Copyright ©1998, Christine
The wallpaper is a wide green plaid. We sit together in matching pink bathrobes on a green overstuffed couch with large green buttons. My head is on mother's lap while little girl knees bundle together under my robe. My mother's hair, black, long and straight, she practically can sit on it; mine is a curly dark brown. She picks out lice that I got on my first week of kindergarten. "Aha, got em," she spies one, catches it between thumb and forefinger and crushes it under the yellow lamplight.
The narrow room fills with a dense chemical smell. I cover my nose with my collar so I can breathe the only fresh air left in the room. The odor is suffocating but it is the medium by which this precious contact is occurring, so I find it strangely pleasurable. Pick, pick, she moves my hair left, right, side to side in quick sudden shifts as if she was removing long stocks of rice plants in one hand and planting with the other. I shiver with delight at the insistence of her searching fingers and never want this moment to end. It does however which she signals by kissing my neck in a sudden flourish. She laughs uncontrollably and buries her head between my shoulder and ear while saying, "I love this neck. Why do I love this neck so much?" I could not imagine why this part of my body was so appealing but I welcomed her caresses and wished for many more. I never saw her treat anyone else this affectionately so I felt especially gifted with a mysterious, wonderful neck.
Time passes these same loving hands smell of cooking oil, too drunk to wash them. I see her youth and hope invaded by loss of what should have been. Her body swells with sadness and regret having given up her happiness when he died. She was too young to say good-bye to the only person who could satisfy her yearning for love and security. Her birthday doubly marked by the day he died; she could no longer celebrate without activating the memory of her greatest loss.
Just as her father began his drinking with the death of his brother and sister-in-law, mom continued the tradition when he died. Grandpa was a gentle drunk however and everyone loved him.. Giggling, the six sisters connived about which one of them had the finesse to pilfer through his pants' pockets, as he lay passed out, so grandma could pay the bills. This ritual went on weekly but no one complained and even excused his behavior with stories of why he drank. "To forget the day his brother died in the gas." Grandma would go to her bureau and pull out her photograph album, place it on the kitchen table before me and turn to the very familiar page. Her old finger would point as she instructed, "That's my sister and that's Grandpa's brother." Each in their Sunday best, they looked out from the yellowed newspaper article, attesting their fate. In bold type under their photograph it read, LOCAL COUPLE DIES IN GAS EXPLOSION. The text explained that gas was odorless at the time and very explosive. I intuitively felt that grandma and grandpa felt guilty for leading the way to America and asking them to follow and that is what remained unwritten, unspoken and the cause of both their pains. I think that is why his drinking never upset her, she lost her sister when he lost his brother.
When my mother became lost, I struggled to live because she was my tie to any sense of being wanted. Even if she started our relationship with trying to abort me by jumping off a chair, a story she reveled telling at parties; I liked her. It did seem utterly insensitive to speak of this so enthusiastically in my presence but I think she was trying to say how disappointed she was in her life. She resented the limitations of being a hairdresser, raising children, and especially being married to Daddy. "I wanted to be a pilot but Grandpa wanted me to marry Daddy. He didn't want me to be a butana." At that time having a career was equivalent to being a whore.
My mother would not wear underwear and had a wild streak. "I was beautiful and had many boyfriends when your father was in the war." She would arch her eyebrows and seethe out the next sentence as if it gave her pleasure, "I told him I was faithful." She looked at him as if he were a fool for believing her but Daddy had his little Phillippino girl friend he had sex with while at war so it seemed similar to me. He never said this is what happened, but I surmised as much from the photographs he took while in the islands. Each plucked the psychological string that caused the most pain and avoided their ensuing guilt with more blame upon the other.
Dad tried very hard to be a good provider but during senseless attacks of rage he beat my mother, sister and me. When she began to drink, the beatings changed from sporadic and rare to one almost every night for years. My mother got the brunt of most of it. His behavior was expressing a misogyny that used to just leak out but now every night was a graphic escapade of that hate. He railed against me when I would question his pouring alcohol over her head; "Don't you know your part of the problem if you're not the solution." This reinforced my feeling that we were both inconveniences, one sick and the other needing food and clothing. I would cower in shame that I was contributing to his rage, but inside I knew he was blaming me for his own lack of self control.
I would try to reason with Mom, try to let her unburden herself but I was an enemy because I did not want her to drink. In my innocence I would buy her flowers to reward her for not drinking, but she was steadily going into a hole and I was losing her. Her only friend was the bottle and our family dog whom she patted and showed more affection to than any of us. I wished I was the dog under her stroking hand and was jealous of her attention towards him.
My mother was like a cornered tiger lunging out of a dark corner. She scratched and punched but could not win against my father's brawn. A machete to her throat, one night he tried to make her sign a document to put her in an asylum for alcoholics. Twisted head caught between the crook of his elbow, "Sign this!" Snots and swollen red face she screamed "No, no you can't make me go there!" A circle of yellow lamplight highlit the scene, the yellow wall clock said 2:00 a.m., the carpet a red-orange; the moment set ablaze in terror. Their screaming woke me from my night's sleep. I walked toward them but Dad stopped me, "Christine go back to bed!" I walked away heart pounding through my summer robe. Through my hands, clutched to my breast I could feel it beating as fast as a little bird fluttering in fear.
His only dream for me in this terrible time was, "Christine, I hope you wear gray suits, pull your hair back, associate with men and hate all women." He conjured up masochistic lesbian images for my sweet sixteen years when other families counseled their children on marriage or college. "You'll never be a DaVinci!" I slammed the car door. His words rang out in my memory as I bounced off the walls of an elevator screaming unable to conceal my betrayal. Workers got off and on the ascending elevator as I continued my tantrum. A friend of my sister put her hand on my back and guided me into the cafeteria so I could calm down before I went to work. "Do you want me to go get your sister?" She asked this assuming Angela could help; but my sister had hardened her heart and escaped our household. My parents pursued her like an outlaw, so she was not able to comfort me. I became firmer in my determination to save all my money and put myself through school.
I would make sure he was wrong, hatred mixed with self doubt and remorse became my blood. At art school, I continued to do the impossible but the feeling that I was running out of gas kept chasing me. I feared it was only a matter of time before my teachers would find out I was not all they imagined me to be. Continual insecurity created the need to keep going to school which I did for nine years. When it came time to finish my school career I sabotaged the awards I was receiving. Not accepting them and walking away seemed a better alternative than having to face the prospect of needing to keep up my performance at such a high level. I used my new found religion as an excuse to leave and justified my choice as superior to my peers because it had a spiritual motivation. My competitiveness still raged on but became subverted in spiritual superiority and rigid fundamentalism. Without a foundation in love, I misinterpreted my spiritual experience, and judged the world and myself mercilessly. I had no need of my father's voice to make a prison of my life, fear had confiscated my soul and religion was my jailer now. I had finally met my ultimate fear, that good grades and fame could not eradicate. The final judgment of my unworthiness, the one lingering doubt that plagued my days and nights with fear of final recrimination. I think it always underlay all my striving for perfection anyway and I had met my tormentor at last. I called it God, but in the years ahead I was to find it was my father disguised as God. This discovery, not fully realized yet, still causes much pain; but I have gained much wisdom and compassion in my journey towards love.