Thursday, April 29, 2010

Crime and Punishment

Growing up, my mom was the comforter and my dad was the punisher. She didn’t have the strength or the stomach to enforce anything other than the simplest of rules. Her most powerful weapons were bribery: “I’ll buy you a candy bar.” And threatening: “You just wait till your father gets home!” Unfortunately for mom I knew that unless it was something really bad, she wouldn’t dare tell him. He was the king of “Too Far” and his parenting technique left a lot to be desired.

Before I knew anything about drugs, my mom would blame his behavior on his parents and the way they raised him: strict and with a hand that was much heavier than anything I could imagine. And now, in part, I believe that. Because I’m a parent, because I know myself (as much as one can at my age), and I know my temper and what it’s capable of. I know that that part of me, the impatient, short fused part, comes from him. But the difference between us is that I’m not fueling my temper with drugs that will send it spiraling out of control and even though I acknowledge the part I let him play in my past, I will not use him as an excuse for any parenting mistakes I make. I am entirely capable of keeping my hands to myself and my tongue in check. I might have to work a bit harder at it than others, but that’s my cross to bear, not the kid’s.

One of the things he learned from his parents, according to mom, was his attitude toward food. Meals were not missed and plates were always, always cleaned. If I didn’t like something on my plate, tough shit. “You’ll eat every bit of it and you’ll like it or...” Apparently times were hard when he was growing up and because he’d had to eat massive piles of pinto beans, my taste buds were doomed to suffer. Since he was the man and cleaning the kitchen was beneath him, he would eat, retire to the couch and mom would often cover for me, hiding my plate or taking my portion.

Once, when she put cole slaw on my plate, I picked the wrong time to whine about it. He was near, had no doubt been drinking, and decided he was going to make me like slaw. I ate every bite of what I’d been given, but I made him so mad with my crying and complaining that he decided I should have more. And so I sat at the table, force feeding myself massive amounts of slaw, until I threw up and he sent me to bed.

His attitude wasn’t always unjust. When he was sober, he was sometimes fair. I was a willful, arrogant child and I got in trouble often. In fact, as much as I sometimes feared him, I often purposefully taunted him. I wanted his attention: good, bad, or ugly.

It started in kindergarten. I refused to nap, harassing the other students while they tried to lie peacefully on their mats. I spent the majority of the school year on my mat in the brightly lit hall outside the classroom kicking the walls. It seems like such a small rebellion as an adult, but to five year old me it was a charge into battle.

It wasn’t easy for my teachers through grade school, not only because of my attitude, but because of my large family. Until fifth grade, when the order came that we were to be separated, three of my cousins were always in the same class with me. Ben, the most mischievous of the group, was my partner in crime. Our behavior would probably be considered pretty tame by most standards, but to a harried teacher and principal it was the consistency of our actions that made them so bad. All of us together were no doubt quite daunting. With my attitude and their encouragement, it’s a wonder I was ever able to sit down.

The worst thing I think we (Ben and I) ever did was beat the shit out of a boy in the school yard for pushing our cousin Christine down so hard that she broke her front teeth. His name was Ben too and he was an ugly, slow kid that grew up to be an even uglier, creepy guy.

I was paddled in the principal’s office and sent home with a note describing my unladylike behavior. And I waited, terrified, for my dad to come home. He read the note, looked at me and said, “Did you win?” Eventually I nodded and he surprised me by leaving it at that, no punishment at all. Just a lesson that made me a bit paranoid: Whether I started a fight or not, if I lost I’d get my ass beat. If I won, I’d get a pat on the back. Because no daughter of his was going to be labeled a pussy. I would get not one ass whipping, but two. That hardly seemed fair to me and I said as much. And he replied with a sage bit of wisdom that, even after hearing him say it millions of times and hating him for it, I’ve actually used myself: “If yer gonna be dumb, ya better be tough.”

And I was dumb. I can’t count the number of times I was suspended from the bus or written up for talking back. I usually got the belt in those instances. But all of that changed when I became a teenager: the rules, the punishments, the attitude...everything. He had the strangest opinions and my friends were baffled by my restrictions.

I wasn’t allowed to wear pants that “dragged the ground” or nail polish in “funky” colors (namely blue, green, and black). I was rarely allowed to spend the night with anyone that wasn’t a relative and my comings and goings were monitored not only by family, but by dad’s numerous spies. When I was grounded he didn’t just take away my things. He moved me into the guest room where I wasn’t allowed to read anything that wasn’t school related and there was nothing but a dresser and a bed. The list goes on and on.

When I turned 15 and started driving I was chomping at the bit, craving freedom. He started including me in his outings. I wasn’t allowed to stay at a friend’s house, but I could go mud digging and drink a case of wine coolers and smoke a joint with dad and his friends. (I drank the wine coolers. They drank beer. If he ever read this, he’d be angrier at the implied girliness than anything else.) My mom was livid. The tables turned and when he brought me home drunk and laughing, she finally got the balls to attempt a real punishment. He, of course, put a stop to that. No one overruled the king.

Now he’s given up his throne and moved 1200 miles away to harass someone else. I’ve become an adult, moved back home and have my own child to parent. Now I talk to him about the injustices I suffer from his ex because, funnily enough, with his distance, my meek and mild mom has at last found punishments to dole out that suit her. And he finds it hilarious. You would think that being my age would save me from having to worry about that sort of thing, but no. Her methods aren’t physical, but rather psychological beatings by way of guilt, blackmail, and her most formidable: plain old calculated aggravation.

She is Queen of the “One of these days I’m going to die and you’re going to be sorry” club. Sometimes she succeeds in making me feel guilty, but lately it’s gotten old. If guilt were a horse, she’d have beaten that motherfucker to death, shredded the meat off its bones and broken her arm in the process.

Her antics to send me over the edge are, I admit, often amusing. But she’s like a possessed child with a big rubber mallet in her hands, playing Whack-A-Mole and dancing with glee when she hits her mark, swinging with more frenzy if she doesn’t. It gets tiresome.

The other night, before we had a fight about virtually nothing and I left in a huff for four days, she came home in a terrible mood. I was sitting in the living room, minding my own business, when she put her bare ass in front of my face. A large, plum colored bruise that closely resembled a shoe print was on her left cheek.

“Touch it”, she said. Her brows were knit together and I could tell that laughing and/or demanding she remove her ass from the vicinity of my face wouldn’t be a good idea.

“Go on, touch it,” my sister parroted.

I looked from one to the other, then back at the bruise. Sighing, I stuck out one finger and touched her ass. There was no help for it – if I hadn’t caved she would have harassed me all night. I prodded the center.

“It’s soft on one side and there’s a huge knot on the other”, my sister offered.

She was right. The knot was the size of an apple. And really, I’d never seen that shade of purple on a bruise before.

“Good gawd”, I said.

“Yeah! Yeah”, mom yelled at me over her shoulder, glaring in accusation.

I suppose it was partially my fault. She was picking up the slip-n-slide mess I’d left in the yard and fell down the stairs trying to haul it all up to the porch. So she’s been limping around for days – bitching, moaning, and sending pictures of her ass to my Aunt. It’s been quite horrendous. And it’s not like I wasn’t going to pick up the damn slide, I told her I would. I just didn’t do it fast enough for her liking.

She even harasses me “inadvertently”.

Every couple months she has what we call an “episode”. She gets violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea and can’t move much for 24 – 48 hours. She’s had every test known to man and still no one really knows what causes it. Though they’ve slacked off a bit this past year.

I’m a very squeamish person. Just hearing, smelling, or being in the general vicinity of vomiting and/or diarrhea makes me green. She knows this, yet every time she has one of her episodes she comes to get me. Usually while I’m sleeping.

I’ve always been a heavy sleeper: sometimes four alarms and a punch in the stomach wouldn’t even do it. But somehow, when she’s on her way to wake me during one of her spells, I’m up instantly. It’s her walk.

My door will be closed, the house dark and silent, and suddenly I’ll wake...and I’ll hear the unmistakable sound of impending doom: StompStompStompStompStompStompStompStompStompStomp. Then my door will fly open and she’ll stage whisper, voice laced with theatrical agony, “Al! Al, come quick! I’m dying!” And then she’s off back the way she came: StompStompStompStompStompStompStompStompStomp, sometimes calling over her shoulder, “Al! Hurry!”

The stomping is caused by the strangest walk I’ve ever seen. Her legs are spread, about shoulder width apart, and she somehow manages, in that position, to waddle very fast with her arms pumping like pistons. I’m usually too cranky at the time it’s happening to laugh, but I often imitate it and laugh later.

Anyway, once I’ve been summoned, if I don’t trudge after her immediately, she’ll start calling from the toilet. “Al! Al!” And she won’t stop. So I have to get up, go to her room, crawl in her bed, and go to sleep there while she sits in her attached bathroom making noises no one should ever have to hear. She claims that she just wants me in the room “in case something happens” or “in case she dies”. I know this to be only partially true.

I’ve tried to reason with her. I’ve tried to explain that it doesn’t matter whether I’m in my bed or her bed, “something” is already happening and I most definitely don’t need to be a participant. Not only that, but once I lie down in her bed (which is 10 times more comfortable than mine), I’m out for the count again. I won’t be waking up without heavy artillery. If she died I wouldn’t find her for hours. My sister would be the logical choice: she doesn’t get squeamish, she’s got the “nurturing gene”, she’s a light sleeper, and she wouldn’t laugh at her stomping waddle. Instead of saying, “Be quiet, you’re not dying! Shut that damn door, it stinks in here!” my sister would say, “Are you ok” 50 times and hold her hair back. The only logical explanation is that she is less afraid of dying than she is in need of torturing me.

Maybe I should have given a better example, one that didn’t make me out to be a complete asshole. (Still, it’s nothing short of the truth.) Let’s see: She also rifles through my personal belongings, listens to my conversations, undermines my parenting – thus causing the kid to be a confused and unmanageable shit head, deliberately embarrasses me with stories of past wrongdoings in front of friends and strangers, and calls for me in the shrill voice she usually reserves for the animals, “ALICE!” And sometimes, “ASSHOLE!”

My name is not Alice.

I have a few theories as to the reasons for her behavior. Firstly, I am a lot like my father and she hates that. I don’t mean I snort coke off of poker machines or anything like that. He has a few good qualities. Like we both make friends easily and we aren’t wall flowers at parties. Mom has always been uncomfortable around people she doesn’t know. He and I both take chances and...Actually, maybe we aren’t so much alike. My vivacity is not chemically induced. Usually.

Second, she’s used to the drama that surrounded her relationship with my dad. And I, being the family screw up, moved back home and gave her the perfect solution to make her feel normal again. She seems to actually enjoy baiting me and causing conflict.

And lastly, I really am a lazy asshole.

The true answer is likely a combination of all three.

Regardless, I know for certain I’ve learned (and am still learning) incredible lessons from both of them, intentional or not.

And ironically, those quick and simple punishments that I was so afraid of in my youth are far more welcome than adult consequences and endless heckling. And sometimes people just need a good spanking.


Sarah P said...

I just want to hug you now. But, like, maybe after you shower, just in case you slept in your mom's bed last night.

Eric said...

Drama is overrated, there needs to be less of it.

Steam Me Up, Kid said...

I know that so well, the feeding off the drama, the needing it for some fucked up reason. Thus my blog title, my dad's words to us to get him fired up.

I'm having violent feelings toward your dad right now. I just went back in time to that cole slaw scene, slipped some sedatives in his drink, and drew flowers and kitty cats on his face after he'd passed out.

Judearoo said...

Families are weird and gotta say, Al, yours are as screwed up as most. But you're right about lessons and should give yourself credit, you're smart enough to realise some things are just the way they are. All about not claiming responsibility for the things that arn't your doing and having the maturity to understand the things that are.

No penis jokes in this, but I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I think you make a pretty kick ass mom actually. You have the ability to see things for how they are and see through the pitfalls so I think you'll do ok with that. So maybe having the parents you did will be a benefit to YOUR kid in the end because you'll do it differently. I know I'm like my dad. I didn't get on with that guy growing up at all. But I know I have many of his personality traits and in all honesty, knowing that has really helped me, by making me take evasive action to combat them.

I did want to make a more normal, flippant comment but my comment mojo is on vacation. :)

Girl Interrupted said...

Being able to laugh and see the funny side in spite of whatever adversity is thrown at you by fate (or family) is a priceless gift, and by God you have it.

You're also a fantastic writer.

Kate said...

I found this post very moving indeed.

Baglady said...

Thanks for sharing a serious post with us - I love your funny writing but it's nice to hear more about your background.

Parents fuck you up. But they make you too.

Sara said...

Cole slaw is disgusting. I would have projectile vomited on him if I were you.

Rusty Hoe said...

I grew up with some mightily messed up parents that I had to parent from about aged 10. I swore I would do everything in my power not to parent like them and really that's all you can do. You are going to cock up and your kid will hate you at some point, that's normal, but being able to see the past for what it was and how it has made you who you are is half the battle. Great post.

Blair said...

i love your blog and candor. rock on lady. also, i suspect you are a smashing parent.

erin said...

Have you ever thought about taking yourself far far away from all this drama? The drama of your own making might cease in great amounts if you do so as well.

I feel smothered sometimes by my family. My home with my children and Jeremiah is my 'safe place' but it sometimes is not safe enough from the drama that my parents and siblings create.

mylittlebecky said...

i never understood people who had cool dads. my mom would do the same thing "covering for me" with my dad which, at the time i was grateful but then i started wondering why she just didn't tell HIM to stop being such an asshole.

you asleep on the bed while your mom poops makes me giggle. the last time chuck had a puke attack i almost died. true story. cannot stand the sound. yuck.

The mad woman behind the blog said...

It always amazes me when I hear the voice of sanity arising from an insane environment.
You're a wonderful woman and mother and I admire you (AND your damn YOUTH!)
The weird dad stuff is an interesting dynamic when it comes to girls, isn't it? I know I saught the attention of men when I was an adolescent and younger woman b/c I didnt get it at home.

You are blessed with strength, wisdom and humor. Nothing I like better!

Hannah Miet said...


You've got one of those voices of reason.

The rarest kind,

that can narrate the kind of scenes that induce almost painful amounts of sympathy

yet are so levelheaded, so calm in their narration

that the voice is a guide through the storm.

I love watching your writing pick up strength.

You're a tough, inspiring, bitch.

Ally said...

Wow, You are a pretty amazing chick. All of your posts are intense and leave us feeling something. Damn, man. You make my current post about being felt up in 9th grade look like crap compared to your stories. You truly have a way with words.

kris said...

We have much in common, you and I.

People ask me how I parent my girls after having two such horrendous role models, and I always say, "I simply imagine what my mom or dad would have done, and I try to do the exact opposite." It has proven, for me, to be an amazing and freeing tool.

Powerful stuff, this post, which I sometimes avoid. But humor too, which will keep me coming back.

I love pain with my funny. Or is it the other way round?

The Kid In The Front Row said...

When are you going to write a book?

Living Shallow, Living Well said...

Most days, I would do anything for a candy bar.

otherworldlyone said...

Sara P: Then maybe a pat on the back or a thumbs up? I’m not really a hugger anyway.

Eric: True that.

Steamy: There are so many people that need the drama. It’s crazy. Aww, c’mon. Kitty cats? What about hate symbols and genitalia.

Judearoo: Thanks. Nope, no penis jokes. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to make penis jokes when you haven’t seen on in...sigh. You don’t even want to know.

Veg Ass: I like your flippant comments, but this was nice. Thank you.

Girl Interrupted: Thank you! Now, if only my mother could learn to laugh at herself, I’d be in business. (She’s horrified that I ‘might’ be writing about her. I told her that she should stick it out because there might be money involved 20 years down the road.)

Kate: Thank you very much.

Baglady: My background is quite colorful, no? “Parents fuck you up. But they make you too.” Exactly.

Sara: High five. Fuck cole slaw.

Rusty Hoe: My kid hates me at least 3 times a day so I figure I’m on the right track. Thanks.

Blair: Thank you, Blair. (And for your other comment as well.) :)

Erin: Um...every single day, several times a day. I can’t wait until she and I can be on our own.

Becky: Exactly. I’ve said the same thing to my mom many times. “Why didn’t you just get rid of him?” I can’t stand the sound either. Ugh.

Mad Woman: Thank you. And ditto. :)
Hannah: You leave the best comments, you know that? Thanks.

Ally: Aw, c’mon. Being felt up in the 9th grade is important stuff. I’ll have to go check that post out. Thanks.

Kris: I think it’s the other way around. Ha. I try to avoid the ‘powerful stuff’ too, but I’ve been having trouble with funny lately. Thanks for coming around anyway.

Kid: I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it more and more lately. Sometimes it seems completely attainable and other times it seems like such a ludicrous and impossible idea. Shrug.

Living Shallow: For me it’s cheesecake.

Sarah P said...

I straight-up heart that we independently judged the Out-of-Tune Idol videos and both thought everyone was stoned.

Maryx said...

I think I had it easy... My mom and I lived with my grandparents until I went to high school. I was spoiled rotten. And I was protected by the grandparents. Mostly.

BrightenedBoy said...

Let me say first and foremost, without equivocation, that corporal punishment is never acceptable. You've adopted an admirable attitude from your daughter. It is wise to shield her from the difficulties you faced.

Your mother is a selfish and immature woman.

She should be happy for the opportunity to help our a daughter who works hard while trying to raise a child, but apparently that isn't enough.

We have similar guilting problems with my own grandmother, and my solution is to adopt an attitude similar to that of the U.S. government: do not negotiate with terrorists.

When the guilting starts, call it for what it is and refuse to acquiesce. She'll kill herself or learn to live with it, but either way she cannot continue to have power over you.

Why haven't you been able to look for a place on your own or with a roommate?