Note: I wrote this piece many years ago, when my mom was still alive, but it’s still one of my favorite things I have ever written. It’s longer than my usual weekly post, but I wanted to add it to my collection.
What part of where we came from makes us who we grow to be? How much do the actions and attitudes of our parents, and the experiences of our childhood define the person we will become?
My dad is a smart man, with a sharp wit and a need to control. My mom is a charmer with the soul of an artist, but the weakness of a dreamer. I’m smart, I charm, I control, and I am weak. How does it all get sorted out and who decides? I would have liked to inherit my mom’s eye for beauty; instead I got her love for overspending. It would have been nice to get my father’s ability to do complex math equations, as opposed to a passion for punctuality.
My childhood was fairly idyllic, at least in the haze of retrospect. Loving parents, siblings that were an agreeable mix of companions and sparring partners. We were spoiled, but with discipline, if that’s possible. Manners and education were priorities. My maternal grandparents lived with us, providing a constant source of childcare and comfort—I didn’t need or own a key to my house until I was in my teens. It was all very Brady, very safe, very happy. Except for the family car trips.
With their passion for adventure and learning, my parents regularly took us on long and short driving trips, to the museum, to the beach, or during summer, to the river or the mountains. By preference or budget, we never flew, although mom and dad would escape us once a year for European jaunts. It was during these car trips that the dents in the family armor would begin to show.
My dad would suddenly assume the role of Captain Queeg, or whatever that mean guy from Mutiny on the Bounty was called. My mom would begin to drawl, in her very special Brooklyn/Southern accent, endless stories, with no real purpose or point, driving her captive audience into a restless frenzy. My brothers, 3 bumps in the middle row, would each start their own particular brand of evil, be it whining, pinching, poking or slapping. Sister Wendy and I in the “wayback” were torture geniuses. Although we were the best of friends outside of vehicles, we spent way too many years stuck in that teeny crawl space. Our special brand of pain involved two childhood classics, the ever-popular Indian burn, and our favorite, Monkey Paw. If you don’t know what that is, maybe it’s better for you.
So we would troll and roll down the highways, sometimes agreeably singing songs together from the radio, but more frequently bashing each other, squabbling, each of us fighting for our own little moment. I was kind of a weenie, the “white worm” as Wendy would call me, and I was usually one of the first to start sniveling. “Stop that crying” my dad would yell indignantly. “If you want something to cry about, I’ll give you something.” This always empty threat was usually enough to send me into a full sob. Another of my dad’s classics would come into play when my brothers’ slings and arrows would actually result in a physical wound. “Are you bleeding back there? Don’t you dare bleed on those seats.” Good times!
The car trip of horror that set the bar for all other car trips before and aft, was the “Ensenada Incident.” It took years before we were really able to talk about it, especially in front of dad, but give anything a few decades and the impact has to lessen.
We had loaded up my generation’s version of the minivan (they called it the “stay-shun-wag-on”). 2 parents, 5 kids, about 20 suitcases strapped onto the rooftop rack, the usual. Before we had even reached the freeway, we had all settled into our respective roles as tyrants, pirates, and damsels in distress (me, of course). As we headed down the 405, there was suddenly a sound loud enough to be heard over our collective din, a noise that sounded as if something had just been ripped off our roof. We all watched in amazement as one of the suitcases on the roof somehow slipped from its tether and tumbled off the top of the car and into the middle lane of the freeway. My dad pulled to the side of the road and jumped out of the car, as if he planned to leap into the middle of oncoming traffic to retrieve the wayward luggage. As my mom screamed for him to come back to the car, the choice was removed. A huge truck smacked into the suitcase. I can remember the sight to this day, my brothers’ Hang Ten tees and tidy whites blowing themselves across the road and latching on to windshields and antennas without discretion. Chaos reigned for some time, but eventually we drove off again, a little lighter in load, yet heavier in heart.
We detoured long enough to find a Zody’s (the Target of the time) to replenish essentials. Wendy and I, brats that we were, preened a bit with the knowledge that our little princess wardrobes would not have been quite so easy to replace. What with our delays, it was a few hours later than we expected when we pulled into the hotel parking lot in Ensenada. My dad went in to register us as we all waited each of us quietly grateful that this long day was coming to a close. A moment later, my stone faced dad returned to the car. Without a word, he started the motor and began to pull out of the parking lot. It seemed our delay had cost us our reservation. No rooms to be had at the inn, no indeed.
If you are thinking that maybe Pops just found us a new hotel, think again. My father at this point was so tired, so fed up, so really, truly pissed off at the world that I think he did the only thing he could think to do. He turned the car homeward. It took the rest of us a while to figure it out. After all, we were dazed, we were hungry, and we had just spent about 7 hours in that car. Surely he couldn’t be taking us home? We were at the start of a week’s vacation. My mom tried reasoning with him to find another hotel, or at least stop for food and rest. No answer from the driver, although his cheek was working itself with a grim energy that couldn’t fail to escape our notice. Finally my mom begged him, “honey, please, the kids are exhausted; they need to stretch, at least let’s get them some water so they don’t dehydrate.” We all waited in silence to see if the prisoners would be granted this one last wish. At last my father spoke. “If they are thirsty,” he growled, “tell ‘em to spit backwards.”
Flash forwards several years. In line with that great trend of the seventies, my parents divorced. A combination of factors diminished our household residence to just my mom, sister and I in a matter of a few months. Suddenly I needed a key and the world as I had always known it was forever altered. Neither parent behaved entirely without fault, but while it was a sad event, it wasn’t tragic. Things changed, to be sure, but we had been given a strong enough base to work with that each of us was able to begin our own adventures towards fun and fulfillment.
My mom remains a charmer, who can still tell the world’s most boring stories. But she’s my number one cheerleader, my greatest fan, and her belief that I, or any of her children, can meet any challenge we face is a great gift. I may not have her flair for fashion and art, but I have quietly decorated my own home in a manner that completely satisfies me, and I owe this ability, combined with the confidence she gave me to believe in my own tastes, to my mom.
My dad, very happily remarried for many years, has mellowed. Captain Queeg morphed into Grandpa Bobby, and he is now a disgustingly doting Poppa to a whole pack of adoring grandkids. His hot temper seems to have receded with his hairline. He’s still a control freak, but a much kinder, gentler one.
And I? Who did I become? In spite of a charmed life, I have had to face hardships on the path, episodes that called for perseverance and courage. Robberies and illnesses, fires and floods, earthquakes and even just aching loneliness. And during these trials, the old white worm has longed to surface and begin its mighty wail. But I remember what I was taught by my father, “deal with it,” “get over it” and of course “don’t bleed on the seats.” And so, I spit backwards and move on.