Monday, August 16, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part III)

It’s impossible for me to completely control who reads this blog. It is admittedly and quite purposefully an open letter of my life to the world. As I’ve said on numerous past occasions, although I do not use my real name, or the actual names of any of the living family or friends I feature in my stories, I certainly have no illusion of any true anonymity here in Blogland. I have given more than enough information about the events and people in my life, that any gumshoe with half a nut could figure out who I really am.

That being said, I do wish to protect the identity of those I write about with respect to their privacy. I attempt to be honest about the people in my stories, and not hurtful or overly critical to anyone. However…and there is a point, in being honest, that it becomes necessary to abstain from pulling punches. I have at times been co-dependent in my support of Maxine and the tactics she used in dealing with me growing up. Perhaps I still am. I'm sure there is at least one other person who will read this that will be able to definitively recognize if that is the case. Yet I will be truthful here.

This story is quite possibly the most difficult one of my life to tell, because it is so rife with mixed emotions. It is the story of the one who has done more to shape my attitudes, my convictions as well as my demons, than anyone in my life — even my beloved and adored Father.

It’s about Maxine, my Stepmom.

And no, Maxine isn’t her real name, but anyone who knew her and reads this will recognize her instantly. Those of you who fall into this category are the ones I want to address right now. If you are out there. If you know who I am, and who she was. If you are a part of my family or hers, be prepared for some brutality, as well as some brutal honesty.

I have no intention of besmirching the memory of the only woman who was truly “Mom” to me. I have no intention of besmirching the memory of her Father, upon whose whose trodden ground she worshipped, but whom also was responsible for the vast majority of her character flaws. Be prepared to hear me speak of the influence he had on me through her.

I love Maxine. Her memory is as important as nearly anything in my life. The opportunity I had to celebrate her in delivering the eulogy at her funeral is as great an honor as I could ever hope to attain.

Yet she was not perfect. And it took a long time for me to reconcile the good she did for me with the emotional scars she left. But reconcile them I have, by the grace of God. This is a story that celebrates Maxine, but not without showing her warts along the way. I ask for your indulgence in considering the whole story, regardless of whether or not the facts ring true to your own experience of her public persona.

Thanks in advance.

Aunt Mom and Stepmom; the voice inside my head; mentor and (tor)mentor; vocal detractor and silent supporter. She was and is all of these things.

Maxine, formerly “Aunt Maxine” became my new Mom on May 17, 1969 when she and my Dad officially blended the families of two victims of familial Alzheimer’s disease. My Uncle and my natural Mother were a year apart in age and also a year apart in the onset and progression of the disease that devastated our two families. Dad and Maxine, already lifelong high school acquaintances before they became in-laws, naturally drew near to each other to compare notes and lend each other support through nearly a decade of confusion, frustration and fear.

When my Uncle began showing the signs of memory loss and disorientation associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it was passed off as the result of stress, as was the case with my Mother’s behavior. Since they lived half a continent away from the rest of the family in Southern California, Maxine dealt with the situation alone. She didn’t seek the counsel of her husband’s family, in part because of her own self-reliant personality and upbringing, but also because of the coolness which had always existed between her and the Indiana contingent. She had always considered herself an outsider, and well she was. For when the news finally reached the family in Indiana, while the story on the surface was one of compassion and support, the whispers circulating in the Church parking lot on Sunday afternoons were quite different. The general consensus was that she was driving my Uncle crazy.

In like manner, my Dad began hearing the murmurs of the family when they began to notice that the normally meticulous housekeeping habits of my Mom suddenly began to deteriorate. Piles of dirty laundry were found stowed in a bedroom. Dirty dishes from the night before sat unattended in the kitchen sink. Surely it was my Dad’s fault. My Uncle Paul, commenting in the Family history book he compiled admitted that he himself had voiced the opinion at the time that my Dad should spend a little less time on the golf course and a lot more time at home, helping Annie with the housework. After all, with five young boys to clean up after, it was a wonder she hadn’t broken down long before this. My Dad, certainly even more concerned about Annie than his critics, capitulated, and began to help as much as he could, but her condition continued to degrade. Her forgetfulness worsened, causing her to fail in various commitments to church and community activities. My Dad didn’t know what to do.

It didn’t take long for Dad and Maxine to get wind of each other’s situation, and to see the similarities between them. They began to write each other weekly, comparing experiences. Long-distance phone calls then ensued. My Dad bought a small reel-to-reel tape recorder and began to occasionally send “audio letters” to Maxine. As their sympathies for one another deepened, so did their supportive attachment to each other. By the time it was actually known what had befallen their respective spouses, the two were already so emotionally bonded that empathy blossomed into love.

As Uncle Paul wrote, “No one was surprised, and, I believe, everyone was very happy that they decided to join their two families to try and salvage what happiness they could from a decade of pain and sadness.”

“It'll soon shake your windows, and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’”

When my Dad and Maxine announced to us that they were getting married, I can honestly say I don’t remember feeling anything. I was completely indifferent. After they tied the knot, I was excited about the news that we were going to be moving to Southern California. What Hoosier hayseed kid wouldn’t want to live there? I never gave a second thought to what I was leaving, or what might have been. Those thoughts were still years away from creating a wrinkle in my young, innocent brain.

I sometimes now look back in amazement at the dispassionate way I responded to some of the events of my childhood. For years, I’ve been aware that I somehow just took it all in stride, as if that’s how things were supposed to be. Unlike my older brothers, I can’t remember ever feeling angry or bitter. In fact the only time I can remember crying about my Mom at all was at her funeral — and I really let it all out then. But soon thereafter I was back to being happy-go-lucky, ol’ AJ. I guess I just never knew to act any differently. I never really knew who my Mom was, and what I would miss, not having her, as a normal, whole person, in my life whlie I was growing up. Things just were the way they were.

My young life was an open journal, just waiting to be written. I couldn’t have imagined the changes that were soon headed my way.

A portend of things to come
I suppose if I hadn’t been so dense, I would have seen what I was in for. A few months after they were married, Maxine came back to Indiana for a week-long “get to know ya” session with the kids. Actually what appeared to be her mission was to “break us in” and give us a taste of how our lives were going to change. After the smiles and the “Hi Mom” hugs were over, Maxine slipped into something a little more comfortable — for her anyway.

She saw a filthy, unkempt house that even the hard-working Mrs. Williams had been forced to bail on. Goldie Williams was a kind, matronly housekeeper who my Dad had hired to help keep us fed and our clothes washed during the last couple years of my Mom’s life, while my Dad was putting in an exorbitant number of hours at work to pay for the her institutionalization. But now her services would no longer needed, as we began, only months out, the job of preparing the house to be sold and to get ready for the move to California.

The gloves came off — and so did the mask. My new Mom revealed her dual role as my new taskmaster.

Now don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t as if we didn’t need the tutoring on the mystery that was housework. We were complete novices to this strange concept. Although I have to say that I proudly held claim to the self-appointed title of “official” vacuum-cleaner operator in the household. We had a new, purple, Hoover upright that I loved to run all over our “modern” wall-to-wall carpeted Middletown home. It was “my thing,” vacuuming. However when it came to housework, it was my only “thing.” Sometimes several weeks would elapse between the clearing of the piles of clothes and toys, which covered those carpeted floors, in order to allow me to display my mad vacuuming skills. I never once before had cleaned the bathroom, swept the porch, washed a window, or dusted a piece of furniture. I was a one-trick pony, yessir, and proud of it.

But I would soon learn that my one trick wasn’t gonna cut it with Maxine. As I would learn months later, she was almost completely a different person when Dad wasn't around. When it was only we younger three boys: TK, LBro and myself, she took a decidedly heavier hand with us. At first I just passed it off as a freak mood on her part. Years later I learned that there really was nothing that unusual about this side of her. It was behavior that had been honed over the entire course of her life.

Maxine was part of a generation, the likes of which we may never see again in this country. Tom Brokaw paid tribute to my parent’s generation in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation. He noted that this particular group of people, in the span of fifteen years, endured both the Great Depression and World War II, forging within themselves a sense of destiny and moral conviction about what was right and what was wrong in their world, that it changed the entire world.

Members of my generation would later take exception to our parent’s “my way or the highway” attitudes, but in all reality, our parents built the highway.

This was Maxine’s creed. Her way, or no way. It was how she had been raised. There was no negotiation; no give-and-take. The first taste I got of that was during aforementioned visit she made in the summer of 1969, after she and Dad had gotten married in California.

The first morning she was there, as I said, the mask came off. My Dad left for work and I prepared to go out and play. Maxine announced that we were gonna “clean up this pig sty.”

I shrugged and said, “Okay, I’ll go clean my room.” Maxine glared at me and hissed, “Don’t you tell me what you’re gonna do!”

I froze in fear. I will never forget that feeling as long as I live. I thought, “What did I say wrong? Why is she looking at me like that?”

She paused and then ordered, “Go clean the bathroom.” I slinked away and did as I was told. I don’t remember much else about what happened that day, but one thing I’m sure of is that I didn’t take much stock in what happened in that incident. I didn’t begin dreading the thought of Maxine being my new Mom. I’m sure I just figured she was in a bad mood for some reason and passed it off as one of those things.

How wrong could I have been.

Next: Reality…What a concept!
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