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.