January 28, 2010

Your Father's Not Yelling at You, He Just Has a Loud Voice

If you read this blog, you know that I love my mother. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her and wish she was here so I could tell her some story or show her how wonderful Max is. But, let’s face it, no one is perfect and my dear sweet departed mother was no exception. She was insanely smart and had a wry and dark sense of humor, but her childhood was somewhat tumultuous and she did not escape the effects of that. Although she constantly played down the effect the events had on her, looking back on it, it seems near impossible the one could emerge from them unscathed.

Mom was born in the 30s during the height of the depression. She was the 2nd of 4 children and when she was 13, her parents divorced. Mom and her brothers lived with their mother as their father, it seems, was either unfit or unwilling to be a custodial parent. He was a drinker, although neither Mom nor Memere (her mother) would readily admit that. They played it down by saying he was a happy drinker and not violent. I suppose not beating the children does go on the “pro” side of the chart, but is it really a parental quality worth lauding?

Regardless of why, my grandfather was out of the picture and died before me or any of my sisters was born. Neither of my parents drank much, although Dad occasionally got blotto at Mardi Gras and made ridiculous promises to us – we were going to get a pool, we were going to ride in a Mardi Gras parade, we were going to pave over the whole backyard so he didn’t have to cut the grass anymore.  When Ash Wednesday would roll around and we would ask about these things, Dad would say he was just exaggerating. When we asked Mom what exaggerating meant, she said it meant that you were lying.

Mom and my sister came to visit me when I lived in Houston. Sitting in the kitchen one evening, Mom was in a rare self revelatory mood and began telling us about the early years Mom told usl stories that indicated life with Dad had not been perfect. Again, while I was shocked that she was actually saying all this out loud, I was not surprised by anything she was actually sharing. I did, after all, live with them the first 20 years of my life.

One of us, either my sister or me, asked why, if things had been so hard, did she stay in the marriage? Now, you have to realize, this was just a conversation, a blip on the radar screen, a snapshot of one moment in time. I know now that she stayed with my father because she loved him and that marriage is hard, really fucking hard, especially when you add kids to the mix.

But her response on that day fit the tone of that conversation and she said, “I stayed because of the children, because of you girls. And I don’t think it hurt any of you…except Claire. She was always intuitive and knew something was wrong.”

At this point in my life, I had already been through about 10+ years of therapy and 10+ years of sobriety. I knew damn well that although I had felt like it my whole life, I actually was not the crazy one in my family. I knew intellectually that I saw things for what they were, but that pill is hard to swallow when no one backs you up. If I see a lion in the room and everyone else denies it exists, well, eventually you start to question its existence…until it rips your arm off at the shoulder. And by then, no one feels sorry for you. They are all mad at you for agitating the lion.

I wasn’t mad at mom for her revelation that day. On the contrary, I was quite grateful. I had spent most of my life being told that everything was fine and that I was wrong. I was actually, whether she knew it or not, taught to ignore and mistrust my intuition. She didn’t want to see certain things. I remember once as a kid crying to her because Dad had yelled at me. She said, “Your Dad’s not yelling at you, he just has a loud voice.”
By this point, I was an old enough kid to know that this statement was ludicrous. He did not just have a loud voice. He had a very loud voice, a quick temper, high blood pressure and was a bit of a control freak who was obsessed with his career. (Yeah, so I got qualities from him, too, but that's another blog entry for another day.)

Mom made excuses for everyone, not just Dad. My dog Samantha once snapped at one of my nephews who was pulling his tail. My Dad was filming the birthday party where this occurred, so we got the whole incident on video and watched it in slow motion. It was very obvious that although Andrew had indeed pulled Sam’s hair, Sam did indeed snap at his head. She didn’t bite him, she just scared the shit out of all of us.
Mom leapt into action saying that Sam didn’t mean to bite Andrew. I actually guffawed when I heard it because I was amazed that Mom would actually stand up for my dog, who had snapped at  me more than once. I think she was trying to protect me, as if I would somehow be damaged by Sam ‘s bad behavior or that it was some reflection on me. Sam was a dog who was annoyed by a child and she did what she knew how to do – she snapped at him. And she got the intended result, the boy quit pulling her hair.

After she and my sister went back to New Orleans, I called mom to thank her for validating what I had suspected for some time. She acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about and changed the conversation. Instead we talked about something else, maybe movies or books or my nieces and nephews. 

And just like that, the window was shut. It was as if she even regretted divulging that much about herself.
She spent her childhood doing the eggshell dance, walking quietly so as not to disrupt things. She spent most of her life making excuses for her alcoholic father and sitting with anger towards him that had no release. She lived in a different time when feelings were stuffed and not discussed. I am not making excuses for her. On the contrary, I am seeing her for who she was - a beautiful and flawed child of God. Just like me.


Laura Ferry-Jimenez said...

I remember once my dad said your mom should have gone to med school she was so smart. I was trying to type with two hands and couldn't do it - I still type with one. no lie.

anyway, he said your mom did what was expected of her and went to secretarial school but she was so good, that when she graduated the head director hired her as his own assistant!

not sure if I am remembering all the detail exactly but I remember being in awe... of such a smart woman in my family because the 9 yr-old in me looked at my mom's own degrees as crap. haha.

your mom really was great... I can honestly say that I have always thought that. :)

Beth Ferry Pekins said...

wonderful Claire!

i still remember the night on Blanke St when we stayed up late watching MASH on tv and eating packs and packs of oatmeal cookies and laughing and all of the sudden the floor started to vibrate from your dad yelling, "CLAIRE!!!!BETH!!!!! SHUT THE HELL UP!!!!!" ha! We both looked at each other wide eyed, shut off the tv,jumped under the covers and went to bed... too funny! your dad had a loud voice...it must have been a survival technique for living with 4 girls....

my dad talks often about how smart your mom was and how she had gotten all A's at Dominican College before Angelle was born and adopted;but, what she really wanted was to be a mom...and what a mom she was! :)