The Moon in Orbit

How to describe growing up with my family? My mother met at 16, and then married my father at 18. He is eight years her senior, and at the time of their meeting would have been 24. Both of them are incredibly smart, brilliant really. My mother received a scholarship to Harvard, and then later attended Princeton for her PhD. My father eventually graduated from Boston College. But this is not a story about how educated they are, it merely serves to set the stage to understand that they are extremely intelligent, well studied. They know things, understand concepts and histories. Both grew from working class immigrant family roots. Theirs were scrappy, industrious families from New York and Chicago, both my grandfathers served in WWII, and my grandmother, in the Women’s Army Corps. Their families owned bakeries, bars, and a thriving numbers running business in Brooklyn. But this is all just backdrop. I have to redirect back to the story about growing up with them, an only child born to my mother when she was 23, and recently graduated from a sociology program at Cambridge.

Just the other day, I was standing in my kitchen chatting with my mother, about the security alarm that had been set off at 7:45am the previous morning. My parents have an in-law unit directly above our house, and when they come to visit for the holidays from Chicago, they stay in their own flat. Nevertheless, the alarm went off at 7:45am, and raised a racket, waking both my husband and me from a nice sleep in. No big deal, right? Shit happens. But you see, not so for my parents. When I raised the issue, my mother just stared at me, questioned me, “When did it go off? How early? No, no surely it couldn’t have been Charles (my father).” But of course, it was him, as my young children can’t work the locks on the door to their flat to unlock and then open the door, and they wouldn’t have. They know better. And besides, I heard them in the living room, contentedly watching cartoons, the sounds of the show filtering down the hall. It was obviosuly my father.

So what, right? An alarm goes off because my dad set it off. But it was at that moment, when I’m discussing this situation with my mother, that I realize with such clarity, that her behavior, which has been a constant throughout my life, and has shaped me into the person I am. You see, no matter what my father has done, no matter how appalling or rude, no matter how ridiculous or malevolent, no matter how banal the offense or petty, she has covered for him, excused him, denied the existence of the problem, or if denial was not an option, she has made excuse after excuse for him, been his apologist and defense attorney, his shepherd, his shield. And what has the result been for me? How have I formed to fit in to this landscape where everything was erased, denied, and excused?

I suppose you need to know a bit about me. I am an only child as I mentioned. And I know some only children who thrive, my husband is one for example, and he enjoyed it. Me though, I have always felt I was raised by wolves. A close friend of my mother’s, who came to eat dinner with just my husband and I one evening, looked over at me, and said with a grin, “My dear, you have turned out very well for a girl raised by wolves.” I agree. I have been fortunate. I spent a long time softening the scar tissue with alcohol and drugs and recklessness. I spent a good deal more time though, solitary and distrustful and full of rage. I suppose the rage peeks through periodically. I feel it sometimes behind my eyes, a red fury that overpowers my senses, the need to smash things or scream, or strike out, and it burns so hot for a second that I am fearful. When I feel this way around my children I drop everything and walk away from them, a bit scared for them, for me. I suppose most children who are raised with fists and screaming and open hand across the face slaps and shoves down the stairs and dragging by the hair feel this way. Don’t they? I was sent to school with black eyes, with hair falling out, with hand-shaped marks on my arms from being picked up and thrown. Did they know better? Yes. Did my mother stop him? No. And always, always, excuses, excuses, excuses. I stopped asking for her to leave him. I knew she wouldn’t. I stopped asking for apologies. I learned never to expect to get them.

But here we are so many years later. What has changed? I’m not sure. I think mostly I came to accept their personas as a type of disability; that’s the only way forth if you are dealing with people in such deep denial as they are. I have come to terms with their behaviors, because they will not change, or rather in 37 years they have only made incremental progress, to give them credit where credit is due. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. But I had to chose never to see them again, or accept the deeply flawed versions of themselves. I chose to have them in my life, or I would have been truly a lone wolf.

When I left home at 17, I decided I would never go back as I was concerned that I would actually kill my father. The worst time was when I was pinned to the floor of the kitchen, one hand holding my face, the other swinging wide and then slamming down, over and over. I wiggled free, grabbed a kitchen knife and held it in front of him. That was it, I never went home again. I moved out on my own and have never looked back. It amazes me sometimes, to think that type of violence transpired between us. I look at my own children, and while I sometimes get the white-hot violence feeling pulsing at my temples, it has never manifested in actual action. I would not be able to live with myself if I struck them. Though I do wonder if today’s children, who appear so free of boundaries, so coddled, so spoiled, so utterly ruined by helicopter parenting, would benefit from a good solid smack here and there (my gut tells me they would). There’s something about the threat of harm from your caretakers that makes one develop a knife edge of self-reliance and independence that most children now seem to lack. My background has made me fairly rigid, I say “No” frequently, I don’t indulge much, and my children are not allowed to climb me like a piece of furniture. They clear their plates, say “Please” and “Thank you” and have been sent to their rooms without dinner for breaking the rules. I demand that they don’t act like spoiled brats in my prescense. I don’t tolerate picky eating or much complaining. My husband thinks I am a hardass. I am okay with that assessment.

So here is my mother, acting out this same ritual that she has for the last 37 years of my life. My father set off the alarm. She questions me about it, demanding to know the exact time of morning, because she just knows it could not have been Charles! Okay, I think, sure. Nobody else could have done it, and yet here you sit defending him from what? What is so scary to you that you cannot even admit this about him? And then it becomes so clear. That this constant denial of the truth, of tiny errors and huge mistakes, has been going on my whole life. Was I loved? Yes. They took me on adventures and travels. They fed me and clothed me and made sure I slept on a bed with clean sheets. They supported my dreams, and sacrificed for me to go to college and when I demanded to move out on my own at 17, my mother helped me pack. But there has never been a real place for me. The two of them, so invested as one another’s alibi, my mother so wrapped up in the creation of her impenetrable wall of excuses, her constant pandering and calming and soothing and distracting my father, never fully had her attention on me. And my father — who even now, seems to exist at a distance to me, an odd man who seems always off kilter, slightly pained, a bit hard to read, deadlocked into his peculiar ways, because of his guilt or his anger or both — never had to confront me fully. We pass by eachother like warring superpowers at a diplomatic dinner party. Cordial, but with great distance. I am always seeking to understand him, though I lose patience quickly. My mother allowed him to behave the way he did, with no fear of retribution and so he grew wild and slightly out of focus. Some would say eccentric. Though I think of him the same way I do about most of the children I know now, who are impossible to be around, grating on my nerves to the point their awful behavior sets my teeth on edge. “Well, he’s an artist, he wants to write about the world as he experienced it. And he was raised with abusive parents who didn’t give a shit about him, you know that.” That was the mantra, always, always, that my father was a victim too.

I understand with great clarity that my whole life I have been a moon in orbit. I am held in place by them, and yet I am also an integral part of their lives. I know that they will need me now, especially, as they age, to make decisions, comfort, and steer them, though I am unsure if I am capable of the task. Their lifetime of theater, of creating these characters that they have become, has given me some great strengths. I do not care what anyone says or thinks about me, and I can cut someone with my tongue, or loose from my life in a matter of seconds, without a moment’s hesitation. I find more and more that I am happy to be a rogue, alone again, rediscovering how freeing it is to be unburdened by people. I suppose what worries me most, is how this solitary girl raised by wolves, and in the great black void of their sky, returns to Earth.