53: Valentine’s Day ‘97
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This story happens in a movie theater. On screen, it's a Sunday afternoon, June 12, long ago. And my father is walking down the quiet streets of Brooklyn on his way to visit my mother. His clothes are newly pressed. His tie is too tight in his high collar. He jingles the coins in his pockets, thinking of the witty things he's going to say. He arrives at my mother's house. He's come too early and so is suddenly embarrassed.
My aunt, my mother's sister, answers the loud bell with her napkin in her hand, for the family's still at dinner. As my father enters, my grandfather rises from the table and shakes hands with him. Finally, my mother comes downstairs, all dressed up. And my father, being engaged in conversation with my grandfather, becomes uneasy, not knowing whether to greet my mother or continue the conversation. He gets up from the chair clumsily and says hello gruffly.
Well, in 1937, the same year that Django Reinhardt recorded this song, this very song, Delmore Schwartz published this story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." Its originality and its beauty, its stunning beauty, was immediately and widely recognized. It was the lead story in the first issue of the influential magazine Partisan Review and we take it as the inspiration for our radio program today.
It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago. I'm Ira Glass. And with Valentine's Day nearly upon us, we at This American Life, we wanted to do a show about romance. And we figured with all the writing about love and romance and dating and the rules, there are really only two romances any of us really want to hear about, really. And those are our own and our parents'. And we're sick-- we are sick of hearing about our own and talking about our own. So we thought we'd spend an hour talking about our parents.
As this Delmore Schwartz story continues, it's pretty much one disturbing scene after another. The story isn't romantic in the usual way that we use the word romantic. These parents do not seem to be falling in love. They don't really seem to be in love. Instead, it's romantic in the way that great tragedy is romantic. All through the story, you can just feel the hand of fate moving in on their lives. We see their sad destiny, though they do not.
They walk down the street. My mother is holding my father's arm and telling him of the novel which she has been reading. And my father utters judgments of the characters as the plot is made clear to him. This is a habit which he very much enjoys, for he feels the utmost superiority and confidence when he approves and condemns the behavior of other people. My mother feels satisfied by the interest which she's awakened. She's showing my father how intelligent she is and how interesting. My father tells my mother how much money he's made in the last week, exaggerating an amount which need not have been exaggerated. But my father has always felt that actualities somehow fall short. Suddenly I begin to weep.
The parents, all through this story, they're vain, they seem unfeeling, they have pretensions. They go to Coney Island, but they avoid the rides and the shows as being beneath their dignity. At one point, they decide to get their picture taken. And the photographer looks through the camera at them, and he just feels that something is wrong. And he poses them this way and that way. But nothing he tries makes it look right. Something is wrong. And finally, the father gets impatient and makes him snap the picture. When it's developed, the picture shows the father's smile turned to a grimace. And the mother's smile bright and false.
The parents go to eat dinner at the best place on the boardwalk. There's a live band playing a waltz. The father in the story starts talking about his plans for the future, and the mother shows with an expressive face how interested she is and how impressed. The father talks more and more excitedly about his future, and the waltz is playing. And then there comes this moment. I'll read.
And then as the waltz reaches the moment when all the dancers swing madly, then, then with awful daring, then he asked my mother to marry him, although awkwardly enough and puzzled, even in his excitement, at how he arrived at the proposal. And she, to make the whole business worse, begins to cry. My father looks nervously about, not knowing at all what to do now. And my mother says, "It's all I wanted from the moment I saw you," sobbing. And he finds all this very difficult, scarcely to his taste. Scarcely as he thought it would be, on his long walks over the Brooklyn Bridge, in the reverie of a fine cigar. And it was then that I stood up in the theater and shouted, "Don't do it."
And then the people in the theater shush the guy. You know, shush him up. The story of our parents' romance is mesmerizing because it contains everything that we are. And when we hear it, there's a part of us that wants the lovers to get together. As we do with any romantic TV show or movie, you root for the people to fall in love. But there's another part of us that knows the consequences of that love, that knows how complicated things will get after years. And we pause.
Well, today on our program, a variety of people tell stories about their parents' romances. Act One, a more cheerful take on this whole subject. Act Two, parents, childhood, and bats. Act Three, Julie Showalter's dad puts his hand onto her mother's lower back and leads her into the bedroom while the kids watch TV and eat popcorn. Act Four, Hilton Als' mom comes to America for his father. Act Five, can children really understand their parents' lives? Scott Carrier and his own 11-year-old daughter talk about his marriage. Stay with us.
Act One: Lighten Up
Act One, Lighten Up. Let's change the pace a little. Shall we?
Hello, America. I'm Brett Leveridge. I'll be reading to you today from a series of columns that I've written for Might magazine entitled "Men My Mother Dated." Let's start with Bob Petronick.
Mom's one date with Bob Petronick in her freshman year of college was an eventful evening of firsts. He escorted her to her first fraternity party, a semi-formal affair at which she imbibed the very first beer of her young life. One beer led to another and then a third. And in short order, she was pretty tight.
Another female partygoer bumped into her there in the crowded ballroom, and before anything could be done, she and mom became embroiled in a hair-pulling, eye-gouging cat fight, the first such row Mom had ever been involved in. The fight was broken up by the campus police. Mom's arrest, her first, on drunk and disorderly charges led to her first night in jail. Bob, much to his credit, took up a collection around the fraternity house and posted her bail the next morning, but he never called for another date. Mom garnered 30 hours community service, six months probation, and a reputation.
Vince Skankly. The summer after her junior year, Mom met a man who led her on an exciting, if frightening, adventure. His name was Vince Skankley. He was the knife thrower at a small regional circus called Blitzstein Brothers. Mom, accompanied by her friend Lois, attended each of the troop's four performances. It was after the Saturday matinee that she met Vince.
He was standing near the performers' entrance to the lone Blitzstein Brothers tent, smoking a Lucky Strike. Darkly handsome and quite a bit older than Mom, he had a worldly quality about him. He seemed cut of different cloth than any male she'd ever encountered in Okemah. They chatted a few minutes, and just before she left, he asked her to meet him following that evening's performance at the coffee shop in the town square, just a few blocks away. Mom, surprising herself, agreed.
Over several cups of Joe, Vince regaled Mom with tales of the places he'd been, the things he'd seen. Blitzstein Brothers covered four states on their touring-- Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri. So Vince had been as far as Kansas City and St. Louis, towns Mom had only dreamed of seeing.
Mom was enraptured, swept away by this man. As they stepped outside the cafe, Vince revealed that his assistant, Zora, was leaving him after the next day's matinee. Taking mom in his arms and kissing her, he implored Mom to come with him on the road and be his partner. Mom agreed. They decided she would meet him the following weekend in Tulsa, where the Blitzstein Brothers were next booked. Vince met her at the bus station and took her to the room he had booked for the duration of the circus's two-week stay in Tulsa at a downtown boarding house.
He carried with him, while on the road, a fold-up cork board which he used to keep his throwing skills finely honed. And he wanted to get in a little rehearsal time with Mom before that evening's performance. As mom stood with her back to the cork, facing this man she hardly knew as he took aim with his knife, her knees began to tremble. Before she had time to protest, however, the first blade whizzed through the air towards her. It stuck in the cork firmly, just above her head. A second followed shortly thereafter, firmly embedding itself in the cork board just an inch or two away from her left shoulder.
When she felt the cold steel of the third blade at her right shoulder, she knew she had made a horrible mistake. She screamed at Vince to stop and stepped quickly away from the cork board. The cut on her shoulder was a small one, but it bled profusely. And mom was trembling. Mom never had contact with Vince again.
Gordon Kiley. If you had asked Mom on her 21st birthday if later that year she'd become involved with a man almost three times her age, she would have laughed in your face. But that's exactly what happened. Mom had just left college, accepting a position as a secretary in Oklahoma City. She scoured the classifieds for an apartment she could afford on her tiny salary. She finally decided to take the upstairs in an older home owned by a widower, Gordon Kiley. Mr. Kiley was 59, an accountant who had lost his wife of 36 years only the year before. He had decided the house was just too quiet without her now, so he cleared out the upper floor and placed an ad. Mom was the first person to look at it.
It became a habit for the two of them to spend Sunday evenings together. Mom would cook a meal, and they would often take a stroll, sometimes stopping for a movie at the Center Theatre a few short blocks away. Some evenings, they would stay in, though. Gordon would talk about his Emma, and he and Mom would listen to his Rudy Vallee 78s. Though Mom initially thought of Gordon as sort of a second father, gradually, she began to experience deeper feelings for him.
One Sunday night as Rudy Vallee sang, they danced a foxtrot. Without speaking a word, Gordon, ever so gently, kissed Mom's lips. She returned the kiss but instantly regretted it, feeling something just wasn't right. She feigned a headache and excused herself, retreating to the bedroom upstairs.
The next morning, both Gordon and Mom tried to behave as if nothing had happened, but the tension between them was palpable. They continued this way for 10 or 12 days, at which point Mom told Gordon she felt she must find another place to live. Within a week, she had moved out, and two months later, Gordon sold the home he had shared with Emma and moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his son and daughter-in-law lived. Mom never spoke to Gordon again.
Brett Leveridge's column, "Men My Mother Dated," appears in Might magazine.
Brett, does the woman in these stories seem like the same woman you think of as your mom?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean it's sort of a larger-than-life version of her, a sort of a mythological version of my mom.
Was your mom very popular?
Yeah. She went to see The Eddie Cantor Story six times with six different men. My father does not know which he was, and that just tells you right there that this is someone that a lot of men were asking out. Now, why in the world she didn't along about number three or four, say, "You know, I've seen that. Could we see something else?"
And with each one, she pretended she hadn't seen it?
She pretended she hadn't seen it with each one of them, yeah.
I don't know if that was sort of a little sign of the era that she was living in and that a more assertive '90s woman might say, "Sorry numbers four, five, six, and seven, I've seen that."
What does your mom have to say about The Eddie Cantor Story?
She probably tried to put it out of her mind as much as possible. But I'm guessing she could recite dialogue from it, even now.
I bet there's pretty much anything we want to know about Eddie Cantor, she's ready to answer.
Or at least the Hollywood version of it. She could probably recite lines from it, I'm guessing.
What do you think the fascination is with this kind of story?
I think that most of us have an interest in our parents' lives before they were our parents. It's sort of hard to imagine them where we are, in our 20s or 30s or teens, dating and struggling with all that and deciding what to do with our lives. And so any stories that reveal the classic "Mom" at an earlier stage in her life, when she was going through some of the travails that we all face, I think are sort of attractive.
See, I wonder if part of it is people need an origin myth, especially secular people. You need a myth of "Where did I come from?" to explain who you are.
True enough. I think that's probably very true. It's a little glimpse into the world before "me."
More stories of Brett Leveridge's mom as our program continues.
Act Two: Mom, Dad, Bats
Act Two, Mom, Dad, Bats. Well, if in fact the story of our parents' romance is part creation myth, we offer this story from Bia Lowe.
It's 1962, and I will soon be 12 years old. Thus far, I have lived in fear of little but vampires. My father drinks, my parents fight, the bleak house trembles, but I fear only Dracula. In these olden days, the story of Dracula is a bedtime waking nightmare, a drama in which I stockade myself against the dark powers of annihilation. All children are fundamentalists, and every cell in my body is zealous to win the fight against the night, my small ego trying to sustain itself against the forces I cannot name.
In 1962, my parents travel through the Mediterranean. They are in their mid-40s, and looking back on it, I'm sure they were trying to rekindle the romance in their troubled marriage. Under the lax supervision of my grandmother, I spent hours alone in the woods. One day, I explore an old chicken shack, a derelict chicken coop. The timbers are weathered to a pewter, and lichen, as finely laced as antimacassars, have grafted themselves to the siding.
At first, there is little inside to sustain my intrigue, some ancient straw and a few daddy longlegs. Then I notice something furry in a crack near the door jamb. I poke it with my finger, but nothing happens. I poke again. This time, a small claw strikes back, calling my bluff. It feels silly to be reprimanded by such a small creature, but I don't push my luck. Though I've never seen one before, there's no mistaking it's a bat. The little foot shredding the air between us has permanently marred the membrane between the real and the make-believe. From that day forward, I try to strike a compromise between the tiny creature in the door jamb and the emblem of my dread.
Bats were sprinters on the evolutionary track, and while our forebearers were still small as lemurs, still clinging to branches, their ancestors looked remarkably like themselves. Our limbs took painstaking millennia to grow beyond a childhood of rodentia, while their fingers already extended, Nosferatu-like, to support the open umbrella of their wings. No wonder we fear them. In the presence of bats, we sense the occurrence of time before us. In their impossible faces, we see a life that eludes us, centuries of caves, forests of unfamiliar trees, Edens buried under rubble. We are like Nabakov's friend who, upon seeing a home movie taken before his birth, realized to his horror he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.
One morning in 1962 after my parents have returned from their trip, I enter their bedroom to have my mother sign my blue books. She's disappeared from her half of the bed, but my father, propped on his elbow, volunteers his signature. I reach across the bed and offer up my exams, which are the color of robins' eggs. As he autographs them, and I smell the spice of his skin, I notice my mother's form concealed under the covers behind him. Later that day, I'm sent home from school with my first menstrual cramps. I lay in bed and savor my morning's discovery, the only time I ever suspected my parents of having sex.
Recently, I was sitting with my mother in the house she has shared for 20 years with a new husband I've come to think of as a father. We rest our feet among piles of magazines on a small wooden coffee table. It's the oldest thing in this house that bears the stamp of my history. I remember the sour taste of its varnish, how my four-year-old tongue once traced the carved bodies that ran on all sides. I'd always thought they were the bodies of flying men or dogs in capes.
"Are those bats?" I ask her.
"Yes. It's the first piece of furniture your father and I ever bought. We were living in a little flat in Chinatown. The Chinese believe bats bring happiness." I imagine my parents then, smooth-skinned, thinner, little to live on but love. Their room is furnished with the donations of well-wishing relatives, a hooked rug, mismatched chairs, a creaky four-poster. I can't help thinking my mother likes being on top. But in those young days, their sex is playful, their smell mingling with the smoke and ginger of the street.
Near the bed, at the center of their new lives, is the table bought for hope and a toss at the future. The bats draw back the seam of night like coverlets for my parents to fall into and sew that seam back up at dawn, like the last good-luck kiss before rising for work. These lovers are strangers to me, un-parents, animals not yet flexing around the beginning of my life. Their cells mingle hundreds of times before a fluke will yank me from the void.
An excerpt from Bia Low's essay, "Bats," which appears in her book Wild Ride. She's working on another book of essays.
Act Three: It's Not the Heat
Act Three, It's Not the Heat.
For a long time, when asked if my parents loved each other, I would arch my eyebrow and say, "Love? Well, I guess by their standards," thereby implying that I knew more about love, neurotic dependency, and the difference between the two, than they ever did.
Julie Showalter's parents were married in 1944, high school sweethearts from Dimmitt, Texas. When her father died 41 years later, they were still married. In between, they had three daughters and divorced each other twice. This is our program, of course, about our parents' romances, and Julie remembers hers this way.
Because she was beautiful, he wanted her to be glamorous. When we were the poorest we ever were, living on a turkey farm in a four-room house with linoleum floors, he bought her a silver tea and coffee service for Christmas. We'd just gotten television then, and I think he saw her as Bess Myerson, floating in mink on The Big Payoff or Arlene Francis pouring coffee for her guests on The Home Show. Another year, he did buy her mink, a cape from Sears. She exchanged it for a gas range.
They were hot, an embarrassment to growing daughters. She'd put her hand flat against his cheek after he had shaved and just hold it there while he moved his lips against her thumb. When guiding her into a room, he put his hand on the small of her back, and you could see his fingers flex, see him feeling her back under the dress, see her responding. Sometimes in the evening, they'd have a drink, put on an old record, and dance to Glenn Miller. My sisters and I would watch them, handsome, graceful, sex-charged. Then they'd go to bed early, leaving us trying to concentrate on TV and popcorn.
When I was 11, I saw her reach up from where she was sitting and zip his trousers. Then she patted him just below the belt. This is marriage, I thought. This is sex. This is knowing another body. Drinking was his weakness, and sometimes when he was drinking, there'd be a woman. "A certain kind of woman finds your father very attractive," Mother told us.
Their second divorce may have been the shortest in Missouri history. The day after it was final, a week after she'd sent her diamond rings out to be reset-- rings, by the way, that she was still paying off, another one of his flamboyant gifts-- the next day, she took him back. Literally took him. I was 19, the oldest, so she made me drive. "We're going to get your father," she said.
We knew where he was. He was with Lorna, one of those women. When we pulled up, Mother shook her head at the degradation. Lorna's house had no grass in the yard, just hard-packed dirt. And old wringer washer that someone had tried to make into a platter sat on the sagging front porch. Mother sent me ahead. "Make sure he's in there."
Through the screen door, I could see half a dozen men playing cards. My eyes adjusted enough to pick out Daddy. He looked loose, happy, drinking, but not drunk. Lorna came in from the kitchen carrying a bowl of potato chips. "Julie," she said, "come on in. Look Bill," she turned to Daddy, "Julie's come to see us."
He started to get up, but his attention was drawn to the front porch. Mother stood in the open screen door with the sunlight behind her. She was wearing a white summer dress, cut straight and close to her body, and high heels that showed her long, slim calves. The sun made her red hair seem almost to vibrate. She looked cool, beautiful, elegant, like Suzy Parker, the model in the ads for Revlon's Fire & Ice. All the men in the room stared at her without talking.
I looked from her to Lorna, a blousy woman with ink-black hair and mascara smeared under her eyes. Mother walked over and put her hand on Daddy's shoulder. "Come on, sweetie," she said. "We're taking you home."
Julie Showalter. Her parents' remarriage lasted until her father died 18 years after this. Much of this story is told in Julie's novel, Needlework, which is looking for a publisher.
[MUSIC - "I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU" BY JENNY MAGNUS]
Jenny Magnus. Her first solo album comes out this May on Eighth Day Records. Coming up, reporter Scott Carrier's 11-year-old daughter explains his marriage. And Hilton Als' in a minute when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme on our program and invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, as Valentine's Day approaches, our parents' romances.
Hello America. It's time again for another episode of "Men My Mother Dated." Here's the man with the mom, Brett Leveridge.
Bob Wills. My parents hadn't been together very long when they were invited to join their friends Don and Dorothy for an evening at the Trianon Ballroom in downtown Oklahoma City. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were the headliners on that evening's bill, and their special brand of Western swing kept the dance floor packed the whole night long. From Mom's initial turn around the dance floor, Wills couldn't take his eyes off of her. He'd tipped his huge Stetson hat every time she turkey trotted by, and winked whenever he managed to catch her eye.
Mom, a young woman at the peak of her beauty, certainly had no desire to encourage Wills, who was well into his 50s. But Don and my father, having a good time at Mom's expense, kept swinging her right up stage-side, and turning Mom so that she was forced to face the winking Wills. Mom, finally fed up, refused for a while to dance. But when, after a bit, she heard the orchestra strike up the opening strains of "Faded Love," her favorite Bob Wills tune, she gave in and accompanied my father to the dance floor.
Soon, Dad felt a tap, tap, tap upon his shoulder, signifying that someone was seeking to cut in to take a turn around the floor with Mom. By now, you must surely have guessed that it was Wills. Dad stepped aside, and Mom found herself firmly in Wills' clutches. Mom felt there was little she could do but to grit her teeth and behave in gracious fashion until song's end. But as the orchestra, missing nary a beat, segued right into "San Antonio Rose," Mom felt, as he pulled her into an even tighter embrace, Wills' right hand slowly but steadily creeping downward along her spine until it came to rest upon her left-- well, let us say, her left hip.
Uttering not a word, Mom fixed upon Wills an angry glare of an intensity that few have experienced, and fewer still have survived. Having wilted under the heat of this glare a number of times myself, believe me when I say, gentle listener, it can make a strong man weep. Wills was not up to the challenge. He quickly removed his hand, cleared his throat, tipped his hat, said, "Excuse me, ma'am," and hurriedly made his way back to the stage, whereupon he immediately called out for "Take Me Back to Tulsa" in double time.
Throughout the remainder of the evening, whenever Mom came within 10 yards of the stage, Wills managed somehow to look busy, sorting through the musical charts on the bandstand, attending to an out-of-tune string on his fiddle, conducting the orchestra on a number they had played hundreds of times. During the next intermission, the waitress brought a round of beers to Mom and Dad's table and explained that they came compliments of the King of Western Swing himself, Bob Wills.
Terry Plimpton. Terry has remained a real mystery to Mom. They dated for five months during her sophomore year of college, even talked a bit of a future together. Terry was, in many ways, Mom's dream man. A perfect gentleman, a terrific dancer with a wonderful voice, a gourmet cook. Their shared interests were many. They liked the same movies, the same music, though he was a bigger Judy Garland fan than she. Without warning, though, he left school and took off for San Francisco, where he remains to this day. Terry never married.
Kathy Simpkins. This would-be suitor was not a man, and Mom never really dated her. Still, the story will be told. After her sophomore year of college, Mom decided to take a very difficult course load in summer school. She knew that she would have to be terribly focused to pull this off, so she swore off dating for the duration. Not that it was easy. The phone rang often, but Mom spoke with these gentlemen callers just long enough so as not the seem uncivil. The answer was always the same. "I'm sorry, I'm concentrating on my studies this summer, and I'm not interested in going out. Thanks for calling."
Mom's roommate for the summer was an older woman of 25, Kathy Simpkins. Kathy had just begun her studies as a physical education major that spring, after serving a stint in the Air Force. Mom and Kathy got along fine. They often cooked dinner together on those summer evenings, but they were not particularly close. In fact, Kathy knew nothing of Mom's romantic or sexual proclivities. All she knew was that every man who called for Mom was firmly, if politely, rebuffed. So it's not so hard to understand how Kathy might have reached some misbegotten conclusions regarding Mom's orientation.
It all came to a head after one of those home-cooked meals. Mom and Kathy had gone shopping together that afternoon and splurged on a leg of lamb and a bottle of Beaujolais. Once the food was finished and the plates placed in the kitchen sink, Kathy, emboldened by her third glass of wine, sat right beside Mom on what was rather a large and roomy davenport and, much to Mom's surprise, transformed into an octipus di amore.
Mom, caught more than a little off-guard, extracted herself from Kathy's clutches, excused herself, and hurriedly sped off to her bedroom, quickly locking the door behind her. Things were a little awkward for a day or two afterwards. Only a few words were exchanged between the two, but eventually they sat down and talked things over. Mom explained that her moratorium on men was a temporary one, and Kathy apologized for her aggressive behavior. The rest of the summer went by without incident.
Today, Kathy resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she enjoyed a long career as a physical education instructor. She retired only last year. She and Mom still exchange Christmas cards.
Brett Leveridge's column, "Men My Mother Dated," is in Might magazine and on the net at www.brettnews-- that's B-R-E-T-T-N-E-W-S-- .com.
Act Four: Negress
Act Four. Hilton Als' mother called herself a Negress. In Als' book, The Women, he writes about how she used the word. He says the word usually conjures certain stereotypes-- single mother, public aid, low-paying jobs, like his mother. The stoic mom, selfless to a fault, who takes life as it comes, like his mother.
But he says in reality his mother was really not much like these stereotypes. That's part of his story. Another part is about her long illness. He says that she was sick for years, sick in a way that got a lot of attention from everyone around her. She lost a leg to diabetes, lost a kidney, lost vision in one eye. Here's how his memoir begins.
Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being. She avoided explaining the impetus behind her emigration from Barbados to Manhattan. She avoided explaining that she had not been motivated by the same desire for personal gain and opportunity that drove most female immigrants. She avoided recounting the fact that she had immigrated to America to follow the man who eventually became my father and whom she had known in his previous incarnation as her first and only husband's closest friend. She avoided explaining how she had left her husband, by whom she had two daughters, after he returned to Barbados from England and the Second World War addicted to morphine. She was silent about the fact that, having been married once, she refused to marry again.
She avoided explaining that my father, who had grown up relatively rich in Barbados, and whom she had known as a child, remained a child, and emigrated to America with his mother and his two sisters, women whose home he never left. She never mentioned that she had been attracted to my father's beauty and wealth partially because those were two things she would never know. She never discussed how she had visited my father in his room at night and afterward, crept down the stairs stealthily to return to her own home and her six children, four of them produced by her union with my father, who remained a child.
She avoided explaining that my father, like most children and like most men, resented his children, four girls, two boys, for not growing up quickly enough so that they would leave home and take his responsibility away with them. She avoided recounting how my father, because he was a child, tried to distance himself from his children and his resentment of them through his derisive humor, teasing them to the point of cruelty.
She also avoided recounting how her children, in order to shield themselves against the spittle of his derisive humor, absented themselves in his presence and eventually in the presence of any form of entertainment deliberately aimed at provoking laughter. She avoided explaining that in response to this resentment, my father also vaunted his beauty and wealth over his children as qualities they would never share. She was silent about the mysterious bond she and my father shared, a bond so deep and volatile that their children felt forever diminished by their love and forever compelled to disrupt, disapprove, avoid, or try to become a part of the love shared between any couple, specifically men and women.
She avoided mentioning the fact that my father had other women, other families, in cities such as Miami and Boston, cities my father roamed, like a bewildered child. She was silent about the fact that my father's mother and sisters told her about the other women and children my father had, probably as a test to see how much my mother could stand to hear about my father, whom his mother and sisters felt only they could understand and love, which is one reason my father remained a child. She avoided explaining that she created a position of power for herself in this common world by being a mother to children and childlike men as she attempted to separate from her parents and siblings by being nice, an attitude they could never understand since they weren't.
Negress was one of the few words she took with her when she emigrated from Barbados to Manhattan. As a Negress, her passport to the world was restricted. The world has its limits. Shortly after arriving in New York in the late '40s, my mother saw what her everyday life would be. Being bright, a high school graduate, and practical, she'd looked at the world she had emigrated to, picked up her servants' cap, and began starching it with servitude.
In her new country, my mother noticed that some New Yorkers retain the fantasy that in writing or speaking about the underclass or the oppressed silent woman or the indomitable stoic, they were writing about the kind of Negress she was. But they weren't.
I think my mother took some pleasure in how harsh the word Negress seemed to the citizens in her adopted home. I think my mother took pleasure in manipulating the guilt and embarrassment white and black Americans alike felt when she called herself a Negress, since their view of the Negress was largely sentimental, maudlin, replete with suffering. When my mother laughed in the face of their deeply presumptive view of her, one of her front teeth flashed gold.
For years before and after my mother's death, I refer to myself as a Negress. It was what I was conditioned to be. I have expressed my Negressity by living fully the prescribed life of an anti-man, what Barbadians call a faggot. Which is a form of kinship, really, given that my being an anti-man is based on greed for romantic love with men temperamentally not unlike the men my mother knew.
I socialized myself as an anti-man long before I committed my first act as one. I also wore my mother's and sisters' clothes when they were not home. Those clothes deflected from the pressure I felt in being different from them. As a child, this difference was too much for me to take. Those women "killed me," as comedians say, when they describe their power over an audience. I wanted them to kill me further by fully exploiting the attention I afforded them. But they couldn't, being women.
My mother killed herself systematically and not all at once. Perhaps that is because, as a Negress, she had learned stamina, a stamina that consisted of smiling and lying and maintaining the hope that everything would eventually be different, regardless of the facts. Until the end, my mother avoided the facts. She was polite. She imposed her will by not telling anyone what was really wrong. This kept everyone poised and at her service. She would not speak of the facts contributing to her death, nor would she speak of the facts that contributed to her wish to die in the first place. Not for the world would she have forfeited the will she applied to disappearing her own body, since it took her so many years to admit to her need for attention. And being ill was one way to get it.
My mother first became ill at the end of her love affair with my father. As with most aspects of my parents' relationship, it is unclear whether or not my father dictated the course their relationship would take. The difference between my mother and the woman he became involved with after my mother was significant. She consented to live with my father, whereas my mother had not. After my mother refused to marry him, my father never asked her to again.
I know my mother encountered my father's girlfriend once on the street. My father's new girlfriend was in the company of one of my father's sisters. My mother saw a certain resemblance between my father's new girlfriend and herself. They were both homely but spirited, like Doris Day. It was clear to my mother that his new girlfriend was capable of withstanding my father's tantrums, his compulsive childishness, and his compulsive lying.
I think the resemblance my mother saw between herself and my father's new girlfriend shattered any claim to originality my mother had. And being a woman, she chose to be critical of the similarity rather than judge my father. Shortly afterward, she was made sick by a mysterious respiratory illness. In the end, I think my mother's long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt she experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people. And it was.
She was in love with my father until the end. They spoke every day on the telephone. They amused and angered one another. She called him Sip, which was short for Siprian, his given name. When he said her name, Marie, he said it in a thick Bajan accent, so that the 'A' was very flat. In his mouth, her name sounded like this-- "Ma-rie."
For years, I wanted to be part of a narrative as compelling to me as my mother's was, a narrative in which I too would be involved with a bad man resulting in heartache that would eventually lead to depression and endless suicide and the attention that can be garnered from all that. I was dwarfed by my mother's spectacular sense of narrative and disaster. She could have been a great writer.
I've never been comforted by the idea that writing her narrative down in fragments is at all equal to the power of her live-while-trying-not-to experience. She is so interesting to me as a kind of living literature. I still envy her allure. And I still envy her ability to love, no matter how terrible, no matter how coarse, and to allow that love to consume her, or literally parts of herself.
I stand back from the model of her courage, just as I stand back from my desire to be taken in by love, even as I fear its power. I avoid all of this even though I have considered myself a Negress in the tradition of my mother. Time has not changed my point of view, nor has the knowledge that what divide people are not the dreary, marginal issues of race or class or gender, but this-- those who believe friendship and love dispel our basic aloneness and those who do not. This was the difference that divided me from my mother. Maybe all I can say in support of my difference from her is that she never missed herself while I was around.
An excerpt from Hilton Als' book, The Women.
Act Five: Parent And Child
Act Five. What can we really understand about our parents' romances? Well, all this hour, we've heard from grown children talking about their parents. Now, we hear from a parent. Reporter Scott Carrier in Salt Lake City and one of his children.
Do you know how Mom and I met?
I think you were working on an antelope story and Mom was doing filming, or something. You met each other and then you liked each other and then you married each other.
I remember sitting on my front steps in the morning, waiting for her to ride up the hill on her bicycle. It was in the spring, late April, and it had been raining, steam coming up off the street and sidewalks. I was waiting on the steps, and I realized that I was in love with her and that everything was going to be different now. She'd ride up the hill and set her bike down on the grass, and we'd go inside and she'd live with me there for a long time, maybe forever. I knew it. I saw the whole thing coming, just like I see everything now. The only thing missing is the ending.
I remember lots of times you were nice to Mom. I mean, she told me once that for her birthday or for Christmas or something, you bought her perfume and you wanted to get her the right one. And so you went around and you had a sample of each, and you were smelling it. And you couldn't decide which one to give her. And then when you come home, you hug her.
My house inside had no furniture other than two chairs and a table. I made some coffee and moved the table over by the window so she could sit in the sun. She was a modern dancer, small and thin, wearing a white, cotton blouse, no bra-- no need for a bra-- shorts and sandals, and sweating a bit from the ride. Her skin was dark tanned, already so early, lovely legs, but with lots of scars on the knees and shins, and feet that were like little creatures unto themselves, beautiful and frightening. They had the structure of the Golden Gate Bridge, a high, sinewy arch with built-in springs and pulleys and long toes, stretching out for perches.
Do you feel like anything's a mystery between Hillary and me that you don't understand?
This week, when I ask our 11-year-old daughter Jesse this question, she pauses for at least a half a minute. I've asked maybe a million questions in my reporting career, but this has got to be the longest pause I've ever heard.
I don't really think about it much. And it's a hard thing to think about.
Because I usually don't pay much attention to what you and Mom are doing between each other. But kind of, I do. And I don't really wonder anything. I don't think that there's something that I don't know that I really want to know, like a mystery or anything.
I'd seen her dance the night before in front of a small audience downtown, and her style was wrapped around the idea, her idea, that she really weighed nothing at all and that her body was only there to tell little jokes, her little jokes, whatever might come to mind. I asked her if she liked my house, and she said she liked the view. She asked me what I thought about her concert, and I said, "I thought it was funny."
She said, "Funny? Only funny?"
"Funny and beautiful," I said.
And she said, "That's better."
Do you think Hillary and I are in love?
Yeah. I mean, because you sometimes have fights. I think people who love each other have to have fights sometimes, otherwise they don't understand each other very well. Not everybody is exactly the same. And so people might disagree about something, but two people who love each other have to understand each other. And to understand each other, they have to know what they're thinking.
Up until this time, I had been living alone and was not unhappy. I had a house and a dog and a car. No job. No need for a job. I had money from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a radio story about chasing antelope, which, as far as I could tell, only required a wholehearted effort to live as much like a primitive hunter as possible. It was a problem I was working on by myself. And really, I had no idea how to go about it, other than by trying to live simply and by trying to stay outside and cover as much ground as possible. But there she was, finally arrived, come to stay.
When you get married-- you ever thought about getting married?
Not really. Not much.
You haven't thought about it at all? You've never thought, well, when I get married, it'll be like this?
No. I never thought, like, "When I get married I will have," or, "It will be exactly like this," or something like that.
Maybe a little bit.
I don't know. I mean, I don't believe we can never guess the future. I can hope, but I don't like saying what I want to be when I grow up because you never know.
She asked me why I only had one fork in the kitchen. I said it was all I needed and then asked her how many she had in her kitchen. "Eight," she said, "and at least 10 spoons. And I have some glasses, different kinds. Even wine glasses. I like to have friends over. I like to cook and have friends over to eat. Don't you have any friends?"
"Yeah, I have a friend. But he doesn't have any hands," I said, looking over at my dog.
"You know," she said, "I've been dreaming about you. I think I'm in love with you."
How do you know she supports me?
She doesn't wish-- I mean, she doesn't say to us that she regrets that she married you, and maybe not having a job sometimes. And so she still appreciates what she has.
I went downstairs and brought up the pieces of a wooden bed frame that had been left there by a previous tenant. I had the mattress and everything, and I asked where she'd like to have it. She said, "I like to sit in bed in the morning and drink coffee." So I moved the table and put the bed there in the sunlight.
When you get married, if your marriage turns out like our marriage-- you know, between your mom and me-- would that be good enough for you, or would you want more than that?
I think it would be fine. I mean, you guys seem pretty happy. And I think that if my marriage-- if I got married-- was like yours, I would be pretty happy too. And I think I would try to make a little more money. But otherwise, getting along like that, I think that would be-- it would be a very-- it would be a good marriage.
Scott Carrier and his daughter Jesse in Salt Lake City. He's been married for 11 years.
Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Peter Clowney and Alix Spiegel. Contributing editors, Sarah Vowell, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.
The excerpt from "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" is copyright 1961 by Delmore Schwartz, used by permission of the New Directions Publishing Company. If you'd like a tape of our program, you can call us at WBEZ in Chicago, the phone number 312-832-3380.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.