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Saturday, June 25, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: Survivor’s Guilt & a Plateful of Grateful

There are so many types of abuse and so many degrees. I grew up in an abusive household experiencing things that no child should, however many abuse survivors might easily say, “Ha! You call that abuse?” Unless I am conducting a rare intellectual investigation of my life, I don’t often think of myself as abused or neglected. The bad things happened to another person—the little girl I once was. I don’t feel sorry for myself; I do feel sorry for her.

Kelsey Briggs was a beautiful little girl who was repeatedly, brutally abused by her stepfather. Abused to death. It wasn’t my own experience but the story of Kelsey Briggs that compelled me to become a GAL (Guardian ad Litem). My thinking went something like, “I’m too old to be a cop, and my aim isn’t good enough to be a vigilante…I’ve got to do something for these kids.” Kids like Kelsey Briggs remind me of how easy my life has been—dare I say I was abused?

No matter what we are, we are statistics. There is a certain element of guilt attached to being “an abused child,” when you’ve never had a broken bone, bruises, burns, or internal injuries; though not all abuse survivors suffer guilt. The fact is that no one should be abused, but it’s easy to overlook the facts in the face of the degree of abuse or in a culture where abuse is the norm (or perceived to be the norm).

From the time I was eleven years old until I was in my mid-forties, a day didn’t go by that I didn’t wish I was dead. I hated my life, I hated myself, and I felt that I was less than a person—the darkest soul ever to inhabit human form. Oh, that’s so dramatic, but I didn’t look at it that way. I looked at each day as another day of getting screwed over, of not counting for anything (because I didn't count for anything), of being rejected. The thing that helped me recover from such feelings, to rise from the depths of depression (in fact, to rise from my bed each day), and to appreciate my gifts, talents, and worth is one of the many things for which I am grateful.

Not all abuse victims grow up to be depressed or suffer from other mental illnesses and dysfunctions, and many who do pull themselves out of it—when they do the hard work it takes to get past the past. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to tick off the good things in life, instead of the reasons life sucks. So here, in no particular order, are the good things in my life, the things that make every day a cause to celebrate and every breath worth taking.
  • The knight in shining armor who rescued me from what was little more than a shadow of life (husband FCE). 
  • My kids who know first-hand about the cycle of abuse, but who managed to be the stopping point.
  • My grandkids who know how to be their own people.
  • The people who felt I was worth getting to know, no matter how hard I made it on them.
  • Prozac—the first step in turning my life around and keeping it (mostly) balanced.
  • Hot showers and cold tea (preferably Diet Snapple Peach Tea)—not necessarily at the same time.
  •  A sense of humor. 
  •  A spiritual journey.
  • Dogs & cats, especially when they’re not fighting like…well…you know.
  • The ability to accept that this is not a perfect world, and I can’t change people.
  • My personal philosophy.
  • Reliable transportation.
  • Prescription eyewear, especially when the puppy hasn't eaten them.
  • Silence.
Sometimes when I would pass grand mansions and estates, I would think “I wonder if they know what they’ve got.” I don’t know if the people living in those houses do, but I am grateful to be aware of how very rich and full my life is (although I certainly wouldn’t turn my back on a windfall!)—in other words, I am grateful for the opportunity to be grateful, even at my most cantankerous, self-absorbed worst moments.

Nope, I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll never be the intellectually and morally inferior person who deserved punishment—the person I was conditioned to be, the person I learned I never really was.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: Cooking Mama

Until middle age, Fleas was a great cook. 100% Italian, she made sauces that were thick, fragrant, and flavorful. She even canned her own tomatoes. Dishes that were handed down from her mother were staples on our table. Every Thursday we had spaghetti; Sundays there was something more elaborate like lasagna or ravioli. On Friday, lentil soup was often the main course. The rest of the week featured American dishes—chops, steaks, burgers, chicken soup, and the like.

I don’t know enough about dialects to explain how Fleas and her family spoke. Their pronunciation of common Italian words was often different than other Italians (and certainly different than non-Italians). For example, cannoli was pronounced “gah-nool.” Lasagna was “lah-zyne.”  Prosciutto, “prah-jhoot.” Mozzarella, “mootzarell.” This, in itself, is not a big deal. As a child, I believed these were the correct pronunciations, and as an adult found that most workers in Italian delis knew what I was ordering.

There are certain dishes that children of good cooks remember and crave. They replicate these dishes with the recipes their mothers gave them or by learning to cook at their mothers’ sides. Three Fleas made, that were to die for (as opposed to her later cooking which was to die from), were stuffed peppers (meatless, riceless), “beetza-gain,” and a concoction called something like “gock-yole,” which is sort of a bread (I’m stretching the definition of bread here ever-so) made with coarse corn meal, eggs, and milk (I think). “Gock-yole” is made in an olive-oil coated cast iron frying pan (be sure to have extras in case you have to break one over your kid’s head); the corn meal mixture is poured in and fills the pan, and a hole is poked in the middle to let the steam escape. It’s fried until it’s shiny and hard, and then turned (I have no idea how you would turn this with just a spatula), and cook until the other side is shiny and hard.

I would be better able to recite this recipe if Fleas had shared it, but Fleas didn’t share recipes. It’s been over 40 years since I’ve had “gock-yole” (best served with thick soups like lentil or pasta e fagioli [pronounced bast-ah vah-zhool]), and haven’t a clue what it’s really called or how to make it (although I seem to remember that the olive oil was flavored with garlic—but isn’t everything Italian?—and it took a while). Someone once suggested “Polenta,” but polenta and “gock-yole” have little in common. Besides, Fleas’ dialect would make polenta sound more like “bo-lent.”

“Beetza-gain,” I learned about 20 years ago, is actually “pizzagaina,” an Italian Easter pie, cake-like in stature, and filled with eggs, ricotta cheese (pronounced “rih-ghaut”), pepperoni, mozzarella, ham, and other delicious things. The filling varies from cook to cook, and I’ve only had an identical version once, in an Italian deli in Palisades Park, NJ. I am nearly ready to kill for this recipe.

As for the stuffed peppers…I’m totally at sea. The peppers  were either roasted or boiled first, then stuffed with bread crumbs, seasonings (including basil and oregano), parmesan cheese, egg, and possibly anchovies (probably a very small amount or very finely chopped). They were then oven-baked. A lifetime ago, I found a recipe on a Progresso calendar for these stuffed peppers, but it was lost in a move.

By the time Fleas was in her mid-fifties she began to lose her cooking talent. Her sauces had become runny, better than thin tomato soup, but not much, and since she cooked for herself and my father only she had stopped making more elaborate dishes. I’ve often wondered if this was an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A True Story: Chapter Two

Introduction: Shortly after writing A True Story: Chapter One, the plot changed. I found another organization that exists only in your imagination and required my already-demonstrated talent for arranging unique combinations of 1s and 0s for your amusement. This organization is also at the mercy of electrical hiccups and bolts of lightning. The day after penning A True Story: Chapter One, October 1, 2010, I entered into a relationship with Organization-2 (while continuing my association with Organization-1).

With my hyperbole-detector in working order, I listened to the promises and enticements offered by Organization-2. I would be respected. I would be treated well. I would be entitled to little extras. After proving myself, I would be self-supervised. Did I think I would be disappointed? No; I don’t buy into hyperbole.

Organization-1’s recruiters assured me of their high standards; there aren’t any. Superior work is occasionally encouraged but not required. Inferior work is acceptable. Superior and inferior work are considered equal. If management finds a worker irritating, that worker disappears. Management reserves the right to disappear any employee at any time without cause or explanation. We are assured this is a universal business model.

Organization-1 began depriving workers of their only privilege. This was a threat often made, but seldom enforced. Things changed when Boss Daddy left.

Then workers started disappearing. Kool-Aid is the only beverage option in the cafeteria, and no one is permitted off-grounds for breaks or meals—it is Kool-Aid or nothing.

Boss Daddy’s replacement is an evil entity called FASMAB, not enough heart to be human, not enough brain to be machine. FASMAB is fueled by one thing, power. Not electricity. Not fossil fuels. Power over people.

FASMAB instituted a private club for Organization-1 workers. Workers are not to associate with the “disappeared.” Infractions of this mandate are punishable by “temporary disappearance” and expulsion from the club. Productive workers are demoralized. When my production dipped by 90% no one noticed. FASMAB, however, was keeping tabs on my less-than-private life.

I am not paranoid. This is a true story.

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: Here’s to the Good Times

Someone beat me and I thought he was wonderful. Yikes, a normal person might exclaim, get this chick some help. The problem was that the “someone” was my father and I was a child who didn’t know that all children don’t suffer corporal punishment. I am always surprised when a fellow baby-boomer tells me that he or she never got hit, and think the parents must have been “rare exceptions”—maybe they were beatniks (or anti-beat-niks). Isn’t this country built on legendary tales of “trips to the woodshed”?

In my mind, people who punished their children with spankings, “lickings,” or beatings in the fifties and sixties were “normal” parents, just as I believe parents who hit their kids in the new millennium are criminal abusers. Unfortunately for my children and much to my shame, the combination of my experience, ignorance, and entering parenthood in my teens resulted in the continuation of this family tradition. (In my twenties, I impulsively decided to go back to school, and in a child psychology class an Eskimo ended those practices for good. Our textbook included a quote from an Eskimo father who asked “Why would I hit my child?,” and went on to explain he didn’t hit other people who made him angry. That man ended corporal punishment in my home—if only he could have terminated mental disorders, as well.)

In many ways, I am like my father. Perhaps that’s because the only thing I remember about my mother is the many faces of her anger—an example I could not emulate since anger was not acceptable (it’s so much better to turn it inward and let it fester into depression). Good memories of my childhood are mostly about my father, my Uncle B., and my Aunt M. who sometimes treated me like the most wonderful child ever born (and other times refused to speak to me because I was her sister’s child). I idolized my father, and other relatives would say, “Your father is a saint.” I didn’t realize at the time that they—being on Fleas’ side of the family—were referring to his tolerance of Fleas’ behavior (if you missed the last installment, “Fleas” is/was my mother—the name chosen [by me] because of its similarity to her name. For whatever deep, dark psychological reason, it is easier for me to refer to her as  “Fleas” than as “Mother” or “Mom”).

My father was a font of advice that I took to heart, most of which is still etched on my psyche: “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” (or how to brainwash your child into being a perfectionist who won’t try to do anything for fear it won’t be done exactly right) and “If you want a job done right, do it yourself” (or, “never ask for help”). Note to parents: to successfully neuroticize your children, such phrases must be repeated daily, beginning when they are toddlers; it’s especially effective to use them several times a day.

You never know where your keyboard is going to take you. I started this installment intending to recall good memories of life with my parents to dispel the notion that it was all Dickensian. I am trying to dredge up big, happy events like birthdays or holidays, but I fail (it must not be a job worth doing). Instead, good memories involve adult-less moments, times spent with adults who were not my parents, times with my parents and lots of witnesses, or the times I was with my father only.

My father was home on weekends, and I’d often hang out with him while he did construction projects or repairs, washed the car, went to the corner tavern, or ran (actually drove) to the store or dry cleaners on various errands (every year I got to cast numerous votes for my choice in the “Miss Rheingold” contest—casting a vote or two each time we stopped at the liquor store). I know he took me fishing once (I dutifully caught a sunny), and to a baseball game (which I always remembered as the Brooklyn Dodgers but was probably the Yankees). When I was in the lower grades, we went to the library together. Those were the good times.

There wasn’t much conversation; aside from telling us kids we were stupid when we made mistakes or “acted up,” my father didn’t speak much (in our house, it was a good philosophy—be quiet and [if possible] invisible). “Children should be seen and not heard,” was Fleas’ mantra, but even I knew she meant “Children should be seen but not had.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: The Doctor Is in the House

NOT my mother
(Photo credit: Sura Nualpradid
Two weeks after I married (at the tender age of 18), I was diagnosed with a bladder infection, strep throat, malnutrition, dehydration, and—of course—pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, I was hospitalized.

During this period, my mother was not speaking to me and had forbidden my father and brother J. to have any contact with me. While I lay in the emergency room waiting for a bed, a ruckus erupted on the other side of the curtain that separates patients from each other and the general public (it’s a well-known fact that flimsy curtains prevent the spread of disease). Recognizing one of the voices only added to my distress.

The curtains parted and in marched Dr. Mom, Medicine Woman, armed with—I’m not kidding—an oral thermometer, and followed by an ER doctor, nurse, and my father. Fleas (that’s the affectionate name I adopted for my mother after she was no longer in my life) approached my bedside, put the thermometer in my mouth, read my temperature, and marched out. No one spoke a word. It was all highly dramatic…or—more aptly—melodramatic.

I’m guessing that my mother-in-law, with whom my then-husband and I were living, had followed her conscience and informed my parents that I was in the ER. Fleas seized the opportunity to again cast herself in the starring role, this time as “concerned mama,” coerced my father into driving her to the hospital (after all, what good is a starring role if you don’t have an appreciative audience?), then made a scene featuring key phrases like my child and a mother’s right. Whatever. I was in the hospital for two weeks, but it would be nearly five months before I saw my parents again.

At the time it all seemed bizarre, but I was feverish and many things seemed bizarre. Looking back, I now realize it all was…well…bizarre. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: Mom, the Environmentalist

What are the three R’s for saving the environment? Recycle, reuse, and reduce. There’s a fourth R and it’s my favorite—repurpose. I enjoy finding new uses for standard items—or even not-so-standard items. I found so many uses for clothes pins that I wrote an article about it, but my fear of rejection kept me from sending it out to magazines (in the old days, before everyone could be a writer on the internet).

I suspect that my ability to envision new uses for everyday items is part of the nature/nurture controversy. Am I genetically inclined to be inventive, or was I reared in an environment that encouraged creativity? For some reason, the key to this puzzle lies in a story that I’ve found very difficult to write, although it’s been told many times.

I’ve always liked cast iron fry pans, especially for pan-broiling steaks. You throw a little salt on the seasoned pan, and a little on top of the steak, and—if it’s a good steak, and you eat meat—it’s almost as good as cooking on the grill (if you like that sort of thing. Isn’t life just full of ifs?). I may be inventive, but outside of random, obvious thoughts like using them for paperweights or doorstops, I’ve never come up with a clever use for cast iron pots and pans (other than cooking in them, which can be quite clever). My mother, on the other hand…what a wiz!

One afternoon, my mother was on her knees on the kitchen floor, pulling a cast iron frying pan out from the bottom shelf of the floor to ceiling closet my father built for her (or more specifically, for her cookware). That was one beautiful closet, as anyone who’s ever lived in cramped spaces with inadequate storage could tell you. So there was Mumsy, pulling out the frying pan, but also engaged in a “conversation” with her only daughter (that would be me). By conversation, I mean she was yelling and I was standing there taking it. Since I don’t recall any action that prompted the vitriol, it must have been another one of those litanies of all my character flaws.

She pulled out the large frying pan for which she had been searching, and slammed it against the floor so hard that it broke in half, leaving a large dent in the kitchen floor. Were that not shocking enough, she screamed, “I wish that was your head!”

Here’s my question, she wishes which was my head—the floor or the frying pan? Either way, it doesn’t give a warm feeling. My mother was not a large woman; she stood about 5’ tall and did not spend any time at the gym. I doubt I could break an iron pan, no matter what the size, so I also wonder what fury drove the woman.

When people asked about my mother, I probably told this story more than any other. For most of my life I thought it was pretty funny—I mean how many kids had mothers this nuts? As I got older, I began to wonder if it could possibly have happened the way I remember it. Could any kid’s mother be that nuts?

About eight years ago, brother J. and I reunited after about 18 years of not communicating. We weren’t angry; we just didn’t have anything to say. From him, I’ve learned things about my parents that I had never known. I also learned that he had witnessed that scene in the kitchen. It seems he also thought this story was amusing, but when he shared it with someone else, she posited “Why do you think that’s funny?” I guess you had to be there…

Okay, it isn’t funny in the ha-ha-hilarity kind of way or even the carload-of-clowns way; for us, it’s funny in the how-bizarre-is-this way. I suspect I’ve found this story difficult to write because there is no way I can replicate the intensity and drama of that moment in words on a screen. As I said, you had to be there…

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: The Big Book Mystery

When you’re ten years old, you don’t need a reason to be eccentric. Ten-year-olds just are. My brother J. was no different than most kids his age. Some of the things they do don’t make sense. But if most of the things they do are reasonable, you’ve got to let it slide. One of his eccentricities is that he didn’t want different foods on his plate to touch. My grandfather was the same way. It wasn’t a big deal, it was hereditary.

I cannot tell you why a ten-year-old boy would keep library books in a wastepaper basket next to his bed. Maybe his nightstand wasn’t big enough. Maybe it was the most convenient spot. It doesn’t matter why, really, it just matters that he did (if he didn’t, I wouldn’t have this story to tell). There was no wastepaper in the basket; it wasn’t a dirty, smelly trashcan. If you looked in it you would see the library books and, if you were a somewhat sane adult, you might shrug your shoulders, but you wouldn’t put the books out with the trash, would you? Or…if you thought they might be trash, wouldn’t you ask the child?

Forty-five years after the event, J. and I still have not solved the mystery of the garbage books. Yes, our mother did throw them in the garbage; she claimed she thought they were trash. That was kind of odd, since we all knew J. kept his books in the wastepaper basket, just as we all knew that books with cellophane overwraps that are stamped “Property of the City Library” happen to be library books. So why did she do it? My guess is that it was her passive-aggressive way to let him know he should put his books in a more appropriate place. She “innocently” threw them away, so it wasn’t her fault that he had to pay for them. After all, if they weren’t treated as trash, they would’ve never been tossed out.

I have nightmares about borrowing books from that same library (which is 700 miles from me, so it’s highly unlikely) and losing them. In my dreams, losing library books is a heinous crime; I won’t argue the point. But how does it compare to throwing them in the garbage to teach someone else a lesson?