fam

 

I saw my father twice.

1. In Virginia, just before he closed his apartment door after claiming his wife was at the grocery store, and didn’t allow guests unless she was home.

2. In court, just before the judge ejected my brother and me from the room because we giggled while the bailiff cuffed him.

 

About the first time.

When my mother drove my brother and me from our South Texas home to visit our birthplace, Alexandria, Virginia. We were five or so, had been gone for two years, and we begged our mother to take us to him. She knew. Somehow she knew. That he lived with a woman who wasn’t the mother of his children. Not us or the two before us. My mother and I stood in the shadows while my brother stepped forward to knock. The door opened, slowly, creaking with apprehension, as if for the past five years our father had been eyeing the peephole, expecting us. His voice quivered as he spoke. As he claimed he couldn’t let anyone in until his wife returned from the grocery store. Then he closed the door.

About the second time.

My kids are frolicking! Really!! MY children!

They’re outside, they’re running around, they’re having fun — without colorful plastic toys, without a play structure, without an adult overseeing, supervising, or facilitating…without ME! Just a big backyard, rolling grass, a random hill or two and my kids. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.

Maybe this wouldn’t be such a big deal if I were used to it. But I’m not.

We don’t live in the country. This is just our summer vacation.  At home, my kids almost never play outside, and they certainly don’t play outside without me standing there beside them suggesting what to play and showing them exactly how to play it.

When did kids stop knowing how to play?  When I was a kid the rule was: come home from school, disappear until dinner, show up for food and go to sleep.  My parents never watched us.   And they didn’t provide us with any “props” to facilitate our entertainment.  Okay, I had one of those geo-domes and a zip line.  But I barely used them.   What was the point?  The neighborhood was my oyster!   All of the kids would get together after school and climb trees, play Red Rover, and ride bikes around and around (and around and around and around…) in the wide circular driveway behind my house until my dad, irritated by our repetitive cycling came outside yelling “ENOUGH ALREADY!”  That’s the way frolicking was done in the olden days.

This is my fault.

My kids have just never really frolicked.   We live in a big city and they play inside where it’s safe.  They have video games, a playroom filled with toys, and a jacuzzi in the courtyard that I let them splash around in occasionally.   But the big outdoors scares them.  The most freedom my kids have enjoyed is riding their bikes in the street.  It sounds dangerous, but bike riding in my neighborhood consists of a grown-up, (i.e. “me”) standing in the middle of the street or sitting on the curb watching vigilantly in both directions for any car movement.  If I see any car along any road nearby I yell “CAR!” and the kids know to scatter immediately to the side of the road.   When the car is gone, I yell “CLEAR!” and they resume their riding.  That’s it.   And I sit right there the whole time…yelling…”CAR!” “CLEAR!” “CAR!…NO WAIT!…CLEAR!’

It’s unproductive.   And quite frankly, it’s boring.   Once I invited my neighbors to join me for a little curbside cocktail hour as we watched our kids riding up and down the street and took turns yelling “CAR!” and “CLEAR!” and “PASS THE WINE.”   It made it more entertaining.  But you can’t really do that everyday, can you?

So you can see why, when I look out my window of our summer house in the mountains and see my kids rolling down the hill in the front yard, chasing each other and “frolicking” outside I am so pleased.

It wasn’t easy to get here.  Our first day in the house I opened the back door to the yard and said “Go.”  They stood there and looked out at the wide expanse of foreign territory blinking.

“GO!” I tried to shoo them out the door.

“Are you coming with us?”

“Nope. I’m going to be right here in the kitchen cleaning up. I can see you through the window. Go play! Have fun!”

“Are there bears?”

“No there aren’t any bears. Well, there might be, but they’re not interested in coming into our yard while you’re running around.”

“Really?”

“Really.” I hoped I was right. But I wasn’t going to give them the bear excuse to bow out of playing in the yard.

“We’re scared.”

“Scared?   Of what?   Grass?  Leaves?  Fresh air??  You’re totally safe.  Look how beautiful it is!  Go play!”  I pointed to the lovely vista of rolling hills behind our house.   They were unconvinced.

“What are we supposed to do out there?”   I couldn’t believe they would look at this gorgeous yard and not know what to do with it.  “You can play catch!  You can play tag!  You can roll around on it.”

“How do you do that?”

“Roll?”   I was beside myself.   I had had enough of this.   I took them both outside by the hand to the top of a small hill and literally showed them how to roll down a hill.

“WEEEEEEEEE!!!!  I added enthusiastic sound effects to emphasize how much fun I was having.  “Come on!  Try it.”

Livi got down on the grass and rolled.  She rolled a little sideways, and partially under a bush but she was laughing like it was the funniest thing she had ever done.  Ben, convinced by Livi’s laughter, followed her down.  Somehow between all of us rolling, picking buttercups, playing tag, and me throwing a raw hot dog out into the field to convince the kids there was something more interesting to the bears than they are, they started to relax and have fun.

And like a parent watching their child balance on a bicycle for the first time, I let go and slowly backed toward the house.   I closed the screen door behind me, came into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of lemonade.   I could see through the back window they were having fun.  They were happy.  They were safe.  They were frolicking!

I sat down, took a leisurely swig of my lemonade, and yelled “CLEAR!”

I have seven-year-old twin boys. I’ve been a single mom for almost three years, and in the time leading up to my separation, we had a family bed. I mean, the boys had their own room, but most nights we slept together. This made sense being that I breastfed them until they were two, but it was also a parenting choice that made sense to my co-parent and me on a personal level. The family bed.

As time has gone on – as the boys have gotten older – it’s made more and more sense to redefine boundaries. We talk very openly in our house, and the phrase “personal bubble” is used to describe limit setting and expectations. Nonetheless, I remain steadfast in my belief that the human body isn’t something to be ashamed of, and in many ways the boys are still too young to sexualize it. We have basic rules of courtesy in the house, like to knock on the door before entering bathrooms or bedrooms, but we don’t always remember to shut the door in the first place.

So, imagine my surprise when, as I was getting dressed one day recently, one of my sons came in and, for reasons I’ll never understand, lifted up my breasts, looked at me, and said, “Didn’t these use to be up here?”

Cue the sound of a needle skipping off a record.

Cue the sound of my door closing. Forever.

Mom’s bubble just got bigger.

I was in a full panic before my mother said anything at all. I didn’t want to ask what was going on, because her face and her shaking hands were confusing me. Usually, when I was in trouble, my father looked at me a certain way, and then it was clear, I’d been caught. But Dad wasn’t there, and all I had to go by were my mother’s ambiguous signals.

Finally, she spoke. “Your grandmother tried to kill herself today. She put a bag over her head and tried to suffocate herself.”

God, I was so relieved.

Almost excited, even. I got out of school early for this. Poor Mom, though. This was her mother, and I can see getting upset over this sort of thing.

My mother had a tendency to swallow this kind of thing whole. She was literally shaking with grief. Some people get upset like this. My mother was one of these people. I guess it’s safe to say I didn’t inherit this particular behavior.

Because Nana tried to off herself, my brothers and I had to visit her all summer long. We’d stand outside the automatic doors of the mental institution for a while, taking in the flowery, summer air, and then enter. The whoosh of sterile, crazy people scent replaced the outside smell, and into Nana’s room we were ushered.

The halls were white. Not sterile white, but eggshell white. It was so crisp and clean. I had imagined shit on the walls and muffled screams. It was more like an elementary school without the children.

The rooms where they kept the patients didn’t have open doors. I don’t see why they didn’t keep Nana’s door open, though. It would have been hard for her to escape, seeing has how she was in her eighties and she only had one leg.

And there was Nana, crumpled on her bed. She looked like she was sinking into the mattress. There was no fat on her body, none at all. The blankets covered her torso, but you couldn’t tell there was anything under there. If there wasn’t a head sticking out the top and a foot sticking out the bottom, she’d easily go undetected.

Nana didn’t ever turn to see us. She knew we were in there, but she didn’t care. Her face would just stay, all squeezed around her mouth, in a perpetually angry expression. She smelled terrible, like week-old urine, but so did everyone else in a mental hospital.

“Lenore, next time you come, bring your Nana Drain-O to drink,” she’d say.

“I’m not allowed to, Nana. Sorry.”

Then she’d try with my brother.

“Benjamin, you’re the smartest one, right? Find Dr. Kevorkian’s number for Nana.”

Ben was only eleven. He just quietly declined and apologized for not being more helpful.

We’d spend a long, unbearable hour in that awful, sharp room, struggling to make conversation. What do you say to a crazy, old lady whom you never really knew to begin with? She blamed my mother for her attempted suicide. After all, my mother was the one who brought the fresh fruit to her in a plastic bag. She was tempting her, obviously.

We watched Nana deteriorate in the next few months. She shrank smaller and smaller, week by week. Eventually, my grandmother starved herself to death.

It was different than I expected it to be. I was very unaffected by her passing. I didn’t even go to her funeral.

I was surprised when my siblings told me that her death was disturbing to them. I didn’t understand. I’ve realized since then, Death made his footprint on me long before Nana went. I was desensitized when he zapped my identical twin sister, Margot, in the womb.

The umbilical chord attached to my twin was pinched, so she couldn’t get any nutrients from my mother. It also wrapped around her neck and strangled her, which was the eventual cause of death. My chord was pinched also, but not as long as hers was. I was born dead, in that ridiculous way where I wasn’t actually dead, but the doctors say I was for dramatic effect. But there was no hope for my twin, who was dead three days before we were born. Dead bodies decompose very quickly, even in the womb. This means I was floating next to my decomposing sister for the last three days of my womb life. I must have smelled terrible when I came out.

The time I spent with my dead sister in the womb, I believe, forced a bizarre relationship between myself and Death. I go to sleep thinking about my mother getting into some sort of horrific accident, resulting in her decapitation, or the portioning up of my little brother on some grimy hotel room floor by the local pervert. I can’t control it. I’ve tried to think about happy things like babies and puppies, but then those babies and puppies die. My brain forces the thoughts into visualizations, and soon, I’ve knocked off my entire family and all my friends.

The worst part about this problem of mine is the irrational mess I become when these nighttime reveries are especially jarring. I’ll start believing that these things are actually going to happen, that I’m psychic. I’ll call my father and beg him not to go to any public places for a while, because there will surely be an armed madman in Home Depot or that little Argentinean restaurant. And he’ll kill Mom, too, but only after he rapes her. It drives Dad crazy. “Stop calling, Lenore. We’re not even going to Home Depot today.”

When I think about my twin, I wonder why I ended up alive and she ended up dead. I always end up feeling some level of guilt for being alive. When I think about this topic in depth, I often feel so blameworthy that I punish myself in small degrees. I’ll stay home from a party I was looking forward to or make myself watch a movie without my contacts so I get a headache. Sometimes this frame of mind moves in a circular motion. In the beginning I will think about Margot, which results in the culpable feeling; a need to reprimand myself is created, compelling me to think about the death of a loved one.

Although Margot’s death certainly did have an effect on me, it didn’t offer an explanation of Death. I didn’t understand it as a child, even knowing about her, and I don’t understand it today. This is tremendously exasperating because I believe that, given my insider’s info, I should have come up with a theory by now. In reality, I just don’t know what happens- I don’t even know what I think happens. I have examined all of the most popular beliefs, and none of them seem logical to me. If there is a Heaven, by now it must be packed. Under the same presumption, Hell would be overflowing with tortured souls. I could go on for hours about why these ideas have an endless string of flaws attached to them but then I feel pressured to come up with a viable hypothesis of my own. Eventually, the thought of it will drive me crazy if I don’t just assume that reincarnation would be a reasonable explanation. I only go with this premise because I believe that recycling is a relatively efficient way of keeping our environment clean. The parallel may be difficult to draw but it is there if you work at it, which I do.

Today, my grandmother and my twin’s deaths are still the only family deaths I have experienced, and I suppose they have both been important.

Even if it affected me in no other way, Nana’s passing made me realize that I was different from others because of the loss of my twin sister. And in the end, no matter how many hours I spend upsetting myself with images of death, or how many sets of twins I see walking around to remind me of Margot, I’m not always bothered by it. I think I benefit in some way by this thing that haunts me. I sometimes think I know more, or that I’m tougher than the rest of the people my age.

I spent one summer taking courses in biology when I was in high school. In the program, we got to dissect human bodies. Real, bloated, dead bodies, and they didn’t cover the faces with surgical napkins, or make any attempt to dehumanize the specimens. While half of the class ran out of the room covering their mouths, and the ones who stayed spent the rest of the day whining about how “all they could think about was the poor departed and their families,” I was holding organs in my hand and laughing at the squishing noise that they really do make when you squeeze.

I have Margot to thank for that.