Memories of the beginning of November were a little bleak as a child, and still I don't care for it very much. Report cards always came out a week before my birthday, and they were always "disappointing." My birthdays were always a mixed grab bag of bittersweet anticipation. First off, I was from a middle upper-class family, and I can't really complain (in retrospect) that I kept getting told I would have gotten better gifts and stuff if my grades had been better. Because, honestly, only a few petty memories come to mind for things I asked for and never got, and I later bought them when I grew up so... hey, you know, why be sad about it now? But the worst was the upcoming holidays.
The worst part about the "mixed bag" of holidays was that my mother was an alcoholic. It was spinning some big game show wheel to see what was to be our fate. She could be sober and happy, sober and depressed, drunk and happy, drunk and depressed, or just drunk and passed out. Mostly the latter two as I got older. My father and I sometimes had our birthdays as awkward passages of "what do you do with a drunken housewife?" My mother did manage to be sober for most Thanksgiving and Christmas days, but towards the end, it was really hard. There were really only three reasons we ever were forced together as a family (meaning my parents and myself). The first was when I was in trouble. The second was for holidays, when I was allowed to eat at the "good table" (usually I ate alone in the kitchen), but this fate was almost as bad as the previous reason because my father used this opportunity to tease, belittle, and mentally torture me. The third was that damn yacht my father dragged us to, but that's such a huge separate topic, I won't go into it now, but imagine being dragged to a floating cabin where three very dysfunctional people were trapped in a room the size of a walk-in closet for a weekend, almost every weekend, for seven years. But this is about the second reason.
Birthdays, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and sometimes the 4th of July I had to endure the ritual of "eating at the good table." I'd wake up late, stay in my room or play outside by myself until the mid afternoon, kind of like awaiting jury duty. Then I'd be called when "the meal" was done. My mother, when sober, was a good cook. The food was never the problem, even though I was a picky eater until I was about 16. It was dreading being with my father, but enduring it because there was no way out. Sometimes my father would behave himself, but sometimes he'd have to make some snide comment about how stupid I was, that I (and my mother) complained too much, what mistakes he thought I had made with my life, and how I was essentially a disappointment to the world in general, which hated me, and hated everyone else, for that matter, so there! Great pep talk about how uncaring the world was.
Now, in my father's defense, I realized at about age 9 that "being stupid" was the role I had to play. After a lot of soul-searching about why my parents flew off the handle so much led to the discovery that, by gum, if I played the "stupid role," I got into far less arguments, and got abused a lot less. Sometimes, it was almost like watching a narcotic fix, like, "he's stupid right? I'm better RIGHT? RIGHT? YES? Oh, he is dumb... okay... ahhhh... much, much better... yes... mmmm... okay, everything can go on now... [happy sigh]" My big problem was I was still mad at the insults and the totally unfair and totally untrue accusations about me and my friends, so I tended towards a more "passive aggressive" approach. I sometimes played the part TOO well, like walking around into walls, eyelids half closed, forgetting to use the fork properly... like I was a total drugged out imbecile who needed round-the-clock supervision. It took a lot of practice to subdue the anger and just stay quiet and submissive, whimper when insulted, and cry a lot. Crying made my father laugh a lot, and was a good tension release in some sick and twisted way. It was always a mind game, and I was never really all that good at it because he held all the cards as to how he was going to act.
Sometimes, a fight would start mid-meal, and that meant that the meal would end with either me or my mother in tears. Now, my father never openly insulted my mother. He patronized her, yes, but never called her names or made accusations towards her intellect the way he did with me. My mother would usually start crying that we were always fighting, which was true, so I can't blame her for that. It tore her apart how much my father and I would fight. Of course, I didn't fight much in front of him, because a few times that I did, he beat me severely (he didn't lay a hand on me otherwise, just only when I brazenly stood up for myself and cornered him in his own faulty logic). But when my mother and I were alone, I would rant and rave about what an awful man he was. She stood up for him as best she could, stating I didn't understand, and how grateful I should be that I had all the things that I did that neither of them had growing up in the slums of Chicago. This was true. I got free rent, I was usually fed steady meals, and I didn't have to pay for my own clothes and school supplies until I got a job at 16. Again, I got most toys I wanted, and compared to some abused kids who got a lot less, I was "better off" this way. My trade for these luxuries, of course, were my landlords' insanity.
Part of this insanity was "gift-giving time," a strange medley of both my father and I refusing to give each other a gift, and my mother having to buy a gift, and trying to get one of us to sign a card of some sort. In the later years, my mother did without the cards and speech altogether, and what we got each other was almost as much a surprise to the giver as it was to the recipient. "Ah... I got him a shaving set, I see.," I'd think, while my father would openly ask something like, "Oh, why did I just give Greg-gry a D&D book?" followed by a disgusted sigh.
Hell, no wonder my mother drank.
This insanity built up for my whole life, and who knows what other baggage was carried over from the ten years they were married before I came along? Finally, in an act of defiance that was supposed to prove a point, my mother cancelled Christmas in 1986. She usually did all the decorating, all the cooking, all the fuss, and no one seemed to appreciate it. She was right, of course. So she decided in 1986 that, "Screw the work, don't even take the decorations down from the attic, or buy a damn tree, I'll buy a small 1-foot, pre-lit tree, put it on our coffee table, and there you go. Merry fucking Christmas." Those weren't her words, of course, but I think that's what she was trying to do, hoping that we'd try and convince her otherwise. Instead, we said, "Oh, okay," like she had just announced something mundane, like she was having tuna for her lunch instead of ham salad, possibly mixed with good news, like she had found a $50 bill on the street the other day. Great, mom, more power to you! I spent Christmas day at Kate's house, and then the next day, flew to Texas to be with my friend Neal through New Year's. "Hey," I recall thinking, "this is the best Christmas ever!"
A few weeks later, my mother swigged down two bottles of tranquilizers with a bottle of vodka, and cut the curtain on her disastrous life abruptly like a Broadway play that was going nowhere, anyway. There were other reasons, of course, why she did this, but I am sure the total realization that we were not a family didn't help matters.
While fall is my favorite season, weather-wise, it does have that bitter tang of all the baggage I mentioned above. My first birthday after my mother's death I vowed to totally forget, and thankfully, some friends understood, and I actually forgot about my birthday, until the next day, when my friend (and roommate at the time) Bruce said, "Hey, yesterday was your birthday, wasn't it? Uh... want to go to lunch?" (we were at a sci-fi con, Philcon, I think). The first Thanksgiving and Christmas I spent afterwards living with Bruce, who was Jewish, who had an oddball family, and invited oddball friends to our gatherings as well. My first Christmas without my parents was spent planning and helping set up Evecon 5. It was like my slate was being wiped clean to start my own traditions, and God bless them for that. Bruce, Cheryl, Liska, and Debbie really helped me move on, and were exactly what I needed at the time. I even decided to like Christmas, no matter what the odds were against me, just to be defiant towards my life. Even through retail. Even through the fact the woman I married was born Christmas day and is very bitter about it.
Continuing on a tradition that Bruce and Cheryl set, Christine and I try to have friends over for Thanksgiving who may not have a family to go home to, or have one but don't want to be with them (because their families are buttheads like mine was). Christine came from a big family, and she grew up with huge family gatherings that ended with her grandmother's death (she was the matriarch who held everyone together - when she died, it all fragmented), so she misses a lot of that, but doesn't want to cook a huge meal if it's only going to be the three of us.
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000270.html