Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THEY THOUGHT I WAS CLAY



BY 1953 my mother understood something was wrong and it was up to her to do something about it.  She swallowed her pride, borrowed money from her father, and went back to school at Portland State College.  Once again, everything changed.  She was attending with Korean veterans on the GI Bill and because she had abandoned her ideas about math in order to get an elementary school teaching certificate, she was pressed into what they called T-groups, actually therapy but represented as leadership, group dynamics.  She was suspicious and defensive, then amazed.  Then happy.  

My mother's version was dark green.

She bought an ancient dark green Ford Coup√© that some previous teen owner had equipped with a diesel truck horn.  She loved sneaking up on people, blasting them, and then acting out, “What?  I’m just a little old gray-haired lady!”  The only trouble was that to start the car one had to push it.  She rousted my brothers out of bed to do the job so she could get to early classes.  She was sexist -- I was bigger and stronger but she never asked me.  Luckily we lived on a hill.

For eighth grade graduation I got a watch.  I hated it.  I cried.  My parents were baffled.

What a faker!  Italian sub-text.

8th grade graduation

My mother and I designed and sewed my graduation dress.  It was pale green organdy with a sweetheart neckline and puffed sleeves to honor Anne of Green Gables.  The story behind it is actually that the dress was much like HER graduation dress, but the afternoon before the ceremony she went out to bring in the family cow and got a fierce red sunburn that didn't match the neck and arms of the dress.  In those days that was considered coarse, vulgar.  Her mother was mortified.  So for her I was a do-over.  Much of our relationship was about me being a do-over for her, which meant she made sure I finished my undergrad college degree.  I'm grateful. 

This very posed photo was supposed to be me showing my mother 
what I was studying my freshman year.

This posed photo was supposed to show what I was supposed to be like:
helpful, cheerful, obedient, etc. etc.

In the summer we drove long distances for weeks because my father always cashed in his plane ticket for the Cooperative Institute and used it for gas so we could visit National Monuments.  We pulled the folding tent camp trailer which my grandfather had designed and put it up late at night in strange places because my father wouldn’t stop until it was after dark.  One night, with my brothers asleep, they began talking about our ages.  “Mary is beginning puberty,” said my mother and my father blew up.  He thought she was talking about pubes which he felt was equivalent to talking about a vagina.  We made another fifty miles until it was sorted out.  Lucky that in those days there wasn’t much traffic.  

By now I was wearing boughten clothes.
My mom still made my brother's shirts.

I’m looking for a photo taken at the State Fair.  Hours earlier my father had given me my last spanking.  I was fully grown, in high school.  The boys and I were bickering in the backseat when my father blew up, stopped the car, and came after me.  I locked the door and my mother’s door.  My father was turning purple and I know she was wondering how to handle a 400 pound man collapsed in the barrow pit.  There were no cell phones.  Today someone driving by would call the cops.  Today spanking a teenager would be seen as what it was: sexual and abusive.

My mother unlocked the door, my father dragged me out, bent me over the trunk and spanked me as hard as he could.  For once I did not cry but from then on my father was dead to me.  Nor did he ever spank me again.  I had no clue what my mother said to him or even if she said anything. 

In the photo we are talking to his friends, pretending to be normal and happy.  I had just gotten off a ride that was swing seats at the end of chains attached to a hub.  The hub whirled faster and faster until the centrifugal force made the swings go horizontal.  Our friends looked a bit shocked, not because of knowing about the spanking but because at some time they had been present when one of the chains broke and the occupant was flung clear out of the fairgrounds and smashed on the cars on the parking lot.  Their  bloody story exactly fit my feelings at that moment.  I don't think I want to find that photo.

When one remembers such things, one can play “what if” and invent a quantum universe.  In one of them, when my father goes berzerk, my mother slides over and drives us away.  In another he dies and we drive off anyway.  In a third everyone piles out of the car and runs for the woods.  In one the chain on the chair breaks but I am suddenly able to fly and I do.  In a way that’s what happened.   Something like my mother’s college car with the truck horn, except I didn’t know how to blow it yet.

At no point have I fantasized that the Highway Patrol showed up.  I’ve never trusted external authorities, even when I was one.

It wasn't about gender.  It was about exotic.

I'm wearing a little Bo-Peep costume from being in a parade but I have no idea where the peep-toe shoes came from.

My cousin was more glamorous and despite being younger
quite a bit more experienced.

By the end of puberty I was wearing a torsolette (a mini-corset) and crinolines, which one dipped in sugar syrup at bedtime so they would be dry and stiff the next day.  It left little sparkles of sugar crystals on the basement floor under the clothesline -- a bit of crunch, a bit of sticky, and quite quite sweet.  It's wasn't me. 


We went to the beach and dug a hole under this big log.  The boys could crawl through with no trouble, but I got stuck -- REALLY stuck.  The brothers said, "The tide is coming in.  We'd better get back to camp," and left me there.  I thought I would die.  After that, I knew the only person who can save you is yourself.  And dying doesn't really happen that often.


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