My Mother's Boyfriend
This is another piece of the memoir, from childhood. I think i just need to generate material, then go back & look over what I have, and get a better idea of how it all fits together.
My Mother’s Boyfriend
The story of me and my mother makes the story of me and my father. Though she raised me, I let him into my life more than I let her in. Maybe I accepted him because I wasn’t able to accept her. Do all daughters judge their mothers? I can only say daughters seem a judgmental lot. Mother and daughter have less distance between them than any other pairing in the family: little girls have a romance with their fathers, little boys have the same with mommy, and boys and dads have the personal space all males give one another. But mothers and daughters have slim cushion. The hard edges are right there up against you.
I have a daughter myself, and I’d like to say it’s not so bad, but I think it is. I was sitting with my mom’s group in the park one day, and I mentioned that I was going to a conference that weekend with the subject “Mother-Daughter Issues.” The entire group exhaled at once. “That’s - a topic,” said one. The circle nodded. No one said anything else for a few moments, and then the subject changed.
There it is, we can hardly talk about it. Or we could talk for hours. Even when I was a child I thought my mother made bad choices, and I told her so. I thought she should have married her high school sweetheart, John Drysdale. I remember sitting on the floor playing with stuffed animals and telling her she should have married John, because then he could have been my father. As my grandmother put it, he worshiped the ground she walked on.
Men fell in love with my mother. Oddly enough, my mother’s pretty, gregarious sister doesn’t give off the same vibe. My aunt married young and stayed married, so you could say she’s enjoyed more success in romantic relationships. But I never saw her inspire the kind of male devotion my mother does. That first day my father called our house, my husband talked to him for about an hour. The next day he said, “I want you to know one thing. Your father loved your mother. I could hear it in his voice when he said her name.” At this point, my father had not seen my mother in over thirty years.
Before I was born, between her sad, awkward childhood and the depression and obesity of most of her adult life, my mother blossomed into a beautiful young woman. She was petite, but no Barbie doll: wavy dark hair surrounded a face with a well defined jaw and a long nose. A handsome woman, a friend commented once on her youthful portrait. She was no carbon copy of what everyone thought pretty. That picture still looks to me like a woman who would be loved for herself. Even later, short, fat and missing a front tooth, living in group housing for the mentally ill, she always attracted a gentleman friend.
The men of her youth, the marriage material, were John Drysdale and my father.
I met John when he visited my mother in my grandmother’s house. He took us places, most memorably to Seaside on the JerseyShore. We made this trip several times. My mother invited my cousin Ted as company for me, so four of us filled John’s car. I remember this pieced together group as the nicest “family” of my childhood. I had fun. My guard went down. My mother couldn’t drive, and my grandmother was mostly too tired to take us places, nor did she have money for gadding about. Most of the time, when I got to go to something like an amusement park, I knew I was the tag along, invited out of the goodness of someone’s heart. But with John, my mother and I were both being courted. Rather than dreading the inevitable point when some benefactor would tire of me, I was the one someone quietly tried to please.
Ted and I rode the kiddy rides at Seaside: the Dumbos were our favorite. We sat side by side on a bench seat inside one of the half dozen big eared elephants. A joystick made the Dumbo go up and down, and Ted and I took turns for whose hands were highest. The person with hands closest to the top got to control the up and down movement for that ride. I also loved the old fashioned carousel. I think Ted mostly humored me in consenting to so many carousel rides. He liked other rides better, and this made perfect sense, as the carousel didn’t do much. What I loved were the horses, their arched necks and fiery eyes, the jewels on their bridles. I loved the minute or so of running through the whole circular forest of white and black and red horses, swinging up onto whichever I wanted that time. The carousel was another world.
My mother carried herself differently on these trips. I think of my mother as being nice: when I was a child I thought she was the kindest mother I knew. But on these trips she really was nice. The tension went out of her shoulders; an edge went out of her eyes. John must have bought tickets all day long, because Ted and I just ran from one ride to the next and back. My mother would say just two rides more, we don’t want to drive home in the dark, and Ted and I would start the very serious negotiation of which rides would be the last two. The exasperation and stress that usually accompanied expenditures of money on fun was absent.
Maybe my mother felt better because she was a grown up on these trips. At least once, we stopped at a bar. I remember this bar being completely open on one side, and sunlight streaming in. I sat on a red leather topped barstool. They bought me a coke in a real glass, not the usual waxy paper cup. Nothing furtive about this stop, unlike my mother’s other forays into the world of alcohol. We were just a family taking a break from the road. I felt very grown up, sitting there trying not to be noticed staring across the room at a huge man with a tattoo on his upper arm.
Once we stopped at John’s trailer. This was John’s second home of sorts, the way my aunt and uncle owned a summer house at the shore, and I was impressed with his little metal house on wheels. It had a tiny kitchen, and a tiny table to sit at, everything bolted to the walls. The space may have been too small for my mother, who now weighed over two hundred pounds. She stayed outside, and walked back and forth on the little grass lawn, hands behind her back and eyes on the ground. She paced like this at home in our living room for hours at a time, and I didn’t like to see her do it here.
John visited us at my grandmother’s more than once. Things must have been breaking down between him and my mother on this one particular visit. She just sat there with nothing to say. He smoked, seemed nervous. I had told him I really wanted a giant stuffed giraffe that I saw among the prizes at one of the game booths in Seaside. What I really wanted was something I could ride like those carousel horses. The giraffe seemed the closest thing. During this difficult visit John turned to me and said that he had been in Seaside and nearly won that giraffe. He missed it by one number on the wheel. I’m not sure if it was this visit or another visit to my grandmother’s, but I remember him knocking the ash from his cigarette awkwardly, grinning at me, and saying that I once told him I wished he was my father. I don’t remember saying this, but I probably did. I certainly thought it.
I almost won you that giraffe.
I almost was your father.
John and my mother had planned to marry after high school: they had gone so far as having the blood tests necessary for a marriage license before she broke it off. She didn’t marry my father until her mid twenties, and so by the time she and I had landed back at my grandmother’s house, high school was far behind them. John himself married and divorced during these years.
So he took another try at it, with even less success than the first go around, when she had at least engaged herself to him. From the perspective of an adult woman I can understand why she turned him down. John was short and tubby. He needed thick glasses. He worked in a factory, and lost part of one of his thumbs in an accident there. He tried to join the army, and they pronounced him unfit. Clearly he didn’t love her only for her beauty, or he would not have returned, but he didn’t have the panache to win her.
I asked my mother about this numerous times as a child, as our life in my grandmother’s house became more unbearable. Another home for us had been offered, after all. I knew she couldn’t work, or take care of me by herself, but John represented a real chance for a life of our own. She looked embarrassed, laughed and shook her head.
By the time she answered I must have been a teenager. At last, she answered. “I didn’t want his babies.”
“You didn’t respect him.” I was baiting the trap.
“No, I didn’t respect him,” she replied, perking up: I was acting like I understood.
“Respect is a choice, Mom. He was a good person.” We knew what that meant. My father was firmly established as not a good person.
She persisted. “He was stupid, Kathy. I didn’t want stupid babies.” The disgust on her face would have frightened off even a besotted suitor.
“And my father was smart.” I tried to make the point that smart had walked all over her, but she picked up the refrain.
“Yes, he was smart. Look at you.” I was trying to make her sorry for bad choices, and she seemed to think the conversation proved them good ones.
She wasn’t sorry at all. “I respected Paul,” she said firmly.
I had no reply to that. I was old enough to grasp the impossibility of giving yourself to a pathetic man. Easier to give yourself to a bad one.
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