A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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My parents got divorced when I was five years old, but they maintained an amicable relationship until I was fourteen. By then my father had remarried, and I was living with him. The dysfunction in his new marriage took its toll. In a single year I went from honor student to drug addict and criminal.
My parents entered into a grueling battle for custody of me. My father claimed that nothing unusual had been going on in his house and that I was just a spoiled child in need of discipline, but the judge wasn’t fooled, and he gave full custody to my mother. My parents didn’t speak for twenty years.
On top of all their other differences, my father is a longtime Republican and my mother a diehard Democrat. During the 2008 primaries I discovered that my father didn’t like Republican candidate John McCain. He started talking more and more positively about Democrat Barack Obama. Maybe, I thought, after all these years, my parents might finally agree on something.
Then Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, and my mother just couldn’t get over it. In the general election my conservative father voted for Obama, and my liberal mother voted for McCain.
San Francisco, California
Aunt Eileen used to jingle. She wore dangling earrings and so many bracelets that I could hear her coming from another room. She’d call me “my Steven” and plant a big kiss on me, leaving her bright red lipstick on my cheek.
Eileen was unlike any other grown-up in my life. Her voice would fill a room. (My mother, her sister, spoke in muted whispers.) She wore vivid colors. (My mother wouldn’t allow such hues in her house, let alone on her body.) She brought my siblings and me frivolous, noisy gifts for Christmas. She spoke her mind and dyed her hair red — and not subtle red, but a red as loud as her clicking heels.
One year my parents cut off all contact with Aunt Eileen. They often did this to family and friends: if someone upset or offended them, that person no longer existed as far as my parents were concerned. Eileen lived barely twelve miles away, but she might as well have been across an ocean.
I went along with this charade, pretending that my favorite aunt, the aunt who brought fun and excitement and laughter to our home, was no more, until finally, when I was grown and visiting my parents at Christmas, it dawned on me that I didn’t have to take my parents’ side. I could choose to have Eileen in my life.
I went to my aunt’s rent-controlled New York City high-rise, found her apartment, and knocked.
She called from inside, “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Steven.”
Long pause. “Steven who?”
“Eileen, it’s me, Steven, your nephew.”
She swung the door wide, and there she was, twelve years older, hair just as red, wearing a housedress, pink slippers, and bright red lipstick. As she grabbed me and held me, I breathed her familiar scent: Dial soap and Chanel No. 5. Then she planted a red-lipstick kiss on my face.
My mother always made excuses for my father’s drinking and brutality toward my four younger brothers and me. She did a marvelous job of hiding the horrors in our household from neighbors and friends.
As an adult I began attending meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, and I became aware of the confusion, fear, and anger I’d buried all those years. I figured that my brothers, too, must have been living with submerged emotions, so I wrote a four-page letter and sent a copy to each of them. One by one their calls came in, and we shared memories of our father’s violence. Some of my brothers said they planned to seek a therapist’s help. One even drove more than three hundred miles to attend a therapy session with me. It seemed as if this hidden darkness in our family could finally be brought to light.
Then one of my brothers passed my letter on to our mother. I’m sure his intentions were good, but the outcome was not. Our mother subjected all of my brothers to lengthy phone conversations regarding my accusations. She wept, ducked criticism, and manipulated them with guilt and shame. Over the next few months all four brothers rejected my point of view, and me. (One even called me “sick.”) They’d decided that our childhood “wasn’t that bad,” that I was focusing too much on the negatives, that our family was “normal,” and that therapy would be a waste of time and money. My mother never called me to discuss my childhood memories.
Fifteen years have passed since I sent that letter, and my parents and brothers remain estranged from me. I never wanted to be divisive. But I broke the rule: I talked about it.
It seemed to me as a child that my father was always working: closing up the store; letting the cleaning crew in or out; making the night deposit. When he wasn’t working, he was napping or bowling or playing golf with his cronies.
My brother and I spent nearly all of our time with our mother. She took us to the river to swim and to the five-and-dime for ice-cream sandwiches. She read to me when I was sick, repaired my dolls at the “doll hospital,” and once wrote most of a book report for me. Every now and then Dad would take me skating or to the dairy for ice cream, but we never really talked. I’m not sure he knew how to talk to a girl who didn’t like baseball.
When I was fifteen, my dad lost his job, and we lived on his severance pay for two years. Without the routine of work to shape his day, Dad went from a social drinker to a problem drinker. As the money ran out, my mother decided they should sell our home and put the profit into a new business. They bought a corner grocery, and we moved into a rental house.
After my brother and I left home for college, our parents’ relationship disintegrated. My mother was angry and bitter; my father, glassy eyed and blank. The more she blamed and yelled, the more he retreated to the garage, where the whiskey bottle was hidden behind the old refrigerator. The corner grocery was never a success, and his health deteriorated.
On my weekends home from college my mother would drag me aside and pour out her unhappiness: Marrying my father had ruined her life, she said. She couldn’t let him drive. She couldn’t count on him to behave at graduations, restaurants, or even holiday dinners with the family.
One Christmas when I was in my early thirties, my dad and I went cross-country skiing on the trails at the city park. For the first time I got his perspective on the marriage, which had endured despite the years of bickering. With adult eyes, I could see how my mother had pressured us to take her side. She felt we were her children, not his. I began to wonder whether our father had been as distant and uninterested in us as he’d seemed, or whether our mother had just wanted us all to herself. Shortly after that talk my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died within weeks.
I wish now that I’d tried harder with my dad. I could have cultivated an interest in baseball or taken him to see a PGA tournament. Why didn’t I meet him in a place where he might have welcomed me? Why did I give up on him so easily?
I arrived at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina at the age of eighteen, greener than any sapling and about as smart. On my days off I would sometimes take the city bus from the base, past the run-down shacks on the edges of the city where the “colored folk” — as they were known in 1958 — lived, and into the beautiful, old city center. I was too young to drink in any of the elegant clubs and too poor to eat in most of the restaurants, so I would walk the streets and look at the sights.
Once, I witnessed a disturbance: The driver of a car with New Jersey plates had attempted to parallel park, but another car had slipped into the spot ahead of him. The man who’d lost the parking place, a black man, was protesting loudly, and someone called the police, who came and handcuffed him. I explained to one of the officers that the man had a right to be angry and had done nothing wrong. The officer told me to go to the police station, about two blocks away, and give a statement.
I knew I was being brushed off, but I decided to go to the station anyway. I told the desk sergeant there that I wanted to speak in defense of the man they had just brought in. He made me sit on one of the benches and wait. After a long while one of the arresting officers came out and said that the black man — though he didn’t use the word black — had been drinking, and they didn’t see any need for me to make a statement. So I left.
Fifty years later I see that I failed that man. At the time, however, I thought I had done all I could. I felt virtuous.
James M. Putnam
Pittsboro, North Carolina
As a college sophomore I was elected editor of the school newspaper. It was a paid position, and the money helped pay my tuition.
About midway through the year I began hanging out with Jim, a senior who was president of the student government. We went out a few times and had fun. Then he told me that he was gay. He’d only recently admitted it to himself. This was 1980, and, sheltered straight girl that I was, I had never met an openly gay person before. I tried hard to learn and accept.
Jim and I started going to gay dance clubs. When we walked to breakfast after a long night of dancing with his new gay friends, people would sneer at us, and I heard the word fag muttered many times. Jim began writing for a gay newspaper, and he asked me to help him edit stories. While we worked, I heard him and his friends talk about their struggles with their families and in the workplace, and I became aware of the discrimination and abuse gay people suffered.
The newspaper staff elected me to be editor again in my junior year. Our office shared a lobby with the offices of the film society and the literary magazine, and Robert, the director of the film society, was a good friend of Jim’s. One day I walked into the lobby and saw “Fag” spray-painted on the wall above Robert’s desk. Stunned, I asked members of the magazine staff if they knew anything about it. They said nothing.
I began to hear homophobic jokes and muffled laughter every time Robert walked into the office. When I asked my staff not to harass him, they wouldn’t look at me. I complained to the dean of students, who informed me she would talk to the offending parties but would not discipline any student without proof of guilt.
When the graffiti reappeared — this time it said, “Kill all fags” — I stormed into the dean’s office and demanded she take stronger action. I suspected someone at the newspaper was responsible. She had the graffiti removed but didn’t discipline anyone. Robert dropped out of school.
That spring I ran for reelection as the editor of the paper. I had enjoyed a successful two years in the position, but the staff was mostly sophomore boys who’d joined the paper to cover sports; gay rights was not a priority for them. I lost.
Jim left town soon after he graduated; Robert moved to New York. Without the editor’s salary, I had to take out a student loan to finish up my senior year, but I’m glad that I stood up for them.
Libby owned a large house and sublet the extra bedrooms to help pay the mortgage. She ran her household like a commune, with everyone sharing cleaning and shopping and cooking duties. I’d lived there for three years when my girlfriend, Constance, lost her apartment, and Libby suggested that Constance move into my room with me.
I was uneasy for two reasons: First, I had never actually lived with a girlfriend before. And second, Constance was already suspicious of my friendship with Libby. Nothing was going on between Libby and me, but I’d been friends with her for two years before I began dating Constance, so Libby and I had a longer history together.
Reluctantly I agreed to the arrangement. Constance and Libby hit it off, and within a month they were going shopping together, riding bicycles, and playing backgammon through the night. Then one day they argued, and the friendship was over.
“I can’t believe you talked me into living here with that bitch!” Constance said when we were alone.
“You’d better keep your girlfriend on a leash and muzzle her!” Libby told me.
I tried to stay loyal to both my friend and my girlfriend at the same time, but it wasn’t easy. One day I came home from work to find them screaming at each other. They began grabbing each other’s hair and throwing punches. When Constance threw a typewriter and Libby picked up a baseball bat, I called the police.
Two squad cars arrived, and a sergeant told Constance and me that we had to leave because Libby owned the house. Constance went to our bedroom to pack, and I went to the kitchen to gather a few belongings. Libby took me aside and said, “I want her out of here, but you don’t have to go.”
I told Libby I was with Constance now. I wasn’t sure I was choosing the right side, but I could see no other way.
A year later Constance and I were married. Two years after that, we were divorced.
St. Petersburg, Florida
© Ethan Hubbard
South Africa in the early seventies was like a paradise for whites. My wife, our young son, and I lived in the port city of Durban, where we swam at pristine, uncrowded beaches and picnicked among the dunes. On Sunday afternoons we might attend a symphony concert in the Victorian-style city hall, stroll among giant palms in the park, or see a movie in a sumptuous air-conditioned cinema. All our fellow moviegoers, concert-ticket holders, and sunbathers were white. Blacks were restricted with regard to where they could live, what jobs they could hold, which schools they could attend, and whom they could marry.
Like most white South Africans, I had grown up in a family that went along with apartheid, but in college I’d learned to question the system. My wife and I protested apartheid, furtively removing Whites Only signs from park benches and attending public forums to call for change. Our critics labeled us “bleeding- heart liberals.” And so we were. We didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be black in South Africa: to experience material deprivation; to have no say in running the country; to be at the mercy of a white minority that made all the decisions. But we acted out of principle and with conviction.
Although it was clear that apartheid couldn’t last forever, nothing we did seemed to speed its demise. Discouraged by our ineffectiveness — and not wanting to be the beneficiaries of the system we opposed — my wife and I packed up and left South Africa.
Oro Valley, Arizona
A decade ago, while I was away at a women’s retreat for the weekend, my fiancé got my adolescent daughter drunk and molested her. She managed to escape to my mother’s the next day, but it was twenty hours before she was able to track me down. Severe weather prevented me from leaving the retreat center until the next morning. Throughout the night I replayed her phone call in my mind. I was enraged at my fiancé and mad at myself for having left her alone with him.
When I finally arrived home and saw my daughter, we cried and filed a police report. (My fiancé had turned himself in to the authorities.) She and I drove to a local lake, where we threw my engagement ring into the water and watched it sink to the bottom.
Later that year, convinced that going to therapy could restore our family, my fiancé and I got back together. My daughter felt betrayed — and rightfully so. A court-mandated restraining order prevented any face-to-face contact between the two of them. My life became divided as I tried to portion my time between two people I loved. Holidays were particularly miserable for me.
Six years later, disillusioned and unhappy, I chose my daughter’s side. He’s gone.
Every time I came home from school as a girl, I was afraid to open the door of our Bronx tenement apartment. My Greek parents were always fighting about something — usually my father’s drinking and periodic unemployment. After what felt like hours of yelling, he would leave the house with my mother shouting Greek obscenities at his back.
I loved my carefree, fun-loving father. On Sunday mornings I’d get up early, and he would make pancakes for me before anyone else woke up. I worried that he would leave us, and I blamed my fanatically religious mother for nagging him so much.
He did leave, many times. When he finally packed his bags for good, I was twelve and came home to a quiet house. My mother was in bed with a rag around her head. My brother was out playing stickball, and my sisters were in their room reading. No one spoke to me about what was going on; I had to figure it out myself. As the youngest in the family, I felt invisible.
Soon my mother’s gossipy friends began to descend on our home. They whispered about my father’s philandering and gambling and told my mother she was better off without him. No one discussed how we would survive without my father bringing in at least some income. My mother spoke no English and had no job skills.
Sometimes my mother’s friends would ask me, “Who do you love better, your mother or your father?” It felt like a trick question: If I told the truth and said I blamed my mother for their breakup, they would be furious. After all, my mother was the long-suffering, abandoned martyr with four children to raise. But if I said I loved my mother more, I’d be lying. So I just sat there and said nothing.
As a Protestant minister in North Carolina, I was supposed to keep my house “in order.” When, after fifteen years of marriage, my wife and I decided to separate, I knew it would have professional repercussions for me.
Together my wife and I wrote a letter to the congregation, telling them that this decision had been a long time coming. I would have custody of our two small daughters, but my wife would continue to be active in their lives. We would be supportive of each other, and we hoped the church members would be sensitive to our privacy.
They weren’t. Everyone wanted to know whose fault it was. Which of us had made “the mistake”? Even our six-year-old got interrogated in Sunday school.
One day a delegation of church leaders arrived in my office, demanding to know whose fault it had been that we had separated, so they could know whom to support. I could either start assigning blame or, after twenty years, start a new career. I resigned.
My ex-wife and I remain good friends, and whenever our adult daughters are in the area, we all have dinner together. The parishioners’ need to choose sides, and our refusal to do so, actually helped keep us close.
As a kid I was on my mother’s side. I had no choice. I heard over and over from her how selfish my father was, buying himself a new travel trailer while my mother’s car smoked and sputtered to the grocery store and home. I heard how he made my mother go back to work so he could buy a new van to pull his new travel trailer. I heard about how strict my father was and how my mother had to hide all my misdeeds from him, “or else.” I heard that it was his fault that we couldn’t afford the clothes I wanted and that I had to get a job cleaning neighbors’ houses. I heard about how he wasn’t ambitious and had turned down a management position at work. I heard about how, after having mown the lawn, he would track grass into the house she’d just cleaned. I heard about how he’d lie on the couch until it smelled of his sweat. I heard about how he snored at night and farted in bed.
One evening after dinner my father got up from the table and slid his dirty dishes into the sink, where my mother was washing a plate. My father leaned over to kiss my mother’s cheek, but she shrugged him away before his lips met her skin. He murmured something, and she turned on him with a face full of anger. I wondered how many times a day he made an effort to reach out and try to love my mother, only to be rebuffed.
Years later my mother had an affair, and my father cried and told me he’d just wanted to love her. I thought maybe I had been on the wrong side all this time.
It took twenty years of being married for me to realize that both spouses were to blame. And both were worthy of forgiveness.
Cherry Valley, California
In the summer of 1944 my family moved to a farm about ten miles outside our hometown, and I went to third grade in a one-room country school where my father had gotten a teaching job. My father was a large man and kept discipline by the sheer force of his personality. I don’t recall anyone seriously questioning his authority, but a few of the older boys nursed a grudge against him.
Early one cold morning, before the start of classes, my dad went outside to get wood for the stove. While he was gone, one of the older boys walked in front of me and emitted a loud farting sound, then implied that I had made the noise. This brought raucous laughter from our classmates. It was the first of many humiliations for me.
The boys used me as a way to get even with my father. On the worst days I felt rejected by the entire school. I was being shunned like this on the day the photographer arrived to take our school picture. While he directed us into position, I asked to be excused to go to the outhouse. As I made my way across the schoolyard, a younger girl breathlessly ran up behind me. She had sneaked away, she said, to tell me that she was on my side — but I shouldn’t tell anyone else. Then she went back to the schoolhouse.
It was a small gesture, but it made a difference to know that not everyone hated me. I understood the girl’s fear of reprisal from the older boys and told no one what she had said. But part of me regrets that no one else knew what a kind person she was.
Marilin Sharon Ridenhour
My sister was eighteen when she married. She and her husband moved in with his parents, and within two months she was pregnant. A few months later my brother-in-law announced that he wanted out of the marriage. He drove her to our cousin’s house and dropped her off at the end of the street, so that he wouldn’t have to make a difficult left-hand turn on the way out.
Then my brother-in-law started showing up outside my high school. He’d drive me to a remote place, buy me a Coke, and tell me how cruel my sister had been to him, how she didn’t love him at all. My brother-in-law seemed hurt and sensitive (he quoted John Lennon), and I grew angry at my sister for having mistreated him. I’d been bullied by her, too.
I continued to meet my brother-in-law in secret and was even late to my sister’s baby shower because I’d been making out with him at a highway rest stop. I was sixteen and naive. I believed everything he told me.
When my sister gave birth, my mother and I were at the hospital, and we saw my sister’s husband walk past the open door, obviously lost. Chin trembling and eyes filled with tears, my sister asked me, “Will you please go get him?” She looked so sad and scared. For the first time I saw how much he’d hurt her.
When I approached my brother-in-law at the end of the hall, he smiled and reached his hand to my face. I told him never to touch me again.
Dad’s plan was for me to wreak mayhem in Mom’s house when I went to stay with her for the weekend. He wanted me to slash her dresses, break appliances and windows, and convince my sisters to come back to live with him most of the time. He reviewed the fantasy with me in detail over dinner each night at the local diner. “You know what else you should do?” he’d say, blowing cigarette smoke with a deep chuckle. My stomach would twist up with dread. But I was on his side — just as I had sworn on the day Mom had moved out.
Charged with this mission, I stood in the kitchen of my mother’s house, juggling a glass until it slipped from my fingers and shattered on the floor. (I didn’t have the courage just to throw it down and break it.) Then I went and told Mom so she could clean up the pieces before someone got hurt. I also drew on the walls (with washable markers), pretended to try to jump out of the car, and insisted that I wanted to go back to Dad’s house. But I knew all of this wouldn’t be enough for him when I got home. My grandmother had bought Mom a microwave for her new house, and he wanted it broken.
While Mom and my sisters were outside, I went into the kitchen again. I didn’t even know how to break a microwave. I imagined sweeping it off the counter in one motion, its cord ripping out as it fell. The image of myself being so destructive and fearless was thrilling, but I couldn’t do it.
I pulled out a tray and threw it to the floor as hard as I could. It made a terrific clatter. Then I unplugged the microwave, set it on the floor, and went to find Mom to tell her I’d dropped the microwave. Exasperated, she took me back to Dad’s house.
I told Dad I’d shoved the microwave onto the floor, the way I’d seen it in my mind. He was disappointed when he found out it hadn’t actually broken. “Next time,” he told me, “you have to throw it harder.”
We do not generally get into heated debates in my family. At holiday gatherings we play cards, have a few drinks, eat too much, say we need to do it more often, then go our separate ways. But last night was different. My younger sister mentioned she was going to church the next day, and my sister-in-law started talking about her childhood churchgoing experiences. Before long they were arguing over evolution and whether Jesus is the only way to heaven. My mother, brother, and father joined the fray. A couple of times they tried to draw me in, but I just kept playing solitaire. I won’t debate spirituality as if it were a matter of policy. I have found peace in recent years by understanding that there are no absolutes.
The discussion ended with tears and frustration. People felt judged, hurt, angry, and misunderstood. I don’t know how my family read my detachment. I want to be closer to them, but I also want to protect myself from their judgment. This is a paradox I am trying to solve.
In my first year of high school I played junior-varsity boys’ soccer. On the bus ride to an away game, the bus driver asked if anyone had any dope. (The coach had taken his own car.) One player offered a small pipe filled with marijuana and a lighter. As the pipe made its way from hand to hand, I looked out the window and noticed that our bus was crowding a small green VW Bug onto the shoulder. The highway was covered in melting snow, and our rear wheels were spraying a plume of slush onto the VW’s hood. The car braked, skidded, and came to a sideways stop as we rolled by. The driver of the VW poked his head out of his door and gave us the finger. I was the only one who noticed.
I had recently moved from a small-town public school to this private school in the city, where doing drugs was practically a requirement. I had no problem with pot smoking. The reckless driving, however, was dangerous. I reported the incident to the dean, who didn’t seem surprised and didn’t ask for names. He said he would follow up on it and sent me back to class.
All the boys on the soccer team were called, one at a time, into the mildewy basement office of the athletic director and asked two simple questions: “Was it your marijuana?” “Did you smoke any?” The boy who’d produced the pipe made a tearful confession and got two days’ suspension from school. The bus driver was fired. No one else got in trouble.
In the weeks that followed, anonymous callers rang our house and told my parents I was going to get my face pounded. A senior athlete I did not know slammed me against the wall whenever we passed in the hall. At lunch the only table open to me was the one where the unpopular students ate. Ironically this group also included two of the heaviest drug users in the entire school, Walter and Dave. They claimed to be selling and taking far more serious drugs than marijuana.
One morning, in the middle of algebra class, Walter casually handed me a carefully folded wad of paper and directed me to hand it to Dave. I felt sure there was some kind of drug inside it. Holding that little white package in my fist, I knew passing it was the wrong thing to do, but I also wanted to stop being a “narc.” I handed the package to Dave.
In school if I saw someone getting picked on, I would jump in and mouth off to the bully, even though I was scrawny and would inevitably get clobbered. I once got pummeled after a basketball game by a kid who was making derogatory comments about the girls’ team. In college I got into it with a guy who was spewing racist remarks about South Africans.
In 1993 I traveled to Sri Lanka as a Peace Corps volunteer. While I was there, a war was going on against rebels in the east and north, and there were threats of violence surrounding an upcoming election. Nationwide curfews were in effect, during which I was trapped inside, playing eternal card games with my hosts’ daughters. As soon as the curfew was lifted, I’d take off in order to keep my sanity.
One time I decided to visit my friend Tom, a Peace Corps volunteer who lived in a remote area. About halfway there the bus stopped, and the driver refused to go any farther. The only way onward was to ride in a military convoy. Young, naive, and adventurous, I decided to hop on.
The convoy drove through a Muslim village where the curfew was still being enforced, though you wouldn’t have known it by the number of people milling about. Naturally the villagers all scattered as soon as we drove into town. Our truck came to a sudden stop, and several soldiers got out and ran after some young men. The soldiers came back with two of the men in custody and pushed them into the truck with us. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it couldn’t be good.
Several miles down the road we stopped on a bridge, and two soldiers got out and marched the young men down to the river. I felt I should do something, but I was paralyzed. All I could think was that they were about to be assassinated right before my eyes, and I wasn’t stopping it.
The soldiers ordered the men into the water and told them to submerge themselves. Then the soldiers laughed and walked away, leaving the men to hike back to their village sopping wet.
I thanked God that the men had suffered only humiliation. And I wondered what had happened to the brave, brash kid I’d once been.
My mother hired Sadie to come to our house every Thursday to wash, iron, and vacuum. I was five, and while Sadie bent over a scrubbing board in the basement, I begged her to let me hang up the socks on a low clothesline.
One Thursday Sadie brought her granddaughter Sadie Lou with her to work. Sadie Lou was an inch or two taller than I was, and her head was covered in bows, like a bunch of flowers that bobbed up and down with each step she took. We raced to see who could hang up the most socks. From then on I waited each week for Sadie Lou to appear with her grandmother.
One night I begged my mother to let me have bows in my hair too. Mother pulled a red velvet ribbon from her sewing table and clipped it to the top of my fine blond hair.
The next Thursday, while Mother was at the grocery store, I asked Sadie to fix my hair like Sadie Lou’s. Sadie dug into a rag bag, sat me down, and quickly braided fifteen tiny pigtails. To each she tied a different rag bow. Sadie Lou and I ran outside to show the world our lovely selves.
When Mother appeared around the corner, arms filled with groceries, her mouth fell open, and in a teacherlike voice she said to us, “Come inside. I have a treat for you.”
While Sadie Lou and I ate sticky jelly doughnuts, Mother ripped off my bows as fast as she could. That night I asked why she’d taken my bows off, and she said, “You just can’t imagine what the neighbors would say.”
Ten years later Mother was preparing to host a Garden Club tea on a Saturday, and she brought in help. When I returned from playing tennis that afternoon, there stood my old playmate Sadie Lou in our kitchen, her hands covered in soapsuds, hair firmly held in a ponytail.
Delighted to see her, I poured us each a Coke, and we talked about school and sports. “Want to go to the movies tonight?” I asked.
“I’d love to,” Sadie Lou replied. “I’ll come back after dinner.”
At dinner I mentioned my plans to my mother. Her brow wrinkled. “No, you just can’t,” she said. “It’s not appropriate.”
At fifteen I couldn’t defy my mother’s will. I slammed my bedroom door, dialed Sadie Lou on my phone, and made an excuse that I hoped sounded plausible.
Seventy years later I decorate my long gray ponytail with ribbons of blue, green, and violet. I wish I could show it to Sadie Lou.
It’s Sunday morning, and a group of friends and I are sitting at the neighborhood cafe making signs to protest Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Outside, two regular patrons of the nearby liquor store are urinating on the sidewalk. Seeing our signs, one of them hurls his beer bottle at the cafe window, shattering the glass. “You faggots will burn in hell!” he yells. “You make me sick!”
We’re shaken up, and the commotion draws a small group of onlookers. Some denounce the drunk man’s actions. One grumbles about the increase of “un- savory characters” in the area. (We don’t know whether he means the “faggots” or the drunks.)
Then congregants from a nearby church stop to tell us of the short trip to hell that awaits the sodomist in the afterlife. I’m impressed by the tenacity of their views: not everyone feels so strongly about the romantic relationships of strangers that they’ll take the side of a drunk who has just emptied his bladder on the sidewalk. One of the churchgoers wishes aloud that we could just be more “subtle.” I’d like to ask them when being in love became more of a nuisance to polite society than violent drunkenness at ten on a Sunday morning.
My single mother was severely depressed when I was a child. On bad nights she’d cry all evening, complaining about the way my sister and I made life hard for her. If I began sobbing myself, she’d scream obscenities at me, her face so close that her spit would drop on my cheek. She called me a “brat,” a “slut” (I wasn’t even big enough to see over a store counter), a “shithead.” She’d follow me throughout the house, asking who felt sorry for her: she’d never wanted kids; she’d never wanted a life like the one she had.
One spring my dad remarried. He and his new wife, Arlene, would take me miniature-golfing, and Arlene would never make me take a water penalty. She gave me books and board games and journals and bought me my first training bra. Once, Arlene and Dad even let my little sister eat half a pie. An hour later she puked it up all over the carpet and walls, but it was OK: No one screamed. No one hit.
The whole time we were out having fun, I pictured my mom at home alone, lying on the couch, sad, scared, and overwhelmed. So I took it upon myself to make sure my little sister kept her head straight about the situation. One night, when Dad sent us to take a shower together, I locked the door, turned on the water so he couldn’t hear us, and asked, “Who is your real mom?”
“Mom is,” my sister said, confused.
“Who do you love more: Dad’s new wife or our mom?”
“Mom,” she said, whimpering.
I asked her this over and over until she could answer without hesitation. She smiled, glad she had given the right answer, and I hugged her. I was proud that I had stood by my mom. I would always stand by her and never leave her alone. I loved her.
That Sunday when I raced into Mom’s house, she yelled at me for leaving my shoes in the doorway and called me a “lazy bitch.” I stopped in my tracks, tears welling up in my eyes. She stared straight at me, a trace of a grin on her weary face, and said, “Sometimes a weekend just isn’t enough of a break from you.”
When I applied for a tofu-production job, a man named Chris told me to show up at four the next morning. In a kitchen upstairs from a natural-foods warehouse, Chris explained the process of making tofu, and I spent the day soaking soybeans, stirring soy milk, lining wooden boxes with cheesecloth, and separating soy milk into curds and whey.
Chris lived in a run-down apartment behind a print shop. Musicians, craftspeople, and local characters gathered there in the evenings to talk, smoke low-grade pot, and play music. Chris didn’t care about money or success — only spiritual enlightenment. He would sit without saying a word, exuding power and influence. I was impressed and found myself hanging out with Chris after work more and more. I watched how he interacted with others, what he ate, what music he enjoyed.
My girlfriend didn’t like Chris. She didn’t approve of how much time I was spending at his apartment and how much pot I was smoking. But I refused to stay away from Chris’s place. To me the people there were revolutionary and spiritually awakened, and my girlfriend was insensitive and stuck-up. I started checking out the women at Chris’s parties.
Early one morning, while I poured soaked soybeans into the blender, Chris told me that his girlfriend was pregnant. He also said he was tired of her and was thinking of moving on. He wasn’t interested in being a father. He wanted to travel. I sympathized and agreed that having kids tied you down.
When I told my girlfriend the news, she didn’t hold back her disapproval. I took Chris’s side. “It’s his life to do with as he wishes,” I said. The conflict between her and me grew, and I could tell we were headed for a breakup.
Then Chris stopped coming to work. I would show up at his apartment and overhear him arguing with his girlfriend. I felt sorry for her, but I kept out of it. I wanted to stay friends with Chris, but I also realized that I always felt inferior around him. When I heard about his plans to go to Indonesia with some friends who had a sailboat, I was first jealous and then relieved.
After Chris’s departure, I changed. I had been self-critical when he was around, always comparing myself unfavorably to him. Now my confidence grew. I became a better tofu cook and showed concern for Chris’s ex-girlfriend. My girlfriend seemed different too. She smiled more, and I saw a gleam in her eye. The things I’d criticized her for no longer seemed important, and I appreciated the way she lived her life. One night I asked her how she felt about having children.
I spent Christmas 1970 at Firebase Bronco in Duc Pho, Vietnam. On my way to retrieve the company mail before the holiday, I encountered three local farmers in conical straw hats. The men worked on the base, and when I saw them, I thought of the three wise men of the Nativity story. In naive earnestness I asked if they celebrated Christmas. They smiled broadly, and one said, “No, we are Buddhists.”
That simple statement opened my mind to the fact that I was an “other” there. Six months later my otherness had become raw. I felt I was on the wrong side. I was being pulled apart — fiercely loyal to my fellow soldiers but horrified by the atrocities of war.
After I returned home, I felt worthless. Protesting the war brought no relief, only brief jail time. I took an assortment of drugs, suffered a failed marriage, and spiraled downward. Several years of therapy allowed me to manage my emotions well enough that I could pursue a college degree, remarry, and father two children, but there was always an underlying self-loathing.
In October 1993 I picked up the Sunday paper and read about a company that organized bicycle tours of Vietnam. I knew right away that this was what I needed, and I signed up for a twelve-hundred-mile bike ride.
On Highway 1 near Vinh I stopped to admire a Vietnamese farmer’s tidy plot and small home. He spoke a smattering of English; I spoke even less Vietnamese. But we pantomimed and discovered that years ago we’d been soldiers on different sides of the war. With that, he embraced me.
After he let me go, I collapsed by the side of the road, racked by sobs, unable to go on riding. Dien, a Vietnamese man who was also on the bike tour, laid his hand on my shoulder and said, “John, you are a good man.”
It became clear to me then that there were no sides, no “other.” There never had been.
In July 2009 I read your Readers Write on “Choosing Sides,” in which a few of the pieces were about losing connections with family members because of divorce. I have a similar story: My parents divorced when I was very young, and I lost contact with my father for more than fifty-seven years. I knew where he lived and had a nagging desire to make contact, but I never took the next step.
After reading “Choosing Sides,” I decided to write him. He didn’t respond, but he kept the letter, and subsequently his daughter by another wife found it and contacted me.
That was a month ago, and I now have a great dad, a sweet and loving half sister, and two wonderful nephews. My wife and I have been to Florida to meet them all, and we’ll be returning in a few months for my dad’s ninetieth birthday, thanks to the readers who openly share their joys and sorrows in your pages.