I opened my eyes. My father stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at the chubby kid.
“N-othing, sir,” the kid stammered. “She just dropped her ice cream and I was helping her pick it up.”
“Well, thank you, young man!” my father said in a voice too loud and bright.
“You run along now. As for you,” he said, grabbing my elbow, “your mother’s been looking all over for you. It’s time to go home.”
I jerked free and followed him, glad that the authoritarian stance that he firmly believed was his right had worked in my favor for a change.
“Did you have a good time today?” my father asked my mother as we drove home.
“You know how I hate those parades,” my mother sighed, sinking as deep as she could into her seat. “At least this one had clams. I like those.”
“I hate clams,” I mumbled.
“Oh, don’t get me started on you,” my mother snapped. “That kid of yours will be the death of me, Bill. She whined the whole time we followed the parade route, ‘Mom, I’m thirsty! Mom, I’m hungry!’”
My mother didn’t seem to mind that she was creating an antagonistic relationship with me. As long as I did all the housework she told me to do and played up to the neighbors and kept my mouth shut about the screaming matches and pummelings, she saw no reason for concern.
My mother didn’t understand the importance of developing a sense of self. She’d been brought up to believe that men were more human than women and that it was a man’s right to choose what his wife and children were allowed to do. Though she inwardly chafed against the hierarchy, the only ways she showed it were her obsession with the “I Love Lucy” show and finding passive aggressive ways to undermine my father every chance she got. She was shortsighted when it came to the depth of the relationship she believed she had with me.
She felt that if she made me do her bidding and forced me to be obedient that I’d always be there for her. Maybe she was afraid that if she really cared about me, that would give me the flexibility to choose for myself how I felt and she knew she’d come up on the short side.
She didn’t know that if she’d really loved me, if she hadn’t been afraid to show her soft side, if she hadn’t hooted, “Whoo Hoo! Look at her dance!” as I tried to escape her forsythia branch whips, that I might have decided that I liked her company.
Instead of being a uniting force, that little four-letter word, ‘love’ became yet another weapon. I had to “love” my parents at family gatherings, parades, picnics, and baseball games. Kissing my mother’s cheek at Thanksgiving dinner at Nana’s house burned my lips as if her skin was made of rancid turkey. I didn’t realize it was possible to want to love my family or even that love could feel good until I was an adult.
The combined forces of my mother, our next-door neighbor, Kelly and my grandmother, aunt and uncles, were able to coerce me into leaving California where I’d finally escaped my parents’ home when I’d gone for undergraduate studies and return to Butler, New Jersey in May of 1978 when I was nineteen because my mother was ill with cancer.
As I sat on the plane, I kept telling myself I wouldn’t get stuck in Butler. I would return to California and finish my studies. After I got over the shock of seeing my father a gaunt, bald skeleton of himself and taking in the idea that in some warped way he actually cared about my mother enough that her illness had affected him so profoundly, and after I took in my mother’s ballooned right arm, covered with pussy sores and skinny right side, the first words I said were,
“I can only stay two weeks.”
My words were cold and blunt, but I’d been shamed into coming to a place that could have been called home except that there was no love or warmth or loyalty to care for a woman who had made every day of my childhood a living hell.