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A House Divided

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I could have Mom or I could have Dad. I couldn’t have them both. At least not at the same time. But it never stopped me from trying.

I was kind of a double agent–except I wasn’t a spy. I tried thinking of myself as a mediator but that didn’t fit either. A mediator is a neutral party. No, I was a confused sort of ambassador. An ambassador is an emissary loyal to and invested in the well being of a specific country. Guess what? I was a dual citizen! Anxiety around matters of loyalty has tormented me throughout my life. After you read this piece, you will understand why.

You’ll need to understand a bit about my parents.

My father William was an odd fellow. He was a tall, bent, reed of a man who enjoyed oil painting, classical music, cooking, foreign language, and mystery novels. He loved to learn and experiment. He taught me how to plant a garden, check my oil, play chess, and knit. My Dad loved to travel, and he kept up with individuals all over the world using his ham radio. My father was respected at work, and he mentored many young men in their careers.

Lest you think him too cultured, it is important to note that he was also “Billy Boy,” the barefoot son of a quiet, uneducated carpenter and his domineering wife. My father relished his sweet iced tea and his corn bread with pinto beans. A times, he brewed alcoholic beverages in the laundry room and bathrooms. He thought it funny to sneak up behind my mother when she was washing dishes and her hands were occupied. He would nuzzle her neck, squeeze her love handles, and call her “Flabber,” a nickname which never failed to humiliate and incense her. I can still see him shaking with silent laughter at her impotent rage. I suppose you could say my father was a study in contrasts.

My mother Carol, being a more conventional soul and wishing for conventional happiness, found herself frustrated with the gulf between her husband’s prowess at work and his slovenliness and inconsideration at home. In some ways my mother was very much the archetypal warm, wholesome, cozy Mom. She was outgoing and social. She kept an orderly home, and she made gingerbread houses and chocolate chip cookies. Mom was the kindest and most wonderful nurse imaginable when we were ill. Unlike my father, she was an excellent athlete.

My father possessed little physical vigor, and he avoided joining us in any play but his own. His “play” involved the creation of prodigious messes which he left where they lay. He dirtied every dish in the kitchen to produce one batch of bread. He used our basement to build television sets for friends (for free!) while completely ignoring all chores. When invitations for neighborhood social functions arrived, my father was entirely uninterested. My mother responded by staying home to sulk or else attending alone and fabricating an excuse intended to protect them both from shame. She thought it an enormous and delicious act of rebellion when, many years later, she began to tell the truth: “William didn’t want to come.”

I suspect my mother might have been better able to tolerate my father’s eccentricities if he had left her alone to rule the household as she saw fit. Instead, he acted as overseer. He believed her somewhat lacking in brainpower and in need of supervision. My mother responded by using her “stupidity” to manage regular bank overdrafts and other ploys to make sure that we had tasty food and clothing which was not embarrassing.

I could think of no other way to affect conciliation than to hold the confidences of both Mom and Dad while trying to help each understand the other’s point of view. I have intentionally avoided the word reconciliation because they didn’t learn to enjoy and cooperate with one another until I was grown and out of the house.

My father frequently asked me to accompany him on weekend errands. During our times in the car, he entrusted me with adult concerns: “I love your mother but you have to understand that she is like a child.” He implied that she wasn’t very bright. His manner communicated that we had a special bond and that I was able to understand things my mother couldn’t. I listened quietly or else I tried to help him understand my Mom. I felt special. Surely I must be a very mature and smart girl! At the same time my father’s confidences were tainted. I was ushered into a realm of emotional intimacy which should have been reserved for my mother.

My father’s attentions were never sexual but they had a quality of intimacy which confused me and which I still find difficult to describe. Perhaps an example will clarify: Several times, immediately after flying into a rage and administering corporal punishment for minor misdeeds, my father came to me as I cried on my bed and calmly rubbed my back. He sought comfort and empathy. He wanted my reassurance that I understood him: He had been compelled to punish me this way because of his love for me. It had been done for my own good. Now that his rage had achieved release, I probably should have offered him a cigarette.

My mother found in me a convenient outlet for expressions of frustration involving my father. Having been influenced by my father’s assessment of her defects, I found Mom’s confidences less satisfying. I was torn between my desire to be her friend and ally and the guilt I felt when I failed to remain loyal to Dad’s agendas. I explained my father to my mother as best I could, hoping to win her compliance and bring about harmony. I was drawn to her by a child’s need for closeness, yet I was repelled by the contempt I felt. Her loyalty was two-sided as well. On occasions when we children misbehaved a bit more than she could manage, my mother appealed to my father to discipline us the moment he arrived home from work. When he was stressed, he lost his temper and raised welts on our thighs while my mom, once again in the role of good guy and advocate, begged him to stop.

My parents were either unaware of their nauseous dance or else too deeply entrenched in their power struggle to resist childish misbehavior. I tried to stand between them and connect them. I recall one very painful incident in which my father gleefully offered to take us kids out for ice cream. The offer followed directly on the heels of a heated argument between the two of them.

Going out for ice cream was a rare and valued treat. We excitedly hopped in the car, relieved that safety had been restored. We waited for my father to pull out of the driveway but he did not. After a moment, he declared that he wouldn’t take us unless my mother came too. I ran into the house and asked her to come. Still furious and hurt from the confrontation, she refused. My father innocently responded that my mother was the one with the power to decide whether or not we would get the ice cream. I reasoned (and pleaded) back and forth with my father and my mother while my siblings looked on, begging and sobbing loudly. Finally my mother changed her clothes and slipped into the car. She looked straight ahead and didn’t utter a word. My father was positively giddy. I had somehow chosen my father and betrayed my mother for an ice cream cone.

Keeping the peace was a task far beyond my reach as my family culture made it difficult to befriend more than one member at a time. To be close to Dad, I had to snub Mom. If I allied myself with Mom, I had to defy Dad. If Dad’s mercurial anger threatened to alight upon me, I had more complicated choices to make. I became an expert at reading the family tea leaves so that I would know just how to respond. Should I turn off my emotions and try the cool, logical appeal he favored? Should I feign submission and ask for mercy? Should I play dumb and implicate my mother or siblings? Should I inconspicuously ease my way out of the room? Should I run like hell? When push came to shove, I looked out for myself.

My writing is replete with dichotomies, and that is as it should be. I felt divided then, and I feel divided still. This is the kind of confusion wrought by emotional incest and manipulation. Loyalty and betrayal continue to be fraught concepts. Sometimes the line between being a good “ambassador” and being a flagrant codependent or a weasel is finer than one might think. I’ve developed a good professional understanding of how this works. (Would it surprise you to know that I have a specialty in couples therapy?) The summer of 2011 drove the lesson home in a personal way.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two days. Clicking “publish” is hard sometimes. One betrayal per click. Family Rules breaking left and right. I can feel my stomach churning. But this is my story, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to sell out my parents for the possibility of a “like.” Think carefully. Do you really want to be complicit?

This is where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna Intersect. For the prior installment of Family Rules, click here. For the next installment of Family Rules, click here. For the prior installment of the story of Hanna, click here. For the next installment of The Story of Hanna, click here.

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The Mender (May, 1987)

Make do and mend copy

It’s funny how something as simple as a small boy’s open face can tumble even the firmest defenses.

Sitting at my desk at school, surrounded by half-filled mugs of coffee, dog-eared laboratory manuals, and fermenting laundry; pressed from all sides by assignments outstanding; due dates looming like dark clouds, I decided I had had enough. With a single gesture, I cleared my desk, sending self-important documents sprawling across the floor. Picking a pen and a few sheets of paper out of the wreckage, I began to write:

Zooming down the highway at seventy-five miles an hour, the young woman reviewed her time-table for the day. Before setting out on her errands, she had dutifully visited the tiny apartment her mother and grandmother had shared since her mother had abruptly left her father in mid-January. After thirty minutes of polite conversation, thirty minutes during which her mother had self-consciously picked at her ragged cuticles with large-knuckled fingers, thirty minutes during which her grandmother had rocked, quenched and quiet, in her oversized rocker, the young woman had excused herself.

She had gone on to the bank and then to the post office. Sometime before she headed back to campus, she would stop by the grocery store to pick up stockings for her grandmother and some cereal for herself. If she were lucky, she would have time to pick up her father’s suit at the dry cleaners.

But first things first….She was now on her way to visit her father, who had been admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. A week ago, he had almost died; but a second surgery and three transfusions had pulled him through. On her way to the hospital, she would stop at the house to look for his checkbook and gather his mail—today was the day she was to help him pay the bills. The daughter visualized her father’s fleshy and stubborn face atop his flaccid white body.

As she pulled up to the house, she noticed that the garbage cans were overflowing. They looked as though they had been sitting in the driveway for a week. The grass had grown tall since she had last been home, and someone’s lark had left tire marks, deep black scars, in the damp spring soil. Cigarette butts and bottle caps, a sure sign of her brother’s habitation, littered a path worn from the drive to the front door. In all the windows, the curtains had been drawn, adding to the property’s forlorn appearance.

Cautiously, she turned her key in the lock and stepped inside. Ugh! A cloud of stale marijuana smoke burned her eyes. She squinted in the darkness. As she made her way to the window to open the drapes and let in fresh air, she stumbled over a disarray of pillows and blankets mounded in the center of the living room.

When she had opened the drapes and thrown open the windows, she stood back in surprise. The house’s emptiness shocked her. At least her brother had had the courtesy to move most of the furniture and breakables out of the way before having a party. She shuddered to think of all that would have been ruined or missing had he not taken these precautions. Still, without the pictures and knick-knacks, the upstairs seemed gray and lifeless. Perhaps it was right that they should have been moved. The objects her mother had lovingly arranged throughout the house had perpetrated a cheerful lie. At least now the deceit had ended. Her mother had walked out three months ago, weary of her father’s bickering and her brother’s wildness. She would not soon return. Why shouldn’t the rooms of the house bear witness to the facts?

Now, in the afternoon shadows, the remaining cabinets gaped like empty mouths; white spots replaced the floral prints and showed the walls to be badly in need of paint. Butts and stains had rooted themselves in the brown carpet like persistent weeds. No scents of cooking or cut flowers warmed the house now. Instead, the air was ripe with the odors of stale beer and smoke–and vegetables rotting in the refrigerator.

She studied the huge black speaker strategically placed in a corner of the living room and facing her now with utmost contempt. Her brother had taped its wire to the carpet with strips of electrical tape, forming a snake-like suture leading back into his room and the mother system. Following this trail, his sister tiptoed back to his room. She expected to find him asleep, as usual, resting after a long night of partying, but he was not in his bed. Thank God he was not there! Had he threatened her today, nobody would have been around to help her.

Sleeping, he resembled a good-natured giant, his oversized hands and feet protruding from his wiry frame and dangling off the bed, which had become too short to contain him. And his face…he had prided himself on the scruffy beginnings of a mustache. Seeing him asleep, one could almost forget his temper, the drugs, the late-night police visits….

She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes in momentary relief.

In an instant, relief gave way to anger. Didn’t her brother EVER think of anyone but himself? Of course not! He had a way of worming his way out of every predicament, disclaiming all of the responsibilities and escaping most of the consequences of his doings. He simply did whatever her wished, knowing that eventually, someone else would be forced to pick up his tab. What would happen now? Her father was to be released from the hospital in a few days. Was he to come home to this? Was it any wonder he had developed an ulcer?

Ignoring the knot in her stomach, she tried to focus her energies on the problem at hand. She willed the larger issues to the back of her mind in order to treat their symptom. She would just have to squeeze out a few hours to do some straightening and cleaning.

Where should she begin? She could not move the heavy furniture herself, and yet she knew she could elicit no cooperation from her brother. Her sister would be of no assistance. She had moved out a week ago, her green eyes shot with red, and was still too uneasy to return to the house. Her mother…? She would not ask this woman to abandon her new-found adolescence for motherhood in all of its responsibilities. Enough! She would concentrate on the positive—how she could serve her father and how she should be glad to be able to serve him in this way. With her hands on her hips, lips pursed, she surveyed her situation and determined what she could accomplish alone.

Gathering up the soiled bedding, she sang to herself. She sang as she emptied hampers and retrieved underclothes and towels from bathroom floors. By the time she had hauled all the bundles down to the laundry room, she was weary of Joni Mitchell and her melancholy lyrics and searched her mind for lighter tunes.

Time flew as she straightened and scrubbed, dusted and vacuumed. Her mood began to lift. A gentle breeze had cleansed the air; and, like a tender rain, the pine-scented cleaner had bathed the house in freshness. The sinking sun warmed the rooms, repossessing them one by one.

Brave in her triumph, the young woman dared to touch the large speaker which still defaced the living room. She pulled up the black tape and managed to push the beast back into her brother’s room and shut the door. She felt the satisfaction of one who has vanquished a trespasser. Flicking back her damp bangs with the palm of her hand, she felt ready to face her own room.

She thrust open the door and met with the sound of breaking china. Now she knew where her brother had stored the articles he had removed from the other rooms. Appliances, boxes of breakables, and a stray bong prevented her from opening the door very far and forced her to squeeze her way through for a closer look. After a quick examination, she retreated, not desiring to compromise her good cheer. She would reclaim her own room another day. Today she had neither the time nor the energy to wonder who had slept in her bed, or what had become of her jewelry box, or what that was floating in her toilet. She closed the door and returned to the living room for one last inspection.

She was genuinely pleased with what she had been able to accomplish. Small victories such as these made the larger battles seem less formidable. With every struggle, she acknowledged, comes a bounty of good. Silently she thanked God for the beautiful weather. She thanked Him for the fact that her father would be leaving the hospital shortly… and that she had entered the house before he had.

She put behind her the times she had attempted, herself, to mend and patch and pick up the loose ends in her household. She put behind her the times she had believed in herself, her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, and been disappointed. She felt strong. She had hope. Soon things would change—she had prayed that they would. God had heard her. Soon there would be an end to this vicious spiral, the seemingly endless chain of bitterness and rebellion. Yes, she had hope: vibrant hope, realistic hope—realistic because she knew that whatever its form, God’s answer was at hand. Her mother might never return; her brother might never change from his abusive lifestyle. Still, she knew relief would come.

Looking out the picture window at the blooming dogwood, she observed Mark, the little boy from across the street, approaching her house. With large, clumsy steps, he bounced up the driveway, holding his cupped hands importantly before him. The girl smiled to herself. She wondered what he could be bringing this time… an injured bird, a dandelion, a fistful of cookies…?

He stopped before he reached the house and planted his feet steadily and deliberately, as if to brace himself. For a moment he paused. Then he rubbed his hands together, spreading a handful of refuse across the lawn. With a look of innocent satisfaction, he turned and started for home.

Violently, the girl flung open the door. In a second she had spun the child around.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she screamed, her flushed face inches from his.

Wide-eyed and without comprehension, he looked first into one pupil and then the other. He hesitated.

“My father was mad because your brother partied all night.”

Without realizing it, she had been holding her breath. Now, pierced to the marrow, she allowed it to escape, slowly deflating her rigid shoulders. Wearily, she reprimanded him.

“Why didn’t you at least throw them in the garbage can?” She pointed at what she now recognized as several hundred of her father’s address labels. How had they ended up on the neighbor’s lawn? Mark must have had quite a job to retrieve them all.

The boy’s eyes turned to liquid, and his chin trembled. Finally he replied.

“I didn’t know,” he wimpered, squirming.

Taking a step back, she scrutinized the offender. He was just a little boy, a child of six—not unlike her own brother at that age.

“Oh,” she answered, no longer aware of the child, who, frightened, turned and sprinted for home.

She remained for a moment in silent contemplation. A moment later, she returned to the house and began to cry.

I returned to the house and began to cry. Later, in the safety of my dormitory room, I picked up a pen and a few sheets of paper and began to write….

Image credit here

 

Rule # 10: If There is a Problem, it Must Be Your Problem

Imago courtesy of geralt

Imago courtesy of geralt

My Dad had no problems. No, really. It’s true. I heard him say so myself.

When Mom attempted to ask for help or discuss problems she was having with us kids or, God forbid, her relationship with him, my father responded predictably.

“Is there a problem? Well, I don’t have any problems. So it must be your problem.”

And that was that.

This is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

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