I never wanted children. Even as a small child, I would put a plastic horse in my toy baby buggy and proclaim that I was never having children–only horses.
I’m pretty sure my mom didn’t want me, either. She’d already raised a child (my half-brother was 15 when I was born) and I was just there to please my dad. Which, I guess, I did.
I was supposed to learn the rules and act like a grown-up right from the get-go. Any mistakes were met with screaming rages that frightened the wits out of me. I could see her losing control piece by piece and was convinced that one day she would kill me for not being the person she wanted me to be.
It was inconsistent, however. Some days she would just smile and clean up the mess (“kids will be kids”); but others, she would go through every swear word and elaborate Catholic curse phrase she’d learned from her own Irish nanny, and her hands and face would become so contorted that I watched to see if she was going to claw me to death. When she finally got a bit of a grip on herself, she would race out of the house, slamming the front door behind her.
And there I was. Three years old, or five, alone, scared, and not sure what I’d done wrong–only that nothing I ever did was going to be right. The windows would stare at me and I knew horrible monsters crouched outside just below the sills, waiting for me to turn around so they could watch every move I made. I had to find a safe hiding place or I’d be killed! Behind the piano, behind the couch: these were the best places to get away from these all-seeing eyes.
As my terror mounted, so did my rage. What if something happened to my mom? What if she never came back? What would I do? What if the monsters got me before she came back? I could see her rage all over again and I became really angry too. What could I have possibly done that made it worth killing me?
Then bang! She was back in the house with a false smile, saying, “Now we’ll be nice.” We? I wasn’t the one who’d lost it! And why now? When did I get a turn to vent? That phrase always put me in a boiling rage and I had no outlet for it, because it had been decreed that now I would be “nice.” As I grew older, the only outlet I could find was to break something she loved. Some THING she loved–not me, because I wasn’t sure she loved me anyway.
Those things I broke she remembered and mourned to her dying day, even though Dad usually repaired them and made them good as new. Even when she was in the nursing home when she was in her nineties she would throw those moments back in my face: “Remember the lovely little Venetian glass duck Mama Bach brought me from Italy and you broke its wing?” Of course I remembered! She insisted on it.
How could I ever want children? When I saw a baby in a stroller, the feeling of revulsion was so strong I just wanted to hit it. Babies were mewling, shitting, messy, useless things. I thought of them as small pigs. In fact, I developed a liking for piglets that I never felt for a human infant.
Meanwhile, I began to decode my mom’s behavior without really understanding it. She had had a very tough childhood, where she was the one her parents didn’t want and her Perfect Older Sister, Margaret, was the standard they held up to her. Margaret, however, was secretly threatened by her own undeserved status, and when her parents couldn’t see, she lashed out at my mom in awful ways–and always got away with it. Mom often saw me as Margaret, deliberately creating chaos or messing up her life, even though at three I couldn’t have possibly done the things an older Margaret had pulled off. The more I understood, however, the more she used her past–which she clung to–to excuse her present behavior. She always decided when I had assumed Margaret’s role, and I never saw it seeing it coming until her rage took over and she was babbling unintelligibly at the top of her lungs.
Indeed, I tried hard to adhere to the rules (which I didn’t understand, but tried to memorize), so that I wouldn’t bring the Wrath of Mom down on my head. I walked on eggshells around her, never knowing if she was going to love me or hate me. But she was all I had standing between me and the evils of the world, at least until Dad came home.
He didn’t want to hear about bad stuff, however, and after dinner he would descend to the basement to build beautiful things for the house–and us–and leave Mom and me alone. I had no siblings to stand up for me or give me perspective. Mom was my Margaret, always doing her worst when no one else was around to witness. Sometimes I’d hit her and she’d proudly show the bruises to Dad, telling him how horrible I was. He’d ignore her, however, as he hated conflict, and that was that.
She wanted me to justify her existence to her parents, her relatives, her friends, and to strangers, by having me perform the Perfect Child act, at least in public, and often at home, too. (After all, she had disgraced the entire extended family by first, getting pregnant in high school, and then–worst of all!–getting divorced from the handsome idiot.)
I was shy, introverted, and depressed, but escaped into my books at every opportunity. The March family had four wonderful sisters, and I longed to have them be mine, with me being Jo, of course. Hours after Mom put me to bed early (so she could have quality time with Dad), I would watch the four little Godemann sisters across the way sipping little beers with their parents at the picnic table until 10:00 pm or later. Never mind that two of them were “retarded” and the rest of the family mentally slow. They got along; they were good playmates for me (they knew lots of games we could play outdoors); they were good-natured; and the family was very close. Although I don’t know how they managed to cope with the outside world as adults, at that time I deeply envied them. They shared a large, empty attic with four beds and four dressers in it, and it was (to me, at least) an ideal situation where they had their own magical world away from the grown ups.
Dad made me my own world, too, when I was about three: an enclosed, uninsulated sleeping porch with two beds and three small stairs leading down to it, the stairs bordered by a fanciful handrail he created and painted red and grey. The yellow curtains were made by my beloved Grandma Hoffmann, who often occupied the second bed and was my favorite playmate. When the windows were open in the summer, the curtains danced into the room, letting in north, east, and south light in an unbroken horizontal band piercing the three walls. I was safe there beneath the covers, my left side to the north (facing the Godemann’s yard, among others), my feet to the east, and the other bed on the south side, just past the stairs. There was a “secret” little cupboard under the stairs and fun posters on the sloping ceiling. In the winter it was extremely cold (this was Chicago, after all), but I loved to create a “cave” under the blankets and face “pioneer adventures” with my many stuffed animals when they left the cave and braved the cold. The south side of the room faced the alley, where the bigger kids would shoot hoops at the Dormody’s garage, and I could watch Mrs. Smith across the way play with her grumpy, hissy white cat, Susie. In fact, thanks to my little spy nest, I knew what was going on all over the neighborhood, as well as in my own yard. The light filtering through the elm and oak branches by my window created dancing shadows on my curtains, and it was there that I was truly happy.