Straighten Him Out

As I was watching the HBO documentary ‘Jane Fonda In 5 Acts’, and her acknowledgement of her upbringing’s effect on her, I could not help but recall my own.

Mine was certainly not privileged or celebrated like the Fonda household, and by no means as dysfunctional — Henry was cold and critical and adulterous, Jane’s mother battled depression and mental illness, tried to ignore her husband’s infidelities and ultimately slit her own throat, something kept from Jane for years — but I am certainly the product of how I was raised.

Aren’t we all?

This isn’t a declaration of blame. I am not big on psychiatry that lays every phobia, neuroses and anxiety at the feet of parents who, by and large, did their best in an era/ circumstances that were a constant challenge. My own parents imprudently had me at 19, had no money, no advanced education and no newborn primer, just advice from well-meaning relatives who carried their own baggage. My paternal grandparents were humorless Germans; my grandfather beat his children mercilessly, often lining them up when he returned from time away and strapping them “just because”. I recall no embraces or kisses from them. All I could smell was their fear. They rarely answered the door and they hung thin strips of torn cloth at the sides of blinds to prevent passersby from seeing in. My maternal grandparents embraced the Baptist Church a little too strenuously and my grandmother lost her mind routinely, deciding she’d been struck lame and refusing to walk or that Satan himself was sitting cross-legged atop the television set and tempting her. She underwent electric shock in the late 1950’s and attempted suicide more than once. Yet, to me, they were loving and kind…but my mother grew up in what was essentially a sanitarium, returning from high school many times to watch her own mother literally carted away by men in white. It wasn’t the most stable environment.

And that’s what they brought forward. My parents did their level best in a modest home with modest means. We three kids were very different. Me, bookish and effeminate; the middle child, my brother, athletic and popular but troubled by self-esteem demons at a very young age; and my sister, the youngest, Daddy’s Little Girl who became an adolescent hellcat. Sometimes, my parents handled things poorly. This is not a confessional that will shock my mother, still living; I have told her so and, while pained, she grudgingly acknowledged my feelings on the topic. “We’d never raised kids before!” she exclaimed, rightfully so. I cannot second-guess their decisions, since their working class finances, a narrow mentality, my father’s reliance on alcohol as an anesthetic and a certain level of small town ignorance dictated their comportment. I have no children of my own, but I am certain I would have made my own parenting missteps, and they might have been monumental.

But, oddly, one memory bubbled up after I watched the documentary, and it concerns my mother. It’s not a suppressed or buried memory. It’s always there. I choose not to anaylyze it, like many others. I tend to compartmentalize; I visualize a series of drawers and I carefully tri-fold the unpleasant into one of them before firmly closing it. It’s a coping mechanism that works for me. Dwelling on past injustices isn’t the kind of scab I want to pick. When I do open one of those drawers, it’s on my terms.

I was 9, perhaps 10. A neighbor on the street where I grew up was large, loud and on the public dole, with three illegitimate children in a fatherless, filthy home. Wilma, in her floral housedress with the belt loops cut off, was the block’s know-it-all, although her own life was bursting to the seams with bad decisions. No one liked her, including my family, since their domicile was an eyesore even to the blind and had a collection of “rough” friends. They really weren’t welcome in our home, so it was immediately perplexing when WIlma shuffled a nephew or cousin, roughly my age, to our front porch with bad intentions. Mom invited them in. I said “hi” and shyly hung back; I preferred my bedroom, books and record player to meeting new boys with dirty knuckles.

And then, as my mother sat there, Wilma proposed we wrestle. “That’s what boys do and Rod needs to act like a boy. He prances around too much” I remember the words. I didn’t act like a boy? Prance? Like, on my tippy-toes? I didn’t play with dolls or teacups. I peed standing. Rather than defend me, to my astonishment, my mother agreed to this wrestling match. “Fight him, Rod!’ I was expected to have a rough-and-tumble with a boy I’d never met, right there, on the celery-green and sculpted living room carpet.

Suffice to say, it didn’t go well. I didn’t know workarounds when pinned and I had never twisted someone else’s arm intentionally. I came away with several rug burns and malevolent triumph in Wilma’s narrow eyes. She had proven it: I was more flower than football. I think my Mom agreed to all of this hoping that a wrestling match, something alien to me, would advance me toward behaving like a normal boy, or at least convince this neighbor with self-cut bangs that I was. I had been defeated. I was a sissy, weak and bound to be victimized my whole life. I don’t recall how I managed to leave the room but I did, and I cried in self-pity — probably a dramatic monologue into my tape recorder, as I was wont to do — at my surrender to a clear enemy. I didn’t feel safe in my house and I didn’t feel a mother’s protection. I wanted Wilma to die, and her three fat bastard brats, too.

It’s a meaningless and menial memory…maybe. This wasn’t about practicing a firm handshake, learning how to tie a tie or even a father’s birds n’ bees lecture to a son. This was about brute force, strength, winning through not wile but hurting someone until they cried “Uncle!” I bear my mother no malice. She was and is no sophisticate. Both she and my father, rather than discouraging fighting, had impressed upon me that I should always hit back. Calm discussion, a truce, those weren’t a family option. The worse thing, my father instructed, was to be “called a sonofabitch, which is an insult to your mother, and anyone who says that to you on a playground, you should hit them in the mouth, even if the school punishes you for it.” It’s like they were prepping me for a career in boxing. So my mother probably decided on-the-spot that wrestling WAS a good idea, a way to quickly bond with another boy my age. I don’t comprehend or agree with this line of thought, but hey, parents do worse damage to their kids and for all I know, the other boy was just as confused as we breathlessly rolled on the floor, our knees and elbows and chins colliding.

Watching Ms. Fonda, in her own sad but pragmatic words, bravely process how her childhood brought forth bulimia, misguided rebellion, many warped attempts to mold herself to the men in her life (and this she was still doing when married to Ted Turner) and ultimately, acceptance, I remembered that life’s long journey can be shaped by other people’s roadmaps or your own. I found my own. I ignored my Dad’s invocation to “get a skill, goddamn it, that means something, and tuck in your shirt, it’s more masculine, goddamn it” and went to college on a Journalism scholarship with scant help from them…I met a man whose smile made me happy and kept my parents at arm’s length until they understood I was happy and safe, employed and even finding a measure of succes in advertising…I never once asked for advice, because I intuited that it would be safe and no-risk and their decision for me would be to relocate my stifling hometown and live on their street.

So Jane Fonda’s story gave me permission to open one of those drawers. And now, I close it again.