There’s No Place Like You
There’s No Place Like You, is an ongoing memoir project comprised of extended format biographical essays of others who have been close to me, or influential in some way to my own life. The essays are written over a period of months or years and are drawn from personal memory as well as extensive interviews, visits and review of other biographical material such as photos, writing or home videos.
Bonnie LaRue Wycoff
William Harold McKinley Scott William McCleavy Clark
John K. O'Brien
Hugh Burnham Wycoff
Wednesday, May 5 1971
I can’t believe you’re really coming home in just a few weeks. I’ve missed you a lot and done a lot of wondering about what would become of our relationship. I hope you’re not disappointed when you finally do see me again, and I hope I live up to your expectations. I’m not a goddess and I do have many faults… to love someone is to accept these faults and I hope you find you love me as much as I love you. Even if you didn’t come home till August I think I would have waited. But I’m glad to know that soon we will both know how we feel. It’s the waiting and uncertainty that are the hardest…and as you well know I’m not the most patient person!
So anyway, how’s your hairy stomach!? I don’t know if I’ll like kissing a hairy lip but I can’t wait to find out!! Will you be coming back on that same airline? Gosh poops, I can’t believe it, I’m so excited. It’s been almost one year since we met…now you’ll be home about the same time we met last year.
You really missed the May Day demonstrations! 10,000 troops and a lot of interesting things happened. I got tear-gassed for the first time! At least they didn’t hurt the tank!
Connecticut was great, also stopped at home. This weekend I’m going to the beach to catch some rays. The old Datsun has 2,500 miles!
I hope you enjoy the rest of the trip. I envy you so much getting to see all those great places. From your descriptions I think I would like Corfu and Florence the best. But then I love museums and all the stuff you get tired of.
I’ll call G.W. tomorrow and see what I can find out for you. I can’t believe you’re making these decisions!! Goodnight poops…can’t wait to see you.
Bonnie LaRue Wycoff
My mother was brooding. My sister Meghan, her husband Mark, and their two little boys were late for Christmas dinner. In my mother’s mind Mark had delayed them with intentional malice. My mother and Mark’s relationship is decidedly tepid–sometimes antagonistic. She was projecting, interpreting his tardiness as a subtle jab. Maybe she was right; maybe he’d delayed them to spite her. Maybe it was passive aggression, or something subconscious, something Mark wouldn’t even admit to himself, but that was still somehow calculated to cause pain or consternation. I couldn’t know.
Soon, Mom was acting as if Mark had spit in her face. She trembled with indignation. Mark had cracked her book of wrongs. Once open she remembered every entry, every slight and snub and every prejudice she’d ever held against him. Her rationality seemed to collapse, no longer able to restrain an irrational animism. A dropped spoon covered in batter and a spilled glass of water became furtive agents conspiring against her, attacking in their ways.
She spewed strings of tangled expletives and rhetorical appeals to God, or “Fucking Christ!” as she cooked. Mark had been lost in all of this. He was the cause of her anger now, but not its source. These episodes are turbulent and deep. They are not reducible to dime store psychology, but allude to genealogy, to her father Frank and his soaring blood pressure, and to regrets and desires that have slowly gathered within her.
I sat in the living room listening to her soliloquy. Looking out the window into the backyard my mind wandered to the spittle filled imitation of machine-gun-fire and falling bombs I made as a kid playing war with G.I. Joe’s behind the house. Mom would stand in the kitchen window watching me play in the back yard. I got up from the couch in the living room and walked into the kitchen. I wrapped my arms around her trying to calm her. She relented, relaxing muscles that had clenched tight. She shook her head slowly. The skin around her neck was red and splotchy. Her heart was racing. She closed her eyes. Her shoulders sagged. She exhaled. As the air passed through her still slightly clenched teeth she allowed her lips to flap together loosely but rapidly, as one might when trying to coax an infant to smile for a photograph. But this was the sound of purgation; the breaking point, where tears begin and other, deeper traumas are revealed.
She reassured me in a shaky, knowing voice that her frustration was “better out than in.” I pictured this energy streaming out of her in dense compacted waves. She broke free of my embrace to stir the mashed potatoes. She leaned into the stirring with one hand on the counter, unwilling to let the ones on the bottom burn.
Her rationality came back skittishly. I felt her embarrassment at being seen this way. I breathed deeply and I shuttered, frightened by the fact that I knew how she was feeling, that I have at times felt this irrational escalation in my own body and fought against it.
Mom’s father, Frank, was the youngest of four children. His parents emigrated from Bratislava around 1900. Frank was born in 1915. His father was abusive and mean. Frank was painfully smart. (Mom has always told me that his IQ was 140) Still, his father had discouraged him from going to college. He took orders his whole life from men who had, and this left him belligerent and clenched.
Frank did shift work for Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Sarver, Pennsylvania. At the time Sarver was an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh by car. It was a town of laborers, second or third generation Americans giving the best years of their lives to the American dream of the middle class. Their house sat on a long straight dirt road that narrowed to a point in the distance.
Mom was born in 1943. Her earliest memories are of her father coming home after work; the crunch of gravel under the weight of his car and the echo of its throaty idle in the garage, the hollow silence as the engine died, the squeak of shocks as he got out, and the slap of the closing metal door. The approach of his footsteps loosed timid glances between her older sister and mother as they waited for the knob to turn. Even fifty years later she remembers a feeling of trying to shrink inside her clothes.
Frank would back Mom and her sister, Marianne, into a corner and scream until he was too tired to go on. Mom remembers trying to anticipate his orders, shifting mood, and quick temper. A moment’s hesitation, a wrong answer, or the slightest noncompliance brought the same wicked insults. Almost every day he screamed, “You fucking worthless piece of shit!” or, “You’ll never amount to anything you worthless fucking bitch!”
I imagine Frank wiping the venom from his lip with the back of his hand. Mom recalls her mother’s apologetic gaze and her attempts to restrain him. When Frank’s barrages ended I imagine his frustration with himself began anew. I imagine his self-pity stained with self-righteousness, and the regret his obstinate pride and vanity never allowed him to express.
Sometimes Frank would cook dinner as consolation. This was a reminder of his sacrifices, an act of benevolence that might justify his abuse. Frank had built the small cinder block house Mom grew up in on weekends and between working overtime. He pinched and saved and scrimped. He paid cash for everything and calculated the weekly groceries to the penny, telling the cashier how much he owed. The family always had food and clothes, but nothing else, no happiness or joy. Mom remembers her childhood as hesitant and unsmiling, a grim struggle to make it through each day without provoking her father.
With the exception of her father’s abuse Mom’s memories of her childhood are vague and illusive, more like dreams than actual events. She remembers sitting on the cool concrete floor of the basement with her mother and sister in the summers, doing chores, and sitting by a small stream on the edge of their property. The time her father was away at work was calm and quiet, hushed, almost peaceful but still restrictive, her movements still cautious as if walking blindfolded.
Mom’s childhood sulked in the background of my own. It was a nagging addendum to my garish, brightly colored plastic toys and video games, and a catchall for ingratitude. “I had nothing!” was her refrain. It seemed to rise up involuntarily. My mother was the sole disciplinarian in my childhood. She resented my father for this, but he was ill suited to the task. Mom had been pedigreed for confrontation. Frank had rattled the bars of her cage nightly as a child. She was good at yelling, but she was also terrified that her children would hate her for the talent. She wanted my sister and I to see our lives through the window of her own. She wanted us to feel the difference between her childhood and ours as an expression of her love and her striving to be a good person.
I hated hearing about Frank. The lessons he invoked grew clichéd and predictable, like being told to wash your hands before dinner, or reminded of starving kids in Africa. Soon, I could beat her to the punch line, “I had nothing!” I would say, mocking her as I felt it coming on, rising up with her indignation like a wave. I’d decided Frank was an exaggeration designed to inspire my guilt, and shame me into compliance–a man I never knew being wielded like a whip and chair under the big top.
The moral lesson that piggybacked Frank’s ghost was one of dozens of parables cultivated from my parent’s lives; stories about mistakes, repercussions, and responsibility. That my conflicts with my mother would shape how I respond to other’s expectation and disappointment, or how I react to my own frustration and confrontations was too acute an insight at the time. That my life was an experience that I shared with my mother could not yet inspire my awe.
If my self-confidence was her success as a parent it was a thankless victory. She felt guilty about becoming her father from time to time, about the rage Frank had planted inside her like a cancer, and about the distance that grew between us. She has fought against her father’s influence her entire adult life. This struggle has verged at times on depression, paranoia, and mania. I remember her touching the veins that stood out on her neck self-consciously when she screamed.
The differences between Mom’s childhood and mine are profound. My parent’s never missed one game, event, or graduation of mine. Snapping pictures and gawking proudly from the background, they saw every award, certificate, or trophy I ever received. They drove for miles taking me to practices and meetings, bought equipment, and paid for trips, memberships, and dues. My father sat for hours at the kitchen table tutoring me in math. My parents supported every whim, and encouraged every talent. My mother worried endlessly about my transgressions, about my use of drugs, and the friends I chose.
In middle school and high school my mother was a cheerleader. Her parents never saw a single game. They didn’t come when she was nominated to be Prom Queen, and they didn’t show up to her high school graduation. Her father bitched and complained about taking her anywhere. She was treated as a nuisance. Because of Frank’s abuse she never asked for help with schoolwork. She never tried because she’d been assured her failure.
Mom desperately wanted to be carefree. She loved to dance and drive in cars, to socialize, to smile and laugh–all the things she’d been denied in her childhood. Even as high school ended her thoughts about her future were thin and dream-like. She remembers fingering a small silver airplane on her charm bracelet, and having distant thoughts of being a flight attendant–of running away in a mini skirt down carpeted terminals, drinking in airport bars, and gossiping about pilots.
Mom graduated high school in 1964. That year the first anti-Vietnam War protests began as a trickle in New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Khrushchev was deposed, and The Beatles held all top five singles on the Billboard charts. She’d seen the Ed Sullivan show that February and thought The Beatles haircuts strange, but the world where these things happened was still a distant place. She wonders now at her lack of curiosity as a child with a misty-eyed, but almost golly-gee aloofness.
After high school Mom worked for about six months sewing sleeves at an industrial clothing manufacturer. She’d wanted to work in a department store, selling clothes or perfume. Frank had refused to drive her to work in town. An accident in which she put a sewing needle through her index finger was the final note in her career as a piece worker.
That spring she went away to Marion College, a two-year Jr. college in Marion, Virginia. Telling her father she’d quit the factory and going off to college were the first confident expressions of her own will. At Marion she studied business, met girls from wealthy families, and went for weekends to their parent’s houses in New England. She went to parties, and reveled in the lightness of being away from her father. After two years at Marion, Mom moved to Washington D.C. with two of her college roommates. Before her move Mom went home to visit friends, and to tell her mother that she wasn’t moving back to Sarver.
Mom’s mother, Martha Jane, had been her only recourse as a child, the only distraction from Frank’s meanness and abuse. MJ was a seamstress. She’d started smoking at thirteen, and didn’t quit until her mid 80s. MJ’s father (Mom’s grandfather) had committed suicide when MJ was nine. Mom has vivid recollections of MJ’s cigarettes smoldering in the ashtray beside her–of the smoke rising in a smooth, undisturbed grey line from the ashtray in the stillness of the basement, or curling around her as she talked with expressive hands.
MJ had married Frank once and divorced him before they had kids. Mom learned of her parent’s earlier divorce and remarriage while rummaging through papers in the attic one summer while she was home from college. MJ had left Pennsylvania and Frank’s uncontrollable temper, and moved to Ashdabula, Ohio. She was a jazz singer there during the Great Depression at a club called The Swallows. Frank followed her to Ashtabula. He made amends and promises. Frank was handsome and broad shouldered. Pictures of him from this time remind me of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. MJ got pregnant with Mom’s older sister, Marianne, and Frank proposed again, taking her back to Pennsylvania.
Mom remembers MJ crying in front of the house as she left for Washington D.C. I imagine the moment as a tiny vignette, like a scene distilled in a snow globe. MJ must have remembered her own attempt at leaving Frank. She must have remembered Frank’s second proposal and her acceptance, her hopes that he might change once they had a family. She must have also felt pride in my mother for leaving. And beyond that pride she must have felt a terrible loneliness. I imagine all this emotion translated into MJ’s waving hand from the small front yard as Mom drove away.
In D.C. Mom lived on Capitol Hill. She worked as a receptionist in the Department of Interior. She’d gone to the interview in long white gloves and a straight-cut royal blue skirt and blouse her mother had made. She likes to say that going into the interview she “didn’t know shit from Shinola.” She laughs incredulously at the memory. She answered phones, took dictation, and typed memos or letters. She ate lunch on the smooth steps of the Jefferson Memorial, or in the grass nearby looking out over the tidal basin. She remembers letting her gaze rest on the memorial’s cool geometry, and the way her eyes would roll along its curves and edges, and along the thin profile of the standing Jefferson. She remembers the dense, almost damp shade under the marble dome. She loved the cherry blossoms on The Mall in spring, and sun bathing.
Mom felt an encompassing pride in her ability to make it on her own. Her roommates introduced her to the timid edge of the 60s counter culture. She soaked up the still undiluted anthems of her generation, learned to play guitar, and casually smoked cigarettes and pot. She went to concerts and protests, and was a regular at the Hawk and Dove; a dark, woody bar on Capitol Hill where she talked with Georgetown students or flirted with the bar tenders.
In photos from this time she is radiant and light. Her beaming open-mouthed smile stretched the skin tight around her chin and her cheeks rose into small blushed swells under her eyes. The world opened up to her, and for the first time she felt like she was a part of it. She was free of her fathers calculating and control, and her life aligned with her childhood desires to be carefree and open.
In the spring of 1969 Mom moved just outside of D.C. to Alexandria, Virginia, with a friend. They rented an apartment in a complex called The Park Alexandrian. She was sitting by the pool between the complex’s two buildings playing the guitar that summer when she met my father, Steve. Later in her life her hair turned sandy brown, but at this time it was platinum blonde, almost translucent in the sun. She smiled at him from a plastic chaise lounge chair as he walked up to her. She was twenty-five.
Dad invited Mom and her roommate, Sherry, out sailing. Dad had been a supply officer in the Navy during Vietnam. He was doing shore duty in D.C. after returning from the war. He shared a small sailboat with a friend, Fletch, from the Navy. Mom recalls the ease and pace of sailing on the Potomac that summer. She tells a story about Dad and Fletch mooning a tourist cruise ship from the sailboat, and about the warmth of the sun, the wind over the choppy water, the light conversation and eating picnic lunches. She was attracted to Dad’s calm, lack of vanity, patience and generosity–all things her father had lacked.
In the spring and summer of 71 Mom waited dutifully while Dad and Fletch spent the summer traveling in Europe. Mom and Dad sent dozens of maudlin letters on thin, tissue-like stationary back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Even minutes after Dad boarded the plane Mom left fawning messages with the airline so he’d receive them on arrival in Europe. On April 27th (two months into the trip) Dad wrote from Florence with plans to return home early. “I just can’t stop thinking about you,” he wrote. “Damn it! I want to be with you…I tried to call Frankfurt to change my flight to 3 June in Venice, but couldn’t get through. I’m going to try again tomorrow. It’s been a great trip. We’ve really seen a lot, but traveling gets to me, and I really miss you so much it hurts.”
On May 17th Mom wrote in response to his plan to return early, “I guess I’m about as excited as I can ever remember. That childlike simplicity, that at 25 I try to hide, is now shining through. I sometimes think I’ll never grow up, but then again, don’t know if I really want to. If I can be as happy and satisfied always as I’ve been with you, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Dad returned to the States in June. They were married just over two months later. In pictures from this time Mom appears unburdened in a way that I have never known her.
Her eyes sparkle. Holding hands, or standing arm in arm with Dad she seems to look out beyond the glossy surface of the photos onto a new life.
As newlyweds my parents rode bikes around Old Town Alexandria, sailed on the Potomac, went for ice cream cones, and drove the Blue Ridge Parkway to go for hikes. They saw John Denver, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, Jim Croche, and Bob Dylan perform at Constitution Hall, The Wolf Trap or The Cellar Door. They’d drive to Rehoboth Beach for weekends, or hang out with friends in small off-white apartments decorated with posters, houseplants and macramé.
After his discharge from the Navy Dad got a job working for the Red Cross in D.C. that led to a recommendation for a job in Anderson, South Carolina managing two new public swimming pool facilities. The job in South Carolina was an opportunity for him to have a career, health insurance, and security. They packed up their things both thinking it was a temporary move.
In 1975 Anderson was still a town of textile mills. These mills had moved from the northeast in the 1880s seeking cheap non-unionized labor, and to avoid the cost of shipping cotton from the southern plantations to factories in New England. At the time my parents moved to Anderson a hundred years later these mills were still fighting against unionization, but were just beginning to close or move again in search of cheaper, more complicit labor. The mostly uneducated labor force in Anderson languished. Racism was still on the surface of everyday life. The dilapidated houses around the center of town or near the dying factories were ramshackle eyesores. Their porches sagged. Their paint peeled in the humidity. Chain link fences leaned, brittle with rust and neglect. Dogs roamed the streets, and glass covered the cracked sidewalks.
New neighborhood developments were springing up on the outskirts of town. These subdivisions were a fifteen or twenty minute drive from the center of town down winding rural roads that threaded through pine forests and pastures. Developers bulldozed small lots in the red clay soil, and built one-storey brick ranch houses in circular clusters on the edge of Lake Hartwell. The house my parents bought was in a small subdivision called New Salem, several hundred yards from Lake Hartwell, and surrounded by small patches of woods and half a dozen shallow streams.
My sister Meghan was born in 1976, just a year after Mom and Dad moved to Anderson. Mom was nervous about becoming a mother. She was underweight, and had been suffering from severe colitis, painful ulcers in the colon that caused uncontrollable or bloody bowel movements. This went on until I was in grade school. Her doctors attributed it to her nerves, and to genes she’d inherited from her father who had colon cancer in the 50s. I remember hearing the word colonoscopy as a kid. It gave me the vague impression that my mother was sick. I related her illness to times when I would hear her crying or arguing with my father.
Mom had felt lonely and isolated when Meghan was a baby. By the time I was born in 1980, New Salem was full of young families and kids. As other mothers in the neighborhood began to have children they got together regularly for lunches and garden parties in the afternoons. My childhood was verdant green. I have almost no memory of winter. Azalea and dogwood petals showed warm breezes. Tall pine trees shaded watered lawns that were soft and meticulously maintained. I remember breathlessly gulping sweaty glasses of sweetened iced tea or Kool-Aid between games of hide-and-seek or red light, green light.
Mom’s father Frank died suddenly in 1984. I was four years old. A massive stroke killed him as he napped through an afternoon. Mom had spoken to him over the phone the day before he died. He’d said he was tired. Mom remembers something resigned in his voice. As she hung up the phone she felt the urge to tell her father that she loved him for the first time in her life, but the words passed willfully in silence as she hung up the phone.
I have a disjointed memory of Frank’s wake; images of MJ’s neon pink fuzzy slippers gliding around the forest of pleated pant legs in the mortuary, the gold and maroon patterned carpet, and eating goldfish crackers in the basement with my uncle Jimmy Joe. I remember the dark, glossy amber finish of the casket, and the sweet overpowering smell of the flowers that crowded around its base. Looking back I wish someone would have taken me beneath the armpits and lifted me above the casket’s satin rim to see Frank’s face, his closed eyes, and the thick white hair raked back across his head.
Mom had a dream after Frank died that he came back to collect the money MJ had given her from Frank’s life insurance. Mom felt a heartbreaking sadness for never having felt the love of her father, but she was also relieved. Mom had worried often that MJ might die before Frank, and that she’d be left to take care of him alone. When he died Mom remembers this fear passing like an enormous storm blown clear by changing winds. She was relieved for herself, but also for her mother. In the years before Frank died MJ had scratched the back of her neck and head into open scabs from stress. She’d lost large patches of her hair and smoked constantly, lighting each cigarette off the butt of the one before it.
In the fourteen years between Frank’s death in 1984 and my graduation from high school in 1998 Mom was often restless and dissatisfied. As my sister and I grew up she began to feel stress more acutely. I remember her getting upset about things such as misplacing her keys or spilling a glass of water. My father warned her occasionally not to be like Frank. This only made her more upset, reminding her of the things that had oppressed her as a child, and the aspects of herself she’d always fought against. In some ways Frank’s death made her more like him. It was as if she’d lost his physical presence as a reminder of her resistance.
Mom went back to work as a secretary a few years after I started elementary school. She remembers being happy and fulfilled by my sister and I, and by the thriving of our family, but also stunted by the repetition of her life. At work she did the pay roll, kept the books, signed for deliveries, and did extra work cleaning the bathrooms and office a few times a week. She left the house for work every morning at six am, and got off early so she could pick my sister and I up from school. After school she made us bowls of sliced fruit, popcorn, or nachos as snacks. She cooked and cleaned tirelessly, assuming the rhythms of a housewife, the responsibility of raising kids, and the pressures of sustaining a marriage.
She recently tried to describe a moment in her early forties when she realized that this repetition was her life. She described it as a knowledge that she was never going to do anything great or important beyond raising her family. “It’s not that I thought I was going to be famous,” she said, “it was just that the potential for my life to be great or unique seemed gone.” This feeling of loss was followed immediately by guilt, and later, sadness. She described it as a cycle that grew stronger with each iteration. She was navigating a mirrored space where happiness and longing overlapped in a distant gaze or tired smile.
Mom and I fought each other constantly when I was in middle and high school. Her guilt-trips about her own childhood sparked bitter arguments about sacrifice and choice. I’d tell her spitefully that it was her decision to have children and not mine–that her “sacrifices,” were choices she’d made and not burdens I had put on her. We’d slam the hollow-core doors of our house with improbable force. She’d call me “an ungrateful little shit!” I’d tell her to “fuck off!” I remember her wanting to hit me, and the strange satisfaction I got from her dutiful restraint. Her hand would tremble, rear back, and then falter, sagging down by her side as she sent me to my room.
In 1993 I was expelled from eighth grade for selling pot. I’d sold a handful of pre-rolled joints in hollowed out Bic pens with another friend for a couple of months before I got caught. My father picked me up from the police station and took me home. Mom was pacing the hall, waiting–burning with anger. She screamed at me. Her words, “You are not my son!” remain the most hurtful she has ever said to me. She was shaking with anger; she opened her mouth to scream again. She remembers swallowing Frank’s words like nails, “You worthless piece of shit, you’re never going to amount to anything!” She held them back. She faltered instead of screaming. She deflated, punctured by her restraint. The sobs that came instead were heaving and breathless.
Her constant worry singed her nerves. She grew paranoid and suspicious. She’d drive around nights all over Anderson searching for my car, and installed caller id on our home phone so she could screen my calls. I famously told her that she should have been a “fucking detective.” Her sense of right and wrong, and her evaluations of character grew instinctive and unwavering, her grudges and vendettas unconditional. After my expulsion from middle school she refused to speak to my former principal when she saw him in town. She has snubbed him with stony silence and unrelenting glares in grocery stores, airplanes, meetings, and restaurants for over fifteen years.
When I graduated from high school I left home for the summer to travel to California with friends. I camped off the side of the road or in state parks. In California I took rides from people I met at festivals or campgrounds. I sold LSD at reggae festivals for money, slept under massive redwoods, and hung out in small towns such as Redway or Truckee in Northern California. Mom was livid. I could hear the anguish in her trembling voice through the phone when we talked. She agonized over where I was when I didn’t call, and made demands that I record the license plate numbers, vehicle makes, and names of the people I was with.
That summer the influence of my parents was vetted against a convoluted idea I’d developed about freedom. My parents had insisted I apply to college during my senior year of high school. I applied at four different art schools. By the time I left for California I had made plans to begin school in the fall of 98. In my mind I held onto the thought of never returning to South Carolina, or going to college. I had a vague plan just to be gone; the word seemed to float inside my head, repeating like a mantra.
The feeling of freedom I experienced that summer was shockingly vivid, and it remains the closest I’ve ever come to leaving all that I know of right and wrong, of discipline, responsibility, prudence, and rationality behind. I coasted on the excesses of a persistent nostalgia for 1960s hippie culture. I knotted my waist length hair into dreadlocks, and wore patchwork pants and skirts. I was high on LSD four or five days out of every week. Bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic, and The Other Ones were unironically exalted. I ended up in the most curious circumstances; on the side of the road in Idaho shooting beer cans with a group of Hells Angels, spinning in circles for hours along side beautiful girls with hairy armpits and bells around their ankles, crashing parties on the Las Vegas strip, and turning over trash cans in the middle of the night with drunken bums in downtown San Francisco.
Sometime during that summer I drifted back to the reality that I was going to college. I was tired and dirty. Several people I knew had gotten arrested for selling drugs. As I got farther from the thin irreality and nostalgic psychedelia of festivals and campgrounds I saw the meanness and implication of the drugs, addiction, poverty and mental illness that surrounded me. Three guys from Boston agreed to give me a ride back east at the end of the summer. We broke down just outside Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We spent a week under a bridge in a small town near the interstate. I sold all the drugs I had on me (about two hundred hits of acid and some Valium) to some local kids and hitchhiked to Mitchell, South Dakota to catch a Greyhound home. Three days later Mom met me at the bus station in Anderson. She shook her head in disbelief. The tears in her eyes trembled like a glass of water in an earthquake. She folded me into her embrace.
When I went away to college Mom’s schedules, chores, and worry all downshifted and reshuffled. In the new empty spaces Mom questioned everything. She wondered what her life had amounted to, and whether she’d done anything worthwhile? At the same time she asked herself over and over what she had to be depressed about? Her life was comfortable and her children thriving.
This questioning, guilt, and doubt slammed into her. Her mood swings grew still more severe and unpredictable. She tried to right her depression with diligent displays of happiness in public, but was often miserable at home. She busied herself shopping and renovating the house. She took solace in a small group of close friends, but took a lot of her anger and depression out on my father. Dad responded by drawing inward. Mom’s doctor urged her to take anti-depressants but she resisted. Instead she would lock herself in the bathroom and cry for hours.
In 1999 she was arrested for shoplifting at J.C. Penny’s Department Store. She barely remembers sticking a pair of earrings into her pocket as she wandered the store. She didn’t tell me the story until years later, but it explained why she’d been unable to go into the mall with me a few years earlier to buy new jeans.
Mom spent the night in jail. She set about winning the friendship of the other women in the cell immediately. She played cards, smoked cigarettes, and joined in as other women heckled the night guards. She gave away her food as an offer of goodwill and diligently empathized with the stories of the other women in the cell. She was unable to get Dad on the phone. She called her best friend Cindy instead. Cindy asked if she was ok, and if she had any one to talk to. Mom replied incredulously to the question of having someone to talk to, “Cindy it’s ME, Bonnie!”
Dad picked her up from her court hearing the next afternoon and watched as she gabbed to the woman next to her through the entire hearing. The judge stopped several times to ask her to stop talking. When she finds a sympathetic ear Mom can be wonderfully ingratiating, trading candid personal stories about family, travel, or childhood with a warm and diligent charm. Her empathy wells from a desire to connect–to be liked and respected–and from her struggle to be unburdened by the stress, anger, and worry that characterized her father. Mom also loves to impress. My whole life I have watched her obsessively clean and straighten. Before guests would arrive she would fluff pillows, vacuum, wipe counters, and clean the kitchen floor on her hands and knees until the doorbell rang.
After she was released from prison she went almost directly to the doctor for antidepressants. She jokes timidly about being medicated, but there is a tinge of sadness in her voice that she could not will her self to be better, or make the changes in her life that might have righted her depression.
Her arrest was the beginning of a series of events that caused a massive shift in her life. Not long after she was arrested Dad had emergency open-heart surgery to repair a valve on his heart that was slowly tearing away. Days later my sister Meghan gave birth to her first son, Andrew. Soon after Andrew was born Mom’s mother MJ separated from her second husband, Jim, at the age of 89 and moved to Anderson, where Mom became her sole caretaker. At the same time as MJ’s move Dad had another operation for a hernia that damaged a nerve in his groin. The nerve damage left him with chronic pain and forced him into early retirement. As a closing act, Mom was laid off her job of almost twenty years, just one year before she could have started drafting social security.
Between the stress of caring for her mother and the adjustment to retirement, my parent’s marriage grew from strained to tumultuous. By Christmas of 2007 things were a mess. Mom picked me up from the airport in Charlotte and was visibly nervous. She took wrong turns trying to get onto the interstate from the airport. Describing the sniping, anxiety and uncertainty as she drove she talked about being unfulfilled, and about wanting someone to feel close to. She mourned the thought of giving up on over thirty years of marriage, but also felt she was at an impasse. Her voice was shaky. At her worst she was indignant and self-righteous. I tried to encourage them to talk to each other, but she fell into accusations that Dad never wanted to talk, and that he’d grown distant and cold just like his father.
Dad ended up in the emergency room the next morning. Mom was away at a part time job she’d taken to earn extra money and get out of the house. Dad and I had been talking about what he might do if they separated, and about how they would deal with their financial situation. Dad had suffered from arrhythmia since his heart surgery; a condition in which scar tissue from heart surgery occasionally causes an irregular heart beat by interrupting the electrical pulses that regulate heart rate. That morning his heart rate was over 180 and his blood pressure was too low to measure. I took him to his cardiologist and they called an ambulance. The paramedics stabilized his heart rate on the way to the emergency room. They’d given him a shot that stops and restarts the heart that is sometimes used on overdose victims. He stayed in the hospital overnight and was scheduled to have another corrective procedure the next morning before being released. At the hospital that evening Mom and I asked questions of nurses, and Dad made phone calls to his doctor’s. It was an awkward visit. The specter of death had made their arguments feel trivial, but couldn’t make them go away.
I picked Dad up from the hospital the next afternoon. It was Christmas Eve. He looked rumpled in the black and purple jogging suit I’d brought to the hospital the night before. It was a balmy afternoon for December. The sky was low and grey. At home Dad slept while Mom busied herself nervously cleaning the house. The carpet drank in the noise of the vacuum cleaner and clinking dishes in the kitchen. I gathered stacks of brown and yellow boxes of slides from the hall closet and set up the slide projector in my old bedroom. After vacations as a kid my family would gather on my parent’s bed for slide shows. As I turned on the projector the heat and smell of the projector’s bulb made me profoundly sentimental. Mom came into the room for a while and sighed deeply at pictures of her and Dad just after they were married. For all her efforts at order things had gone beyond Mom’s control.
The next day we ate Christmas dinner in silence. Meghan and Mark had arrived late and this cast a pall over the meal. The sound of silverware as we ate reminded me of being forced to finish my dinner as a kid. An audiotape of waves crashing that my sister played to keep their youngest son, Benjamin, from crying droned in the background.
Dad drove me to the airport the next day and thanked me for trying to be helpful. We hugged outside the airport. He felt soft and limp like an old stuffed animal. Things remained tense between my parents, but nothing was happening. Neither one of them had the will to separate. They were pulling back from the brink. She was trying not to nag him, and he was trying to open up to her.
While I’d been home for Christmas Mom had talked a lot about wanting to travel. She longed for trips she’d taken with Dad to the Caribbean, or the times they’d gone hiking in Ireland, Portugal, and the American west before Dad’s hernia surgery. Mom’s mother, MJ, had died a year earlier, and MJ had always said she wished she’d have traveled more before she died. MJ’s death was devastating for Mom, and she saw herself as running out of time.
Mom often says she expected her sixties to be her “good years,” before she got too old to enjoy herself, but after my sister and I had moved out of the house. Dad is no longer able to do the amount of walking required for most travel, but the truth of the matter is that he doesn’t have the will either. He’s grown weary of Mom’s quick temper and their constant bickering. I offered to travel with Mom in Dad’s place. Over the next few months Mom and I talked about trips to Africa, Greece, Iceland, and South America. We finally settled on a week in Paris and Amsterdam.
During this same time I’d split up with my girlfriend of four years. Mom was a generous ear, and I opened up to her in a way I never had before. The sound of her voice was a medicine against feeling alone. Mom talked abstractly about the way love moves and changes over time, and the way it is sometimes indistinguishable from longing and doubt. She told me to follow my heart. In a trembling voice she said that despite her crumbling marriage and the example of her parent’s devastating life together, that she still believed in true love.
Mom flew into New York on the morning of September 1st, 2008. Our flight to Amsterdam was leaving later that evening. She waved enthusiastically from the curb as I pulled into the loop at LaGuardia to pick her up. We had breakfast and coffee near my place in Brooklyn. We spent the afternoon in Union Square. It was warm, but the shade in the park and a slight breeze made the temperature almost imperceptible. Later we had an early dinner with a bottle of wine before heading to the airport. We talked more about her and Dad’s relationship, and about love and getting older. Mom punctuated our conversation with sighs, but there was also a tremor of joy in the new ease of our relationship. This lightness flowed from our conversations over the previous months, and from an odd confidence and authority I felt giving her advice about Dad.
Amsterdam was drizzly and grey when we arrived. We dropped our things at the hotel. A canal ferry took us slowly through the city’s waterways. We craned our necks at the slender brick buildings that leaned in over the waters edge, straining to see through the fog and condensation on the boat’s vaulted windows. We jumped on and off the boats seeing sights, ducking in and out of the rain, and huddling under doorways and cheap umbrellas. At the Anne Frank Museum Mom touched the walls and door jams thoughtfully as we paced through the small rooms.
We had breakfast the next morning from the hotel’s buffet. I slipped an apple, two bananas, and a croissant into my bag for later. I watched as Mom made sandwiches and wrapped them neatly in napkins stolen from an adjoining table. She glanced around the room as she stuffed the small bundles into her purse. It was embarrassing. I had an inexplicable urge to wonder aloud if she’d gone too far, but it came from a sardonic, mean-spirited impulse to make her feel self-conscious. I held my tongue.
That day we did a lot of walking. I snapped pictures of Mom on bridges and in front of sights. Throughout the day I grew subtly more recalcitrant about taking her photo. By the afternoon Mom was also tired and moody. What we brought along from breakfast had not been enough for her to eat and she was craving pizza. I joked about her being unrefined. There was something snide left over from my disapproval of her sandwiches. She’d felt the condescension in my voice and was quietly indignant. There was a tension in our exchange that felt deeply familiar, but I also felt a profound guilt for not being able to ballast such transparent vanities. Sitting in a small lush park beside Rembrandt’s house and museum we settled into an awkward conversation about the weather.
We passed the next few days in Amsterdam going to museums and wandering through markets and along the canals. Mom slept through a piano concert at the main concert hall, but loved the flower boxes in the windows of houses, and the houseboats that line the canals. We walked slowly taking everything in, dodging bicyclists, pointing out architectural details, and window-shopping. We stopped often in cafes for coffee, food, or wine.
Mom slept on the train to Paris. She used her purple sweater as a pillow against the window. She wore a gold and brown floral patterned kerchief around her neck and it bunched up around her face as she slept. She snored off and on, grumbling softly in her sleep. As we pulled into the train station she woke with a start. She reached out and grabbed my arm as if she were falling. I patted her hand and she fell back into her seat and closed her eyes, smiling. I lead us through the Paris Metro to our hotel in the Latin Quarter, about two blocks from The Pantheon. That afternoon we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens, and later to the Garden des Plantes. It rained softly off and on and we huddled under our umbrellas. We had hot tea and Tagines in a North African restaurant near the Paris Mosque for dinner.
The next morning we got up early to visit Notre Dame before the crowds. A group of black men were still sweeping the black and white marble floors as we came in. Piles of discarded pamphlets, dust, hair and crumpled wrappers dotted the aisles like scruffy islands. Another man was cleaning burned out candles from the altars with a screwdriver. A small service began echoing through the space. The low unintelligible bellow of the priest sounded like gears straining into motion. Mom and I sat in the pews as crowds began to file in around us. The space swelled with the sound of footsteps and hushed conversation. Another group of men dressed in white opened massive wood and iron doors under each of the large circular stained glass windows. Soft light and fresh air streamed into the stuffy darkness.
We left Notre Dame and hurried across town to the Louvre. Mom and I had agreed we also wanted to beat the crowds to the Mona Lisa. We were third in line as the museum opened. We sprinted up the stairs and through the empty galleries past smirking guards. We spent ten minutes catching our breath in front of the small painting before anyone else came into the room. Mona Lisa’s queer smile seemed haughty, and vaguely pretentious behind the glass, as if mocking our creative effort.
As the crowds started to accumulate around us we went to see Gericault’s, Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s, Liberty Leading the People, and Chardin’s bleak but luminous still lives. Mom loved the subtle landscape studies of Henri Valenciennes. I wanted to see the museum’s two Vermeer’s, and dragged Mom along hurriedly through the corridors as I struggled with the map. She rolled her eyes as I refused to ask for directions. After the Vermeer’s we rested for a while beside Ruben’s massive orgy and battle scenes. Mom cringed like a child refusing cough syrup at the gnarled faces of pointy-tongued devils lurking in from the dark edges of the paintings.
I wandered the Louvre for another hour while Mom had a cup of coffee in the museum cafe. She was growing impatient to see the Eiffel Tower. I convinced her to wait until later that evening. We made it to the Bastille and the Picasso Museum before Mom decided she needed a nap. I walked Mom back to the hotel and went out to have a glass of wine. I decided to pick up some things from the market before going back to the room. We’d been struggling with the language at restaurants, and it made our interactions charged and tense. After Mom woke up I covered the small round hotel table with a hand towel I’d bought in Amsterdam and laid out bread, salad, almonds, wine, and cheese I’d bought at the market. We ate before taking the subway back across town to the Eiffel Tower.
Mom cooed as we came up from the subway, and the tower came into view. She put her hand softly to her chest near the bottom of her throat as if she’d unexpectedly seen an old friend. She looked at me and beamed. I smiled back. I took her picture as she pretended to swing from a lamppost with the tower rising in the background. We wandered around the Champ De Mars taking in different views of the tower. I read the tower’s history aloud from the guidebook, and we stayed into the evening as the lights came on. Mom had French fries and a coke from a snack booth near the tower’s base. I rubbed her shoulders lightly as we sat on a bench looking up into the tower’s dense scaffolding from underneath.
That night Mom thanked me for coming along on the trip with her. I waved my hand dismissing her sentimentality and smiled, saying I hoped I’d done all right getting us around. I went jogging that night after she went to bed. I ran through the Left Bank and crossed the choppy water of the Seine at the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette was guillotined. The symmetry and order of the buildings felt strangely like decisions I had made. I picked up speed dodging crowds of people and cars on the street as I ran along the arcade of columns and archways on Rue Royale to the steps of the Church of Madeleine. I climbed the steps of the church’s Greek Temple-like façade, and looked back towards the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as if looking out over a crowd. Images of Rocky and Napoleon wandered through my head. I fought an urge to shadow box or raise my arms and wave to the imagined crowd.
Our last day in Paris Mom and I took a cruise along the Seine. It was a spectacular day, warm and sunny with a breeze. We joked about being in an Impressionist painting. Puffy clouds stretched off into the blue-grey distance over head. On the boat, grey-haired men with sun burnt noses and baseball caps turned backwards snapped pictures of their wives and children. An audio recording in a dozen different languages played from speakers that lined the deck. My ears perked involuntarily each time the recording switched into English. I sat with my arm loosely around Mom’s shoulder and we propped our feet on the chairs in front of us.
The boat traveled east past the National Assembly, The Louvre, and the Musee D’Orsay. After passing Notre Dame the boat circled around the Isle of Saint-Louis heading back the way we came. As we passed the museum of Contemporary Art the Eiffel Tower came back into view. Mom stood up and leaned against the rail, bending at the waist over the water. As the boat neared the tip of Swann Island a three quarter replica of the Statue of Liberty also came into view standing at the islands tip. Its smaller dimensions made it feel like a forgery. The Eiffel Tower was still visible in the background. The distance of the tower made the two monuments appear almost the same size, both appearing smaller than they should be. I looked over and watched Mom. She was still beaming, gazing at the Eiffel Tower in the distance. As the boat made its final sweeping turn the two structures passed each other like planets in a smooth orbit, aligning for a moment in a strange eclipse.