I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, drink harder, and show up at Mass every Sunday. I was their first child, born to them when they were young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love.
When I was a little girl I would study my mother’s face … her hazel eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star. I wondered what she was doing in that two bedroom house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and parched sapling in the front yard. Even at four-and-a-half, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, my job was laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal;’ imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families had no foxhole at all.
I grew up and, with what I’d learned of how life works, and my place in it, I went out into the world. Within short order, I said “I do” to the boy in the band.
The boy and I were a textbook example of symbiotic dysfunction. Our fractured parts fit together perfectly. Through twenty five years and two children, we cut ourselves and each other on those jagged edges. Part of his brokenness included repeated indiscretions. Part of my brokenness included denying they were happening, while blaming myself that they were.
It was his final, spectacular betrayal with my sister that made me sit up and say, “No. There is no amount of glue that can put us back together this time.” I gathered up the pieces of my heart; I left the boy in the band.
The next eighteen months were like a slow motion train wreck. All I could do was hang on, and wait for it to stop.
I remember the date. May 10, 1991. That morning the phone woke me up. My attorney, calling to tell me the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I think I said, “Thank you,” but I wasn’t grateful for any of it. I hung up, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I would surely feel … relief? Excitement, maybe? No. Just silence.
I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared at the face in the mirror. Who will I be now? I whispered at her. A sincere question. I’d lurched through the decades, constantly reinventing myself, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. Now I had no one to tell me. I was at a loss.
The next months and years were like being born, over and over again. I was the mother giving birth; I was the baby shooting out of the canal into what I prayed would be a gymnast landing. I wanted a 10 from the judges.
But it wasn’t working anymore, as if it ever really had. I finally raised the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. I was exhausted. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
For months, going out in public unvarnished was really frightening; but there was also an undercurrent of excitement. And eventually, slowly, what I’d feared most became easier, partly because it was natural. And I’d have to say the surprise for me was that while life is always full of challenges, showing up in it doesn’t have to be hard. Sometimes there are still glitches, but every day I’m moving closer to the center of someone I’ve always known; the person God put here and breathed life into. There’s a peace in connecting with what’s true in me; authentic perspective gives a clarity like nothing else.
During those years, I was living in Toluca Lake. On my walk one morning I glanced at a flower growing up through a crack in the asphalt. I went past it, then stopped, backed up, and studied it. That little flower was blooming and reaching for the sun, in spite of the considerable efforts made to stop it. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me.”
Ever since I was a tiny girl, I’ve felt a check in my spirit … like a tiny thread of light, deep inside. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have snapped, or caught fire, or disintegrated. It never did. And that’s what I’m back in touch with now.
These days, I know where home is. I’ve discovered that I was right here all the time.
And I have to smile because the truth is, I’ll always love the boy in the band.
Lately the world seems like it’s spinning out of control. People who in years passed could “agree to disagree” now act ready to destroy anyone who fails to share and to celebrate their point of view. So, in large part, I’ve gone pretty silent. I think many people have; that makes me weary and sad. And confused. No matter which way you go, it feels a little dangerous out there.
When I was a girl, I can remember sitting quietly in a chair at my grandmother’s, listening to my Daddy and my uncles talk animatedly about politics, religion, how high the mower blade should be set so the grass won’t brown out in the summer heat. Their voices would raise and lower, there were long pauses. Then they’d talk over each other, louder and louder, things like, “Nonono, you got it all wrong on that one …” It was bold, lively, and strong. One thing it never was is hate filled. Or mean.
When they’d finally had enough–because no minds were changed during their debates, or if they were no one admitted it at the time–the men headed to the kitchen for another cold beer. I was still in my chair; I could hear them popping off the beer caps and laughing together.
For me as a kid there was something so reassuring and grounding about those eavesdropping episodes. I learned that the people I loved most could fiercely disagree, and still throw their arms around each other. I learned that when hearts are good and true, the opinions carried by those who love each other do not stand as executioner of relationships when positions don’t line up. My Uncle John and Uncle Jim, Uncle Ferd and Uncle Leo were no less connected to me and mine after those conversations than they were before. In fact, the experience of being a seven year old “fly on the wall” taught me that these moments were the fire that forged stronger relationships, not weaker ones. Those men were staunchly opinionated, but they could also laugh at themselves when they needed to. Looking back I realize that I learned something else on those afternoons at grandmother’s: to not take myself seriously.
Today, Uncle Leo is the only one still with us. I was thinking about that crew this afternoon, and I wonder: are there still people on this planet who engage in Sunday afternoon discourse, where they share ideas and different points of view with passion, but with no fear of retribution or retaliation? Are there people out there, anywhere, who love each other enough to risk disagreement? Are there people it’s safe to trust? Can anyone disagree without becoming the enemy, or being verbally belittled? Is it safe to be oneself anywhere?
I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I wish: I wish every kid could climb into a chair in their grandmother’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, and listen to the men in their lives verbally duke it out. Then I wish they could observe those same men head to the kitchen for a cold drink, laughing and cutting up as if nothing had happened. Because the truth is, so much happened. It’s a heart-deep lesson about how people truly love, how they navigate, how they get into and out of verbal challenges with their relationships, and their integrity, intact.
And it’s about the importance of leaving the grass at least four inches long in hot weather.