THE RELATIONSHIP A PERSON HOLDS with their family is complex and often impenetrable. Bonded through flesh, DNA and sometimes marriage, when you combine all external factors, it becomes virtually impossible to act like civil human beings.
With family, your shortcomings, virtues and hidden demons are regularly served up like second helpings of potatoes during dinner. And without notice, yelling and complaining become the one accepted form of communication. I can hear my mother’s smoker lungs yelling at me now,
“Make sure you know the family you’re marrying into. Whatever you think love is, it isn’t. It is all one big, ugly lie.”
I offer you the same unsolicited advice. You can fall into a serious, sexy relationship with the Hugh Grant of Montgomery, Alabama, then find yourself spending the holidays with Faye Dunnaway in “Mommie Dearest”,
“NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!!!!!”
Scientists should study the dysfunctional family. It could save all of us millions of dollars in therapy and antidepressants. Maybe the scientific community has studied this epidemic of terrible lives but they just haven’t made their way to my rusty gate.
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that half the shit that makes you who you are is a direct result of what your mother said and did to you during the first and last five years in her house. My mother, who claims that I am a younger version of her, has been committing suicide for the last thirty years of her life. It’s a very pitiful death that begins in her mouth, travels down her throat and lands in her liver. Alcoholism--mother’s closest friend, the cause of her rage and a battle that she’ll never win. My father never speaks of her addiction, or the toll it’s taken on their marriage.
I know I wasn’t the one who drove her to the bars, nor did I cause the minor little incident leading to her weekend stay in Milledgeville’s Central Hospital. I knew that the truth would come out eventually. I knew that one day I would be able to take advantage of my folks, and they would finally have to grow up and be adults. Unfortunately this day will probably come at a time that’s too late to reap the emotional rewards.
I started out life as a Galapagos turtle. Hard shelled on the outside, slimy skin on the inside. I have a wide girth and a small neck that is hidden within the folds of skin that eventually turn into my barrel shaped chest. Ugliness lurked inside of me, and the true person could be found deep within the outer shell. From the moment I popped out into the world, I had no chance of surviving with any sense of normalcy. My parents even endowed me with a Turtles name, Myrtle. I wasn’t named after a song, a do-gooder relative or prominent woman in history, instead, after Myrtle the Turtle, a “beloved” children’s book about a Galapagos turtle that is small, cute and shy. And in the end, Myrtle the Turtle has to learn that coming out of her shell is not going to be the end to her petty little world.
Growing up, I endured a number of assaults to my emotional health. My father played ignorant, telling me that my mother needed her “rest”. This was his answer to everything. As a small child, I would ask him why she couldn’t sing me a song, why God gave boy’s penis’s, why she couldn’t rock me to sleep or why he couldn’t keep down a job and he would answer the same way every time:
“Your mother needs her rest, and so do you.” With that comment, I would assume that I needed a drink too. I had to convince my parents that I loved them despite their flaws. Pretending all along that the crap they were putting me through did not affect me. Invisibility would be my super power.
School was a not a huge priority. My father honestly believed that a woman’s place was in the home. I know his mindset hurt my mother. Homemaking was the least of her worries, instead she spent her time at the hospital. As an ER nurse by day, sober and organized in even the most traumatic situations, there was nothing that could go physically wrong with the human body that she could not handle. She surprised us all with her abilities. But, by the time her shift was over, she had all but discombobulated emotionally and physically.
Tearing her Dr. Scholl’s granny shoes off at the door, she would ignore my father as he greeted her and then meander her way from the foyer to the living room, kiss me on the cheek, and in a soft whisper tell me I was the only reason she stayed. As a twelve year old, I didn’t know what that meant nor did I know that the use of this phrase would send me into years of therapy.
My mother usually chose the dinner hour to express her thoughts on a hard days work. Dinner was served on wooden trays while we all sat on the couch, TV blaring in the background. Foil tray instant meals with plenty of salt and gravy were her specialty. If my mother did cook, it was spam loaf with powdered mashed potatoes. I imagine, now that I look back on those days, that it must be quite difficult to cook while you’re drunk, so just the fact that she mastered the skill of placing the TV dinners in the oven without burning herself or the house, was good enough for me.
The discussions my parents had over the dinner hour were, more often than not, tainted but colorful views on our small town and the perilous lives trapped within. With each highball of Jack Daniels she poured, my mother would continue her series of the most well pronounced slurs this side of the Mississippi. She was the only person I knew that could narrate rated R stories with the enthusiasm of a Disney character.
Speaking to my father and I, as we sat dumfounded and quiet, she would begin,
“Miles, Myrtle. You’ll never guess what I did today!” Pouring herself another highball she continued, allowing the liquor to loosen her tongue. “Mr. Jones, yeah that guy down the street, coded on the table and while he was sufferin’ arrest, he shit himself. Isn’t that great, you should’ve been there!” Her giggles were infectious. Her smile--contagious. My father would excuse himself to regain his long gone composure and then rejoin us. I would simply stare. It wasn’t that I was surprised by her story, just in utter mortification that she had just said the word shit in front of me. In the south, women did not talk this way. And my friends would wonder why they could never come over to my house for a sleep over....
“But wait! It gets better!” She interrupted her own thoughts with sentences that lathered my pock marked face, “I screamed at the tech to clean ‘em up, but ya’ll know they never listen to me. They’d like to pretend they’re the ones who paid for years of college to clean up crap, nope…my role. I’m the registered shit patrol. They’ve got no right to undermine me. Conspiracy, I tell ya!” My mother’s lips formed into a pouty red mess as if she was personally being insulted by the living room furniture. Continuing at the expense of my emotional health, she continued to let the drama run rampant through the room, “Who do I need to sleep with around here, I tell em…who? Me, charge nurse--them, peeeeoooonnnss. My job’s hard ‘nuff without having to deal with their antics.” Her version of the story was always better than the truth. I egged her on,
“Mama, what happened next?” My father stared me down. He didn’t like the provocation of his drunken wife.
“Oh honey, you just wait. Gets better.” She poured herself another glass and tinkled the ice cubes around with her pinky finger before taking a swig, “Then the man came back to life. We’d just stopped CPR as a wild-eyed old bag stormed in. Security guards surrounded her and alls we could do is stand around the body, silent like. She came in screaming, ‘Stop!’ and then the woman cast off obscenities that even I’d never heard.”
My mother was clearly inexorable. With another swig, she cleared her throat, walked over to me and perched her legs over mine. I was willing to sit like this if it meant I could hear the rest this tale before bedtime. I smiled and nodded for her to continue.
“We were just dumb, Myrtle, just plain dumb. Dr. Mike, you know the good looking one…He lost all train of thought and couldn’t continue with any kind of professionalism. We’d come to the conclusion that this was the old battle ax herself, Mrs. Jones. The Southern Ladies Society hadn’t given her the reputation of being a hard sass for nothing. And this was no kinda legend, it’s the plain truth, I tell ya. That wild look in hers eyes, I won’t forget it for the rest of my life! She screamed at us ‘til her lips were blazing blue! ‘I can’t believe you guys’re putting so much effort into this old bastard! I just caught him cheating with Mrs. Sipolata from next door and was thrilled to hear his ticker wasn’t working.’ She breathed heavily, panting. We thought she might even go into an Asthma attack, but then she started back up, ‘I even told that pansy-ass secretary from dispatch to stop your efforts. Couldn’t listen could you? Any bastard that rips my heart out after 30 years of cleaning his toilets, making him chicken pot pies for breakfast, and lying to his boss about his gambling habits, deserves to have his organs shredded. You should chop off his thing while the old arse is still under the effects of that morphine.’”
Unbelievably my mother wasn’t done, she continued:
“After she said her piece, we thought it was finally over. But this woman was loony. She ran over to the doc, managing to scrape by Big Al and rip one of the scalpels out of Doc’s hand. Lunging toward the body on the gurney, it took three of the guards, including big Al, to stop her from actually cuttin’ it off.”
I couldn’t help myself. “How’d that go? She make it all in one clean cut?” This was the warped highlight of my day.
“Yep, made it all the way down. I admire folks who can express themselves artistically. But I didn’t stick around to see if he made it outta surgery, this happened right at shift change and I’s cravin’ my Jack. I scrubbed my mind and hands clean of him and gave report.”
My mother’s slurs drew out long and hard as the alcohol played its wicked game on her imagination. My duitful father ordered her into to bed before she deranged me further. As she struggled to get up from the couch, I called out to her, “Mr. John’s marital problems aren’t my business and they shouldn’t be yours. Just save his life and get on with it. Can’t we talk ‘bout something normal? Boys, our weight, shopping, land mines in foreign countries? Good night mommy...”
“Good night, don’t forget…you’re my favorite.”
My father sighed as he slopped her limp body into their bed and then hollered at me to turn the TV off and go to bed. I said good night to him as the house grew silent again. Walking up the stairs, I could see the walls staring at me as the voices inside stalked the rest of my sanity. In our family, as most others I knew, you didn’t speak of the dinner conversations, the silences left in the air afterwards were best left as exactly that—silence.
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by James Grant
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