Monday, September 03, 2007

Broken

I hate hotel rooms. There is always something so depressing about them in their tasteful tastelessness. There is nothing to offend, yet nothing to please. They are mere waiting rooms, places to take shelter as you move from one place to another on a journey, with all the charm of a dentist’s waiting room. This particular room was a plain box, the proportions were utilitarian rather than attractive, the beds covered in a flowered print that only vaguely attempted to imitate chintz. It’s very cleanliness only added to its nondescript nature, its lack of character worse than tasteless. No odd touches of vulgarity to give it any sense of place, some touch that indicated any personal thought had gone into its design. Cheesy run down motel rooms have at least this to be said for them, the slightly grubby ambiance at least is an ambiance. This room was completely anonymous. There was nothing to be loved or remembered about a room like this. It’s sole purpose utility.

I also hate family gatherings for similar reasons. There is an artificiality to such gatherings that tends to make them either a labor of duty or an irritation. Everyone is on what passes for best company behavior, all the while everyone knowing there is really something else going on below the surface and waiting to see if that something is going to set some member of the family off. Another opportunity for the bad behavior that is the hallmark of our family life. Someone or other with an ax to grind, quietly waiting for any opportunity to bring out one of their grudges, ancient or current, and give it a good airing, though these days it is mostly my mother who is feeling aggrieved, the rest of us have long since retired from the field of battle. So having the 2 combined was not something I was inclined to look to as a source of enjoyment. Yet, there I found myself, in a hotel room in Poughkeepsie NY, talking with my older brother. The reason being, that we were to attend the wedding of my younger brothers daughter.

This wedding was already not the happy occasion that one would have hoped for. Miscommunication and old grudges having left me anxious and slightly depressed at my attendance. I worried about what my family would get up to, and if and when someone would start acting out and ruin the day for my niece. Invitations had been misdirected and feelings hurt. John’s daughters had not received an invitation, for that matter, neither had I. Phone calls were made, veiled accusations on my mothers part, implying that my younger brothers wife was behind all this. Misdirected invitations finally arrived but the whole engine of our family’s dysfunction was by now under full steam. John and his wife were at this point convinced by my mother that there were intentional slights being directed at them and their daughters. I was already growing disgusted with my mother and sister, but especially with John for playing into my mothers perpetual conviction of being slighted by everyone.

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. My brother is a good man and I like him. But we had had a rocky relationship all through our childhood. To be blunt about it we couldn’t stand the sight of each other when we were kids and now we are always a little careful, a little reticent with each other. It is understandable.

John was something of a goody two shoes, and often a bully. A goody two shoes when my parents could see him and a bully when he was out of sight or earshot. The situation wasn’t improved any by my parents, especially my father, constantly harping at me about “why couldn’t I be like John”. John was smarter, bigger, more obedient, did better in school, was more devout which counted for a lot in my Catholic family and in general was a touchstone and a constant reminder of my own second class citizenship within the family. About the only thing he ever did that was in direct defiance of my parents was to get married young, before he had finished college.

The rigors of young adulthood have managed to knock off a lot of the rough edges of our relationship and the blessings of middle age have truly smoothed all of the old, irrelevant childhood grudges so carefully nursed over our twenties and early thirties. This was not such a difficult task with my younger brother Mike. If we sparred as kids, the scraps were soon forgotten, unlike the long drawn out battle between John and I. Another mitigating factor may have been that even before we moved out of the house, we were all leading separate lives. Their was no connection and so no real reason for the pretense of familial intimacy, and now, no sense of connection to create any friction other than slights or wrongs that are purely imaginary, so most conflicts are only slight and usually forgotten almost as soon as they are aired. It requires a commitment on both sides to maintain an argument and our lives are so separated that the necessary intimacy for sustained conflict is largely not there. The one overwhelming difference of opinion that has stood like the iron curtain between any truly final d├ętente between John and I has been our Dad. For as long as I could remember John would simply not hear me say a word against Dad.

My father was an alcoholic and on top of that a mean drunk. So it was rather unfortunate that he couldn’t stand the sight of me when I was a kid. I remember joking once with a friend who came from an equally abusive background that I was 14 before I could recognize the old man without looking at the back of his hand first. A boy needs the support of his siblings when combating the forces of parental tyranny, and I was shit out of luck in that department.


In the world of my childhood memories it was every man for himself in our house. If our lives were bounded by an unreasoning tyranny imposed by my parents, there was no thought of a group rebellion. There were no alliances possible. The only things I could count on John for, was to rat me out, torment me with or without his buddies Norm and Pat or beat me up if he was bored.

Whatever the circumstance, the attitude of my parents over these confrontations was that I must have deserved it and sometimes it wasn’t worth complaining because with the old man there was always the chance of risking a double dose.

It was a strange way to grow up. I think everyone in that house was living some kind of separate life. In part it may have had something to do with the age differences. We were all 4 years apart, which as children is a vast chasm. We developed at our own rates each always slightly out of step with the other, each just that much younger to be a painful embarrassment to the older sibling.

John and Mike were athletic, and interested in those manly pursuits that were more in mesh with my father and his view of masculinity. They were always ready to go fishing or hunting with my father. Though that wasn’t entirely it. I would fish, though I never enjoyed it much and my father pretty much refused to take me hunting with him. Some of my lack of enthusiasm I think had to do with the fact that my father was never very good at disguising his distaste for me.

So family seemed from my point of view, a club from which I was excluded and in which I seemed to spend most of my time running to keep up, or being left behind. Children can sense these things and John always gave the impression that favor was his due, always seemed to capitalize on any given situation. Our childhood relationship seemed to be a combination of either trying to avoid or kill each other so I was not sorry to see John married and out of the house when I was 15.

As for my father, I think that from the time I was about 11 until the day I moved out of the house myself, I wished the man dead every day. I know that until I was 16 I was afraid to go home and looked for any excuse to be away.

I moved through a world where I never knew what was going to happen next. No, that’s not right. I knew what was going to happen next, I just didn’t know what would precipitate it. Whether through some fault real, imagined, mis-assigned, or simply that the old man had had a tough day. There really were days when he would walk into the house and “give me a thump” because he did not like the look on my face.

My personality didn’t do me any good services either. It wasn’t so much that I was defiant, but more like a small dog that would not back down when confronted by a Rottweiler. I didn’t instigate fights with my father, but when he came after me I was stupid enough to stand my ground. I remember one instance. My father had a nasty habit of deciding which chores he wanted completed. Then he would wait for us to be doing something we enjoyed and announce that we had to mow the lawn, weed the garden or paint the great pyramid at Giza. There were no arguments, or if there were, you earned at the very least a good clip before you got sent off, away from what ever you were doing to complete some task. It was bit sadistic.

I was watching “The Monkees” a show that I loved at the age of 12. The old man waited until the show had started and I was interested and announced that I had to mow the lawn. Needless to say, I was not thrilled and I doubt I went off to my assigned chore with anything like good grace. I fired the mower up and started to mow the half acre of lawn that the old man insisted on maintaining. However long it took, I don’t remember. I can tell you the TV show was long over by the time I got done. Then the old man came out to let me know I had spent my time far better mowing his lawn than by watching television. I can’t remember his exact words, though it was something to the effect that “wasn’t I happier now that the lawn was mowed.” I stupidly asked why I couldn’t have waited until the show was over. This started to set him off and he went on about the importance of getting his lawn mowed and that I should have been happy to do this, and now wasn’t I happier I’d mown the lawn than watched some stupid TV show that he hated? Moron that I was, I said no. He hauled off and hit me in the face so hard it broke my glasses. Then he really went after me because I had made him break my glasses.

There was no escape either. If I tried to avoid the old man, I would get in trouble for never spending any time at home and then I would try to make myself hang around the house and I would get “it” because I should have been out playing with the other kids, or doing some work around the place or anything that I happened not to be doing at the moment. If it sounds as though it was some sort of no win nightmare that is because it was.

Through those years the only significant change in my relationship with my father came on a day when one of his rages came careening out of nowhere to be grounded on me, and I had finally had enough.

I really thought the old bastard was going to kill me that time. He came after me, screaming at me and with a rare insight accusing me of being gay. I was an exceptionally slow learner and I had not figured that one out myself yet. He started in on me and I got frightened as yet another beating began, this time even more uncontrolled than usual, and my own anger started to boil up after all of the years of having Dad use me for his whipping boy. At first I assumed the usual defensive posture, the idea of trying to fight back was an idea out of my frame of reference. Then the fight or flight instinct took over and after I finally managed to get away from him, I ran out of the house, and the old man followed hot on my heels. Looking back, I probably should have kept running and never looked back. Instead, that day, in the front yard, we finally had it out as much as we ever would. Dad and I both out of control at that point, with my mother calling from the porch door for us to come inside as we stood out on the lawn, nose to nose screaming at each other. My mother finally saying something stupid to me about coming back in the house, all of the neighbors could hear us and me shouting at her “Why, so you can let this bastard kill me?” It only ended when I threatening the old man that if he ever laid a hand on me again I would kill him. The sheer audacity seemed to take the wind out of him. Maybe he saw that at that point I would have killed him without a second thought. He stormed back off to his beer and I stomped off to my room.

From that point on we rarely spoke except to snarl at each other and the only times we sat down at the same table to eat was at Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas, and then only after my mother had given us both separate lectures about what 7 kinds of merry hell she would make of our lives if we didn’t behave ourselves.

Throughout all this, John was not remiss in handing out his own brand of bullying. “Girl”, “Foureyes” and I now remember when he was taking French, “jeune fil” were all used liberally. If he wasn’t ridiculing me in front of my parents, he was ridiculing me in front of his friends. This led often to tussles all of which I came out on the worst end of. I was smaller and weaker. I didn’t do the things he did, share the same interests, and I was “weird”. By the time I was 10, John pretty much enjoyed the same status as my father as far as people to avoid went. Then John got married. He was out of the house and so our confrontations became fewer and further between, simply by virtue of his absence.

Life moved on and eventually I went to college. It wasn’t a huge improvement since my mother insisted that I remain at home, so I dropped out of college for the first time, and moved away. By that time the old man and Doris had quit drinking. I do remember Dad cried when I left, and I know he cries every time I leave on the rare occasions I go to visit. A few years ago I was making one of my obligatory periodic phone calls home and when I was talking to the old man, out of the blue he said to me, “I know I wasn’t a good father to you, son. I hope you forgive me.”, and started crying. I told him it was okay, and oddly, it is.

From the time I was 20 and moved away, and for the next 25 years I went my own way. Perhaps it was the time we all lived in which had not developed a place for gay children in families. I was an unspoken secret, and in many ways was allowed to remain in the family only on sufferance, and so as time progressed I began to keep my family at arms length in turn. I made the obligatory visits home for holidays and special occasions, but as time progressed, the visits became more uncomfortable and less frequent.

It was far from all bad. Like so many in my generation I created a family of my own among the friends I made. It was a more accepting family and one I grew to depend on more than those to whom I had only a biological connection. The distance between my family and me continued to grow. I had my ups and downs, and it became clear that the people I could count on were not the people with whom I cohabitated for the first 18 years of my life.

Initially it was very hurtful. The exclusion was sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, it always sent a clear message of second class citizenship.

However as my friendships deepened and this new life that I was leading became the norm, the people I could claim kinship to became more foreign to me. I began to visit my family less and less, and concentrated more and more on my adoptive family, until all holidays, which I had come to dread having to spend with my family, were spent with people I loved and who loved me in return. Parents, brothers and sisters took more and more of a back seat.

Time went on and with time came change. After a couple of my cousins came out, my mother decided she couldn’t be outdone and I was welcomed back into the fold as a sort of trophy. A sort of “me too” status symbol for the family.

My father had a heart attack and retired and the family rallied around. John as always was the dutiful son. The one to be counted on and in many ways, the only one of the children whose opinion counted. My mother began to hold my fathers illness over us like some sort of ax. “You really should make the effort to come and visit a little more often. We don’t know how much longer your father will be with us.” But as time passed and the old man showed no signs of checking out anytime in the immediate future, so we drifted yet again. For my part, I have developed a certain amount of coldness, a reluctance to place too much faith or effort in people who I felt had in many ways, turned their backs on me and who I in turn, turned my back on.

By that point I had tried talking to John about our childhood and about the amount of abuse we had taken as kids. He just wasn’t hearing it. I remember my parents 50th anniversary party, John got up to say a few words about what wonderful parents Mom and Dad were, and he made sure to make a few pointed remarks, that some people might think the old man was too hard on us, and some might be silly enough to think that we had been abused while looking directly at me. That brought the temperature down between us yet again. After that we really didn’t talk for a while.

A couple of years later John had a bout with cancer. It changed him. As I said at the outset, John is a good man, so the change for lack of a better way of putting it was that the illness matured him. After surgery, treatment and remission, John stopped being a slavishly devoted son. Finally, it had stopped being important to him that he be the responsible oldest son and whatever recognition he had previously felt was his due was just not all that important anymore. At first it seemed like too little too late, but we made a start. We were talking more honestly on those occasions when we did speak, but our communications were few and far between still.

Eventually we talked a bit more, each time a little more honestly. Mostly we complained about how difficult my mother has become to deal with and how my father, now something of an invalid is a virtual prisoner to my mothers strictures. We talked about her interference in her adult children’s lives. I was enlightened on the topic of her behavior towards her daughter-in-laws, which I had observed before, and while I knew just how badly she behaved towards my younger brothers wife, I had had no idea of just how unpleasant she had been to John’s wife.

Usually we would meet before putting in an appearance at home, complain at length about Mom and finally come to the conclusion that in the end the best thing to do is simply agree with anything she says and then ignore it, because it will all blow over when the next inevitable drama of the old lady’s manufacture usurps the preceding drama. Still though, whenever the topic turned to Dad it would be some story about the old man doing this or doing that and always with a tone of admiration from my brothers regardless of how appalling Dad’s behavior was in these stories.

So now I found myself in a hotel room with John and wishing I was elsewhere. Not because I dislike him, but because I have so often felt as though we have little in common, and often nothing to say to each other. So we started to talk about inconsequential things, work, what we have been doing to pass time and eventually the conversation turned to family and dealing with Mom and my sister who is a sort of mom junior.

John kept talking and started to talk about when we were kids and about my father, but it was unlike anything he had ever said before.

He began to tell me about my father and his women, something I had found out about as an adult, but what John told me about were the fishing trips. My father would announce he was taking John fishing and then they would stop and pick up “a friend”. Eventually, John would get sent back to the car for beer for Dad or some other excuse, so that the old man could have some time alone with his girlfriend.

He talked about the democratic beatings, when Dad would get so bent out of shape if one of us had done something wrong that there was plenty for everyone. I am ashamed to say that John also reminded me that when he had done something wrong and the old man had the belt out, he would beg Dad to give him another whipping rather than Mike or I get “it” as well.

He remembered bitterly, “There might not have been enough money for a decent meal on the table but there was always enough money for beer.” With that memories I thought long dead began to seep in, the scant meals, dinners of crepes and brown sugar, or margarine sandwiches. There were the shouting matches between my parents, the dark pit of childhood where nothing was certain and nothing was safe. Every word coming up through the stove pipe holes in the floor.

There was the party where somehow he had got up on the roof of the local college where he worked and shouting “Look at me I’m Superman!” had jumped off. It was only one story high, but I am not sure how that would have turned out if his drinking buddy Eddie hadn’t been there to catch him.

He reminded me of Mom driving the old man home from parties so drunk he couldn’t walk. “He’d be shouting at me, John said, ‘You think I’m drunk, don’t you, you little bastard. I’ll beat the shit out of you and you’ll see how drunk I am…’, He was too drunk to move, and I would have to put him to bed.”, John told me. And I remembered.

I began to tell John some of my stories, and back an forth and sometimes with shared memories in chorus, walking through that black nightmare of childhood, but this time together instead of wandering alone.

“Do you remember the time he almost burned the house down when he passed out in front of the TV?” and John remembered. It was when he was still dating his wife. The old man had passed out in front of the TV. I was upstairs with my younger brother and I started to smell smoke. Dad had left a pot on the stove. I got Mike and my sister who was a baby at the time out of the house, and John pulled into the driveway. Together we put the fire out. It was just the pan, though the kitchen was pretty blackened from smoke. Mom was away, but was due home the next day and we had to spend the day cleaning the kitchen so she wouldn’t find out.

“Did I tell you about having to stop him from slapping the baby because she wouldn’t stop crying?” I asked. And then related that tale, of getting the old man away from the crib and guiding him back to the easy chair, which was his favorite perch to pass out in, receiving the admonition that I’d “better keep her quiet or he’d really give her something to cry about!” and then spending the night walking the baby.

Finally, John said to me, “Do you know why I got married so young?”


“To get the fuck out of the house?” I asked.

“I was working nights on the work study program when I was still living at home.” He told me, “I had come home from work and was making myself breakfast. I was in the kitchen in my bare feet cooking some eggs, when the old man got up to make his breakfast. He went to the refrigerator and when he saw I had used the last 2 eggs he came over and stomped down as hard as he could on my foot with his work boot. That afternoon I called up my wife and told her we had to get married as soon as possible or I was going to kill my father.”

“Just before the wedding Dad asked me what I wanted as a wedding gift, John said, I told him I wanted him to stop drinking.”

Then he just looked at me with tears in his eyes and said “We are such a fucked up family. We don’t talk to each other, we don’t visit each other and now I’m going to this wedding I don’t want to go to and where I feel like my brother and his wife don’t want me.” By this time he was crying and for the first time in living memory, I behaved like a brother and put my arms around him and comforted him. Two middle aged men in an anonymous room, locked in their own anonymous rooms, where they had been waiting for too many years, before it was time to move on, on their journeys.

Once, some years ago I was talking with friends and we were discussing our childhoods. I had related some story about mine, and one friend just looked at me in horror and said “Man, you are so broken.” It feels like that is true and my brother is also broken. We have each been wandering around, me without the knowledge of how truly terrible John’s childhood was, remembering only what seemed like his charmed status as oldest son, and John until now not knowing how close a thing it was for me. Where do we go from here? We have both been carrying burdens separately for such a long and lonely time, where do we meet to share this heavy load.

John is still a Catholic and he worries about my younger brother and I because we are atheists. So there is no common ground there, but I have taken away something from all of those years in Catholic education, I believe in redemption and forgiveness. Forgetfulness is not an option, I will carry some things around for the rest of my life. Forgiveness is difficult but it can be done. I have forgiven my father, the slightly sad man who worries that he will burn in hell for the things he has done. I will never forgive the man he was before, who took his frustrations and anger out on his children. Forgiveness comes harder for my mother, who tries to pretend that things were never as bad as I claim they were. As for John and I, if we find some way to forgive ourselves for abandoning each other in order to survive then there is hope, because we were children and we should not have had to protect or abandon each other in order to live through those years. At least we have made a start, we have started acting like brothers.