Let me tell you about my mom. Because really, to truly understand a person, you kinda need to know where they came from. My mom is where I came from: popped right out of her…well, probably not that easily. According to the popular recollection, my dad put me in her initially, so clearly as with all things mammalian, I am product of a group effort. It might not take a village, but a couple of families and distillery will deliver in a pinch.
Jan, as I am wont to call her when not using her maternal title, was a product of the Great Depression, the one in the 1930s that the bankers used to gin us for World War II. Youngest of 3 sisters, her dad died when she was 2, and for a time she grew up with a stepfather. A drinker unsurprisingly, as this culture is particularly good at producing those as well. Jan told of how Jim, her stepdrunk, would hide bottles around the house to make it seem that his drunkenness was in fact a glandular condition that only smelled of rye.
Jan and her sisters were all redheads – a gingery lot. I remember how the room seemed on fire when they would get together, their behivey hairdos arching toward the ceiling, threatening to ignite the insulation. Spots? You bet. They were a freckly collective, Jan to my recollection the spottiest of them all. They proved contagious, those spots, and I ended up with the little bastards all over me too while my brother, with the hairline, has none. My sister got a few.
I got my Dad’s gender and my Mom’s spots. Among many other attributes as well. Didn’t get the red hair thing, so I dodged that additional torture, but my parents’ head genetics combined to give me a noggin of the curliest Goddamned hair you’ve ever seen. Short, its ringlets jockey for position of cranial primacy; long, it is a diaphanous hydra lashing out in all directions simultaneously, independently. Quite the thing to see.
Then of course there’s the hairline issue. The last time I saw my Dad he lay in silent repose upon the mortician’s slab. Through my tears I noted that while his mind, then body, had wasted away into ineffectiveness, he had a perfect hairline. Thick, defined, still had a little color. My Mom’s hair is fairly thin in age. That’s the hair I got, the thin curly stuff.
Bill, my dad, liked his drink. And upon deciding that she was inextricably linked with him, Jan decided to become a drinker as well. And as many Americans (and non-Americans alike) they would enjoy the occasional libation. Every day. As it was legal, readily available without a prescription and promoted widely, she joined the majority of drinkers in the notion that it is safe, forgetting that war is legal, readily available, prescribed regularly and promoted widely but is in fact quite dangerous.
A notion I would come to by and by.
Fueled by similar logic and deep cravings for acceptance then relief, my folks smoked cigarettes as well. My dad changed brands on occasion based likely upon what the rugged, manly individual on the TV told him would best fulfill his vaporous machismo needs, but my mom was a loyalist, and to the best of my recall smoked Salem menthols in the green pack. By their 50s they both hung that fun up.
And good for them.
In his 50s my dad also stopped drinking, which was good for everyone else, but signified in him the death of his childlike/childish joys, which I suspect led to his deterioration. He gave up. No more the fulfilling joy of intoxication, the freedom of the drunk pass, (I was drunk) as opposed to the drunken pass, (Let's do it, your husband will never find out), no more to argue late into the night with someone you love over something you both agree about. The ridiculous liberation of saying every stupid thing that comes into your head instead of applying the filters of polite society. Done.
Jan, on the other hand, likes her drink to this day. While it might be suggested that combining a tumbler of vodka with a handful of pharmaceuticals could be dangerous, Jan abides now in her 80s. In this an argument could be posited that our addictions sustain us as we must work to sustain them. Gives us something to do, gives us something to look forward to. As I get old I understand this.
Mom was afflicted. The tensions of life with Bill; raising a spoiled little boy while contending with a self-indulgent adult boy; a couple of miscarriages; then a damaged boy and finally an even more spoiled girl led to her back ailments, many and excruciatingly unpleasant. Body affliction leads to pill addiction, and as the years progressed, so did Jan’s dependence on the things which palliated her symptoms, for in cure comes diminished sales receipts. And in the USA we invent afflictions to profit from the cure. Just like with our computers.
I can’t say how much of my crazy mom was my crazy mom and how much was the combination of pharmaceuticals with the psychological stressors attendant in her life. She came of age during the USA’s mass chemical testing on its citizens and was certainly impacted by it as were (and are) we all. Upon reflection I see a person in pain reacting to all kinds of new and untested substances more than the angry lady that used to chase me around the house yelling at me.
When I had reached teenage, Mom made an acquisition (or two) that certainly changed my life. She bought a piano. A big old upright. Then she bought a player piano. The upright was boomy and loud and out of tune, just like me, and we fell into immediate accord. I recall the joy of watching the player piano work its magic and marveling at all the amazing sounds such devices can manifest. Bill was really into music, so my interest in piano held little appeal to him because he saw I would never make any money with it. Mom, I think, takes pleasure in the fact I can make music, and she actually liked some of my songs of old. Probably doesn’t mind some of my current ones either.
My dad was good with the English language and had a sense of humor. Mom has an infectious laugh. A useful combination as I learned young a good way to relieve distress was to get a laugh. Unsurprisingly, distress increased as the innocent guilt of childhood metamorphosed into the guilty innocence of teenage. I was called upon more often to find humor in the myriad unfortunate situations I got into, which made some of them better, but only served to exacerbate most.
I would suggest that this has led to my creative endeavor in life. As the solitary child for nearly 3 years, my primacy was usurped by first my brother then 11 months later, my sister. I went from all the attention (at least the good attention) to barely any at all. In Showoffitude I realized the means to recapturing the spotlight. Mom’s receptiveness to my goofiness evolved as my goofiness developed into useful capacities.
I know that the positive rewards I realized as a boy drive my creativity still, even though I’ve long since given up trying to impress my mom. Maybe with music a little, but for the most part, my family from top to bottom don’t much cotton to what I create, so I impose it upon them less and less. Which is fine. We each have tastes peculiar to us and mine are far too peculiar for most.
Mom is very feisty. She terrified all of us kids and Bill when we were young and has never been one to want in her expression of her perspective. If she felt we should know what she was displeased by, she was always very ready to let us know. Curiously, she was displeased by a lot. We were fairly rambunctious as children, growing into positively dangerous as we got older.
She got involved in politics fairly young, likely owing to Bill’s political awareness, and ran and served in local county politics when I was teen-aged and getting into all kinds of mischief. I’m sure my behaviors didn’t advance her political aspirations. She takes pride in her civic activism and I suspect she enjoyed her foray into politics more than she would have had it become a career. Even from a spectator’s perspective it is corrupting.
In our non-religious house, politics became the subject of esteem. Jan is a life-long Republican and fiercely proud of it. Just like Bill. I was raised very conservative with strong libertarian leanings, as Bill was not a big fan of Drug Prohibition and repeatedly expressed that the Constitution made no provision for the legislation of morality. Jan is more Law & Order: it doesn’t matter if it is right or not, if it is the law, it must be enforced. I suspect her exception (as with everyone) is when it is applied to her and those close to her. She didn’t like my drug use, she hated it for a period, but I don’t think my time behind bars as a result of it made her very happy either.
Even though I was just an asshole kid, I was still her asshole kid.
And while I find many positions she holds to be in tension with my perspectives, I don’t see my mom as a liar. My dad either. Mistaken perhaps, an easy mantel to hoist, but I have no recollection of them lying to me or promoting the idea that mendacity paid dividends. They believed what they said and didn’t allow me to think lying was a good thing. The result is that I am a terrible liar and more truthful (or direct) than polite society prefers.
In this I learned to own my shit. Everyone is happy to jump in with reminders of their successes, but Mom inculcated in me the importance of accepting my failures as well and, perhaps more importantly, admitting them. Owning my actions is something I am pleased I was raised with; wish more had been raised with it.
I consider myself among the fortunate few who get to enjoy really good lives. I grew up in a good time, good conditions surrounded by good people for the most part. I’ve had an amazing amount of joy. Fun, lots of fun. If I could have been any person at any time in history I’d still be me now (or George Clooney) because most of the people in history are dead and I like being alive. A lot. And even in my usual privation I live better than most while even George Clooney can’t do what I can do. So, he’ll just have to settle for remaining himself.
Mom is a fighter and that above all other traits I prize because I got some of her whiner and the fighter helps me modify it into qualities less repellent. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, Bill will pipe up, “Don’t be a baby, you baby.” To which Jan will respond, “I’m not a baby. You’re a baby…” And I will usually grab for some intoxicant or another to push them back with the full understanding that no matter how old I get, how smart or how stupid, no matter what I do with the remainder of my life, they will always be in there guiding me, driving me.
I take a certain comfort in that.
(They insisted I include that…)
She died a month after this was written.