Excerpt 38

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

My mother’s wedding night was a threesome:  My mother, father, and Joe,  an Episcopal priest, who was my father’s favorite lover. They were in Fairhope, Alabama, an artsy town on the Gulf in 1949.

No family members attended.

My mother told me this when I was twelve years old. We were having dinner at Britling’s, the local cafeteria, in Memphis. I really liked their shredded carrots with raisins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt 37

The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him.

Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle?

Another Frances Farmer?

I have never been so scared in my whole life.

Excerpt 36

The other connection with my father’s mysterious past were letters I discovered while cleaning out my mother’s house after her move to an assisted- living apartment.

There were beautiful letters meticulously typed on light-blue paper that expressed shock and dismay, but with great wit and affection, about my father’s sudden wedding.

The correspondent was  a former male lover, who, at that time, was taking courses at Columbia University and living in Greenwich Village.

The depths of my father’s secret life were unfathomable. Layers upon layers upon layers.

 

And my mother’s…the mysterious calling cards from South American men…her frequent references to the Salvation Army, where she had to spend a few Christmases alone because her tyrannical, controlling father, the prominent, respected surgeon,  wanted her to be the dutiful daughter and stay home and take care of her aging parents.

Dutiful was a word not to be included in Nancy’s vocabulary.

She rebelled and fled from her small Pennsylvania town  to New York City. She was too manic-depressive to hold a job for more than a few weeks; I am fairly certain that she also learned to depend on and survived because of…the kindness of strangers (that would be Men).

It would explain much of her Rage. Very similar to mine, actually, but for some inexplicable reason, I was always able to repress/suppress my Rage and channel it into productive activity—especially after I stopped drinking.

(My mother never stopped drinking.)

And what about all the notes and business cards from the South American romeos who pursued my very pretty mother [after her divorce from the Greenwich, Connecticut, banker] when she was ensconced on an Argentine ranch with her married former college roommate ?

Who were these people?

My parents? !

What incalculable strangers!

 

Excerpt 35

It wore a red leather collar with a silver, engraved name tag: Theodore II.

Its seven feet  took up substantial real estate in our spacious den for forty-three years.

Its tail curled in an innocuous U,  as its beady, marble eyes searched the room.

Its mouth remained  ferociously open with serrated teeth.

Theodore II was a stuffed alligator, who had accompanied my mother home from her extended stay in Argentina long ago.

Excerpt 34

1957 

I remember the first and only time my father expressed physical affection toward me.

Nancy had gone out one night. He put me to bed, something which my mother never did. He read Sleeping Beauty to me from a worn-out book that I treasured. It was a strange shape—rectangular with a very long length and short width, the binding was gone, the pages were faded.

When he finished the story, he gently caressed my forehead and softly sang, “Good night, Ladies, Good night, Gentlemen, we’re going to leave you now.”

It was one of the best nights of my childhood. To this day, if a man gently caresses my forehead and hair, I begin to feel as though I were melting and experience emotional stirring.

Excerpt 33

I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted- living facility.

When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.

The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned.

Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied.

The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.

Excerpt 32

1967

Then the car crash, the close personal encounter with an enormous Mack

truck,  weeks in the hospital,  treatment for internal injuries, and a return to public school.

In the ambulance ride to the hospital, I prayed:  “Dear God, please let me die. Dear God, please let me die.”

He refused to listen.

My survival was a miracle; the Vista Cruiser station wagon was completely demolished.

My parents stopped by daily at the hospital  for about ten minutes on their way to  their restaurant dinner.

The nurse yelled at my mother:  “You are a terrible mother!  You brought nothing from home that your daughter needs—her own pajamas, robe, toothbrush, hairbrush, some books—anything to make her feel better!”

My mother refused my opportunity to speak with a psychiatrist.  She was afraid that I would reveal some of the family secrets.

The gossip. The rumors. My boyfriend dumped me because he wanted to date other girls. My horse died from colic.

My defeat was complete.

My seventeenth year was HELL, and it took its toll on me.

 

1966

 Nancy never told me anything about boys or sex.

Without any explanation, one night she dropped off a classmate  and me in front of a movie theater….

Albert Finney in the role of  Tom Jones cinematically introduced me to carnal pleasures.

###

Come to think of it…just about everything I knew about life as a young girl, I learned at the movies.

Excerpt 31

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

My mother’s wedding night was a threesome:  My mother, father, and Joe,  an Episcopal priest, who was my father’s favorite lover. They were in Fairhope, Alabama, an artsy town on the Gulf in 1949.

No family members attended.

My mother told me this when I was twelve years old. We were having dinner at Britling’s, the local cafeteria, in Memphis. I really liked their shredded carrots with raisins.

www.defaulttogoodness.com

 

 

Excerpt 30

My father always reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited.

 His aloofness, detachment, even the extended trip to Central America to sketch

and paint the Mayan architecture and coastal landscapes.

My father had his blond Sebastian, too, but it was a fully realized passionate, lengthy homosexual union. Even a cold, cruel father was in the picture. My Arkansas grandfather, the gruff, unhappy cotton farmer, the son of an alcoholic, relentlessly exerted his destructive influence over the emotional component of my father’s personality.

Robert seldom mentioned his childhood, but on one rare occasion—the only time he ever visited me alone in New York, he was en route to London to meet a client—he stated matter-of-factly, “My father did everything possible to destroy my self- confidence.”

It was the only personal conversation that we ever had. We were sitting in Mme. Romaine de Lyon’s restaurant and eating asparagus omelettes by a window with white lace curtains.

Was he aware that he and my mother flawlessly performed the same act upon me?

He also described a recurring dream that he had: He and my mother were standing in the yard of his childhood home in Cotton Fields, Arkansas.

“We’ve killed someone,” he calmly stated to my mother.

I guess he felt guilty about his treatment of me, or rather his infinite indifference. It was his way to apologize, the best that he could do, under his steely emotional armor.

My father made the decision—from the beginning—to sacrifice me, in order to save himself.

There was a truly pagan element of masochism, sadism, and self-destruction to the family dance of the Smiths.

This model gave me an uncanny ability to adapt to all the selfish monsters that would confront me, want to maintain a relationship with me, or exploit me.

Another time, in August, Robert pretended to crack the ice in the backyard birdbath, as my mother watched from a window. He wanted her to take him to a psychiatric hospital.

But it was all a trick; he wanted to get her into the looney bin! They never made it there. On the way to the hospital, she grabbed the steering wheel and wrecked the car.

So my father retreated once again into his basement office with the sawhorses, pigeon holes for blueprints, and shelves lined with art books and Gore Vidal novels. He began planning his next extended escape to Monhegan island, off the coast of Maine.

 

Excerpt 29

[Music:     Twentieth Century Fox –The Doors]

 

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania.

Dorothy Parker

 

[music/Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess]

April 22, 1983

 Earth Day and Day of My Last Drink

High Falls, New Jersey

The male psychiatric nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him. Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle?   Another Frances Farmer?

I have never been so scared in my whole life. I got married six months ago.

Would my husband divorce me? Would I become a homeless woman sitting beside overflowing garbage bags on the streets of New York?

I felt like an astronaut floating in space whose umbilical cord to the spaceship that would return him to Earth had just been severed.

I was instructed to wait in another room.

“Does your husband beat you?” the kind nurse asked. “No, never,” I answered with quivering lips.

“How did you get all those bruises?” she asked.

“I bumped into the furniture and fell off my bicycle.” It was true.

I was riding an old Schwinn from the Pellisades health club to my apartment building in heavy traffic after dark.

(Every alcoholic goes to a health club daily, right? I did; it was my futile attempt to exert some control over my behavior, which I hated, but could not stop.)

When I got married, I left my one shabby room in Manhattan for New Jersey. I hated New Jersey almost as much as I hated my alcoholism. Parts of New Jersey are really beautiful; I just didn’t live in any of them. Living in this congested town by the George Washington Bridge represented unequivocal failure to me. It had all the disadvantages of an overcrowded city, as well as a boring suburb with insufficient parking places. I left Frenchtown (a suburb of Memphis), Tennessee, so that I could end up in Port Lincoln, New Jersey?

Why was I traveling by bicycle? I hadn’t driven a car since I was 17 after having an almost fatal encounter with a tractor-trailer on a major east-west thoroughfare in

Memphis. When I went to Thorncliff College and lived in a dorm for four years in Westchester County, I didn’t need a car because I could take the train that runs alongside the scenic Hudson River to Grand Central Station.

Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.

He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.

Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.

He drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door.

After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.

Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head. I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.

My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin.

She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.

“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.

“I can’t stop drinking.”

“I slashed my wrists. See?” Melanie said.

I wasn’t really expecting a coherent conversation. Melanie exhibited her bony, scarred arms. I was really trying to be calm and sympathetic, but I just wanted to escape.

“I’ve been attacked. I want to leave this place now,” I told the nurse on duty who came in to check on us.

“You’re safe now. Don’t worry. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“Please let me use your phone.” She pointed to a public telephone down the hall. I made a collect call to my husband, Joseph.

“I hate you. I really hate you. An insane man just tried to kill me. Come and get me. Now. This place is filled with certified lunatics, and that’s no exaggeration.”

Joseph replied in a stern voice, “I’ll come tomorrow morning.”

During the night, he arranged to have me transferred to another hospital, Fair Hope, in Sumac, New Jersey. (What a strange coincidence; I remembered that my parents were married in Fair Hope, Alabama—I would have named their marriage rendezvous location: No Hope. Ever. Ever. Ever.)

The following morning the Walter-Mitty type staff psychiatrist tried to convince my husband and me, as we sat in his dark-brown dreary office with worn-out leather furniture, that I should stay put.

“Out of the question,” said my 53-year-old husband in his most authoritative executive voice.

He immediately drove me to Fair Hope Hospital where I lived for one month.

A member of the cleaning staff stole my navy leather handbag–with the exquisite

brass hardware and clasp–from my closet, but other than that, the experience of living with a group of men and women, who had endured far more than their share of life’s cruelties, injustices, and tragedies, was almost an epiphany; I began to believe that a different life was possible.

During the day we had group therapy with counselors who all were recovering alcoholics and/or drug addicts. I was an oddity because I had never used drugs. Not once. Most patients in their 30s had at least experimented with every powder, pill, or injection available.

As Boris Pasternak wrote, “I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless, and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”

He was right, of course. I wish that we had met; Dr. Zhivago is one of my all- time favorites. And I’m very fond of late bloomers; Pasternak was sixty-eight when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We ate our tasteless meals in a bland cafeteria. Only decaf coffee was available

from a large metal container, so I was really sleepy for the entire 30 days. Most of the patients were men, so my roommate, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde, around my age, and I got lots of attention. We also were among the youngest.

We were the lucky ones, who had been forced into rehab before the devastating effects of alcoholism took their toll: debilitating neuropathy, memory loss, grizzled complexions.

One patient had to have his arm amputated; he was drunk and waved his arm out

the car window…a truck roared by, too close. [Peer Gynt Suite 2, Op. 55]

Every night we went to an A.A. meeting. I met a woman who had watched her brother hacked to death with an ax by a stranger in her backyard; a man who was just released from jail for grand larceny and who ran a prostitution ring from his Irish bar on First Avenue (He begged me to work for him as a call girl after we were discharged from Fair Hope); a good-looking, sanguine, irreverent man in his late twenties who had spent years traveling on luxury cruise ships pretending that he was a Catholic priest and befriending and bedding older women if they bought him enough champagne; another woman stood outside with her mother and sister as her father burned to death trapped in their suburban house; a shy, thirty-two-year-old female, who was the unwanted only child of an abusive alcoholic manic-depressive mother and charming, artistic homosexual father, who found neither the time nor the energy nor psychological fortitude to protect his daughter from his wife’s violent rages and relentless cruelties.

That one was me.

[Tchaikovsky/Concert for Violin in D, op. 35]

October 6, 2000

 Friday

Port Lincoln, New Jersey 10:15 PM

The phone rang. I didn’t answer, but waited for the machine to record the  message.

It began: “This is Janet Emerald. I live next door to your mother. She’s in the Frenchtown jail. She was arrested for drunk driving after she drove her car into a restaurant.”

“She called us from jail. We’ll post her bond and take her home. Call me. 901-751-3232.”

Immediately, I called her back. Janet sounded totally in control. She explained that my mother drove her Volvo through the side of the Trafalgar Cafeteria around 5:00 PM.

Miraculously, no one was hurt!

After she rammed through one side of the dining room, she backed up and totally demolished a giant lamp pole. My 81-year-old mother’s face was bruised, but she had no other injuries. Not even her glasses were broken. (Great TV ad for Volvo!)

I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted- living facility.

When I entered her house— with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)— I was horrified.

The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned.

Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had  frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied.

The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.

My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her.

There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing–even when I was very young.

Not once in her life did she say that she loved me…liked me…that I ever did anything worthwhile…or even deserved to take up space on this planet.

Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”

I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never  came.

My mother and I were master/slave; Hitler/Jew; shark/bloody leg; Mr. Murdstone/David Copperfield; Johan/Henrik in Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband.

 Whenever someone asked about my “Mom,” my gut reaction would have been to answer, Mom? I don’t know anyone like that. Nancy, the popinjay, the vituperative termagant, was certainly no Stella Dallas.

To my mother, every aspect of life was categorized as a bargain or overpriced.

That included me: poor Return On Investment.

I had no siblings. To visit her after I left home for college, a formal invitation was required. Christmas was the only time that I was permitted to return to my parents’ house.

If she didn’t want to see you, she wouldn’t open the door.

I remember looking down from the upstairs hall window in our saltbox colonial house to see my paternal grandmother standing at the front door and ringing the doorbell. She had driven from Cotton Fields, Arkansas, about a two-hour drive. My mother refused to open the door.

My tired, old grandmother returned to her big Buick in our driveway and left.

To put me to sleep, Nancy gave me a tall glass of bourbon and 7-Up. The glass was painted with a couple dancing, dressed like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

It was the perfect metaphor for our family: To the outside world, we looked perfect.

Inside, was our own hell on earth. Robert never intervened.

###

Excerpt 22:   CHILDREN’S BOOK:  a fantasy world of whimsical creatures, who exemplify kindness, goodness, and generosity.

FANTASY FRIENDS ON FURLOUGH

[By author of  “Lemons and Lightbulbs,”  a  revolutionary children’s book]

SAOLA

Saola, shmayala…hard to pronounce.

When he jumped on the scale, he was more than an ounce.
Nevertheless, he remained quite rare,
Almost as much as cities with clean air.

He lived in hot Vietnam
With his long, pointy horns,
He avoided all thorns.

Some  feathered friends called him a saola.
But his dream was to be an adorable koala.

So furry and cute,
Wrapped around a tree branch,
Almost a glove.

Ready for a bear hug
And oodles of love.

 

FLUKE FISH

It wasn’t a fluke or kind of rebuke

When Mr. Fluke Fish

Fell in the blackstrap molasses

‘Cause of the stress in

Shopping for his 3D glasses.

You see his eyes are up here

And across over there…

[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castor_and_Pollux]

TWIN FROGS

[one—black on red/one—red on black]

Castor lived in Castoria with polka dots on his back.

Pollux lived in Polluxian with more spots to pack.

There was a bridge connecting the two.

It was frequently crossed by Ladybug Blue.

When she saw the twin frogs,

She was quite all agog!

Who are those creatures? She cried.

They stole my best features!

I am the only one to have such a pattern;

They copied my clothes;  I have no place to hide!

I will now charge them rent!

I have lost all repose!

And surely will make them pay through the nose!

So, they went to the judge who parceled out wisdom.

“Now, now pretty critters,”  he said.

“ There are plenty of polka dots to go all around.

Let’s stick them to snowflakes to see what will happen.”

 

The dotted snowflakes fell to the ground without making a sound.

Then Castor, Pollux, and Ladybug Blue rolled around and around

While coated with glue.

When they stood up straight their patterns were different;

A little uneven but quite prepossessing.

They all were quite happy with the brand-new designs.

They shook legs in agreement and wiggled their spots.

They went out on the town to show off  their outfits.

They got lots of attention and honorable mention from the fashion tabloid.

A trend had begun ‘cause of freckles, black spots, and red dots.

The reporter told them:  I’m sure you’re related or extremely well mated.

What a nice family you are in your sartorial splendor!

 

 

Excerpt 28

I haven’t been to Memphis in many years.

Was it Christmas 1975 when Zorba and I  staggered through the finale of our open marriage and traveled to Memphis to tell my parents that our marriage was over?

But why should I expect my parents to invite me home?

During college, I was only permitted to return home for Christmas vacation.  For the summer and other school breaks, my mother always barked: “Find someplace else to go.”

I went from cheap hotel to cheap hotel and from inappropriate man to inappropriate man.  Along with several mind-numbing office jobs and lecherous bosses.

Plane tickets were a waste of money to her, as were phone calls, ink cartridges, and postage stamps.

Excerpt 27

The one Jewish lady, Mrs. Rosebrough, on our block (and the only homeowner who had a swimming pool) had produced Tennessee Williams’s first play:   Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay in her backyard.

She became a target for the KKK, as did my parents, because they refused to participate in the Sunday marches against our new African-American neighbors, who had been moved in across the street by the NAACP. Not long afterward, a Molotov cocktail sailed through our window, and obscene and threatening phone calls were becoming a common occurrence at three in the morning.