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>The Truth About Antonio & Spider Webs

September 12, 2010


This first post recounts the last incident of physical abuse I was to suffer at Mom’s hands. The second is about discovering something important about myself. Both of them revolve around Mom’s increasingly heavy drinking and her dependence on sleeping pills. For obvious reasons, this scared  me. 

The Truth About Antonio

SNAPSHOT: This is my bedroom on the farm. A double bed, small closet, guitar in the corner, lamp, a desk and chair make up the room. Those are bloodstains on the light blue wall behind the bed. My blood.
It was just a few months after moving to the farm that Mom found out that she wasn’t Antonio’s only lover, and the discovery was devastating. She truly and deeply loved him and relied on him for emotional (as well as financial) support. He had opened the door to a new and exciting life, made her feel special, desirable, loved. She felt that their civil marriage, even though it was not a religious one, was proof of his devotion to her. She saw nothing but happiness ahead.
His betrayal of all this was sudden and brutal and after that discovery her life changed, as well as mine and Valerie’s. For Val, it meant the loss of someone who had become her second father, someone she trusted and looked up to. For me, I thought I now had to be “the man of the house” and it scared me. I didn’t know what that meant or how to be it.
But worst of all was what it did to Mom. Her drinking, which had been heavy but usually under control, now intensified. In addition, she turned to barbiturates to help blur the pain. The drink of choice was vodka and the barbiturate was Noctalyl, a mint-green pill the size of a dime. It was a heavy-duty sleeping pill that could be bought over-the-counter by anybody. Mom sent me regularly to the pharmacy to renew her supply. And they were cheap: twenty pesos ($1.60) a dozen.
Barbiturates had led to my dad’s death and I was scared seeing Mom go down the same path.
Mom’s verbal and emotional abuse of the two of us became harsher and more frequent. One day Mom was furious with me for something I had done or something I hadn’t done – I didn’t know which and it never really mattered. I was sitting on my bed, playing guitar when she burst into my room already in a rage. Immediately she began a torrent of vilification, her rage mounting by the moment. Ever since the tennis racket incident I’d become adept at gauging Mom’s anger. I put my guitar down because I knew what was coming, just as surely as I knew I couldn’t dodge it. I just didn’t know how the attack would be mounted this time.
Without warning, she leaped at me, grabbed my head, twisted it to the left and started smashing it repeatedly into the wall, my forehead taking the brunt of it. For however long it took (Ten seconds? An eternity?) there was nothing in my life outside the blast of pain, the jarred vision and blinding flashes of light that accompanied each thud of my head against the wall. Then it was over. She released my head and stood there and I could feel her hot breath panting in my face. Then she turned and left the room, her rage once again expended.
I sat on my bed for several minutes, dazed, ears ringing, not even
knowing I was bleeding until I looked at the wall and saw the blood stains. Shaking, I got to my feet and went into the bathroom to clean the contusions on my forehead with cool water.
            “Don’t you stain any of the washcloths!” came Mom’s voice through the door.
As usual, she never apologized, never mentioned what had happened. My one little bit of revenge was to leave the bloodstains on the wall. I wanted them as a reminder, to me. And to Mom.
Spider Webs
SNAPSHOT: The living room is finished and it looks great with its polished-granite fireplace, new furniture and rugs, and new doors and drapes. The final touch had been the painting of the living room and the pale yellow paint added a warn and cheery touch to the room.
When you’re sixteen, parents don’t always make sense under the best of circumstances. This was incomprehensible. I turned slowly, looking at our newly redone living room. Yesterday it was pristine with its polished granite fireplace, new furniture, rugs, drapes, and newly tiled floor. The freshly painted pale yellow walls had added warmth and cheer to the room. Now, there are sloppy swirls of black paint on the walls and black streaks where the paint has run and there’s black paint all over the floor. A large paint brush sits in a can of black paint. I know who did this: Mom. But why?
As I stared at each wall in turn, I saw what Mom was trying to do: paint cobwebs on them. Her mother, who had died when Mom was nine, had been very artistic, a poet, a painter, and a writer. Mom may have been inspired by this memory, may have visualized lacy, delicate, symmetrical black strands gracefully adorning the walls. But the only brush she could find was a painter’s three-inch brush. And she was drunk. Again.
She had gone on a drinking binge late the day before. Valerie, and I had long since learned to make ourselves scarce when Mom started drinking heavily, which was most of the time now. So when she started her binge, we retreated to our bedrooms. She continued drinking all evening and I could hear her crying at times and at others, singing along with records and music that she and Antonio used to dance to. Sometimes she would sing a song she made up, “Pass Around Girl.” I’m sure Val heard all this also but neither of us ventured out of our rooms all evening, not even for something to eat.
Only those who have been through it, children who have watched a parent do this to themselves, can understand what it’s like. I experienced fierce, conflicting emotions, and Valerie must have, also. For years we had been targets of Mom’s harsh and unrelenting criticisms, her verbal and emotional abuse, the occasional physical abuse. But in spite of this, I still loved her. Somewhere inside of me I recognized that she was struggling against all the pain in her life: the loss of Antonio; her perceived failure as a parent; her isolation; the recent loss of Felice; and a future that was bleak and discouraging.
Loathing was also present. I couldn’t stand what Mom had become. In my harsh, all-knowing, unforgiving teenage certainty, I hated her for being weak. Why didn’t she just put Antonio behind her and get on with her life? Why did she have to drink so heavily? And take so many pills? And stay in bed until eleven, twelve, one o’clock in the afternoon? Why couldn’t she just be like other kids’ moms?
I felt embarrassed whenever Mom, drunk, tried to talk to me about these things, or anything for that matter. I felt embarrassed when she yelled or cried or I heard things crashing. I felt embarrassed when she started singing or when I would find her dancing clumsily as I tried to make my way to the kitchen without being seen.
Fear was always present, fear of what Mom might do to herself, either intentionally or because of the drinking. Could you die from drinking too much? What if she decided to drive somewhere when she was drunk? What if she just decided to end it all and take all her sleeping pills at once, the sleeping pills she regularly asked me to purchase for her? As I look back, though, I think suicide was closed to Mom. Dad had already put us through that five years before and she couldn’t subject Valerie and me to that again. Could she? What would happen to us if she did? How would we get back to the States? Who would take us in? And now I wonder if the fact that that door was closed to her simply added to her misery; the pain in her life was unbearable and increasing daily but there was no way out.
There was also the uncertainty of what would happen to me. I was sixteen, on the verge of adulthood, but I was also a school drop-out with insufficient education and no skills, social or otherwise. I was locked in daily battles with Mom, battles that took a terrible toll on both of us.
Out of this particular binge, though, from the terrible black paint mess on the walls, came a revelation and hope, something that did much to begin changing the way I thought about myself.
* * *
 I don’t know what Valerie did that evening. I stayed in my room and eventually read myself to sleep. When I got up the next morning it was clear just how drunk Mom had become. Sometime during the night she got the idea that these spider webs were just what was needed, the finishing touch to the living room. Anywhere there was enough space on a wall, Mom had painted a web. On one large area she painted two floor-to-ceiling webs. Other webs were scaled down to fit the available space. She was intent on her task and oblivious to the black streaks running down the walls from the overloaded brush, oblivious to the paint dripping on the floor, oblivious to the mess she was creating.
While I stood in the front room the next morning, turning slowly, taking it all in and trying to understand how anyone could be so drunk, I heard Valerie come out of her room and turned to see her reaction. It mirrored mine. She turned completely around, staring incomprehensively at the disaster.
“What are you going to do, David?” Her voice was barely audible.
“We have to get the living room repainted. And we have to do it before she gets up.” I didn’t want a confrontation with Mom over something that obviously needed to be done. And I think maybe I was trying to spare her the embarrassment of seeing the botched mess she had made while drunk.
Two things worked in our favor. First, I knew Mom wouldn’t be up any time soon, probably not before mid-afternoon at the earliest. Second, the painter had said he would return this morning to be paid. We’d prevail on him to help us.
He arrived a little later, stepped into the living room and silently surveyed the scene, doing just as Val and I had done: turning slowly, taking it all in, trying to understand how anyone could be so drunk. He said nothing but his face wore a look of pained bewilderment that was eloquent in its silence.
“I need some help,” I told him, rather pointlessly.
“I can see that,” was his laconic reply. “Let’s get started.”
It took several hours to restore the living room walls. The painter gave Valerie a paint scraper and told her to start scraping the black paint off the floor. Then he and I sanded away as much of the black paint on the walls as we could. After we had vacuumed and cleaned the walls, I wanted to start painting, right away.
“Don’t you want to prime first?”
“No, there’s no time. We have to get this all done before my Mom gets up. If it doesn’t cover completely, I’ll put on another coat tomorrow.” I was surprising myself with an unknown ability to take charge, make decisions, act responsibly.
Four hours later we finally finished, cleaned up, and inspected our work. My sister had worked hard at her task and the floors were free of any traces of black paint. The painter left, saying he’d return tomorrow for his money. The living room looked pretty good.
SNAPSHOT: Mom stands in the doorway of her bedroom, holding to the door jamb. Her eyes are puffy, bloodshot. An old gray scarf covers her hair and her wrinkled lavender bathrobe is tied at the waist with the belt from her green robe. There were still yesterday’s Frownies in the space between her eyebrows, little adhesive triangles that were supposed to prevent wrinkles, something she’d used for years. She is expressionless, apathetic.
Eventually, the moment I’d been dreading arrived. Mom woke up and came out to the living room. My first hope was that she wouldn’t remember what she had done, that if she was drunk enough to do it, then maybe she had been too drunk to remember doing it. And if she did remember, I was braced for the worst, prepared once again to be her verbal, maybe physical, punching bag. But all she did was stand and look around her, much as the painter had done, and with much the same look on her face.
“Did you see what I painted?”
“Yes, I did, Mom.”
“You didn’t like it?”
 “No, Mom, there was paint all over everything and it dripped down the walls. It didn’t look good. “
“Did you repaint it?”
“Well, the painter and Val and I did. He came back to be paid and I asked him to stay and help me repaint. He’ll be back tomorrow for his money.”
There was disappointment reflected in her face. I know she felt that her artistic efforts were just the touch the room needed. She had emulated her mother.
I was relieved when she didn’t say anything more.
There are events in our lives where our self image comes into a much sharper focus than ever before. There’s a new clarity in how we see, understand, and appreciate ourselves. For me, the spider web episode was one such event. Like a light being turned on, one that should already have been burning brightly but wasn’t, I realized that what I had done was an act of responsibility, undertaken on my own. All the accusations Mom had hurled at me over the years, accusations that sapped my spirit while they poisoned my psyche, were proved false. Mom was wrong; she had been wrong all along. I drank deeply of this new revelation, savoring a new image of a strong, worthwhile me.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 13, 2010 6:38 pm

    >Back after my Sonoma adventure, returning to find the most powerful writing of this journal to date. Powerful in its ability to portray a conversion – a transition – from fear to control; powerful in its portrait of two people at the end of the controls in their lives; and powerful at expressing how deep both the fear and the love and the hatred co-exist and sometimes make us into someone much greater and sometimes just make us miserable…Never heard anything about the Antonio period, and the ending is tragic enough to make me understand a bit about why, considering the history of your mom's earlier years, I never did.I am glad you were able to become who you are now, both because of and in spite of all this.inwe nam

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