Any marriage is doomed to fail, if you do not bring the best of yourself to home each night
The argument my parents had over my name was a significant harbinger of worse things to come.
One of my earliest childhood memories was a loud shouting match between my parents; after which my father left our apartment, and then ran upstairs to hide under his mother’s skirt. He slammed the door so hard that a piece of the plastered kitchen ceiling fell out. I was too young to know the particulars of the contest, but my terrorized confusion led to a small epiphany about what ‘Chicken Little’ had feared the most.
Things did not change much over the next fifty years, as there were only rare incidents when bickering was not the mainstay of my parent’s personal interactions. There was never physical abuse toward each other or very rarely to their children; but they were naively unaware that the aftermath of this emotional abuse could be just as devastating as a real physical beating. Their relationship was influenced by differences in culture, personality and the proximity of my father’s family, as opposed to the great distance to home and family for my mother. Then tack on a few children and suddenly these differences magnify a venue for both direct as well as indirect ventilation of the problems.
However, I do not wish to portray my mother as purely being the victim. Although the separation from home combined with the influence of my father’s lukewarm, passive aggressive and uncompassionate family were undoubtedly important factors in her unhappiness, there were independent elements of her personality that set the substrate for a state of perpetual dismay and dissatisfaction. Like a baby duck, she must have been so imprintedly bonded to her sisters that it probably had a lasting influence on her inability to let other people into her life or to let them get too close. I have a suspicion that while growing up, the four girls were an inseparable and relatively insular sorority that took great delight in finding faults or imperfections in any one who was not one of them. Perhaps the relative isolation of farm life played a role, but there was still a certain element of xenophobia or paranoia lurking under the surface, making me doubt that no one else could ever qualify to be in their little club. They all developed a mutually reinforced superiority complex. Or perhaps it was just pernicious insecurity and intolerance.
After my mother died my father confessed to me that she also had irrational paranoid jealously about everyone and everything; making it impossible to know if the overall behavioral issues were due to genetics or to environment. In 1944, when he was stationed overseas in Okinawa, she wrote letters accusing him of having had a sexual liaison with a mutual friend back home; which made pleasant reading for a guy stuck on a Pacific island littered with the bloated bodies of a few thousand unburied U.S. and Japanese soldiers. A veritable snail-mail nightmare.
Over a lifetime I witnessed most of my parent”s friends fall by the wayside, as the slightest perceived insult, fault or flaw by any of these individuals caused them to be permanently crossed off my mother’s social register. Her ingrained character traits had eventually caused her to become the queen of cognitive bigotry, while equally detrimental; as she carried her personal grudges around for a lifetime they became an overweight suitcase of perpetual unforgiving.
My father’s method of dealing with the hostile home environment was simply solved by being absent. He worked every day except for half-days on Thursdays and Saturdays, but then had engagements every night of the week including Bowling Leagues, or meetings of the Board of Education, Knight of Columbus, Lions Club, Sons of Italy, or any other distraction, which would facilitate a sort of sanctioned absence. As such he was an excellently competent dentist, a model citizen, and was consistently praised by his colleagues at both the professional as well as the civic level. He was a paragon of virtue.
For example, at Valhalla Hospital, he volunteered his services on Thursday afternoons at the County Prison. As a consequence there may yet be a group of ex-convicts running around today with mercury amalgam fillings that will never fall out. He did that work for decades until quitting one-day for good after a convict severely bit his hand in a physical demonstration of feelings about dental discomfort. This occupational and environmental hazard finally was not worth the altruistic effort. He said:
- I do the work for free, and I get rewarded with a bite. From now on I don’t care if all their teeth just rot in their heads. I’m done.
When he was out of the house his personality was fetching, as he made friends where ever he went, but always brought his alter ego unfriendly self home at night. Later in life when people told me how wonderful he was, I would say:
- Not necessarily. After all he wasn’t your father and you didn’t have to live with him.
- Oh. Yeah. Right. But he’s still just as sweet and friendly as he could be. Sometimes it’s just hard to be a dad, you know.
- Yeah? But you must be referring to a real dad, right?
On Saturday and then filling out Thursday afternoons he could be found on the golf course playing with my uncle Jimmy. But then in creating agendas that made Sundays as good as any punishment meted out by the Spanish Inquisition, this day was devoutly devoted to Church, yard work, weeding, housework, exterior house painting and then eventually to visiting his mother’s grave or to tightening up my braces. That way, my dental work would not interfere with cash generating business hours.
In an effort to bond with her husband and to assume some common interest in one of his activities, my mother actually attempted to play golf. But her golf career was cut short when around age thirty she suffered a protracted recovery after a radical mastectomy, followed by a radical hysterectomy and compounded again by experimental chemotherapy. The stress, nature and consequences of this illness did nothing to smooth matters over between my parents, because although fortunately, she became a long-term survivor of breast cancer, my mother never got over the emotional devastation of a total beast amputation, lymph node dissection and pelvic evisceration. I suspect it may have also ended their sex life.
During my father’s absence, my mother’s frustration inspired her to rally her children around her point of view, resulting in the seriously grievous error of turning my affections and those of my brother and sister against her own husband. She perpetually complained about his behavior or arbitrarily just about anything else he ever said or did. She also did the same thing directly to his face, which precipitated rounds of endless bickering and thus more paternal absence. It became a positive feedback loop of negativity. Thus, because he was never home enough to defend himself, her brain washing held significant influence over me and my siblings, undermining our respect for him as she succeeded in making us believe that he was our enemy as well as her own.
When my mother became mentally disabled, I told my father about this particular habit of hers. He seemed shocked, but I was equally shocked to know that he had been completely oblivious to what had gone on behind his back. However since he was not paying close attention in the first place, this naivety about being an absent father should not have come to me as a total surprise.
He said we should have heart to heart talks more often, with the best response I could muster was pointing out that he was closing in on 90 years old. It was way too much, far too little, and many, many years too late.
Matters were not made better by the fact that my father expected a sort of mandatory, old world Italian, filial style love from his children simply because he happened to be the sperm donor. He wanted his children to run to him with open arms when he came home from work excitedly yelling: “Pappa, Pappa.”It was a fantasy illusion he carried for his entire life, which subsequently led to a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations and disappointments. Because he never understood that respect had to be earned, or that those romantic Hollywood movie scenes do not too often ever reflect real life scenarios, he never did get this type of respect from us. Although he was a man of mostly “good intentions”, they were unfortunately expressed less in his home and more in his social milieu, which then made them part of the pavement in the notorious roadway that winds itself straight to Hell. Over a lifetime we got sick and tired of him coming home to tell us he had “gotten kind of friendly” with some one or another perfectly absract stranger; when this charity was never being expressed domestically.
Spending little or no time with our activities or extra-curricular life, he would often become impatient when taking the extremely rare opportunity to teach us anything about sports involving balls or sticks. Having been a very good multi-sport athlete in High School and College, he had a difficult time teaching those skills and probably should have sent us for lessons instead. If we were clumsy enough not to get it right the first time, he would quickly morph into an ogre; causing the lessons to typically end abruptly; followed by his shallow inability to understand why we didn’t want to continue. He pushed us very hard to learn golf but the instruction could be as qualitative as his lifetime mantra about it:
- You know, the golf swing is not really what you think it is.
I guess that must mean that the golf swing is really what you think it isn’t, but that left a lot to the imagination as far as actually being able to execute what it was really supposed to be. In fact I am glad I did not learn his swing because its terrible intrinsic flaws leaves him endlessly frustrated by his lifetime inconsistency.
But he was too stubborn to ever take a lesson himself and to this day seems hell bent on practicing the “what it is not” part but not the “what it is” part of the swing. Over and over and over again, it’s the same old bad swing; practicing the same old routine until it becomes embedded in muscle memory as a nasty bad habit that will only ensure the scoring of numerous bogeys, very few pars and an inexplicable and seemingly out of the blue “others.”
It was almost an iconic yet predictable image to come down his driveway at dusk watching him tirelessly banging wiffle-balls against the seasonally absent next-door neighbor’s summer house, but hypocritically never banging them against his own. After all:
- If I did that, it might damage my shingles.
Then to make matters even worse, my father attempted to take us out on the golf course one day after only one or two backyard lessons. That was a fatal error, not only for the safety of the turf, but also more importantly for the safety of any other player within the vicinity of our hacking hooks and banana slices. I had a miserable time, hated every second of it as did any of the foursomes backed up behind us. After that it took me years to forget that whenever I walked outside the combined smell of grass, fertilizer and lawn poisons did not necessarily mean I was going to automatically have a bad day. This was also when I became exposed to the counterproductive negative thinking of the amateur athlete; because every time we came to a hole with a fronting water hazard my father would quip before my swing:
- Now don’t let the water intimidate you.
This of course would absolutely guarantee dumping the tee shot into the pond and would be equivalent to Mickey Mantle standing at home plate thinking:
- Golly gee. I only have one more chance now, so I hope I don’t strike out again. Maybe I won’t even swing at the ball, then.
A lot of this “quality time” was also spent comparing me and my brother’s short comings to the near perfect attitudes, activities, athletic abilities, and house-chore work ethic of my ass kissing cousin “Little Jimmy.” Most things other than my father’s own social or golf related activities or doing home maintenance, he considered to be a waste of time and so anything I eventually came to love such as fishing, boating, water-skiing or sailing were either self taught or taught to me by someone else’s father.
In their defense, my parents were both individuals of great integrity, also of great moral values and ethics, which they successfully imparted to their children. In addition, my siblings and I did not have to pay for any of our higher education, which totaled eight years for each of us; something that for them must have been a serious financial burden. They fanatically believed in education and were fabulous as tangible providers. Another great thing that my father did for us was to pursue his own boyhood dream of having a water front house by the water and fulfilled it in the late 1940s when he bought a small plot of water front property in Southampton, on Long Island in New York. He then spent the next fifteen years building a house on the lot literally by hand, so as children we had the unusual privilege and advantage of spending all our summers at the beach in a little cottage that was a veritable heaven on earth.
The problem with my parents was the constant lack of emotional support both for each other as well as for their children; which stemmed from the fact that they probably never should have been together in the first place. They never displayed interpersonal affection and I do not believe I ever saw them kiss. If they ever had, this affection came to an abrupt stop early enough in my life not to be very memorable. They never said, “I love you” to each other or to their children. As such, the way they eventually came to deal with both each other, as well as with us, was not with emotional expressions, but rather with expressions of straightforward approval or of disapproval.
- Good grades, son. Bad hairstyle.
There was only one other incident from my childhood that I unsuccessfully tried to suppress. My mother was never consistently cruel or ever physically abusive. She was simply and ice-cold stoic Protestant who probably thought she was doing me and my siblings a favor by teaching us certain survival lessons in how to best navigate a potentially cruel or dangerous world. It took me years to realize that her one and only so-called “lesson in trust” probably stemmed form the fact that when she was a young teen-ager, a much older Uncle had once seduced her to go on a car ride ostensibly “for ice cream.” He got the ice cream, then tried; or even may have succeeded in a sexual assault. She suppressed the incident herself, only alluding to it twice in her entire life, but never divulging entirely the precise details of what had actually happened.
Then one day when she was smoking a cigarette she must have had her own personal nicotine induced flashback as she called me over to the sofa where she was sitting. She said:
- Come here. I want to show you something.
Of course I did what I was expected to do and came over by the sofa.
- No get closer. I want you to look into my eyes.
I didn’t think twice about it and thought that perhaps this was going to be a rare opportunity to enjoy an unusual display of affection, so I inched closer thinking perhaps I might be getting a rare hug or a kiss. But the moment turned ugly when she burned me on the forearm with her cigarette. Then I heard her say as I recoiled that:
- You should always think twice about trusting people unless you can tell for sure they are not offering false promises.
That was either her pathetic way of going about protecting her “favorite” child or perhaps only taking out personal frustrations during an intensely bad overdosed hormonal relacement surge. I never told my father or anyone else about it until the night I finally spilled the story to my second wife after she accused me of having deep seeded “Trust issues.”
At the original point in time, telling anyone about such parental abuse would have been the same as saying a priest had buggered my ass. No one would ever have believed it and secondarily, no one would have done anything about it. These were taboo subjects hidden in family closets or behind the doors of the Sacristy.
A friend’s wife, Chris, told me years before my wife had alluded to it that she thought I might have suffered from a lack of nurturing in childhood. At the time she said it, I didn’t really grasp what she meant, and somewhat resented the unsolicited opinion about my personality. Now I get it.
Dad’s golf swing. What it isn’t
The bridge at midnight trembles.
The country doctor rambles.
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection,
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows cold and rainy,
My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.
(Love Minus Zero/No Limit: Bob Dylan)