Our Mr. wOw on his childhood
“I wish I hadn’t told you not to cry. I’ll never forgive myself. I know that must have affected you.”
That was my mother, endlessly looking back on the night she had to send me off to … well, no other way of putting it – an orphanage. My intense, tormented, black-haired green-eyed mother, whose own childhood had been like something out of Dickens, had broken down. She had attempted suicide and was committing herself to Manhattan State Hospital. Her health, physical and emotional, had never been good, and I was, at five years old, already used to being separated from her, usually staying with family or friends. (My father, she told me, had died of “walking pneumonia.” He was an Irish singing bartender.) But this time, there was no room at anyone’s inn, and for the time being at least, I had to be shipped off to the nuns in Peekskill, in upstate New York.
My mother and her seven brothers and sisters had been incarcerated (I can only use that term) in a Catholic home for foundlings – their parents, my grandparents – were too busy hating each other to properly care for their children. My mother, aunts and uncles would grow up to tell blood-chilling tales of life with the brides of Christ.
That I was now on my way to the same fate, that she was “giving me up,” albeit temporarily, only increased my mother’s distress. (Luckily, my year in Peekskill was not brutal, although I can’t say the nuns were warm and fuzzy by any means.)
It was nighttime when I left. I remember the car that took me away, how enormous it seemed – and probably was; cars were like tanks in those days. And I can still recall my mother standing on the street, with a man, as I was driven away. But I don’t remember what haunted her, almost till the day she died. “Be a big boy, and don’t cry,” she said. And I didn’t.
Years later, when I was an obviously troubled child and adolescent, she would come back to that night over and over. “I know if I’d let you cry…” she would say, letting the thought drift. Mostly, we argued or I sporadically ran away and came back until, when I was 15, I didn’t come back. I told her, as often as she mentioned it, that I didn’t remember her saying that, and didn’t even recall being upset my first night away from home. I didn’t add that it was something I was so familiar with; that it was simply another upheaval I was taking for granted. “Stop killing yourself over this,” I would say. “I’m fucked up for other reasons.”
I wasn’t sure, actually, if I’d blocked my emotions and memory, as my mother insisted, or if indeed I was sanguine. I was already precocious. Perhaps all I was thinking was, “Oh, new people – can I make them love me enough to keep me?”
But my mother wouldn’t let go of her guilt. Even though I was “rescued” eventually by my Aunt Margot and lived with her family for another year, before finally settling in with my mother for good (mostly bad, actually), she felt sure my stay in Peekskill and her admonition was the root of my “issues” as we say today.
Well, I don’t think it helped. But I can’t say it totally shaped my life. Our relationship was already defined even before that. Raising me alone, she tried mightily to be a good parent, and in some ways was exemplary. In other ways, her own tragic life, her unfulfilled yearnings, her hair-trigger temper and insecurities did nothing but push us farther apart. (And there would be more illness and more separations. Alas, I would come to look forward to being away, and fearful when we had to meet again, in mortal combat.)
Luckily, however, shortly before I left home for good, my mother felt compelled to reveal something to me, “something I had to know.” She was so distraught – wringing her hands, literally – I was immediately terrified. Was she dying? She was always sick; was this it? Or was I adopted? What, what horror could it be?
“Young Wow,” she said “You know that I’ve always told you that your father died before you were born?”
“Well, that’s not true. In fact, your father is still alive.”
“You see, your father and I never married. We had a brief affair. He was already a married man with children. He was quite a bit older. I had to take him to court, and he pays a small support for you.” (It must have been miniscule as we were at that point on welfare!) “I have to tell you because you are getting to an age where you might need your birth certificate and it says ‘Father Unknown.'”
I burst into hysterical tears. My mother panicked. “Oh, my God, I never should have told you, I’m so sorry!”
“No, no, Mom. Is that it? That’s the terrible secret? That I’m illegitimate? My God, I couldn’t care less.” (And I was never a boy busy looking for father figures, either.) And then I laughed and demanded to know every sordid detail. “But he was a singing bartender, right?” Yes he was, and as it turned out I had been conceived in a rather plush booth in the bar where he warbled and tended. (No surprise that I grew up to like liquor more than I should.)
Despite all I already knew of my mother’s life, this was the significant final piece of the puzzle. So much made more sense to me now. And for the very first time, I looked at her as a woman, a human being. Not, for once, the mother who was part stranger, part adversary. Half crazy and half brilliant.
I was 14 when she gave me this gift of revelation. But it wasn’t enough to keep me home. A year later I’d leave, and for the next 15 years we’d argue bitterly and then not speak to each other, embrace awkwardly, each look at the other wondering what the hell went wrong, and was it ever right? But my mother was never abstract again. She was often intolerable to me and I to her. But I knew her, at last. We’d never be friends, but I knew her.
She died young, in her 50s. Watching her die was a horror – she called out for her own mother, who was alive but didn’t care to visit. She also made another startling confession, and that it came on her deathbed broke my heart. But that one I’ll keep. And regrets? I had more than a few, and too late to remedy. But we made our peace and apologies with both of us insisting no apology was necessary.
My mother and I would argue over Mother’s Day. Even when we were not speaking, no matter how ugly our exchange had been, she expected a visit, a card and flowers. Once, she phoned me: “You know, it’s Mother’s Day! You could call at least.”
“But I’m mad at you. The last time I came to dinner you had a priest there, to tell me I’d burn in hell if I didn’t change my ways! Let’s wait until I’ve gotten over that. Wouldn’t you prefer flowers when I sincerely mean it?”
“I think you should honor Mother’s Day,” she said, and hung up.
I think I should have too. And I wish I could. I think we’d be friends now.