May 1, 2010
There is a new Peter Gabriel song (actually a remake of a song by Bon Iver) called “Flume” out now – I highly recommend both versions.
Only love is all maroon
Gluey feathers on a flume
Sky is womb and she’s the moon
Flume Clip (on Amazon)
I haven’t the foggiest idea what it means. But the more I listen to the song, particularly the Peter Gabriel version (he repeats “she’s the moon” a few times at the very end), it makes me think of my mother. Or a mother, anyway. Not necessarily mine. Which brings me to the subject of my post … mothers.
To say my Mom was dysfunctional is like saying Hitler was kind of a bad guy. Were there weirder Moms than mine out there? Oh yes. Were there kids who were more abused than I was? By far. I’m not writing this as some kind of “pity me” epitaph. More of a realization of what I wish I’d had for a Mom back then, and now.
In a lot of ways a Mom would be like the moon to me. Distant, but yet always there – even on the nights you couldn’t see her, you knew she was there. I have never found the night to be as scary or intimidating as literature and folklore make it out to be, and to me the sight of the moon is always reassuring, welcoming, somehow warm and soothing despite knowing how cold it can be on the dark side of it. In my world, a Mom was like the moon. You could look up at her and know that she would never go away, she was always there. She may have sometimes seemed cold or distant, but you never doubted her love, her presence.
I suppose the reason I don’t really fear nighttime or the dark as much as some people do is that at least once my Mom went to bed, my house was relatively peaceful. As long as my Mom didn’t decide to sleep with me, that is. Which she did, on occasion. At some point when I was around age 9 or 10, the roles in our household started to shift. My mother gradually became the child, and my older brother and I were the parents. My brother was left to the responsibility of making sure my Mom got home alive and intact when she was out drinking too much at a bar, even if it meant having to go out on his bicycle (after a slurred phone call from her in which he usually had to guess where she might be – woe be it to him if he couldn’t figure it out) to wherever she was and drive her home. Mind you, for most of this time he was underage and didn’t have a driver’s license yet. But I guess he was technically a sober driver, just not a legal one. I shudder at the thought of this now that my oldest son is 11 already, and can’t imagine there being a day where I would ever put him in the position to drive me home when I was intoxicated, let alone ride a bicycle across town, through nighttime traffic, to find me.
As for me, I started to take on the role of the mom, the one who helped manage the household budget and was, in a backward way, the mother to my own mom. She would have a fight with her boyfriend and couldn’t sleep that night, so she’d want to sleep in my bed. Me, the 10-year-old, and she, the 36-year-old. I’d have to be the one to console her when she cried. And then she’d get grouchy and yell at me for keeping her awake because I was wiggling around too much in bed. In MY OWN bed, which was a twin, while her queen-sized one sat empty just across the hall. The ludicrousness of it baffles me in retrospect. I hated those nights. The only other living thing I wanted in my bed as a child was our cat, Parkie. I rarely let my own kids sleep with me unless they’re really sick or have had some awful nightmare, but even then, with the latter scenario, I try to coax them back into their own bed later in the night, once they’re happy again and have forgotten the bad dream.
I learned how to mix martinis when I was around 9 years old, for my Mom, it was Tanqueray gin and a touch of dry vermouth in a glass over ice. She had one favorite glass, it was a deep blue highball with white flowers in the glass, that surprisingly never ended up being used as a projectile to throw at my brother or myself. Amazing, given that everything else ended up that way. Coasters, wooden figurines, those vague candy dish/ashtrays you made in grade school out of a leaf print or your hand and some orangey-red clay, your name and the year scratched in the back with a toothpick before it was fired and presented as a Mother’s Day gift … they all ended up being thrown at us and with varying levels of damage. Not surprisingly, the clay mementos never made it to my adulthood. The coasters survived, and this set of three carved wooden cats (sort of a Balinese style, tall and sleek) had dents and dings and ears that were glued back on again. Silly little things, but I still own them, only because there is so little left otherwise.
And now, as an adult, I am surprised at the things I wish for that are Mom-like. Someone to talk to about my kids, about their behaviors. Someone to brag to about what my boys do, or complain about the times when I get the pouty face or the Stink Eye from one of them, who isn’t an ex-spouse, a friend, a sibling, or a boyfriend.
My older son got an award at school today. The California public schools administer a test every spring called the CST or STAR test, basically they are standardized tests in English/Language Arts and Math, and as the years progress, other topics get added. The 5th graders get tested on Science for the first time this year. I took a quick look at a sample of the CST questions in English for 11th graders, just for the heck of it, and to be honest, I’m not sure how well I’d do, given that my experience of reading and interpreting literature and even most documents is colored by years of life experiences, opinion, and correcting other people’s documents for a living. Anyway, back to my son. The school decided to give out medals to the kids who actually scored a perfect 600 score on the Math portion of the STAR test in the last two years. (I guess nobody got a perfect score in English, which actually sort of makes me sad). They had cute Olympic-type medals on red, white, and blue ribbons made up for the kids and gave them out in a post-lunchtime ceremony that the parents of those particular kids, and all of the children in grades 2-5, were invited to. It was probably the first time that I scored a seat in the auditorium for any of the school events I’ve been to in the last six years, given that there were only 23 kids awarded medals, so only those parents were present.
A lot of times now when I attend things for my children, I find myself thinking of my Mom and my own childhood at these same ages. My sons are 8 and 11, in grades 3 and 5. I don’t remember a lot of elementary school – unfortunately huge chunks of it are big blanks. But I think I remember more of school than I do of my home life, which probably tells you something. I remember moving almost once a year, usually based on some whim of my Mom’s or because of some boyfriend she was then dating or had just broken up with and felt she had to “get away from”. In third grade, I went to three different schools. Two were due to moves, the other was due to a district change mid-year. In retrospect, my sense of self-deprecating humor was probably born out of a need to find a way to fit in, having always been “the new kid” in class every year. I had very few close friends growing up, other than my older brother, because he was the one who was always there. Everyone else, I got to know them for a few months, maybe a year, and then we moved away again. Small wonder that I tend to make friends with men more readily than I do women. Girls take longer to get to know … by the time someone got to know me, I’d moved on.
I can remember parts of 5th grade, though. That year isn’t quite as hazy as others. Part of the reason was that I had a great teacher that year, and, coincidentally, my first male teacher, Mr. Carl Strickland. Mr. Strickland passed away a few years ago – it was just a random thing that I happened to see his obituary in the newspaper, and I don’t subscribe and rarely read the paper as it is. A slightly burly man with salt and pepper hair and matching beard, he had no hesitation in taking disruptive students outside and slamming them up against the wall. Ahhh, those were the good old days. And in many ways, yes, I mean that. No, I’m not advocating child abuse in the schools, but if a teacher needs to control his or her classroom and is stuck with a consistently misbehaving student AND the parents seem to do nothing to intervene, then at that point, I think it is the teacher’s discretion to figure out how to deal with the kid. Mr. Strickland was cool, he let us decide if we wanted to be known by nicknames, and we could think it over and let him know. My brother dared me to have him call me “Fred” (my brother’s nickname for me, I think he got it from a comic strip), and so, not wanting to look like a sissy to my big brother, I did it. My report card for that year even said, “Fred is a great kid!” on it. At least I knew that Mr. Strickland was proud of me.
Fred was a great kid. Despite being so nervous on the first day of school every year that I usually threw up (always being the newbie didn’t help any), I liked school. It was my refuge from home and from my mother, a place where I could receive praise for what I did, honest feedback that didn’t always have to turn into some discussion about my mother’s issues or a fight over some perceived reaction I must have had to what she said. I was consistently a straight-A student, always flying under the radar, with a quick, dry wit that became honed over the years. I liked it when I made people laugh. It proved to me that at least, for the span of a few minutes, I was capable of making people happy. I could never do that at home. I loved our big, dumb cat, Parkie, too, for the same reasons. I could make her happy by simply petting her, feeding her, paying attention to her.
Parkie made the list my brother and I kept stashed in his dresser drawer of “Things Mom Starts Fights Over”, too. Right up there with “no ice cream”, “Your Father”, and “the dishwasher”. Mom was perpetually on a diet even though she was 5’5″ and weighed maybe 110 pounds, so even though she rarely ate ice cream if we had it in the house, there was hell to pay if my brother and I had eaten it all. Yes, I realize there is no logic whatsoever in that thinking. My Mom was not a logical person. She would have made Mr. Spock’s head explode if they’d ever had an argument. But when you’re a child and your parent is the center of your universe, you don’t stop to question such things – because you don’t know that you even should question them. For us, it was survival, trying to figure out how to shift tactics to keep Mom happy so she wouldn’t blow up at one of us. You don’t question the logic of the enemy suddenly throwing a book at you when yesterday she only threw ashtrays … you just learn to find new ways to duck and cover.
Even the solutions never worked in our house. My brother would offer to ride his bike out to the store (at night) to get more ice cream, but if he did, she would bitch about him taking too long, the flavor he brought home (always whatever one she’d asked for, but she would have changed her mind by the time he returned) or the fact that she no longer wanted it. It was a pity we didn’t have cell phones then, I could have called my brother to abort his errand half the time because my Mom had passed out in bed, thus rendering the ice cream a moot point. It didn’t matter what you did, it was always a lose-lose situation.
I remember one time when I was goofing around with the cat in our kitchen when I was around 14, and I had put the cat up on top of the refrigerator. Parkie jumped down eventually, but not before managing to knock off a bone china teacup from a small collection my mother kept up there. Why they were on top of the fridge collecting dust and where no one could see them, I never knew. My Mom was furious with me over the broken cup and saucer – after all, they’d belonged to her mother (who had been dead for some years now and whom my mother never claimed to like anyway, but to my brother and I was one of the sweetest women we ever knew), how could I have been so thoughtless?
After she slapped me and stormed off, I swept up every single piece of that cup and saucer I could find and put them into a paper bag. Over the next few days, I painstakingly glued the pieces back together, some of them as small as the size of a fingernail clipping, probably over 50 pieces in all. There was one tiny piece I never found, I suspect it had ended up in that dark, dusty crevasse under the refrigerator, so the cup ended up with a missing sliver on one side of it. It could never be used to drink tea out of again, but my Mom didn’t use those cups anyway, nor did she drink tea. I kept the whole mess hidden in my room, on a corner of my desk, under a t-shirt, so she wouldn’t see what I was up to if she came in my room. After I finished, I went over the whole cup and saucer with nail polish remover to remove any lingering traces of Superglue stickiness, and I have to admit, it was a pretty good reconstruction job. From the outside, save for that little sliver, the cup looked perfectly right again, white with a dainty floral print and a gold-rimmed edge. Look inside, and the white interior was a fine spiderweb of healed cracks. I actually thought it looked more interesting than it had before, it gave the cup a lot more character.
I presented the cup back to my mother the next weekend morning while she was drinking her coffee and smoking a cigarette. I shyly brought it out and set it on our kitchen table next to her and proudly said, “Look, I fixed it.” The tentative offering of another apology, the broken made whole again, the child looking for the mother’s forgiveness to close the wound.
My mother picked up the cup and immediately her eyes zeroed in on the missing sliver and the web of cracks on the interior. “It’s still not as good as it was,” she muttered. With that, she hefted the cup and saucer tossed them together down on the linoleum floor, destroying it once again.
I left the kitchen. I didn’t want her to see how much it hurt.
I hate that particular memory, but I keep it fresh in my mind because now, when my kids accidentally break something in the house that might have once been precious to me, I remind myself that they are only things. Children are much harder to put back together.
Back to school and my son’s award. I am ridiculously proud of him for getting a silly little medal on a ribbon, took photos of him during the ceremony and afterward, which I will post on Facebook and send off to friends in emails, hugged him probably a dozen times and told him how smart he is and how proud I am of him. None of the things my Mom ever did. Despite being a stellar student, Fred never got told that her Mom was proud of her. Looking at the API rankings of most of the schools I went to (13 schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade), a lot of them were in poorer areas of town with more diverse racial mixtures and, now, more problems, and their API scores reflect it. My son is fortunate enough to go to a public elementary school with an API score this year of 926, the highest in the district and one of the top 100 in the entire state of California. The API scores of the schools now that I attended as a child range somewhere around the 500-600 mark, some lower, some higher. Thirty years ago they may have been higher, but I doubt they were ever in the top 100 for the state. So maintaining straight A’s at sub par schools maybe isn’t such a big deal; I used to rationalize that as one of the reasons my Mom never seemed proud of me. Not that my Mom would have cared about API scores or rankings. The only time my school entered into her thoughts was when I wasn’t there because I was home sick and thus inconveniencing her.
When I graduated high school, I was on my way to UC Berkeley on a full scholarship for their aerospace engineering program. (Not what I finished in, obviously, or I would probably be successful enough and busy enough to not have time to write a blog). Despite years of being educated at crappy schools, I managed to score in the 1400’s on my SAT scores. Back in my freshman year at Escondido High School, I remember telling my Mom that the Chicano girls I shared my locker with (there weren’t enough to go around, so you were assigned to share lockers) were stealing from my lunch, usually always my dessert. She then launched into a pop psychology diatribe on the fight or flight scenario, and how I should confront these girls or spend my life living in fear. Wisely, I chose to ignore her, thus saving myself from getting my ass beaten up in the parking lot after school by a bunch of gang chicks, and made it all the way through to graduation. I also ignored my own initial ideas of injecting my Ding-Dong filling with strychnine just to see what would happen to the unwary snack thieves. Instead I took to carrying my lunch around with me in a tote bag, until the point where I had become close enough friends with another girl that I could switch to sharing her locker instead. Now, as a parent, I try to recall this little incident when my kids have problems with other children in school and think about what I would have preferred that my Mom have said or done about my purloined lunches. I may not have always come up with the best solution as a child (nor will I as an adult), but I did what I needed to do to cope.
The biggest thing lacking in my upbringing was a sense that my brother or I ever brought any joy to our parents’ lives. It took me years of therapy to pinpoint that one. Think about all the reasons that people have children in the first place, admittedly, not all of them are healthy or sensible. But ideally, people have children, or adopt children, because they want them. Having that child in their lives brings more joy into a life that, hopefully, is already happy. I will be the first to tell you that my two boys can be a pain in the ass. But I will also be the first one to tell you (and tell them) how happy I am that they are with me, that they exist, that they are a part of my life. I hope that as they grow to adulthood, even if they don’t remember my words, that they will always remember a feeling of being loved, being wanted, being cherished just because they exist. Their father and I split up over five years ago, when our boys were just 3 and 5 years old, and the guilt from that still tears at me at times. I never want them thinking that they were a reason for the divorce, because they weren’t. And I’m very glad that their father shares custody of them, so they have not just one, but two loving homes to go to.
My father saw us every other Sunday afternoon, for maybe 3 hours or so. He never pressed for or wanted more custody, and somehow got away with only paying $75 a month per kid for child support for my brother’s and my entire childhood existence – it never increased, he never offered more. My Dad was a nice guy, but he wasn’t a father. Whether or not he would have manned up and been one if something drastic had happened to my Mom (sometimes wishful thinking on my part when my Mom pulled one of her many suicide attempts), I don’t know. I can’t really imagine him doing much more than providing food and shelter and telling me to stand up straight. I can’t fault him that much, he was born in a time (1926) when men really didn’t have to be parents, they just had to be providers, and if you had a son, you had to teach him how to throw a baseball and how to drive a car. My Dad did neither of those with my brother – being only 5’4″, my Dad wasn’t particularly athletically inclined (although he might have been a good jockey), and my Mom got stuck with the task of teaching my brother how to drive. Or rather, my brother got stuck with my Mom. I can still remember a time in Tustin, when he stalled our VW Scirocco (one of the few times it wasn’t in the shop) during an unprotected left turn on Red Hill Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the city back in 1975. Great place to take your son out for a practice drive. My Mom started screaming at him about being a failure and embarrassing her, all while the car was still stuck in the middle of oncoming traffic, with me in the back seat. I would have (as a Mom) hustled my kid out of the driver’s seat and switched places, got the car moving again to get my family safely out of traffic, and pulled over to let everyone calm down afterward. Instead, my Mom got out of the car and announced she was walking home, leaving an unlicensed driver with only a learner’s permit to finally get the car started again and drive himself and his little sister home.
You see, with my Mom, it was never about her kids, it was only about her. Not that one’s life should be entirely devoted to their children, I think that’s a little too self-sacrificing. But it is a good thing if the happiness of your children, or at least their safety and comfort, sometimes enter into your thought process. My Mom never owned a four-door car or thought to buy one, so I was always stuck dealing with her ire when I had to climb in and out of the back seat (I never did it fast enough). My grandfather passed away in 1976 and I remember my brother and I were both in need of new school clothes and shoes (I grew up thinking high-water pants were the norm, at least for me). The small inheritance my mother received was quickly spent on new clothes for herself, booze, cigarettes, drugs, and an ill-advised loan to a flaky boyfriend so he could buy a vintage Porsche, most of which was never repaid. My brother graduated high school the following year and there was nothing set aside for him to go to college, not even a community college. He went into the Navy and made his escape, leaving me to put up with her solo for four more long years. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I got tired of her hitting me and finally slapped her back – surprisingly, that finally stopped her, at least on that level.
When I was in junior high, my history teacher figured out that I probably needed to get an eye test after seeing me squinting at the chalkboard on one too many occasions. My Mom never noticed. But she did finally take me in for an eye exam. My first prescription at age 13 was 20/200, or roughly -2.5 diopters. The first time I walked out of the optometrist’s office, I wonder how the hell I’d been able to function prior to then. I could finally SEE! Over the next few years, my eyesight continued to deteriorate, to where I was up to -6 diopters (and wearing contacts) by my senior year of high school. I had nightmares throughout high school that I was going to slowly go blind. Nobody else in the family had crappy eyesight, what was the matter with me? Did I confide any of my fears in my Mom, like most kids would have? Nope, not a word. I may be a slow learner, but I was finally learning my lesson with her. Bringing up the subject would have gotten me a lecture about the time I’d broken my glasses three years ago and how much that cost her. Or her traumatic experience of having measles as a child and how selfish I was by apparently accusing her of being a lousy mother because my eyesight getting bad. It was amazing the way she could twist any topic around to have all the arrows pointed in her direction.
My older son was born with a heart arrthymia – I believe the term for it is “sinus brachycardia with premature atrial contractions”. My OB/GYN actually picked it up in my 34th week of pregnancy on the Doppler, and it scared the crap out of me to have that reassuring thumping sound suddenly sounding anything but reassuring. During the delivery, his heat rate kept dropping precipitously until I turned onto my left side … and then had to stay in that position for the next two hours during contractions. Since then, he has had to periodically be hooked up to a portable Holter monitor to record a 24-hour EKG of his heart. He does okay with it, sometimes he thinks he’s like Doc Ock from the Spiderman comics, with all this stuff hooked up to his chest and a little machine with a digital readout hooked to his waistband. But I’ve also taken the time to explain exactly what is going on with his heart to him. The arrthymia seems to be resolving itself as he gets older and his cardiologist thinks he may just outgrow it, I hope he does. Basically it means that one chamber of his heart has an extra electrical node that fires off and overrides the regular one, causing him to have extra heartbeats. I tell him it’s like having an extra battery, or an extra lightswitch that flicks on when it’s not supposed to, and that over time, that extra lightswitch will probably stop working. I think he gets it and seems comforted by my explanations.
When I was 11, the age Sean is now, I had to have surgery on my little toes. I had hammerhead toes, a condition where my little toe went up over the top of the neighbor toe next to it. Caused discomfort in shoes until the toe worked a hole in the top of the shoe, or with Mary Jane styles, it would stick out of the top of the opening while the other four stayed inside. It was kind of cool to go down the beach and leave four-toed footprints, not that we ever went to the beach very much because my Mom had such fair skin and hated the beach. When it came time to explain the surgery to me, my mother, ever the mistress of tact, told me I was going to be put to sleep and the doctor was either going to cut all the muscles to my little toes or he might have to just cut them off. Then she got annoyed at me for getting dizzy and blacking out after listening to her. Fortunately, I still have my little toes, and they lay there nicely obedient, down with the other four. I had to wear those dorky post-surgery shoes, sort of a wraparound style that would allow for room for my bandages, for a few weeks afterward. My uncle came to visit that summer and offered to take my brother and I to what was then the Del Mar Fair (should still be called that, frankly – “San Diego County Fair” is a stupid name). My Mom wouldn’t let me go because of my shoes and bandages, she didn’t want them getting dirty, even though I pleaded with her that we could change the bandages later, they were due to be changed anyway. No dice. I had to stay home while my brother had a blast. When my Mom finally did get around to changing my bandages, she hadn’t bothered to actually buy any gauze and such, she just decided to use Handi-Wipes from the kitchen. I think they were pink and white striped ones. So as if my blue wraparound shoes didn’t look bad enough, now I had to complement them with pink Handi-Wipes. Even though we lived in San Diego for 16 out of my 18 childhood years, that was the only opportunity I ever got to go to the Fair as a kid, because … well, you already guessed it. My Mom didn’t like the Fair.
After my older son was born, I ended up with severe postpartum depression. It wasn’t pretty, but that’s a subject for another post, if I ever feel like writing about it. My shrink told me later she was pretty close to hospitalizing me. Over the course of many, many therapy sessions, my upbringing came up and my therapist was continually amazed that I hadn’t ended up in therapy or had a nervous breakdown years earlier. Who, moi? Just stubborn, I guess. At some point she asked me if I had any baby photos of myself around that I liked, and I brought in one of myself with my Grandma, it must have been from Easter of 1964, I would have been about 9 months old then. The photo was actually on a slide, and I got a print made from it. It’s my Grandma holding me and this silly inflatable Easter bunny. According to my Mom’s cousin, my grandparents adored my brother and I, and it crushed them when my Mom would play stupid mind games and not allow them to visit us. My therapist told me to put the picture somewhere in a frame where I would see it frequently, like on my nightstand, and every time I looked at it, she wanted me to ask myself if that little girl in the photo deserved love? Did she deserve to be cared for and raised by parents who were proud of her and supported her? Where she knew that she brought joy into their lives?
Of course she does, I answered. Every child does.
Her prescription from that point on, was simple. With my own children, whenever I doubted myself as a mother, I was to think of that little girl and think about what she should have had, how her mother should have behaved. And do that with my children. In essence, she called it “re-parenting” myself through the process of raising my own kids. It hasn’t been easy. There are times when the temper flares I remember from my mother rise up in me like some uncontrollable, boiling volcano. But I control it – most of the time. And the few times I don’t, I apologize to my children, and I explain. And I learn, and grow, and try to get better at it. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the parenting thing figured out. But maybe that’s part of what makes a good parent – never being sure that you have all the answers.
The other thing my therapist told me that stuck with me years later was this odd little biological footnote. Since every woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have, at some point in time, before my mother was born, the egg inside her that eventually became me was actually inside my grandmother also, when my mom was still in her womb. So back in 1937, some cells that became me 26 years later were nestled in my Grandma’s womb. My same Grandma who loved me unconditionally, the only mother who ever made me feel like I brought joy into her life. That makes me feel loved.
Sky is womb and she’s the moon.