Thursday, July 2, 2009

Growing Up Me

Apropos of a call for submissions (an essay contest at a popular magazine) on the topic of when and how I reached maturity, I wrote the following:

I stood at the peeling green door, the color of waxed cucumbers, and pushed at it tentatively with one finger. Here I was standing again, despite every impulse in my body, in front of my childhood home, on a seedy side street in Northeast Philadelphia, wishing I were somewhere else.

I was only here because I had to be. My dad, 88 years old, had just had a stroke, and he and my mother were in a rehab center, where they would stay until my dad was ready to be transported out to California, where I live with my family, having fled as far as I could go, to the other end of the continent, in a vain effort to escape my past.

For a few yeasrs, I managed to pretend it all never happened, my time growing up in the neighborhood where my parents, and by extension, I , were regarded as such oddities. It is true that we were all odd enough. My dad came in only two speeds: on one hand, he had always been prone to fits of rage so violent that I feared he would explode. His face would swell with anger, his veins bulging, blue as balloons. And he acted on this anger too, unpredictably. Sometimes I would be beaten for particular errors, such as getting a bad grade in math, and at others, I would be given ice cream instead. I felt like a hapless rat in some experiment somewhere, purposely being conditioned to produce an anxious and fearful response. Yet at time, she was as full of energy and joy as a kid. One time, I recall, he lined up all the children in the neighborhood and electrocuted hotdogs for them. It was a home made device, constructed out of some wire and an on-off switch, and the hot dogs swelled and sputtered. The children giggled and lined up again for seconds.
On the other hand, my mother was, by all appearances, a fairly average mother, except that she was from South Africa, and consequently, had an accent the other children loved to mock. Even I was fairly good at mocking it. However, it turned out to be she who was truly responsible for the problem I most dreaded. A lifelong hoarder and compusive shopper, my mother scoured the ads for sales, and would buy multiples of whatever was cheap. The spare room waxed as I grew with unneeded shavers, toothbrushes, pen refills that would fill the drawers and counters, collecting dust, and eventually piling up into dizzily leaning stacks of bags and boxes that drastically reduced the space in the room into a claustrophobic square composed mostly of the bed. There were carbon copies in lots of 20 of old letters written in the 60s to manufacturers of forgotten products or long defunct insurance companies, and try as I might, I couldn't get her to throw even one of these away.
Even I, I suppose, was a bit of a specimen myself. I practically lived at the library across the street, reading everything in it by the time I was about 12. I was short and scrwny with knees like a chicken's, had a math disability that made it impossible for me to do the problems my teachers asked me to write on the board, wrote a backwards left-handed scrawl, unintelligible to most, and collected insects. So this made me a bit different in a neighborhood where the other girls seemed to be cookie cutter versions of one another.
It wasn't just my parents I wanted to escape, but the experience of being the neighborhood freak, mocked and worse at school and at the playground. And yet here I was again, back in this same old place, the place I had tried to deny and to outgrow.
It was just that I had no choice. Everyone in my extended family agreed that as the only child, I was the one to come back to my parents' three-story home and clean it out, preparing it for sale. For years, the place had been an eyesore, filthy, infested with vermin. Swollen can goods lined the shelves, stored since I was in elementary school. One day I was sure some would explode, sending a can up into the ceiling like a bottle rocket, the way the pressure cooker full of split pea soup once exploded in that very kitchen when I was small. For years, I could see the stain on the ceiling like a green askerisk.
I couldn't talk my dad into giving the place up. To him, it represented his independence. None of the brochures of palm trees and beaches could lure him to Claifornia, where he could spend more time with me and with his grandson. Short of having him declared mentally incompetent, there was nothing I could do, despite the fact that my mother's dementia was growing worse daily, and my father was showing himself entirely incapable of caring for her and for the house. If he had only agreed to move willingly, he could have disposed of his things as he wished, but now, he had left it all to me, with only three days between semesters between semesters at the community college where I taught, to clean out the house and get rid of everything. Now, the day I had dreaded had come, and the whole thing was up to me.
The door swang open, unlocked, as my ather had feared it would be. When he had his stroke, he yelled that my mother was not to call 911 because the paramedics would steal his money, that is the money he had buried in envelopes all over the house, all $11,000. of it. Yet it was actually all still there, under all the junk, as in some nightmare scenario I had concocted in my worst of dreams.
I smelled the place before I saw it. There were two fridges full of rotting food in that house, and nowhere to dispose of it. My cousins, friends, and I tied bandanas around our faces and tried not to gag, burning sage as we tried to dispel the miasma. Rats ran out of boxes and roaches the size of mice skittered across the floor.
Somewhere underneath all that clutter and junk were the layers of our lives, distributed like the strata of the geological record. Like a paleontologist or a spelunker, I excavated these deptths, uncovering my mother's old passport from 50 years before, my kindgergarten drawings, my first poems and stories, the diaries I had scrawled, then abandoned, in my teenage years. And I discarded much of this. No room for sentiment all this sediment.
Two days later, my friends, cousins, and I had filled a dozen boxes with indispensible clothing, records, and valuables (those we could find). In the depths of her dementia, my mother had taken to burying things she thought of as valuables, though they were in actuality an assorted lot. Gone was her Social Security card (it would take another 2 years to get another) and her mother's diamonds. But I found some of her stash, a melange of meaningless crud. I brought some of what seemed most essential to my parents, gave some to relatives and friends for storage, and sent some stuff home by mail. It was to take 5 years to sort it all out for good.
The irony of all this was not lost on me. Here I had gone thousands of miles to avoid or deny my past, my family's uncomfortable peccadilloes and genetic ailments, but there was no way to escape them: in the end, I was forced to pick through the remnants myself and to deal with them, piece by piece, facing up to and acknowledging them as part of who I am.
Although at the moment, stunned as I was by the enormity of the task, I was not really able to take it all in, in the months and years that followed, I realized that this had been my moment of reckoning, the instant that I became an adult. Multiple graduations, the age of consent, marriage, childbirth had all come and gone, and they did not really make me an adult, but those three days of standing in judgment before that accumulated mass of three lifetimes had made me one, forcing on me decisions that would affect all of us for the rest of our lives. I stood alone, and charted the way.


Lou said...

It is curious, yes--how in the midst of the old ongoing day-in day-out trauma that has become "the way it is," we--in this case, you--can find in the act of writing a truth that has the power to gird and shelter you into the next battle. Good job, Robbi.

marly said...

Ah, that is horrible-wonderful, Robbi. The only thing I miss is your shrill imitation of your mother's voice, saying something surprising--I can still hear that sound.

I am still going to read those poems. When. I. Get. Time. At the moment, implosion seems possible. When the children were small, summer was easier. Or maybe I just can't remember.

Robbi said...

I am sure though guys that it will not win the contest. It is too weird. That is to say, I am too weird, I and my problems. But of course, how many in the audience, reading that magazine, are just as weird and just won't fess up to it?
I guess I did imitate my mom a lot Marly in those days. I don't hear her voice too often now; she's gotten quiet.

Rebel Girl said...

Thanks so much for sharing this.

I love how those calls for submission can sometimes turn into writing prompts...

So good to see your writing...

Robbi said...

I thank you for spurring me to do it! It's the second time I've written something good in response to one of those calls to submission!
By the way, do you know any good programs/classes in screen writing hereabouts? One of my students from this semester, a really really intelligent and gifted young writer, asked me about that, and aside from the obvious, I didn't know what to tell him. If you know any screenwriters, he could sure use some advice.

marly said...

Well, it wasn't in a bad way--more a sort of glorious homage to the whole of her.

Robbi said...

I was pretty angry at her for a long time. She never insisted that my dad get help, never protected me, never helped herself. Of course, I didn't know that her brain was compromised. Who knows how long that dementia was brewing?