#56 It Takes Two

The quick version: A friend introduced me to a man. We were just friends, then became more. We lived together, were supposed to marry and built two homes together. He was brilliant, funny and everything that comes with the dark side of brilliant. I’m tenacious and wouldn’t give up, but after nearly eight years together finally chose survival.

Except that doesn’t describe how one waits eight years to choose life.

Back in the late 80’s, a virus attacked me and there was no cure for my immune system. I was weak and could only adapt. I was new to the area and isolated, so a friend introduced me to a man who was funny, smart and accomplished. He picked me up for lunch the day after we had some witty banter on the phone.

He was a terrible driver gunning then pulling back off the gas. He whistled, I guessed out of nervousness. I was not from the area so he gave me a tour of downtown, driving the wrong way on one-way streets. I sat across from him at lunch and I knew I would not have a relationship with him.

He said it had been a long time since he broke up with his ex. It was safe because he wasn’t looking for anything but friendship. So he’d drop by either before or just after his therapy sessions. That was kind of sweet. I served him countless cups of herbal tea, which I’m pretty sure he hated. He had also just joined AA. That to me was in his favor because he was trying to get life right. We were pals. He said he joined AA because of me. Okay he was working it. When I got sick I could no longer tolerate wine so I didn’t drink. This was convenient.

Oh the reason he was such a terrible driver; because of his well known drinking, his wife drove him everywhere for decades.

He was a talented writer and admired the play I had just finished. Someone’s admiration is damned attractive. One night he took me to dinner and when the restaurant didn’t have any herbal tea (they never did) he opened his jacket and took out several tea selections for me. That was one of those little moments.

I agreed to go away for a weekend so we weren’t going to be just pals any more. I still had never seen his house. So other weekends were spent at an expensive hotel. Finally he explained that he had been through a long depression after his breakup and the house was a disaster. It really was. When he got that cleaned up we spent time there. That breakup was fresher than he had told me when we met.

He was older and I thought striking, but was never athletic. Because my illness cut out skiing and tennis for me, we went to movies, concerts and galleries. It wasn’t long before we were spending most of our time together. But I believe that if I hadn’t been sick, we’d never have even had that first lunch.

Suddenly he’d disappear and then return. He called it his push pull. When you spend a lot of time with someone you get used to them so the disappearance was unpleasant. This happened a few times. By then I was getting to know some of his many children and his friends. I heard some stories about his past behaviors, but always with a touch of how special he was: and occasionally a bit about his scary mother.

A lapsed Catholic, he went away on retreat. When he returned he announced to all of us that he was going to leave the area and become a monk or something like that. Okay, we all adjusted. Wished him well. But he didn’t go. This may sound lighthearted on my part because I cared deeply about him by then. I just had nothing to say in the matter. He was pondering deep things?

Once he picked me up and we went to a nearby park. It was a hot day so he took off his shirt, and tucked it into a back pocket. He left me on a bench and began walking on the grass as if he was mowing a lawn. He meticulously walked a line, then returned next to that line, again and again and again. I assumed he was working his way up to tell me something. But he just walked back and forth. What’s coming back as I write this is the constant state of uncertainty with him.

When my first play was in rehearsal he disappeared again. It was upsetting but I resolved that it was the end. He reappeared and gave me a big surprise birthday party on opening night. He gave me my favorite flowers and a trip to Maine after the close of the play. Only he was repeating a trip, stop for stop, he had taken with his ex-girlfriend. There were long periods when he didn’t speak. Once when he threw the map at me, I got out of the car to walk back to Pennsylvania if necessary.

When we returned he disappeared, re-appeared. I can’t count how many times he said good-bye and then would do anything to have me back in his life. Okay, eight.

He was impressed with a friend of mine who was both a chaplain and a therapist and decided to see her for therapy. This was not my idea. He had admitted by then that he’d been to many therapists but he just performed for them. As soon as they were on to him, he’d disappear. It meant ethically that she and I couldn’t communicate during that time which was at least six months. Maybe more.

Since it looked as though he wasn’t going to run away to become a monk, he and I began looking at condos. Because that’s what you do when a man is completely undependable. He didn’t want to keep his house. He had expected to live there with his ex girlfriend. (I was 44 and he was 55. Girlfriend sounds so silly. ) Since I was writing on my own, I had no particular schedule and more and more time went to him, less to my writing. We looked at a new condo with a beautiful view.

We attended his friend’s annual New Years Eve party at a restaurant. People came from all over the east for that party, in part to see him. He wasn’t drinking then and was silent that night. He just played with the candle in front of him. I looked around and most of the other men who had been trying to get his attention started playing with the candles too.

He signed a lease/purchase for the condo and knowing nothing about one another’s taste somehow we chose all the finishing and furniture. I was writing less and less.

I got to know more and more of his large family. I’d had so little family of my own it was warm at times to be on the outskirts of his. They were all smart and funny and there were so very many of them.

A friend still shared her house with me, but I spent more time with him. When it was time for him to move into the condo, I did a practice run and typed the directions for delivery people. One day at a store, he started to tell them how to get there. I did the unthinkable. I interrupted him. He didn’t speak to me for four days. But before his silence began, he told me that it was, “obvious that I had no breeding.”

And there it was again, that ancient numbness, in the center of me: that childhood feel, not feeling. If there was anything to say, I couldn’t say it. I went for a drive to nowhere to get away from the meanness. He pushed me away.

And he pulled me back about a week later. He had taken yet another sullen trip into his wilderness, or whatever he did during those departures. In spite of his behavior he had me convinced that he loved me. I believed that I loved him.

Then he asked me to meet him at the condo to talk. At least it would be final. But instead, he asked me to be “betrothed.” Was he on one knee? No he just slid lower on the couch. But I heard myself saying yes. It seemed I had passed some sort of test. Soon I was moving into the condo we had designed together. Of course the fact that he had appeared and disappeared many times would never happen again.

But that’s about when he started drinking and I attended Alanon. Our Saturday night dates were Chapter Nine meetings. In recovery programs those are meetings for families. He took me to AA meetings with him, perhaps to prove he was trying? He wasn’t seeing much of his family so I spent more time with them, as a substitute and for their company.

There were things about his past that he admitted, but naturally I believed that he meant to change for me. Remember the title of this collection: Stupendously Stupid List.

He did a lot of freelance writing and had one big client. His background was publishing, politics, government and PR. He had accomplished a great deal. Considering the many phobias that kept surfacing I had respect for what he had overcome.

We took another trip to Massachusetts and Maine. One day in Boston I waited in the car when he went to see a client. I looked up as he exited, literally clinging to the side of the building. His phobias for tall buildings and open spaces paralyzed him. I rushed to help him back to the car. I had always thought he was so affectionate taking my hand in public. But he needed my hand to get across any street.

His ups and down were so frequent, that roller coaster doesn’t picture enough of a peak. One son described it as, “the walls would suddenly turn black.” I had a vision of myself on the deck of an old schooner, holding on for dear life to the mast in the middle of a perfect storm. Oddly in this vision I wore a 19th century dress. My writing was sporadic. But still I thought it must be so difficult to be him. Hell Elizabeth it wasn’t easy being me.

The drinking escalated. I’d be in bed at night listening to his slippers slap on the tile of the kitchen floor, the glass hit the counter, the refrigerator door opened, and then the closing of the door again, his slippers slapping on the tile back to the den. He spent nearly all night drinking in the den. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I counted the drinks.

His ex-wife and I became friends, if for no other reason than we were the only two people on earth who knew what it was like to live with him. She’s a kind woman and maybe it made her feel better to see that it could happen to someone else. And we planned family gatherings. Through her and the children I got some of the ancient history. He never helped any of his children with an education, but did with rehabs. They didn’t get proper dental care, but he’d buy himself 60 shirts at a time. But this was old behavior.

All the things a man says he loves about you, independence intelligence, even beauty and competence, were becoming impediments. He told me I was the most sentient person he’d ever met. But he didn’t love that anymore.

He was a foodie. I’m not. I asked if he ever just ate franks and beans. We planned dinner parties together but I did all the chopping, shopping and cleaning. He’s a wonderful if not theatrical chef. One evening with friends at our table the conversation turned to Russia where I had traveled twice and about which I had written a screenplay. But he gave all the opinions. Not once did he refer to my experiences. That was the balance in our relationship.

My play had another larger production. And I received a rare arts grant for playwriting. We did not celebrate that grant. It made him sullen.

We usually dined out on Friday nights. One evening he spotted his best friend with a woman, not his wife. I was uncomfortable, but they wanted us to join them for coffee. From the minute we sat down, his friend, a highly respected and principled attorney, kept telling me how much he wanted to “fuck” me. Excuse the term but it’s what he kept saying. I was annoyed that the man I was with didn’t speak up. Then I thought of the woman, the mistress actually. Then there was the wife at home. Mostly I was really pissed at the guy for talking to me that way. I got a call and an apology the next day. But it was an accepted tone of the way things had been done for decades in a political town.

The next summer he wanted to take a trip west. I suggested Seattle and my home Port Angeles. I spent much of each week with his family, yet he laughed out loud at the notion of seeing my home. Breathe that in.

He wanted to go to the Southwest and I was to plan it. It was probably a concession about not going to Washington State. Within days of our departure I went out onto our balcony and locked myself out. Traffic below made it impossible to be heard. I was up too high to climb down into the parking garage. I could do nothing but wait in the sun. I heard the phone ringing inside again and again. At last he showed up and opened the door. I burst into tears from relief and went to hug him, but annoyed, he turned and left.

We flew to Albuquerque and rented a car. I had nabbed the best room at the best hotel at the Grand Canyon. I didn’t appreciate the strength of his phobias. Our room had a house-sized porch on the canyon. He had to sit at the back clinging to the wall.

We drove through Monument Valley. Brilliant. A man terrified of open spaces. There was more: Santa Fe and Taos: the open sky of New Mexico. For nearly three weeks he was in phobia hell and got altitude sickness. He was also on a spending spree in galleries.

At home with little discussion I was in charge of making everything run. I also wrote checks for him to sign. I found a second hotel room on a bill for one of his business trips, and a restaurant bill that could feed 12 people. He said it was a mistake and he’d deal with it.

The drinking escalated, and then stopped. He decided that we needed a bigger space. There was no talk of marriage, and now it wasn’t something I was about to bring up. Life was too uncertain. I spent many nights getting in my car to get away from his drinking. He’d stop again, then start. There was talk in the family of intervention. A few sons did go out to find him one time, and ended up visiting in a bar together. I nearly called the police to find him because I didn’t want him killing an innocent person. But I never did.

He surprised me one Christmas with an electric piano. But couldn’t stand my playing it. The drinking started again. It stopped. When he was in the middle of a work project all life stopped for everyone, as if no one else in the world had ever had a deadline.

We looked at larger condos, but we found a ranch house in a 60’s neighborhood. He bought it without negotiation, hired an architect to gut it and add on to it. I didn’t even know if he could afford it and was not consulted. A contractor was hired. When the contractor came to sign his deal suddenly the man I’m not naming reduced the poor guy’s percentage. I wanted to evaporate. It was horrible. The contractor had no choice but to sign. He rightfully hated him for the entire project and substituted inferior materials.

Six months of my life were spent picking everything there is to pick when you build a house. They say there’s something like 30,000 decisions. Every day I laid out samples of carpet, tile, paint. And the job was running more than a month late so the friend who had introduced us, loaned her unoccupied house.

I went to the construction sight every day. And once a week I took lunch to everyone trying to keep peace. The man I’m not naming would stop by, scream at the crew, especially if anyone dared smoke. One time he threw the construction phone pulling the cord out of the wall.

Somehow though we created a beautiful home. It was envisioned in part as a gallery to hang paintings we had collected on trips. It was open and light and I’ve never felt more at home in a house in my life. Except a little voice in my head kept saying, “I want to go home, I want to go home.”

When we were staying at the friend’s house he barely spoke to me and we ended up in different bedrooms. He was panicking over the money he was spending so he spent more. And blamed me, or the architect, anyone.

He didn’t show up on moving day. That was too overwhelming for him, which made the meanness escalate.

We bought a chair for me, he took it over. I bought a leather knapsack to carry my scripts. It became his. When I parked my car in the garage, he wanted that spot even though he always parked outside.

One of his sons came over and hooked up his computer in his office showing him how to get on the Internet. He immediately found chat rooms where in front of us he pretended to be a 22-year-old woman, attracting men. It was so explicit we left the room.

We gave many dinner parties for his friends. Never mine. The house was perfection but his behavior was more erratic. And he was spending day and night online with men, women, anyone. I found a cruel scrawled note from him in my office to get out. I did. A friend found a house for me. I took only my clothes. So, on top of a cardboard box, I wrote a screenplay titled Chat about a man who destroys his marriage by online relationships. I should read that again.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. Find work back in New York? I kept writing because that’s who I am. I’d hear from him from time to time. Neither of us was ready to let go.

One night I ridiculously poked myself in the eye and it was bloody. I was having trouble seeing so whom did I call? He came to take me to the emergency room where he developed urgent stomach cramps and they nearly admitted him.  

One evening I agreed to go get a bite to eat with him. Some of you might recognize that absurd hope that someone will itemize their bad behavior and say magical things. Nothing magical was said. He was sullen and drove me home in the rain. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. I opened the door and he put his foot on the gas so I fell on the blacktop scrapping my leg. He kept going.

He talked to mutual friends about how much he missed me, how wonderful and how beautiful I was and how much he wanted me back. Naturally they thought he was wonderful, with limitations. To me he was rude and abusive.  

After about nine months he coaxed me back to the house we had built together. For a while he was attentive. I was enjoying the many gardens we had installed. When I’d get angry with the man I’m not naming, I pulled weeds. My gardens were weed free.

He found yet another therapist. A man. I was gently invited in for a session. Yippee, progress. He’ll explain just what I’m living with. Only it was an ambush. They were telling me how all of the drinking was my fault. There it was again. That numbness. I heard, but could not speak.

Someone who had known my work in New York approached me about different jobs at her company. So I learned how to be a publisher. I put in long hours and often came home late to a man watching television in his bathrobe who wouldn’t even look up to acknowledge my presence. In fact the night after my first day on the job he made me a special dinner. But he left me there to eat it alone. By then he seemed to be actually meeting up with the people he met online. I was in a terrible place. I was just beginning to earn a good living again and he took the first check I was paid.

He started smoking too; the man who wouldn’t let contractors smoke during construction. He was smoking, drinking and I could see the phone light up at 2,3,4am. He was talking to women all over the country. I was in the guest room much of the time. One time I dialed one of the numbers he was calling, I think it was Las Vegas, and asked the woman who answered if she knew he wasn’t single. That’s as gutsy as it got for me. I was shutting down. I didn’t exist at home.

I existed at the office and worked long hours. He had been fired from his only big client for losing his temper. So he was living in sweat pants or his bathrobe. One day I was in our neighborhood on business and stopped by the house. I usually pulled into the garage so when he’d hear the garage door open he’d turn up the TV or he’d leave the room. I was just running in to get a bite so parked outside. When I came in he was literally running into the bedroom, in his robe.

He had his decent times too. One Christmas, he must have given me 60 presents. It was overwhelming. To keep me around he’d get nice just long enough to go back to the bad behavior.

One night he was having dinner with a son. When I came home I was going through our bedroom to the dressing room. But the bed I had made that morning was a mess, and on my nightstand were used condoms and a blank envelope. I didn’t know what to do. I considered packing, but giving up my ground was unthinkable. I waited in the living room. When he came home I took him into the bedroom where he saw the evidence. He immediately picked it up and took it into the bathroom. It was a while before he came back and this is all he said. “That’s not mine.”

We sat in the living room where without eye contact he told an interesting tale. He said he had a friend who was having an affair and he let them come to our house. I sarcastically asked why they couldn’t use the guest room. He stuck by his story and bought new sheets and a comforter.

He was terrified that I would tell people what had happened. But that’s the kind of story that’s too humiliating to tell. He gave me a huge 50th birthday party also celebrating a promotion at work. Except it was my 51st birthday. He ignored the 50th. I decided to let him give the party and to see my friends.

I started looking for apartments.

I came home one night after working late and he was incoherent, not from drinking but from a fever. I called his doctor because there were signs I knew to watch for from a botched surgery a decade earlier. I had to get him to the emergency room right away. A son showed up quickly. The emergency room doctor assured me that if had I come home just minutes later, he would not have lived. Since we were not married, I had no rights at the hospital: both good and bad by then.

The hospital here kept him stable for about ten days, but I had to get him to Baltimore for serious surgery. I had many trips back and forth. I was bitter because I was ready to leave him. Now how could I leave a man with a tube and a bag in his side?

At last he was able to come home. For a guy with so many phobias he was very competent at dealing with these surgeries. And with a tube and a bag on his side, he was still chasing women.

His sons took over hospital runs. I started quietly looking at apartments again.

One day he asked me to come into the living room. He stood there nervously and said that he had instructed his lawyer to leave me the house in his will. I said, “You can change a will.” He stormed out of the room.

I finally understood how careful he was a few years earlier when he asked me to be “betrothed.” I had thought it was sweet and old fashioned. Once in a while in our travels we looked at wedding bands. But look up the word “betrothed.” He was never going to marry.

I had a closer relationship with my 17-year-old Peugeot. But it wasn’t going to pass inspection either. I didn’t have the energy to store it so I could have it restored one day. I bought a solid safe new car and moved out. Safety mattered then more than anything.  

We were civilized enough that he helped me move a few things. But I took nothing but the piano, a chair, and my clothes. He didn’t believe I’d stay away. It was stupid that I didn’t take more. I just wanted out.

I rented furniture.

Years earlier I had organized a playwright group and we had committed new one act plays that summer for a festival. I owed my very first one act play in two weeks. I’d come back to my new apartment after a long day, and at night wrote my first one act play on a rented desk. I wrote about the end of a relationship, backwards. The first scene is the day she leaves. The last scene is the lunch of their first date. All the signs were there at that lunch. The challenge of writing that play saved me in those first weeks.

I was without skills navigating some political shenanigans at the company. And at just that moment I got the exciting invitation to my nephew’s wedding. But if I left my office for even one day the CFO messed with my division’s budget. Suddenly the man I’m not naming pounced on this, wanting to take me to the wedding. He was pressuring me as if he were going to make everything up to me. His scheme finally was too much and tragically I did not go out for the wedding.

It became clear to him, the man I’m not naming, that I wasn’t going back. But I still had things in the attic at the house. He went from wanting to escort me to the wedding to refusing me my belongings. A detective helped me hire an official to oversee getting my few things.

That’s about the time a friend who’s mighty experienced around the edges told me what I didn’t want to hear. He said, “It takes two to be in a crazy relationship.” I was furious at how right he was.

There’s so much more I could write about those years: Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve for 40. But in the end I was not their family. That was the deepest pain and loss. And then whatever do we do with Elizabeth?

I know he didn’t/couldn’t love me. I believed I loved him. I was not cherished.

So I learned two things from him. In part to complete what he thought was lacking in my “breeding”, he showed me how to properly open the binding of a new book.

Second, for day trips he showed me what a difference it makes to bring a change of shoes for the trip home. It’s instant energy. That was good advice. Nearly eight years and that was it.

The dear friend who introduced us has apologized more than once.

I hadn’t run into the man I’m not naming for years. I drove way out of my way to different grocery stores. Then a few summers ago a friend was here visiting. We were shopping and there he was. It was the first sighting I’d had in years. So I went up to him and gave him a little sort of a hug. Well, eight years. I introduced him to my friend. Afterwards she was shocked that I was nice.

A year or so later, I was with another friend and ran into him. I was pleasant enough to him that she was shocked. Married and divorced three times, she said she’d cross a street rather than be polite to any one of them. And she’s the kindest person I know.

When I see him now, I smile but keep going.

If I see any of his grandchildren, we chat and I’m delighted.

I just learned who bought the house a few years ago, and am gratified that they love and take good care of the gardens.

 

 


#55 Former Sisters Speak

Back in 1971 when I first moved to New York I spent time with my brother and his wife who were stationed at Fort Dix, N.J. I was included in their wedding but she and I got closer in New York. My brother even occasionally verged on being almost, sort of brother-like back then. By that I mean that once after a few drinks in Greenwich Village, he referred to me as “sis” where no one knew him.

Then they moved back west where everything came tumbling down.

In New York I got bitter reports from my bitter mother. When we talked, the only subject was about how difficult and ugly the divorce was. It was a small town and my sister-in-law’s father was the only judge to hear their case. At least that’s the way it was described to me. As always, I knew there was little point in reporting anything to her about me.

The man in my life then, (#7 The Air Vent Conversation) and I went out west to meet my nephew. He took hundreds of photos of the toddler while my mother was still bellowing of one and only one subject, the divorce and all it’s permutations and how miserably my brother was treated. My brother was silent. My mother’s husband was silent. My nephew was adorable, an especially young victim of divorce.

My brother remarried. We all went to the same high school but I didn’t know her. He immediately adopted her two children, very close in age to my nephew. On another trip west, the new sister-in-law asked me the oddest question. She asked if I had lost a lot of weight. I didn’t know why she would ask that. Was she fascinated by weight? But much later I realized (because all my realizing comes later) that my brother must have described me as fat, the only way he had been trained to think of me.

On the 1985 reunion trip (#50 High School Reunion Stalker) I stopped one evening to visit my ex-sister-in-law. I had not seen her since our days in New York. Because of “The” divorce, we hadn’t been in touch much, to put it mildly. She described some difficult years, but by that time she had a decent job and a nice little house. Over a bottle of wine at her kitchen table she filled me in. I write this as it was described to me.

She wanted to stay in the east when my brother got out of the Army. She pleaded with him not to go back home. Somehow she knew. But my mother made him an offer. This was the first time I was learning about the deal, though had suspected it.

If he agreed to go back home she would set him up in his practice. The pitch included that my father’s reputation would benefit him in his hometown. She offered anything he needed, and she kept her word. She had paid his way through school. Now she bought him into a partnership. She paid for his equipment. She helped them buy their first house and a lake house.

We were probably well into that bottle of wine when my ex-sister-in-law described how after they returned home, Alice, my mother, regularly barged into their house to wake her in the mornings. She’d pull her out of bed while lecturing her about my brother’s standing in the community and how she needed to be a better wife. Standing in the community? He’s an optometrist, not a Supreme Court Judge. Changing the lock was no option if my mother essentially owned the house.

Going back home to live turned out to be more of a nightmare for my sister-in-law than she could have imagined. The lighter nature my brother displayed in the east disappeared. After my nephew was born, while she was taking care of their baby, she pleaded with my brother for couples counseling. She said depression became her companion. My brother answered only to Alice. He had a lonely wife but pulled further and further away. She finally gave up and in tears, bundled up her child and went home to her parent’s house.

On the first night she left, she was in her old bedroom sobbing on her bed. She believed the marriage with the love of her life was over. Someone pounded at the front door of the house. Had my brother come for her? Her tall solid judge of a father opened the door. But it was short Alice who somehow got by him, and stormed into the bedroom to screech at her daughter-in-law. And I mean screech.

My sister-in-law was a statuesque beauty who stood at least 7 or 8” taller than my mother. But little Alice got her into a corner, a position I knew so well. While pleading to be left alone, Alice paid no attention to the sobbing woman or her pain.  To my mother, that didn’t exist. She was there to get what she wanted.

First, she demanded the diamond back, the one she gave my brother for the engagement ring. Yes, she demanded the diamond and practically tried to pull the ring from the sobbing woman’s hand. Then she demanded to know when they’d pay her the money she’d given them for the house. She blasted on and on about what a terrible wife and mother this young woman was. She listed more and more of what money she was owed. Thankfully the Judge somehow got my mother out.

As I write those last words I wonder what it would have been like to be rescued from my mother. I never was.

The story I was being told was hideously familiar. We were the only two who experienced what she was capable of. Although I’m sure I did not, could not speak then of my own experiences. I listened. It wasn’t a time for me to speak, and I was yet incapable of digging down to retrieve my own stories. I took it in for I had only heard a very different version for nearly a decade. She told me much more about Alice harassing her and interfering with their marriage.

I was heartsick, ashamed, but knew that I could have done nothing. I couldn’t even protect myself.

The cool part, by the time she told me that story, she had had to sell the diamond.

On that trip I spent time with my nephew. He was old enough that we could get acquainted. But both my mother and his stepmother did all they could to discourage that. One night I was invited to my brother’s lake house. I drove. My brother’s two adopted children went. My new sister-in-law went. My nephew was not included. My brother’s son was never included the entire time I was there. I had to seek him out.

The following summer my nephew came to visit me in Pennsylvania for a grand tour. This was not easy to arrange considering what was going on out west. I knew I needed to give him time to feel comfortable with me. I was on what could have been considered the enemy’s side. He was brave to travel all alone to the other side of the country. When I picked him up at the airport in Baltimore, I asked about his father. He said, “I haven’t seen him in six months.” I had tears in my throat. They lived within ten minutes of one another. My nephew and I had so much in common.

He never complained. But his stepbrother and sister had ski lessons, ponies, and they lived on a golf course. My nephew got none of this.

He wanted to see the Army base where his father was stationed a dozen years earlier. It was sad and sweet. The less he saw his father the more he wanted to know him. As I drove him around the base, I remember bluntly telling that little boy, that if he ever wanted time with his father, it would be up to him. The only thing I could do was let him know I loved him.

Over the years he sent me school pictures and letters. His mother remarried and he had a caring stepfather. They lived in another town.

My nephew and I got closer and closer. His wife and I are closer and closer. They are a miraculous couple.

Then in the early 2000’s I was out west and stopped to see my nephew’s mother on my way back to Seattle. To me she’s always my sister-in-law. We met for lunch and she had one thing she was sorry she had never told me. She apologized about a nagging story. She had my attention.

She went all the way back in the late 60’s when she and my brother were dating. She’d ask him when they were going to spend time with me, the sister. He replied, “You don’t want to know her, she’s crazy.” That’s what my brother said and believed. She said she knew me from school and couldn’t understand, but she never felt right about telling me. It took her almost 40 years to share that. She died more than a year later. It was always clear how much she loved her son. We miss her, and for just a little while a long time ago, I had a sister, Carol Ann.  And I don’t think she’d mind my adding here that some of her final words were, “Love is sacred.”

And for about a year in New York, way way back, I had a sort of a brother, I guess because my mother wasn’t there.


#54 A Little Girl In Ohio

Just months ago three women were found having been missing for years. Cleveland was the center of the type of pouncing news coverage/chaos that was almost as shocking as the crime of kidnapping and years of confinement. I avoided most of that coverage.

There was an exception. I found a brief online Washington Post article. It dealt primarily with the child, a little girl born in that horrific confinement. She is the child of one of the kidnapped women. The piece dealt in moderate detail about which woman was chosen to give birth and the horror of what happened to another.

The story revealed that the child left the house occasionally with the father. They had been seen blocks away from the house at a playground together, without suspicion.

The little girl was never told the names of the three women held hostage with her. I don’t remember if the article reported if the child knew which was her mother.

The brilliant monster knew that a child might slip mentioning any of the women’s names while outdoors; a name that someone might recognize and lead to their rescue. It was all she knew. She was clueless.

I identified deeply with that little girl.

 


#53 My Brother: My Mother’s Only Child

The only family photos more adorable than my brother as a toddler are of my nephew, the then blond version of his dimpled father. But now I’m speaking of my brother who was a chubby little angel with the smile of smiles. There are no pictures without that eager dimpled smile.

Then about 2½ years into his grin of a life, I was born.

“What? Who the hell is this in my room? My room. When is it going away?“ Still he smiled. “What do you mean you want me to kiss it? It’s a lump. Does nothing. Oh no, now Dad’s holding it. Look over here; I’m smiling over here, big smile. Where’s the camera thing? I have a cowboy hat here. Oh no it makes noise. It can’t do a thing. What’s the deal, the dog, my dog keeps looking at it. What in the name of Hopalong Cassidy is going on here? It better stay away from my stuff.”

“Oh, now we’re talking. The camera that moves, it’s whirring. I can wave; I’m waving here, smiling here. This is more like it. No! That’s my wagon, my wagon. They’re putting it/her in my wagon. All the lump ever does is fall over. What? I can’t believe this. Yes, I’m smiling. I can’t believe it. The camera’s rolling and you want me to what? You want me to pull her/it in the wagon? Yeah, fine. This is my wagon, and I’ll pull that thing, but don’t blame me if it falls out, falls over, or whatever. I’m waving. Grinning. But she’s nothing. It’s not fair. Why do you have me pulling it? I could pull my buddy Skipper down the street. He’s cool to pull in the wagon. Or he can pull me. But this lump? I’ll do it, I won’t like it, and I’m smiling.”

“Oh no, now she/it’s trying to stand. Dad’s got the camera, here I am. Here I am with my little hunting suit. I could walk with my air gun like I’m going hunting. Mommy no, what are you doing? You’re helping her? Ha ha ha. Mommy’s just dragging the lump on the ground. Oh this is just awful, now she can walk better.”

“Today Mommy wants me to take it/her outside. Oh, I’ve got it. Stairs, I’ll take her up stairs. My buddies and I got stairs down solid. Oh this makes me mad. I’m not sure what a week is, but that’s what it’s going to take to get her up this flight of steps up to my buddy’s apartment. Do I push? I know. I can go up and pull it.”

“It’s getting really hot. One step, she/it stops. Another step, she/it stops. Why am I stuck with her/it? Oh now it keeps twisting her arm. Ooops!”

And backwards I went, down a flight of outside stairs. There was a gash in the back of my apparently hard head. I was put on the linoleum floor under our kitchen table. I remember the black and white pattern and looking up at the underside of the table. A doctor came. There were stitches. The important thing, no blood got on any furniture.

Ours is the first generation raised on television. Our parents had their dinner together in peace while we stared up at Roy Rogers and old Hoppie. The brother, who wouldn’t be seen with me outside, sat at the same table our dad made and stared at the same screen.

Ever hear of Kate Smith? She was that rotund singer, mostly of God Bless America. Kate Smith had a television show and one day someone demonstrated cutting hair. So I cut my hair, a rather avant-garde look. And, another reason for big brother to hate the funny looking lump, now wearing a bonnet.

I adored my brother. When he took tap lessons, I wanted tap lessons. But no, it was ballet for me. When he had to wear glasses, I wanted glasses. It wasn’t long before I got them too. When he went to school, I wanted to go to school. Eventually I too got to board the bus. There are movies of us getting off the bus, with our huge leather brief cases looking like miniature accountants. He was always smiling. I always looked slightly confused, several feet behind him.

I wrote about the one violent time my father beat my brother. Immediately after the beating we posed for a picture with Dad on my brother’s bike. As always my brother is grinning.

There was one neighborhood punk who started a fire in the bird sanctuary across the street. Then he threw gallons of paint all over the house of an elderly couple. All boys in the neighborhood were sent by their parents to clean up the mess. I sat on the top of the tall slide my father built, because I could watch over the fences. I cried because my brother was being punished for something he didn’t do.

One time we all went to a beach, probably Jones Beach. Somewhere we did some clamming, and my brother brought one home. A pet clam. Only I think my dad explained it might be a pretty lonely life in that bucket of water and sand in the garage. So we all piled into the car and scrammed back to the beach. My memory is of my brother tossing back his pet clam. But it hit a rock!

My mother had migraines all her life. I remember once going to her room to comfort her. She pushed me to the floor. During the time when we lived in New York a helicopter took her to a hospital. My brother had migraines too.

When we returned to North Carolina my brother was a member of The Boy’s Club. This must have been the greatest torture for him up to that point. We were named king and queen of some festival, actually wearing formal clothes, crowns on our heads, and riding in the back of a convertible car in a parade. It was no fun for me either by the way. He was downright handsome and he smiled. But when the cameras were gone, I returned to standing several feet behind him.

Some summers we went to join Dad in Cape May while he trained for the Coast Guard rifle team. He rented the top floor of a house for us. One afternoon, they told my brother to take me out for a while, which had resulted in stiches for me another time. But I was about seven now. We were to go to a comic book store and the ice cream parlor. But my brother couldn’t tolerate being seen with me and dragged me back to the house. We went up the stairs and into the apartment. If my brother and I had gotten along better, we wouldn’t have walked in on our parents having sex.

My brother learned at a very young age how to behave as though he cared about his sister in front of Dad, or in front of a camera. But when neither camera nor father was there, I was scum. My brother consistently made it clear that I was stupid, awkward, embarrassing, dull, oh and fat. My father never heard these words, therefore when he’d tell me how pretty I was, I couldn’t believe him.

Back then we were still sharing a room. Some fights were so physical; I have scars on my face from my brother’s fingernails. Yet I adored him. Also we were raised in the south in a military family. There’s no more polite combination. But when Dad was gone, polite brother disappeared. Dad was gone a lot.

Soon after our move west Dad was gone an entire year so my brother had nothing to stop him from saying or doing whatever he wanted to me. Once doing chores in the kitchen, we fought. I could never stop the hatred he spewed at me so I picked up a sharp knife. Or maybe he picked up the knife.

Our mother never had kind things to say about Dad, and the language got meaner when he was away. In our family of four, when one person was absent, she complained about them. Didn’t matter who it was. And yet as volatile as they seemed to be, Dad was devoted to her.

By Jr. High I wasn’t even to acknowledge my brother in the hallways because I was stupid ugly fat slime. Even though we got out of school at the same time, I was to go another direction. There was only one direction home, up. So I took a sort of zig zag route.

My brother studied hard. He was not only athletic and a good student, he was brilliant about how to behave at home. I was too stubborn or stupid to learn from him. No matter how late he’d been out, he’d stop at our parents room, stand in the hall and chat for just a bit before going upstairs.

Once he brought some high school friends home. He didn’t know I was upstairs so I heard them talking through the heating vent, a wonderful tool of youthful education. They were just as afraid of girls as girls were of them. A few of my friends would come to the house just to be around my handsome brother. But he ignored them with the same chill he did his sister.

Since my mother said ugly things about Dad in his absence, as teens we picked up the habit. It shouldn’t have been allowed but we learned that it fed her.

I was allowed to start wearing a little lipstick. One evening my brother, mother and I were going out the front door. He said to her, “Are you going to let her go out looking like that?” She said nothing. I just walked behind them, as nothing.

My brother didn’t create his opinion of me out of nowhere. He isn’t that creative.  When I was about seven she was already calling me crazy. Many times he was there when she’d screech, “what ever did I do that was so bad to deserve you?” And there was the most common spew, “You wouldn’t be so ugly if you’d smile.” He learned as a very little boy that it made her feel better to make me feel bad.

When I got to High School my brother was a senior and my father was a teacher. Awkward? What was even scarier, my mother threatened to work there that year. I dreaded the possibility. It was a serious threat but only an effective threat.

I’ve described my mother’s violence toward me. But until he got taller and strong, she hit him too with wooden paddles. Dad never saw that. On some level it must have made me feel almost equal to my brother.  

In high school I barely dated. And my brother wasn’t a busy dater either. He was handsome, smart, athletic but aloof. He had one girlfriend who asked me what made him so cool to her? I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Hey, I had to grow up with him.”

One of my classes assigned an essay about someone we respected. I wrote about my father. But teachers and counselors recognized that I wrote it as fear rather than respect. He controlled his temper after that.

I do not remember one time when Dad said a bad thing about my mother. They fought. He’d storm out. But never did he try to influence us to feel anything but love toward her.

Through High School, most days I was home first. I’d get things ready for dinner, but had a couple of hours to myself. That’s when I learned to treasure alone time, or safe time. I’d play piano or put on music and pretend to conduct. But the best was turning on an afternoon movie. We got mostly Canadian stations and I loved the English movies. If I heard someone at the front door, I’d shut off the set, and rush up to my room.

When my brother chose Washington State University, he turned down an alternate appointment to the Air Force Academy, disappointing Dad. I remember no discussion about what he wanted to study. It was assumed that he would be a doctor, lawyer, something to live out the life our Dad never had. There was no assumption about me, but not unusual for a girl in the 60’s.

Father and son also had a strain over hunting. They were both expert marksmen, but my brother didn’t want to hunt. These were pressures I never had to carry.

My brother was given a new car for his High School Graduation. A Dodge Dart was no Mustang but it was new and all his. So that fall he drove across the state to join a fraternity. As much as he tortured me, being left at home with our parents was no dream come true either. As a female and the second child, rules were lighter. What the heck trouble would the polite and perfect daughter get into?

I have the only letter I ever received from my brother from college, or any other time in our lives. The outside of the envelope just said “secret admirer.” He knew my father would get a kick out of that. The letter was a secret all right, asking me to get him out of going on the family vacation that summer. Of course I did. So my parents, another couple from Minnesota and I, went across Canada. Oh joy.

In High School my friends and I were stuck with the title of virgins. We were the brainy ones. I’ve already said in the introduction to these essays that I didn’t know how to learn, and I didn’t know how to learn to learn. I didn’t know to ask for help. I was smart enough to get grades acceptable for most any college. I’m learning the reason why there was information I simply could not let in.

Because my father was a teacher, he had our IQ records. In one of my mother’s angry spurts she told me my number, and said how much smarter I was than my brother. That should be encouragement, right? No. She screamed that I should have beaten his grades. That was the entire sum of any discussion about my grades in that household, ever. I was never asked about homework. I was never asked how I was doing. When both parents had to go in to meet with my Chemistry teacher about my less than scientific leanings, her response was how I had embarrassed her.

This is as good a place as any to state that I learned about how families were supposed to be in books and movies. I feel sad now when I see a parent going to a child’s room to say good-night, or reading to a child, or helping with homework. In the last house we lived in, not one family member, not my mother, not my father and certainly not my brother ever entered my room. In ten years.

I had wonderful friends but we were all going different directions to college. I had no choice: my brother’s school. My father expected that my brother would watch out for me. He was so dear and he just didn’t know. In all of my growing up with my brother and mother I was mute. So how could he know?

When I graduated from High School, unlike the car my brother got, I was given a set of Samsonite luggage, sea foam blue. The clear message from my mother was the leaving part. She was not subtle. And not for one instant did I question why I didn’t get a car too.

My brother made me sit in the back seat when he drove us to school that fall. He never said one word, for over eight hours. He left me at a motel the night before I checked in at the Rush Week dorm. He just dumped me. Not even good-bye or good luck. So the next day I had to get a cab to wrangle the trunk, and luggage to my new life. He wasn’t about to let his fraternity brothers know he had a sister or even worse that he might be kind to her.

I did not join a sorority. My alphabetically assigned roommate during Rush Week and I both were rebellious. I would have probably benefited by finding a modest sorority with some structure. But that was not what I chose.

About two or three weeks into the start of my college career, I woke in the hospital. A surgeon stood over me explaining that he had removed my appendix in an emergency, and that he left a horizontal scar for a bikini. Was he kidding? I was just barely allowed to cast off the Coast Guard safety yellow bathing suits we all had worn for about 16 years.

My brother visited once, when I was unconscious. My parents called to tell me that the doctor assured them they didn’t need to make the drive. Hey, I spent two weeks alone in a hospital at nine. This was nothing.

One day in the hospital, I was studying, hopelessly behind in my classes, when my brother appeared in the doorway with a plant and a fraternity brother. Holy Crap. Fortunately I had on a bathrobe and slippers. They were there about 37 seconds never actually entering the room. It was a nice plant.

Later I worked in the dorm’s dining room, as many of my friends did that first semester for spending money. One day when I was working in the kitchen I had word that my brother was there to see me. Something had to be wrong! I rushed downstairs still wearing the fashionable hairnet. There was my brother and a fraternity brother, the cute one. They were there to ask for my student ID so the friend could get a ticket for his date for the Father’s weekend football game. As soon as they scored the ID, they disappeared. One problem. My father was coming to see me that weekend. I had to buy our football tickets. At least my ID had a date.

I heard from my brother only one other time. He took me to the buffet on Sunday night at the Union building. Finally he was going to talk to me, be seen in public with me. After 18 years he was going to be brotherly. At last he’d see what a great sister I was. He didn’t completely ignore me, until he asked to borrow money. I gave him everything I had, $91. He never paid it back. I’m pretty sure I had to walk back to my dorm.

He went to school in Oregon the next year. I don’t remember how I got to school that semester. My father wanted me to have a car. My mother disagreed. Which is to say I didn’t get a car. My second year was an even greater disaster.

I went home again to my parent’s house and took some local courses until I enrolled at UW summer session, the day my father died.

There were many shocking things about that day. But one of the greatest was my brother’s grief. My mother’s grief over the man she seemed to barely tolerate was baffling and theatrical. But my brother, who also had nothing nice to say about Dad, ever, was genuinely gut wrenchingly grieving. My father’s friends were up in his room, consoling him. I tiptoed in and sat on my brother’s couch. I’m sure he never knew I was there. I watched him sob and he said there was no reason to go on in school. He was only doing it for Dad. It was the first and last time I ever saw him express emotion.

There were many shocks. My mother telling me her mother committed suicide when her father died, my mother threatening to do the same, and my brother sobbing from his deepest pore. My mother informing me she would never help me with a life. Still, I didn’t cry.

I’ve described that I stayed home with my hysterical mother when my brother went back to school in Oregon. After many months, maybe even a year of daily dismal dreary mother complaints about my brother never coming home or ever calling her I had to do something. I had saved as much change as possible. I got into the VW and drove to another side of town to find a phone booth. I called my brother’s place in Oregon begging him to come home or to write her. Her suicide threats were daily. I sobbed on the phone with my brother asking him to help me with her. He uttered something about doing something. I drove back to the house for more merriment with my mother. He never so much as sent a post card to her. I used to think he had a stronger survival instinct. But it was something else.

A couple of years ago my nephew met a man who had been a student of my father’s all those decades ago. He was kind in describing Dad because he knew my nephew had never met his grandfather. He told my nephew a story I never knew. The day of my father’s death, this man, then a boy, bravely came to our house to see if there was anything at all he could do. He was sad and he just wanted to help.

It was my mother who opened the door to him. I never knew he was there or who he was. For decades he remembered what my mother did and said that awful day.

“Who do you think you are? How dare you come here at a time like this?” And she slammed the door in his face.

There it was again. Shame? Yes, some. Responsibility for her behavior? Maybe. For my nephew that man’s story gave him a teeny clue into what she was capable of. But for me, here was one time when someone else, someone I’ve never met, experienced it. Someone else saw the “self“ she so expertly hid from the outside.

That lovely boy had no idea what he had walked into, and it’s taken over 60 years for me to begin to grasp what I was born into. I thought she simply hated me. Oh if it were only that simple.

Yes I want to know the man’s name so I could write him to apologize, and thank him for his two acts of kindness.

To this day my mother blames me for a less than happy relationship with my brother. Or so I’m told.

 


#52 The Marker

One summer when our family was traveling across country, Dad took us to his father’s grave near St. Louis. Maybe it was Minnesota. We had never met the man who died in his early 40’s. Like most men of his generation Dad rarely spoke about his childhood. But near the end of her life my aunt described how dreary their early years were. We couldn’t appreciate what that cemetery visit meant to Dad. We stood before the grave, which was visible only by its flat brass plate. It noted simply his name and birth and death dates. Thomas Lawrence Hainstock. I was a child and knew nothing of my father’s father. I knew nothing of death and dying. But even then it seemed a barren way to mark a man’s life.

Just a few years later Dad died, and except for the day of his burial I was unable to force myself to go to his grave. I was unable to go to his grave for a couple of years and then moved 3,000 miles away. I never saw him dead. And I could not bear the thought of that vibrant life force locked in the ground.

The blur of memory of those early death days is sitting somberly with my mother and brother in front of the flag-draped casket. It was a military funeral so I flinched at the report of the rifles. It always seemed in my memory that we were on the side of a shady hill, so I knew I’d be able to find the spot some day.

Many years later I finally returned to that cemetery. I was confident in my navigational ability to find that shaded hilly spot so I didn’t check the register. I drove and then walked. No hills. It was as flat as Kansas. I gave up and consulted the office. Finally walking around the various sections I found my father’s grave almost by accident. It was in a dry, lonely spot, and all that noted his grave was a flat brass marker, like the one at his father’s grave. It was a military marker noting years served and rank achieved.

The thing is, I have a crystal clear memory of the day my parents went out to buy their burial plots. That was the day I scorched the Pot Roast (The Pot Roast Story posted 3/26/12). But here he was, alone with no room for his wife. But like most things for me, that didn’t sink in, then.

A couple of years ago I returned and sat on the ground by that marker. I looked around because I knew my nephew and his wife occasionally visited Dad as well as my mother’s second husband’s grave. And there it was; a stone marker for her second husband with Alice’s name for one future day.

Dull detective that I am, I flashed back to that day of death. Dad was clearing land for their new house. And they were building a cabin at the lake. Yet she buried him alone, knowing then that they would never be together.

How did she know that?

 


#51 A Lesson In Baking

As a little girl on North Carolina beaches no matter how many bonnets I wore, no matter how much I was covered up, I burned. I could hide in the shade under a house. I burned. At the inn where we stayed, the most familiar fragrance at night was vinegar. That was the cure for the sting of sunburn so the whole place smelled like a giant salad bar. My brother tanned, my mother tanned. My father and I burn, burn, burned.

Then in the west, our Washington beaches were not surfing or swimming beaches. They were beaches for walking and sunsets. They were for thinking or dating. Even smelting. But they were not for suntans.

Our lakes were for suntans. And my friends and I regularly used the standard elixir to achieve that special tan. I don’t know how we knew about it. Who started it? The simple baking recipe was a bottle of baby oil with iodine dripped in and shaken for a pinkish shade. That combination expedited the burn/tan process. There are plenty in our generation paying a dangerous price of aging and even deadly diseases in part because of that elixir. We didn’t know better. We believed a tan made you prettier, or more popular or a better water skier or tennis player or just increased the possibility of maybe, maybe being cool.

One summer a few of us spent a lucky sunny weekend at the lake, and out came bottles of baby oil with the droppers of iodine. We’d spend the day on the dock talking, listening to music, rotating for even color and occasionally cooling off briefly in the lake. Then back to the dock to load up on more of the baking recipe. “You’re getting awfully red,” they said. I just turned over for more.

We each got plenty of color that day but I was on fire. Anyone who has had that all over burn recognizes the feeling at night of still baking in the sun. And probably with the baby oil I was still broiling, like butter on a burn.

My friends kept applying cool compresses all night to my painful swelling limbs. The object was to correct my mistake. But I was so swollen the next day I went to a doctor. The burns were serious enough to send me to the hospital where I was coated and injected with cortisone. That went on for a couple of weeks. In spite of my disastrous appearance, I said nothing to my parents. They said nothing to me. The real punishment was my summer job at a hamburger joint over a hot fryer.

I molted for weeks, which did not make me cool.

 


#50 My High School Reunion Stalker

In 1985 I climbed into my little Peugeot and drove west across the country for our 20th H.S. reunion, my first. People looked at me perplexed about making such a trip alone.

It was just as much a trip to get distance and perspective about my business partnership in Pennsylvania. It was a kaka meme partnership, a gigantic blunder. (Decision posted 7/7/12) But I didn’t have the stomach to shut it down and accept considerable losses. I was going to take a magnificent tour of the west coast for eight weeks, as if that was going to make anything better. At least I would have that memory to hold in case I lost everything in that business.

I want to say that another way, because it was the string theory of my life, the theory of everything. At the age of 37, I believed that this might be my last trip or pleasure of any kind, ever again.

I drove from Pennsylvania to Seattle in 5 days with a couple of 15-hour stints. One night a hotel clerk in Montana had to pry my fingers from the steering wheel. Then I stayed with a friend and mentor in Seattle before my drive the next day to Port Angeles. This was the summer after the Christmas I spent with my mother in Arizona. I wrote about that in Holiday Whack posted 12/29/12. I would never again stay under her roof after she got her husband to hit me with his cane. That would show her, right?

It takes over two hours to drive from Seattle. I stopped at my brother’s office before checking in at my motel. I was always eager to see him in an idiot little sister way.  His receptionist didn’t even know he had a sister. When he was finished with a patient he came out to the waiting area. I had just driven 3,000 miles and we hadn’t seen one another in years. He didn’t even cross the room to say hello. I went to him to try an a-frame hug. He was so uncomfortable I backed away. I now understand some of the reasons for that perpetual cool.

Friends were beginning to check in with me to see who was attending the parties. Since I’d lived so far away all my adult life, it was wonderful to get together with friends for lunches and chats at the beach before the actual festivities. I was also going to get to see my then, little nephew.

Friday night was a casual party. One pal stuck right by me with a copy of our annual to help me recognize former classmates. We only had one high school so it was a big class. It was both an exhilarating and exhausting experience, trying to remember how I knew some people. If we didn’t have class together it might be a club or church or some organization. But people didn’t know what to ask me. I wasn’t married, had no children or pets. One woman asked the usual questions and finally said, “ Well do you have any plants?”

Saturday night was a big party at my father’s old Elks Club. His ghost was present along with his portrait on the wall. The reunion was held in the main lodge room with a stage. It was historically the place for award banquets, father/son dinners, father/daughter lunches or New Years Eve parties with plenty of eggnog.

On this night it was a place of loud music, drinking, and old football stories for some. For the rest of us, memories of shyness, debate club, chemistry experiments gone wrong or which parents let us have parties in their basement. One friend left early because no one asked her to dance that night. She was in the same pain she had felt at 16. Nobody asked me to dance either but I never expected that to change.

Yelling was the only way to talk so I heard every fourth word. And there was the spouse question. Besides the job of a stepmother, the spouse at a reunion stands up there on the awkward scale. Since this was my first reunion I adopted the role of observer.

At one point a friend and I decided to go into the quieter clubroom across the hall to talk.  We found an unoccupied table in a corner. She and I had shared an apartment for summer school at UW in Seattle. That was the summer my father died so I was pretty absent. I had a small crush on her older brother in medical school. But I was unbearably shy and home every weekend. My friend married the boy she was dating that summer.

As we talked I looked up and was startled to see my mother and her husband at the next table. What the hell was my mother doing at my high school reunion staring at me? My friend and I returned to the party after agreeing to join her family for breakfast in the morning. I’m sure I politely stopped to greet my mother’s friends.

The party continued to be big and loud. As great as it was to learn what people had been doing for the past twenty years, I was tired. So I walked back to the motel where many of us stayed.

Sunday morning I met my friend and her family at the motel restaurant. I hadn’t seen her husband since that summer school adventure. She was shocked that I had no children. Apparently my stint as stepmother didn’t count. She asked, “Then who will take care of you when you’re old?” I wanted to ask if that was the reason to have children but thought it a bit rugged in front of her kids.

I saw other classmates in the restaurant. Then I looked at the next table and who was there? My mother! My mother was at my reunion breakfast at the table next to mine.

The night before she shows up at my reunion, and now here she was at the breakfast. I got up to politely say hello to the nice people at her table. I was the dutiful daughter going into perfect robotic mode. There was no thinking, just a lifetime of autopilot. I kneeled down and graciously spoke of how these people had taught me to waterski as a little girl. She had brought them there just to see me. How did she know I was there? I performed perfectly for the mother who hadn’t given me one moment of affection or nurturing in my life. I returned to my table with that old robotic absence of feeling in my core.

On that trip I also politely/stupidly went to Alice’s house to see an old family friend, Hilda, a jolly woman who sadly is no longer on this earth. This was billed as an opportunity for Hilda to catch up with me. Of course I could have gone to Hilda’s house, but was outsmarted. My mother had another agenda. She made two strange statements. Out of nowhere, she angrily stated, “Elizabeth never let me help her with anything.” Which was a breathtaking lie. She informed me when my father died that she would never help me, and she never did.  But I knew the look on her face. The look I had seen since I was an infant. I said nothing.

Then, just as odd she said, “Elizabeth was always healthy, never had anything wrong with her. The only thing she ever had was granulated eyelids.” Did she really say that? The old gut feeling hit me. What was she doing? What about the chicken pox I gave my brother, or my cracked skull, or appendix out in college, or the time she slammed my little fingers in the car door: all the usual childhood maladies. Or what about how I got bronchitis or strep throat every time I knew I’d see her? What was this about?

When Hilda left, I left too and followed her to her house. At least I was going to correct the one statement. I told her a little about the bargain Alice had made the night my father died and how she had refused to help me get a start in life. Hilda was always fond of me, but at that moment I knew the impossibility of explaining the history to that nice woman. I did not say anything about the health comment Alice made. I was still too numb, too robotic to even understand the health comment about eyelids.

Alice had protected her lie about leaving me in a hospital alone at the age of nine by then, for 28 years. It was a complicated lie covering her friends, doctors, my brother, my father even teachers. She probably told people I was at camp or visiting a friend.  She was still protecting the lie with Hilda that day. She had brainwashed me so from birth, she could change the truth.

At 96 she is still protecting the choice she made between her children with lies about me. Protecting her lies is the same as protecting her life. Or, her “self.”