Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part IV)

Reality…What a concept!
Reality can be a fickle thing. It can change so quickly. What was
reality for you one minute can become something quite different the next. Take me for example. One day I was a happy, carefree kid, living in rural Indiana. I didn’t have a whole lot to be concerned about, save the fact that I had no Mother, was failing in school, had my head in the clouds most of the time, and had very little to look forward to beyond a mediocre existence.

I was a happy kid, but I couldn't have cared less about school. If I wasn't drawing pictures at my desk during class, chances are I was pretending that my Bic ballpoint pen was the starship Enterprise on it's way in to dock at the space station, otherwise known as the front opening of my school desk. The teacher might have just as well been up there announcing the end of the world; she still wouldn't have garnered my attention.

That was my reality.

I don’t know if I developed into a dreamer as a natural consequence of biochemistry, heredity, experience, or all three combined. During that period from grades 3–7, I was constantly in hot water with regard to my schoolwork, or lack thereof. I put forth little to no effort, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. I never did homework unless someone made me, and that someone was usually my Dad, who, god love him, was already so stressed that he really didn’t need any more trying to deal with me. So Dad assigned my brother Jack to keep an eye on me and make me do my homework, which he did — for about a month. I somehow managed to skate through, although it was some pretty rough sailing in the fourth grade, where I literally came within a single letter grade of failing and being sent back to repeat it the next year.

I hated math. Still do. I enjoyed history. Hated reading. Hated social studies. Hated anything that involved studying or writing papers. Loved singing/glee class (even won a brief part in the 6th grade school musical production singing a song to a girl who was about two feet taller than me). LOVED art class (well, DUH!).

Bottom line is, I needed direction, and fast. Nobody thought I was stupid — quite the opposite in fact — I just didn’t care about school. Had we stayed in Indiana, and I continued on the course I was on, there’s no way I would have ever gone to college. There is no telling how my life would have turned out, or who I would have become.

However a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity. As Rowan & Martin always liked to refer to it on Laugh-In, the fickle finger of fate decided to point me in a different direction.

My reality changed.

Fate takes a Holiday
When we arrived in California in early September 1969, I remember simply being agog with wonder. There were no open spaces, apart from the beautifully manicured public parks, such, as I had never before seen. Every square inch of land was developed, but that fact lent itself to a different kind of beauty that really appealed to me. I marveled at how much thought, planning and effort it must have taken to produce such a metropolis as the greater Los Angeles area.

Everything was so crisp and clean. People hired Japanese gardeners to manicure their lawns. There were no potholes or gaping cracks in the surface streets and highways, as I had come to understand as the normal condition of such things throughout my life in Indiana. There was order here. I felt secure. I received a strange sense of well being while traveling in a car on the freeway at night. With its visual symphony of streetlights and headlights performing a hypnotic dance before my eyes, that feeling made me long for the day I would finally be behind the wheel myself.

My new life in California began wonderfully. I remember as we pulled up to Maxine’s house in my Dad’s old red Ford Fairlane, thinking how unreal it all seemed. Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you that Southern California weather doesn’t have an effect on your psyche. It was idyllic. I felt completely comfortable, completely at home.

Maxine burst forth from the front door to greet us. She ushered we three boys into the living room where we sat and watched TV while she and Dad excitedly caught up on details of our somewhat arduous cross-country trip from Indiana. Her house was so nice. It was clean and smartly decorated. Maxine was as meticulous a housekeeper as I have ever seen. I would become intimate with that aspect of her sensibilities as the years ensued.

We sat and watched the NBC Major League Baseball Game of the Week (funny…I just remembered that). It was great. My feelings were split between all-out wonder and warm contentment. This was my New World. Little did I know that this particular circumstance would be one of the probably less than a ten instances that I would be invited to sit and watch television in Maxine’s living room over the course of the six years I lived in her home.

Oh yeah, my reality had changed all right.

“Hey…are you a geek?”
A Hoosier hayseed; that was me. Now began the process of planting myself in the fertile Southern California soil and seeing how I’d grow. We arrived on a Saturday and school started the following Monday.

I’ll never forget that very first morning in Homeroom, beginning the 8th grade. I sat at my desk waiting for things to start. I must have really been a sight to see for the local kids. I never imagined myself a hick, but I sure must have looked like one. I was wearing a short sleeve madras print shirt, buttoned all the way up to the collar. The pants were my favorites, a pair of gold bellbottoms (that were about three inches too short) that featured wide blue and red pinstripes. Very mod — and of course, coupled with that madras print shirt, very tacky as well.

To this point I had hardly made eye contact with anyone, let alone strike up a conversation. I was sitting there minding my own business, when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned to look behind me and there was a rough-looking boy with a wide menacing grin on his face. Then he uttered possibly the most memorable words of my lifetime to that point.

“Hey…are you a geek?” he said, raising giggles from three other girls sitting in adjacent rows who were focused on our exchange.

“A GEEK? What the heck is a GEEK?” I thought, quickly, nervously analyzing the circumstances of my first-ever encounter with a classmate. I didn’t know what a geek was, but I knew immediately that it was something that I didn’t want to be.

“No. No I’m not,” I said matter-of factly, and turned back around, hoping that the boy didn’t smell my fear.

Welcome to SoCal, AJ.

It was a nearly innate response to the stimuli of that first day in school, that I knew right then that I had to fit in or die. I started paying attention to how others dressed, to know what not to do. There would be no more buttoned-up shirt collars for me. Strangely enough, Maxine did a lot to help me with regard to developing a fashion sense. She did a lot to hinder it as well, but that’s another story.

As an interesting side note, that boy and I would become pretty good friends later that year. I soon became aware that unlike home, school was a one of the few places where I could be myself, that is, once I learned the dress code.

The way we are raised usually has everything to do with the way we see the world. Everyone believes that. Everyone acknowledges that. Yet most of the time when someone does something that is perceived as blatantly wrong, we always say that he “should have known better.”

But what if that person was only responding to what they knew as normal. What if they thought that what they were doing was actually the right thing to do? Well I’m here to say that I firmly believe that was the case with Maxine.

She was “her Daddy’s boy,” as she used to proudly proclaim. Her Father, an itinerant Methodist Minister, was also a plumber during his off-church hours. His first three children were girls, and he needed a helper, so Maxine was always eager to offer. She adored her Dad, who we’ll refer to as “Grampa F” (with the “F” standing for his actual name — and not something else — just in case you were wondering). Grampa F. was a grizzled, gruff old man by the time I knew him. I don’t remember ever saying more than “hi” to him ever in my life. He scared the hell out of me. But from what Maxine told of him, he fueled nearly every character flaw she possessed. His temper was legendary, and he fully believed in and practiced the Biblical adage, “If you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child.” He was also a racial bigot, and so was Maxine. She used the term “nigger” with no apologies — ever. She defended the policy saying, “That’s what my Daddy called ‘em and that’s what they are.” What perplexes me still is the fact that apart from the use of the n-word, she never displayed any kind of animosity toward African-Americans that I could see. Personally, I believe that it was out of respect for her Father that she just refused to admit that he was wrong about something.

However, Grampa F. also taught Maxine to be strong; to be an individual. To stand on her own, and not be dependent on anyone but herself. “I can do anything a man can do,” she would often say. She was a tough cookie, brought up in hard times by a hard man. It has taken me a lot of tears to fully appreciate what her worldview was, and how it shaped her thinking and sensibilities. Therefore, this is where I take a decided stand on behalf of Maxine. This is also where I admittedly border on codependent behavior in defending her.

If you’ve read my previous blog stories about her, you already know; and if you haven’t, chances are you’ve already guessed it. Maxine physically abused me for nearly four of the six years that I lived under her roof. Most of it occurred without my Dad’s knowledge, under fear of even more reprisals if I ever told. I do not, nor have I ever thought that she had a right to hit me, my brothers, or her own children, who received just as healthy a ration of her wrath, as I did. That being said, I also do not think she was a bad person. I believe she was responding to learned behavior, borne of a time when corporal punishment was acknowledged as necessary and acceptable among the societal norms of parenting.

In attempting to diffuse my horrific experience, I like to make light of her method as “rapidly beating me about the head and shoulders.” She hit me in a way similar to a boxer punching a speedball. The difference was she never closed her hands. Rapid slapping; from the face to the shoulders to the top of the head was her usual modus operandi. It took a few times for me to learn to duck and cover, but that usually only meant that the punishment would last a few seconds longer. She was extremely quick and had a hair-trigger temper. Most of the time if she landed her first blow, normally a firm open hand across the mouth, she would go no further. I don’t know how she did it, but she never left a mark.

My brother TK, who would fly the coop the summer after we arrived because of he couldn’t get along with Maxine, told me years later something that I honestly don’t remember. He told me that I used to just stand there, let her haul off and slap me across the face without even flinching. He said it amazed him how and why I did it.

Me too.

”I’m sorry, we just don’t do that around here.”
Why did she do it? What was it that made Maxine fly off the handle at the turn of a single word? That’s hard to say, and my comments in that regard are made with admitted speculation. Was she selfish? Most definitely. Did she wish we kids weren’t “part of the deal?” To a lesser degree, I believe that was the case, but I’ll never believe that she didn’t love us, although “love” wasn’t a word that she threw around much. To me, in the beginning it seemed that we were an inconvenience; almost an annoyance. She hadn’t raised us. We didn’t know anything of her ways, which were always the right ways. She seemed frustrated that we didn’t get it. I really don’t want to make excuses for how she treated me, but on balance I do believe I understand it.

Here’s an example of one of the first incidents in which I experienced Maxine’s wrath. I think it is typical of her thought process and the frustration she felt in trying to indoctrinate us into her world. And, it was the only time I ever tried to apologize for doing nothing wrong.

It was sometime within the first several weeks of our arrival, I was in the living room watching TV (for probably the second of those ten times…). I was sitting in a chair, which was beside an end table.

Now I have to stop here and make a confession: I have a nail fetish. I’ve had it all my life. Not the kinds you hammer into wood, but rather the kind that grow on your fingers and toes. It used to be really bad. I don’t bite my fingernails — that’s just plain gross. Nope, I peel them. But I’m a neat person, right? So instead of dropping them on the floor, I would always considerately place them in a neat little pile somewhere within reach to dispose of them when I was done. I thought nothing weird of my little compulsion. However I did have one problem — sometimes I would forget to dispose of my nail piles.

You guessed it.

“AJ!!!!” I heard the shriek from my room a half-hour after I’d left my spot in the living room. I came in reluctantly to meet Maxine's glare, as she pointed to the tiny mound of shredded fingernails piled neatly on the edge of the end table.

“What is THIS?” she demanded. Foolishly, I stepped closer.
“I was just pickin’ my nails,” I assured her. “I do that all the time.”

She flew at me in a windmill barrage of forearms and hands before I could react.

“Don’t you EVER do this again! Don’t you know that this is the type of thing you only do in the privacy of your own bathroom?”
“Uh…no? I whimpered.
“Get out of my sight!”

I went back to my room, shaking, and still trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. I sat devastated for 30 minutes. I felt terrible that I’d let her down. It was my fault. I should have remembered to pick up that pile. How could I have been so stupid?

I summoned up the courage to get up and walk back to the living room, where Maxine was busy looking at a pattern for a garment she was preparing to sew.

“Mom?” I said cautiously as I stood at the doorway, my lower lip quivering.
“Yes Honey,” she said as if nothing had ever happened.
“I’m sorry!” I burst into tears as I ran to throw my arms around her neck. She looked surprised, but gladly received my limp, pitiful little body.
“I’m so sorry I messed up,” I sobbed on her shoulder.

She replied with the pet phrase of hers that I would soon grow to hate. “Oh, it’s okay AJ, but you’ve just gotta know that we just don’t do those kind of things around here.”

Yeah. That and about a hundred other blunders I should have known I wasn’t supposed to do that I would learn about in the next two and a half years.

Next: Growing up and treading lightly
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