#38 Holiday WhackPosted: December 29, 2012
In January I flew back to Washington State to spend the first week of the New Year with my nephew and his wife. A happy event.
I’ve lived 3,000 miles away from my roots all my adult life. And for the first 20 years away, I maintained the same good-girl behavior I always had. I wrote, I called, and for a long time all my vacations were spent going home: a combination of heaven and hell. It’s the most beautiful place in the world. If you’ve seen Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, picture her twirling on the green hills with snow capped mountains in the background. Add lakes, beaches, a beautiful harbor and friends.
It’s also where my mother lives. It took me several years to understand why I’d get strep throat or bronchitis before a trip back. When I figured it out, that ended. Before the trip in January I had a sore throat. I took tons of vitamin C and Echinacea. I wasn’t going to see her. No one would even risk telling her I’m there. But just thinking of being in the same town with my now 96 year old mother makes me sick.
Safety was never an option. Confrontation only engorged her rage, but 3,000 miles between us allowed a sort of life for me. It’s taken 50 years to gain perspective to put the puzzle of my mother’s mental health together. I wrote a play 25 years ago with this line. “A woman may understand why her husband beats her, but she still has the bruises.” Staying away didn’t change anything, just lowered the count of the bruises.
Back in the mid 80’s my mother’s husband had a condition that required the amputation of one foot. He wasn’t doing well, so I convinced him that if he would stick with his physical therapy he should come out east and have Thanksgiving with me. The bargain was that I would visit them for Christmas in Arizona where they spent their winters. I heard the words come out of my mouth. He accepted the deal.
He wasn’t stable enough to climb the stairs in my house so I booked a lovely hotel room for them. I put a flower arrangement, fruit and magazines in the room as a welcome.
My mother was on her best behavior in my town. She was a spring loaded to launch but she contained herself, barely. For over thirty years I had developed a strained politeness, a contained irritation. The stress between us could create a diamond but I had made a deal. One night at my dining table someone dropped a knife onto a plate and the sound made my mother jump a foot off her chair with a scream. Today a childhood friend remembers my mother as high strung. Oh if only that were it.
I took them to my office, introduced them to my business partners and to friends. We visited friends of my parents who lived there. When it was time to take them to the airport in Baltimore I couldn’t drive fast enough. But the real test would be the Arizona Christmas.
After they left town I got a call from my mother’s friend we had visited. She was stunned by something my mother told her and thought I should know. My mother actually said that having seen my beautiful home and business, she might have “invested” in the wrong child. It was the first glimpse the friend had of the way my mother’s mind worked. But they never really saw her in action.
When my mother’s husband retired they bought a motor home. She confided in me on one of her rare truthful moments, that the reason she married my father was that he was in the military and she could see the world. We never lived anywhere exotic. That made her mad.
She and her husband now planned at least to see all of this country. But he could no longer climb in and out of the motor home. So they bought a teeny plot of land in one of those retirement parks in Arizona where they spent winters. There were five thousand of those spots. And the other 4,999 people parked there were in kind of the same situation. No one could travel the miles they had dreamed of so they stopped there for the winter. They all traded their motor homes for larger trailers. It was easy to get lost in row after row. They each had the same white painted rocks, and the same one cactus. I could see the same newscast on the televisions flickering at night in every home. Men reminisced about the 8 or 9 miles to the gallon they used to get with the motor homes. Women complained about their children who didn’t visit.
I had been there before but stayed in a motel. This time I was saving money instead of my sanity by staying with them in the trailer. My mother’s husband wouldn’t let me drive his car because he said I had an out of state driver’s license. That made no sense but I was stuck in the back seat while my mother “naggergated,” as he called it.
At night I slept on a fold out couch in the living room area of the trailer. So I was pretty much in their space. That’s fine for people who get along. I pretended that we got along. And I never betrayed her friend by revealing I knew what had been said about “investing” in the wrong child. We were in her territory and my mother was being herself. Her husband’s hearing was pretty bad by then. His understanding of anything that was going on was through her filter.
Now in previous years, the only two men in my life who met her and spent time with her, each asked why in the world I subjected myself to her, even allowed her in my life. My only response was that she was my mother. They didn’t see it that way.
On that Arizona Christmas Eve three nearly dead carnations were delivered to me from my brother and his second wife. For decades I had never gotten even a card from them so this was odd. I have many, many, many faults, but I am not a hypocrite. I couldn’t work up any excitement about those dry spindly carnations. I made a comment.
And that was it. She had held back since Thanksgiving and bam, now she was going to let me have it. She pinned me into a corner of that long metal submarine of a house. At her highest pitch she got her husband to take a whack at me with his cane, a full swing like a baseball bat. He was nearly 80 and had only one good leg so I was able to jump out of the way of some of the blow.
I didn’t call the airline to change my flight. I didn’t rent a car or book a motel room to get out of there. I stayed. I woke each day and got out of the living room. While it rained outside every morning I stood in the teeny shower and quietly cried.
Finally the day arrived to escape. I was up and dressed and to make it go faster I went across the little road to say goodbye to their neighbors. But I noticed my mother and her husband watching. They came outside to get me even though there was plenty of time. I only realized now decades later they were terrified that I might tell the neighbors that I had been hit with the cane. She should have known how well she had trained me. But I never stayed under the same roof with my mother again.