Writing101 – Day Eleven Prompt

The Challenge:

Tell us about the home where you lived when you were twelve. Which town, city, or country? Was it a house or an apartment? A boarding school or foster home? An airstream or an RV? Who lived there with you?

The Twist?  Vary the sentence lengths – short, medium and long.  Do not die by boring sentences.

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Kids of divorce.

If you are one, then you know you usually go back and forth between mom and dad (although today that could be between mom and mom, or dad and dad).  If you aren’t a kid of divorce, well, then, bully for you!  One of the lucky ones.

I was the kid of divorce, from the age of six on until, well . . . today.  By the way, that’s 50 years that my parents have been divorced.  Ponder that.

So in thinking about where I lived when I was 12, you have to hear about the “kid of divorce” tale a bit to put it all in context.  I lived with my mom during the school year and we lived in an apartment in Long Beach, California in a very suburban part of town near the traffic circle.  (Traffic circles, or roundabouts as they’re called in other locales, are not something you see a lot of in California so the fact that we lived fairly near one was rather unique.)

Our place was a large, townhouse-style apartment with stairs up to two bedrooms and a full bathroom.  The lower level was a large living/dining room, galley kitchen and even a powder room.  We also had a patio in the back and a separate one-car garage.  Not bad for an apartment!

But the summer I was 12, things were changing with my mother.  I was headed into 8th grade, as my birthday is in October and I would be 13 then.  So I’d already had a year of junior high school under my belt.  I had already started my period and wore more than a training bra.  I was fully in pew-bur-ty (or as Johnny Carson called it, ‘poo-bur-ty’) by then.

My mother had been dating a man who would become her second husband that summer. He was a handsome Sicilian-American man from San Francisco with a cousin in the mob (or so he said.)  He’d been a pro baseball player, but only made it in the minor leagues before quitting.  So he was athletic and swarthy and Catholic and divorced several times (nowadays we don’t care about Catholic, but then my grandmother called him a ‘Papist’, bless her heart.)  He never saw his kids from his first marriage.  I’d say he wasn’t exactly the perfect father or anything.

He also molested me.  It happened once only and months prior to the wedding.  It wasn’t the worst molestation in history (no, he didn’t rape me or force me to perform a sex act on him,) but it was inching in a direction that absolutely scared me to death.

But you have to wonder why it scared me.  After all, that entire year I’d been flaunting myself in his presence, being childishly and probably stupidly seductive (I hadn’t yet read Lolita, so I didn’t know what real  teen seduction was) in order to win his . . .what?  His affection?  His desireTo win him away from my mother?  I don’t entirely know what my 12-year-old brain was cooking up, but when the situation presented itself that I was alone with him and he offered me a back rub (clothes on), I took it.  I allowed him to rub my back and shoulders and to begin to unhook my not-a-training bra, and with that movement towards the front of my chest, I froze.  All I remember is getting up, grabbing my fledgling breasts to my chest, and running up the stairs, slamming my door to my room.

I never said a word to Mom.

***

They got married. 

In the pictures, I look okay, I’m smiling and wearing a pretty dress, but I remember being glad to be getting on a plane to Alabama that summer.  I couldn’t wait to be gone.

Now you know it’s got to be bad somewhere else if you’re GLAD to be in Alabama in the summer, as it’s a pretty miserable place to be.

By this time my dad was also remarried.  He’d met a woman working as a cocktail waitress at the Oakland airport who had three kids.  So of course he married her – because no doubt, she needed him.  I’m sure she did need him – or at least needed his paycheck.  Her kids had two different fathers, with neither helping her out with the three, so my dad looked like the lifesaver that he was.  They promptly moved to Ohio for several years and then on to Alabama, as my dad’s jobs shifted.

And by then, I didn’t mind my step-siblings that much.  In fact, Anna, who was a year younger than me, was pretty cool, although Karen and Steve who were three and four years younger than Anna, were pests.  It’s always that way – much younger siblings are pests for a long time, right?  Kathy, my step-mother, had a favorite among her kids and it wasn’t the girls – it was her youngest, Steve, or as she called him “son-o-mine.”  Yep.  She really did call him that.

She pretty much ignored the girls and with me as the third and oldest girl in the family, we were left on our own.  When I visited in Ohio, they lived in a big tract house on probably an acre of land – we’d explore all over the place, picking blackberries and canning them, making Southern food (Kathy was from Texas and put bacon fat in everything she cooked – damn, it was good), and catching fireflies to put in mason jars that we’d poked the holes in the tops so they’d have oxygen.  We played bridge and often Dad and I played against Anna and her mother, which I think you can see would not be a good pairing for family harmony or togetherness.

My dad married Kathy when Steve was only four years old, so my dad was the only dad he’d ever had, but the girls, even Karen, remembered their fathers better.  Anna had a different dad than the other two, of course.  She also looked a lot different from her brother and sister, so I think for all these reasons, we bonded to a certain extent.

So the summer I was 12 they had already moved to Alabama and were getting used to living in a much smaller town, and in a more rural setting in general.  All I remember was that it was incredibly hot and humid.  We went on impromptu field trips – one down to Tuscaloosa, another across the Mississippi state line to Tupelo (the birthplace of Elvis Presley).  Other than some of that stuff, though, it was boring and we watched a lot of TV indoors because it was too damn hot to go outdoors most of the time.

As the summer was closing out, I made a decision.

After talking to my dad, he called my mom and announced that I would be staying for the school year.  My mother who had a new husband and was working on buying a house, was probably secretly pleased by this announcement as she didn’t put up much resistance to it.

My guess is that it was as much relief to them as to me that I’d be away for awhile.  Unlike with my father, my mother was very much in love with my step-father, and being alone with him was probably just fine.  Plus I was in full adolescence by then and I wasn’t that pleasant to be around.

Of course, this was a frying pan into the fire situation.  If I felt cut out from the action going on at home with a new marriage and “losing” my mom to a certain extent (and with a deep secret that I kept to myself), I was really cut out from the family dynamic in ‘Bama.

In actuality, both my father and I were.  It was always “Kathy and the kids” and “Me and Dad.”  But Kathy needed my dad and therefore, had to tolerate me.  So she made nice when he was around – at breakfast and then at dinner and on the weekends, but was a real bitch to me the rest of the time.  I know she wasn’t happy about the turn of events of my staying, but her verbal viciousness was pretty unbounded.

***

So I was stuck.

Interestingly, I cannot remember what the house looked like except it was brick which was very common in that part of the country.  It was a one-story ranch house, probably with three bedrooms, maybe four.  It had a den where we watched TV and a formal dining room.  Oh, maybe that was the house in Ohio or the next one in North Carolina (where they moved a year later.)  See – I cannot remember anything about this house in its physicality except for the brick.

I can, however, remember the town and going to the school there, which encompassed all 12 grades and adding to that, they bussed in all the rural black kids, leaving another whole school to lie fallow in the country.  I didn’t realize that I was in the middle of a social experiment there, but I was.   Instead of more logically splitting up the school by grades and bussing some of the kids out to the country and some into town, they put the burden on the mostly black country kids, and then the school was overcrowded.  With another school left to be overrun by weeds.   I suspect it was clear that the letter of the law ending racial segregation in schooling was being followed, but the spirit – well, damn that!  This was Wallace country (George Wallace.).  

So it was an unusual school situation from what I was used to, to say the least.  Then there were the names – the prominent surnames were Pennington, Glasgow, and Waldrip.  I had a lot of classmates with these names and not all of them were white.  It was the first time I had even considered the long-range results of slavery.

The fact that there were both whites and blacks with the last name “Pennington” meant the obvious – somewhere along the line one of the black forebears took the last name of their slaveholder family at the time of emancipation, because they had no other last name.  Or they were just given this name when they were enslaved and kept it.  Other blacks at the time of emancipation took the names of Washington or Jackson or Jefferson to honor our founders.

I never thought I’d get to “pick” my last name – I just inherited mine willy nilly,  and of course my contemporaries also inherited theirs.  But it was only probably four or five generations earlier when all this naming business took place.  And of course that also meant that these were the families that had never left the area for the northern or western part of the U.S.

And then there was the in-breeding.  I was much older when I finally saw the movie Deliverance, and when I finally saw it, I remembered a very similar situation in my small town.  The in-bred cousins who kept it up over generations had strange kids who were pretty much known to be “MR’s” which was our shorthand for “mental retards.”  Completely unacceptable to say this now, but back in the early 1970’s, it was common.  These kids looked different, were slower physically as well as mentally, some with the tell-tale signs of Downs’ Syndrome.  The town kids pointed them out and that they were the products of inbreeding.  It was very sad, looking back on it.  Mostly they had lived in the country, too, along with the black kids, so they, too, ended up getting bussed in.

All of my classes had several grades mixed in – I was mostly in with other junior high kids, but for math I and one other kid were in with  high chool juniors and seniors, and in band, they just needed people who could play instruments.

As much as their world was strange to me, mine was to them, too.  Mostly once they found out I had lived in Los Angeles, they figured I knew every movie and sports celebrity.  The big sports guy that year was Roman Gabriel who was a quarterback for the LA Rams.  I had to explain more than a few times that I had never met him and couldn’t mail them an autograph when I came back to LA.

Football was a big deal in this town – high school football, of course.  But also college football with the cross-state rivalry of the University of Alabama and Auburn University.  These were the Bear Bryant years.  Here’s where I think they were happy to have the black kids with them at the school.  They had a great team and I joined the marching band.

Which meant going to the away games on Friday nights.  Being on the bus, passing the flask of moonshine around. And flirting with the good old boys.  The much older good old boys.

Yes, I mentioned moonshine.  I lived in a dry county, so it was common for people to make bathtub gin or whiskey.  If you had the means, you drove to Mississippi and then brought in liquor from there, or just got drunk at one of the many bars at the stateline.

I also made friends with another girl about my age who lived out in the country.  She was a much younger daughter of older parents who had a couple of adult sons already, so she was indulged a lot, and treated like a combination tomboy and princess.  Her tomboy-ness extended to knowing how to hunt and fish and make bathtub liquor (all things her daddy taught her), and her princess side was in her frilly pink bedroom and in maintaining the one thing she knew she had going for her – her virginity.

It was about that last thing, maintaining the virginity (the sacred V) that I learned a lot from her.  In a rural place with few things to do on a Friday or Saturday night, unfortunately we had a number of 15-year-old mamas who became drop-outs.

And the good old boys could be quite persuasive in panty removal.  I remember one afternoon in the band room, this one guy slowly unzipped my dress as he was making out with me, hoping to cop a feel or go further.  He was 17 and I was just 13 by now.  But I was already busty and filled out, so from their perspective, I might have been a bit younger, but I was from California and everybody knew there were a bunch of libertines there, right?  Not like this bible-belt dry county.

Virginity, therefore, was a commodity not easily parted with if you wanted to maintain some sense of power, or if you just wanted to graduate high school and go on to college.  My friend wanted that – to go on to college and not be a drop-out mama.

She also took me to a Free will Baptist church which was even further out in the country than where she lived.  It was rather dull the day I went.  I mean I saw the snake but he didn’t bite the preacher, in fact, he just seemed as wore out as we all were in the early fall heat.  But if the snakes were asleep, the folks were filled with the spirit – it was the first (and not the last) time I ever heard people speaking in tongues.  I would have to study this stuff in college to find out how trance states were actually rather common in religious ceremonies – up to then, my Presbyterian church couldn’t be said to be filled with much except yawns.  Certainly not the spirit of the Lord.

I think my dad began to be worried about me – who I was hanging around with, what the boy situation was and could become, and of course, he was getting a lot of push-back from his wife.  Her facade of niceness was beginning to crack in her dislike of me.  If I didn’t do something chore-wise, she’d tell on me to Dad and he’d wearily “talk” to me, reminding me that we all had to get along.

All of these things led to my Dad making another phone call to Mom and announcing that I’d be on a plane back to California as soon as the fall semester was over and grades were in.

So just like that, only six or seven months later and I was back in Long Beach.  But when I came off the plane, I was a different girl than the one who’d left – I’d cut my hair short, I’d put on weight, and my face was filled with acne.  I look terrible and I felt defeated.  I didn’t want to be home by then – or rather, I didn’t want to leave home by then.  I dreamed of finishing school and going to Auburn University (my country girlfriend was an Auburn fan in the middle of Bear Bryant country).

Of course none of that happened.  I got back into school, finished out that year and the next and then went on to high school.

I also continued to put on weight, getting fat for the first time in my life.  By then, my step-father had nothing but contempt for me for becoming a fat slob.  That was okay as I didn’t want his or any other man’s sexual attentions.  I wasn’t ready.  I kept my mouth shut about the earlier molestation or any of the other sexual shenanigans I’d been a party to with the good old boys in ‘Bama.

***

Until I was able to be in marching band in high school, I had only my memory of being twelve and in the Lamar County High School marching band, traveling to the football games and during half-time marching to the sounds of the Mamas and Papas’ California Dreaming.

All the leaves are brown . . .

The Mom Chronicles Part 2 – The Virgin Edition

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Yesterday, I posted this picture above with the title “The Face of Alzheimer’s Disease” and invited people to guess who in the photo had the disease.

First, this is a photo taken in August 2002, at least by the date scribbled on the back of the actual photograph.  From the left are my Uncle Gene, Aunt B, my mom, and then far right in the booth, my Aunt Nancy.  Both Nancy and Gene (who were married) are now deceased, so I am using their real names.

It is my Aunt Nancy who had Alzheimer’s Disease.  By 2002 she definitely had it, and in looking at this photo, although difficult, there is a blanker look in her eye than with the others.  There is another photo that was taken on the same day just of her and it’s much clearer to see, unfortunately.

Nancy was 11 years older than my mother and my Aunt B is eight years older.  In this photo my mother is about 68 and is sitting between her sisters; I think this is probably a lunch for her birthday which is in August.  This coming August my mother will be 80.  Quite an accomplishment and one she didn’t expect would happen, as she often tells me.

We don’t see any of the signs of Alzheimer’s in Aunt B or my mom, which is good.  Nancy had the beginnings of it probably by her mid-60’s to early-70’s.  Sadly, Uncle Gene grew increasingly concerned about her and her ability to get along without him; at one point, he looked into assisted living for her, but never pulled the trigger.  And then he up and died suddenly with no arrangements having been made.  But as she was deteriorating rapidly by then, my cousins decided to try and go with home care, so she’d have the familiarity of surroundings.  She died a few years ago, peacefully we’re told.  By the end, she really knew nobody.

My mother was the youngest sister.  There was a brother, too, but he died very young before she was born.  I have called my mom the “oooops” baby of my grandparents, but she might also have been the “grief” baby of them, too.  Losing their little “Tommy” was devastating to both of them.  I never heard a lot of talk about my dead boy uncle by anybody, which looking back on it seems strange in a way, but also just ineffably sad.

She was born in 1934, pretty much at the height of the depression.  But as a baby it didn’t affect her the same way it affected her much older sisters.  Both Nancy and B made real sacrifices during the depression and then in World War II. My mother, however, became a teenager in the very late 1940’s, after the end of the war.  Nancy and B were both war brides and both of my uncles, Gene and Marshall, served.  Uncle Marshall, B’s husband was in England and lived through the London bombings.  Uncle Gene, however, was sent to Chicago and made prosthetics during the war.  His skills as a tool and die maker were ones he used after the war and he ended up in business for himself.

One of the family dynamics that existed was that Aunt Nancy became my mom’s “second” mom.  My grandmother was back in college, getting her degree in public health nursing and then was working, so Nancy took care of my mom to help out Grandma.  My mother has said often that she felt a lot of mother love from her sister, as well as some “smother” love, too.  It probably will not come as a surprise that Aunt Nancy became a kindergarten teacher and tried for years to have her own kids, only to adopt two daughters who are close in age to me, making her a much older mother than my own.

When you’re the youngest, and by so many years, in many ways you are like an only child.  You don’t rub up against siblings close in age, you don’t have to learn sharing or taking turns or all of the myriad of little lessons that families with close-in-age kids have.  So I think it is fair to say that she was spoiled and probably coddled a bit.  I can imagine her older sisters enjoying fussing over her, dressing her up and playing with her much like a living doll.

She was cute and there are some pictures of her and Grandpa that are adorable; she with the braided pigtails and he of the gruff and somber mein.  Being the father of three living daughters brought him great joy but losing his namesake son had to have brought him such sorrow.  I hope my mother loving her Daddy helped in his grief.

By the time my mom was ready for college, it was UCLA; she pledged Kappa Delta, a sorority on campus and lived at the house.  It was at a mixer that she met my dad who was a fraternity man on campus, a rather big man on campus actually.  My dad was already the President of the Associated Mens Students and ran for President of the student body (he didn’t win.)  But at 6′ 5″ he was an imposing presence and you didn’t ever forget meeting Bob (my dad’s real name.)  I’m sure mom didn’t – they dated and got pinned, engaged and then married – in that order.  It was probably 1953-54.  My mother had finished her junior year in college, so she was 20 and my dad 24.

Wow.  They were young.

And inexperienced.  And . . . inexperienced.  Right.  I have often wondered how people channeled their libidos during this time and looking at their ages at marriage – that’s how.  They got married young.  So sex was part and parcel of at most, engagement, and often people just waited until marriage.  I’m not saying everybody during this time were virgins, just that my parents were.  Kindof sweet, actually.

I shouldn’t know this, of course. 

The fact that I do is really terrible and has a lot to do with my mother and her issues, because I guarantee you, my father would never have said a word to me about this.

When I was hurtling into teenage-hood, my mother decided to have the talk with me, but she chased it with an appointment with a gynecologist, to put me on the pill.  I was 17 and yes, I was thinking of having sex with my boyfriend, kindof, sortof.  I hadn’t done it or anything, and I hadn’t really considered all the logistics to it, even though I’d taken the sex-ed class and seen how condoms went on bananas.

She knew what was up, though, because my boyfriend was . . . black.  A very nice young man, and one of the few black students at our school.  His mom, too, was a social worker like my mom, but they worked in different parts of the same agency and didn’t know each other.

In her unacknowledged racism, cloaked by concern for me, she made an assumption.  She leapt to the conclusion that we’d already done the nasty and that I might already be pregnant.  So she sat me down and gave me the “there’s no percentage in being a virgin” talk, and oh by the way, you’re off to see the doctor tomorrow at 2 pm.

Why would a mother give THAT talk to a teenaged girl?  Well, see, it had everything to do with her marriage to my dad, the two virgins thing.  In this talk she decided I was now old enough to know the truth – that sex had been awkward, then horrible,  never got much better, and she was married to the guy by then.  Better to “get that out of your system” before you get married, she said.  Virginity was an old, tired concept and of no use to anybody, especially the virgin.  (By the way, it’s obvious isn’t it that my parents were divorced.  By the time my mother was 29, that marriage was long over.)

I think she was hoping that if we’d done IT, that we’d used condoms and that even if that wasn’t perfect, there was still time to get me on the pill and prevent a mixed-race baby.  Like I said, even if she’d deny it to her dying day, the fact that C. was black had more to do with this little talk and appointment than anything else, of that I’m convinced.

But anyway, I dutifully went off to the doctor and got on the pill.  And two weeks later, well, hey I was on the pill now, right?  So . . . as I told my mother many years later, sex was on the radar, but her actions put it within the crosshairs, to mix a a couple of of metaphors.

Not that this guy was going to be a keeper, for soon after the big event with a couple of other events under our belts, we broke up.  And, by the way, he was a virgin, too.  As sweet as the movies think it is, it’s also the awkwardest thing ever, too.  No matter how many sex-ed classes you take.  But at least when you’re both virgins, you share the awkwardness equally.

The break-up was inevitable because C. turned 18.  Which maybe wouldn’t be a big deal to most callow youth (I was 17 1/2 and just months from being 18, too), but being one of the few black kids in a mostly white neighborhood and attending a mostly white school, he was smart enough to get that any parent who had a daughter under 18 would be more inclined to throw the “stat rape” book at him. (I think that might have been part of the talk his mother gave him.)  So he dropped me pronto.  As far as I know, he stayed away from high school girls entirely after that.  And soon after, he disappeared from school entirely, not walking graduation that spring.  I later heard he joined the Marines.

That’s a long way around to saying that my mom was a product of her 1950’s upbringing and did the right thing but by the time her daughter was 17 (in 1975), the right thing had radically changed and we were in the sexual revolution big time.  As a divorced woman, she had had a chance to take advantage of this revolution, too, and I think it is probably a measure of some of her true motherly concern that I not end up being unhappily married to somebody just because sex was the driving force towards marriage.  Her fate didn’t have to be my fate, in other words.  Oh yeah, and she didn’t really want to be the grandmother to a mixed-race baby, either.

I’ve often wondered whether I would have lost my virginity then to that guy, had I not had a rather big push towards it by my own mother.  I really don’t know. What I do know is that I planned on going to college, and not just a commuter campus, so I planned on moving away far enough that I had to live in a dorm in 1975, we were talking co-ed dorm.  I knew I didn’t want the scarlet V carved on my chest for all the world to see, so it’s more than possible that I did what most any teenager would do under the circumstances – I took advantage of the situation and the person for my own ends, which probably coincided with his ends, too.

It’s not a proud thing to admit that you used a person and let them use you, too.  At the time, it didn’t feel that way, but looking back, my motivations certainly weren’t pure.  As neither were my mother’s.

Maybe none of ours ever are.