Mental Musings from
...because sometimes I just need to share my thoughts.
For someone who has been cold for much of her life, and that may be due, in part, to growing up in the northeast, it’s a strange sensation to find myself suddenly hot so much of the time, and I can assure you it’s not due to relocating to California. I get it. It’s a function of the hormonal shifts that occur as we age, and all other things aside, I have to say that I rather like it.
No more emotional outbursts or depression, although if I’m being totally honest, COVID-19 is pushing me toward the edge. No more worries about what other people think of me. No more trying to please everyone else. Truly, aging has some great selling points. I highly recommend it, particularly since the alternative is not terribly appealing.
So, I get hot now. Objectively, it’s not a big deal. I have to carry a hair clip and a fan with me wherever I go. I carry a sweater, as I’ve always done, having been trained well by an Italian mother (who also taught me to use the bathroom, no matter what, every time, prior to leaving the house), even though I seldom get to use said sweater anymore. I keep thinking one of these days my body temperature will return to its normal state, and sometimes I feel it slowly inching down. I don’t really want that though. Given the choice between being hot and being cold, I find it easier to deal with the heat. It’s generally easier to cool off than it is to warm up.
I still vividly recall winter afternoons spent in my bedroom after school, trying to write a paper or working out equations for math class while wearing gloves. I’ll never forget frigid mornings spent huddled under the covers, attempting to heat my clothing while also getting dressed, all the while striving desperately to avoid exposing my body to the icy air. I have no desire to go back to those times. I imagine if I lived there now, I might still experience the cold, but at times, I’m not so sure. This interior furnace leads me to believe I could conquer a Connecticut winter with nothing more than a light jacket...perhaps a scarf to keep my neck warm when the wind blows. I’m afraid gloves might make my hands sweat. Compared to the shivering I remember so well, sweat is a welcome relief.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, given the choice, I’ll take the current internal temperature fluctuations. Remind me of that the next time I’m overcome by my own personal heatwave.
It was summertime on Long Island. The days were long and excitement was high. One morning, my brother and I awoke to Grandma in the kitchen (at some point during the night, my parents had called her to come stay with us) and the news that my parents had finally gone to the hospital. The baby was on its way. We were so excited.
We went running to a friend’s house to share the good news, and one of us had the brilliant idea to create a “welcome home” banner. Unfortunately, we didn't have the necessary supplies so we opted to create individual cards instead. We spent the day working on it, singing songs from The Carpenters and The Monkees. As my brother recalls, for reasons that are now unclear, we had an old metal drink cart that was missing the glass shelving that we thought would make a great display. We hung the cards over the edges of the cart and left the cart in a prominent location on the front porch. We were “On Top of the World.”
When at last my parents returned home, the little bundle of blankets clutched tightly in my mother’s arms, we couldn’t wait to see the newest addition to our family. Together, we’d chosen her name: Alison Carin. She was a tiny little thing, and it seemed crazy that she was wrapped in blankets on such a warm day in late June. Also, she was sleeping.
The following days were dominated by whispers and reminders to be quiet. The baby was sleeping. Thank goodness we could go outside to play, though there was to be no screaming in the backyard, a favorite pastime of ours. We crept around the house, terrified of waking the wailing terror. We could watch her sleeping as long as we didn’t make a peep while gazing at her. It was amazing how peaceful and angelic she looked when her eyes were closed.
The truth is, my brother and I were disappointed. We had wanted a new sibling because we wanted a new playmate We hadn’t understood that we wouldn’t be able to play with a baby. At nine and seven years old, we had imagined a new friend joining our group.
As it turned out, that nine-year difference between us meant that I was more often a caretaker than a playmate. By the time she reached the age where she might want to play with us, I was far too old to want to play with a little kid like her. She became the annoying younger sister that I’d never envisioned she could be. As a teenager, most of my time was spent trying to avoid detection by the family tattle-tale tag-along. I swore I would never have children myself and kindly blamed her for my decision. The most commonly yelled refrain in our home was, “Because of you, I’m never having children!”
When I was eighteen years old, my best friend and I traveled from Connecticut to California as our self-financed reward for graduation. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Disneyland, where I purchased a Mickey Mouse shirt for my sister. As it turned out, it matched the one I had purchased for myself. I didn’t think anything of it until I presented her with her gift and the fact that it matched mine was its best feature, in her mind anyway. One day, I was standing outside talking to a friend, wearing my Disney sweatshirt. My sister came outside to see what I was doing because, of course, she did. As soon as she got close enough to see what I was wearing, she went racing back into the house to don her own. She came running back outside moments later, a radiant smile on her face, boasting, “Now we match.” I was so embarrassed as I realized my mistake. Never buy matching clothes with your sister.
Luckily, I eventually reached the age where I changed my mind about having children. My sister and I have gotten close, becoming friends and sometimes playmates, as age has stripped away the differences that were so immense when we were younger. But age has not changed one thing. She has continued to make it her life’s mission to annoy me. In fact, several years ago, completely by coincidence, we purchased the same dress and happened to wear it to the same event. She thought it was hysterical. On a subsequent occasion, I mentioned that I would be wearing that dress so she could avoid wearing it at the same time. Naturally, that is exactly what she wore that day. Once an annoying little sister, always an annoying little sister.
My brother is two years younger than me. As children, we shared the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. My bed was on the exterior wall; a window stood between his bed and mine. We often drifted to sleep to the sound of my father whistling while he emptied the dishwasher in the next room.
One night, I was woken by the sound of the window next to me being opened. I opened my eyes to find the devil attempting to steal my brother. That was not something I would allow. I jumped from my bed and grabbed my brother’s arm. The devil was insistent. He began to climb from the window, holding onto my brother’s other arm. I could hear my father in the kitchen and began to yell for help, but he couldn’t hear me.
The devil and I, we battled for possession of my brother, until finally, he gave up and left empty-handed. We went back to sleep. Oddly, the following morning, my brother had no recollection of the event which very nearly changed his life. My father claimed he had not heard me call out for help. The important thing is, I saved my brother without any help, and as a result, his soul belongs to me.
As many of our fellow students planned their spring break trips to Florida, specifically Fort Lauderdale, we joked about driving down there ourselves. After a while, It became apparent that a few of us realized that we weren't exactly joking, though we all agreed that Fort Lauderdale didn't exactly appeal to us. But a break from the cold certainly did. So our discussions turned more and more toward the mechanics of how we could make this trip a reality, with the very real time constraints of a mere week to drive from Connecticut to Florida and back.
I had family living in Atlanta so we determined that would be our first overnight stop. Once we had arrived there, we were directed toward Panama City with its white sand beaches and its relative proximity to home. It was a great choice, but that's not really what this story is about.
We decided that once class let out for the week, we would each drive to our respective homes to pack the necessary equipment, tents, swimsuits, cash, and so forth. The following morning, everyone met at my house to take my car.
My birthday often fell over spring break and this year was no exception. We celebrated the night before leaving. My brother gave me a paperback collection of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series. I was so excited to read it upon my return!
My friends arrived the following morning and I showed off some of my gifts. One of them grabbed the set of books and suggested we bring it on the trip. I argued, "I haven't even read them yet!" She insisted she'd been wanting to read this series too. We could both read them on the trip! I insisted I didn't want to take my new books on the trip because they might be damaged. She assured me she would be careful with my new books, and put them in the car despite my vehement protests because, of course, I was being ridiculous.
Full disclosure: I have been accused of having an anal retentive personality and when I was younger, I was a bit of a control freak. But imagine OCD dialed up to eleven when it comes to books. First and foremost, I'm a bibliophile. I love words, I love the way words are strung together to form sentences, and I love the way sentences are woven together to create works of art. But beyond my love of words that make up the content of books, is also a love for the physical object of the book. Never has there been a more perfect creation. While other kids dreamed of owning a big house, a fancy car, expensive clothing, traveling the world, and all that kind of stuff, I dreamed of owning a house with an extra room that could be turned into a library, complete with a rolling ladder affixed to shelves towering over my head.
In elementary school, our librarian explained the Dewey decimal system along with rules for caring for books. Books were precious, and as such, it was absolutely unacceptable to write in them, fold or tear out pages, or in any way alter them. I'll be honest. College was a rude awakening when I learned that, not only was it okay to highlight text, but also it was expected because that was what good students did.
As we drove south, I watched in horror as my soon-to-be-ex-friend methodically read each of my books, bending the bindings backward and out of shape, folding down the corners of pages to mark her spot at each stopping point, and leaving them lying around the back seat of the car for anything to happen. I begged her to take better care of my gift. She scoffed at me for being OCD, but this went way beyond a need for perfection. It was more about my desire to not have my books abused. Eventually, I gave up, averting my eyes every time she picked up one of my books, hoping beyond reason that they would miraculously survive the trip.
When we returned, she handed me the set, saying something like "great series." Did she say thanks? I honestly cannot remember. Numbly, I nodded. Gingerly, I picked up the set, which now looked like it had been passed through a lending library for illiterates. I handled it like it had been infected by the Ebola virus. Eventually, I worked up the courage to read it, and it was an amazing series, but once I had, I brought it home and left it there so I could forget about how it looked. And yes, I forgave my friend, because even though she had done something thoughtless and selfish, she wasn't actually a bad person.
A few years ago, while perusing my sister's bookshelf, I saw my collection there. I pointed it out and she asked if I wanted it back.
"Oh, no," I assured her, "but maybe I'd like to read it again." I did, and it's still an incredible series, but shortly thereafter, I returned it to her saying, "You keep it."
Thirty years later, I still can't imagine allowing a less-than-perfect set of books to join my collection. I'm not sure what that says about me, but at least I can proudly say that I don't hold people to the same standards as I do books.
October 29, 2019
Remember when ads for toys made you believe in magic? Remember when the play you watched in an ad seemed like something tangible, something that could exist in your own home if only you could have that toy? For a short time it was the Easy Bake oven that filled me with a sense of possibility. That hope was quickly quashed when my Mom announced that it was likely a fire hazard and we could just use the actual oven in our very own kitchen, with supervision, of course. Now, I realize she must have been appalled by the thought of something so banal coming into our home. Her Italian instincts would not allow for anything less than authentic homemade food in our house.
So I set my sights on something else and it became my most fervent wish, of which I frequently reminded my parents. On some level, I knew it was probably too expensive, but I bargained that it was the only thing I wanted. So when Christmas morning arrived and the large box sat under the tree, I could barely contain my excitement. My brother, too, was anxious to open his similarly large gift, but that was immaterial to me. Like the perfect angels we were, on this morning at least, we waited for permission before tearing into the wrapping.
I'm sure I had tears in my eyes when I uncovered the covered Barbie's Friendship Airplane. I was overjoyed and couldn't wait to play with it. Meanwhile, my brother opened his gift--Big Jim and his Sports Camper. Who was Big Jim anyway? He certainly wasn't Ken, but what did I care? We had our own individual toys that could be used together.
And something funny happened. I discovered that Barbie's airplane wasn't actually magic after all. The snack cart was not self-propelled. The clothes hanging in the wardrobe were flat images printed on vinyl. There were two seats and a table and Barbie couldn't even sit comfortably.
Meanwhile, Big Jim's camper was exciting, with lots of accessories, and best of all, we'd had no preconceived notions, no shattered expectations. Secretly, I liked my brothers gift better than my own, but I would never tell my parents. They'd gotten me the one gift I'd requested. I appreciated it. But I watched commercials with a much more skeptical eye after that, determined I'd not be fooled again. Barbie's Friendship Airplane was an expensive lesson, but I believe it is one that has served me well.
The first home I remember was a little Cape Cod located in the suburbs of New York, out on Long Island. It was a quiet street of little houses that lined both sides of the thoroughfare. Friends lived close enough to walk alone to seek playmates. It was safe.
It seems our house was the popular place to be. I'm sure my parents installed the jungle gym in the backyard to assuage my mom's overprotective instincts. After all, what better way to assure lots of friends while also ensuring your children remain close to home? We spent many hours on that jungle gym, swinging and singing and engaging in contests of who could scream the loudest, and I'm sure my mother was absolutely delighted.
Though the backyard was fun, the front yard contained an attraction the backyard never could. A sprawling crab apple tree stood in the center of the yard, with branches low enough to entice even the most reluctant climber. We'd challenge one another to climb, never too high, and enjoyed hours sitting in that tree.
The tree was thick with green foliage in the summertime, but autumn brought the changes expected from any deciduous tree. Wintertime meant just bare branches. But it was the pink blossoms of springtime that were absolutely breathtaking. Ours was known as the house with the crab apple in the front yard. No other descriptor was necessary.
Springtime also brought the appearance of little white blossoms to the lawn. No matter that my father mowed the lawn every weekend, pushing the reel mower laboriously over the terrain, those flowers were persistent and reappeared almost immediately. And they continued throughout the summer.
Summertime would find us sitting in the shade of this majestic tree, weaving these tiny buds into flower chains. At first, we made rings, bracelets, and necklaces, but there were so many, we quickly moved on to garlands which we used to adorn the tree. We were so proud.
I don't recall ever seeing dried flower chains on our tree. Somehow, whenever we sat down to make more, the tree was bare. I always assumed they blew away. It didn't occur to me until many years later, my dad probably removed the unsightly dead flowers every week before mowing the lawn. It seems we, like most children, effortlessly created extra work for our parents without ever being aware of it.
There was a part of me that knew it was coming, but I was wholly unprepared. And in retrospect, I'm sure my mom was not looking forward to what was coming and how she would explain it. It's never easy to explain death to a child. And so it may have come as a bit of a relief when I said, "Please don't tell me if he dies. I'll ask if I want to know."
After my little brother, Blacky was my best friend. Not a very original or creative name, I know, but I was only four when I chose him and he was black from head to tail so it made sense. And naturally, he was the runt of the litter. Even then, I was attracted to the underdog, or in this case, undercat.
Blacky was an indoor/outdoor cat. On Long Island, the worst predator for a cat was a car, and there wasn't a lot of traffic on our street. His litter box was in the basement and he was not allowed in the bedrooms. That didn't stop him, of course. I shared a room with my brother. After being put to bed, I'd whisper his name and then I'd hear his kitty paws patter up the stairs. He'd wait for me to pat the bed, then crawl under the covers to cuddle. On more than one occasion, I'd hear my dad calling Blacky, but we'd pretend to be asleep. It was our secret.
Blacky was no angel. A Tom cat, I imagine he'd prowl the neighborhood every night looking for a fight. And all too often, he found a willing participant. One morning, he returned to the house with a gaping wound on his back haunch, evidence of a vicious foe. At the time, I didn't understand how little extra money my parents had. Nevertheless, they took him to the vet, who stitched him up, covered the wound, and admonished them to keep him indoors until it had fully healed. My parents explained that they would not be taking him back for further treatment so he had best behave himself.
Unfortunately, Blacky didn't believe them. Within a few days, he'd escaped the confines of his prison. When he limped home the following morning, his side once again oozing, my heart sank. My father took him back to the vet. I wanted desperately to believe that he would stay there until he'd recovered. The days passed and turned into weeks. Slowly, I came to terms with what I suspected just be true. One day, I approached my mom. "Blacky's not coming home, is he?"
My mother has always prized honesty above all else. She stopped what she was doing and lowered herself to my level. She looked me in the eyes and said, "No, he's not. He's in Heaven now." I nodded in understanding and said, "Okay."
It wasn't until much later I asked her for details. It was years before I learned just how hard it had been for my father, a funeral director, no less, to hold Blacky as he took his last breaths. In his typical manner, he joked about it, but there was this underlying sadness that was hard to miss. He had held Blacky in his arms as he'd closed his eyes for the last time.
I was no stranger to death, but it had never seemed quite real to me. My father's family owned a funeral home and he worked there part time as a mortician. His parents lived upstairs and when we used to visit, we would take the side door into the building because the front door was all the way on the other side of the building. That door led to the storage area, where rows upon rows of caskets sat silently, expectantly in the darkened room. My brother and I would race to the door on the far wall to enter the public area, and safety. We'd threaten to lock one another in the haunted room, but neither of us actually had the heart to do it.
One day, while wandering through the hallways and viewing rooms,I happened upon a girl younger than me. She looked so peaceful lying there, her dark brown hair framing her angelic face. I gazed at her in confusion, no doubt scrunching my brow, as I attempted to square my vision with what I knew to be true. Only old people die. I couldn't understand, and my younger brother was no help in this endeavor. So we sought my mother's help.
I imagine this was a conversation that, even if anticipated, was certainly not relished. And somehow, like so many other times, she had the right answer. Sometimes God takes children because he needs more angels, but not to worry, he doesn't do it often and he chooses judiciously. He only takes those who are so good that He cannot bear to be separated from them any longer. I think my brother and I both breathed a sigh of relief, confident in the knowledge God wouldn't be taking either of us any time soon.
I thought they were leaves. It hadn't seemed very windy when I'd walked to my car, but as I drove to school, I found my conveyance bombarded with tiny leaves swirling through the air. It's springtime, I thought. This looks like a fall flurry, an autumnal assault. Where did all of these leaves come from?
I was transported back to New England. I remembered driving down dark country roads at night, the headlights illuminating only the road in front of me. The tiny skittering leaves dancing before my car. The larger ones rolling across the pavement, doing impressive impersonations of mincing mice or frisky frogs, daring the auto gods. I'd cringe for each one that tempted my tires, waiting for the telltale… Splat! that never came.
I pulled into the school parking lot to wait for my son. He got into the car and said, “I guess it must be migration season.”
I liked at him in confusion and asked, “Why?”
“Look at all of the butterflies!”
I shook the scales from my eyes, and looked around me, as if for the first time. Lost in my memories, I had failed to notice the miracle surrounding me today.
I remember in college taking a course that has a profound impact on me: Women & Violence. I learned about Tracy Thurman, repeatedly beaten by her husband then stabbed, despite a restraining order, in front of police who did nothing to protect her. I learned about Kitty Genovese, murdered and calling for help while all of her neighbors ignored her pleas. We talked about snuff films and the signs of an abuser and the cycle of abuse. I questioned why any woman would stay with an abusive partner and I honestly could not understand or relate. And after a few years, I forgot the most important parts.
Pride comes before the fall. He was so charming when I first met him. So attentive. So conciliatory. So concerned for my well-being. So anxious to be with me. So enamored with me. So involved with me. So obsessed with me. So controlling of me. So disappointed in me. So frustrated with me. So angry with me. So much a victim to whatever feelings I made him feel, whatever actions I made him take.
It happened so slowly, I wasn't even aware of what was happening. At first, I needed to be knocked down from my pedestal. I needed to understand I wasn't perfect. I wasn’t as great as I thought I was. I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. After all, if I didn't like it, I should just leave. Naturally, these insults were followed by profuse apologies and gifts, as well as promises to do better.
The first time he slapped me, I was stunned. I imagine I stood there with my mouth flapping opened and closed like a fish flaps its gills, struggling for oxygen, unaware it has had been plucked from the water. I was so disoriented and unprepared, I was speechless. Maybe that was the point. But I had never bothered to consider how I would react if someone hit me because I could never imagine that anyone actually would. I didn't come from that kind of family. I wasn't predestined to choose an abusive spouse. It must have been a mistake, an anomaly. Surely, this wasn’t the same man I had come to love. I forgave him and believed it would never happen again.
For a while he was careful, but then the verbal abuse escalated. Dragging me from bed in the middle of the night to attend to his needs for food or a drink when he'd stay late “at work” became a nightmare of mine. The bullying and threats came more often, along with the taunting that I didn't have the guts to leave him. Until one night when he asked me to pick him up after work, since he was already drunk from an afternoon spent with coworkers.
From the moment he got in the car, he was nasty, ripping the rearview mirror from the windshield to demonstrate his disregard for my property, for something I had earned myself, before him. I don't remember what he said, but I can still remember the hopeless feeling that drove me to consider crashing my car because that was the only way I could imagine escaping him. Ultimately, I drove home, and as he continued to abuse me on the way to the apartment, I screamed and made enough noise for neighbors to come out to their balconies to see what was happening. Someone asked if he should call the police and I cried out yes.
My boyfriend left. When the police arrived, he was long gone. We called my brother who came to escort me to his apartment and the following day my mom came to get me. I packed what mattered most and went home with her. I didn't go back. I moved in with my grandmother and my boyfriend began “courting me” again. At first, I wanted nothing to do with him, but he was persistent and seemed truly changed. He had given up drinking and I thought things would be different.
After many months, I agreed to move back in with him, but this time we would live close to my family. Things were good. He proposed, we got married, had a baby, but somewhere along the line he started drinking again. And I think he became jealous of our daughter. He became belligerent, controlling, and nasty, often drunk and when he wasn't yelling at me, he was crying about how I didn't love him. He couldn't live without me. He would die if I ever left him.
Then, he almost died. He worked nights and when he didn't return by the time I needed to get to work in the morning, I was angry, but it never occurred to me to be concerned. Until that afternoon when the police called. He had driven his car into a ravine and had been spotted by a police officer who happened to pull over another driver near that spot. They estimated he had been hanging upside down in his car for at least 8 hours. Enough time for the alcohol to leave his system.
When I got to the hospital, he was in surgery. The neurosurgeon told me we'd have to wait and see whether he'd live. The man had no bedside manner, never considering his dispassionate words might cause me pain. I’m not entirely sure that they did; I was torn. There was a part of me that thought, finally, I'll be free of him. To be honest, I had been close to leaving him anyway. Another part of me thought, but my one year old daughter needs a father. I decided to wait and see. If he died, I would be saved the effort of going through a divorce. If he lived, I'd give him another chance.
He lived. I lost track of the number of times I wondered why God hadn't just taken him, why He hadn't saved me from additional misery. I suppose He wanted me to save myself.
My husband wasn't the same man. After being in a coma, there was a certain innocence about him that was endearing and brought out the protector in me. I would care for him, nurse him back to health. But he didn't handle frustration well and his rehabilitation was destined to be fraught with difficulties. Once again, I became the scapegoat. What's worse, he confabulated fantastical stories that I believed, until his therapist told me they were untrue and also told me that if he was hitting me (he was) I should leave him.
One day, as I sat with my two year old on my lap as my husband grew increasingly agitated as he yelled at me, he unexpectedly kicked me as hard as he could across my shins. This time, my shock only lasted a few seconds.
Suddenly, I saw everything with absolute clarity, and the lessons I had learned in college came flooding back to me. The cycle of abuse: When a little girl sees her mother being abused, she will grow up to be an abused woman. Would I ever allow anyone to harm my daughter? Absolutely not! So why would I allow anyone to hurt me, and in so doing, teach her to expect the same?
That was the last time my husband ever hit me.
Afterward, I looked over the list of the signs of an abuser, and he fit every one of them. If I had remembered what I had learned, perhaps it would have saved me. Perhaps not. The one thing I have learned in life, repeatedly, is that judgment of others leads to lessons for me. Whenever I have looked at someone else, judged their actions, and thought, I’ll never do that, I have been tested in ways I had not, but probably should have expected. It’s so easy, especially when we are young, to make snap judgments about others and have absolute certainty that we would never make such mistakes. I don’t advise that.
Why does a woman stay with an abuser? The reasons are many, but for me they were partly disbelief, doubt, fear, hope, and inertia. I was willing to sacrifice my own happiness for someone else’s. I thank God for my daughter. If not for her, and my overwhelming and all-consuming love for her, I might still be there, forgetting who I was bit by bit as all hope and all willingness to fight was drained from me. For her, I was willing to fight, and I was willing to not only hope for something better, but also to refuse to accept anything less. Because of her, I found myself again, but it was a better me — a me who does not rush to judgment, a me who is more compassionate toward others, and a me who values her own happiness as much as anyone else’s.
I never imagined I would need to hide it, put it under lock and key. Protect it. Until he used my words against me.
My heart seized and I opened my mouth, desperately searching for a reasonable explanation, though I knew there wasn’t one. There couldn’t be one. I shivered at the realization as the frigid fingers of fear poked me, a staccato beat that matched the furious beating of my heart. Again, I thought, it can’t be.
With measured breaths I formulated my question, “Did you read my journal?”
He didn’t have the decency to act contrite, instead spewing contempt and judgement as he criticized my private thoughts.
I shook my head in disbelief, my sanctuary violated, exposed to ridicule. Deliberately, I closed my eyes, then carefully, I closed my heart. Mentally, but not in writing, I planned my escape.