My Imaginary Father

Recently I came across this photograph of my father. It was taken in 1952, three years before the movie Rebel Without a Cause came out. My father was James Dean before the real James Dean had truly “become” James Dean.

My Father, 1952.jpg

I can see why my mother had married him two years previously. He’s got that sexy, brooding, bad-boy look about him that every 23 year old girl falls for.

Fortunately, most of us snap out of it.

I suspect that by the time this photo was taken, the honeymoon was long since over. My father was drunk in this picture, just as he had been in every other picture that was taken of him as an adult. He was even drunk in his wedding pictures.

My mother had lived a rather sheltered life. Her parents weren’t ones to drink to excess. Her dad protected her as much as he could, right up until his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in World War II. My mother was 17 at the time, and the family was plunged into poverty.

She carried on, living with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children in a tiny house that was barely bigger than most people’s garages. I’m pretty sure she got married simply to get out of there. Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire.

She stayed married to my alcoholic, physically abusive father for 17 years. You can’t say she didn’t try. They were divorced when I was 3 months old.

I never met my father. He didn’t send me a single card or letter or gift. He didn’t pay a penny in child support. I never heard his voice. I couldn’t have picked him out of a line up.

My mother didn’t talk about him much unless I asked. She did say that he was an alcoholic and that’s why they got divorced. She said he was a sharpshooter in WWII, and that he sometimes liked to shoot blue jays out of the tree from the top floor bedroom window of our house. (The neighbors must have loved that.)

I didn’t know he used to beat her until long after she was dead. I didn’t think about the fact that they’d been together for 17 whole years until recently. There must have been quite a few stories that went untold.

With that kind of an information vacuum, I was free to make up stories about him in my head. I used to think he was strong. I used to think that if he had been in my life I’d have been protected and loved. I used to think I was worse off because of his absence.

I don’t think those things anymore.

Now, I just think he looked like James Dean.

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Motherly Advice with No Destination

I never had kids. I never wanted them. I have no regrets there.

What I do have, though, is all this advice based on my life experience, and no one to give it to. It sometimes feels like the advisory pressure within me is building up to the point that it will erupt at an unplanned moment, leaving utter destruction and chaos in its wake.

This is probably why I blog. It helps relieve the pressure. And who knows? Maybe it might do some good.

So here is some advice that has been percolating to my surface of late. Take it or leave it.

  • Listen.

  • Be as discerning when choosing a boyfriend as you would be when hiring an employee. You deserve nothing less than the most qualified person for the job.

  • Wear layers.

  • If someone does not respect you, that person is not your friend. If you aren’t being respected, you aren’t being loved.

  • There are consequences to every choice you make.

  • If you make a mistake and can fix it, do so and don’t tell anyone. If you can’t fix it, then own up to it and take your medicine. (Thanks, mom, for that one.)

  • Listen to your inner voice. Trust your instincts. Take note of red flags.

  • Vote.

  • If your friend is cruel to others, eventually he or she will be cruel to you.

  • Never pass up an opportunity to learn something new.

  • Eat your vegetables.

  • If the egg salad smells like it has gone bad, assume it has gone bad.

  • Be polite, but don’t allow yourself to be bullied.

  • Get outside and feel the sun on your face.

  • You are perfectly capable of learning anything that you need to know.

  • Read.

  • Smile in photographs. Otherwise you’ll look pathetic.

  • Do the right thing.

  • Be as kind to yourself as you are to others.

  • Don’t look to others to solve your problems, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • You’ve been given a perfectly good day. Try to make the most of it.

  • Floss.

  • Keep your promises.

  • Never act weaker or more stupid than you are.

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.

  • Before sending that nasty e-mail, sleep on it and read it again in the morning.

  • Travel.

  • Give credit where credit is due.

  • Strike a healthy balance between saving for your future and living in the now.

  • When your body tells you it’s full, stop eating.

  • Those popular mean girls will be overweight and incapable of trading on their looks in about 20 years. Trust me. Just wait.

  • Recycle.

  • Never trust someone who is cruel to animals.

  • You can tell a lot about a man by how he treats his mother. (But allow for the fact that some mothers are toxic and crazy.)

  • Measure twice. Cut once.

  • Things usually get better. And then they get worse. It’s a pendulum. Have patience, and it will swing back the other way eventually.

  • Value relationships and experiences, not stuff.

  • The world does not revolve around you.

  • Worrying doesn’t ever help.

  • Take a picture of your beautiful butt now. It’s a safe bet that some day you will miss it.

  • Get a full night’s sleep.

  • Give sincere compliments every chance you get.

  • Be considerate. Show up early.

  • Don’t live way out in the country if pizza delivery matters to you.

  • Eat local. Shop at farmers’ markets.

  • Wait your turn.

  • Don’t forget to breathe.

  • Every once in a while, look skyward and say thank you.

  • Accept change. Unless that change is destructive. Then be the change.

  • Go for a career that makes you happy and proud, not one that makes you rich.

  • Give yourself a break sometimes.

    advice

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Whoa. My Parents Loved Each Other.

I know this is going to sound awfully strange to those of you who were lucky enough to grow up in intact households, but for the first time, at age 52, it recently dawned on me that at some point in time, my parents actually loved each other. And now I’m having to reframe my whole concept of what my mother’s life must have been like. It’s surreal.

You see, my parents were divorced when I was three months old. I never met the man. He never once sent me a birthday card or a Christmas present or paid one dime of child support. I never heard his voice or held his hand.

For many years I assumed this was no big deal. You can’t miss something that you never had, right? But as time passed, I realized that I definitely did miss out on something. I never had a feeling of safety. I never felt as though someone had my back. I had no positive male role model to show me what I should look for in a partner. (Unfortunately, the presence of this particular man wouldn’t have provided those things anyway, so there’s really no use in speculating.)

Growing up, I did have a natural curiosity about my father. I’d sometimes ask my mother about him. To her credit, she never bad-mouthed him, ever, other than to say that he came back from WWII as an alcoholic, and that’s what eventually caused their split. It wasn’t until years after she died that I found out (accidentally, from a cousin) that he beat her, too. So I came to view him as a bad element that had been excised from my life. Good riddance.

I never really thought about their history, as an actual couple.

Then, very recently, I was contacted by a very nice lady who said that she was my father’s goddaughter. That was a shock. I didn’t even know he had one. Apparently, her parents and mine had been great friends, and her father had been a photographer. She had tons of pictures of my parents from the 50’s. Would I like them? Uh… yeah!

When the envelope arrived, I sat holding it for a long time, kind of afraid to open it. I had no idea what I would find inside. More of the story, no doubt. But would I like the story more or less because of it?

She had a lot of pictures, indeed. Pictures of my parents on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, my mother’s head on my father’s shoulder, both smiling blissfully. Trips to Montreal. Their wedding reception dinner. A picture of my mother, sleeping contentedly amongst a pile of coats on someone’s bed. And a picture that may just have been the moment my father proposed. He is kneeling, gazing up at her adoringly. She is looking happily down at him.

I have to admit that in all the photos he looks intoxicated, and he most likely was. That didn’t surprise me. All the pictures I have of him are like that. But I wasn’t expecting the adoration. That was new.

My mother’s parents were not alcoholics. I suspect she didn’t know what she was in for. She didn’t realize what havoc that blissful intoxication would eventually wreak on her life, and by extension, the lives of her daughters.

Hope springs eternal. Love conquers all. Until it doesn’t.

But those adoring looks still rattled me. Now, instead of looking at my father as a bit of mold that had to be cut out of an otherwise perfectly edible loaf of bread, I had to see him as a rusty knife that left behind a painful wound that never properly healed. My mother moved on, yes, but in all likelihood she got her heart trampled in the process. I don’t know why that had never crossed my mind.

When my father died, my uncle sent me the contents of his wallet. It included a picture of my parents on their honeymoon. My whole life, a life he never experienced, he had carried a picture of a woman whose world he had shattered, whom he hadn’t seen in 25 years. I think that’s incredibly tragic.

Niagara_Falls_-_Ontario,_Canada_-_August_11,_2015_05

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“Oh, George…”

Every once in a while, my mother used to talk in her sleep. It was usually something quite silly, and I’d have fun teasing her about it the next day. She would just roll her eyes at me.

But one night, when I was about 10 years old, she said, “Oh, George…”

She said it in a husky, passionate way. This was the first time I realized that my mother had a private life all her own. It kind of rattled me.

“Ma, who’s George?” I asked her over breakfast.

“George? I don’t know any George,” she said, looking confused.

I asked her what she had been dreaming about, but she said she couldn’t remember. (Come to think of it, what else could she have said to her 10 year old daughter at that moment?)

Some stories you never get to hear all the way to the end. This was one of those. It’s probably why it stayed with me, after all these years.

Now that I’m an adult, I hope and pray that there really was a George in my mother’s life. Born in 1927, my mother was a product of her era. I strongly suspect she didn’t “get around”, as the saying goes.

She was married twice. First, to my alcoholic and physically abusive father, and then to my step-father, who weighed 400 pounds, and was a perverted pedophile. If those were the only intimacies she experienced, I feel truly sorry for her.

My mother was a beautiful woman and an amazing human being. I hope at least once in her life she had an encounter with someone equally amazing who made her feel attractive and valued and appreciated. I hope that she had reason to have a secret smile on her face every now and then, to keep her spirit warm in the emotionally sterile world in which she lived most of the time. It makes me sad that I’ll never know for sure.

Everybody deserves at least one good “George”.

Intimacy

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Stepping on Cracks

The other day I was walking up the bridge to work and I realized I wasn’t stepping on any of the cracks. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” I took that very seriously when I was a kid. I spent most of my childhood convinced that my mother would die at any minute, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything to help that along.

Now I think I avoid cracks out of pure habit. But here’s the thing: As of this summer, my mother has been dead longer than she had been alive in my lifetime. I should be rather used to it after 26 years. I certainly shouldn’t be worried about some silly childhood rhyme.

So, just as an experiment, I decided to step on all the remaining cracks on the sidewalk until I got to the bridge tower. And lo, the sky did not fall. Actually, it felt kind of liberating. I am the master of my own pace! Woo hoo!

Granted, it must have looked kind of funny, because to step on each crack I had to use this weird, lurching gait. And I was kind of giggling, too. I’m lucky I didn’t get locked up.

It makes me wonder, though, if any other aspect of my life is ruled by myths, old wives’ tales, children’s rhymes or simple mistaken beliefs. I’m going to have to watch for that. In the mean time, I’m going to step on every crack I can until cracks, or the lack thereof, don’t loom so unreasonably large in my life.

crack

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A Maternal Instinct for Benign Neglect

I really have to hand it to my mother. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was exposed to the idea that parents were capable of disliking their children. Ma never gave me that impression, so the concept never occurred to me.

When I was in my early 20’s, my mother admitted to me that she had never really wanted kids. She wasn’t saying this to hurt me. The subject came up simply because I had told her that I never intended to have any of my own. (And, in fact, I never did.)

For my mother’s generation, the question was never if you would have children, but when. It was just what a woman was expected to do. And so that’s what she did.

Recently I read an article in the Atlantic from 2012 entitled, “Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal” by Jessica Valenti. It even made this diehard child-free woman blink. (And very few things make me blink.)

It turns out that a lot of mothers, I mean, a LOT, say that if they had it to do over, they wouldn’t have had children. And yet that pervasive idea that we all have this maternal clock that’s tick, tick, ticking away is still expressed throughout the land. Most people seem to think that every woman’s primary desire is to have children.

I, personally, am relieved to be in my 50’s because finally, FINALLY there’s not this overwhelming societal pressure for me to procreate. If I had a dollar for every time someone smiled at me and said, “You’ll change your mind,” regarding motherhood, I’d be a millionaire. The truth is, I’m actually more the rule than the exception. As the article points out, “most women spend the majority of their lives trying not to get pregnant.” It went on to assert that half the pregnancies in the US are unintended, and the mothers of unintended children treat them much differently (as in, worse) than they treat planned children.

I’m quite certain I was not a planned child. My parents were divorced 3 months after I was born, and I never met my father. He also never paid a penny of child support.

Looking back, I’d have to say that my mother’s parenting style was one of benign neglect. Basically, she let me run wild. I never felt disliked. But I did feel as though she didn’t want to be bothered. She seemed to be in a constant state of depression. She set no boundaries for me, and I therefore never felt safe or confident.

She would bury herself in library books and so would I. She didn’t tell me she loved me until I was 12 years old and my older sister forced her to do so. I had food and shelter and clothing and health care and an education, but I also had the sense that if I pissed her off, she’d stop loving me. She looked the other way when I was experiencing abuse. That, too, is abuse. But I didn’t know any better.

My mother did what was expected of her. Society didn’t care if she liked it or not. And that’s where society got it wrong.

I’m grateful for all the sacrifices my mother made so I could go on to live the life I chose to live, the one that she never had a chance to live. But perhaps we should stop telling women that they’ll change their mind. Perhaps we should congratulate those women who know themselves well enough not to make a mistake that could have psychological repercussions for generations to come. Just sayin’.

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Assuming the Worst

When I was 11 years old, I brought some candy to school. They were those little, sugary mints that most kids have seen a million times. My best friend back then was kind of gullible, though, so when she asked me what it was, I told her it was drugs. I thought it was kind of funny, because by all accounts I was the most straight-laced kid on earth. I wouldn’t have a clue where to get illegal drugs. (Frankly, I still don’t.)

She saw me eat the candy, and bunch of my classmates did, too. I tried to tell her it was a joke, but she wouldn’t partake. I felt bad about that.

Then she went home and told her mother. Her mother called my house right after school, before my mother got home from work. And she screamed at me. I mean, she really, really screamed. She called me a little drug dealer and told me I was going to hell. I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen. She told me I was never, ever to talk to her daughter again, or I’d be in BIG TROUBLE.

So I didn’t. And that felt horrible for the rest of the school year. Then we each moved on to different schools and I never saw her again.

Lately that seems to be a recurring theme in my life– people assuming the worst of me. There has been a very sharp uptick of that since the most recent election. And it’s not even about things political most of the time. Is this the world we now live in? Hostile judgments at every turn?

It always takes me by surprise when these misunderstandings occur, because I have the exact opposite problem. I tend to assume the best of people, and then I’m shocked when they show me otherwise. So these negative assessments always feel like they’re coming way out of left field, and I’m generally so stunned that I can’t think how to defend myself.

The bottom line is that I seem to be losing people. And I can’t decide whether that’s bad or good. Where these people ever really my friends if they can think the worst of me? Should I have to work so hard to prove myself? Am I absolutely clueless as to the image I put across?

I really would go live in a cave somewhere if I could find one with wifi and pizza delivery. And a supply of sugary mints.

sugary-mints

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The Voices in My Head

First of all, don’t panic. They’re good voices. Well… mostly.

I still hear my late boyfriend all the time. For example, if I said I really, really liked something, he’d turn that into the best compliment ever. I might say, “This is really good tomato soup,” and he’d reply, “You’re my tomato soup of love.” So now whenever I like something, he’s with me.

I also often hear my mother holding forth with life lessons, such as, “Life isn’t fair,” even though she passed away 25 years ago. These pearls of wisdom can sometimes be irritating, but hey, she meant well. And she was often right.

I can still hear the humorous and pithy commentary of a friend I had for 14 years, even though he no longer speaks to me for reasons that I will never understand.

And I’ll quite often replay delightful conversations I’ve had with people. That explains the vague smile I have on my face when I appear to be daydreaming. It sure beats having “It’s a Small World after All” stuck in my head. (Gotcha!)

And we can all predict what someone might say in a given situation if we know that person really well. The operative word there is “might”. Don’t get into the habit of then attributing that stuff to the person as if they’ve actually said it. I used to know someone who would get pissed off at people based on imaginary conversations. That does not serve you well, and it can be quite confusing to those around you.

Unfortunately, most of us can hear hurtful things that have been said to us in the past as if that thing is being said, clear as day, right this minute. That’s why it’s so important to choose your words carefully. It’s amazing how long your voice can echo without you even realizing it.

But I have to say that for the most part, I really, really like the voices in my head.

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“You’re the voices in my head… of love…”

Thanks, Chuck. I know. And I’m grateful for that gift.

The Boy Who Gives Out Toys

Recently a friend of mine posted this video on her Facebook page. It is of a little boy who has lost both his parents, and one day he decided he was sick and tired of seeing everyone around him sad. So he bought a lot of tiny little toys, and started giving them out to random adults. The reactions range from smiles to hugs to tears. It’s a really moving bit of footage. What an amazing kid.

This video brought tears to my eyes, but not for the reason one might expect. It reminded me of a story that my late boyfriend once told me. He said his mother suffered from depression, and as the oldest child living at home, he felt a responsibility to try to do something about it. But he was just a little boy. So he decided to try to make her happy in the way that things made him happy at the time. Whenever he got allowance money, he’d go out and buy a little toy, a trinket, really, and he would give it to her. A little puzzle. A plastic car. Anything, anything, to make her smile.

God, that story still makes me cry. The thought of this powerless little boy trying so hard to make things better for his mom makes me want to travel back in time and hug him. I want to take all his worries away.

It might be a coincidence, but it doesn’t surprise me much that my boyfriend developed severe and debilitating asthma the same year his parents got divorced. He struggled to breathe for the rest of his life, and in the end, that’s what killed him. There was nothing I could have done to stop it as much as I desperately wish I could have, so I sort of understand how that helpless little boy felt.

On the first of his birthdays that we celebrated as a couple, one of the things I got him was a little toy. I wanted to make up for some of the toys he gave away as a child. I think that meant a lot to him.

Rest in Peace, Chuck. You can breathe easy now.

[image credit: wellesleyparade.com]
[image credit: wellesleyparade.com]

One Crabby Family

During one of my recent “weekends” (Oh, to actually have it fall on a weekend, for once, but nooooo…) I went with my first Seattle friend to visit her parents in Port Townsend, Washington. What a gorgeous place! I’ll write about it tomorrow.

For today, I want to write more about what interested me the most about the visit: the family itself. It occurred to me during this trip that it’s a rare and special treat to experience the dynamics of a family other than my own. It was fascinating to sit back and observe how this family unit worked for two days. It was kind of like a sociological experiment, but one that left me feeling delighted.

My friend is a free spirit. She refuses to be defined. All I can say is that she’s a yoga-teaching, dog-walking, child-loving force of nature. I wish I was like her at her age. I’d like to think I’m slowly becoming like that at age 50 in my own way, but at 36 she’s already there, and I find that so admirable I can’t even put it into words.

But once I met her parents, I understood how she was able to grow so solidly into her own person. Her parents are their own people too. Retired, they recently had this stunning house built in this splendid community, and they don’t seem to have slowed down in the slightest.

Her father rides his bike 8 miles a day, and walks the dog, and is landscaping their entire yard from scratch. I have to say he’s doing a magnificent job. He also volunteers at various events, and will soon be doing a weekly Jazz radio show. Jazz is definitely his thing.

Her mother is, to sum her up, quite a pistol. She is irreverent, hilarious, and a fantastic cook. And she goes crabbing 5 days a week. I swear to God. This woman is out pulling crab traps into a tiny boat every day, and when she gets home, she bashes their little brains out and makes the most satisfying, delicious meals I’ve ever eaten. Honestly, how cool is that? She also seems to be the glue that holds the whole family together.

My friend’s sister wasn’t there during my stay, but she felt like a solid presence, as she was talked about often with great affection.

All three of them made me feel quite at home. Quite comfortable. They even allowed me to bring my dogs, which was extremely generous given the fact that one of them acted the fool the entire time by growling at their sweet old dog and pooping in their living room. That was the only time I felt mortified during my stay.

And what a loving family it is. They all know each other’s quirks and foibles, and for the most part they find each other amusing. Sure, they bicker and gripe from time to time, but in the end, the main thing is the love.

I watched my friend poke her mom as she snored though a movie we were watching. (I wouldn’t mention that except that she has one of my favorite qualities: she doesn’t care what people think.) I also listened to them all debate about whether a water filter should or should not be changed or the music should be turned up or down. All of this nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I would love to still have my mother around to poke. I’d love to have family members to irritate me. I’d love to have a gorgeous, active retirement (or any retirement at all, for that matter, but those are not the cards I have been dealt). I’d love to have a solid family unit and know without a doubt that people had my back. What a gift. What a treasure.

What an amazing family. It was wonderful to be a part of it, if only for a day or two. I was grateful for the opportunity to sit around a table eating crab with this deliciously crabby family! I will forever savor the memory of it.

[Image credit: cannonfish.com]
[Image credit: cannonfish.com]