I get my news from the radio. When I’m working at home I have it on most of the time. The way my brain works, it’s easier for me to focus on one thing if I am tuning out other things. (Do they have a name for that? I’m not too concerned. It works to my advantage.) Anyway, I’m not always listening. I hear everything. I’m monitoring, but my mind is elsewhere.
So forgive my lack of detail with this snippet I heard the other weekend. An actress of the golden age of theater died. She was never in a movie so they didn’t list her in the Died On… page on IMDb—I looked. There was a memorial service at The Actors Studio and someone, I think it was Lauren Bacall, gave a eulogy about how nothing this woman did was ever up to her own standards. She was better than most of the rest, but never happy with herself. “She’d rather not do something at all than do it less than perfectly,” is the comment I remember.
This is my nightmare self. It’s the predominant character trait I fear I’ve inherited from my mother. It’s why she never really established herself professionally and I believe it’s why she never remarried. She trained as a chef at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, but she cannot tolerate the politics of restaurant work. She has an incredible aesthetic eye and mentored under a master of interior design, but she becomes depressed working with clients who either out of ignorance or budgetary constraints refuse to give her a free hand.
I sympathize with some of them. The relentlessness of her vision can resemble that of Robespierre. But I know something they haven’t been around long enough to see. It’s a frustrating fact. She’s always right. Not about everything. Let’s not get carried away. But aesthetically speaking, her decisions are impeccable. Regarding any other area of life, not so much.
My mother’s family, all eleven children, they’re storytellers. Each one doesn’t always talk as much as the next, but all of them have a separate version of our family history. I’m fairly sure they get it from my grandmother, who about twenty years ago began insisting that we’re Norweigan even though she makes borscht and except my two blond-haired blue-eyed uncles—who I like to call the milkman’s sons—all of her children are dark and Slavic looking.
Everything is colorful, but you just never know fact from fiction with these people. So what I’ve gathered about my mother’s early life, it’s a contentious narrative. She says my uncle John, her older brother, used to wrap her in mattresses in the summertime to sweat off her baby fat when she was a teenager. She says he made her run and followed in his truck holding a switch in case she slowed down. Then when she started high school in the fall, he told her to go out with certain boys…from whom she eventually found out he was collecting a finder’s fee.
Uncle John and my dad were best friends. They have matching circular white burn marks on their respective right and left forearms from a pissing contest involving hot coals from a campfire. Bad boys from the not so wrong side of the tracks. I can see how easily she fell for him. I realize he never had half a chance once she decided. From the beginning, I’m betting every decision was hers, one way or another. All he could do was ruin it.
I see the whole thing. And who could blame them? They were young. They didn’t know what the Hell they were doing. But at some point they had been in love and too much damage has been done to ever go back. That’s the guilt that haunts both of them. For her, it’s not only the cracked vision of what her life was supposed to be like, but everything he’s ever done that’s hurt me. Because she chose him. Talk about weighty consequences.
Speaking of which, I had to ditch my shrink. I tried to fire her a couple of times and ultimately I had to pull a Houdini. We were never a perfect match. I used to tell my friends anecdotes about her commentary from our sessions and while they laughed they all agreed that I had to get rid of her. When I quit my job and forfeited my fancy health insurance, I broached the subject. She pulled out the big guns. She said, “But we still haven’t figured out why you’re not married. You’re an attractive, intelligent girl and there has to be a reason.”
That alone was pretty horrifying. Combine it with her suggestion that I make extra money by driving a taxi in the middle of a fuel crisis and her insistence on hugging me at the end of our sessions and I think anyone would understand my decision to disappear once I moved last November. But I haven’t stopped thinking about what she said. Although perhaps not in the way she intended.
Blanche never has let go of her penchant for perfection. When she was my age now and I noticed she had some cellulite on her thigh, I asked her what it was. She told me she’d been hit by a truck and that was where the bumper had made impact. When I got cellulite I thought I was deformed. It took me a while to put it together that all of the women in our family—most of the women in the world—suffer an imperfection that my mother could never admit to. I tortured myself for years over that one.
Not wishing to continue the trend, instead of questioning why I wasn’t married I began to wonder if I even wanted to get married. If it was for me. I know I’ve never had a relatively decent role model for a healthy relationship. Indeed, because of all the bad examples I’ve seen, I became terrified by the idea. I started to realize that the reason I wasn’t married or hadn’t had anything you could call a successful relationship was that I didn’t want it. Not enough to be honest with myself about my petrified state.
With such an intense fear of failure instilled in me, I’ve trained myself not to attempt that which I am not confident of mastering. But lately, when I look at my mother’s mistakes against the ones I won’t let myself make, I feel like I’m treading water…getting nowhere fast. Because she has me. And my life, while full of friends, is largely empty of anything closer. I have her, but for how long?
There are things I do to prevent myself from getting too involved romantically. For a long time I wasn’t aware that I was doing them, but slowly I’m pulling back the curtain on my wizard within. Some of my tactics are motivated by mortifying adolescent experiences, some I learned from my mother, and others are clearly textbook maneuvers. My specialty, I don’t know where I picked it up. But I swear I’ve got a vibe going that blasts “Go Away!” to attractive or even minorly interesting men. I’m fairly sure I can hit you from 80 yards.
So I’ve been thinking about what I would like to have happen for me, you know, in the grand scheme of life. And I would like to be close to someone, marriage or not. Since I’m the only force stopping this from happening, more personality sifting must ensue. I am my own therapist, for now. We can only hope it works. I’ve found that given enough time people can surprise you, even the ones you think you know inside out. And I’d like to think I’m capable of surprising myself.
I was on the phone with Blanche the other day, telling her of my little epiphany, when I asked her how she felt about it. If she wanted to get married again. Her response was about what I expected. She said, “I don’t want to settle for just anyone. If the right man were to come along, I’d be open to it, of course.” This is what I used to say on the subject. What? Me? I don’t have a problem. Oh, no, it’s these men. I’m dubbing it The Prince Charming Defense. Because there’s nothing like a good offense.