’d continued to live in Minnesota, I might have drowned in a lake one summer like my first crush, Peter.

Still, apart from a tragic event in our lives, I’ve always felt that my mom taking Doug and me to California was the worst thing that could have happened to any of us, and I know my dad and Doug would agree. Even my mom would eventually admit that she’d been happier in Minnesota than in California. I believe that an immoral act—like her breaking her promise to my dad in the divorce agreement never to take Doug and me out of state—has a momentum of its own, just as a moral one does. Once she had demonstrated to my father that she was indifferent to his feelings, he felt no compunction about treating her in kind.

I wouldn’t come to understand until decades later that my mother’s way of handling any difficult situation was a quick and decisive retreat. Rather than confronting it, she would always choose flight. As for my father’s vengefulness, I think probably I always sensed it, and it was one of the reasons I was afraid of him.

Sometimes I think that the mess my parents made of things was always going to happen. My mother was always going to choose a man who was emotionally unavailable like her own father, and she was always going to leave him, a decision that would initially feel to her like an assertion of her own power and independence but that would plunge her back into the stress of her childhood dilemma of feeling overburdened with responsibility. And my dad was always going to be an insensitive and autocratic partner who would alienate his spouse, then wind up divorced and feeling abandoned, the way he had been as a child. Alice Miller has said that some of us have a compulsion to repeat, a compulsion I see in my parents’ lives, as well as my own.

NERVOUS BREAKDOWN

As a teenager, I didn’t know how to describe my mom’s “transformation” in California, even to myself, so I called it a “nervous breakdown.” But that sounds like something you recover from, doesn’t it? My mother was never again the person she’d been—at least, not the person I’d known as a child. Her resentments, it became apparent, were bitter, long– standing, and entrenched.

So what was her emotional collapse all about? As I’ve said, in adulthood I went through an emotional crisis of my own, when the man in my life impregnated another woman, who decided to keep their child. I believe that just as Dave’s betrayal of me triggered all my childhood pain—all the archaic grief and anger I had about not feeling loved by my parents—Jack’s abandonment triggered hers. In the wake of my breakup with Dave, I joined a twelve-step support group, took a “Healing the Child Within” course of guided meditations, did holotropic breath work, and, eventually, found myself the right therapist. Even then I remember that, in the early days of my therapy, I had to pound pillows to vent my fury—a pitiful exercise in terms of any relief it provided, but I didn’t know what else to do. Afterwards, I’d get in my car and drive. Week after week I’d find myself at Stinson Beach—an hour away—almost without knowing how I got there.

And what did my mother do about her archaic grief and rage about not being loved by her parents? Nothing, since she never even recognized it for what it was. It was easier to get mad at Doug and me, even when we hadn’t done anything wrong. Because she couldn’t find enough actual transgressions to blame us for, she would invent them, though it took me a while to recognize that most of the time that she was railing at us, it was over things she mistakenly thought we’d done or were going to do.

More than once I suggested that we should get family counseling, but she insisted we didn’t have the money. The more formidable obstacle, I believe, was her unwillingness to ever put herself in the position of being vulnerable, even for the sake of Doug and me. Being a therapist provided her with a sense of authority, even of superiority, because in this role she was the one with the power—it was one of the reasons she’d chosen this career in the first place. She was never going to agree to reverse roles because the last thing she wanted to know was that she wasn’t the mature, evolved woman she’d always believed herself to be. And the last thing she wanted to do was to delve into the dark places in her psyche, like her guilt over my brother’s burn.

My brother, who doesn’t know psychological terminology, thinks of our mom as having a “split personality.” (Now the term used is “multiple personality,” but that wasn’t the case with my mom.) Still, I suppose, it’s as good a description of her as any—because she had split off all her unwanted feelings. She’d felt loved by both her grandmothers and her aunts and uncles and imagined herself to be the person she was with them. What she refused to address was the fact that she’d also been a child who felt unloved and exploited by her own parents; in fact, I suspect she had such overwhelmingly painful feelings about this that she relegated them to a dark corner of her mind—and rather than allow herself to ever feel them, she took them to her grave.

The French philosopher Simone Weil said, “A hurtful act is a transference to others of the degradation we bear in ourselves.”

I would add: What we don’t allow ourselves to feel, we will cause others to feel in our stead—because the defenses we use to ward off what is painful actually engender pain in others.