A friend of mine had a house for rent by the creek, with a fenced backyard, a high wooden fence Callie-Blue couldn't jump. We moved in August 1st, and I began preparing to teach at Butte Community College in September, just one night class, but I was thrilled. This, I thought, was the beginning of my real life.
It's a funny thing, this business of starting a life. A real life. Get a life: that phrase is much more in vogue now than it was in 1980. I don't remember anyone ever saying it then. I just remember thinking if I had work I loved, even liked, I would have a life, or the foundation for one. Why would I think of it as a "real" life? As opposed to a "fake" life? What was fake about anyone's life? I suppose that perception came from looking at my parents' lives, how unhappy they seemed, the drinking and fighting, which I felt partly stemmed from not only being ill-suited for each other, but their individual dissatisfaction with their daily lives. When I was a kid, I used to wash my father's car every Saturday. It was a "company car," and he'd give me the money he would have given to the car wash. He could write it off on his expense account. One Saturday, while I was sudsing up the Ford Fairlane, I saw a weary emptiness in my father's face as he walked by. I asked, "Do you like your job?" He was a salesman, for car parts, batteries, spark plugs.
"No," he said. "I hate it."
"What else would you do if you could?"
"Be a beach bum." Then my father turned and pushed the mower across the lawn.
Be a beach bum. That phrase kept echoing in my head as I poured a bucket of water over the company car.
My father loved the ocean, loved to swim in it, loved living in southern California, in Long Beach. He has told me all the problems started after we moved to the Bay Area.
They began long before, but I guess the move didn't help matters.
That day, when I was twelve, washing my father's car, it hurt to hear him say he wanted to be a beach bum. I wanted him to be what he wanted, but how could he be a beach bum and take care of his family?
Perhaps it was how I got the idea of a fake life.
My mother's life didn't seem real, either. She was a housewife, and a good one, the cooking, the cleaning, the decorating, the caring for her children, she did it all and with grace and beauty and love. But as I entered adolescence, I felt her ennui, and then the drinking began in earnest, the afternoon-into-evening cocktails that brought out her anger. My father had always had a drinking problem, but he was a quiet drinker, or quiet in the sense of not being angry, just telling the same stories, about his experiences in World War II and being a high school football player. Then he would fall asleep on the floor in front of the television, while my mother simmered alone, chain-smoking at the kitchen table, wanting me to listen to her. When I finally found a way to escape to bed, she would sit in the dark on the couch in the living room, playing a Judy Garland record, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
I didn't know what my mother was so angry about until my older sister told me when I was in my twenties. Our mother had been sexually abused by her stepfather. I already knew she had never known her biological father, and it haunted her all of her life. But that other part of the story I had not known. My mother's anger was a mystery to me. During my high school years, that anger would become dangerous when she drank. One night, she took a hammer and smashed all the glass out of the family photos on the hallway wall. Terrified, I had to call the police. It would not be the last time I would call the police on my mother, on my parents. I had been writing since I was a child, before the difficulty in our family took a downward spiral, but writing became my first therapy although I didn't see it as such. Poetry was a way to get somewhere over the rainbow.
A few years before she died, my mother gave me a poem she'd written. I don't know if she wrote any other poems. I only have this one. She was a talented seamstress, making clothes for her three daughters. She also liked to paint and enjoyed other arts and crafts. One time, she baked marbles in the oven and made a hanging lamp for the living room. I remember seeing such a lamp or something similar in the movie, Ice Storm. She made a large mosaic painting of fruit that hung in the family room for years. It was beautiful. My mother had an artistic sensibility and my father was a natural story-teller. I've heard my father speak at AA meetings, and he tells a good story, truthful, funny, humor always mixed in with the seriousness of his tales.
My mother's poem was titled, "What I Could Be." The speaker talks about wanting to be a bird, a river, the sky, the wind, and how life is unfair, hard to bear for many people. The poem closes by saying, "God gave me everything when He gave you to me." The "you" is her children, her daughters.
Now she is what she could be: the bird, the river, the sky, the wind.
Back in 1980, my mother's life inspired my life although I didn't realize it. I studied, I would teach myself to be a teacher, I would write and read and become a writer. I would stay away from men, they were a distraction, they would take me away from my real life, and I'd be stuck like my mother. I had a plan.
And then I met Nick.
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