Saturday, July 6, 2013

Un-Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

I originally wrote this on July 3.

On this date in 1948, my parents were married in the home of Mom's sister and brother-in-law in the town where Mom was born and died and where I grew up. They were married for 55 years before Dad died of metastatic prostate cancer at age 80. Mom lived five more years before succumbing to end-stage emphysema and congestive heart failure at age 92.

I was their only child and Mom's only pregnancy. This was her second marriage. Without going into great detail, my childhood was a nightmare. I remember waking up on the morning of my 4th birthday realizing that I couldn't remember a single thing from the day before. Nothing. Try as I might, I had absolutely no memory of anything prior to that morning. I remember wondering if I'd even recognize anyone when I walked out to the other rooms. But, I did. My grandfather was sitting on the sofa in the living room and Mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. My father was already at work. But, I still couldn't figure out why I couldn't remember anything. I was a tad precocious, but to me these thoughts seemed perfectly normal - being able to analyze situations like that.

The day, as I recall, went by uneventfully - until night time came. Apparently, it was routine for my father to kiss me goodnight before one or the other of us went to bed. He was going to bed because he had to be at work early. But, I refused to go near him. I wouldn't let him touch me. I refused to kiss him goodnight.

I remember Mom going into the bedroom with him and then coming out to get me. She took me to their room and said, "See what you did to your father? Go give him a kiss goodnight." My father was sitting on the side of the bed bawling his eyes out. I just stared at him. I wouldn't even step into the room. I still refused to go near him. I didn't understand why, but I just wouldn't touch him or let him touch me.

After that day, I was Dad's target. Every single mean-spirited thing he could think of he used on me. He called me stupid, good-for-nothing, lazy. He refused to call me by my name. I was either Ajax or Junior. There were times when we got along OK, but it didn't take much for me to be the target of his rage.

He began not coming home after work. Mom would call the bartender to see if he was there. Seedy had gone to school with Mom and wouldn't lie for my dad, so he'd hand him the phone. Mom would inevitably hang up crying. I grew to hate my father. I even once said to my mother, "why don't you just get rid of him?" never expecting her to snap at me like she did. "Don't you ever say anything like that again!! I never want to hear that from you again!" It was years later before I learned that Mom had been married before and that was a large part of what was behind her reaction.

As an adult, I asked her, "did you ever think of leaving him?" "Yes." "Why didn't you?" "Because I had as much right to this property as he did and I wasn't going to lose it." Her father had given them the land on which they built the house. Because she'd lost everything in her first divorce in 1944 she assumed she'd lose everything again in the 60s. Instead, she toughed it out, living up to community expectations and presented a totally different image than what was taking place.

Dad was abrupt and abusive verbally. On me, it was both verbal and physical. There weren't Child Protective Services during those years like there are now. I had no where to turn. Mom's parents were long gone (her mother died in 1942; her father in 1959). The options for assistance to women in abusive relationships simply didn't exist then. And, you never let it be known that you had problems. It just wasn't done. I lived through all of this assuming no one ever knew anything, other than Dad's drinking. That pretty much was noticed by everyone.

By the time both Mom and Dad were retired and developing various medical issues, they lived in two separate worlds under the same roof. One time, Mom went to a concert with my cousin and his family. Dad didn't even notice she was gone and locked up the house and went to bed. My cousin had to pound on the windows to wake him so they could get in. Dad simply never noticed she wasn't home.

After Dad ended up in the nursing home (following a series of serious injuries from falling), Mom was talking to their neighbor about him. She still visited him daily (it was her duty as his wife) and they were discussing some of his unique behavioral characteristics. Mike was more or less joking with Mom about Dad, so he laughed when Mom said, "He wasn't a nice man." That's when Mom said, "Mike - it wasn't for love that I stayed with him." Mike didn't know what to say and suddenly realized she wasn't joking.

Although on one hand you can say that 55 years for a second marriage is proof that it's worth trying again, unless you're privy to what's really going on in that marriage, you don't know how worth it the entire effort was. Personally, I think I'd have been much better off with Dad out of the picture. He belittled me so much while I was growing up that I used to literally pray to God that I'd wake up a boy because I just knew my father didn't want a daughter. Until I was 31, he regularly told me that when the doctor asked him what he wanted (during Mom's labor), he said, "Anything but a redheaded daughter." Yep - that's what he got! I grew up afraid of my own shadow and always feeling like I was guilty of one offense or another. I'd get in trouble for doing nothing because I "must have done something". I was virtually friendless, had few social skills, was always odd-man out in my classes, last to be chosen for teams, the one called names in high school (until a girl deemed more deserving moved into the area); so I became the one who befriended the underdog, who stood up for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Yet, I couldn't stand up for myself.

So, every year, on July 3, I remember that my parents had an unhappy marriage (the years that I remember - I'm sure it began well) because one man couldn't overcome his insecure selfishness and need to have all the attention. I remember him blowing up at his mother who made the mistake of defending me by saying, "Paul! She's just a child." He went off on a rant about how I never got what I deserved, everyone always protected me, I never got in trouble for anything, etc etc. Years and years later I realized that I reminded him of his sister who was born when he was 17 who had such a dramatically different relationship with their parents than he did that he felt history was repeating itself. Did that make his behavior right? Hell, no!! But, once I was able to connect the dots, it all fell into place for me. I no longer saw myself as the cause of his problems. He had his own demons, but he made me believe I was the demon.

All in all, though, I'm grateful for the last five years of Dad's life. The head trauma he suffered changed his personality in such a way that I got to see a different side of him. Gone was the angry, sullen, miserable and insecure man who'd always held ME accountable for his own problems. This new man was someone who came to depend on me for answers and for help and had replaced his "neediness" with genuine needs. While I wish I'd seen that man during my childhood, I'm grateful that I was able to see him at all. It changed so many things about our relationship.

So, unHappy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. I'm grateful for the things you taught me without any of us realizing you were teaching me, such as the acceptance of ALL people of ALL colors or religions or social statuses as equals. Despite the bitterness amongst ourselves as a family, that lesson managed to come through loud and clear. I've never forgotten it.
Photos are mine. The black and white is their wedding day and the color photo is the last photo ever taken of my parents together. Dad passed just months later. He never spoke to my mother again once he went into the home.

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