Category Archives: Retrospective

Retrospective revisited continued

Continued from here:

Bastards.

“I’m illegitimate and I’m proud of it,” said Fran in history class one day, an unimaginably brave move in Ireland in the late 70’s. I worshipped her from then on, because she took knowledge that had destroyed my sister in some way, and made it her talisman. Nobody could put her down. She simply wouldn’t accept it.

Leah, on the other hand, went crazy. It was Rachel’s and my fault. We were flush with the secrets Aunt Maureen had given us. Rachel was Dad’s unacknowledged daughter, and she, and Leah, and Ruth May, were all bastards because Mum and Dad weren’t married. If anyone found out, we’d be doomed socially. We’d be looked down upon. We’d be despaired of.

I wasn’t sure what I was. Mum had been married to J.D. when I was born, but no one knew of his existence. As far as my friends knew, I was Dad’s daughter as surely as the others were, and so if they were bastards, I was one too. He’d never adopted me, but Mum had changed all our names by court order to his last name, so I belonged to him in that sense, sharing his name if not his blood.

Maureen, gossip though she was, had the sense not to tell the two youngest ones about the mystery of Rachel’s birth and our illegitimate status. Rachel and I, though, weren’t that sensible. Maureen’s secrets were heady things to us. Rachel, who long ago had learned to hide any sensitivity, didn’t cry that Dad didn’t acknowledge her. Perhaps she was simply happy that he liked her better than he did me. Perhaps his receptivity to her was enough. Nor did she seem stricken by the news that our parents weren’t married. I think the shock of learning that there had been another man in Mum’s life before Dad came along had inured us to other shocks. Anything might happen in our family. We might peel back the facade to find murder, unannounced royalty, secret gardens, rich benefactors. The fantasies I wove were all positive ones: I was the little princess, who would be discovered to belong to another, far better family one day, and the lonely, marginalized world of my childhood would be revealed as simply a necessary step on the path to greatness.

But Leah was different. Leah liked her life. Leah was happy. She was the beloved one, adored by Dad. Every morning Mum wove her thick dark hair into two long plaits. She was clever and sweet, beloved of teachers and parents, surrounded by friends, strikingly beautiful. Until Rachel and I destroyed her.

“Guess what?” we said one day, gathered in Rachel’s room, all three on her bed.

“What?”

“Maureen said Mum and Dad aren’t married. We’re bastards. Can you believe it?”

There was a moment where everything was fine, that moment when the words we’d spoken were just words, like “Have a nice day,” or “Isn’t it remarkably sunny outside?” And then Leah realized what we’d said.

Why did it hurt her so much? Why did it change her so much? It had meant so little to Rachel and me, just another secret. But Leah told me recently she’d always known Dad wasn’t my father, or Rachel’s. She wasn’t aware of any secrets at the time we told her Mum and Dad weren’t married. Life was simple, for her, until that moment.

Her face changed. She cried out. She struck Rachel, and bit her, and screamed. We hurried to fix the damage.

“We was slagging. Only slagging, Leah. It’s not true. Really it’s not.”

It was too late. Something was lost in her. She doesn’t remember it, though. When we asked her about it years later, she swore we never told her anything — that she’d always known they weren’t married. “What are you talking about?” she said. “I never got upset. I always knew.”

Still, only days later, after a school skiing trip to Bulgaria, she returned and went into the local town, and came home after two hours with blue, spiked hair. Her long braids were forever gone. She shed her conservative clothes for dog collars and chains, for fishneck stockings and black lipstick and nails. She shed her kindness to old women for nights on the town, punk concerts, drunken binges.

What had we done? I suppose it haunts Rachel still, as it does me. It was the beginning of Leah’s uniquivocal condemnation of our mother, a condemnation that lasted till the days leading up to Mum’s death years later.

Maybe something else would have triggered her transformation. Maybe.

In the end, we are all OK, so what need is there to worry?

Still. I wish I could take it back.

Protected: Retrospective 19: 1981 — Not lying to get attention

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Retrospective 18: 1980 — Adah Did It

“Adah did it!”

I stood frozen in shock. I can recall the moment perfectly, the tableau in the kitchen, my mother by the Aga, holding the broken kettle, my father in the doorway, my sister sitting at the table. And I stood by the sink, far from the stove. Far from the kettle.

My father had just walked in. “What happened to the kettle?” he asked, when he saw my mother holding the handle in one hand and the dented body in the other. And my mother said, “Adah did it.”

Leah looked up in surprise. “Mummy,” she said. “Adah wasn’t anywhere near the kettle.”

My mother had turned, not paying attention, and knocked the kettle off the stove. It had hit the hard tile floor and the handle had split off. My mother had bent and picked it up. She was examining it when my father entered and asked his question.

“Adah did it.” I was used to those words. The dynamic in my family had been set for years now. Rachel was the responsible one, in a way. She was more developed than me, and beautiful in a taunting, sexy kind of way even though she was barely in her teens. She was also directive and strong. She and Leah, only a year apart, were the closest. When we fought, she and Leah always sided together, usually against little Ruth May who was the constant butt of Leah’s disdain. I almost always stood up for Ruth May, having a thing for underdogs, but invariably Leah’s and Rachel’s concentrated venom would wear Ruth May and me down. Then Ruth May, who had a strong instinct for self-preservation, would switch sides abruptly to the winning team, and it would be the three of them against me. When Mum or Dad came to investigate, the chorus would begin: “It’s Adah’s fault.” “Adah did it.” “Don’t look at us. It was Adah.”

And then I’d storm out to my pony, usually crying, which earned me the name “Crybaby” in my family. Mum called me melodramatic and over-reactive. I grew more and more morose and sullen, withdrawing into myself and turning more and more to my pony, who didn’t judge or blame me.

Finally, that day with the kettle, even Mum blamed me for something that wasn’t my fault. For a long moment I stood, unsure of how to react. And then I just walked out, past Dad and Leah, and went to my room. Even now something freezes in me when I think of that day.

It is a small thing, really, compared to what others endure. I was not beaten. Dad hit me once, and grabbed me roughly enough to leave a bruise on my arm another time. The time he hit me he threw me into the wall, and somehow I ended up with a black eye. It was actually an advantage at school, but I am talking ahead of myself. My point is that I didn’t endure physical violence time after time, as others do. I was not s*xually abused. I had a good life, with ponies and later a horse, with four meals a day laid on, and my own bedroom. With four acres on a lovely little river, and apple trees and gooseberry bushes and bushels of fresh fruit and vegetables in the summer, and canned and frozen ones in the winter, all from our garden. We had donkeys and chicken and geese and goats, dogs and cats, guinea pigs and my ponies. We had fresh honey and golden dripping honeycomb from our own bee hives. When Dad wasn’t home, Mum would sit with us in the kitchen and we’d drink tea and eat biscuits and talk with her best friend and her best friend’s kids, a pack of us, laughing for hours. We had wonderful lavish sit-down Sunday dinners with my grandparents and my aunt and my two cousins, and we played hide-n-go-seek in the garden at dusk, and the midges chased us, and the smell of fresh-mowed grass followed us to sleep at night.

Beautiful, all of it. Just — here and there — the odd dark moment. And that day was one of them.

Mum came after me. I don’t know what she said. “Adah broke it,” she said to Dad as she walked out of the kitchen. Why was she so afraid of him, that she had to blame me for what she had done? That she had to insist, despite Leah’s assertion of the truth, that I had broken the kettle? I heard her, and something boiled in me. I turned, there in the long hallway, at the door to my room.

“Why is everything always my fault?” I yelled. Is that is? Is that what I said? I was blind with rage, blind with the injustice of it all, and strengthened because Leah — at least — had spoken the truth. Mum screamed back. We were like that, short-fused and fiery in our rage — all of it useless and wearing.

I don’t remember resolution. I want to say she apologized, that we hugged. But we never hugged. Years later, she did explain it — that her anger at me always calmed Dad down in some way, pleased him. She could change his moods by punishing me. But I don’t think she thought it through back then. I don’t think she could. She just acted out of her own fear — that Dad would leave her, that he would disapprove of her, and grow ice-cold for weeks, and fill the house with silence. Over the years, the pattern was established. Leah was brutal to Ruth May. Rachel ordered people around. Ruth May played the clown, and when that didn’t work, she turned on me. And I was the sullen, angry scapegoat who carried the sins of the family.

“Adah did it.”

Why not? If it made it better for everyone else — why not?

Explaining my mother

I’m at my dad’s house. Leah is visiting from across the waters and we are preparing to go on a sightseeing tour.

And suddenly I’m stopped. Can’t write. There’s so much I want to say, and all of it clogs together in my head, a cacophony of words demanding their moment to be heard, to shape themselves into images, to present themselves in the form of recollections and reflections.

What I want to say is that my mother was extraordinary. (Why did I write “is” at first?) Because I’m unfolding the retrospective slowly, and trying to describe what happened without too much explanation or unpacking or projecting forward into the “now,” it might seem that she was a terrible mother in some ways, that she made unforgivable mistakes. But she was not. She was very sick at the time, with an illness nobody could figure out. She was living the dark burden of her own traumatic childhood, trying to overcome it alone, without the benefit of counselors to help her recast her past in a new and more illuminating light. As a child I knew none of this, or at least, I knew she was sometimes sick in bed, but I didn’t know how deeply her illness weakened her emotionally, and I knew nothing about her past.

What amazes me about her is that she overcame all of it, all the horror of her own upbringing, her father’s suicide when she was five, her mother’s raging alcoholism, the dysfunctional society in which her family stood as some kind of beacon of respectability. She changed, altogether. Those who knew her in the last 20 years of her life knew her as someone fully kind and loving, generous to all, always looking for the best in people. There was a lag in how she applied her love to her children, I realize. It started on the outer edges of the pond of her life and rippled back towards the center, where we were grouped. She could not, in the early years, be as unstintingly generous with her compassion towards us as she was towards others. But she did love us. She did everything out of what she believed was the best for us. And in truth, there were good days. There were days when she showed up at school, and the school secretary came to fetch us from class, and we would go to the beach with another family to take advantage of the rare sun. There were days when Dad was home late, and we would sit in the kitchen with her friend and her friend’s kids, and eat biscuits (cookies), and talk and laugh. We went to the pantomime and the opera. We got swimming lessons in Dublin, and stopped off at the campus bakery for fresh-baked meltingly soft rolls on the way home. We went to Bewley’s on the half day at the end of every term for raisin buns and fudge. We marched in Dublin to try to save Wood Quay, the site of a Viking excavation, and she helped us make a placard for our dog, and afterwards we ate in the newly opened McDonald’s, Ireland’s first, with the dog curled under our seat. I tasted my first milkshake then, and laughed when the boy who was mopping the floor pretended to mop up the dog.

We had fun. There was joy. I did laugh. I know I did. It’s just that the dark moments intervened at times, and they shaped me as much as the fun times.

So I have to say, before I continue my retrospective, that my mother was an extraordinary, beautiful, kind woman, who saved herself somehow from her own traumatic past, and in doing so gave us — her four girls — the tools to help us heal ourselves. Two of my sisters have had extensive counseling, one on the East coast and one in Ireland. One should probably consider it. I have visited a counselor now and again, not often, and done what I can through reading and walking meditation and prayer — my mother’s path. It has not always been easy. It will not ever be easy. But it is possible, and every time I breathe deep and feel joy, I think of my mother, who taught me how.

Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

Retrospective 14: 1976 — Half Wit

Continued from here:

Half wit.

I told you she was stupid.

That girl’s crazy.

These days I find myself wondering if he really said those things about me. I can’t imagine it. I don’t know why those memories are so strong. They infuse my past, and sometimes I hear them again, echoing down the years, when I’ve made a mistake, when I haven’t been quick enough in picking up the joke at the party, when I’ve forgotten something at work. I push them aside, tell myself I’m imagining them, but that’s worse than listening and acknowledging them. It makes a lie out of my past.

I don’t remember. I don’t know why I hear them. He doesn’t say those things any more. The closest he’s come is the inevitable dig at English majors: “The soft option. Anyone can do it.” Or the way he ignores me when I ask a question sometimes. He’s hard of hearing; it’s easy to imagine that he simply didn’t hear me, until my sister asks him something quietly, and he answers.

In the end, whether he used those exact words or not, I know that in some ways he treated me differently. My friends saw.

“He’s your own flesh and blood,” my friend Sara said one day. “How can he treat you that way?”

But that was later, after I knew. When I was 10 and 11, I didn’t know anything at all other than that he was my father and the father of the four of us. We had come from Switzerland to Ireland. We lived in the country, in a big house on four acres, a long way from school. We rarely had friends over, but when we did, they always commented on how he treated me. “Why is your father so mean to you?” they asked. I didn’t know what they meant. It was the way he had always been towards me. “Why doesn’t your father like you?” they asked. I didn’t know how to answer. I was inarticulate in those days. I couldn’t speak right. I was teased because I lisped and stuttered and couldn’t say my “R’s” right. That year I ended up in the Irish equivalent of speech therapy — elocution class.

Is that why he thought I was stupid? Because I couldn’t speak right? I had to memorize long poems and speak them clearly. The elocution teacher coached me through them. She was also the drama teacher, and she loved to gossip with her students. I remember sitting in the small, gray-carpeted drama room upstairs in the art building. We used lighters to shrink crisp (potato chip) bags. The heat from the lighter flame did something to the plastic. We would end up with tiny bags, an inch or so square, the colors heightened, the picture and the brand name, Tayto, tiny replicas of what they had been. She let us bitch about the head mistress, and she asked us questions about boys (strange, foreign creatures that they were to us, in our all-girls’ school). But that was later. When I first knew her, I took lessons alone, and recited poetry that I have willfully forgotten, and learned to speak in a way that could be understood.

Still, he thought I was stupid. And crazy too. A half wit. Did he say it? Perhaps I am crazy to think he did. Perhaps he was right and I am deficient in some way. Perhaps I made it up. But a memory stirs. I wrote about this once, a long time ago, triggered by something he wrote to me. I go looking on my computer. I find it, an essay called “Recreating Reality.” Maybe I will post it some day. I was 29, and I wrote it 14 years ago.

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.