My first word was “Thanks.” My first sentence, “Excuse me.” My parents showed me how to be polite and well-spoken, to polish my best qualities, and to be kind to others…which I never realized until after they were both gone. As college students, they had been drawn to one another by mutual ideals of personal responsibility, community service, and human potential. My mother wore flowered frocks and a wide smile at all times, and brought an air of sweetness to her every endeavor. My father surrounded her, at times like a garden wall, at other times like a large and exuberant puppy.
Dad was absolutely dedicated to our family, and frequently begged my mom for more children. “But darling,” she’d say, knowing she was playing a role, and that his playful begging was an act, since they both knew it wasn’t in the cards, “we got it right the first time; we don’t need any more kids.” And so it was that I knew I was special, and therefore checked my small wishes for siblings before they could turn into actual longings. I was never lonely. Mom, the consummate housewife, taught me to sew, to cook, and so many ways to clean that it never felt like a chore. And I loved to read; reading was a big part of all of our lives, always the reward for when the work was done. Quiet evenings snuggled by the fire, Saturdays in the sun, it’s no wonder I did well in school. Being kind, I always had friends, but never felt I needed them, since my family was my world.
When I got to middle school, though, life got more complicated, as life does for all of us when we reach a certain age and the innocence falls away. You start wondering about Santa Claus, and then you start wondering about everything else. I wondered why my father was so distractible, and why my mother was so passionate about keeping things just so. I never got a chance to answer these questions, since the fates had other plans for us all. I was in eighth grade Science class when I got called to the office with the news my mother was in the hospital. It sounds funny to say mom died in a tragic cleaning accident, but that’s what happened, and it wasn’t funny at all; it was the most horrible day of my life. When I studied Chemistry in college I came to understand what I didn’t then: never, ever mix ammonia with chlorine bleach. And never, ever, ever let toilet cleaner near drain cleaner. Enough said.
In tenth grade, my dad got married to Sylvia, a nice lady from our church who was very kind and clear about how she wanted to take care of him (and after a few years of living alone with him, I was starting to realize how much he needed to be taken care of). I got two sisters my own age out of the deal.
After living in an empty house with dad for a year, our life, at first, was like a slumber party that didn’t end. Debra and Donna were empty-headed and light-hearted; their focus on fashion and teen-hunks was refreshing and cheered me up.
I wanted them to like me. But I was uncomfortable the way Sylvia would yell at them, build them up and tear them down, in a way I had never seen before; my parents never treated anyone like that. Sylvia would never raise her voice around dad, of course, and only little by little, around me. Then one day she yelled at me on the way out the door to school to “get my ass moving.” It was weird that what I felt was a sense of relief at her harsh words and tone. I knew who she was now; I felt like, for the first time, she was treating me as one of her own. I still hoped that she could be a good mom to me, that we could someday, somehow, feel close. Well, I decided, if that’s what it takes….
My father was clear from the start, that he intended to treat us all equally, and I was glad for him that his wish for more kids was finally coming true, even if it wasn’t with mom. “I don’t want to play my kid/your kids,” he said to Sylvia, as they discussed their wedding over dinner one night; “they’re all our kids.” I admired his attitude, admired him, and Debra, Donna and I all grinned at each other. Sylvia nodded and seemed to agree with this idea—to his face. But over time it dawned on me what was really happening. Sylvia, when she wasn’t yelling at Debra and Donna, was caring for them, talking to them, helping them in all the ways a mother helps her kids. On the other hand, when Dad wasn’t around, she never really talked to me much, except in that “move your ass” tone of voice.
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