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May 23, 2010


This piece, and some that will follow, detail the abuse, emotional and physical, I suffered at Mom’s hands. But I’ve always kept in mind that  we are who and what we are both because of and in spite of the way we were raised. Granted, mom did many things to me over the years, but she also did so very much for me, and it’s the latter that remains important in my life. She made sure I had many of the qualities and abilities needed to succeed in life, and I have. Thanx, Mom.

Good Mom, Bad Mom

SNAPSHOT: The coffee table and the yellow leather easy chair have been pushed against a wall and Mom and I are making up silly dances to the music coming out of our big Capehart radio console.
One night when I was seven Mom and I were sitting in our front room. Mom was listening to music while working on a hooked rug and I was reading when a popular song came on, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” I loved that song and I began singing along, joined by Mom. Soon we started making up a silly dance to go with the song. When “Coconuts” ended, another popular song “Charlie, My Boy,” came on and we continued dancing and singing. Soon we were laughing so hard we couldn’t dance anymore and we had to stop. When we recovered, Mom turned off the radio and took out a set of 78 RPM records of Strauss waltzes. She took some matchbooks and placed them on the floor and began showing me how to waltz. “Pretend these are your feet, David,” she said, moving the matchbooks in a waltz pattern on the floor to demonstrate. Then we waltzed until I had the steps down and then she put on another record and showed me the Charleston.
I remember Mom as relaxed, fun to be around. She used to compliment me on my looks, my sense of humor, my intelligence; all the things loving parents do to encourage their children and instill confidence in them.
But something happened, something I didn’t understand then and still do not. This mom’s place was taken by a mom who began using verbal and emotional abuse to instill fear and obedience in her two children rather than confidence. She changed, changed so much that I more often feared than loved her. After a while I began to wonder if I loved her at all. I used to stand in my room, eyes closed, and insist to myself that yes, I loved Mom. Then I’d open my eyes and see if I felt any different, see if there was a feeling of love. Shouldn’t I feel it? Shouldn’t I feel different? I never did and I wondered anew: Do I really love Mom? Then would come the guilt and I’d think, no wonder she’s always mad at me.
This new, to-be-feared mom, didn’t yet abuse my sister and me physically (that would come later), although one of Mom’s favorite ways of showing her displeasure with me when we were in public or when others were present, was to grab the soft underside of my upper arm and squeeze hard, her long nails sinking painfully into the flesh. I knew better than to cry out or protest as she pulled me towards her. Even more intimidating than this was her face, her eyes aiming anger, her mouth drawn hard and tight.
The smiles turned to anger. The laughter disappeared, replaced with tension and anxiety. Compliments became criticism – frequent, strong and harsh. The encouragement turned to disparaging remarks about how worthless I was. It was no longer fun to be with Mom. I carry two mental snapshots of her. In the first she’s smiling, relaxed and happy, secure in herself. In the second something has changed and now she is scowling; tension and anger have replaced confidence.
In Mexico, Mom’s criticisms continued unabated. She regularly accused me of being spineless, thoughtless, lazy, selfish, lacking ambition and generally worthless. Valerie, being younger and being around Mom a lot more, and never Mom’s favorite, must have fared even worse. Even though I carry no first-hand memories of witnessing or overhearing Mom’s criticisms of my sister, of any punishments she handed out, I know, and I know without a doubt, they happened. If I use my experience as a yardstick, Valerie must have endured far more than I ever did over the years.
Mom criticized my physical appearance. She sewed shut the pockets of my pants so I wouldn’t put my hands in them. She accused me of slouching all the time and she would stand behind me, grab my shoulders and pull back on them, hard, at the same time forcing my head up. “How many times have I told you to stand up straight! You’re always slouching! I swear, I’m going to make you wear a back brace!”
Even things I had absolutely no control over were fair game for her criticism. She didn’t like my chin, claiming it was “weak,” “Push your chin out. You look like Andy Gump!” Andy Gump was a comic strip character with no chin, and I mean none. For a while I tried doing as Mom demanded, pushing out my lower jaw, but it was a forced action, unnatural; I had to consciously hold it there; as soon as I forgot about it, it returned to its natural position.
Mom also compared me to Caspar Milquetoast, another comic strip character. Milquetoast was a meek and timid man, too timid even to climb through his own window when his wife locked him out of the house. These two characterizations were repeated so often that I began to detest my appearance and internalize a perception of myself as meek and timid. It was a perception I couldn’t shake. Those inflicted perceptions and images die hard, if they die at all. I’ve had a beard most of my adult life to hide my “weak” chin.
SNAPSHOT: This photo, from our family album, was taken in the chapel at Valerie’s school, Colegio Guadalupe, when she was seven. It was a special occasion, her First Communion. The picture shows Mom and Dana Ryan, Val’s godmother, kneeling in the front row of the chapel. I was in the picture, too, until Mom took a pair of scissors and snipped me out.
            When I was ten I developed a tic in my right eye, a bad one. One more thing for Mom to criticize and she harped on it regularly, even cutting me out of family photos after pointing out how I’d ruined them.
Nor did Mom like the way I talked. Not what I said, but how I said it. I could rarely say anything without Mom interrupting. “Don’t talk through your nose, David! No one can ever understand a word you’re saying! And for heaven’s sake, don’t talk so fast! Slow down!” At other times it was, “Enunciate! E-nun-ci-ate!” I didn’t even know what “enunciate” meant, but I came to hate the word. I wondered if she ever really listened to what I had to say.
Her criticisms were hurled at me like shots from a sling. Intended to hurt, over time those words became me, were me: incompetent, lazy, shiftless, thoughtless, careless, inadequate – all words that Mom used to define and describe me. The words came in flavors. Ridicule. Sarcasm. Intimidation. Anger. And whatever the word is for criticism that goes so far beyond being criticism that it’s more like being poisoned, suffocated, trapped in a world whose circumscriptions are externally imposed and unrelenting in their reminders: you can’t, you never could, you never will. Years later, towards the end of Mom’s life, the words were still occasionally flung at me but they no longer had any power to compel obedience or force compliance. They provoked none of the fear that comes when confronted by somebody who is all-powerful and who has convinced you that you have many faults, all of your own doing. Far from being the sharp, steel-shafted barbs that penetrated and wounded when I was younger, these words had all of the show but none of the sting. They fell short and clattered to the ground, puny reminders that their hurler was old, tired, weak, and bitter and wanted nothing more than to die.
* * * * *
SNAPSHOT: My reflection stares back at me in the bathroom mirror, face, neck, chest covered with pimples. Many of the pimples on my face are bleeding, sheared off with the Gillette razor in my hand.
            As a teen, my weak chin and my eye tic and the way I talked acquired a fourth partner: acne. My face, back, chest and neck were covered with pimples, a genetic problem I inherited from my Dad. I hated to look at myself in the mirror and I hated myself when I did. The pimples were painful and disgusting to look at and Mom never let me forget it. Shaving was a nightmare. The razor, sharp or dull, scraped over the lumpy, pock-marked terrain of my face leaving blood and pain in its wake. It was a road grader shearing off all the non-conforming features.
Mom put the blame for my acne squarely on my shoulders. Candy in my room, ice cream, butter on my toast, or a chocolate bar invariably set her off. “It’s no wonder you’re covered from head to toe with pimples!” she hurled at me, adding guilt to the crushing load of pain and embarrassment I already carried. Worse, far worse, she was determined to get rid of them the only way she knew how: squeeze them until they pop. It made no difference that I protested or screamed with pain, or that her “treatment” only made the problem worse. I began to believe she did it as much to punish me for what she considered my lack of will power as for anything else. Did she take a perverse kind of pleasure in doing this? Any part of my body attacked by acne was attacked vigorously by Mom. It was an ongoing battle between Mom and my pimples and I was the battlefield.

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