Mom picked that title – “Bitter The Apple”. From my earliest recollection, she always said that if she wrote the book of her life, that’s what she’d call it.
Even as a young child, i found it depressing. I couldn’t figure out why her life was so awful? We lived in a working-class suburb – owned our own house. There was a gigantic farm field behind it, suitable for endless games of “capture the flag”. And woods – where we used stolen construction supplies to build amazing tree forts. The neighborhood was full of kids – we were never lonely and there were adventures to be had!
The family was quirky, mealtimes were loud, six of us were crammed into a smallish house, but we were all healthy and shared lots of laughs. Dad had a good job – we didn’t see him much during the week, but he was always around on the weekends, working on projects, leading discussions on philosophy, music and life, or teaching us to throw a variety of balls at each other. We went camping every summer – where bathing was entirely optional for a week!
Why was Mom so bitter?
When i was in my teens i started to gain insight. i am the youngest of four children, and until i was 10 years old, i did not know that my oldest sister and brother, S and T, had a different father.
Soon after, i learned that S and T had been placed in foster care during early childhood. “Bad things” had happened – but were never talked about – just hush-hush implications that they’d been abused. I didn’t know why Mom couldn’t take care of them when they were little, but i was sure there were good reasons.
First my sister, S, then my brother, T, got married shortly after their high school graduations. From my point of view, it was cool to have “in-laws” at the ripe old age of 8. Nature took it’s course, and i was an Aunt at 10 years old! S gave birth to DQ at the advanced age of 20, and my brother and his wife soon followed with their first baby a year later.
Within a few years, as their first round of divorces started to play out, i learned more about Mom’s history. Before marrying my father, she had been married twice before. The first one was a brief starter marriage. We only found out about it when a distant cousin sent a “family tree” to us at Christmas one year. Mom never talked about it much.
Her second marriage, to S and T’s father, was tumultuous. I have only recently extracted details from her – plying her with alcohol to loosen her lips. He was a hard-drinking coal miner, and they lived in West Virginia. She was a nurse, and he only worked when he felt like it, leaving her as the family breadwinner – during two pregnancies.
She was arrested for attempted murder after coming home from work unexpectedly and finding him with another woman when he was supposed to be keeping an eye on baby S. She was pregnant with T at the time. In that environment, the police turned an understanding eye toward male infidelity – as well as domestic violence. She was taken into custody, left in jail overnight to cool off, and released the next morning – after promising not to chase her husband with a kitchen knife again. No charges were filed.
When T was born, she’d had enough. She divorced him and moved to the city with her two small children. Her ex-husband was not one to take this lightly, and repeatedly made threats. In the 1950’s, there was no such thing as a protection order, so she “went underground” in an attempt to hide from him. My sister has memories of Mom changing her hair color to disguise her – when she was around 4 years old.
The foster care arrangement was at least partially to protect S and T from their father. It also allowed Mom to work three jobs and save money in the hope that she could eventually become financially self-sufficient. There was only one foster home where they were treated badly – they were tormented by older children in the home*. Once Mom found out, she had S and T moved.
So how does a divorced woman trying to save money, with two children in foster care, survive in the city? Well, of course, she moves in with two gay men**. This provided mutual protection – a measure of safety for her, since a divorced woman in the 1950’s was labeled “tramp”, and she was a target for sleazebags. In return, she was a “beard” for them at a time when the term “homo” was interchangeable with “punching bag”. We’ve seen a few pictures from this phase, with Mom decked out in slinky party dresses, surrounded by gorgeous men. There were some good times, no doubt…
It’s a long way from “urban fruit fly” to suburban housewife. She met Dad on a blind date. He was a young engineer, new in town and living in a boarding house run by one of Mom’s friends. Mom was never available to go out on Sunday, since that was her day to commute for over an hour by bus to visit S and T in their foster home.
Dad learned about her children, and the weekly trips to the country, from the mutual friend. He appeared outside her apartment one Sunday morning, offering her a ride. She agreed to this, grudgingly accepting his help. Dad later told me that it was at that moment he knew he was going to marry her. He believed it was his purpose in life to rescue her and the kids, and give them a safe home.
He knocked her up shortly thereafter, and the deal was sealed. They were married by a Justice of the Peace***, and virtually overnight, the family unit was transplanted into the suburbs for a fresh start. That was in January, with my sister T (fellow refugee) born in August. I arrived two years later, as a complete afterthought in this domestic drama.****
Here’s what i may never understand: From that point on, life was good. They were married in 1960. She never had to work again. He taught her to drive, bought her a car, and provided the stability that she’d never had in her life. When she wanted to go back to work as i entered my late teens, Dad encouraged her to take a refresher course in nursing. We were never hungry, nor did we go without a single creature comfort that i can recall…
Shouldn’t she have been just a teeny-tiny bit grateful? Maybe she was, but that nasty, dark sense of entitlement overpowered any molecules of appreciation. She carried herself as a victim – that she deserved something better. She would say “all men are bastards” in front of her husband and son. She told us girls “never count on a man for anything” – also in front of her husband and son. And this hasn’t changed… the bitterness is still there.
My parents were married for over 40 years when Dad died. i love Mom dearly, but find it difficult to understand the ingrained bitterness. She met him at the age of 36 – and was with him for over half of her life.
How could that bitter apple have provided more sustenance and comfort than 40 years of stability, devoted companionship and love?
* The older boys would lock my brother in the attic (at 3 years old) and ring bells and alarms and say the house was on fire. They also held him over the edge of the bathtub and made my sister watch as they threatened to cut his head off. These are two examples S and T have talked about. There are others…
** Uncle T remained a family friend until his death in 1985. We became close when i was in high school. With a gay best friend, i figured out Uncle T’s orientation – from then on, we shared a quiet bond.
*** Their wedding photo is precious. You can see the morning sickness on Mom’s face!
**** Not a bad thing, mind you. i think it was the foundation for my “NATO Observer” status that may have helped me escape.