Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Beginning

***I have already posted this elsewhere, but it belongs here, so here goes,***

My father’s mother was suspected of poisoning two of her seven husbands. I never met any of them: my grandfather, her first husband, died before I was born. Most of them did. My last grandfather was still alive when I was young, but we were not allowed to meet him because he was a convicted child molester. In the brief times that my grandmother lived with us, she would get collect calls from him: he was in jail at the time.

My grandmother was one of the most twisted people I ever knew. She mainly lived with my uncle and his family. He had married a Japanese woman, and my grandmother openly taunted their children for being “half-breeds”. My aunt came from a culture that bound her to an absolute respect for her mother-in-law, even at the expense of her children. My mother was, as my grandmother said, a crippled Catholic Yankee, and as such she had no such compunction. She was as polite as she had to be, and no more: but her nicest words were still spoken through thinned lips.

My grandmother hated me because I was named after her replacement, my step-grandma. I didn’t care that she hated me, and her comments about my lack of looks or grace or charm all missed their mark. I hated her, too, for making fun of my mother and the cousins I loved so much…but most of all, I hated her for what she did to my father. He changed so much when she was around. In real life, he was loud, charismatic, sarcastic, and you never knew what would send him over the edge to crazy angry: crazy angry was when you didn’t really know if the beating would end with your death, this time. I cannot describe the belly-deep fear of those moments. But when she was around, he was so small, so contained, so quiet: tightly polite, coiled and careful. And even though his temper remained in abeyance in her presence, it was like watching him die. I loved my father. I was too young to know or even guess the history behind his changed demeanor, but I knew deep in my stomach that she had done him a great evil. I was glad when she left and my crazy father came back. I understood even then that his demons were beyond his control, and that he was in tremendous pain. What is there to say? My heart ached with compassion and sorrow. I loved my father.

And the love is what made it all so hard.


I saw my mother cry one time. One time. She did other things: I would find her bent over, holding her stomach, eyes closed and rocking: but her eyes were dry and hard as old bone. She just couldn’t, wouldn’t, let go. She’s dead now, and I’ll never know why: maybe she couldn’t have told me anyway. Why is it so hard for me to cry? Maybe she learned it, just like me.
My sister and I were outside, playing in the snow. I was 4 or 5: I can date the memory because I remember the house. We lived there until I was 5. It was the longest we ever stayed in one place. It was also the only house we ever owned, although that didn’t matter until much later. I remember the cold of the hardwood floors on my feet in the morning, and how they looked with sunshine on them, the jeweled tones of red oak. My mother was in a wheelchair from the time she was 16, and the ramp hadn’t been shoveled, so she couldn’t go out with us: but she sent us out to play, to get some air, every day. We were good girls, obedient girls, and we lived in a rural area, so we were safe. We had a lot of space to run and scamper and wear ourselves out.

I don’t remember what we were doing: but the noise, I remember the noise. My mother howled. It stood the hair up on the back of my neck. I ran for the house, terrified, my little sister close on my heels. My mother was wheeling at top speed towards the front door: and just as I got there, she slammed it shut and locked it. I saw her face for just a moment, twisted and red and teary. I stood there listening to her animal howls of misery through the door and I could do nothing. I was in shock for a minute or so, and then I began hammering at the door, begging her to let us in. I wanted to stroke her head, to comfort her, to know that she was okay, and I didn’t know what to make of being shut out that way. She opened the door maybe 5 minutes later, tightly composed as always: she wore her habitual mask of anger over the sorrow. She would not tell me what was wrong or what had happened. We were to go on with our day and erase the moment from our memory, as she apparently had. But I could not. I still can’t. I loved her and my whole body ached to be with her in her moment of grief, but she had literally slammed the door in my face: and I stood in the fading winter light of late afternoon, and listened, stricken with my helplessness. I had never seen her cry before. And I never saw her cry again.

I asked her about that day much later, when I was grown and with a child of my own. What she said is that she didn’t want to frighten us by her lack of control. It was the first time the police had called her, to ask whether my father should be brought home or kept in jail overnight. She had been overwhelmed with fear and anger, a crippled woman with two small girls, alone in the farm country of Ohio, with only a drunk to help her and hold her up in the eyes of her family. That day, she told them to bring him home. And she began to toy with the idea of suicide.

1 comment:

  1. "And the love is what made it all so hard."

    It still makes it hard. And that makes me angry. Which is senseless. To let them go, to cut them off, to understand they will not now, nor have they probably ever, understood my love for them, has paralyzed a piece of my heart. Maybe it's time to let that go. I'm still covering for them. I'm still their protector. Only this time, I do it by taking the brunt of their anger at what they couldn't be angry about then. And I see that. But they don't. It's all so very sad.