“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” – Tennessee Williams
Growing up, my house felt very sad. It never had the warmth and comfort of a home, at least not the way my young mind imagined a home to be. The perfect house in my mind was, like many other kids my age, the house the Brady Bunch lived in. When I used to play with Legos as a kid, I would try to build that house, playing out my fantasies of what it would be like to have Mike and Carol as parents with the large brood of kids to keep me entertained. I would rebuild their kitchen, family room, the bedrooms with the Jack and Jill bathroom. It was ideal. My house, in contrast, always felt something like a museum because of my mother’s obsession with superficial cleanliness. Every Saturday morning, while my mother would be handling insurance claims at the doctor’s office where she worked, I would lay in my bed, welcoming the respite from the typical wake-up call of her barging into my room with her vacuum cleaner. Up until the day I left for college, my mother insisted on cleaning my room because she did not believe I had the proper skills to make my bed or tidy up my clutter. My room, like the rest of my mother’s house, was stiff and uncomfortable. I was forbidden from sitting on my bed or messing up my room before bedtime. I had a TV in my room and, after school, I would often sit on the floor to watch it in fear that I would be chastised for messing up the perfectly laid bedspread. There was order everywhere, a stark contradiction to the abundant disorder that ran through the bloodstream of our lives. I understood, from early on, that my mother’s OCD was a response to the deep level of chaos that surrounded her own life and, by extension, our lives.
When I started high school, my mother and I moved from the house I had been born and grown up in. We were alone then, just her and I, and she wanted to release herself from the burdens of home ownership in exchange for a nice, low-maintenance condo. While my mother feigned poverty, she managed to sell the house, buy a condo, decorate it with all new furnishings and create a new life for herself. I was the only reminder of the life she was seemingly leaving behind in our little row house in Queens, NY. It was that house that held some of my favorite and many of my worst memories. It was in that house that my mother forced my brother to live in the cold garage that was attached to our basement, installing a dead-bolt on the door to ensure that he would not be able to enter the house without her permission. He was not to be trusted, she insisted, and all her concerns were validated by the therapist who claimed “he has a con artist personality.” My brother was a broken soul. He bore witness to the abuse my father so readily inflicted on my mother each and every time he downed a bottle of gin to drown his own pain. My brother went from being a sweet precocious young boy, adoring and protective of his little sister, to an angry, hollow teen who could not handle school, sought refuge with the wrong kids, managed to impregnate his girlfriend at age 15 (with whom he consummated his love in that cold dark garage) and finally ran off to join the Navy before he properly secured a high school degree. Starting when he was in elementary school, my mother would equally condemn him and make excuses for him, ultimately determining that he was unfixable. His growing machismo, in an effort to take over the role of the man of the house after my father left, was an emulation of my father’s abusive behavior. He was aggressive and my mother feared him so she locked him up like an animal at the zoo. Her attempt to regain control was to marginalize and strip him of any dignity he might have had left.
We left our modest 3 bedroom house, the house where, in good times, I used to lay on the floor in the living room watching my favorite TV shows of the 70’s when my parents were still together. The same house where I snuck into my mother’s room when she was sleeping to take money out of her wallet when I was a burgeoning adolescent in order to have money to buy clothes. After my parents divorced, my mother insisted that she could no longer afford to provide these items for me and demanded that I work in order to have money to take care of myself. Her belief was that 12, 13 or 14 was old enough to begin contributing to the household and, regardless of her financial state, I needed to learn to be responsible. In rebellion, I would frequently tip toe into her bedroom and scour her dresser drawers in search of her latest hiding place for her wallet. She figured out pretty quickly that $20 bills were disappearing from her wallet – big money in the 80’s. She always seemed to have so many of them in her wallet that my young brain did not understand how she could possibly miss a few. I stockpiled the money in my room as if I was building a nest egg in order to finance my escape from prison. I did not have the good sense to save the money for college or to put it in a bank account. This was war and I simply needed it for basic supplies. I needed the money to buy clothes. I needed the money to make sure that I could do the same things that all my friends were able to do – go out for pizza after school, attend field trips, buy little trinkets to make me feel happy. I needed the money to feel normal.
My mother and I played this game for a long time. She would find what she believed to be better and better hiding places and I would search that much more furiously to desperately secure that money. In between my scavenger hunts my mother would call me a thief, being sure to strip me of any self-esteem I might have managed to develop along the way. I was a low-life who stole money from her mother. In contrast, when my 12 year-old son started middle school this year and began asking me for money to go into town with his friends on Friday afternoons, I revisited my financial pursuits as a teenager and imagined how different it might have been if my mother had simply opened her wallet for me and handed me some cash to allow me to live like a normal teen. If my mother had not repeatedly reminded me that her depression-era immigrant parents never gave her money when she was a teen and, instead, looked to do better for her children than her parents had done, perhaps it all would have been different. Perhaps I would not have grown up to believe that I was a derelict who took money from her own mother. Maybe I would not perceive myself to be a deviant who could not resist the temptation of all those $20 bills and the freedom that they represented in my immature mind. My son, never worries about money. He stockpiles the change he gets from the $20’s I dole out to him, never tapping into his supply before he comes back looking for a refill. And he and I also play a little game with each other because I know where he keeps his wallet, packed tight with bills that he is saving for no apparent reason. I pretend I do not know that he never dips into his bucket of money hiding under his bed and he never feels the need to sneak around the house in search of my wallet which typically lays unprotected in my purse in the kitchen every night.
The house we left also was the place that we had family bbqs when my father still lived at home and all the neighbors congregated in our yard, drinking and eating and having fun. As I grew older and the house became quiet and we became isolated from my father’s gregarious Italian family, I longed for those days, wishing we could be a part of something again. Year after year we moved further away from our connections to people because my mother became more angry and more depressed and could not find a way to assimilate with others. Unless she had a boyfriend to raise her spirits, we would spend long stretches living our quiet, miserable life, barely speaking and separate from the rest of the world.
During the summers, I would set myself up in a lawn chair in the backyard and would read every book I could get my hands on. In that yard of that house, I would escape to worlds that allowed me to imagine different realities. In those books I learned what normal might be. I learned how girls were supposed to be. The volumes of Judy Blume novels that I absorbed helped me to understand some of the complexities of the pre-teen and teenage mind. I found solace and solidarity. I attempted to find acceptance.
In that house, that modest little house with its flat roof, cracked front steps, beautiful rose bushes, the house where I fell down the back steps and ended up with stitches, the house that should have held all of my precious childhood memories. In that house, in between the crevices, I grew up and learned all about life. In that house my life began and my life was stolen away. Right there in that house. The house I will treasure and the house I will long to forget.