Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part V)

Growing up and treading lightly
Okay, let’s see…so far in this story we’ve talked about:
a.) My natural Mother dying
b.) My life being on the fast-track to nowhere
c.) My awkward social introduction to Southern California schools
d.) My Stepmom Maxine beating me.

Umm…are we ready to talk about something positive for a change? I mean if I didn’t know better, I would conclude from my own words that I had a terrible, unhappy childhood. However nothing could be further from the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have definitely changed a few things if I were pulling all the strings (whoah…that sounds like a good song lyric doesn’t it?), but I wasn’t, and I still had fun. Although it’s impossible for anyone to be totally objective in interpreting the events and happenings of their own life, I know one thing: I am no tortured soul. I have had more than my share of hardship and sorrow, but at the same time I have enjoyed greater heights than many do as well. Yes I would change a few things, but on balance, I’d take my experience over that of a lot of other “successful” people I’ve known. And many of the reasons that things turned out the way they did was because of Maxine.

Take my schoolwork, for example. That same kid who came within one missed homework assignment from failing the fourth grade, suddenly began pulling all A’s and B’s immediately after we moved to California. Why? Oh, maybe the fact that somebody finally made him do his homework had something to do with it. And while I still struggled with math, my report cards featured only a small handful of C’s for the last five years of my secondary education. The increased self-confidence I enjoyed as a result led to my involvement in student government and intramural sports. By Ninth Grade, while I wouldn’t exactly say I was a “big man on campus” (actually I was still quite small at that point), I was however well known, and I think, pretty well-liked by everyone, including the same people who teased me when I first arrived a year earlier.

And I have Maxine to thank for it.

Although our relationship started out pretty rocky, it gradually got better over time. And from day one, she placed total emphasis on me doing my homework. I wasn’t allowed to do anything after school until it was done. And that’s when the transformation began to happen. It wasn’t that the schoolwork got easier, but rather the simple concept of self-application she forced me to learn that did the trick.

She was also responsible in other more indirect ways to my involvement in things like my church group, in which I made the most wonderful, long-term and fulfilling friendships, many of which remain to this day. She herself, along with my Dad was involved in many church activities at that time, so we had to be there when they were. Soon, I loved being with my friends so much that I was finding any excuse I could to go whenever the doors were open, whether or not my parents were there.

My becoming involved with Gymnastics, I too indirectly credit to Maxine. After a being well-known in junior high, I suddenly was cast again into the sea of anonymity that was high school. Nobody knew who I was and vice-versa. Student government in a place so vast was way too intimidating. However I needed something to do that I could personally hang my hat on. My relationship with Maxine was still pretty unpredictable, and quite frankly, one of the best by-products of all my extra-curricular activities was the time it afforded me away from home. Less time to possibly say the wrong thing or forget to do the right thing, and suffer the inevitable consequences.

So when my regular gym class coach suggested I try out for the gymnastics team after seeing me deal well with the apparatus in P.E. class, it intrigued me. I loved competing in sports, but was always too small to play on organized teams. Up to that point I hadn’t even been aware that Gymnastics was a sport.

A sport in which being diminutive was more an advantage than a hindrance? Now that was a revolutionary concept! And the fact that we had workouts that kept me out of the house until 6:30 every night was the ultimate added bonus.

I can’t say how much, but I also think Gymnastics helped to curb Maxine’s inclination to hit me. I grew four inches from the beginning of 10th grade to the end of the year, which for me was really saying something. I also started putting on muscle — to the point that my Dad innocently, but mercilessly, embarrassed me everywhere we went the following summer, making me roll up my shirt sleeve and, “show ‘em your muscles.” The thought of it still makes me cringe in embarrassment.

However the positive effect, apart from the obvious confidence boost, was that Maxine seemed less inclined to take her aggressions out on me. And since a large part of why I got involved with the sport in the first place was as an excuse to be away from home, yeah, it’s a backhanded compliment. However I still give her the credit in leading me to take that most important path in my life.

But backhanded compliments aside, the good things Maxine gave to me are nearly too numerous to mention in one sitting. Attention to detail is one thing that is an integral part of my personality, because it was a part of hers.

Respect for people, their feelings and their property is something I credit her with developing in me. If you use something that belongs to someone else, it’s disrespectful to do anything but return it in as good or better condition than it was when you borrowed it. This was one of her credos. Her life was highly ordered. She knew where everything belonged and was immediately aware when something was out of place. That level of order is something I will never attain, but is something I constantly strive for.

My work ethic is totally a result of her example and what she demanded from everyone in my family. She was a tireless worker, and you would keep up with her. And though I hated it at the time, it stuck with me, and has served me well.

She was a tightwad. So am I, to a lesser degree. But she definitely taught me to respect the value of a dollar. I’ve raised both of my kids that way and am happy to report that they are amazingly mature in that regard. They appreciate what they have as I do. Maxine taught me to be that way.

My Father taught me to me kind. Maxine taught me to be wary.

My Father taught me to be sensitive. Maxine taught me to look at both sides of an issue.

My Father taught me compassion. Maxine taught me common sense.

My Father led by example, and has always been my hero in the way he has endured, doing what he had to do, always without balk or complaint.

Maxine demanded respect, and got it, because ultimately she backed it up with a tireless work ethic, providing me the elements I needed to be successful in life.

He is my gentle strength.

She is fire in my belly.

He is the contentment in my heart.

She is the anger in my soul.

I never, ever felt I had to prove myself to gain my Dad’s acceptance. I never stopped trying to gain hers, even though I knew I already had it.

Nothing could make me feel any more secure than my Father’s love, but nothing ever made me feel better about myself than that day a little more than a year before she died, when Maxine told me how proud she was of me. From that point on, the beatings had never happened; I had never been thirteen years old; I had never dreaded coming home after school.

Is that healthy? To allow myself to be so manipulated emotionally as to place such importance on someone who some people would say doesn’t deserve so much as a thank you for the way she had abused me?


To not look at the whole picture in any endeavor, now that’s not healthy. Unforgiveness is the poison of the soul. I have dealt with the hurt and have forgiven her. I have chosen to look at the good Maxine did for the whole person that I’ve become, and be thankful.

Full circle.

Next: Tangled up in Blue: The Eulogy
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