In the month of July, my parents tried living with me in harmony. All three of us tried. I woke up and would have a cup of coffee waiting for me. My mother fed the dogs before sunrise. It was difficult spending time around them. There were no real conversations between us, just the company.
My Mother scratched and rubbed herself like a neurotic toy poodle licking patches of fur off from boredom, and my Father barely heard a word I said. If I ever brought up my writing, they would ask me, again, what the subject of my school writing was. It must have been about fifteen times I reminded them, “It is about falling in love in 7 days.” They waved it off. Its not that I cared what they thought about me- it was just the silence that had me losing my mind, sitting around in silence.
I told them I wanted to write about their love story. They asked me not to, but were more than happy to sit outside with me one afternoon and take me through the first year together. Usually, I respect the privacy of those who ask me not to write about them. However, the respect for my parents has plummeted and to get through the murk of my love life and my family- I feel it is my right to blog it so I can rid myself of it all. It is the only way I know how to cope:
My father was around the age of 20 when he met my mother. He worked for the Marines Corp in the barracks on the weekends, burying dead soldiers from Vietnam. I had never known he worked at the barracks before being deported to the war. He always was impatient with me when I didn’t know something, “Yeah! I would watch mothers weep over their dead sons and ask, ‘Why did he die? ‘Why wasn’t it you?’ The answer was the same, every time. I don’t know.” He shrugged, seeing their faces in his memory.
My mother was around 23 when she was working for the Navy, handling travel invoices and expenses. She would call over to the Marine barracks every so often asking for the travel diaries of soldiers and spoke to my Father. She thought he was rude at first but worked with “a black man” who said my Dad was alright. He was an “aristocrat.”
The “black guy”, lets call him James, wanted to learn how to bowl, so he asked my Mom, a woman named Kathy and my Father out to bowling one afternoon. They spent the afternoon at Kathy’s, who my father described as having “big blue eyes, attractive and soft”. My Mother assumed that my Father was interested in Kathy as they were both attractive. My Father has blue-green eyes and looks like a blend of Alan Alda and Clint Eastwood; tall, squinty, dark. My Mother never considered herself attractive, though in older pictures she looks cute- a round face, short, wavy black hair and a signature mole on the side of her face. If you have ever seen Olympia Dukakis, you have a pretty clear picture of what my mother looks like. Now her nose is more prominent, her skin creased heavily and her hair thinning and fading into grey. She dyes it auburn, but it looks fake, like someone is dressing up a dying plant with plastic ornaments.
My Mom and Dad got in a conversation at Kathy’s one afternoon about how they wanted to travel and see the world before settling down. She dismissed the day, thinking she would never really see him again. He called over from the barracks and was friendlier to her over the phone. They started chatting and she invited him over to her family’s house for dinner. They both claim this wasn’t romantic, but I just don’t know how it couldn’t have been. If a woman asks a man over for dinner, even now, it would be construed as romantic. They both insisted it was innocent, my Mother just didn’t want him to be lonely. My Father was anything but lonely, he was seeing a handful of women in the Boston area and had a few back home in Milwaukee as well.
My Father went over to my Mother’s house, where there were several Italian relatives, all eager to get in my Father’s face. My Mother likes to describe this part of her life like a Cinderella-fantasy; she was brought in from the orphanage at age 13, moving in with her Aunt after 7 years of growing up in a Catholic Home for Children. She was considered the ugly one, and was forced to clean up after her evil step-sisters. When my Father arrived to dinner in his Marine uniform, the girls fawned over him and my Great Aunt served him plate after plate of food, trying to sell her daughters on him. My Mother’s step-brother, Louis, kept drinking anisette and coffee, then pouring shot after shot in his coffee, telling my Father to show her “who is a man”.
Louis is my favorite relative on my Italian side. We call him “Big Lou”. He is sarcastic, loves watching Jag, chain smokes and has a very dry sense of humor. My mother claims he is the only one from that family who is kind to her. I like him because he is honest and funny, the two kind of go hand in hand.
My Father thought it would be rude to refuse all the food and drink, so he kept eating and drinking. They “overwhelmed” him, with conversation, affection and more food. When he talks about it, he smiles. He liked the attention, he liked being fawned over. He grew up in a house where he rotated fathers every few years- the first hung himself in a mental institution, the second was an alcoholic, the third a German nudist, the fourth . . . do I remember the fourth? Then there was the one I knew, Grandpa Harry. Grandpa Harry was the best relative, probably because there is no relation between us. He wasn’t infected with my bloodline. He was the kind one, the funny one, the one who gave me my first dog and didn’t use affection as a tool. Of course, he was the first to die, but isn’t that the way it goes?
It was earlier in that week, back home in July, when my Father said he lucked out by never knowing his biological father. When he was 5 years-old, his father, a cop, was in a motorcycle accident. He never really emotionally recovered from the head injuries, came home, then left again to admit himself in a mental health hospital. There is controversy here- some say he died from a broken neck during electroshock therapy, the underlying truth is he hung himself. At least he left his family’s home to do it . . .
I grew up thinking that Ray Sr., my biological grandfather, was a saint, pushed to the brink by a neurotic and over-demanding housewife (my grandmother). No one ever really said anything negative about him, not my Father or Mother, nor any of the relatives I casually mixed with in Milwaukee. As far as I knew he was a good guy and my Dad lost a great father who would have held the family together.
While washing dishes after breakfast one morning, my Father said he had it easier than his two older brothers- “My father was Old Germanic. He raised the others to chew their food 12 times before swallowing. He was strict. To the day he died, (Uncle) Ronny chewed his food 12 times before he swallowed. And your Grandmother just made people feel bad about themselves to control them, that’s all she ever did.”
“Really?” I said, staring hard at him. I wondered if he could tell from my tone that he has fallen into the same parental habits. My Father keeps my self-esteem low to control me, that is nothing new. He doesn’t want me to feel smart, or capable or attractive. He wants me to live in doubt so I keep close. The further I have grown from them, the stronger my self-confidence. Staring out the kitchen window, my father rinsed off his plate, “Yeah, you know,” he shrugged, “That’s who she was.” He didn’t connect that he was repeating the pattern. Can I blame him? Can I hold it against him? Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. All the crazy from my Mother’s childhood in an orphanage and my Father’s childhood as the youngest son of a dead police officer was now on my plate, for me to sort through and repair. As my Dad rinsed off his plate, mine was still dirty from falling for the wrong men and never establishing the support I needed to be healthy and happy. Maybe they made it better before it got here, maybe they worked on more issues so I would never see the darkness, but it didn’t matter, because I inherited their poison.
During their courtship, my Father went over to my Mother’s house for supper twice then asked her out to the American Club, I think that is what he called it, they dined on pizza and beer and, he said, he really liked her. He thought she was the most thoughtful person in her family and was the most disregarded. “I could relate to that.”
“And he used to hold my hand under the table, I remember that,” my Mother said.
“Then she drove me to work almost every morning, I will never forget that. She was always there, waiting for me,” he said, smiling at her revealing a missing tooth near the back of his jaw. Its void bothers me.
In January of that year, my Father stopped seeing the girl in Boston, the girl in Milwaukee and a few exes back home. He was focused on her now, just before being drafted to the Vietnam War. Now, I was raised to believe he enlisted in the war, but that isn’t entirely true, he enlisted in the Marines, worked at the barracks part-time and was then forced to go overseas to fight. He was chosen to deport for three reasons, he explained:
1) My Father worked for someone in the Corps named Olivier, who was described as a womanizer, seedy, even slimy. Despite all these heavy adjectives thrown to me over my parent’s patio table, my Mother went on a date with Olivier once and, she claimed, he spiked her drink. My Mother managed to get home with her honor intact but when Olivier found out she was dating my Father, he started saying bad things about her. Dad walked into his office and said, “What are you saying about [her]?”
“I haven’t said anything,” he said.
“Tell me what you have been saying about her.”
Olivier was silent.
“If I hear you ever say anything about her again, I am going to fucking kill you.”
My Mother was delighted with this part of the story and started circling both her middle fingers on the underside of her chair’s armrest. Both middle fingers made delicate small circles in synchronicity. Something was oddly erotic about the fidget, not that she herself was erotic (trust me, far from it), it was the little quirk of it that seemed odd to me.
2) One afternoon, my Father got drunk at a bar with a group of the other soldiers. One of the soldiers, named Sully, said something off-the-cuff, something “cocky” my Father doesn’t remember. “It wasn’t his fault and wasn’t a big deal, but I beat the shit out of him. I took him in the stairwell and beat him pretty badly,” my Father said.
I was silent. My Mother smiled and circled her middle fingers in those small orbs, while thinking back on it.
“Why would you do that?” I finally asked. “Why would you choke someone on a stairwell until people had to pull you off?”
“Oh, you know, I was just angry in general. It had nothing to do with him,” my Father kind of chuckled, sipping his cheap, red wine.
People in the barracks got to talking and they thought my Father was crazy. That’s a fucking shocker.
“Later Sully came back for his final check, and your Mother was in charge of the accounts, so she made him wait for his check all day. He had to sit there for six hours. She was just being loyal to me,” he laughed.
“But didn’t you say you beat him up over nothing important. Why would she punish him?” I asked.
“Because she was just being loyal to me!” my father said, impatiently, as if I was too stupid to get it. My Mother smiled through her sunglasses and nodded.
“I am sorry, you beat the shit out of this guy, left marks on his neck from strangling him and Mom punished him by withholding his check all day. I don’t get it. You were in the wrong.”
“She was just loyal to me, it didn’t matter to her,” he said, waving his hand at me. She smiled, again, and nodded, quietly. Oh, how they shared the darkness.
3) The third reason my Father thinks he was shipped off to Vietnam was because the Colonel caught him nursing a cup of coffee in his pocket during a burial at the barracks. “He thought it was disrespectful,” my Father said, tossing his head and hand in the air as if to wave it off. Was he waving off the flies or me? It probably was disrespectful, but it is a young man’s mistake.
“So when they called down asking for two men to send off to Vietnam, my name was submitted,” he said. “It was around that time, I was driving the car and I turned to [Your Mother] and said, ‘I was up all night thinking, and I think we should get married. You can’t do better than me.” My Mother laughed and nodded, “That’s right, he did say that.”
It really all makes sense. My Father lost his father at the age of 5. My Mother lost her mother at the age of 5. My Dad learned to exercise power over those you love by putting them down, my Mother learned to belong by allowing herself to be put down. They were the perfect couple. Jesus, I wish they never had me.
They were married three months later, then my Father shipped off to Vietnam.
When coming home from school in June, high on Huck, confused as to whether what I felt was love or lust, or a deadly combination of the two, I asked them both separately if they fell in love before they married, in that small window of time:
“It was too soon to fall in love. No, it was about convenience at that time. No one can fall in love that soon. It had to grow. We still had to get to know each other,” my Mother said, absent-mindedly scratching the skin over her knuckles.
“Love? Yes, it was love. If you want to know about love, I can’t explain that. It is one of those things you just can’t explain,” my Father said.
My Father spent the first 13 months of marriage on another continent, fighting a war that never had a chance. He doesn’t talk about his time in Vietnam, I heard mentions as a child about a rat the size of a small dog climbing his chest when he slept, children refusing to cry though their skin was burned off with Napalm, prostitutes spitting on the street from tuberculous. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he claims being away helped their relationship. Before he left, they picked out an apartment, my Mother moved in and they sent letters almost everyday. She sent food. He sent tapes, audio recordings singing old Beatles songs or just talking about his day. I remembered those analog tapes, I listened to them as a child wanting to know what his voice sounded like before Agent Orange crushed his windpipe and roughened his voice to the point where it was barely audible. Now, he takes Botox injections to clear it up- but between his failing hearing and the withering vocal chords, he is unable to have a real conversation with other people.
I wondered if being apart from Huck during this period would help our relationship, we could write and learn about each other before being thrown into our typical bad habits. I wondered about it, and hoped the whole story was a good omen.
My Father turned back to me, “When I got back, I was horny but happy”, he grabbed my mother’s hand and they smiled at each other. “We were poor, very poor. All we had was spaghetti and old Bob Dylan records. That’s it, but we got through it together. What else do you want to know?”
“I have to process all this,” I said, “I will ask more later.”
I never got the chance.