Saturday, January 23, 2016

Winterizing the Windows

When I was in elementary school, my mother decided to winterize the windows of our house.  It was already a rather dark and cave-like environment because of the poorly placed lighting and the cheap brown wood paneling that covered most of the walls, but the winterizing would also block all sources of sunlight.  My mother took large slabs of styrofoam cut to fit each window and covered the windows with them.  They covered every window in the house that wasn't already obscured by the hoard.  Then she covered the windows with that clear cling wrap material and vacuum sealed it to the windows.  It was years before any of it got taken down. 

On the bright side, the sliding glass door at the back of the house had come off its track and didn't close all the way anymore, and the styrofoam was the only thing blocking the cold. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Breaking Up with My Mother

Near the end of our relationship -- just before the several months of silence that preceded my wedding -- my mother left me some rather fucked up voicemails.  I've mentioned them here before.  Sometimes I would come home from work to a happy morning voicemail chattering away about wedding cakes and an angry afternoon voicemail calling me an ungrateful little bitch.  Sometimes there were more than two.  I still have them.  Almost all of them.  My voicemail at the time was set up to send mp3 files to my gmail account, and I didn't delete them.  I starred the most fucked up ones so I could find them later if I needed to build a case against her or I guess just feel sorry for myself in a masochistic sort of way.

I listened to two of her starred voicemails the other day for the first time in at least five years.  I'm not entirely sure why, though I have wanted to post them here for a long time.  I've run across them before in my email, but I have avoided them until recently because I anticipated they would make me feel bad or start shaking like I used to whenever I heard her voice.  It was the first time I've heard her voice in at least five years.  I didn't start shaking, so that was good.  I didn't cry either, which is also good.  They were a lot meaner than I remembered.  Pretty much every time I run across an old email or story about her, I'm surprised again by how much worse it was than I remembered. 

In both the voicemails I listened to, she said something along the lines of, "Answer me this one question and I'll leave you alone forever.  What did I ever do to deserve the way you treat me?"  That might not be verbatim, but I don't want to listen to them again to check.  Take my word for it that it's close enough.  And the answer to her question is that she did very little to deserve the way I treated her.  I was kind to her.  I tried to help her and make her happy.  Bear in mind that these voicemails were before I ever cut ties with her, when I tripped over myself trying to save both my parents at the expense of most other things in my life.  Most people would have considered me a good daughter, or at least that's what they say out loud.  She didn't deserve the way I treated her.  She didn't have to because she was my mother and I loved her and felt responsible for her. 

After I got married and my mother stopped contacting me again and my dad made his threat to let himself die of infection rather than live in a nursing home, my husband I moved.  That was when we bought our house so that my dad could move in with us.  My mother hadn't reached out to me in the ten months following my wedding, and I didn't reach out to tell her I was moving. 

I didn't hear from her again for three years, when she finally found me on Facebook.  She sent me this message:

I miss you, I love you. I sent you an anniversary card but it came back. Just wanted you to know I am getting the help I need and would love to be in contact with you again. I am living in a group home called Butterfly Glen and it helps. My address is 12986 Appleton St Cincinnati, OH and my phone number is 513-555-9876. I would love to hear from you. I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and am being treated for it. I feel much better. Love forever and always, Mom

My first reaction was shock.  Not at the content so much as the fact that it was her.  Sort of like how I used to start shaking whenever the phone rang.  Flushed face, pounding heart.  I'm not sure if it was more fear or excitement.  I find them hard to tell apart. 

I didn't know what to say.  I wanted to tell her good job.  I wanted to praise her for getting help, even if the help she was getting was not by choice.  I knew from my dad that she had only ended up at Butterfly Glen because of another "suicide attempt" after both her parents died and she was going to have to find someone new to take her in and take care of her.  No one retrieved her from the hospital's psych ward, so she had been released to Butterfly Glen, an assisted living home I presume she selected from a short list based on its name.  She has always loved butterflies.  Butterfly everything.  Also, it's a shithole -- I've looked online.

The problem with responding to her was that I didn't want to renew contact.  It felt like an abusive ex with a drug abuse problem was reaching out to say she'd gotten clean and was ready to be together again.  Why?  I'm fine now and it was so hard to break up -- why would I ever walk back into that?  I want her to be happy and healthy, but what I don't want her to be is my problem.  I reached out to my best friend, Jerry.  I explained that I didn't want to have to deal to my mother again but that I felt I owed it to her until the next time she went off the deep end.  "Don't respond for three weeks, and I bet she'll comply," Jerry said.  Jerry knows my mom.

The fact of the matter is that I don't know if my mother was still abusing prescription drugs at Butterfly Glen.  I have no idea how much of what she was on or how diligent her doctors were.  I thought back to how she'd been before the muscle relaxants and the sleeping pills and god knows what else.  Back when I was thirteen and younger.  Her behavior wouldn't have been mistaken for bipolar disorder back then, before the drugs.  And that's when I started remembering some of the stories I've told here, and I realized I still wouldn't want her in my life.  No version of the mother I've ever known would be someone I would choose to have in my life.  Life is easier without her. 

I explained to my therapist, "The more I think about my childhood, the more the good memories are colored by the things I know now.  It seems like the love I felt for my mother was mostly Stockholm Syndrome." 

She replied, "Maybe it was."  I didn't expect that response.

I didn't reply to my mother's Facebook message.  She sent me another a few months later on my birthday, but I didn't see it until even later because it was in my "other" inbox, where unsolicited messages from strangers go.  She wrote:

Happy Happy Birthday!!! I can't believe that 30 years ago today you came into my life and changed it forever. I wanted to update you on family events. I'm sure that Dad told you that Grandma Wilkes died in May after your wedding. Uncle Jim died last November and Grandpa Wilkes died on August 4th this year. All I have left is Dante and you and Michael. I'm living in a great group home called Butterfly Glen I am being treated with medication and group therapy for Bipolar disorder. I am doing great and the only thing that could be better would be to hear from you. I don't want anything from you just to hear from you and to know where you are and what you're doing and how you are doing. Love Forever and Always, MOM

I was pregnant with Eliza at the time.  I never replied.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Time My Mother Filled Out the FAFSA Wrong On Purpose

The FAFSA, in case you aren't aware, is the form you have to fill out in the US if you're hoping to receive any need-based financial aid for college.  How much aid you qualify for is based on how much your parents earn.  The FAFSA asks specifically for taxable income, just as any tax forms do.  My family had no taxable income.  My parents didn't really understand taxes, for that matter, though I didn't know that at the time.  We lived exclusively off nontaxable government aid:  a combination of veterans disability benefits and social security.  It was a sizable income though.  All totaled up, our household netted about $120k per annum.  Seriously.  I know.  

When my mother filled out the FAFSA for me, she filled it out correctly the first time with $0 as the taxable income.  The results it yielded said that I wouldn't be expected to pay anything out of pocket toward tuition.  My mother said, "Well that can't be right.  We're not that poor."  I can understand why she was confused.  We really weren't poor, no matter how often she swore we were.  Then she filled it out again as though our total income (or some number along those lines -- it's not like we had tax forms she could reference) were taxable.  The FAFSA said I no longer qualified for need-based aid of any kind.  That was version she submitted.  When the formal aid package came from my university and said I would receive a sizable merit-based scholarship and no need-based aid whatsoever, my mother was outraged and told me to write up an appeal.  It yielded me a $500 annual "hardship grant," as my mother called it.  It was a comically small amount next to tuition.  She seemed content.

This all happened back when my mother was still insistent my education would be taken care of and I didn't need to worry or talk to her about money under any circumstances.  It was also back before I knew better. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Talking with My Donor Sister

My half-sister and I have arranged a time to talk on the phone for the first time ever.  We've kept each other at arms' length for the last year, though it sounds like that wasn't really what either of us wanted.  I'm nervous.  What if she doesn't like me?  What if she has expectations and I don't meet them?  What if she asks me about my parents?  I'm glad we're doing this though.  We'll never be sisters in anything more than a technicality if we don't get to know each other at least a little, and we've both always wanted a sister.

I'm trying not to have expectations.  I'm trying to remember that a sane person -- any person who I should continue to maintain a relationship with -- will not make a snap judgment about me over our first conversation and decide she hates me.  I'm trying to think of things to say and questions to ask her.  So much seems too personal.  Scheduling our phone date made me so nervous that I forgot for a little while that she grew up with my biological father as her dad.  That'll be kind of a weird topic.  Is it creepy to ask about him?  Or is it expected?  I don't know.

I don't expect to have a preternaturally close bond with my half-sister.  We look a lot alike, but we don't share THAT much DNA, and we share zero history.  I just hope if I push through the awkward feelings that we can reach a point where we enjoy talking to each other.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I Hate Being Kissed on the Mouth by Family

Everyone in my extended family of origin kisses each other on the mouth.  I know some families just do that and it's not meant to be creepy because it's what they do and everyone is allegedly cool with it, but being kissed on the mouth by my family has bothered me for as long as I can remember.  I was fine with hugs or a kiss on the top of my head, but because that wasn't how my family did things, uncles, parents, grandparents, and Dante would grab me and/or pin my arms down while they kissed me on the mouth, I presume to show me who was boss.  They often laughed about how much it made me squirm.  My uncles otherwise seemed to be perfectly decent people.  In retrospect, I don't recall being grabbed or pinned at all by two of them.  I just remember them kissing me on the mouth after I learned to cringe quietly and stop putting up a fight.  

I remember my maternal grandfather pinning me on his sofa and nibbling at my neck while my mother and grandmother ignored my screams from the next room.  I was generally accused of overreacting if I protested... anything.  "He's just trying to play with you!  Stop screaming!" was an average reaction to what felt to me like torture or assault.  I was horrified to realize my massively fat grandfather was stronger than me even when I unleashed my full strength, or was at least stronger than me when I was pinned on my back and immobilized and panicking.  I remember being panic-stricken on more than one occasion when I realized even my full strength couldn't fight off a teenage Dante or a grown man.  But shortly after I calmed myself down enough to go limp, my grandfather let me go.  I guess it stopped being fun for him when I stopped fighting.  I spent time with my maternal grandparents at least once a week from birth until I moved away for college, but I can't remember ever liking my grandfather.  I'm not sure anyone did, to be honest.  He was always kind of a dick as far as I could tell.  He's dead now. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Laundry in the Hoard

The washing machine at my parents' house broke when I was in elementary school.  The laundry room was a yellow, walk-in closet-sized room off of the kitchen that held the washer and dryer, a sink, and a counter my mother referred to as "the breakfast nook."  I remember the room being clean once for I'm not sure how long -- I remember excitedly eating cereal at that breakfast nook when I was maybe seven years old, give or take -- but by the time the washing machine broke, the room was basically inaccessible.  There was an approximately five foot high mountain of laundry from the back wall to within a foot of the doorway, where it sloped abruptly downward.  The washer could only be reached by standing on some of the clothes, followed by strategic leaning.  I recall a beautiful pink sundress I had never worn being relegated to that pile because it had wrinkled in the dryer.  My mother didn't believe in ironing, and that was years before she bought Dante and me each our own iron and ironing board for Christmas (I was genuinely thrilled, and I think Dante was too -- she had previously thrown away or piled up anything that wrinkled, which severely limited our wardrobe options).  I don't remember what made up the rest of the mound.

After the washing machine broke, my mother started doing the laundry at the laundromat.  She said the house was too messy to let someone in to fix the washer yet.  She had to get the laundry room cleared out.  Years passed.  As I got older, I started helping her.  Once or twice a month she would load up all the household laundry into large garbage bags, I would haul them to the car where they took up the entirety of the trunk and backseat, and -- because I had either school or work pretty much any given weekday of the year -- we would spend Saturday at the laundromat. 

She started yelling at me for putting my clothes in the hamper after only wearing them once, as I had always been taught to do.  She yelled at me for only using towels once too, though there was nowhere to hang them except over the shower, where they got extra wet the next time someone used it.  That's where we kept them though.  We could only ever tell which towels were our own because my mother always bought brightly colored beach towels instead of normal bath towels, and none of them looked identical.  You just had to remember which one you'd used and hope everyone else did the same.

I remember asking in my teens why we didn't just clear out the laundry room and get the washer fixed.  My mother frequently complained about how little money we had, and I saw how much we spent in quarters every trip.  My mother brought large Centrum vitamin bottles filled with quarters, and they each held multiple rolls.  She insisted it would cost even more in water bills if we did the laundry at home.  She said she would also be expected to do laundry every day if we had a working washing machine at home, and she refused to do that. 

When I got to college, the laundry room in my dorm was made up of the little machines designed for home use.  It was ironically my first experience using a classic washing machine with a lid and an agitator, like the one we'd had in my house all my life.  I was used to the high-capacity, industrial-grade machines we used at the laundromat, and I needed help the first time I used the dorm's equipment.  "You didn't do your own laundry at home?  God, you're spoiled," a dormmate informed me.  I didn't correct him.  After all, I didn't do my own laundry at home.  And at one of the most expensive private universities in the country, "spoiled" seemed like a significantly more flattering image than the one people would associate with me if they knew the details.

My mother finally replaced the washer and dryer in one of her spending sprees after I graduated from college.  According to the paperwork from my parents' divorce, they cost $5000 when she bought them a decade ago.  I don't know if anyone other than Dante has ever used them.  I've had my own personal washer and dryer since my husband and I bought our house.  Laundry is my favorite chore because it feels like I'm getting something done while a machine literally does the work for me, and I don't have to leave my house.  I can sleep on fresh bedsheets every week and have my favorite clothes ready to wear with less than a day's notice.  I've had to have someone come over to fix the machines and even replace them at one point, and I have to say -- it is still easier than going to the laundromat.  Then again, I've never had to scale a Matterhorn of wrinkled laundry to use them either.