After my mother’s death last year, in July, and my father’s death the day after Christmas, I found myself thinking more deeply than ever about how their marriage had influenced who I married.
As a psychologist, my mètier is the past and how it shapes the future. But I had not anticipated the flood of the past. I’m used to thinking about other people’s memories, not mine.
My most exciting memory of my mother has the two of us naked, of course. We are inside the women’s locker room of a community center in Plainfield, New Jersey. I am about five years old, which makes her 32. The air is clouded by talcum powder, steam issues from the blazing hot showers, the air smells like flowers, and I recall the bottoms and breasts and dark vaginas of my mother and the other women. I remember thinking: I hope no one catches on. My heart pounded and I was out of breath and my skin tingled.
I remember the laughter and the high-pitched voices, and how that contrasted with the grumpy men in the locker room when my father took me to those swimming lessons. Dad had a remote connection to pleasure, and his skin and testicles sagged as did the expression on his face. He was serious, laconic, unhappy in one way or another, and pulling his jock strap on or off occupied his time. The room stank of farts and cigar smoke.
Why my mother took me with her rather than send me into the men’s locker room to put on a swim suit was anyone’s guess until, as she was dying, it became apparent. I would watch her then, hunched over, two little tubes in her nose to grant her oxygen that her chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) denied her. Even then, only a few weeks away from death, and frail, she had a deeply attractive appearance, one not based strictly on her looks, which were always good, but in her need to be admired by others in the room. She was, to her dying day, deeply seductive and uncertain.
Responding to her desirability, the rewards were great, and having her approval, although fleeting, was inspiring and made me indebted. Take that day in the locker room: I was hers for life.
But the demands she placed on herself were insurmountable and constant. Whether it was at the dry cleaners, Shop Rite, or a school event for me or my sister, she was worried or felt sad, even out of place, unless someone told her that they were happy to see her.
This fed into my father’s will to dominate, to turn the tables, and to make her work for every inch of his love. When she wanted his approval, which he never gave completely nor for long, she needed to behave according to what he literally called his “fantasies” of her. As in, “My fantasy is that I have a wife who has dinner ready when I come home,” and, “My fantasy is that my wife doesn’t say stupid things when we’re out with another couple.”
My mother, a working class graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, looked up to my father, with his doctorate from NYU. But he was the professor who never gave an “A.”
The screaming between them took place almost daily. It wasn’t about winning an argument or proving a point. Physical violence also took place: Once my mother was thrown down a flight of stairs.
This was my framework for future dating.
In high school I wound up with captivating girlfriends, lovely people all of them, with my mother’s ability to charm. Unlike my father, I went for girls who were way outside the immediacy of my culture, and fell deeply in love with Rose, an African-American, and later, Helen, a Korean-American.
I felt safer with them because of the differences between us. They didn’t act like my mother, nor look like her. I didn’t act like the manipulative bully my father had been.
In college, I fell for a number of girls. I was not aware of the connections that existed between them and my mother, but these were present both in the vibes I sent out as well as who caught them. It was a chaotic time, that period of having no attachments, and we all fell in and out of bed with one another. Our breath stank of alcohol in the morning. We got high on pot a lot. We talked about our goals, but we were still our parents’ children.
With dad picking up the check, I never spoke up about his cruelty to my mother. I never told anyone. It was a real family secret.
I failed, ultimately, by not protecting her, and am remorseful.
After college I met Kate, a feisty working class girl, someone with a good head on her shoulders. She was the daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother so placid and forgiving that I’m surprised to this day that she didn’t have a side gig at her church hearing Confession. Kate didn’t want to hear that I approved of her. That would have been redundant to her way of thinking. She had sorted out who she was because what her parents said did not matter.
Kate was so attractive and capable of seducing others that when she walked into a room, the men stopped talking. I felt honored to be the noble lady’s coachman (which was a sex game we played), but I also depended on her: Was I good enough?
Once, walking out of a bar in D.C., Kate looked back at me and said, “Those guys couldn’t believe you’re with me. They must think you’re well-endowed.”
After several years of fighting and making love in all sorts of places, Kate and I broke up, which shouldn’t have surprised me, but did.
I had turned into my mother.
Finally, by becoming an adult and earning a living, I began to see things differently. As exciting as it was to be with women whose dramatic abilities stirred up feelings for my mother, I wanted peace and quiet.
I found what I was looking for in L. We met at a Mardi Gras party, the only ones in a packed room who were not in costume. She is a family doctor who doesn’t need me to tell her that she’s attractive or important, but enjoys hearing me tell her that it’s so. Unlike my mother, seduction for my wife is not a way of life, but rather a path to intimacy.
And like Simone de Beauvoir who, when asked what women want, said, “financial independence,” my wife doesn’t depend on me, as my mother did with my father, to pay the bills. I have no control over her, which is a special kind of bliss. It allows her to be herself and not who I fantasize her being.
Ironically, being in a peaceful marriage has me yearn at times for the emotional violence of the home I grew up in. When I miss my mother and father, I enter a locked psychiatric ward or the clinic where I work: “Hi, mom, I’m home! When’s dinner? What time does dad get in from work?”
And now at least I get paid.