When I spilled milk on the couch during my graham-cracker after-school snack, it once again caused Mom to declare, “We can’t have anything nice because of kids!” It was true that she’d warned me before, but it was also true that she felt a lot of marital tension that was sometimes displaced onto me, so she came at me with the flyswatter, as I apparently was one of those kids who couldn’t learn without the threat of corporal punishment.
Mom stood only about five foot three and weighed 120 pounds, so I’d grown large enough to block the flimsy wire and plastic. I also had the reach on her by then, but she was cannier. She passed my guard and dug her fingernails into my bicep. I exclaimed, “Aye!” which satisfied her rage, and she went back to her easel in the kitchen.
More offended than hurt, I smeared the trickle of blood all over my bicep. Look! It’s a Rorschach inkblot of an archipelago populated by runaway boys. No, it’s a prison full of troubled juveniles. Now it’s a freight train going anywhere else. I laced my fingers behind my head to really display my red badge of abuse. That’s right. Just enjoy it, I thought. I knew how to get to her. But Mom wouldn’t look at me, and she wouldn’t comment. She just pretended to paint—except that her brush hovered over the same spot for too long, and her eyes darted between the clock and the wall phone, both avocado green to match the refrigerator and range.
Sometimes Dad’s mistresses called and chewed out Mom, telling her that she wasn’t a good wife. Mom would retreat to her bedroom for days with depression. The times my parents separated distressed me, as I was “too sensitive,” but Mom wouldn’t tell me why Dad slept at the armory. She insisted that he deal with me. So, he drove me into the mountains and explained that he sometimes “kissed” other women. I knew that he was talking about sex, but I didn’t feel angry; I just wanted him to come home. It wasn’t poltergeists that haunted Mom; it was Dad’s absence.
Although on the inside, I had Mom’s sensitivity and creativity (and male children inherit most of their intelligence from their mothers), on the outside, I had Dad’s masculinity and physical features. I suspected even then that what was on my outside explained her attacks more than spilled milk and the lack of a stainless couch did. Just the sight of me set her off. I imagined that Mom greatly regretted her violence after she’d had time to cool off, so I glared at her and let the blood dry. I predicted that someday, she’d tearfully apologize, and then I’d magnanimously accept her apology. I also imagined that someday, after I did something noteworthy, such as winning the Olympics or publishing a novel, she’d adore me. In the meantime, I kept my arms up like a German prisoner of war and let that blood just dry, dry, dry.
Mom, too, tried to be better than where she came from. She was a college student and almost an art teacher. Plus, she taught Sunday school, so her violence was our secret. She had, after all, banished the leather belt from the list of acceptable punishment devices, which made her a flaming liberal in our neighborhood. And she never used fingernails again. That was her growth. But I could still hold a grudge until the apology came, I figured; I could at least do that. My smoldering anger felt like my most lethal weapon against her because she did, in fact, love me, which made her vulnerable to me. My other weapon—my sassy mouth—only disqualified my opinions or earned me slaps to my shoulders and face. So, I withdrew to my bedroom or out of the house entirely, which only reinforced my family’s opinion that I created my own loneliness. There was no point in acting indignant. Sulking was disdainedand gained me no sympathy or relief, because it was what they thought I deserved.
When Mom and I fought, I became more truthful; I declared that I was happiest when away from home. She dissolved into tears. Mom was complicated and conflicted. She was in the vanguard of the now-classic American female dilemma of how to engage in women’s liberation and pursue a professional career while still shouldering most of the domestic responsibilities. As a latchkey kid, I was an expert at guilting her out, a veritable Svengali.
Mom brought many things home from the local university in addition to new ideas. She brought handcrafted silver-and-turquoise jewelry that she made in her classes. Once she brought home a petition to prevent building on the Sandia Mountains. I walked that petition around the neighborhood, enduring sour-faced women rapping on their front windows to shoo me away. Another time, she brought home a woman who was ten years younger than she was and who drove a yellow VW bug. Mom converted her to Christian Science. Then Mom’s younger peers occupied the student union building to protest the bombing of Cambodia and the Kent State massacre. So the governor sent Dad and the National Guard to the university to retake the campus and “stab some hippies,” as Dad liked to quip. Mom stayed home that day. You see, she was not only caught between feminism and a traditional lifestyle and between antiwar activists and the military but also between Christian Science’s perfectionistic dogma and a manifested world that screamed for imperfect material interventions. Mom was only thirty-one years old, which made her older than her university peers but too young to identify fully with the Establishment. She married at seventeen, had her first child at nineteen, me at twenty-two, and a third at twenty-seven; and if she hadn’t made those lifelong commitments so early, I think she would’ve made an excellent hippie chick—sans drug experimentation and promiscuity, of course.