Writing. I love it. But sometimes, what it reveals makes me a little bit sick to my stomach. So here's your warning if you're going to read this post: have some ginger ale ready if family drama makes you queasy.
Okay. So as I've been stumbling my way through this thesis, I've started to realize just how much Troubadour Dad was nothing more than a stranger to me in the first few years of my life. I didn't feel like I was missing anything per se -- I had no idea, you see, what a dad was supposed to be. I didn't expect him to read me bedtime stories or play dress-up with me or even really talk to me because I didn't need him to. I had Troubadour Mom for all that -- sweet, patient woman that she was (and still is), she would act out the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland with me every afternoon just because it made me happy. (I played the aforementioned Disney heroines and associated royals like the Queen of Hearts; she was the rest of the cast.)
So at that age, I used to look forward to the weeks when Troubadour Dad had to go out of town for conferences because it meant we didn't have to stop our play. Instead of having to make myself a quiet little girl once Troubadour Dad got home, I could continue being me (or whoever I wanted to pretend to be). Dinner was a fun, relaxed sort of thing instead of a tense one where anything I might say would be met all too frequently with a stern look and the words, "CT, that's not ladylike." (I agree, exclaiming "Off with your head!" probably wasn't an appropriate response to anyone for any reason, but didn't Troubadour Dad understand it was make-believe and not something I would utter in polite company, which we rarely ever had anyway? Mom seemed to trust my discretion.)
As I got older, I started looking forward to those free evenings even more, evenings without needing to listen for Troubadour Dad's car pulling into the garage. That was the signal to get the hell out of the kitchen, where Troubadour Mom and I would talk while she was prepping ingredients for dinner. If you stayed, there was a fairly high risk that the man on the other side of the door was in a bad mood from another overbooked day at the office, and when he came in, he tended to pick whatever (or whomever) was nearest to criticize, even if all you were doing was standing around. (If you were standing around, you either weren't studying when you were supposed to be or you weren't helping to get dinner on the table when you could have been.) It was a control thing, I think. In any case, I made myself scarce. We still do, my sisters and I, when we hear the garage door in the evening at our parents' house. Conversations end. Adult children scatter.
In those middle school years, on the nights when Troubadour Dad was away, my mother and I would make a point of talking, luxuriating in the chance to have uninterrupted conversation. As the oldest kid, I had a slightly later bedtime than my sisters, and in the hour after they had gone to sleep (sometimes more, if we conveniently forgot to look at the clock), my mother would tell me stories about her life before she met Troubadour Dad. These were often interwoven with small but unmistakably sad comments about Troubadour Dad, his idiosyncratic but tyrannical demands on her in their relationship from the beginning to the present. This is how, without realizing it at first, I gradually became my mother's confidante.
Once I became aware of my role, I was glad to be my mother's "person" in some ways -- I adored her, wanted to be like her when I grew up, was thrilled to be taken into her confidence. But because I loved her, I was also dismayed. If things in her marriage were as unpleasant as they seemed, why was she letting them continue without protest? Well, all right, not totally without protest, but protest that led nowhere, not even to the slightest change. It had gone on for years, she said, which was strangely no surprise to me: even in my earliest memories, I can recall expecting to hear my parents fighting after I had gone to bed. And they did. Many nights. Loud, explosive fights that, oddly enough, didn't scare me. No -- the only emotion I remember feeling is anger.
Somehow, I knew that my mother wasn't the one picking the fights, not at first anyway. She was almost always sweet-tempered with me (and whenever she scolded me, I knew I deserved it). Why, then, was Troubadour Dad thundering so horribly at her? I couldn't have explained what bullying was when I was two, but at that age, I understood it instinctively. And it pissed me off. So I did the only thing I could to save Troubadour Mom: I would make myself cry, and she'd come running. Score one for CT and Mom, zero for Troubadour Dad -- fighting effectively suspended. At least until the next night.
This worked until I hit the age when it was no longer okay to cry. By then, I had sisters for whom I had to be a proper role model, something Troubadour Dad made sure I understood on a regular basis. It was double, triple the incentive to keep my ass in line, if I didn't want to be held up as a bad example to them, so keeping my parents up at night with crying? Not okay, even if they were the ones making more noise to begin with.
It was those late-night chats with my mother, from middle school until I left for college, that convinced me that Troubadour Mom was unhappier than my father realized. At one point, she told me that one of the only things keeping her from leaving him when he was especially unkind was that she didn't want me and my sisters to have to deal with the fallout of a divorce. And he was a good provider, she said. She didn't know where she would go if she were to leave him.
I didn't know what to tell her.
Meanwhile, Troubadour Dad continued to be enormously critical of all of us, especially in front of his extended family, which we began to see more often as my cousins got old enough to marry. (Weddings became an excuse for post-nuptial, week-long family reunions.) Suffice it to say that those years -- the years when you're already obsessed with how other people see you, what other people think of you -- didn't leave me with much to feel good about outside of school either. I knew that in Western culture, it was considered wrong for my father to say the things he would say about me or let my relatives say about how I looked and acted, and Troubadour Mom, in our late-night chats, agreed many times over with me. So I started to speak up for myself, hoping she would back me up as she had when we were alone. Well, Troubadour Dad told me in no uncertain terms that I'd better be more respectful if I knew what was good for me. Anything else, he said, was unacceptable, which I took to mean that I was unacceptable.
Troubadour Mom said nothing.
My sisters, if they had their own issues with Troubadour Dad, smartly didn't try to buck the system at that time. I wasn't as wise. I rebelled and got punished, rebelled and got punished, over and over and over again. These were small rebellions, mind you: talking back, raising my voice, saying how much I hated Troubadour Dad to my American friends. My mother could see that I was hurting, would join me in saying how much she hated my father too whenever he wasn't around. But in the moments when her voice would have counted (in front of his extended family), something was preventing her from speaking. In a way, I pursued my little rebel acts to try to make her speak, to beg her to use her rank as my father's equal -- at least generationally -- on my behalf. She never did.
It took until last summer for me to understand what was holding her back. At my cousin's wedding in Newfoundland, when Troubadour Dad decided I needed a scolding in front of his relatives -- keep in mind that at that time, I was already older than he was when I was born -- I decided I had had enough. There was nothing more, is nothing more, for me to lose in front of his family. Forget talking back, I thought. How about just asking not to be treated like a child? But as I opened my mouth to say what I'd been suppressing for the better part of a few decades, my mother put her hand on my arm. "Please, CT," she whispered. "Do not embarrass me. He was wrong to scold you, but I have face to save here. They will think poorly of me."
And I shut up.
This, this is why my mother could not defend me before I was old enough to defend myself, why she allowed -- still allows -- my father to bully us both. She's still gagged by cultural norms she accepts as much as she abhors them. No amount of talk from me will change her position, so that's her own mess to figure out, if she even wants to. But I am no longer going to let her use that to gag me. I willingly gave up a piece of my childhood when I became her confidante. What I didn't know was that doing so would also mean losing her protection, that instead, she would -- dare I say it -- allow me to be harmed for the sake of protecting her.
Perhaps this sounds reductive, but I'm writing an entire thesis around the idea -- so let's call this blog post a sort of abstract. Don't worry; I'm sure there is much more I could say to make this fairer to my mother, and I intend to in the larger work. Indeed, as damning as the above account may be, I do see how terribly trapped my mother felt and still feels in her relationship with Troubadour Dad.
But we spoke Friday night, while my father was away at one of his conferences. And I told her how robbed I felt by the problems in her marriage that still prevent us from having the relationship I've wanted with her, one we do have when Troubadour Dad isn't around. "Uh huh," she said sweetly, as if I'd been telling her about the tulips coming up. And then she changed the subject.
I was too saddened to change it back.
1 day ago