Stuff

I need to take time out of my narrative and talk about something that is currently on my mind: the disposition of my parents’ stuff. This is something that I have been doing for years now, ever since my mother moved from Cape Cod to Minnesota eleven years ago. She had been a widow for four years at the time of her move. During the period between my father’s death and moving to be near my family, she rattled around alone in the home they’d made together following his retirement in 1980. Of all the places they’d lived throughout their married life, that last house was the one they’d had the longest.

They both experienced the Great Depression and poverty as children. My maternal grandmother, abandoned with two small children in the 1920s, kept the house she’d paid cash for and took in boarders. Neither child had their own bedroom, sleeping on sofas in the dining room or living room. There were days when they didn’t know what they’d have to eat. My paternal grandfather lost his job and was almost broken by it. My father mowed a golf course from sunup until sundown during the summer and either gave the money to his parents or saved it for college tuition. In college, he never had a spare dime for anything beyond the necessities of life.

By the time my own parents embarked on their life together, having enough and then some was important to them. Over the years they accumulated things and experiences, buying Persian rugs, fine china, and nice clothes, and travelling. They kept their frugal ways in their focus on getting a bargain for everything they bought, which gave them a sense of control, seeing it as beating the system. If something nice was on sale my mother would buy it in quantities far beyond what she could use, stockpiling for a rainy day. These habits persisted for as long as she kept her independence.

My father began showing signs of dementia by the time he was 80, and gradually faded over the next five years until he died. My mother cared for him in their home, only resorting to sending him to an adult day care program in his last year or so. While he was declining I noticed that magazines piled up on furniture all over the house, while unfolded laundry accumulated in the bedroom. In the basement there were more clothes and a lifetime’s worth of miscellaneous stuff, with a room off the main basement full of shelves loaded with canned goods. After my father’s death the clutter increased, not to the point of hoarding, but significant nonetheless.

During the four years in Massachusetts my mother spoke over and over of moving out to be with me but had trouble coming to a decision. She’d come out to our place and look at real estate and talk about moving only to change her mind. I became exasperated and let her know it, but it did no good; my mother needed to let her process unfold in its own time. Finally she announced out of the blue one day that she was coming. The wheels were then put in motion to stage her house for sale, secure a place for her here, and dispose of some of her things and move the rest.

What she wanted was a leisurely process of going through her beloved things and deciding where they would go. Some she would give away to select individuals, others to charity, and reluctantly, still others she would let go to the dump. Unfortunately she had no concept of the scope of the task, nor was she prepared to do what was necessary to complete it. In the spring of 2007 she hired someone at $50 an hour to help her pack, but over several months barely scratched the surface. Above all, she was consumed by the belief that wasting usable things was immoral. By summer, however, the clock was ticking. She had hired a realtor and now had a timetable for getting the place ready.

That summer when I travelled to see her with my husband and son I was also in denial. The moment of truth arrived when, on the last day of our visit, I finally went to see the realtor, who told me that I would have to stay on and tend to the process myself; my mother was completely incapable of doing it, and would die in that house long before it was completed. The realtor proposed getting a group of men and their trucks in to cart everything away en masse over a period of two or three days. Trying to take any but minimal furniture out to Minnesota was unrealistic, as was continuing to sift through things. This meant I had to confront my mother and take the fallout.

It was brutal, but it got done. My mother yelled at me, howled against the realtor, hated the men who did the moving, and railed against the waste that ensued. One evening there wasn’t adequate time to load everything on the trucks, so a lot of her stuff stayed outside on the back patio. This was a scandal to my mother, to see her old television sets and stereo equipment from the 1970s sitting out exposed to the elements. I felt torn between her feelings and the prodding of the realtor, between the cruelty of the process and what I had come to see as its necessity. Eventually the house was beautifully staged, it sold for a good price, and my mother moved out to Minnesota, along with what was still a massive load of stuff. It ended up in a pile of boxes in her new apartment. The story of how we got it unpacked and put away will have to wait for another day.

Starter Marriage

NOTE: I have not posted in awhile, because I have had some reluctance about putting this out there. Here it is, finally.

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I was not prepared for the sexual revolution. According to my upbringing, sex before marriage was forbidden, and anyone indulging in it was ruined, particularly women. My parents were clear that they had refrained from sexual activity until they were married, and then remained faithful to each other thereafter. I was also brainwashed by the mythology of romantic love, believing that falling in love rendered a person immune to interest in anyone other than the beloved. I had little to no concept of my own sexuality, much less anyone else’s.

My first year at an all-women’s college was traumatic. Early in the fall we met potential dates at mass dances called mixers, where people judged one another solely on appearance, or at parties fueled by alcohol. The women all wanted to enhance their status by landing dates with attractive, high-status men, while a large majority of the men were looking mostly for sex. My fragile ego could not have handled casual sex, yet most of the men I dated pursued it aggressively. Coming from a family that was bonded to the point of suffocation, I looked for a place of safety.

I first discovered that my social anxiety could be curbed by alcohol, and so I drank when at parties or on dates. This wasn’t exactly safe, but it was at least temporarily pleasant. I wanted a more permanent solution, a boyfriend, but finding a compatible mate wasn’t easy in an environment where I met the opposite sex under such artificial conditions. I joined the orchestra and the debate club at a nearby university, but over and over found myself back at square one when potential relationships fizzled. Finally, one evening in the spring of my sophomore year, I was with someone I’d been seeing for awhile at a chamber music performance at his dorm. We were circulating afterward, and I found myself looking up into the eyes of a very tall, very broad-shouldered young man who looked at me as if he had suddenly seen the promised land.

I was at that time feeling desperately depressed. My relationship with my date was completely superficial, although we made a beautiful couple when we went out together. He also happened to be the person who was in the right place at the right time when I finally gave in to the relentless sexual pressure of the preceding two years. The experience was disappointing, of course, and by the time of the concert we were both sick of each other, although I would be the one who ended up getting dumped. I felt like a used tissue tossed into the trash. And then all of a sudden I was at the center of attention to a powerful, handsome man who wanted nothing more than to scoop me up into his arms and hold me there forever.

Did I love him? Eventually, I suppose. After feeling so devalued I certainly loved the fact that he adored me. I also was attracted to what I perceived as his strength. I had an underdeveloped sense of myself, who I was or what I wanted. He, on the other hand, had strong ideas about everything. This appealed to me because I wanted to know his secret. Most of all, he wanted me. “I want to take you away from your previous owners,” he said at one point, referring to my parents, whom he antagonized almost immediately.

The violence started early, but it didn’t register as dangerous. He would throw something against the wall, or grab something with enough force to break it. The things that set him off were confusing to me, but because I was so unsure of what was real and what was not I accepted his touchiness as legitimate. He had a strong sense of what he was entitled to and flew into a rage when thwarted. I tried to see things from his point of view, although occasionally I would venture to argue, which only made things worse. It didn’t help that some of his opinions seemed legitimate (for example, my parents were overprotective and controlling), but the lengths to which he would go to assert himself threw him into continuous conflict with other people, including me.

We were married while we were still in college. My parents tried to prevent me from going through with it, but they were helpless in the face of such a forceful opponent, especially as I had come to regard their interference with hostility. Our marriage lasted for a little over three years. In that time we moved out of our respective dorm rooms into an apartment, and then into two others, the last one halfway across the country. Every time we moved he would have to make extensive repairs to avoid paying damages, mostly to holes he’d punched in the wall. Every time we moved I would scope out the new building for places of escape and safety in case things got out of control.

Did I think this was normal? I knew I didn’t like it, but I also thought I bore at least part of the blame when things went wrong. I certainly wasn’t mature, even for my age: I was anxious, insecure, jealous, and plagued with irrational expectations. What I failed to realize was that none of these faults warranted being grabbed by the hair and dragged around the room, threatened with severe bodily harm (“Get out of here before I break your jaw!” he roared at me once), screamed at (in the car, when turning left: “Get your fucking head out of the window!”), or threatened with a gun. And yet all through everything I thought I was free, that I was making decisions and standing up for myself, not seeing that the only things I was free to decide were things he didn’t care about.

Over time the range of things he didn’t care about grew narrower and narrower; he smashed his immense fist into the coffee table when I put on a shade of nail polish he didn’t like, and bellowed at me when I bought a dress he hated (“It looks like a goddam bag!”). Finally I left, flew home to the parents I had rejected when I married, and felt grateful beyond words for their protection.

For awhile the ensuing divorce was the most important thing in my life, until other concerns began to take over. For a bit longer I was haunted by fear and anger, which took extra time to work themselves out of my system; however the hardest thing to overcome was a sense of disorientation: how could I have been so completely wrong about what was happening? It was as if my entire perspective had flipped over in a moment. I could not trust my own ability to make sense of the world. This fundamental distrust would remain with me for many, many years.

Tears

For years, I kept my daily life separate from my relationship with Mark and Tommy, even to the point of denying they were a problem for me. In my first experiences with therapy, I mentioned them as a matter of course while giving the family history, but insisted that my real problems lay elsewhere. In the meantime, however, there was a subterranean river of grief that would break through to the surface occasionally, surprising me for a spell before disappearing again. The water metaphor is an apt one, because when I finally accessed the grief, I did so through tears that seemed to have no end.

I remember clearly a scene at Tanglewood during my first summer there. I was just 18 and was between my first and second years of college. I had had a difficult time managing and masking my stage fright, but on one night in particular it broke through during a concert of the Fellowship Orchestra, when I felt so panicked that I abruptly rose from my seat among the violins and walked off the stage in the middle of the performance. Backstage I almost literally ran into a trombonist who had unsuccessfully tried to romance me earlier in the summer. We walked around the grounds while I poured out my anguish in a flood of shame and frustration, until my parents found me and my father took over. He told me that he and my mother had watched me struggling with this torment for years, and he urged me to give up.

Now in the American vocabulary, quitting is commensurate with failure, made all the more blameworthy when it is chosen. What’s more, being advised to quit meant that I would never know whether I might have succeeded in conquering my fear if I had persevered. So I struggled with the notion as we walked, the fork in the road between the easy way out and the valiant fight to the end. And then my parents drove me home, and I somehow was moved to dig out the family photo album, pictures of me and my brothers as we were growing up, and I cried over them for what seemed like hours, grieving for all that I had lost.

That night marked the beginning of my tears. For years thereafter I would cry over my brothers almost any time I was left alone. If I was on a bus, I would turn my face to the window and cry. If I was alone in my room, I would pace the floor and cry. I cried in therapy, I cried in bed at night, I cried wherever and whenever I was alone. There were thoughts that were guaranteed to trigger the tears, like the thought of how sad it was and how much I missed them. Sometimes I would dwell on a fantasy of my brother Tommy’s death, imagining a phone call, usually while I was in a large group of people. In my fantasy I would break down completely, finally relieved of the heavy burden of maintaining an appearance of functionality.

At some point I began to suspect that the grief was for myself and had little to do with the people my brothers actually were, but I could not make sense of that distinction until my mother told me that when she first learned of the diagnosis, particularly of the younger of the two, she grieved for herself, then grieved for them, and then finally grieved for me. As the sister my grief may have come third in line, but it still had a place, and so I continued to grieve for myself.

Along with the grief there were painful fantasies of what might have been. I would look at young men who seemed to be my brothers’ age and wonder what my life might have been like if these “normal” people had been my brothers instead of the ones I had. I imagined Another Laurel, the one who grew up in a normal middle-class American family, the family that was taken away from me. What would she be like? I understood enough to know that it was impossible to tell, but the question needled me nonetheless. The family I actually had appeared to live out its life under a cloud of sadness and isolation. What would it be like to live differently? Would I be like these carefree young people I saw around me? (although of course I had no real concept of what their lives were really like either).

There came a day when I was listening to an interview on the radio, about the complex emotions of parents of autistic children. I suddenly thought, “I’m done with that.” I wasn’t done with grief, but I was done with thinking things either could or should have been other than what they were. I may have been painfully slow about it, but I had finally passed through the earlier stages of grief into a grudging acceptance.

Adolescent Angst

I was a happy, sunshiny kid, but at a certain point that all changed, and I became a withdrawn and anxious adolescent. Maybe it was because I moved across town to a different school in 8th grade, or maybe it was that being young for my grade level finally caught up with me. Besides being younger than my peers, I was a late bloomer, which meant that I still looked like a little girl while the people around me were in the process of developing adult bodies. I also was smart in school. For all these reasons I was bullied for the better part of two years. I remember one day finding myself alone in a classroom with one of my tormentors, who politely asked me a simple question about an assignment. I was so baffled to find her treating me like a human being that I could hardly think of anything to say in reply.

My tendency towards aversion most likely developed at this time. I had interests that put me at odds with most of my classmates, particularly classical music. I saw my first opera at 8 and was enraptured by it. My parents had a tendency to take me everywhere, to symphony, ballet, art museums, the opera, and the theater, and to talk about literature and philosophy at home. On Saturdays the Metropolitan Opera broadcast blasted through the house. I played piano and violin, emphatically uncool in the sixties. When my friends asked me what I got for Christmas, I shuffled my feet and mumbled something about a recording of Paganini’s first violin concerto. They looked at me funny and dropped the subject.

It’s not that I didn’t like the popular music of the sixties, but given a choice, I would always go for the music I loved over the music I liked. I had a few friends who shared my interests, and we clung to one another for dear life, developing a worldview of us vs. them. And then there was the awful family secret. I remember an occasion in 6th grade when my teacher tried to tease information out of me (how the conversation got started I have no idea), showing skepticism at my faltering responses. By the time I was looking at colleges, my violin teacher strongly recommended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I couldn’t tell him that I could never go there because my brother was in the State Hospital in that town. Finally, my mother called him and told him the source of my reticence. It was embarrassing and disturbing at the same time. Here I was, preparing for what everyone said was a brilliant future, and here my two siblings were, sequestered away in places of darkness and shame.

I never told anyone, not my best friend—the girl I shared sleepovers with, in whom I confided my crushes, my feelings about my parents, almost everything—nor any of my friends; I never spoke about it with the boyfriend I passionately loved, nor any other boy, until my senior year in high school. I remember telling my friend Carl because he had a brother who was also in a state hospital, but I don’t remember how we sussed each other out on our common experience. Another male friend, Philip, the least tactful of my friends, prodded and poked at me enough that I eventually talked to him about it. I felt guilty and violated. And then one evening when I was babysitting, the friend keeping me company began to hem and haw to the effect that she had been told by our mutual friends that there was something she should never ask me. What was that, I wanted to know, thinking it probably had to do with our usual topic of conversation of who liked who. She hemmed and hawed some more, claiming that she would never, ever tell me, until finally she blurted it out: “They said I should never ask you about your brothers!” Dead silence. Years later the very thought of it would reduce me to tears, because on that evening so long ago, for the first time, I felt understood.

It was my mother who most strenuously demanded the code of silence. My friend Philip criticized her for it, but she had her reasons, and I accepted them. The dominant theories among psychiatrists at midcentury held that just about everything going on with a child could be attributed to attitudes and actions of the mother; even a hint of maternal reticence could trigger severe mental illness. Fortunately, early on she had a doctor who didn’t think that way, and who told her she’d done absolutely nothing to cause my brothers’ affliction. “What about my daughter?” She asked; “how will this affect her?” “Oh, she’ll be a little neurotic, just like the rest of us” was his reply. Then there was the refusal to subject our private tragedy to other people’s idle curiosity. I discovered later, when I decided to talk about it, that answering one question after another made me feel worse than if I’d remained silent.

Going to college was an opportunity to start out fresh, but I soon realized that I was still the same person with the same backstory and the same hangups. As a freshman at a women’s college, I began college life with a series of mixers and parties to introduce our class to the men at nearby schools. People were forced to make snap decisions about one another based on appearance and not much else. The dates that resulted from these encounters were difficult and stilted. I discovered that alcohol went a long way towards easing my shyness, but drinking led to further complications in the long run. Among other things, I ended up with a string of “boyfriends” who were fun to be with as long as we were both pleasantly drunk, but otherwise of no real interest. I also had to contend with the exhausting task of setting limits and sticking to them.

After struggling in this way for a couple of years, I found someone and became attached, or rather, dependent on him. Our brief marriage ended soon after we left college and tried to build a life together. I found myself at the age of 24 back in my parents’ home, going through a divorce and feeling like a failure.

Childhood’s End

I mark the end of the idyll of childhood as the point of my gradual awakening to the reality of my brothers’ situation. For many years I lived in the sunshine of my companionship with them, when we all were children and our lives were full of fun. The first shadow fell when I must have been in 4th grade or so, around 8 years old. There was an increase in tension around the house from both my parents, my mother in particular. The story was that the school in Rhinebeck could no longer keep Tommy because he was becoming destructive. There had been an incident in which he had put his hand through the glass on a door, and cut himself badly. He would need to move into the State Hospital system, specifically to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, which had an adolescent unit.

My reaction was to see the whole business as an adventure. I compared our family emergency to a chapter in Little Women, “Dark Days,” about Beth’s descent into her fatal illness. Now we had our very own novel, with our very own Dark Days. “I like Dark Days,” I told my mother, “I think they’re fun.” She groaned. On our first visit to what I thought of as Tommy’s new school, I spent some time walking around the grounds, imitating my brother’s gait with my hands up around my ears, until a staff member told me to get back to the car where I was supposed to be waiting for my parents. I was a bit disappointed not to have been taken for a resident. Later, when we were all together, a resident asked if I was a new girl, and my smart-aleck father said, “No, she’s an old girl.” I was pleased by the question, but had no idea what to make of my father’s joke. Soon after we left Tommy there and went home.

At some point during his stay at that hospital, my brother changed. He never was much of a talker, but he did have a couple of things that he came out with regularly. For example, he always loved getting donuts, and would say, “Take a ride in the donut car!” when he wanted us all to go out and get some. He also knew his abc’s, although he had a tendency to rush through them, ending with “w-x-y-zebrudder!” (because there was a picture of a zebra in his book at that letter). There was a particular bowl he liked with a flower pattern, which we called the flower bowl. It became Tommy’s bowl. We would laugh together, he would sing, he would throw his arm around me when we sat side by side.

The person who replaced that Tommy was far, far away, barely verbal, and unhappy. One Sunday a month my parents and I would drive from Pittsfield to Waltham and visit him, drive around with him for awhile, and then return him to the hospital.  On one such occasion we were told that he was in the medical wing. Apparently another resident had stuffed some burning newspapers down his shirt, and he was being treated for second and third degree burns. Lord only knows how the other person got his hands on matches, but then again the state hospital wasn’t known for being a great place to be. We went into his room and saw him there, in bed, wrapped in bandages. He said, “Stay in bed,” demonstrating that he had understood his instructions, and “Drink water.” I felt nothing. The next day I was back in my own world, in school. As I sat in homeroom I thought about how odd it was that the day before I had been witness to my brother in his suffering, and now the world was going on just as it always had been, with no one else the wiser.

(Many years later, when I had taken over from my father as Tommy’s guardian, I got some paperwork from his then-current residential program and read his history. I had never seen it before, specifically the fact that during his stay in Waltham he had received approximately 50 insulin induced coma treatments. My blood ran cold. As I began to consider what this meant, I speculated that Tommy lost much of his functioning as a result of that treatment. Is this true? I honestly don’t know, but it’s as reasonable a story as any other.)

Eventually, Tommy would be moved again to the State Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts. The day of the move, I rode in the back seat with him. As we sped along the Massachusetts Turnpike he suddenly became agitated, grabbed my right hand, and bit me, hard. The scar lasted for many years. The people at Northampton eventually “solved” his biting problem by filing his teeth. I don’t think my parents knew this at the time, although they had received reports about biting. We continued to visit him every month. Usually my father would go alone, because my mother just couldn’t stand it, and sometimes I would go with him. I did not know how or what to feel. My emotions had gone numb. I suppose I would just as soon not have gone at all.

Mark in the meantime moved to a school in Berkshire County, nearer to where we lived. His visits home continued at regular intervals, as well as our visits to him. I continued to think of him as my buddy. We made a game of finishing each other’s words, even words of only one syllable. A favorite pastime was the what-would-happen-if-I game (e.g.: “What would happen if I refused to go back to school and screeched really loud and ran out the door and, and, and— threatened to jump out of the car?”). I would come up with ways the adults would take charge, and punishments, and so on, while he would come back with more outrageous responses, until there was nowhere left to go with it, at which point I’d answer, “turn into a great big—“ and he’d finish, “rock!”, thus ending the game.

Eventually, these games became not so much something  we did together as something I did to amuse him. My childhood was over.