Category Archives: Family

Molly, tears and being a mom

This made me cry. It reminded me of what I would could confess right now, were confession possible at this hour. I miss my horse. More than that, I cannot face my own culpability in the way my life changed, in the way I had to give him up in order to help Zeke. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The divorce destroyed something in her — her trust, her faith that things would turn out all right. They always had before, but when she was 10 — almost 11 — they didn’t. By the time she had turned 13, she was struggling. Adolescence stretched before her — before me — and I dreaded what was happening. I was struggling to keep my horse, and working off his board, and rarely home, and she said, one day, “You love that horse more than me.” And I said, “It’s not true.” And she didn’t believe me.

My friend, who was letting me keep my horse at her place, said she was being manipulative, that she was being spoilt. She might have been, I suppose, but still, I couldn’t sleep for worry about her. Another horse friend said I needed to assert my authority. “I would never have been able to treat my parents the way she treats you,” she said. “You need to teach her who’s boss.”

But my heart said something else. Zeke is sensitive, extremely so. I knew it. Whatever was happening was a response to pain, not misbehavior. So I gave away my horse. I couldn’t sell him, although he had cost me a lot. I just couldn’t sell him. It was like taking money to sell a friend.

Zeke got better, though not totally. “What do you need from us?” I asked her one day, meaning “from your father and me.”

“I want to live with you,” she said. “All the time. I don’t want to have to go to Dad’s house.” I had full custody at the time, but she had been staying with him on a three or four school nights a week because her school was in his town, not mine, and she didn’t want to change schools. I would pick her up from school and bring her home with me, and she’d stay with me till he picked her up on the way home from work. I saw her every day that way, but didn’t have to get up an hour earlier to take her to school. It seemed ideal, except that she was struggling.

It’s not that she doesn’t love her dad. She just didn’t click with his wife (and there are good reasons, I would say). So I talked to her father. We worked something out. She has been with me full time for two years, and I drive her to and from school every day. Two days a week he’s supposed to pick her up from school, but he’s busy, and doesn’t always have time. It’s OK. She is far happier now.

In the end, listening to her worked. Giving up my horse was what she needed. Getting up an hour earlier every day to get her to school so she didn’t have to stay with her dad made the difference. Her grades are good. She is popular and happy. She stands up for what matters to her — a day of silence in support of her gay and lesbian friends, choosing to sit at the lunch table with the overweight new  girl, resisting the tremendous peer pressure to smoke cigarettes and the omnipresent we*d, to have s*x, to drink and party hard.

On Mother’s Day she and a friend made me dinner, baked me a cake. We sat down together and ate and talked and laughed. That night, at 1:00 a.m., she came into my room and lay down beside me (as she sometimes does; she’s been a lifelong light sleeper, starting before birth!). “I’ve been thinking,” she said. “I’m lucky to have you as a mother. I can tell you anything, and you listen to me.” We talked for a while, and then she hugged me and went back to bed.

I’m proud of her, proud to bursting. She’s funny and strong and sweet. She’s beautiful and smart too. I think of Molly, and my own horse, whom I gave up and miss terribly at times. I think of Zeke. I wish it could have been different, but I think it was right not to teach her “who’s boss.”

It’s the human conundrum. I did what I must confess, failed to love my horse enough in order to love my daughter the way I think she needed to be loved. One wrong to try to make a bigger right. Is it bigger? People who don’t love horses the way I do would probably say yes, but horse lovers would probably disagree. My horse friends would. Childless themselves, they don’t understand. Their horses are their children. They see me as having given up my child.

Conner. I’m sorry.

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Circling

I always seem to miss the important days. It’s something in me, in my mind, that blocks the connection. All this month I thought of her, thought of the day she died, remembered our last conversation, remembered the crow that represents her. I remembered that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her, and that I miss her, and that she and my mother hit it off immediately when they met, first in Ireland 17 years ago and later when she and I hired a mini van and drove to the airport to pick up Mum and Dad the day they arrived in this country with two dogs and all their possessions.

I remember the books we shared, the walks, the cups of tea and coffee, the ice cream and whipped cream and hot chocolate. I remember that our dogs tried to kill each other, and then became best friends. I remember the day I called her to ask her a breast feeding question a few days after Zeke was born, and found out she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in the hospital, having a mastectomy. She hadn’t told me because she didn’t want to ruin my joy in Zeke’s birth.

Five years later, she was added to the “survivor” list. If you survive breast cancer for five years, you’re considered a survivor, a statistic that represents life and overcoming. Less than two months later, she was dead. She’d spent five years fighting the disease. She made it past the five year mark, and then she died. I wasn’t with her at the time, but I’d spent days with her, hours holding her hand and rubbing moisturizer into her skin and giving her ice chips and trying to feed her what she could eat. When I hear the theme song from the Titanic, I cry, remembering her daughter (my goddaughter), an accomplished pianist, playing the grand piano in the next room. I remember that her daughter and I went shopping for clothes for her mother’s funeral a few days before my best friend died, because we knew it was coming, and because A wanted it.

Ten years ago on the 21st, Trish passed away from breast cancer at the age of 42. I was going to write about it, but I couldn’t. I watched the daffodils nod on my drive to work — they are her emblem, the brightest thing blooming in the days leading up to her death — and I thought about earth day, a perfect tribute to her love of nature and animals. And I couldn’t write about her.

The next day Loren wrote about loving crows, and I remembered after my mother and I were diagnosed with breast cancer ourselves just a year later, how I went walking in a park right by my mother’s house. I walked the five-mile walk around the park, and a crow followed me, hopping from tree to tree, swooping and diving overhead, and never letting me out of its sight. I heard Trish in its laugh. I saw Trish in its bright, curious head tilt. I took my shoes off and ran on the bare dirt, with the crow flying overhead, and I heard Trish scolding me.

There used to be a whole colony of crows in the birch tree by my condo. They’ve gone. Now and again I hear one or two, scolding me for getting too close, but mostly they’re just gone. I wonder if they’ve been taken by West Nile Virus, if the crow that fell from the tree onto my lawn and died there a couple of years ago was a victim of the disease. A woman from the CDC took it away for testing after I called, but I never heard what the cause was.

Regardless, my mind circles and circles, and for three days I couldn’t stop thinking of her, and I couldn’t bear to write of her. I have a dark shadow in my life, my loss of her, my loss of A, which I must explain in the context of the loss of my mother.

I wish I could say I hear a crow outside. But I must wake my daughter for school, and head for work, and remind myself that Trish and my mother simply ARE.

Retrospective suprise

So my mother comes out the bad one. I thought I was going to dive into the darkness around my father — and no, it is not so bad, really. Just the distance of another time and culture, of trying to be a father to four girls, one definitely not his own, another born in his presence, and raised from birth as his. Still, Rachel and I have shared memories of that moment at the edge of the Singing Tree, a moment I remember as defining every moment before something is known. How to explain? We had a tree at the curve in our driveway where it split to go around the house. We had a long driveway, a couple of hundred yards, I guess, and then it circled the house, and one branch went off down to the garage and the stables. And to the left of the spot where it curved and headed downhill to go to the back of the house and the garage stood a tall tree we called the Singing Tree. We used to climb it and survey our four acres from its higher branches. Ruth May fell from it and broke her jaw. I stacked hay bales under it every weekend of winter, so that in the early frosty hours of schooldays I could toss breakfast over the fence to the donkeys without having to go all the way down the dog pen where the hay was stacked safely under cover. We loved that tree, the way the wind sighed through it, the way we felt above the world and safe in its tall branches. It was some kind of evergreen, with branches that bounced as we climbed them, and it smelled tart and mountainous. When I remember that it is gone, I feel something resist in me, and turn away.

Anyway, it obscured the back of the house, where Dad parked the Volvo. Rachel and I would run down the driveway after school, waiting for that instance when we could round the Singing Tree and discover what we wanted to know most, at that moment — was the Volvo there? Was Dad home? I think of getting letters from literary journals and publishing companies and agents, those letters that will accept or reject you, and the moment when you hold the letter in your hand, before you KNOW. It might be good news. There is a delicious joy in that moment, in all the possibilities it holds. Then you slit the envelope open, slip the letter out, unfold it, and the words are there, shattering what you’d hoped for. So often rounding that tree was a shattering of hope — the Volvo neatly parked by the kitchen window, Dad home, nothing to look forward to but being sent to our rooms the moment we entered the door, till tea was ready and we could come out long enough to sit and drink it with the silence of the house echoing around us. Then outside to play, or lined up to do our homework, and always the taut, hard silence ringing in our ears, my father’s dark, impenetrable presence upstairs, in his chair in the living room. To this day, Rachel hates silence, the silence of anger that permeated so much of our childhood. She’s rather instigate a screaming match with her partner than sit through that icy quiet.

Sometimes, on rare, beautiful occasions, the car would be gone, and Rachel and I would barrel down the hill and burst through the back door and into the kitchen, the words tumbling from out mouths: “When’s Daddy back at?” And Mum would say, “When will Daddy be back. You don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and we’d stand and jig with our satchels still on our shoulders, waiting to hear whether we should go to our rooms or could fling off our coats and flop down for tea and as many biscuits as we wanted (chocolate-covered, of course), and laugher and conversation till the long blue grumble of the Volvo rounding the corner woke us to the silence once more.

Retrospective 13: 1975 — Pineapple upside down cake and bread board spankings

“Don’t!” someone yelled. “Please don’t eat that.” I don’t remember which one of the four of us it was. It could have been any of us, all of us. We all knew the consequences of the thievery, and dreaded the moment of discovery. But Louise didn’t know. She didn’t care. She had grown up in a house that seemed to us enviably free and joyous. She and her sister (and the baby sister who was so much younger than us that we thought of her as a decoration or a cat or something occasionally troublesome but mostly simply not there) had a house filled with treats. Her mother was always making flapjacks and fudge, and at Lent the two older girls gave up candy and collected it in big baskets on top of the fridge, and then on Easter Day they gorged themselves sick and left the rest of the candy for the rest of the year. There were always Flakes and packets of Rollos available there on the fridge. And not only were they sitting out free in the house, but they were allowed whenever, wherever, however the girls wanted them. The delicacy of Jaffa Cake biscuits wasn’t kept for special deserts and doled out for good behavior. The girls could help themselves whenever they were hungry. And so when they visited us, they took the same liberties with our food as they did with their own, always to our trepidation — though it wasn’t always discovered. Till one day they didn’t just cut a slice off an already cut cake; they dived into a newly turned out pineapple upside down cake and cut a fresh slice, and divvied it up between them, and ate it, laughing at our terror-stricken faces. They just didn’t know.

And sure enough, Mum got back from shopping or wherever she had been, and the grilling began. By then the other girls were gone, unable to verify our account of the matter.

“But we didn’t eat any!” we insisted.

“There’s a slice gone. That was supposed to be for pudding.” (Irish for dessert.)

“It was the Hannety’s. They ate it.”

“You’re responsible for making sure your friends know the rules.” And she reached for the bread board, hanging on the wall to the left of the Aga in its neat little kitchen alcove.

“Mummy, please! We didn’t do it. Please don’t spank us.”

But our pleas went nowhere. Mum was determined to teach us. Down came our trousers and underwear. We bent over her knees. The breadboard whistled through the air and slapped hard on our bare bums, stinging hard, three times. Each precise, carefully placed spank was accompanied by her mantra: “This (spank) hurts me (spank) more than it hurts (spank) you.”

She didn’t know any better. She believed she was doing the right thing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she said, and she congratulated herself because she was so in control of all her actions. There were clear rules, clear consequences, always carefully carried out. She was always measured when she spanked us. Her voice was steady and not raised. Spanking us was simply what she had to do. As an adult, looking back, I realize how much better our experience was than hers, shaped by her drunken mother’s midnight belt beatings — totally out of control, raising vicious welts on my mother’s pale skin — and I realize how deep and loving her self-control really was.

We became a household of petty criminals. I remember creeping into the freezer room to sneak packets of chocolate-covered McVities Digestives into my bedroom and hide them in the clothes cupboard. Later on, I found my sisters had done the same thing. Did Mum ever wonder why she was always having to buy more biscuits? Or did she prefer to turn away from our pilfering, because to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge her greatest fear, that we were not perfect?

Last year, Rachel admitted that she had chosen not to have children because she couldn’t bear the thought of fighting with them over food. The way we fought, as we grew up, for control over the chocolate biscuits, over what we could avoid eating. I look at Zeke, at her haphazard eating habits, her undisciplined approach to meals, and I realize that unconsciously I chose the opposite path for her than my mother had for me. She could eat when she was hungry, and not when she wasn’t. She didn’t have to “clean her plate.” She didn’t have to force down food that made her sick to think of, as Leah had to eat cooked carrots despite the fact that more than once she vomited afterwards, out of disgust and despair. She still won’t eat them, even in carrot cake. If Mum could, she’d probably come down out of the wild wind spirit where she howls her fury at our insubordination, and she’d spank me for letting Zeke refuse breakfast, for letting her eat dessert even when she hasn’t finished her peas.

Odd, that my father, the man Mum blamed for all the rules, just laughs. “Let her have what she wants,” he says, when I tell Zeke to stay out of the fridge unless she has permission, and then he turns to her. “Do you want ice cream?” he says. “I bought ice cream.”

Continued here

Retrospective Resistance

I think, on occasion, about picking up my pen and delving back into my retrospective. But I cannot do so without a sense of disloyalty. For four years after my mother died, I visited my dad 160 or so miles away every couple of weeks. The past six months have been harder. Unusually snowy weather has frequently shut down the mountain pass between us, sometimes for an hour or two, and sometimes for several days, making the trip longer and more hazardous. Gas prices strain a budget already tightened by huge vet bills that took me months to pay off. Summer is a time with only a small paycheck. I need to be ready to get through it without digging into my savings — Zeke’s college money, gathered slowly but steadily since she was born. She can’t go to Harvard on it, but it will lighten the load if she stays local, and if she chooses a community college for her first two years. Spending a couple of hundred dollars a month driving across the pass to my dad’s and back (gas, plus more frequent oil changes etc. My 4-year-old car has almost 100,000 miles on it!) is too much a strain on the budget right now. I feel terrible when I find myself telling him I can’t make it, when I hear the resigned disappointment in his response. He’s always gracious: “Oh, of course. I wouldn’t risk it myself. There’s no point being stuck in traffic for five or six hours just for an overnight trip.” (The 3-hour drive over the pass easily turns into five or six hours in the winter with avalanche closures and miles of stop-and-go traffic.) But still, I know he’s disappointed. I know having company pleases him, even if it’s just the quiet of another presence in the house. I know he likes the help with fixing up my sister’s old house, and likes that Mum’s roses are still alive and even thriving, because I’ve been caring for them.

“I don’t suppose,” he says after a moment, “It would be practical for you to come across on the 24th. They’re doing the HMS Pinafore at the local theatre, but only for one night, a Thursday.” I feel a fleeting sorrow. Every year in Ireland we went to see a Gilbert and Sullivan show, that and the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety with Maureen Potter. I loved HMS Pinafore as a child, and for a split second I imagine jumping in my car after work, driving across the pass for the show, and driving home at midnight. But that’s madness.

I decline, and he sighs, and I tell him I’ll come over for three days the weekend of our spring holiday in two weeks. But that means I’ll have been to see him only once a month since winter ended. Only three times in the past two  and a half months. It doesn’t seem enough, especially since Ruth May is so busy with her baby and her rarely sees her unless he makes the effort to come up the hill and drive across town to the house she shares with her boyfriend.

But what does all that have to do with the retrospective?

I am confused about the past. I am confused about the truth of the past, about the slippery difficulty of it. I cannot reconcile who he is now, my own current desire to help him, with the memory of the man from my youth. If I am to recall what I remember of those years, he will not look good. He will look cold and even somewhat cruel. He will look distant and ominous. He did nothing wrong, nothing overt, nothing like the kinds of atrocities I hear of from students and friends. No, he was a war child, raised in a country in which keeping the upper lip taut remained paramount. He learned to survive, and to brick himself off from pain. And I wasn’t his daughter, so he never did know how to reach out to me, the interloper, the competitor for my beloved mother’s attentions.

Growing up, I didn’t know anything about the situation, about what he took on when he took on my pregnant mother and me. All I knew was that I called him Daddy and that he didn’t seem to like me. What I remember of him is what is shaped by the prism through which I gauged him. It is not what he is, or what he was, only a distorted memory that I fear sharing. I don’t wish to speak ill of him. We do what we can with what we have. He did his best, and ultimately his best was far better than what would have happened had my mother stayed with JD. But as a pubescent child, growing towards the sullen years of teenagerhood, I knew nothing at all about his past, about mine, about my mother’s. I knew only that he didn’t like me, his “own daughter,” and I didn’t know why. So forgive what I say, if I continue my retrospective. It is not about the man I know now, whose roof I patch and whose roses I prune. It is about what I thought he was, in my own lost way, before I had experience to see it all in context.

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Retrospective 12: 1974 — Beauty and despair

We settled into our lives in the new house, which was really old and cold and damp, which had rock walls two or three feet deep, and bedroom windows opening to the sound of the river. We had four acres, and next door, across our orchard and a ditch and a hay field, was the house my grandfather (Dad’s father) had grown up in. It wasn’t till years later that I understood the sense of history associated with the house next door, with the way Dad must have felt, walking into it to visit the neighbors, knowing that his father had spent his childhood there.

I would wrap my memories of our old house around me like a blanket. And now I wonder at the nostalgia that arises, when I think of it. I hated my childhood. I didn’t get on with Dad. Mum was sick for years back then, before she discovered that she was allergic to soy and anything associated with it, and we had to suffer her dark moods and her days in bed, the time she had small strokes and talked with a slur and ran into walls, as though she were drunk. By then she had given up hope on doctors, who told her her problems were all in her head, so when she stood up one day and canted sideways, then thrust out her arm and righted herself, but couldn’t quite dredge up words and shape them as she had always done, she didn’t go running to the hospital. She stayed home, and fought back alone. We children were witnesses, but children don’t know what they see — or at least I didn’t. We went to school in the morning, and came home in the evening. She made us our breakfasts, always the same thing: a glass of orange juice; two slices of brown soda bread, toasted on the Aga and spread with marmalade but no butter; a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup; a mug of Lyons tea with milk and no sugar. We carried the lunches she had made, sandwiches on brown bread, and some kind of fruit, and sometimes a yoghurt or a homemade flapjack. When we got home, the kettle was always on, and she’d make tea for us, which we drank with two McVities Digestives (chocolate covered on a good day), and then we’d do homework or go outside and play, or whatever seemed right, till supper at 8:00 or so.

She did our laundry, and hung it outside to dry under the corrugated roof that jutted out in front of the garage. My ponies and later my thoroughbred mare, who had to pass by the garage to get to the stables, never had a problem with flapping laundry. They were too used to walking through lines of sheets and towels and jeans, of feeling the clothes run across their backs, and being blinded for a minute if they had to thrust through a particularly big sheet. Flapping things of any sort never phased them.

We lived routine-driven and yet gloriously free lives, and I remember the bliss of playing outside on spring and summer and fall evenings, inventing games, making “houses” out of grass clippings on the expansive lawns. I remember paddling in the river, and swimming in the deeper pools upstream, crossing to the big hill opposite and wandering around in the acres of woods there, finding pools filled with frogs that we brought home. We liked to collect their eggs, too, floating in that translucent jelly, and we filled Ruth May’s aquarium and watched them hatch and transform from tadpoles to frogs before freeing them outside again.

Yet all these blissful memories compete with the memories of my mother in bed, or covered in bruises not because Dad beat her, but because her health was so poor that any touch raised dark blotches on her pale skin. When I reach back into the past, I feel schizophrenic, because I remember days of joy and sunshine and freedom, and I remember the darkness too. Neither memory is right; neither wrong. They simply mark the tenuous beauty and despair of childhood.