When I left California for Georgia with two small kids in tow, I imagined the change would enable me to build a life filled with love, family and financial stability. That this was the polar opposite of reality at the time didn’t dampen my expectations a bit.
While people who become actual adults have learned to not always expect fantastical results from ordinary things, I preferred a more optimistic vision of life than one entirely grounded in reality.
Months prior to my cross-country move, a rare moment of clarity collided with this optimistic delusion when I thought to myself, “Girl, you can stick with the reliable paycheck and be miserable for the rest of your life, or ditch the narcissist now and maybe get a real husband in a year or two.”
Well, I actually didn’t understand the narcissism thing at the time. I more likely used another word. Like, self-involved asshole. I was 25, and even after several years of marriage (yep – I said several years…I did indeed make a “forever” decision while still in my teens) I didn’t have a clue about relationships. Or men. Or people whose dysfunction interferes with healthy relationships.
Oh, hey – that applied to me, too. 😀 Still does sometimes.
Once I made the decision to bail on my folly of a marriage, I broke the news to my future ex. He agreed divorce was a splendid idea. Five minutes later he was a single guy, partying with a new apartment, new roommates and a new car.
I wasn’t partying so much as I was simply enjoying the peace of no longer bickering over every damn decision. They were all mine, as was responsibility for the kids I chose to bring into the world even after their dad made it clear he didn’t think they qualified as humans until they were at least five.
Single parenting was a burden I fully deserved. I tried like hell to keep things going, but math was not on my side. Crappy job + OK child support < (housing + utilities + child care + car + insurance + groceries) * SoCal.
The only good thing about being broke in Southern California is that I could go to the beach pretty much for free. I’d lay in the sand, close my eyes, and listen to the waves pound the shore over and over and over.
The beach didn’t fix anything, but it at least took the edge off. I mean, I never cut myself or resorted to drugs and alcohol, and during this post-split/pre-Georgia time, those beach trips were pretty much my only break from obsessive worry.
From time to time, Grandma (my mom’s mom) would call me from Georgia to check in and give me her best sales pitch. “Come – just come” she’d say. “I have a house and three acres. There’s plenty of room for you and the kids, and lots for them to do. You can stay here until you get on your feet.”
It sounded so easy, and like the right thing to do. But I didn’t want to move the kids if I didn’t have to. Besides, I was working hard at finding their replacement daddy. Well, I was until I discovered that getting someone to marry even a relatively good-looking 25-year-old – one that came with the added bonus of instant fatherhood – was not gonna happen. Which didn’t take long.
In retrospect, I’m grateful that none of these relationships(?) worked out. I had totally dubious criteria: whatever was 180° opposite my ex was good. Buff & sexy but dumb, and with a low-paying job? Sign me up! Well, I didn’t go for the dumb ones, exactly. I just wasn’t wise enough to realize that it is pretty much part and parcel of being buff and sexy, leading to low-paying jobs.
Once I grew weary of auditioning future husbands, and even more broke, and then fearful of the environment the ex brought the kids into every other weekend (“Lay down, guys – dad will tuck you in as soon as he finishes smoking this bowl”), I decided to take my grandmother up on her offer.
A little backstory: Dad vs. Grandma
Growing up, outsiders brought a weird but good kind of juju to our house. Anger and hostility almost always vanished when they arrived. We kids were like prison inmates at visitation time, greeting visitors with a level of enthusiasm they might have found entertaining if it weren’t for our deplorable confines.
Grandma, even though she was a relative, was an outsider. Might have been because she wasn’t my dad’s mom, but more likely is that her efforts to help our family angered my dad. He wasn’t the kind of guy who made many friends anyway, but a caretaking woman who’d successfully supported her entire family without the help of her husband? What’s more, she was Protestant ???? Better keep that crap at a distance.
Dad was prideful, viewing any attempt to improve our situation as an indictment of his failure to provide. Six kids. A mom that was checked out most of the time. A filthy house in a continual state of disrepair. No super high-paying job to help with any of this. But no, Dad – we’re fine and you’re doing awesome.
One year, Grandma wanted to buy us a dishwasher for Christmas. Seemed every time she came over, one or the other of us kids was doing dishes for eight. If you were over about five years old you qualified for KP. Too short to reach the sink? Shut up and stand on a chair.
Grandma knew my dad would get upset if she simply bought the dishwasher, so she tried to make a case for it. As the washer of all dishes my younger siblings had declared “too hard” to wash, I hoped my deepest hope that Dad would acquiesce. I knew in my heart, though, that it was not to be.
“I don’t need a dishwasher!” he growled. “I’ve got five” he said, waving his hand at us kids.
If my vocabulary was large enough then to sling an F-bomb that would have been my first.
Grandma is all things good
Though Dad’s resentful attitude meant Grandma had no sway with him, it was good that she was an outsider, at least in my child’s mind. She represented the world outside our house – the one I thought was normal (ah, the delusions of youth 🙂 ).
Grandma’s arrival – especially on a Friday night – was always cause for celebration. It often meant that one or two of us would accompany her home, getting a weekend respite from our filthy house, unruly siblings and unpredictable parents.
Grandma was, to me, everything wonderful our home life lacked: love, hugs, food, bubble baths followed by lilac-scented body powder, and sometimes sweets (verboten at our house). Even though my grandfather was gruff, and demanding of Grandma, he never frightened me as much as my dad did.
I know now that my grandfather was an alcoholic who hadn’t worked a day since the early ’50s. At the time, though, his crazy rhymes, bizarro non-sequiturs and abrupt dinner table naps were just a funny kind of normal to me. My grandparents, dysfunctional though they were, seemed more like family to me than my immediate family.
The crazy train is now departing
During my freshman year of high school, things at our house fell apart completely. I might write about that sometime, but it’d take a novel. Not a fun one, either. For now, imagine some missing characters, a series of bizarre walk-on personalities, and no real adult supervision.
For years before this more-complete brokenness, waves of dysfunctional actions and reactions regularly swept in and out. Things like alcoholism, infidelity and abandonment.
One morning I was startled awake by my father.
“Your mother’s gone.” He stood beside my bed and spat out the words abruptly. Angrily. Accusingly.
“And if you’re going to leave you can get out now,” he added.
Um…I’m 12, dad.
Eventually Grandma, feeling powerless to fix what was happening, retired from her job and moved to her home state – Georgia. Grandpa passed away during my sophomore year of high school, leaving Grandma free. I thought.
I’m certain now that my grandmother purchased that large home to “rescue” us, or at least as many of us as she could. With eyes of a child, I completely missed her severe codependency.
As a young adult, except for letters and the occasional visit, Grandma was absent from my life. When I realized my marriage would never approach the grand partnership I’d imagined at 17 (go ahead and laugh – I am), Grandma was there – seeming to offer everything that was lacking in the life I’d arranged for myself.
Agnes’s Home for Unwed Mothers, Est. 1988
By the time I accepted Grandma’s offer and set out for Georgia, a younger sibling who’d been in and out of trouble (and was now newly-divorced with a 6-month-old) had also landed there. Soon after I arrived, another sister came – pregnant, fresh out of an abusive marriage and with a six-year-old in tow.
Grandma quickly found herself the matron of a home for dysfunctional unwed mothers. It was a role she was ill-equipped to fill, but she tried her damnedest.
Oh, lort did she try.
Face to face with Grandma every day, I saw the severe codependency I’d ’til then completely missed. My troubled sibling continued her downward spiral, and also became pregnant again. Grandma tried to control her, tried to somehow fix all the messes she’d invited into her home, only growing angrier by the day as almost nothing lined up according to her plan.
Though the kids and I had a roof over our heads and food to eat, we lived in circumstances that no sane person would find comfortable. Gross naiveté helped me into that crazy living situation. If I’d been a little wiser, a bit more realistic, I might never have moved to Georgia. And then what?
I couldn’t afford to live in L.A., much less finish college there or buy a house. The kids would have benefitted in some ways, and lost out in others. For better or worse, they wouldn’t have had the friends, experiences and spouses that are now part of their lives.
And I would never have met Brian.
Brian also moved to Georgia with expectations that didn’t all pan out. Thank goodness, because one of the major ones was a woman.
It’s safe to say my expectations of life in Georgia were more unrealistic, but if Brian had known beforehand that his kids called his girlfriend “She Devil,” he might have checked his head.
If you are, as Brian was, working to raise responsible, well-adjusted children and yet acquiescing to cutting the crusts off a sandwich for the girlfriend’s child so he’ll stop having a meltdown because he DOESN’T – cough snivel gulp cry – LIKE – snivel gulp cough cry – THE CRUST, that ought to be a red flag even if you completely missed the fact that your girlfriend is a She Devil.
Today, Sunday, the 18th of June, I’m struggling to accept seemingly very negative situations with a couple of our kids. I don’t mean to be cryptic, but writing about them publicly right now would do no one any good.
I will say that no terminal illness, jail time or gender reassignment surgery is involved, and it’s nothing that will alter our choice to hit the road. So it could be worse.
I’m editing this post from a hotel room in Nashville. I’ve been on the road for the last few days thinking I’d help deal with one difficult situation, but I discovered it’s more involved than I thought. I’m not sure there’s anything I can do.
On a head level, I understand that there’s nothing in this world that’s without some redeeming quality. Difficult life experience has certainly shown me that. Yet in my heart I’m grieving because moms (and grandmas) are supposed to protect kids from harm, or at least make it all better.
It’s a lot easier to pontificate about life’s imperfections when they aren’t stomping the shit out of your heart. As I drive home today I’ll be working on drying my eyes and accepting that these negatives will eventually have their metamorphosis.
Good thing it’s a long drive.
Maybe I should also thank the universe for providing a current, real-life mettle-testing opportunity around the very topic I’d already chosen and mostly written.
Pffft – no. I know there’s a lesson in this but I can’t be grateful for it just yet.
Note to self
Life is a collection of interconnected bits I can’t separate from the whole. Even if it came with ⌘/CTRL + Z and I could magically undo all the decisions that seemed lousy on the whole, I couldn’t reverse those choices without undoing an awful lot of good.
Instead of being disappointed when it doesn’t live up to the perfectly arranged scenario I’d hoped for, I need to remember that even unquestionably negative things have their place.