Sometimes I wondered how much Dad loved Mom.
She liked to tell real-life stories, but she wasn’t good at it. Right before the end of a story, for example, she’d remember a significant detail that she’d forgotten to tell her audience and, in a fluster, would stick it in ruining the effect of the story. Sometimes, if the story took a wrong turn, she’d go back and start from the beginning. Or halfway through she’d lose her nerve, wished she’d never started the story, and ask someone else to tell it. “I don’t remember that story,” I’d say when I wasn’t in the mood. Sometimes Dad inserted a comment or corrected a minor detail, a distraction that caused her to lose her place. The story would peter out. She was sensitive to every nuance of her audience and expected uncommenting attention and appreciation.
Dad could be condescending. I don’t believe he was vindictive, but something was there, ready to be awakened in moments of self-doubt or anxiety about the future fueled by alcohol. None of these mitigating factors excuse his behavior, but he could not tolerate someone getting the facts wrong or stretching the truth to ‘spice up’ a story. He kept this urge to correct under control among neighbors and relatives.
But with his immediate family, he was unrelenting. When Dad cut her off to correct something she said, Mom immediately stopped talking and pressed her lips together. She’d say nothing, but her eyes darted between Leslie and me as if to say, “You see what your father’s doing.” If Dad tried to apologize or joke her out of it, she doubled down, her silence louder than a scream.
Our parents’ relationship was prickly and aggravated by drinking. They argued with a quiet anger and a strong dose of passive-aggression, the house filling with tension. At these times, Dad acted as if nothing was wrong, which made Mom angrier because she could think of nothing else. She’d remain silent, only muttering when she thought she wasn’t overheard. She walked around the house with her lips pressed so tightly together you’d think her jaw was locked.
When she wanted to tell a story, Mom was not one to interrupt or cut someone off. She’d wait for a break in the conversation. But if too much time went by, with her story pent up inside, she’d nearly explode when she spoke. Her emotion would sweep her away causing her to misspeak, forget, or become confused. At best what she had to say would sound rehearsed when an off-handed tone was required.
On the other hand, when she interrupted something Dad said at dinner, he became irritated to the point where he rolled his eyes and exhaled air with a puff of impatience. The result was a silence that neither Leslie nor I dared to break. Dinner continued accompanied by the sound of silverware scraping over plates.
Mom told stories about what she had seen or heard during the day. We interrupted her at our peril. Most of the time, her stories were funny, and we all laughed. Occasionally her story was one in which she believed she’d been wronged. Alcohol would fuel her paranoia. We were expected to express unquestioned sympathy or justification.
One day, she dinged the fender of a car belonging to a woman visiting a neighbor. Mom pulled over and got out, profusely apologizing. The stress caused her hands to shake more than usual. The owner of the car came off the neighbor’s porch at full throttle. “Look what you’ve done!”
Examining the fender. Mom found rusted dents in several places with no way to tell where she’d hit the car. The woman turned on her. “How could you be so careless?
Taken aback, Mom couldn’t collect her thoughts for a moment.
The woman looked down at my mother’s hands. “You’ve been drinking. I should call the cops.”
Here, Mom interrupted her own story to defend herself. “I’d only had a small glass of wine with lunch. How dare she accuse me of drinking? Anyway, I stood up to her.”
“I’m not drunk. Look. Your car’s ass is sticking out in the road!”
“That shut her up.” Mom looked triumpfully around the table. “She left, and I turned around and came home. I was too upset to go shopping.”
“Mom, that woman was mean,” Leslie said, patting her arm.
“She knew she was in the wrong,” I said. “That’s why she was angry.”
Dad put his fork on his plate and leaned forward. “Did you call the insurance company?”
“Oh, I forgot about that. I was upset.”
“You’ll do that first thing tomorrow.” He crushed the sympathy we’d shown Mom. “Where’s her information? Did you get the name of her insurance company?”
Dad’s sternness caused Mom to doubt herself for a moment. “I think so. Yes, I’m sure I did.”
Then came Dad’s final shot: “And you shouldn’t start drinking until I get home.”
Mom pressed her lips together and put her silverware down on the table. She was determined to get the last word. “A little glass of wine with lunch is NOT drinking.” She flung her napkin on the table. “You can get your own cup of coffee.” She went upstairs to their bedroom.
At the time, I didn’t realize that Mom’s account was more of a confession than a story. Her need to unburden herself was a characteristic I shared with her. But now, I think it was also a plea for help.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish