By Chris Brecheen
During rush hour.
Return to Part 1
Some such moments I can’t even rightly say were battles I chose as they seemed to have no significance at the time. It is only looking back across the pregnant decades that I can now recognize how they shifted who I was like tree falling across a stream’s path forever alters the course of a mighty river.
Which is an epicfail attempt to be poetic.
There was a blanket named ”Bankee” that went everywhere with me. “Bankee” was a pale canary yellow with a cheesecloth weave, like gossamer to tiny hands. It was small enough that a four year old could take it everywhere--not unwieldy like its adult cousins. Once it may have been a lovely baby blanket in my crib, a blend between canary and gold with a silk ribbon along its border. But after four years under the tinder ministrations of a toddler, it’s silk ribbon remained only on one side, it had threadbare fraying most of the rest of the way around and at least one inexorably growing hole. But I held it tight and rubbed the remaining silk against my cheek while I sucked my thumb--sucked it with a cavalier disregard for the sheer scope of future orthodontia bills.
The blanket was my superman cape. It was my nap time companion. It was my soothing pacifier. It was a single “You’re my only friend,” speech shy of being a companion character in a Disney movie.
The night we moved from Arkansas to Iowa, where my mother had been accepted to Iowa’s graduate writing program, I asked about the blanket several times.
“Don’t forget Bankee!”
“Don’t worry,” she told me.
“Is it packed?” I asked.
“Of course,” she assured me.
“Mom,” I asked, leveling the closest thing a four year old can get to a sincerely pensive look upon my mother. “Are you sure?”
I like to think her eyes twitched towards the black trash bags of detritus lining the curb or that she swallowed dramatically. Of course, I also like to think that she spent two months consumed with guilt and slept no more than two or three hours a night.
“Of course,” she assured me. “Don’t worry.”
You can’t blame her. Not really. The thing was practically a biohazard, being dragged through everything from mud puddles to spilled Kool-Aid. The wonder was it didn’t try desperately to crawl away every time I let it go. It had that grimy grunge of dirt ground into the fibers that could never be washed out completely.
My tears wiped away. They wiped away and wiped away and wiped away. “I’m not sure where your blanket is, honey.”
“It’s just in one of the other boxes,” Mom said. “I’m sure it will turn up. Listen, if you stop crying, we can get some ice cream.”
I was a trooper. I hitched a few breaths, sniffled in the runner of snot that was leaking from my nose, and nodded bravely. We ate ice cream.
Of course, we never did find it. Eventually I stopped my candlelight vigils and wailing lament, but sure enough, thirty years later, it is emblazoned in my memory. Four year olds are not hard to distract. However, I never forgot. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was learning a harsh truth about impermanence. That no matter how badly I wanted it to not be so, everything was not going to stay the same.
It was my first lesson that life was pretty much going to be about how much ice cream you could scarf down to distract yourself between.
When we’re very young, growth and loss are basically the same thing. It is only when we get older that we really start learning lessons in different ways (an allowance teaches how to manage money, or perhaps we have our first moment of true empathy) but it’s difficult to imagine a lesson for a small child that doesn’t involve losing something. We are forcibly ejected from our amniotic fluid and perfectly regulated bio-dome. The best food to ever exist is stripped from us when our mothers are ready to get their figure back and stop ruining t-shirts. The perfectly rational response of screaming at anything that displeases us until it goes away or is fixed is conditioned out of us by a heartless “civilization.” And eventually our parents will engage in treacherous conspiracies to take away our bankees.
Not too surprising then that the greatest moment of growth and my greatest moment of loss in my early life were one in the same.
On the one hand, it was not a lesson I remember learning, and perhaps that softened the blow. Instead I remember horrific traumas like losing my security blanket. Which I'm not sure could be any better indication that I basically had a good childhood.
I wouldn’t start remembering things until I was about three (and then only the most disjointed images). I could only witness the devastating shockwaves from the echoes of this ripping across the landscape of my life. It was like the forensic reconstruction of a bomb blast years after the event or archeologists trying to reconstruct Vesuvius. (“Well, Bob, based on the scorch marks and ejecta patterns here, we can conjecture that this event was the equivalent of fifty to sixty thousand tons worth of lost blankets.”)
It was a lesson first being learned en mass by the children of my generation. Not the sort of lesson we wanted to learn or would ever have picked for ourselves. Not a character-building lesson with difficult but noble truths from which we would emerge as fuller human beings who get to say "I've learned something today" as the tender soundtrack comes up. Not a lesson worked out in a half hour in front of a live studio audience or even in a full-season plot arc. More a lesson that would lead us with an unerring sort of predictability to codependency, abandonment issues, and an inability to form fully functional relationships with older men.
The last time I saw my father, or so I’m told, I was just past my first birthday. I was only a baby, but I sometimes imagine that my mother held me to her chest in such a way that my head poked up over her shoulders, and as she ran away, I faced back towards him. I imagine that our eyes met one last time. If that’s true, my last image of him would have been a quickly shrinking one as my mother literally ran from the house, and his face would have been twisted into a mask of boiling rage as he threatened to kill her.
My mother spoke so frequently and so convincingly of his “abandonment” that even knowing the story, I still accepted her interpretation. (“My father abandoned me,” I would tell my pre-school friends who asked why I was not sharing my blocks. "Oh, sorry I'm not letting anyone on the slide--my father abandoned me." "I'm afraid I won't be sharing these Legos--my father abandoned me.") It was repeated so often that despite knowing the details of the story, I was in my twenties in the middle of a cheeseburger and fries when I literally dropped my food. She had left him; not the other way around. And though there isn’t an interpretation worth listening to that would blame her for her choice, it can be a bit disconcerting when your own self narrative, and the story your mother told you dozens of times suddenly reminds you of Hitler’s saying about repeating big lies.
Regardless of who left whom, and the legitimacy of why, I lost a father, and by the time I’d picked up a replacement at the hardware store, I was a honeycomb of typical single-parent psychological troubles. Of course it would have been much worse if we’d stayed. Life sometimes only gives us a choice between grades of shit.
"Would you like the shit filled shit pie or the shit stuffed turds with shit frosting on a bed of shit and a light shit salad?"
The man who ponied up the sperm to create me--but who can hardly be called a father--was, back in the 70’s, a cross between a rebel without a clue and a genuine bad boy. Depending on my mother’s mood, and which glass of wine she was on when she regaled me, David was a passionate idealist for the anti-Vietnam cause or a thug and a criminal with thinly veiled anger issues. I suspected very early on that this ambiguity revealed more truth than it obfuscated.
What I hadn't quite worked yet out was just how often in life that would be the case.
My mother and David met in college and moved in together, but their lives got difficult right away. The pill may have brought the sexual revolution to baby boomers, but the generation prior had not gotten the memo. “Shacking up” was living in sin as far as most parents were concerned, and my southern grandparents were no exception. They cut my mother off from financial support and a bout of hepatitis wiped out the savings she was using to go to school. David’s friends at the time were mostly students, and he was involved in a protest activity on the local university campus.
David got caught in the middle of one of his more extreme protest actions. It wasn’t much more than vandalism, really--the sort of thing that is often forgiven and turned into “a teaching moment” when a student does it. But David wasn’t enrolled in classes, and so he was arrested and charged with breaking into a government building.
Camden Arkansas was a small town--the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else. (Even forty years later, it is just over 12,000.) The grocer knew their customers. The banker could greet you by name. And it’s the sort of place where, in the seventies, the sexual revolution and small town morality had a battle royale. My mother’s parents knew the district attorney for David’s case, and he knew of their hand wringing over the scandal my mother had caused them.
I know I'm probably wrong, but I imagine there was a meeting: hushed, after dark, Corinthian leather chairs, cigars, and brandy.
Suddenly David could get out of a prison sentence if he got married. And so my mother married him.
In a shock of perhaps the millennium, but certainly the century, my mother did not particularly appreciate the Machiavellian grace with which she was maneuvered into being a “proper woman.” The two of them moved as far away as they plausibly could. That turned out to be Indiana where David’s family owned a farm. There my mother learned a few hard lessons of her own. One was that there are generally pretty good reasons that upper middle class women don’t get into long-term relationships with lower class men who have anger management issues. The other was that being slapped by her mother, with her delicate hands, was a cake walk compared to what thick angry, drunk Indiana farmer hands could do in a fit of rage.
In case you weren’t aware, the main crop of Indiana isn’t happiness and realized dreams. Potato farming in the early seventies was a hard life usually done by hard people. But some of the stories my mother told went beyond “hard,” dipped into psychotic, and still send corkscrews of ice up my spine when I think about them. I’d probably be okay eating a variant of potatoes as every meal (It wasn't just that they ate potatoes AT every meal, but mom and David were actually so poor that the potatoes often were the meal.) But what really hollowed out my gut were her stories of the people: husbands and fathers taking government subsidy checks desperately needed for diapers and formula and spending them unapologetically on malt liquor instead, men taking after their wives with folded lawn furniture for dressing too risqué, or a mother and father who would stand on opposite sides of a room and each tell their daughter "come to me or I'll hit you"and then fall into peals of laughter when the girl broke down crying, unable to decide which parent she wanted to be beaten by.
David wasn’t one to let a high bar daunt him--even if the bar was on psychopathic behavior. He rose admirably to the challenge, becoming jealous beyond all semblance of reason at the slightest perceived hint of impropriety--accusing her of stealing away to cheat on him in the time it took her to go to the corner store for cigarettes or slipping into the back of the store with the butcher for a quickie if they got separated in a grocery store. If she treated the accusation as laughably absurd or insulting, David's thick hands were swift and powerful.
It was there, in this dark moment of my mother’s life, alone on an Indiana potato farm with an abusive husband, monstrous neighbors and friends, and a family four states away who had all but renounced her, that my mother decided she wanted to have a baby.
So without a word to David about her decision, she tossed her ring of birth control pills into the trash. I showed up--though in a much smaller form than my current state--shortly after.
My mother tells the story of wanting to be loved for who she was and love something that didn’t spit that love back at her. In a world of broken relationships, she wanted something pure.
Don’t get me wrong. I think this is true. I just sometimes wonder if it is the entire story.
My mother is a woman whose true strength doesn’t come out for her own sake. The adult child of two alcoholics she struggles with codependency and has never been good at not letting others railroad her. To this day she struggles with family and loved ones taking advantage of her lack of boundaries. But for another, she will become a yawping Valkyrie. She would regularly march across to some neighbor or another’s house to make sure everything was okay if a child was hysterically wailing in that way that indicates things are REALLY wrong, take a baby out of a drunk mother’s arms and talk her down from a violent meltdown at 50,000 feet when the flight attendants didn’t know what to do (even though she was on her way to her own father’s funeral), or call in sick to work to help a stranger with bruises on her face find a place to stay, a couple of pairs of jeans, a toothbrush, and some essentials. When it comes to helping others, my mother finds a wellspring of strength that she simply lacks for her own sake.
It’s not that I don’t believe she wanted love. It’s just that I wonder if she didn’t unconsciously know that she would be paralyzed in her situation as long as she was alone. But perhaps for another…
I was just past my first birthday when David’s thick hands fell upon me. She never looked back.
It’s not the story you normally hear. It’s not the cycle of violence from father to son or the mother who can’t get out. She saved me from that. Fled into the night. Never saw him again. Sent a friend for a few changes of clothes. Returned home, swallowed her pride, and asked my grandparents for help. Got a degree. Raised a son by herself (at least until I was six).
I was in my late twenties before I cornered my mother at the dinner table about the abandonment thing. “He didn’t abandon me at all, mom.” I said. “You left him.” I took a bite of scalloped potatoes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a gentle person without PTSD because of you, but he didn’t do the leaving.”
She nodded. “There’s another part I got wrong,” she said. “I always told you that I saved you from your father, but that’s not really true.”
I chewed quietly.
“You saved me,” she said. “When I heard you scream from the other room, I knew instantly what had happened, and it was like...I snapped awake from a dream.”
And a part of me wonders if she knew that from the beginning. Maybe just some little part of her. If she knew when she tossed out her ring of pills that she wasn’t just creating perfect love, but a reason to be strong. Maybe she knew that something she didn’t have the strength to do for herself, she could do for another. But whether or not she had a sense of what strength I bring her, I know that my tiny hands, my little feet, my tiny beating heart, and my perfectly loving eyes gazing up at her were the grain of rice that tipped the scales and gave her the tenacity to do what she had needed to do all along.
It wasn’t a Cleaver’s beginning. That “happy ending” was just the start of the next chapter about a young boy with no father figure. We may have spared each other some really shitty lives--but I had lost a father in the deal.
I wonder sometimes if David didn’t knock a few years of childhood right out of me when he hit me. Not my whole childhood. Innocence is made of sterner stuff. There would still be smiles and giggles and suction cup dart wars, and pretending to be transformers in the courtyard of our apartment building. He didn’t knock so much out of me that I’d be one of those haggard, cynical seven year old wearing long-sleeve shirts in stifling heat. But he knocked out just enough so that I understood—on some deep level—that the world might just haul off and smack you one for no good reason. You couldn’t trust anyone.
[© 2013 All Rights Reserved]
Continue to Part 3