Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Forty-five years ago today, my parents got married. My mother, Florence, was a beautiful bride whose starched white dress hid her growing belly from all but the most careful observers. A naive, eager redhead from the wrong side of the tracks, she had just finished high school two months before. “Flore the whore,” some of her classmates had called her, though it wasn’t true; she’d been a virgin when she’d met my father.
A smart, insecure pre-med student, Dad was short and had acne, but he also possessed a brash charm. On their first date he picked my mother up in his father’s fifteen-year-old Chrysler with classical music blaring from the stereo. “Marry him!” my mother’s mother hissed. “He’s a good catch!” Years later, after my mother became a feminist, stopped wearing a bra, and started writing poems, she would write about how I’d been conceived on the soiled corduroy couch in her parents’ den. When my sister and I fought in the back seat of the car, my father took pleasure in reminding us that we’d both been the products of coitus interruptus. “Stop being advertisements for birth control!” he’d say.
After the wedding, my father moved out of his college dorm room (he’d wanted badly to join a fraternity, but none of them took Jewish boys then) and into a small apartment with my mother. Raccoons played cymbals with the garbage-can lids, the next-door neighbors’ fights bled through the thin walls, and my mother cried every day for weeks — she’d never been away from her mother for so long. She also got up early each morning, sneaking out of bed to put on just a little makeup before my father opened his eyes.
They were kids together. She called him “Puppy”; he called her “Kitten.” They bought an antique cradle at an auction, but they didn’t know about burping babies, so I got colic and wailed. My mother still tells how she sat next to the cradle and sobbed along with me, not knowing what else to do.
My parents were never truly hippies, but they had great disdain for the conventional. My mother wore fluorescent peasant dresses laced up with rawhide; my father grew his sideburns long. They kept their television in the closet, never mowed the lawn, and bought me pet chickens for our urban backyard. They also taught me to question authority long before it became a bumper-sticker slogan. When my third-grade teacher hauled me from my seat and slapped me for talking back to her, they almost got her fired.
My parents’ marriage lasted thirteen or sixteen years, depending on how you count. By year twelve, my father was throwing wineglasses at my mother and muttering that he was a slave under her whip. He was chewing up the insides of his mouth because he’d gotten hooked on amphetamines during his surgical residency, a year of long hours and little sleep. My mother had gotten breast implants, done for free by one of my father’s colleagues — a “professional courtesy,” it was called. She says my father shamed her into it by calling her Freddie instead of Florrie, and telling her my breasts would soon be bigger than hers. My mother maintains to this day that she never wanted the surgery; she saw it as a mutilation. My father maintains to this day that my mother’s small breasts were just fine with him; he’d only arranged for the surgery because she insisted on it. My mother says she did it in a last-ditch effort to keep him; she’d seen his eyes wander to the jiggle under other women’s blouses; she knew he’d had many affairs already, and would have more. My father says there was one affair, only one.
By year thirteen, my father had moved out. He bought a Jaguar and a water bed, to which he brought as many women as possible. My mother dated younger men, wore tight shirts to show off her new breasts. Briefly they reconciled and took a trip to Mexico, where my father researched the red-light district and my mother danced salsa with every man in the bar. “You always half-try so damn hard,” she wrote to him in a poem afterward. Puppy and Kitten had turned into Dog and Cat.
By year sixteen, my father had remarried — two weeks before my parents’ divorce was final, as it turned out. His new wife was a dyed-blond WASP who brought a red, white, and blue jello mold to the picnic where I first met her. My mother was being courted by a fat, bald, bossy brute who happened to be another Jewish doctor. She married him three months later, and I left home for good — in every sense of the word.
But this isn’t what I wanted to say. This doesn’t say it at all.
What if I could say it differently — let all the streams of beauty and damage pour out from me and over me, a fountain strewn with pennies and wishes, littered with cigarettes? What if I could say how hopeful she was, how shy and bold and full of longing? How ardent he was, how frightened and filled with bravado and need? What if I could cut through the sludge of my anger and heartbreak at who they became, my grief at what they suffered in the becoming, and finally embrace my parents, those unwise gods?
The summer my mother was six, her parents took her to sleepover camp and snuck away without saying goodbye. (This was, they explained later, what the camp counselors had advised.) My mother panicked. She cried so hard she couldn’t eat or sleep. She wrote her mother daily — the anguished epistles of a six-year-old — but the counselors never mailed the letters.
At eight my father was a musical prodigy. He could sit down at the piano and play any tune, even if he’d heard it just once on the radio. His mother pounced on this gift, forced him to practice every day. Her efforts backfired; my father rebelled, and the music withered inside him.
My mother’s grade-school teachers didn’t catch her dyslexia, diagnosed her as “slow,” told her she “wasn’t college material.” She grew up being called “the pretty one.” Though she’d later complete all the course work for a PhD in English and publish six books, she would always believe her looks were all she had.
My father was the apple of his mother’s eye, the golden boy who could do no wrong — even when he showed up at my grandmother’s doorstep so broke she had to pay for the cab, and then went into withdrawal on her sofa bed. And it was hard work being golden, and doing no wrong. He needed the uppers to keep him going when it wasn’t human to keep going, and then the downers, afterward, so he could finally sleep. He was an ER doctor, and a good one. He wrote a textbook that defined the field. He saved lives. And he destroyed his own.
My mother was terrified of loss, and desperate to escape the shame she’d felt in high school when she couldn’t match the clothes and hairstyles of the girls from the “good” part of town. So she married the bossy brute with money, stayed with him through more than twenty years of cruelty and humiliation. I was her confidante, her “Child Sister,” as she called me in a poem once. So I heard how he called her “bitch” and “cunt” in bed. I heard about the times he knocked her down, and how he shot the fuzzy ducklings who’d taken up residence in their black-bottomed swimming pool, while my mother cried.
Forty-five years ago today, my parents got married. The traditional gift is sapphires, the websites say when I Google “forty-fifth anniversary,” but blue flowers may be given instead. “Happy, happy,” the cards all say. But what is “happy,” anyway, and where does this story end? My mother never broke it off with the brute, but took a lover instead. He has no money, is neither Jewish nor a doctor, but he is good to her. All those narcotics prescriptions caught up with my father; he lost his medical license last year. Now, talking to me on the phone from his mother’s condo in Florida, slurring his words, he still claims he was framed.
And which stories do I choose to tell, and which do I leave out? Why haven’t I said that my father always kept a bottle of champagne in the trunk of the car — because, he’d say, “you never know when you might need to celebrate”? Why haven’t I said my mother loved sex, and taught me to love it too? Why haven’t I said that every time I see a “No Trespassing” sign, I remember how my father would say impishly, “But it doesn’t say, ‘Absolutely No Trespassing,’ ” and keep driving?
I learned many things from my parents. They taught me the subjectivity of truth; they made it impossible for me to arrive at a single, definitive version of any story. They showed me the traps minds make for themselves, and how the early wounds can calcify and warp, weaken and deform the eager, ardent child brides and grooms in all of us. I look at my father and vow to embrace my fears, rather than go down in his stubborn flames. I look at my mother and vow to take risks, rather than suffocate in her luxurious prison.
Forty-five years ago today, my parents got married. I want to say something that honors all of the truths. I want words faceted as sapphires, words that hold blue flowers in their arms.