Among the very long list of things I didn't know how to deal with was anger. Oh, the reader may believe that by the age of 3 or 4, I was utterly filled with it, but I'd witnessed few expressions of such an emotion, likely none of them very healthy. My parents finally separated for the final time when I was 13 years old. They divorced when I was 15. Theirs was a tragicomic pairing that included some of the deepest lows a married couple might suffer. I don't think either of them had any tools in their personal makeup to handle their troubles effectively. I don't know if either of them would admit to any highs in their relationship. It probably depends on when we asked them that.
For decades, we have referred to my father as Donald Duck because he sputters and spits, snarls and snaps about anything that pisses him off right now. Inconsiderate drivers, basketball games that seem to be favorably tipped toward the Celtics instead of the Lakers, people who laugh at other people who slip on the ice, mean people who take advantage of others ~ oh, my dad can go off. He spews for a short time, takes steps to remedy what made him angry if that's in his power, and moves on. He'd verbally spar with a much-larger neighbor - hey, he'd been a boxer, he'd be OK in a dust-up if one ensued. He had no trouble picking off the nun who whacked my hand with a ruler because I couldn't manage that pesky Palmer Method of handwriting. "If the Morgan kid needs to be whacked, you call us and we'll whack her, but don't you ever think of whacking her again!" I don't think he is a person with a huge well of anger left unapproached.
About my mother's anger, I'll have to use a bandolier full of educated guesses. I don't think I'll be far off the target. Otherwise, we'd have to ask her, and we're not going to do that. She was really bright and was not only her family's first high school graduate, she managed a scholarship to a good Catholic womens college. Before she could start there, she became pregnant. With me. Much high drama ensued - this was in 1951, for crying out loud - and it seems every member of that huge extended family had something to say. Granny wanted to adopt the baby (me) and raise it. Grandpa felt they were too old (aged 50 and 52). Grandpa thought one of his other daughters might know how to pursue a Mexican abortion and said so, thereby infuriating both daughters. Ruth didn't know how to obtain an abortion anywhere and my mother hadn't asked for one. My father's parents screamed from the midwest, "It couldn't be him. He had a terrible fall on a tricycle when he was 3 and can't father children." My parents wanted to marry and have their child. They did so. Later, my mother would suffer terribly after the birth of my profoundly retarded brother, and other assaults she wasn't prepared to endure. I believe my mother's fall from grace at age 17 broke her. I don't believe she has ever looked at my face without seeing missed opportunity, though she is well-evolved enough to now feel some guilt for that. I don't think she was ever fully whole again, and I know life continued to chip away small pieces from her. She morphed as addicts do. Anger, self-pity, codependency, resentments. The tiny lioness did not audibly roar for many, many years, but when she did, it was remarkable and terrifying. She is, today, an admirable recovering alcoholic of more than 25 years. I am not violating her anonymity with that statement. She announces it to anyone who will listen to her.
Through all of their tribulations, I never saw or heard my parents express anger at one another verbally. Never a shout, a curse, even a mildly angry statement. Neither of them nightowls, I imagine they only stayed up a few hours after I retired each night. Never once was my slumber disturbed by sounds of a wrangle. I have rarely heard either of them express a negative statement about the other. In 58 years. I know and understand both personalities - I possess some qualities taken from each of those personalities - and I just don't understand it. They had to have made one another insane! Not annoying. Crazy! Batshit. What did they do with it?
In the group of 40 cousins, and now their offspring so much time later, are wrapped up some of the angriest children I've ever known about. I can't say the aunts and uncles ever impressed me as angry. Granny henpecked (it's the perfect word) Grandpa, her voiced raised and her statements punctuated by a plume of Pall Mall smoke tossed over her shoulder. Gramps always, but always responded with a "Yes, Mary," and did whatever it was that she wanted. Fight over. No real anger exhibited. But then there were Uncle John's kids who tore into each other daily, drawing blood and not actually seeming to make up once the altercation was over. If we happened to be visiting when a fight began, I'd fade to wherever my father was located. I understand about young Sean who had multiple surgeries as an infant and was required to have his elbows splinted so he couldn't use his hands to disturb the surgical site. Yes, that would make someone angry, even a baby. But there was no one like Bill.
My cousin Bill's photo could have been used in a dictionary to depict "average, adorable, 1950s American boy". Blue eyes, red-blond hair, freckles by the bushel, and attitude. He was born scowling, I am sure. At the age of about 18 months, he was given a tiny pair of red leather cowboy boots by Granny and Grandpa. They were a struggle to put on him, but once he was placed upright, faster than a rattlesnake, he proceeded to kick Grandpa up and down the shins until Gramps bled. He once bit a (reasonable) dog and the dog bit Bill back before running off. The entire family collected to scour the neighborhood for this dog so it could be tested for rabies. Bill was so young that he gave positive identification to every dog encountered, from Chihuahua to German Shepherd. He had to be given the series of rabies shots which were apparently extremely unpleasant. But my favorite Bill story co-stars me. Their family was visiting at my home and Bill had been told repeatedly to leave the piano alone. He'd finally had enough and decided to take action, apparently. He flung himself to the floor where I was sitting, bit me on the rear end, and - my father swears this is literally true - came up spitting corduroy from my trousers. So you see, I saw plenty of anger from a short distance. I just wasn't sure how it applied to me. I didn't know to acknowledge I felt any of it, though I did. I had no siblings with whom to wrestle and fight. I surely wasn't about to bite dogs or humans. I kept stuffing my anger (which I hadn't yet named "anger") into my secret keeper compartment - rather emotional Tupperware. It was building up quite a head of steam by the time I was 8.
I was well attuned to sensing the emotional climate as soon as I awoke each morning so I could put on whichever self I was going to be for the day. By 8, I was figuring out anger between the parents, despite their quiet presentation. Or maybe because of it. Deadly quiet and no conversation was a pretty good indicator that I'd leave my bedroom and walk into rooms thick with palpable tension. I knew to lay low, not attract any negative attention, plan to play quietly. If the stereo played Ella Fitzgerald or Harry Belafonte and I could hear them speaking to one another, or hear Dad singing, I could let down my guard just a little. The first time it happened, I was 8. I woke up one morning. No Ella. No Harry. My mother seemed a little sniffly and red-eyed. My father was gone. Had the Merry Maids come in, they couldn't have eradicated his presence any more thoroughly. Not a sign of him, his possessions or that he'd ever existed. Between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Damned quietly, too!
My mother said that Dad had gone to stay somewhere else. That's it. I must have been some embryonic form of interviewer, because all manner of questions popped into my head: "Where did he go?" "With whom?" "For how long?" "When will I see him?" "Can I call him?" "Why didn't he take me?" "How long will I have to stay here with you at the wheel alone?" I asked not one question. Her face let me know I shouldn't ask. It would be many, many years before I'd learn to ask questions in the face of any terror, thereby gaining some secure footing for myself. It is the first time I remember feeling abject trepidation, as in "What's going to happen now?" Very soon that was refined to "What's going to happen to me now?" It is the first incident I can recall wherein the fear overruled the delusion that things were OK. Things weren't OK. And I knew forever after I wasn't crazy to fear terrible, terrible events. After all, I'd lived through one. It happened.
He wasn't gone very long the first time. He called daily. He visited and took me out on weekends. A month later, he was suddenly home, just as quietly in the night as when he left. When I woke up for school, I heard Harry on the stereo. "Day-o, da-a-ay-o." No word of explanation about what had just happened here. Never. Future separations became longer and sometimes more difficult. There were many of them. Once he took me out of school for 2 weeks and we traveled together to visit his family in the midwest. It was a good, healthy, fun outing for us. During one of the last separations, I'd become a little shopworn. My hair was falling out at an alarming rate from the front of my head. To the extent my mother had to drag bangs from the crown of my head to cover my baldness. "Stress; nervousness," said the doctor who cared for all of our extended family. "You two need to start doing something differently," screamed the relatives. They would, but not for awhile, and not to an immediate positive result.
Guess what? I'm still not all that adept at navigating the world. Sometimes I feel the need to apologize for myself and sometimes I don't. Today I do. I do not expect or wish for sympathy of any color for anything that has ever happened in my life. I have enjoyed many of the good things offered to the good, when I wasn't even particularly good. I haven't written as much about my heady, high spots, though there are many. But I feel compelled to tell the other stories first. When I write about what happened, it forms a clearer picture for me. I can see the seeds, germination and growth of all the maladaption and misery. If I can see the sprouts, I can pull them like weeds, or skirt them or spray them with some positive herbicide-like stuff. So I ask the reader's indulgence today. I'm not wallowing. I'm looking back upon the road to here.
If you smell something really malodorous and hear its grunting and roaring, it's that bear I've been wrestling. It has grown larger and stinkier as I've tried to ignore it, and it won't go away, so I'm going to have to look under the bed and in all the corners to stare it down, tame it, get engaged or feed it. I rather fibbed on e-mail to Girlfriend when I told her I was wrestling something I hadn't named yet. Well, almost fibbed. I was close to naming it. And now I can. It's anger. Again. Still making me feel lost and uncomfortable. No longer scaring me nearly catatonic.
Something that charmed me: It's chilly and rainy and I need to go out for awhile. I tend to be a shivery little old lady, so I'll bundle up. Spotted in my closet, and to be worn with a tip o' the hat to Cousin Bill ~ my red, leather Mae West cowgirl boots. And I intend to kick no one.