How things emerge.
John thought he'd left his wallet, and his driver's license, in his suit jacket at church yesterday, and asked me to drive him to the train station this morning, and could I pick him up tonight? All I needed was half a cup of coffee, I decided, and I was good to go.
As we were getting ready to leave the house, John found his wallet in his overcoat pocket. So he could safely drive to New Brunswick and back after all. But, on second thought, would I mind taking him in to Newark Penn Station anyway, and getting him again at around 10 pm? The weather report looked grim, and driving on the Garden State at night is less than picnic-like, even in the best of conditions. Of course I could be there. And so, off we drove.
There was virtually no traffic -- it being spring break or something. I love driving into downtown Newark on days when school is out, or it's especially cold -- the trip seems so simple and direct, like slicing butter. Even the four dread center-city blocks, between Washington St. and the McCarter Highway, can seem manageable, lumbering buses and all. I enjoy the low-grade challenge of keeping an eye on all the moving parts of the puzzle, so both to avoid contact and maintain maximum vehicular quickness. Sort of like a computer game, I guess, but in Sens-U-Round.
Two little near-misses jolted me. The door of a double-parked van suddenly opened as we were passing, and I may have missed it by mere inches. The drop-off stand at the station was unusually crowded; when John got out, I had to back up a bit to get back into the exit lane, and I realized, at the last second, that someone was crossing the street behind me. Although this pedestrian evidenced no immediate concern about physical safety, I had one of those moments of dizziness that follow such reprieves. Which, as it passed, seemed to give me a different perspective on the emotional state in which I have found myself recently -- that of bated breath, a sense of dread, of impending doom or punishment, of the imminent fraying of what looks like so well-knit a life.
Why would such a frame of mind impose itself? I mean, I think I'm pretty much just as pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding as the next human being -- where would the adoption of such an unpleasant internal posture come from? As is usual for me, I looked into my own personal history, to see what I might be able to ferret out.
In an odd way, perhaps as Theseus might have used the thread Ariadne gave him, to find his way out of the labyrinth -- but heading in the opposite direction -- I followed that inner discomfort back to the span of time I lived with my father and his second family. About seven years of unending tension, of free-floating anxiety and the sense, as they say, of waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Which expression, though perfectly clear in its meaning, otherwise makes no sense. Why does it make me see myself hiding under a bed, while a lumbering, evil man makes the mattress creak over me, as he struggles to unlace his other boot...?) And today, in a twist that seems unusual to me, I continued to follow that thread of tension, back into the lives of the three major actors in our sour family drama.
What I think I realized was that, instead of a primary fear at work, this tension thread became a triple cord of deep, perhaps unquenchable anger.
Mary. My stepmother's mother. The woman I feel completely justified in calling 'my horrid grandmother'. A truly powerful and baleful presence, this woman seemed at first like a nasty moon in a disturbingly intimate orbit around the family my father and stepmother were trying to make, mostly with the shards of his first marriage. Which shards would be my brothers and me. And then, as if the orbit wasn't convenient enough, she moved in, and her gravitational field wielded an even more constant and sour impact. What was she angry about? I can only guess.
She'd lived through the Depression, and its events were embedded deeply. She seemed unaware of the lingering impact of what had happened nearly a quarter of a century earlier; she hoarded and resented and begrudged. Never particularly self-revealing, she did, annually, remind my brothers and me of how grateful we should be, to be getting any gifts at all at Christmas, because all she got as a child was an orange. I could never tell whether this was a coded request for a whole bushel of oranges for a change, or never to see an orange again as long as she lived. And she wasn't the sort of person one could turn to, for clarification.
She may have been attractive in her young womanhood -- there weren't many photos, but the ones I saw showed a face with a kind of distant kinship with Loretta Young's. Who knows what immoderate dreams spring up, fed by one's own fleeting loveliness -- dreams that, seemingly forgotten, still linger, giving off whiffs of toxicity that go almost unnoticed, but not unfelt? She had also seen her only daughter, her eldest child, make two regrettable marriages -- one early fling that, according to family legend, had been annulled, and the second marriage, to a smoking, drinking, cursing divorced Protestant man with four young boys from his own failed first marriage.
Mary never had a kind word for my father, that I can recall, and took special delight in finding something pointedly unpleasant to say to my brothers and me, as often as possible. I still remember, with a kind of stunned disbelief, her taking me aside one afternoon, in the kitchen of the house on Grover St., and beginning, in a confidential tone, one of her little instances of 'just telling the truth'. 'You know,' she said, looking at me closely, 'of all the boys, you're the ugliest one.' Living with her was like living in a closely-planted mine-field -- it wasn't a question of whether one would sustain damage on any particular day, but rather just how extensive the inevitable damage might be.
Walter, my father. The third and youngest, the only son of a prosperous man and his nervous wife who seemed ill-prepared for life. My father, too, had lived through the Depression, though it seemed he was sheltered somewhat by his father's prosperity -- which apparently was stripped away, as was that of so many people -- and diligence -- because my grandfather allegedly rebuilt his financial stability, in the worst of times. The only lingering impact from my dad's childhood, about which I knew anything at all, was his aversion to rutabagas (brought on by what was apparently a surfeit of these root vegetables during the Victory Garden phase of WWII), and a kind of wistful sadness seemingly centered around a 'nervous breakdown' his mother had, during the 30's, which had meant that my dad's upbringing fell to his older sisters. He seemed molded, by this modified maternal abandonment, to fit most comfortably with decisive, domineering women, whether he actually liked it or not.
But the anger? Oh, it was there, though so deeply buried and so tightly controlled that it usually only rose to the surface, in full force, on rare and dreadful occasions. I never did understand what was at the core of what I'm tempted to call the enmity between my father and his own dad -- because my grandparents lived in New Jersey, so far from our homes in Illinois or Pennsylvania, visits between the two men seldom took place. And the one or two I recall having seen (to the extent of sitting out in the hallway, listening to muffled voices behind closed doors), were tense and unpleasant. My grandfather seeming angry and stern, my father seeming angry and cringing.
So, my dad took his anger out, it seems, on authority figures, and on his own life, I think. He was hot-tempered at work, and I mordantly joke that we moved so often in my childhood because, first, my father was in the military, and then, that he had a bad temper. He had trouble keeping jobs. And I think his steadfast embrace of a kind of life-failure was a dangerous angry gesture toward the father who couldn't give him whatever it was he needed. Though there certainly weren't many opportunities, in his singularly luckless employment history, for my father to have taken a leap to someplace more financially rewarding and personally enriching, whenever they arose, he would turn them down.
And my father took his anger out on us, my brothers and me. Mostly my brothers. And mostly, I'm pretty sure, at the prompting of my horrid grandmother, and of Joan, my stepmother. Beatings, mostly, and then the period of time when my brothers were chained in bed at night, and I was given custody of the padlock key. We were also locked in the basement from time to time, my brothers sitting on a red-wood picnic bench, with their wrists circled in dog-lead chain, the other end of the chains wrapped around the joist supports in the basement ceiling, and me sitting on a red-wood picnic bench across the floor, on guard duty. With assigned times for lunch (no unlocking for that), and for bathroom use. Though I rarely talk about this sliver of my past, when I do, the question arises -- 'Well, why didn't you just unlock them, and let them go?' The sad truth of the kind of vicious system in which we boys found ourselves is that, if I had undone the padlocks, so we could run around the basement and play darts with the canned goods, one of my brothers would inevitably have reported this lapse on my part, to gain favor, and to bring down even more terrible punishment on my head. We were like a little aquarium of doomed sharklets, waiting to devour each other.
Joan. My stepmother. The oldest of three children, the only girl, and the darling of her parents Mary and Sam. Sam, my step-grandfather, was a non-practicing Jew from Philadelphia who'd spent part of WWII in the Merchant Marine, and loved to watch war-era sea stories on TV. Mary, of horrid grandmotherhood, was from McKeesport, of Croatian Catholic stock. Aside from her legacy of psychic scars, she left as her estate a tall, two-doored metal cabinet in the basement, stuffed with brown paper bags. Joan was lovely, with a kind of svelte, Elizabeth Taylor air, in spite of her one bad eye -- the result of a playtime accident as a child, when her brother Jimmy threw a dart at her, and it stuck. Photographed from the right angle, this didn't show at all. She had nice, manageable hair and long, well-tended fingernails, at least in the one studio-type portrait I remember, taken of her just before she met my father when they both worked for Nationwide Insurance, in Pittsburgh.
Joan had a wonderful car -- a huge maroon Mercury convertible. I think it had white sidewall tires, which were among the most ne plus ultra of automotive luxuries at the time. I don't remember actually riding in this, but I knew she had it, and it was kind of like an enormous gem, sparkling carelessly in the parking lot of the restaurant/truck stop her parents ran, in Mckeesport PA, within walking distance of one of the many local steel mills. She and my father decided, after I'd already been removed/released/rescued from the orphanage, to sell her grand car, to get the money necessary for the downpayment on a house big enough for my brothers to come home from the orphanage too. The arrangement with the orphanage being that my brothers and I were to be removed from there if and when my father remarried. I was removed under false pretenses, but that's a different story.
Oh, I forgot to mention, my stepmother was 21 when she married my father -- ten years younger than her new husband, and ten years older than her eldest soon-to-be stepson.
The car sale went through -- who wouldn't want a maroon Mercury convertible with white sidewall tires, that had been owned by a semi-glamorous young woman-about-town? There was tension about the mortgage on the new house -- a three-bedroom, one bath home far out in the country, up in the hills above the river valleys where the mills worked 24 hours a day, keeping the sky orange at night. But the loan was finally approved, and almost as soon as the furniture was put into place, and my parents made the trip to Mars PA (you can't make these things up), to get my brothers and settle them into their little bunk beds, and everything would be like a Louisa May Alcott story, everything began to fall apart.
My brothers misbehaved, and were rebellious. I only recently learned that they mistakenly believed that Joan had seduced my father away from our mother, and that it was her fault we'd been in the orphanage in the first place. My father lost his job as a restocker of vending-machines and refiller of coffee makers in office buildings scattered through downtown Pittsburgh. My stepmother became pregnant with the first of their two daughters. The life of material security and warm promise suddenly curdled, and there was no home recipe for turning it sweet again.
So, I think, Joan's anger was fresher and more vigorous, and closer to hand. Her resentments hadn't festered for years, under the thumb of a strict, domineering father, or because of wide-spread economic woes no one could fully understand. No, hers was quite easy to trace to its recent origins -- how easy to see her beautiful Mercury in the driveway, instead of the beat-up old Plymouth, hand painted a dull 'dusty rose' color, so it looked like an enormous sofa one the road. How simple to grasp that she'd find it unpleasant to learn that one of her new stepsons had soiled his underwear at school, and by attempting to flush the garment down the toilet, had caused flooding all over the one-level building. How immediately sensible that she would feel rubbed raw because, in the space of less than a year, she'd gone from the long, glistening nails, lovingly polished whenever necessary, to short, unpainted nails more suitable for waiting on tables at her resentful mother's truckstop restaurant. Every serving of stuffed cabbages she carried having been handed to her with a silent reproach. 'I told you so. I told you not to marry him. All those children'
And, in what is I guess the way of someone who's experienced being indulged, and not having to put up with what she doesn't want, my stepmother somewhat belatedly decided that... she didn't want to have someone else's children in her house. She just didn't want them. She couldn't bear to see them. Whatever they did, at any level more complicated than breathing, was an irritation, that sent her into screaming, incoherent tirades. I managed to duck some of this vitriol by grabbing whichever baby was closest; even thus shielded, I still had to listen to these vicious tongue lashings.
Now, as it happened, my stepmother and, I suspect, her mother, managed to get their wish, and my three brothers were re-institutionalized. I was kept around because I was helpful. But the three streams of anger that had intertwined to eject my brothers from that unhappy little house, seemed to find no appeasement in this achievement. It's as though, once release and allowed to run free, this torrent of grudge and vitriol couldn't be recaptured, or put to peaceful purposes. In the ensuing five years, until I was old enough to be enlisted in the military, life at home was mostly typified by holding ones breath between outbreaks of one kind of anger or another.
And I was angry too, certainly. But mine was an impotent anger, directed mostly in toward myself. It certainly wasn't safe to express my own anger out in the open, as it wouldn't flow quite so nicely with the torrent already in place. Mine was an opposing, resentful, sneering anger. I couldn't believe how mean our lives were, how inferior everything seemed, how stupid they all were, but as far as I knew, expressing these opinions openly would lead to one thing: Back to the Orphanage. And in our house, this threat was not idle. It happened over and over again -- from the first expulsion of my three brothers, through repeated subsequent attempts to bring one or another back, only to have one of the other fail to meet the stringent rules and regulations. So my fearful, adolescent anger found its only outlet in a facial expression of weary self-resignation (This again? I can't believe we're having canned peas... again... That sort of thing). That, and a ceaseless inner cataloging of my own shortcomings; better I should excoriate myself first, and get it over with, than be surprised by a new snipe attack by Mary or Joan. My father rarely saying anything, as he was usually taking a nap.
So, seven years, total, of a life more or less like this. High tension, high drama, abuse, dire want, humiliation, feeling unsafe, unloved, unnecessary. One can learn a lot in seven years. If the years are early enough, they can form the foundation of a whole life-expectancy, as it were. This is how the world operates. This is the duration of your lull of peace. This is the probable intensity of the next outbreak of havoc. Seven years, I think, is less time than some people serve in prison for involuntary manslaughter, and for that. there's an actual dead human being involved.
I just read, in this morning's paper, in an article about the handling of charitable donations to those who've suffered some grievous event, like the shootings a Columbine High School, this quote, from Frank DeAngelis, former principal at that school in Colorado: "What I've learned as time goes by, is that there are going to be needs that no one ever anticipates. It's never over. I think people believe that you're going to wake up some morning and everything is back to normal." 'Normal', unfortunately, is not the same thing as usual, or average, or ordinary.
For me, a life of dread was normal. A hyper-awareness was an automatic response to the likelihood of something dangerous taking place, and seemed necessary for my own safety. And the dance of violence, fueled by all that anger, meant there was never a lull of any length, before the shrill music goaded us back onto our feet, for yet another grim quadrille. Sad to say, this is still pretty much what I expect to burst out and take over again, every single day.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman