i've thought about this many times, as if i were preparing to give a pitch at a twelve step meeting. where would i begin my story? is there a defining moment that can make you understand the place i came from, the ways it molded me, who i became later as a result of it and as a result of casting it aside? you may ask why i believe i am so special, why i presume to write about myself; in answer to this, i'll tell you that you're right. i am not the special one. it doesn't begin with me.
when i was eighteen, i spent the summer with my grandparents during a first, miserable stretch of forced exile from my family of origin. i walked the manicured paths of a cemetery with my grandfather and i tried to hide my debilitating fear behind impudence. i was a little over five feet tall, with a short brown pixie cut like a mismatched lampshade over a plump and sweaty face, and at every moment of our walk i remained acutely aware of the length of my strides, as if by measuring them i could gain some control over the amount of calories my body burned. i was a child pretending to be an adult. i felt like a walrus, huge, awkward, uncomfortable in my skin.
it was during one of these walks that i learned the shocking truth. my family had not, as i'd always believed, been catholic since catholicism itself was invented as a lifestyle choice. my grandfather was a convert from some branch of protestantism that i no longer remember. and he converted for the mind boggling unreason of the big band theory. not the tv show, but the scientific hypothesis that is as totally opposed to the staunch creationism i grew up having drilled into me as i had always believed darwin and dinosaurs were to the immaculate conception.
but honestly, i'm not going to begin with the grandparents. they're too far removed from the story i know, which is that of my own perceptions. i cannot pretend to inhabit their minds or put on the costumes of their era. they lived on the peripherals of my existence, touching my world now and again, but it was always my mom who occupied center stage.
the walks my mom and i took during my senior year of high school were very similar to the ones i'd share with my grandfather during the hellish summer following my graduation. i was consumed by the desire to lose weight, shed my bulky body for the presumed fragile beauty of a tim burton style supermodel, and i devoted a good portion of my mental energy to focusing on the chafing of the tops of my thighs as they rubbed together, imagining that like sandpaper they could wear each other away and leave me long and boney rather than merely red and irritated. the rest of me, the small portion of my essence not entirely consumed by the pain of self obsession, listened to my mom. because it was on these walks that she'd relax and sermonize to her captive audience, usually me and sometimes sisters of mine. it was on one of these walks that she told me about my dad. about how she'd never loved him, how she first met him in the gym at college and he was sweaty and greasy and grunted like an animal while he worked out, and he followed her around like a lovesick puppy. those weren't he exact words but that's the picture i got. she told me about being proposed to on the same day that he asked her to mary him buy a much better man, somebody possibly capable of deserving her love, somebody not physically attractive, in my mind looking like the performer prince, but possessing emotional depth that my father, who my mother always branded as shallow and emotionally limited and aggressive and incapable of understanding her, could never equal. her friends told her she was crazy, begged her to reconsider. "why are you marrying this guy when you don't even love him?" she didn't have an answer for them, at the time, but she did offer one to me. god told her to marry my dad. she had to do it. so they danced in a barn and ate cold cuts and she endured his fits of violent temper when he kicked the dog across the room and worried that his natural bestial inferiority would cause lasting damage to the precious babies god entrusted to her. that was what my mom told me. his wealthy, prudish, judgmental parents stifled her career at nasa building rockets with intellectual colleagues and made her live in texas and he caged her into a role she never wanted but had no choice but to humbly accept. my mom would endure that and more, anything for the love of her beloved, not by father or any of the numerous lovers she turned down but god.
listening to all of this, i felt privillaged. i was being appointed keeper of deep, dark secrets. i must have been very grown up indeed to be allowed to be privy to this tragic soap opera that was only the beginning of my mom's tale of martyrdom. moreover, as long as my mom spoke negatively about my father she wasn't focusing her bile on me. during these confessions, these recitals of drama whether real or imaginary, we were united against a common enemy. just as, i was well aware, she and others of my siblings, sometimes older and sometimes younger, would bond over discussing my flaws and the discipline i needed when i wasn't around. the only way to be sure mom wasn't talking about me was to stand in her shadow, to be tucked under her wing, as much as possible.