Friday, July 9, 2004

PART 3 - I told you THAT story to tell you THIS one

Starting my morning with BW Stevensons' "My Maria". I believe this was re-released by Brooks and Dunn. It's a quality cover, but I prefer the original. I always do.

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I was sitting in Bahama Breeze yesterday afternoon with my sister, my mother, and my daughter. Our family is heavily male, so an afternoon out with just "the girls" is a rarity indeed.

My mother is 72. She doesn't look it. She has a calm, sweet demeanor that stands in complete contrast to her husband, my father. She is Edith to his Archie Bunker. Two more opposite people there could not be this world over. She is straight out of Alabama, southern sweetness. He is hardcore New Jersey, and even though he has been here in Georgia most of his 75 years, he still has a heavy Yankee accent and attitude.

She is at an interesting point in her life and in her marriage. For so many, many years, she deferred to my father and did everything in her power to lessen the ferocity of his anger and rudeness with her salve of sweetness (think Edith again). She has never admitted to it, but I suspect that she has always been in awe of him, and feared him, as well.

When she tells the story of their first meeting, a small smile creeps around her lips, as though she is retelling a favorite fairy tale.

She was 17 when her mother died. She was one of 7 children, third from the youngest, and she had lived her life in the small town of Anniston, AL. There was so much that she was ashamed of . . . her drunkard father, her shack home, her thick glasses, her permanent position on the "wrong side of the tracks" where colored flumes of chemical waste from the local Monsanto factory turned the stream behind her house different flourescent shades every day. Playing in the colored water was her diversion from the squalor; that, and books. Her mother, a seamstress, was sick with kidney disease for years, and when death came, my mother's last tie to Anniston dissolved away. Her brothers had left for the service, and her older sister had married and gone, taking the baby sister with her. She and her younger sister, Rita (my namesake), rented an apartment, Rita dropped out of high school to work for GE, and my mother worked at Fort McClellan as a switchboard operator. Rita soon married, and my mother came to Atlanta to work for the phone company, as did many, many other young women from rural areas back then.

She got a cheap apartment with two other girls, and for a short time, their lives revolved around mind-numbing switchboard work, and party dresses and dances. It was a happy time for her. It was 1954, she was 22 years old. THE THING to do back then on Saturday nights was to attend dances near the Georgia Tech campus, which was chock full of eligible, smart young men. And so they did. Well, my mother's sister and friends did . . . she tagged along as well, but with little expectation.

I've seen pictures of my mother when she was 20. In my eyes, she was a beauty. She was tall, and dark-haired, and slim, with fair skin and a sweet face. According to her, she was TOO tall, her feet weren't dainty, and she was ugly. She has never changed that opinion, not in all these years. That explains alot, actually.

As the story goes, she was at a dance one evening, standing in the hallway outside of the fray. There was a small donation box next to her to collect change to offset the cost of a new elevator. She didn't really notice a young handsome man approach her until she heard his remark, "Whatcha doin? Waitin' for da elevator?" She giggled, and that marked the meeting of my parents.

He told her that he had come to Georgia to attend school and become an aeronatical engineer. He was from a poor family and was the first to attend college, and he had tried to earn his way through, and nearly starved to death. He had enlisted in the Army for 2 years, and was now attending Ga Tech again on the GI Bill. She was thrilled when she learned that he was a tee-totaler . . . he didn't drink a drop. He seemed to be everything her dad wasn't: sober, intelligent, educated, driven, and Northern. My mother had developed a distaste for Southern men based on the ones that she knew. Who could blame her, really?

They met in March of 1956 and married that November. They were poor, to be sure. He was struggling to get through grad school when my sister was born in 1958.

The next 5 years brought a nearly unbelieveable succession of trouble to the two of them. My mother had babies in 1958, 1959 (LP), and was pregnant with twins in 1960 when they moved to Orlando for my dad's work. Her pregnancies had been uneventful, but this one was different: she hemmoraghed, went into shock and awoke to discover that one of the babies lived (GB), and the other had lived for only 30 minutes. Beautiful identical twin boys. She held the tiny 5 lb. baby as she tearfully said goodbye to James Robert, chose a tiny, beautiful white coffin, tried to gently explain to my sister and LP why there was only one baby and not two, and had no idea that things could get worse. They did.

When GB was one, LP was two and my sister was three. My parents and the kids traveled to my uncle's house in the summer of 1961 for a weekend of swimming and visiting. My uncle tried to hide the alarm on his face when he saw my mother in the pool playing with the kids. "How long has that dark mole been on your back?" he asked. She hadn't really noticed it, but she promised to have it looked at as soon as she got home.

It was just a week or so later that she and my father were seated in the office of the oncologist and told in hushed tones that she had advanced melanoma. Cancer. Back then, people talked of cancer in hushed tones. Treatment was nearly nonexistent back then, and my mother was trying to make her peace with the diagnosis.

Meanwhile, my father was doing his best to maintain his employment Martin Marietta, where he was a promising young aerospace engineer. The stress was beginning to show, and he was getting into altercations at work.

It was a radical surgery. Most of the muscle between my mother's shoulderblades was removed, and she had several skin grafts, and a long painful convalescence. Rita was by her side, watching the kids, cooking meals, and holding her breath. It wasn't supposed to happen, but my mother survived. Miraculous.

She was given strict instructions that she was NEVER to get pregnant again. The cancer could recur.

Over the next 5 years, she settled into motherhood and mentoring LP. My family moved to Atlanta in 1966. My dad had been offered a lucrative job with Lockheed, my parents found a suitable classical piano teacher for LP, and things seemed on the upswing. As they cleared out the house in Florida, my mother gave all of the baby furniture, stroller, carseat and clothing to a grateful neighbor. During the trip, my mother began to experience a very familiar, sick feeling. She didn't tell a soul.

The feeling persisted while she unpacked boxes, and was everpresent the weeks following. With dread, she and my father found a local doctor and waited for the confirmation. She was pregnant. With me.

The obstetrician in Atlanta consulted with the oncologist in Florida. My mother was advised to abort. Wait. Advised is really too light a term. She was strongly advised, strong-armed wouldn't be a stretch. She was devastated. Abortion was out of the question, my parents were Catholic, and they felt that this was just the hand they had been dealt.

For 9 months, my parents held their breath, hoped for the best, and looked for signs of disaster. The kids were beside themselves with excitement: a new baby was coming! Once again, labor was accompanied by massive hemmoraghing, and both she and I had to be rescusitated back from the brink of death. I was delivered via emergency C-section in June of 1966 at 10 pounds and 4 ounces (big then, big now).

The years after my birth ushered in a time of recession for the aerospace industry. My father lost his job, and there were no others to flee to. My family faced a financial crisis of epic proportions. My mother found a job at a bank. He resorted to the only thing he could: construction. He had built homes and additions back in New Jersey and he began to draw exquisite plans for custom homes that he built himself with two dedicated indentured slaves: LP and GB. At 11 and 12 years old, the boys were worked like men, hauling lumber, roofing, and they had no choice about the matter.

My sister was in charge of the house and me. She was expected to cook dinner, clean, wash laundry and keep me out of trouble. She also was an outlet for my father's uncontrollable rage. Day after day, he would come home from the building site exhausted, angry at the world and looking for a release. My poor sister scoured the house, making sure that things were presentable, that dinner was prepared, and that things were as they should be. It didn't matter. He still beat her mercilessly. His belt was his weapon of choice, but I also saw him take a support strap from underneath a couch seat cushion and whip her with that. The metal hook gashed her legs, and blood trickled down her calves and puddled on the floor.

The boys didn't escape either. When they attempted to step in between her and him, they got beat, too. Worse than her. All of this was kept from my mother. None of us kids ever said a word to her when she returned from work a few hours later. We always protected her, you do that when you are constantly fearful that someone might die. That never left our mind, and we loved her so . . . so we kept the secret.

To cope with the stress, LP turned to pot, GB disappeared into the world of Tolkein and his bedroom, and I hid in the closet. My sister was braver, she fought him. And she suffered for it. He never broke her spirit, and I am still in amazement of her courage.

When I was 6, I distinctly remember hiding in the closet, hearing her cries and the slaps of the belt. They stopped abruptly, and her cries changed to screams of anger and rage. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but something had changed. The tide had turned. She was 14, and when I walked out, she was standing over him, his belt in her hand, screaming at him while he sat on the couch, holding his head in his hands, crying. She shrieked at him that he had beaten her for the LAST TIME and that if he ever laid a hand on her or any of us again, she would go to the police, take me and never, ever come back. She was formidable, a strong young woman, redheaded and righteously angry. She was my hero then and she is my hero now.

More later.

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