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January 16, 2011

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Those of you who have read my other blog about my teen years growing up in 1950s Mexico will recognize the essay that follows, although it’s in a slightly different form here. If you’ve not read it, I invite you to do so: http://www.dbl-exposure.blogspot.com.

Spider Webs

When you’re sixteen, parents don’t always make sense under the best of circumstances. This was incomprehensible. I turn 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. My nine-year-old sister 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, the lover who had jilted her, 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, our cat who had accompanied us four years before on our move from LA to Guadalajara, where we now lived; 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. 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.
Eventually, the moment I’d been dreading arrived. Mom woke up and came out to the living room. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. An old gray scarf covered her hair and her wrinkled lavender bathrobe was 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 Mom had used for years.
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.
________________________________________________________________

Aren’t they wet all the time anyway?

__________________________________________________________________________________

IF ONLY I COULD DRAW!



Cartoon #43: A father cabbage is having a talk with his son: “Remember, son, you have to work hard to get a head.”





Cartoon #50: Aerial view of two stores across the street from each other. The far one has a big sign advertising its name: “99¢ Store”. The one across the street has an equally big sign advertising its name: “98¢ Store”.



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Finally, I invite you to take a listen to my new online program, Vintage Rock, rock ‘n roll from the 50s and 60s. It’s on kbcs.fm. Click on “streaming audio”, scroll down to Vintage Rock, select my name, it enter and then listen. If you have a request or a dedication, email me at davesvintagerock@gmail.com.



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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 6:37 am

    >I had a vintage rock once, but then I sold it at the 97 cent store for a 3% profit. But I could never get it on the radio. (I did set on the TV once, though.)Punic Sonsoj

  2. January 17, 2011 3:19 pm

    >It's funny, if not downright weird, how lives parallel – I had a vintage roll once and went thru the same experiences. So sad …

  3. January 17, 2011 5:27 pm

    >I have neither a rock nor a roll, but I do have you two, both vintage. I don't think I'll get much profit, though…

  4. January 18, 2011 3:09 pm

    >Imagine! Here we have a poor waif with neither rock nor roll. Alert the authorities!

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