In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
— Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
— Philip Larkin
My parents hail from a generation who must arrive at least an hour before every engagement, for whom being on time is a divine mandate. Thus, we pull into the Charlotte airport well before the departure time for their return flight to Pittsburgh. They have been in North Carolina for two weeks: their annual spring visit, during which they exchange the routine of their household for the routine of ours. The key difference, of course — the rarifying element — is that our house has children, and my parents literally worship children, especially their grandchildren.
The apprehension that attends the arrival of my parents is like the buildup before a big game. Preparation is everything. The practices are long and grueling. My wife, Joan, is head coach and tactician. With her at the helm, we manage a year’s worth of sprucing up and repairs in just a couple of weeks. My mother is legendary for the antiseptic cleanliness of her house, and it is apparently daunting for a wife to have such a mother-in-law.
Joan storms through the house like Vince Lombardi, and the boys and I have no choice but to do her bidding. I console myself with the fact that these are things that have to be done anyway — that should have been done long ago. Closets and cabinets are cleaned out and rearranged, new towels hung from the bathroom rods, new sheets put on the guest bed. Garages and outbuildings are swept and tidied, grass mowed, shrubs and spring flowers edged and mulched, and a dogwood tree planted. There are numerous trips to the county landfill.
This year, I rented a pressure washer and used the lethal water jet to strip the old paint from the front porch. Then, wearing a surgeon’s mask and dragging an extension cord with a caged light bulb, I put two coats of toxic-smelling barn red paint on it in the middle of the night. I also troweled on roofing cement around the chimney flashing, replaced the wooden steps on the back porch and coated them with a mold retardant, bought primer and aluminum paint and brushes for the outbuilding roofs, and pointed up the brickwork around the outside vents. But, mercifully, time ran out on me.
The final tasks prior to fetching my parents at the airport were: rake out the fridge, clean the oven, scour the bathrooms and kitchen, put a vase of fresh flowers on the kitchen table and a pastel box of Kleenex in the guest bathroom, vacuum, and clean out the car, which had already been to the carwash. The house looked great: the new lamp in the living room, the new carpet in the dining room, the new bookshelves and carpets in the boys’ rooms, the new tablecloth, the new throw rugs everywhere, the new hanging baskets on the front porch, the new items I didn’t even know were new. As I nosed the car toward Charlotte, Joan admonished me not to let on — even remotely — to my mother that she’d gone to any fuss whatsoever. Then, having stayed up all night cleaning, she passed out.
My parents’ visit went very well, despite a rough prelude: Shortly before they were to arrive, Uncle Dick, the last of my mother’s brothers, had a heart attack. Early reports were encouraging, but “it destroyed his body,” my mother said, and he died just days later. So, after spending two days at the hospital, three days at the funeral home, then the next day attending both the funeral and my niece’s high-school graduation, my mother and father boarded a plane for North Carolina.
The second we had my parents buckled into our car at the Charlotte airport, they fell asleep. When we finally got home with them an hour later, we saw, parked in our front yard, a yellow bulldozer and a backhoe. This, of all days, was the day the county had chosen to bury new cable. Along the edge of our freshly clipped emerald green lawn, they’d gouged a ditch flanked by three-foot-high bunkers of red clay. Our yard looked like a construction site.
First order of business, as always, was to inventory the food my parents had hauled with them: salami, pepperoni, olives, fontinella, Jarlsberg, provolone, Pecorino Romano, pizzelles my mother had baked, and pizza shells and fresh loaves of Italian bread from Rimini’s Bakery — which, my father pointed out, had still been warm when he’d fetched them at five o’clock that morning. We spread it all out on the kitchen table and sat down and ate, even though dinner was not far off. Whatever the kids wanted, we said yes to. Watching them eat gives my parents so much pleasure that it borders on the pathological. “God love their little hearts,” my father said, gazing at his grandsons’ bulging jaws.
As if in ecclesiastical response, my mother intoned, “God love them both,” and dropped more cookies on their plates.
After eating, the kids came to our bedroom — temporarily Grammy and Pap’s room — for their presents: books, balls, Legos, clothes. There was another round of kisses and embraces. We all knew that this was really the best part of their stay, and we hung on to its perfection as long as we could.
Leaving my parents to settle in, I heard them talking behind the door to the bedroom. I couldn’t make out any words, just the sound of their voices, pleasant and tired, the way they used to sound to me as a child, and for a moment I felt that same ineffable sense of well-being and safety. A little later, I tiptoed back in to get some jeans out of the closet and found them napping on top of the bedspread, lying on their sides like babies, their open suitcases resting side by side in a corner, their prescription bottles regimented on the dresser, my father’s razor on a folded white washcloth next to a can of Right Guard. On the wall above my mother’s head was her framed high-school-graduation portrait, taken in 1936. In it, she is indisputably beautiful. I looked down on her as she stirred, a handkerchief clutched in one hand.
At supper — the traditional first-night pizzas — we chatted a bit about Uncle Dick. I looked for signs of strain, but my mother seemed fine, if tired. I had to hand it to her: she’s tough. A funeral and a commencement both in one day, and then a plane ride the very next morning.
Somehow, we got to talking about Jimmy Longo, a neighborhood character who used to pick up and deliver our dry-cleaning back in Pittsburgh. We had a few laughs at his expense, and then I related a story he’d told me the last time I’d seen him: Jimmy was bowling, and he set his styrofoam cup of coffee down on a bench. A “great big black guy” — the fact that the guy was black being the coup de grâce for Jimmy — accidentally sat on it. The story itself wasn’t funny, but the way Jimmy related it, deadpan and with a little bitterness over the lost cup of coffee, was hilarious. I did my best to imitate his voice, the way he repeated phrases — “I mean, Jesus Christ, he sat right on the goddamn cup of coffee” — a hand flying up every few seconds to demonstrate his outrage.
As my mother laughed, something misfired in her circuitry. One eye closed. A silver asterisk fizzled in the other before that lid, too, fluttered and fell, and her head lolled back.
My mother is dying, I thought. I both knew this to be true and was utterly detached and able to accept it: not scared, not frantic — though by now we were all calling her name, hailing her back from wherever she’d gone.
My father was slapping her hand. “Rose! Rose!” he barked, more scared than I’d ever seen him.
Part of me was already picking through the bones of what this would mean to me for the rest of my life: how I’d killed my mother, made her laugh until she died. I had pushed her to this, on such a night, in front of my family, my children. My childhood nightmare had come true, like some twisted fairy tale: the bad boy who killed his mother.
See, see, my mother was saying to me from beyond the grave, I warned you. You’ve never known when to let up.
I hope it was my voice that summoned her, my tenderly inflected, urgent “Mother” that brought her back to us. She opened her eyes and looked at me as if I’d awakened her from a spell. I was at her side, holding her hand, which I lifted and kissed quite unconsciously, the very image of the loving son.
By now, Joan had dialed 911, though my mother was protesting that she was “fine” and didn’t “need any 911.” The rescue squad arrived in a hoopla of lights and sirens. The dogs went crazy. I waited for the EMTs at the door. Two of them turned out to be ex-students of mine, a benefit — and a hazard — of teaching at a small college in a small town. I introduced them to my mother, who eyed them imperiously. She was fine, as she had said more than once, and did not appreciate any of this. It was then that I finally thought to pry the traumatized, bug-eyed children from their seats and shoo them off to play.
Everything checked out, and my mother was pronounced OK. Probably hyperventilated was all, said the EMTs, but a little trip to the hospital wouldn’t hurt, just to make sure.
My mother put up her hand — a gesture built into the family DNA, meaning that all discussion has ended — and said, “No.”
Joan and I walked the EMTs to the door and thanked them. As I shook hands with one, he said, “I had the hardest time in your class. You don’t give A’s, do you?”
When we returned to the dining room, my mother was clearing the table, and my father looked as if he had just lost an argument.
After the children were in bed, we ended the night in front of the television. My parents have been visiting now since 1976, and every year we go through the same discussion about what channels we do and do not get. Since my wife and I do not subscribe to cable and its smorgasbord of useless programming, we receive, alas, only the big-three networks, and our reception is rather tenuous as a result of our choice to live out in the country — another decision regarded as dubious by Mom and Dad. When we ask them what they would like to watch, they wistfully remark that we don’t get Channels 2, 4, and 11, the Pittsburgh channels. This is true, I say patiently, but we get the same network programs (though only one station actually produces a clear picture). We just have different numbers.
“We don’t have to watch anything,” my mother said, sounding disappointed.
“If you were home, what would you be watching?” Joan asked.
“You don’t have to watch it just because of us,” said my mother. “Do they, Joe?”
“Nah, nah, we don’t care,” my dad said.
“Sure,” Joan said, “let’s watch something.”
We finally settled on one of the news magazine programs: 20/20, I think. One segment was about a kid who’d been raped by his Little League coach, another was about genital mutilation, and the last was a little treatise on masturbation. My parents, as they fell asleep in their seats, tsked about what a horrible world we live in. Every few minutes my mother would snap out of her doze, find my father asleep on the couch beside her, and indignantly nudge him awake before nodding off again herself. But if we switched the TV off, it was as if the Angelus had been rung in their ears: What happened to the TV? In this absurdist manner, Joan and I were held hostage night after night while my parents slept through their favorite shows.
I’ve never seen the airport so crowded. My father and I muscle into the long baggage-check line while my wife, my two little sons, and my mother trail far behind. My mother is all but crippled by arthritis — spinal stenosis, to be precise. Even though she lives with constant pain, her inner domineering force, the source of which the rest of us can only guess at, will not allow her to admit it or accept others’ help. When they catch up with us, however, I am astonished to hear that my wife has somehow convinced my mother to ride in a courtesy cart to the departure gate, nearly half a mile away.
I stay close to my dad, like a bodyguard. Just yesterday, my mother remarked to me that he is getting old. We were pulling up the driveway from her hair appointment, and my father, in T-shirt and shorts, was sitting in a chair in front of our open garage, smiling, my boys at his feet. I’d imagined him healthy and vigorous until my mother made her observation — very matter-of-fact, yet with a note of wonder and tenderness in her voice. After she said this, I’d swear she tailed off into a wistful internal monologue, replete with images of their genesis as lovers. But they are clearly not young lovers any longer, and I suspect my mother’s pronouncement was commentary on her own mortality, as well. Still, she looks good, younger than her seventy-seven years. For her, looking younger is a great virtue, an accomplishment of intrinsic worth.
My dad, pushing eighty-one, looks good, too. Today he wears a cap, a plaid shirt, khakis, and a very stylish pair of Nikes. He chews gum and rattles his change. I’ll be glad to look like him when I’m eighty-one. In the past few years, he has walked out of two surgeries — albeit on crutches — to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon and to reconstruct a knee. But my mother is right; he is getting old, and I stay close to him now at the airport because there is literally less of him. I am larger than my father: taller, broader, stronger, faster. This is, of course, inevitable, a fact of life, but this inversion of the old father-son paradigm requires some adjustments on my part. As I watch my father hand his tickets to the young baggage clerk, I am watching myself.
The clerk — a terribly official, pompadoured sophisticate, well aware of the gravity of his position — asks to see a photo ID, which my father produces from the only wallet I’ve ever known him to own. He still carries in it his original Social Security card — from 1938. I see myself again in the photograph on his driver’s license.
“Since you entered the airport, have you accepted anything from a stranger?” the clerk asks my father.
“No. I haven’t.”
The clerk stamps the tickets and returns them and the license to my father, who steps closer to the counter, smiles, and adds: “I never accept anything from strangers.” The clerk attempts a smile in response, but has already started waiting on the next customer.
This type of friendly aside is my father’s way of establishing communion with waiters and cabbies and cashiers. He feels his senior citizenship entitles him to a kind of ease with younger people, who have a lot to learn from him, and he wants to be liked — unlike my mother, who sees insularity as strength, familiarity somehow as capitulation. She chides him for these jaunty stabs at worldliness.
My father says to me, “They have to ask you that now.” Now as opposed to 1938. I nod and worry not so much about the harrowing world in which I must bring up my sons, but about whether they and I will find things to talk about when I’m an old man. The fact is, my father and I are a little too embarrassed to talk to each other about certain subjects. Over the years, we have remained, like Nick Carraway and his father in The Great Gatsby, “unusually communicative in a reserved way.”
Once, when I was eight years old and playing Little League baseball, I had to fill in for our catcher, who was hurt. I was excited until my dad told me that I’d have to wear a cup. “For protection,” he said. That was the sum of his explanation.
I was puzzled: What kind of cup? How did one wear it? And to protect what? I pictured an array of cups: coffee, tea, Dixie, demitasse. I couldn’t quite equate any of these vessels with apparel, much less protection. I finally settled — don’t ask me why — on a loving cup, the kind I had seen handed to jockeys on TV when their horses won the Kentucky Derby. I pictured myself behind the plate in mask, chest protector, and shin guards, with a golden trophy on its marble plinth standing guard before me.
Presented with the actual cup, I was confused and horrified. Beige plastic, its rim padded in rubber, it looked more than anything like the mask through which fighter pilots breathed oxygen. With it came a medicinal-smelling jockstrap with a marsupial-looking pouch, inside of which the thing was meant to be secured.
Faced with my look of utter incredulity, my father muttered, “For your pee-pee.”
God, at that mortifying moment to have had a good old-fashioned penis, and not a “pee-pee,” or “privates,” or a “weenie.” But “pee-pees” are cute, harmless, and frequently powdered. A penis, on the other hand, is a hirsute sexual tool, and therefore the source of tension and terror.
The cup was as uncomfortable as it was embarrassing. After that first experience behind the plate, I never wore it again. I stashed it in a drawer, and eventually, like lots of things stashed in drawers, it disappeared. I have a vision of my mother spiriting it off to the backyard trash with ice tongs.
There can also be something very comforting, however, in my father’s silence. My first forays into cheap wine as a teenager left me so besottedly drunk that I barely made it home; my guardian angel must have been a teetotaler. I ended up vomiting uproariously into the cold cellar toilet, as far from my parents’ bedroom as I could get. When my dad showed up, I told him that I’d eaten one cheesesteak too many.
Despite the stench of regurgitated wine, my dad said nothing, just reached over, flushed the purple water, and asked me if I wanted some Brioski to settle my stomach. Then he walked me back to my bedroom. I stumbled up the two steep flights in what I was sure was stone-cold-sober fashion.
Another time, my father came home unexpectedly while I was trysting with a girl. I had time only to spirit her into my closet, hop back into bed, and feign an illness-induced nap. Dad marched right into my room and peered down at me. “I don’t feel very good,” I mumbled pitifully. When I opened my eyes, I saw behind him on my desk a pile of earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and hair barrettes. Clearly, these items did not belong to me. My father turned and looked down on them — I could see his face in the mirror above the desk — and then, without a word, he walked out, shutting the door behind him.
Maybe my dad didn’t come through on the cup, but more important to me, even now, is that he didn’t devastate me on these and other occasions when he had every right to do so. Perhaps he held off because he thought, in those cases, it would be better for me. And maybe it was. I no longer vomit in the basement or secrete women in my bedroom. Or perhaps he was just trying to spare me and himself the embarrassment.
There is only one time I have seen my father embarrassed, and it is also on that occasion that he apologized to me for the first and only time. I was twelve, and he and I were cruising down Highland Avenue in our two-tone rose Rambler. My dad, always a cautious driver, had to brake and swerve to avoid a car that hurtled through the red light at the Penn Avenue intersection. It would have plowed into us on my side. This was pre-seat-belt America. (Cars came equipped with them, but no one ever thought of using one.) So, in emergency stops, my dad would, rather roughly, throw his right arm across my chest to keep me from smacking the dashboard. As he did this, knocking the wind out of me, he shouted at the driver, “Where in the fuck are you going?”
Well! As if my breath hadn’t already been snatched away by the sight of that speeding car bearing down on me and the big forearm across my chest. The sound of that taboo word — which I had only recently begun uttering among my pals — issuing from my dad’s mouth all but made me lose consciousness. I wanted to fade away. Whatever came next, I did not wish to be present for it.
“Excuse my language” was all my father said, but it pained me terribly to hear him say it, because I knew he was ashamed.
Although we’ve extended advice to each other over the years, some things, it seems, we haven’t needed to talk about, as if the transcendent bond between us is best expressed by silence, by the faith that everything will be OK if we just shut up. Maybe sometimes, as a parent, as a child, you have to play dumb.
My wife, my sons, and my mother are waiting for us in the courtesy cart. I walk with my arm around my dad. We get in and spin wildly off, the driver laying on the horn, which sounds like a police siren in a foreign film. Along the gleaming tiled concourse, people stream by us, going up and down escalators, in and out of restrooms, restaurants, bookstores, and boutiques. My mother calls out the name of each establishment as we buzz by. “We have those in Pittsburgh,” she says, over and over.
There is not a lot of time before they board, and I am thankful for this. These leave-takings unnerve me. My mother, though not the weepy sort, invariably cries, filling me with regret. Trying to dilate this last moment, I hold her in my arms and tell her that it won’t be long until we are all together again. I’d tell her anything to make her happy, since I know this life of silence — her way of loving — is breaking her heart.
I am working up the courage to tell my parents that I love them: to actually say, articulate, formalize my love in a sentence with a subject, verb, and direct object, then launch it out into the ozone, where it will forever orbit and echo. “I love you” simply was not something we said to one another in our family. Birthday, Christmas, and first Holy Communion cards were signed, “Love.” Chiseled into tombstones was the word love. Occasionally, in a mood of maudlin bravado, one might say, “So-and-so sends love.” But one would never look someone in the eye and say, “I love you.” Not your mother, father, sister, or brother — and, I’d guess, not your wife or husband, either.
I don’t think this silence hurt me. Each day of my life, my parents gave me dozens of examples of their love, though I wouldn’t have conceived of them as such at the time. The children of immigrant parents, still in shock from the Depression and World War II, they selflessly donned half-century yokes — as a steelworker and a seamstress — that would have sent me and my rather pampered contemporaries to the existential ash pile, if not the cemetery, inside of a week. Fun and relaxation were absent from their lexicon. All they did was work and save and sacrifice so that they could provide for my sister and me. Though their love for us was manifest in every breath and action they took, they never said, “I love you.”
But, of course, they didn’t have books and talk shows and therapists to urge them to express their love, unlike my generation, which throws “I love you” around almost defensively, like confetti. My wife and I habitually, ad nauseam, tell our children that we love them. Certainly, we want them to know it, but maybe more than this, we are worried that they’ll end up on the shrink’s love seat if we don’t tell them at least a hundred times a day how much we adore them.
For me, telling my parents I love them is self-absolution for all the times I didn’t say or show it. I’ve got to get this off my chest, get it over with. Because I do love them, and what if they die and I haven’t told them? So I say it:
“I love you, Mother. I love you, Dad.”
They look at me as if I need to get a grip, then assure me that they love me, too; they love all of us. Why would anyone need to say it? Was there any question?
My wife hugs them. The kids shout goodbye, hold on to them, pet them, kiss their legs, their arms, wherever they can plant their lips. Like a rugby scrum, we huddle all the way to the door of the gate. My father is laughing. My mother is crying and laughing. “Goodbye,” we croon. Around us, a blessed communion of travelers and their loved ones make similar spectacles of themselves.
My instinct, once my parents step across that symbolic threshold and out of sight, is to split, go home, begin to rewrite their visit into my own mythologized version.
“Let’s leave,” I blurt.
“Let’s wait,” Joan says.
Her policy — our policy — is to remain in the terminal until my parents’ plane is airborne. Of course, I know we should wait, but I’m still impatient to get out of here. In fact, I’m beginning to feel a kind of closed-in, otherworldly dread about being here.
We press against the terminal windows, amuse the kids by pointing out the various routines of the ground crew, the planes taxiing in. Finally, my parents’ plane backs away from the terminal and heads for the turnaround. Awaiting its takeoff, we see, at the vanishing point of the runway, a serrated blade of lightning. It’s far away. The sky overhead is not threatening. My parents’ plane rolls leisurely into line behind the half dozen others also waiting to take off. Lightning again bisects the horizon. We hear the muffled rumble of thunder; the window we are pressed against shimmies.
I want to escape so badly I’m able to deny the danger. If they can just get up in the air and beat this storm, I think. But it is obvious that their trajectory will take them right into the white band saw that reveals itself on the darkening horizon every thirty seconds or so. And there are several planes in front of them. Clearly, they will not be taking off anytime soon.
I ask the woman at the airline counter what’s going on.
“They’re just waiting for the weather to clear,” she says, smiling.
I sit down and look out at the sky: black as a prayer book. My parents seem already gone. It’s unbearably strange to think that they are just beyond this glass at the edge of the firmament. It looks like hell out there. I turn away. A boy with dyed-black hair and a girl with a pierced septum sit in the same chair and make out ferociously. An old man eating a hot dog ambles by and says loudly, “This is the worst hot dog I’ve ever eaten.” A pilot, carrying his black box, walks by and, I swear, winks at my wife. “Just marry me,” the boy with the ink black hair gurgles as he kisses the girl. I sneak another peek at the runway. It is nearly sliced in half by lightning.
It’s been a half-hour since my parents’ flight was due to leave. I get up and again ask the woman at the counter if she has any information. She gives me the same spiel about the weather, but she seems pensive. “They’ve turned off the air conditioning in the plane,” she says.
I don’t know why she tells me this, and I don’t know what it could possibly mean, but I start to worry. I imagine my parents inside the plane, the stale air closing in, the sweaty cabin growing smaller, mothers wrestling with their crying babies, my mother getting worked up.
What’s the matter? she says to my father. Something must be the matter. I can’t breathe.
I want this sky to clear; I want this plane to take off. I want it to take off even if the sky doesn’t clear. What I’m really afraid of, I realize, is that the flight will be scratched and the passengers returned to the terminal. My parents will have to come back home with us. Then there will be another endless round of goodbyes. “I love you” all over again. I don’t have another goodbye in me. I want to go home.
Another twenty minutes goes by. The kids have started to go a little nuts, running and turning somersaults, giggling madly. An ambulance careens onto the tarmac with its lights flaring. It has been summoned for my mother, I’m sure. Sitting in that stifling cabin with the lightning threatening to knife her, she’s had a heart attack or a stroke. I want to rush back to the counter and ask what an ambulance is doing out there, but I’m too embarrassed to show my face again. If she’s dead, it’ll be my fault — just as it would have been with the Jimmy Longo story. Subconsciously, I’m trying to kill her, to kill both of them. I want them to take off in dangerous weather because I don’t love them enough to say goodbye again. It will be my fault if their plane crashes.
But the ambulance must be for someone else’s parent, because suddenly the flight schedule lists my parents’ flight as departed. The lightning has disappeared. In the ether, my mother and father are rooted once again in my fabrications of them.
“Let’s go,” I say.
Back home, delicate tendrils of neon green baby grass push through the straw covering the scarred front yard. Inside, the house smells mysterious, the way it did when I first walked into it. Built in 1915, the year my father was born, it feels today like an empty church: solemn, silent, immaculate. Then I realize that this inscrutable hush enveloping the house is my parents’ absence.
Wandering into our bedroom, where my parents have resided for the past two weeks, I find my father has left me his Right Guard (with a fifty under it), and my mother a bottle of Tylenol and the book she was reading. I wonder if I will ever see them again.