MY MOTHER REMAINED under her blanket of depression, rarely leaving the living room couch. Her world revolved around television, food, pills, and juggling bills. She vigilantly divided our scarce money into little white envelopes.
Since my mother and grandmother had become recluses, I became their connection with the outside world. Mother had given up on men and any hope of ever getting a job. Memories of my father became her lover. Like a sunny day, I became an occasional diversion. Grandmother seemed content with her Bible, cigarettes, and television sports.
God, the New York Yankees, and wrestling matches with Gorgeous George on the small black-and-white TV were everything my grandmother ever needed. There she’d be, elbows extended out over her large, oblong breasts as she rested them on her little, bony knees, her rosary beads hanging from her left hand, cigarette hanging from her lips, right hand balled up into a fist, shaking it at the TV screen screaming “Kill him, kill him!” as Gorgeous George would lift his opponent over his head and slam him onto the mat. Sometimes she got so excited that her false teeth fell out of her mouth right onto the floor, sending me and my brother into fits of laughter.
It was such an incongruent sight to behold, as she was otherwise the meekest woman that I had ever known, never raising her voice. When the wrestling match was over, she shuffled into the tiny kitchen, shut the door, and read her Bible, which concluded her afternoon ritual. Her behavior and the sequence of her actions never once seemed unusual to her, nor did she understand our uproarious laughter during these most prized sporting events.
I spent enormous amounts of energy thinking of ways to entertain them. Anything to make them smile. I felt sad that their lives seemed so profoundly bleak. Making up stories for entertainment, I embellished on little things that happened throughout my day. Constantly searching for ways to ease my mother’s unhappiness and abate her angry outbursts consumed much of my energy. Like a regurgitating parrot, I told her what she wanted to hear, that she was a wonderful mother and I was so very grateful to be her daughter, blah, blah, blah.
I continued my placating behaviors for years after moving away from home. Playacting and appeasing became a second nature to me. After my mother died, I ran across some of the letters that I had sent her. I felt sick when I read what I had written: words drenched in phony “happy talk” and dripping with flattery. In every letter, I gave her a report of my current weight, apologetic if I weighed one pound over the amount with which she felt comfortable. During my teenage years, perhaps because her own weight ballooned toward the two hundred-pound mark as she sank deeper into her plastic-covered couch, she became obsessed with my weight. For some obscure reason, my mother equated my weight with my value as a person, and I tried to accommodate her.
During my entire childhood, my brother Ronnie was the family hero. He alone held our mother’s attention and delight. Because I also adored him, I never questioned his special place. He was my hero as well.
After Ronnie left for the Marines, I suddenly replaced him as the unlikely family hero. Like the bull’s-eye on a target, Mother now focused fully on me. Her unexpected attention was both thrilling and disconcerting: thrilling because I had her undivided attention, and disturbing because she now honed in on my physical appearance. She began lightening my hair. She thought that blondes fared better in the world of men. We chatted like girlfriends as she applied the bleach while I blew smoke rings from Grandma’s Kool cigarettes. Suddenly, I felt special. Heady stuff for a thirteen-year-old. Still, a part of me knew that I couldn’t trust this camaraderie. One night, when I was fifteen, I came home from a date filled with delight because “Johnny” had said that I was pretty. I told my mother what he had said.
Mother quipped, “Dawn, you are not pretty. You are interesting-looking, but you are certainly not pretty.” Her words hurt my feelings, but she was my mother, after all, so she must know the truth. Years later, a therapist asked me what I saw when I looked in a mirror. I replied, “A cheap-looking blonde with hard eyes.”
I joined my mother in her all-out effort to make me pretty, even if it seemed she owned me like one owns chattel. I felt like she was grooming her property for some future payoff on her investment. I hated her. I loved her. I needed her. I needed her desperately. I hated her.
I felt smothered in her expectations, demands, melancholy and unspoken depression. I desperately wanted to escape.
Except for those times when I could entertain her with embellished stories or she was engaged in dissecting my appearance, she was lost in the plastic beige couch and her memories. Her obsession with the loss of my biological father was stunning: she glowed every time she heard the popular song “Who’s Sorry Now?”
While she obsessed about her one and only love, I obsessed about the day, the hour, and the method of my escape from her tentacles.
When that day arrived, I told my mother I wanted to move out. She became unhinged. “Mom, I will be getting an apartment with a girlfriend when I graduate.”
“What did you just say, Dawn?” I noticed that her face had suddenly turned dark.
“I said that I am moving out, Mom.”
Her voice became shrill, sounding only partially human. She screamed, “Why you ungrateful little brat, I have given up my entire life for you. I have sacrificed everything to give you a name and a home. How dare you talk to me this way?”
Recoiling from the blast, I pleaded, “Mom, Mom, I do appreciate everything that you have done for me, but I just want to begin my own life when I turn eighteen.”
She continued screaming: “Your life! Your life! You don’t have a life. You will stay here and contribute to this family. We need the money, do you understand me? Where do you get off being so selfish?”
As compensation for her sacrifices, I would be expected to give her my paycheck—“under the table,” of course. That way we wouldn’t lose any of our welfare benefits. “Mom, pleeease, I just want to start my own life.”
Shrieking, my mother yelled, “Now you listen to me, young lady, I don’t want to hear another word out of your dirty mouth. As of today, you’re restricted to this house until you start thinking straight. You may go to work and school, but nothing else. Do you understand?”
I had not been on restriction since junior high school. I came and went at whatever hours I wanted. Although I had always called my mother with the phone numbers of where I would be, she never suggested a curfew. So now she was placing me on restriction because I wanted to start my own life? I was furious with what seemed a grave injustice.
Usually obedient, I slammed out of the house.
I didn’t know it when I ran out the door, but my whole life would change that afternoon when I met Joey, my prince.