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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.

Rule #15: Words Without Deeds

Purplesmoke Macluskie

My father left for work each day in Betsy, our anthropomorphized station wagon, leaving my mother stranded at home with three busy children and a lot of housework.

Of course, my father regretted not being able to help out more at home. Of course, he wanted to show his support. My mother felt weary and somewhat isolated. My father racked his brain.

“Hmmm…what would be most helpful? A second car? A nice evening out on the town? A listening ear? A few bucks for a mother’s helper now and then?” Then it hit him:

Words! By George, my bride needs Rules and some good, strong Words!”

He wrapped them and presented them to her. First he gave her Rules to use with us children. These are self explanatory.

Then he gave her Words.

“Do!”
“Don’t!”
“Stop!”
“Come!”
“Go!”

These mighty Words were to provide the active ingredients in many powerful incantations. Carefully combined with ordinary words, their potential was limitless. Here are just a few of the spells they created:

“Do your chores!”
“Don’t talk to me that way!”
“Stop kicking your sister!”
“Come back here right now!”
“Go to your room!”

These spells, properly cast, would do the same thing as the magical comb and towel in the story of Baba Yaga. Thrown to the ground, the comb burst into a dense and impassable forest; the towel into and unfordable river. The Words would create a barrier to bad behavior and protect my mother from inconvenience and exhaustion.

What neither my father nor my mother realized was that the power of Words grows weaker and weaker with use unless they receive a regular application of  Deeds. Deeds are prescriptions which prevent Words from vaporizing before they strike their target. In case you are unfamiliar with the language of magic, the word “Deeds” is frequently translated into English as “discipline.”

Unfortunately, Dad was weak on Deeds. Maybe he had figured Words would be enough. Maybe he was lazy. Mom was better at Deeds but was afraid to use them without Dad’s support. Deeds can be difficult to wield alone.

Within a few days, the Words had no effect at all. My mother was outnumbered. Desperate, she reached for the Unspeakable Words. Yes, she did.

“Wait ‘til your father gets home!”

Dad approached the house, tired after a long day at work. An introvert, he had long exhausted his bank of words and Words and was feeling desperate for a little peace and quiet. Exasperated, Mom waited by the door, wringing her hands and holding up her own empty jar of Words.

The use of so many Words in the absence of Deeds had created a buildup of flammable vapor. The metallic click of Dad’s key in the lock was all that was needed.

I think I’ll stop the story there.

Parents: Punishment and discipline are not the same. Please remember this.

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

Photo credit here.

Rule #13: Dig It In & Pile It On

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

One of my daughters and I coined a term for a family rule which I learned from my father and attempted to pass down to my progeny. In recent years, transmission of this rule has been slowed and nearly halted, with the unfortunate consequence that I have been unable to properly imbue my daughters with a deep-seated belief in their own defectiveness.

You win some, you lose some.

The rule we now refer to as Dig It In dictated that if someone had made an error or in some way fallen short, you were obligated to inform her of this failure. With Olympic strength and endurance. The offender needed to fully comprehend 1. the inconvenience, 2. the irreparable damage (or at minimum, the potential for irreparable damage), 3. the mortification, 4. the danger, 5. the hurt, 6. the disappointment, and 7. the loss of face caused through her action or inaction.

Am I forgetting anything?

As you might guess, Dig It In led to a few sub rules, such as Not Me and Pile It On.

Think of Not Me as a game of dodge ball. See, my family did know how to have fun! “Who broke the lamp?!” “Not me!” Get the idea?

Once the perp had been fingered, it was time for Pile It On, which takes its name from football, another super fun game. While the accuser dug it in, any innocent bystanders, relieved to have been spared and wanting to make sure the tide didn’t suddenly turn against them, made sure the person who had been taken down stayed down.

If the person who had made the mistake came away thinking it was possible to be sorry enough–or ever fully remediate the error–the rule had obviously not been properly executed. A proper digging-in infuses the recipient with the knowledge that her very person is shameful.

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

Photo credit here

Rule # 8: A Lie is a Spank

Photo courtesy of PicFreak

Photo courtesy of PicFreak

Dad coined this rule and actually called it “A Lie is a Spank.”

What he said was: A lie is a spank. If you tell the truth, I may not be happy but I will not punish you. If you lie, you will be punished. Don’t try to lie to me because I can tell if you are lying by looking into your eyes.

I believed Dad might indeed have some special power to detect lies, so I rarely lied outright. Instead I became sneaky and good at diversion and omission. I had to, really, because punishment was erratic and inconsistent. Behavior that got me grounded one day might elicit a good natured admonition and wink the next.

The rule wasn’t a great protector of truth in any case. If you were telling the truth and hadn’t done anything dishonest or unkind but Dad thought you were lying, your goose was still cooked. He was so persuasive in his disbelief that you began to doubt your goodness, if not your sanity. Apparently the corollary to “A Lie is a Spank” was “I Know You Better than You Know Yourself.” But I’ll tell you about that variation another day.

Once when playing in the yard, I did a cartwheel and ended up kicking my little sister Gwen in the nose. Granted, we were not the best of friends, but I had not intended to touch her, let alone harm her. A moment after she ran into the house crying, I knew I was in Big Trouble.

I claimed innocence when questioned by Dad. He responded by giving me a sly, conspiratorial smile: “Come on, Jane, I know it wasn’t an accident. You can tell me.” Again, I protested. But he insisted. And then he punished me.

My brain knew I hadn’t done intentional harm but my heart remained troubled. Was there an evil in me which I couldn’t see? I still have moments when that feeling engulfs me.

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

Rule # 5: Being-Visited Behavior

2048px-Pocahontas_at_the_court_of_King_James copy

I think you would have enjoyed being a visitor to my childhood home. As a guest, you would have been constitutionally incapable of doing wrong. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to proclaim, as in the old days of customer service, “The customer is always right!” Unlike the rest of us, you would not have been expected to be on-call
and maintenance-free.

When Dad was “on,” he was charming, thoughtful, and generous. In his gaiety, he would have spared no effort to make you comfortable in his court. I like that wording. Dad would have spared no effort of ours to make you comfortable.

While he piddled and we played, Mom shopped, cleaned and cooked in preparation. It must have been like shoveling against the tide. Our role in this performance came later when we were expected to portray Three Well-Bred Offspring and entertain you on demand by speaking German phrases, playing the piano, and sometimes–literally–performing a song and dance.

When I was small, I pretty much went with the program. What choice did I have? I delivered as well as I could, given my introverted temperament.

I may have been as old as 14 or 15 the last time my father instructed me to go downstairs and play the piano for our guests. I was to leave the door open so that everyone could enjoy my offerings as they wafted up into the living room.

My mind and body refused to comply. I am not even sure it was a matter of conscious choice. I felt sick. Piano lessons had been his idea. I wasn’t invested, and I hadn’t practiced in ages.

I smiled wanly, opened the door, walked calmly down the stairs, escaped out the back door, and took off running. I spent hours wandering the neighborhood, contemplating the punishment that awaited me once I returned. By some unprecedented stroke of luck, the guests had left, and my father had entirely forgotten my defiance by the time I dared to slink back home.

In another episode, my father became infuriated with me because of a septic backup. This was the summer my friend Hanna first came from Germany to visit.

Famously, our incompetent septic contractor had installed a small, tight bend in an inauspicious location, and this meant a fickle system prone to backups. We all knew about this delicate situation as we had been instructed by Dad ad nauseam on the maximum number of toilet paper squares permissible per job. The flushing of tampons was, of course, strictly verboten. I can’t speak for the rest of us but I wasn’t about to count squares. Still, I did realize that the bend was a formidable foe; and a stoppage meant snaking at best, digging and pipe cutting at worst.

This particular summer, the culprit was found to be a minuscule o.b. tampon lodged in said bend.

My Dad was fussing and fuming, and I was attempting to proclaim my innocence when I noticed Hanna growing more and more agitated. Finally, she burst:                      “I FLUSHED THE TAMPON!”

Silence. I loved her for saving me.

My Dad turned, gave her a beatific smile, and told her in a reassuring voice not to worry, it wasn’t her fault. He then turned back to me and continued to berate me in front of her for allowing my house guest to flush a tampon.

Ah, yes.

This post if part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

Rule # 4: Visiting Behavior, Acts II & III

Rule # 4: Visiting Behavior, Acts II & III

Act II: The Performance

Dad wasn’t kidding when he laid down the rules. We were even held to rules we didn’t know–but should have. If we transgressed and were lucky, we got “The Look.” If we were unlucky, we got a furtive pinch. I am not talking about a love pinch.

My younger sister Gwen, God bless her, was more spirited and less cautious than I; and she often got the brunt of Dad’s ministrations. My little brother was largely immune due to age, cuteness, and, quite possibly, maleness. He might have been too young to understand we weren’t supposed to say, “Ouch!” when swatted, pinched, or kicked under the table; and that could have been risky.

But Gwen seized the day. Oh, how I envied her! Whether due to intransigent joie de vivre or a failure to learn from the past, my sis lived large. Since visits were miserable anyway; since The Review (Act III) and punishment loomed inexorably; why not enjoy life instead of sitting there like a flat tire? Apparently she had decided that fun now was worth punishment later.

Gwen loved water, and wherever water was to be found, she managed to accidentally fall in. Then she proceeded to have fun. How dare she!

Gwen loved makeup. She found all kinds of interesting cosmetics in Mom’s purse and, even better, in the bathrooms of the homes we visited. After putting on her face, she’d emerge, composed and cool, in a cloud of fragrance, behaving as though she didn’t know she had lipstick all over her face and couldn’t imagine how on earth it could have gotten there.

Gwen loved animals. After being explicitly told not to go anywhere near the puppies at one house, she emerged from the dog pen with the bitch’s tooth marks in her left buttock.

During a period in the 70’s, we lived in Germany. I remember one Sunday visit to friends in Pfungstadt especially well.

It was horrible.

It was wonderful!

In the car, my father prepped us. The lecture went something like this:

Unlike rambunctious American children, German children do not guzzle juice. Furthermore, juice is expensive in Germany, and you should not burden our hosts by asking for more than the one small glass you are sure to receive with your meal. Furtherfurthermore, Germans do not drink tap water, and so a request for any drink is a request for a bottled liquid purchased with their hard-earned money.

After drinking our one tiny glass of Saft at lunch, we kids were high and dry. Unable to stand it any longer, Gwen asked for more juice. Her request was immediately followed by a loud shriek.

Hilde, our concerned and startled hostess, asked my sister what was wrong. Gwen answered evenly, “My father pinched me.” Thinking she had misheard, Hilde asked again. Gwen obligingly clarified, “My father told me I could only have one glass of juice. I asked for more. So he pinched me under the table.”

Dad tried to play dumb but he wasn’t very convincing. Gwen got her juice. We all got our juice. We got all the juice we wanted.

Gwen had just bought us a few hours of power and freedom, and we set out to make the most of them. There was no time to waste since our coup would be repaid with interest once we left the sanctuary of Hilde’s modest home.

Act III: The Review

During the ride home and beyond, we were treated to a blow-by-blow recitation of our misbehaviors and the world-altering consequences thereof.

I probably became a therapist in self defense.

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

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