Friday, July 8, 2016

The Bony Hand From The Grave

There is no shortage of bony hands from the grave raising havoc with my emotions these days. Trying to make sense of recent developments, I find myself revisiting the past for answers. There may not be any answers, why, there might not even be any questions, but we are always tempted to look. The human brain is a tool for identifying and solving problems, after all.

For the last forty years of my mother’s life, I was a dutiful and considerate son. Not, perhaps, the classic “loving” son, but there you have it. More like “dutiful and considerate.” My parents lived on the opposite coast, but we visited them often, and they came out to visit us. All such meetings were pleasant. I spoke to my mother on the phone four or five times every month, usually for about an hour each time. I told her that I loved her, and I’m pretty sure that it all sounded quite sincere. We laughed and gossiped on the phone. Sometimes after hanging up I’d shake my head and say to my wife, “when I die, I’m going straight to heaven, because I was nice to grandma.”

I had one hard and fast rule for those conversations: there would be no talking about the old days.

Once in a while she’d let out some apparently innocent remark that contained a kernel of discovered insight. For instance, the time that the subject of men came up while my wife was on the phone and my mother said, “well, you know, men don’t want sex after the age of forty or so.” I put that one together pretty quickly. That would have been about the time when my mother torpedoed a big promotion for my very ambitious father by refusing to move to Massachusetts. He never forgave her for it. We saw little of him after that, and thereafter he treated us all like strangers, unless there were people around. It was a de facto abandonment, unnoticed by family or friends. He suffered no criticism for it. After my mother’s comment it was apparent that he had never touched her again after that.

Other little comments were harder to parse.

My father’s recent disinheritance of me has been a serious blow, I’ll admit it. Of all of the possible reasons, one is that he may have thought that enough money had been squandered on me already. For example, two years of college tuition as a teenager during which time my index was 1.7 (yes, I know, it seems impossible, but I managed it). Things like that. Examining this item I recalled another of my mother’s throw-away lines.

In one of our conversations my mother strayed to the old days in one of her sudden bursts of exculpation. The old, “you know how much we loved you!” Before I could cut her off and return to the present, she added, “why, your allowance was thirty dollars a week!”

That would be an amazing figure for the 1960s, and it was certainly never true. I got ten dollars a week, plus a modest amount every school day for transportation and lunch. That was already generous for the times, but thirty dollars! I’d have remembered that if it were true. Thirty dollars was enough for five record albums, two concerts or ball games, AND a restaurant meal for two people. A dollar was a dollar back then. I let it go, finding no significance in the claim at the time.

But after my father’s recent demonstration of his lack of regard for me, I recalled that “thirty dollar” comment and saw the possible significance of it. My mother never worked; she got a certain amount of money to run the house. My father was very conservative with money, and watched his budget very closely. It occurred to me that my mother may have wanted that extra twenty dollars every week for something that was important to her. Like whiskey, for instance.

My mother was an all-day drinker. She was a secret drinker; you never saw the evidence. The owner of one of the town’s liquor stores was a friend of hers from grammar school. He was kind enough to personally deliver a week’s supply at a time in a cardboard box, picking up the empties at the same time. Cheap stuff, Carstair’s rye. All of this bounty was kept in the garage. Something like a hundred dollars a month would be hard to explain, so I now suspect that she blamed it on my allowance. How she would have explained why I needed so much money, I don’t know, but it would have been easier than owning up to all of that drinking.

Neither of my parents were the type to ever actually talk about anything. If that thirty dollar allowance was a device to hide her whiskey budget, he would just have stewed about it in silence, believing the allowance story. He’d never forget about it, either. He was never to type to forgive or forget. He remembered ancient slights and disappointments clearly and bitterly all of his life.

Oh, the bony hand from the grave! What mischief we make in the name of ego, and self-interest. Even the dead have damage left to do. 

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