Thursday, February 21, 2008

Memoir - Mom, etc.

My parents divorced when I was three years old. My older sister Britiney was six. My dad had been having an affair for a while apparently, and my mother ended the marriage.

Growing up, I always just thought that was normal. That was the way we were. And when the teachers in class would ask, “How many of your parents are married?” and “How many of your parents are divorced?” it was always about 50/50 anyway, so it never seemed odd to me. It wasn’t until my twenties that I started to think about the effects their divorce might have had on me, positive or negative.

My mom is a pretty smart woman. She is one of seven kids, and as I mentioned before, she is really the only one to break out and make a life and a career for herself. I have often thought how difficult it must have been for her when, in 1975, she found herself supporting two young children; re-entering the job market at 32 without a degree. My memories of those years are mainly of her being gone. I know she was depressed and drank a lot.

I used to have a recurring nightmare. It was always set in our house on 21st Street in Idaho Falls. In the dream, my mom would be going out for the night, leaving my sister and me alone, as was often the case. I would be in my room on the second floor and would hear noises in the back yard. I ran to the window in my mom’s bedroom, and looked out to see men in gold space suits landing and running through the back yard. As I ran downstairs through the kitchen I could see them coming toward the sliding glass doors in the dining room, and when I burst into the garage to yell to my mom for help before she left, I would get out there just in time to see her brown Camaro drive off as the garage door closed. I don’t know how many times I had that dream, but it always terrified me. There was something coming for me. There was something to fear. And just as it was getting near, she was leaving.

When my folks split up, my dad bought my mom a house in a Mormon suburb of Idaho Falls called Ammon. I dimly remember the small, brown, ranch-style house. Mostly I remember the undeveloped fields around the neighborhood, and that our large back yard had no grass. My dad came out one weekend and built a fort out near the back of the property. It would have been a tree house, but there were no trees. I remember being too afraid of the black widow spiders to ever really play out there. My only other real memories of that place are of my Star Wars sheets on the bunk beds my dad’s friend Smitty built for me, and lots of nightmares; lots of nights spent yelling out for my mom, too scared to get out of bed and run into her room.

My mom found some good work, started going to night school, and eventually got a job as an executive assistant at the same company where my Dad was an engineer. E.G.& G. was at that time the company contracted to manage and run the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL), the nuclear power facility located in the Idaho desert about an hour from Idaho Falls, just outside of Arco. The families in Idaho Falls associated with either INEL or the Argon National Laboratory, the other large facility out there, just referred to both locations as “The Site.” Anyone from Idaho Falls can describe the ubiquitous yellow “Site Busses” that leave early in the morning and ferry people to and from The Site every day. My dad was lucky in that he worked for the engineering offices of E.G.&G., which meant that he didn’t have to go to The Site every day. His office was in Idaho Falls.

I don’t know the extent to which my Dad was keeping us afloat when they first split up. I assume it was almost entirely. When my mom got a job working for the same company it meant that she wasn’t completely dependent on my Dad for child support or living expenses. The man she worked for, Larry Ybarrando, was a brilliant engineer who truly valued her as an asset. As such he encouraged her to develop, to finish her education, to study and take the job beyond the boundaries of a normal secretary. Before long, when Japanese businessmen and engineers would come to Idaho Falls to tour the facilities and learn about the processes, she would be their guide and liaison. She built a life and a career for herself out of nothing, and at the time there’s no way my sister and I could have comprehended how difficult it was for her. We just knew she was gone a lot.

We soon moved closer to town, to the green and white split-level house on 21st Street in which we would live until we moved away from Idaho Falls ten years later. We were just two blocks from the apartment on St. Clair where my parents were living when I was born. The apartment of my first memory.

My dad was doing well professionally, my mom was getting on her feet, and my parents wanted us to have a good education. They decided to send us to a private Baptist school on the other side of town. The school must have had some kind of reputation at the time for them to choose one so far away. We were bussed to a school thirty minutes away, in a town where it didn’t take thirty minutes to get anywhere. Gethsemane Christian School was an extremely conservative private school. The girls were not allowed to wear pants. The boys were sent home if their hair touched their collars or covered their ears. Skirts could not be anywhere near the knee, much less over it. My parents were not the least bit Christian. They had no religious inclination one way or another at the time; it just offered a better education than the public school.

For my sister and me, going to private school meant that we never really got to know the kids in our neighborhood because we never interacted with them. And we never spent time with the kids we went to school with, because they were all bussed there as well, from different neighborhoods all over town. If we wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, or go to a birthday party, it involved a huge trip out in the car, and either someone waiting for us, or someone picking us up. The upshot is that we grew up playing alone a lot. Later on we would hear the term “latch-key kids,” kids who went to school alone, came home to an empty house, and basically looked after themselves large parts of the day while their parents worked. For us this was just how it was.

I remember one night when the bus dropped us off and the house was locked. I think we usually had a key stashed somewhere but this time it was gone. We were the only kids in the neighborhood from that school, so the bus actually dropped us off at our house, instead just on the corner of the block. The driver couldn’t leave until we were safely inside the house, and we had no way of getting in. We didn’t really know any of the neighbors, and they were all at work, so there was no-where to go. In the end the bus driver took us home with her at the end of the route, and called my mom at work to let her know where we were. I remember spending that afternoon watching TV with her kids in a house that reeked of urine and old food, while she trimmed her kids’ toenails by biting them off. We were merely perplexed, but when my mom picked us up and we told her about the scene, she was mortified. As a parent now myself, the thought of some stranger taking my kids (we were probably 7 and 10 at the time) home with them to some squalid apartment… maybe I’m overly sensitive, but it horrifies me.

But, as it always is… it was just life as we knew it. My mom worked a lot, drank a lot and dated a succession of men. When she wasn’t out with some guy on a date or at a social function, she was drinking with my aunts and playing cards. We watched a lot of TV, ate a lot of frozen TV dinners, and spent a lot of time on our own.

My mom during these years was so much at sea with her own life that she never really interfered into ours. When she told me to clean my room, I locked myself inside and didn’t come out for a day. When she told me to rake the leaves, I stood in the yard and defied her to explain why they should be raked since more would fall the next day. When she tells these stories now, she laughs and describes how “Smart” I was at the time. Not smart as in “smart assed,” but smart as in quick, bright, able to see through her questions to the pointlessness of them. She didn’t have answers for me. She would just marvel at her “bright” son who questioned the system, and would always relent.

As I tell these stories I see myself as someone looking for a reason to do something, anything. There are good reasons to rake the leaves. If you don’t, they cover the grass and rot and the grass dies. There are good reasons to clean a room: if you don’t, food molds and rots inside and you get sick. Not to mention that as an adult, if you don’t have the ability to look after and clean after yourself, you live in squalor. But my mom had her hands full just keeping food on the table. These days I can see that. Growing up I resented her terribly for not being there, for not answering my questions, for not challenging me. But now I look back and see that she was scared, terrified, by the prospect of raising two kids alone. She was depressed. And she did what she could.

These days I see that. But at the time, and all through school, the only thing I saw was a mother that deferred any and every decision to me. In sixth grade I told my mom I was done with private school, and she transferred me to the public school down the street. I started racing dirt bikes and hanging out with the kids from the neighborhood, spending less and less time at home. By the time I was twelve, and in seventh grade, I was drinking regularly (usually from her liquor cabinet), spending nights on the street until the early morning hours, generally on my way to trouble.

All through this time, my mother cultivated a relationship with a guy we called “Mr. R.” We didn’t like him very much, but he had some money and he took us places. He owned part of a hot springs near Challis, Idaho, about two hours from where we lived, and on holiday weekends we would often drive up there with him and his kids (who were exactly our ages) and spend the weekends swimming and running in the hills. Those drives are memorable mostly because we listened to Willie Nelson and Alabama, and because I remember the two of them, my mother and him, with a bottle of vodka, a cooler of ice and orange juice, and two large cups between them. He drove, she mixed, and by the end of the drive the bottle was empty.

They dated from about seven years, but resisted getting married. One weekend we got a call that he’d been in an accident. He was living in Boise, managing a construction firm, and somewhere between Boise and Idaho Falls, on a mountain road, he’d fallen asleep (or passed out) with the cruise control set at eighty. His Chrysler New Yorker, with the power seats and the voice that told you “the door is ajar, the door is ajar” had gone off the road between mile marker 217 and 218 on Highway 20 outside of Fairfield, had gone over an embankment, down a gully, up the other side and plowed headlong into a ditch at full speed. He was badly broken and they weren’t sure he would live.

My mom spent long hours with him in the hospital while he convalesced, and it was there, beside his hospital bed, that she finally agreed to marry him.

And so we were moving to Boise. Five hours from Idaho Falls, the Capitol City. I was just about to start eighth grade, and my sister was entering her junior year in at I.F. High School. She was in the choir, and the glee club and had made good friends that she didn’t want to leave. So she decided to stay and live with my Dad and his wife. My mom quit the job she’d held for a decade, left the comfortable living she’d made for herself and her kids, and she and I packed up and moved West.

Within a year they were divorced. She had good reasons for never marrying him, and those were confirmed by the way he treated her when then finally did. One day after school I walked into the kitchen and my mom was sitting at the table going over papers and folders and looking through files. She looked serious. I said, “What’s up?”

She said, “We’re leaving. I’m divorcing him.”

I said, “Great. When do we move?”

School was letting out for the summer shortly, and I had been planning to go back to Idaho Falls to spend a few weeks at my Dad’s house. By the time I returned, mid summer, my mom had moved into a condo about a mile away, and there was no sign that we’d ever been anywhere else. She had already found a job working as an assistant for some lawyer downtown, and we fell right into a rhythm of it being just the two of us. She worked a lot, and now I was the one who was never there.

From this time on I was basically on my own in my mother’s home. There was no curfew, no restrictions. I did what I wanted, and was only kept from getting into real trouble by the fact that I was new in town and didn’t really know where the party was. I was my mom’s rock. I was the smart one, the solidity. If I had an opinion on anything she would put it above her own. But I needed a parent. A guide. I needed someone to be a safety net so that I could go out and fail and learn to get up again.

Looking back I am surprised how little I remember from these times. I catch glimpses, highlights of whole years of my childhood and adolescent years, but mostly it seems like I just drifted. I never engaged. I was never fully present in my life. I went to school dimly lit. I had been a good student as a kid. I was smart and liked to learn. But in the public schools, and with no motivation, I just attended. I passed. “C” average. I played sports if anyone suggested I go out for something. I played football for two years. I played basketball for two more. I ran track. But there was no real interest. I didn’t really care how I did in those efforts and neither did anyone else. I got by. No one asked anything more.

My wife and I have recently attended some marital counseling sessions to address some of the difficulties in our relationship. One of the persistent themes that arises in my life is the lack of patience I have for anyone who can’t learn on their own, who can’t figure it out. During one of our sessions I discovered that this is deep in me as a result of never having any adequate guidance. I remember vividly when I was at school in Hawaii. I was twenty years old, rooming with a guy from Cleveland in his mid-thirties. One morning I was in the little kitchenette/bathroom shaving when he walked by. “What the hell are you doing?” He laughed.

“What? I’m shaving.”

“Didn’t anyone ever show you how to do that? You’re carving your face off!” and he walked away. But no one ever did show me how to do it. No one ever taught me how to shave, or balance a checkbook, or study, or be honest. Because my mom relied on me so entirely for some solidity, especially in my teenage years, I always felt like I had to know these things intuitively. I always had to figure them out on my own. And I got good at it. People complemented my independence and my ability to pick up new skills and knowledge. I figured people out. I figured systems out. I never studied in high school, but I passed all the tests because I figured out how the teachers thought. I figured out what the tests were looking for, and I gave it to them. And somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to say, “I don’t know.” I found that I had to know.

And so, today when I’m in a group setting or a work environment and someone can’t figure it out, I get angry, and I resent them. When my son needs me to show him something over and over because he’s six years old for god’s sake… I resent it. When my wife needs help figuring out something on the computer, or when a co-worker needs help understanding a piece of software or a system or policy that’s been implemented… I get angry. Deep inside me on a subconscious level something screams out, “Why should you have it easy? I had to figure this shit out myself, and I did! Why should you get help?”

In the session where we pinpointed this, the therapist had my wife repeating things to me over and over again that would communicate safety, security, that it was okay to fail, and that vulnerability and willingness to not know the answers is what creates intimacy. But that doesn’t change my programming.

In my professional life this is evidenced in my job history. In almost every field I’ve been in, at some point there’s a conversation along the lines of, “Have you ever done _______?”

“No, but it doesn’t look that hard.”

“Okay, well, now that’s your job. Let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and can you train these other three people to do it as well?”

“Um… sure.”

I’ve never given myself the latitude to now know. And because I am a pretty quick study, and I do pick things up quickly, I’ve advanced and done pretty well in fields I knew nothing about, and in which I often had no real interest. The interest was always in the learning, and in the figuring out. But when I have learned that skill and gained that knowledge, and figured out that system or cracked that code; then I’m done. I’m bored. And I never really wanted to be that person anyway, so the job or the task holds no further fulfillment for me.

I’ve always suspected that I’m going about it backwards; that most people start out wanting to be in a certain field, and so they start at the bottom and maybe get some education or foundational training, and then the work their way up. Along the way they acquire the skills and the knowledge necessary to succeed in that field. And by the time they’re the manager or the supervisor or whatever, they should know what everyone else under them knows (for the most part). But it never seems to work that way. And what ends up happening is that I end up spinning plates… acting the part of someone who does job “X.” Whether that’s radio, or tour management, or welding or carpentry or teaching. In every field I’ve been playing the part of someone who does that job. Putting on the suit. Acting in a role. And I do it well. But eventually I get tired of play-acting. And then it comes to the question, “Do I really want to do this? Is this satisfying?” And because I was only in it really for the learning experience… once the learning is done the answer is, “No.”

(to be continued...)

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