Four years ago this summer, in 2003, I started to think I might be an adult. I was 36.
Sure, I had been married for a few years, I’d been teaching at the college level for more than a decade, I’d been a homeowner several times over, and I had two kids. But up until that summer, a big part of my self-definition had always been as “daughter.” However, after my dad died the previous winter, and my mom started spending more and more time in California, deepening her relationship with The Other Man, I underwent a clear separation from the influence of my parents–a separation that many people go through during adolescence. For me, my parents had always been such good friends to me that I never saw them, metaphorically, from a distance; I was their baby, even into my thirties, basking in their attention and love.
But then my dad died, and my mom started transforming herself into someone entirely new (Exhibit A: the morning after she surprised my dad by having divorce papers served on him, she got a nose job; I remind you she was 67).
I felt as though somebody had put Baby in the corner.
Fortunately, my corner was bustling with matrimonial pleasure and the swirl of small children and the enlivening presence of friends and entertaining, so the diminishment of my “daughter” role felt okay. Things had changed. Things do that.
Thus, although I felt orphaned from my previous relationships with my parents, many good things emerged that summer:
–First, I had a really big, healthy baby who gave his sister an outlet for her desire to squeeze and wuv. At age 3, she already had two avocations: babies and clothes. She was already, and I strangle as I write this, a mini-Nicole Ritchie…although I daresay Nicole Ritchie is a actually a mini-Nicole Ritchie, and my three-year-old already outweighed the real Nicole Ritchie, so maybe she was a Big Nicole Ritchie. At any rate, our Girl surely doted on her brudder and her ponchos and her embroidered jeans.
–Secondly, with complete mercenary intent (read: I didn’t really care what I learned), I was taking a couple more graduate courses, one online and one through correspondence. I did this to earn enough credits to move over on the payscale at work; we would be needing more money, what with having to feed our lug of a baby and keep his handler in ponchos. My strongest memory of these courses pertains to the online advanced grammar course I was taking; every time I had to take a timed quiz, which only lasted ten minutes, I would get to the second question, only to hear Wee Niblet start his predictable yowl. For about three minutes, I’d sweat it out and let him yowl, as I muttered, “Okay, so I’m thinking about generative and transformational grammars here, not about how my breasts are leaking milk onto the keyboard. Screw the baby. Ace the quiz.” Then I’d give it up, and as the clock continued to tick down the minutes, I’d race upstairs, grab him off the bed, and then nurse him at the computer while I frantically finished the quiz. The pudgy little bastard.
–Thirdly, even though our house measured in at under 1,000 square feet, our willingness to entertain and our sense of hospitality were equivalent to Oprah’s Santa Barbara mansion in size–we had fourteen bathrooms and eight bedrooms…in our hearts. That June, during Duluth’s yearly major event of Grandma’s Marathon, we delighted in hosting out-of-town guests and filling the house with no fewer than 63 other random stoppers-by, many of whom were not the slightest bit interested in cheering on sweaty runners but, rather, who had heard the Legend of Jocelyn’s Chocolate Dump-It Cake (frosting: melted chocolate chips stirred into sour cream, spread on top of the cake at least 1/2″ thick). For Groom and me, happiness is a front porch piled high with piles of shoes and stacks of jackets, discarded there by visiting friends.
–Fourth, our backyard garden patch offered up a cornucopia of raspberries, and, as it turns out, picking raspberries is one of my avocations (that and ponchos). The canes had been untended until we moved in, and once Groom cleaned them up, their daily yield in August had me picking both morning and night. Naturally, a fridge full of raspberries demands that a cream cheese pie be made–and that friends be invited over to share in it, so long as they insisted on having “only a slice” and leaving the lion’s share for us’ns.
Yes, it was a charmed summer, save for one thing.
The reality of my mother’s new boyfriend also emerged.
It wasn’t gracious or or fashionable or hospitable or raspberry-tinged at all.
When Mom and Beau decided to visit Minnesota to attend a high school reunion together, I realized this was my chance to affirm that I was still behind her, despite all the rips and tears in our relationship that had taken place with the divorce and my dad’s subsequent death. I definitely wanted my mom and her “friend” to come to our home, where we could play out The Family Acknowledgement part of this new relationship.
Before their visit, I asked my mom what kinds of things Beau liked to eat and if he had any food issues we should know about and plan the menu around. The response was, “Beau says you should make a roast and potatoes. And he likes bread.”
Um, okay. It appeared we were to put the recipe books away and just follow orders.
The evening of the meeting came, and, as the roast slow-cooked in the crock pot, we welcomed Beau into our home. He was chatty, which my mom liked in contrast to my dad. He was jokey though not funny, again a departure from my dad. He said, clearly and loudly, positive things about my mom, which my dad had rarely done.
And within five minutes, he had worked the words “Spics” and “Poofs” into casual conversation.
Indeed, he could not have been more unlike my tolerant father.
When the bigotry and homophobia emerged so easily, I was speechless. Then I experienced an all-over body flush, and not in a good way. Simultaneously, my brain started to spin around frantically, knocking against my skull:
“I can’t just stand here and let him say those things in my house. I can’t. It violates every value I hold dear. And he’s saying those things in front of my kids, especially my impressionable three-year-old! This is unacceptable, and to remain silent would compromise who I am.”
However, I did remain silent. In the midst of the tangled web of that previous year, with everyone in my family barely hanging on to anyone else, with so many misunderstandings and hurt feelings, this evening of deliberate acknowledgement of my mom’s hard-wrought choices was huge. I couldn’t see how to walk the line between my values and keeping my mother.
Hoping to compromise, I played around, internally, with ways to phrase my dismay to this stranger that my mother was thinking of marrying. How could I express my astonishment and upset in a way that wouldn’t shut down our future as a family? (albeit one that would stand around awkwardly together at any rendezvous)
As I mulled over the options, Groom and I exchanged panic-stricken glances and then found ourselves, against our wills, distracted and entranced by the spectacle unfolding at the dinner table. See, not only was Beau racist, he was a bit of a pig. As he chomped on his roast and potatoes, he discovered he also liked the mandatory bread a great deal, to the point that he needed to eat seven pieces of it in quick order. Rather than asking that the board of bread be passed down to him from the far end of the table, though, he simply stood from his chair each time he wanted more, meat knife in hand, reached down the three feet of the table, across everyone else’s plates, and speared himself a new piece. Seven times.
As it turns out, there comes a moment when awestruck silence is the best approach. We floundered through the rest of the evening, me with a hard nugget of sadness in my belly. In the past, I had been bewildered by my mother sometimes, but this was a new feeling.
This was disappointment.
I later asked her what she was doing with someone like that–pointing out that such language had never been used or accepted in the house I grew up in, that I had never seen bigotry tolerated from her before. My mother’s response was that she just shut her ears when he started in; she didn’t want conflict, so she said nothing.
This, in my view of the world, is nearly criminal. Yet I, too, had sidestepped conflict with Beau that night at our house. I had let it slide, in the hopes of some larger reparations.
Pretty quickly, though, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t participate in the tacit support of his damaging views in the future. It just hurt too much.
Strangely, that whole episode–of being shocked by the new man my mom had chosen–ended up helping me understand her better. For her to abandon the values she’d lived by her whole life, just to have a boyfriend (her rationale for being with him, when I asked, was “He’s a good kisser.” I was very glad she was only acting sixteen and didn’t actually have the eggs of a sixteen-year-old, or she’d have been pregnant within a month), well, it smacked of desperation.
Somehow, really getting how desperate my mom had been all those years, for affection from any male, well it softened my judgement into understanding. To sacrifice one’s beliefs for a kiss–now that’s tragic. That’s lonely.
I did tell my mom how I felt and what I saw. Beyond that, it wasn’t much my business. She was 68, had a new nose and a new boyfriend…and they were going to get married. In Reno. At a class reunion.
Shortly before the wedding, though, my mom called it off. She had realized that Beau not only kissed; he ranted. After extended harangues–she didn’t order right at a restaurant one time, and she didn’t put a stamp correctly on an envelope another time–Mom realized her stomach hurt a lot in this new relationship. Eventually, she realized he was borrowing a lot of money, not so much requesting it but rather telling her how much he needed. She also noted that he kept a lot of side relationships with other women brewing. So she called off the wedding.
Instead, she just shacked up with him in California. Rants continued. Money “lending” continued.
After more than a year, she moved out and got her own small apartment, Praise the Gay Dios! But they continued to date until just recently.
A couple of months ago, after they’d attended a bagpipe concert, Beau had a heart attack outside of his house, fell, and hit his head (something that’s been known to happen after bagpipe concerts); as my mom dialed 911, he bled from the ears, and his lips turned blue. He died.
A few weeks later, another guy my mom went to high school with called. They’ve been dating now for a bit. The report is that he doesn’t rant.
I haven’t asked what kind of kisser he is.
Thus, four years ago this summer, the biggest thing to emerge was a need to be willing to renegotiate my relationship with one of the dominant people in my life. Continually doing that can be exhausting. But, heck, she attended every one of my piano concerts and cried in the audience when my Home Ec class had its fashion show. She could date David Hasselhoff and I, gulp, would still be there.
Mostly through email, though. A little distance never hurt anybody, especially when The Hoff is involved.
Wow. After all this typing, I’m a little peckish.
Pass the bread, woncha?