That’s it, that’s the story.
It takes a while to face up to such realities. In my case I didn’t get it till middle-age. Certainly I never articulated it till now, in my 60s.
She was a sociopath, but that’s not something you can detect in early childhood. Surely, when I was six, I saw that her behavior was erratic, her actions quite mad.
My grandparents’ idea was that my mother’s behavior problems were due to my sister, a very unruly and headstrong child. So my sister was sent away to a boarding school far away. She had just turned eight years old.
My “Bad Seed” sister demanded of me that I’d watch her favorite TV soap operas (these varied, but primarily included The Edge of Night) and report on plot developments when I next saw her.
Soap operas were not my thing, so in last-minute desperation I tried to watch some episodes just before she returned for a long weekend sometime in October. I made up plot lines that seemed plausible from my minuscule exposure. My sister seemed happy with that.
Before my sister came back home, for her first and second holidays from school, my mother had me help her construct a huge sign of colored paper letters on pegboard: WELCOME B_____!
When my sister went back to school my mother’s mood turned very sour. She was deeply attached to my sister, didn’t care for me. I was in school much of the time (day school, a local parochial school taught by Ursuline nuns), so I saw her furor mainly in late afternoon when she’d rage at me for nothing in particular.
She was having a baby. She did not want a baby. Six months before, she’d staged a fall out of our attic which she hoped would bring on a miscarriage. But the fall was only about three feet. Nevertheless she pretended to be deathly ill. She demanded that I run to the neighbors and bring in medical help. This made no sense to me, and as I was pathologically shy, I never got beyond chatting up the 4-year-old girl across the street. I was five years old. I remember it was a cold day in early spring.
Well, my mother found her way to bed and phoned up all her available TriDelt friends and her sister–in-law in Rowayton. It’s only in retrospect that I realize that this big gathering of relatives and friends was because my mother was telling them she was very ill from a probable miscarriage.
I’d knock on the bedroom door and my mean aunt would shoo me away. I was supposed to sit still and watch TV. Watching TV was with my sister (not yet exiled to Yorkshire) and cousin Vicki, daughter of the mean aunt. On the tube at 4 pm was Amos ‘n’ Andy, a TV retread of a negro radio comedy.
My brother was born, not miscarried, at the end of October. My sister was summoned from her convent school, and saw my mother in the hospital in Stamford. I thought I should go in as well, but they only let one child at a time, or more likely, my father didn’t want to take me and my mother didn’t want to see me.
Apparently she thought she needed to send me some kind of souvenir. So she had my sister bring me three paper pill cups, nested. I’d waited in the car for maybe an hour-and-a-half before receiving this valuable keepsake. When my mother would go down to New York with my sister on the train to have lunch at Schrafft’s and see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, sometimes she’d bring me back a sugar cube. Pill cups and sugar cubes: all I deserved.
Only when I tot up these recollections do I realize how cold and unloving my mother was. Other thoughts tumble in: she broke and threw away toys, especially ones that had been gifted by a relative or friend she was in a snit about. There was a model coronation carriage my grandparents brought from London in 1953, and a pair of huge stuffed dalmatian dogs, and a lovely teddy bear that she put in the garbage for no particular reason, and a toy seaplane I barely remember; I had it in the bath perhaps once. Years afterwards I saw her slice up my baby brother’s stuffed toys, just for the hell of it.
Up at boarding school, my sister had a friend named Josie, and Josie came to stay with us on Easter Vacation. Josie’s parents lived on the Riviera (the French Riviera, the first time I heard of such a thing) and that was too far to travel, this close to the end of the school year. My sister and Josie shared the Simmons Hide-a-Bed fold-out sofa in the living room.
Josie’s mother was a big society dame known as Kiki Reynolds who was in the Social Register and eventually divorced the guy on the French Riviera. Josie was a real thrill, always upbeat, and closer to my age than my sister’s. Unlike my parents and my sister, she wasn’t half-cracked, so was a novelty in the house. I loved Josie, so did my mother.
But my mother didn’t love me, to restate the obvious.. She and my father came up with a scheme where I’d be sent to live with his father and stepmother near Philadelphia. Bordering their back lawn were the grounds of the Friends Central School, and in summer the Friends Central School had a day camp. So I would live with these old people in Wynnewood and go to Friends Central Day Camp in the daytime.
I was six years old. To me, it was a hell comparable similar to my sister’s time in boarding school. But as with my sister’s boarding school tales, there were some good friends and happy times. We made collages in arts and crafts. We made killing jars in nature study and went out on hikes to catch insects. We made field trips to the Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Evening Bulletin plant.
But mainly—in the eyes of my parents and grandparents—I was at Friends Central Day Camp to LEARN TO SWIM. This was a specialty of my family. In their teens, my father and aunt got Red Cross Lifesaving badges. In the 1930s my aunt was actually a swimming coach at the YWCA and for the girl scouts, and somehow parlayed this into a radio career.
But I was six, terrified of water, loathing of locker rooms, and entirely unhappy with the arrangement. Not only did we have to attend a formal swimming class early in the morning, taught by a big, doughy, veiny woman named Mrs. Campbell; in mid-afternoon we were supposed to change again for the Open Swim. We wore poker chips around our necks to show our swimming proficiency. If you were a non-swimmer, like me, you got a red chip. I got embarrassed by that after a while and asked for a white chip (“intermediate”) instead. Some spoilsport spotted me in the shallow end and put me on report. I got a big lecture from the pool warden, an ancient coot with nostrils full of hay-colored hairs.
Day Camp went for six weeks but after three weeks, and this experience, I decided I’d had enough. I had a cold, or pretended to have a cold, for the last few days. My father and mother were perturbed that I did not wish to remain so I could “learn to swim.”
When I returned to my parents’ house in Stamford, I hoped for a warm welcome, maybe even a pegboard sign in the picture window. I got nothing. “So you didn’t want to Learn to Swim?” was my mother’s impassive remark. She didn’t want to have me around, even though I was quiet and reclusive and kept out of sight.
My father didn’t like me at all, always full of snorting contempt for me. But he wasn’t much in evidence, usually away “on business.” At least till the end of September, when we moved to Pennsylvania. After we moved we saw more of him, but that was no joy since he was always angry. We lived in terror for the crunching sound of his car in the driveway. Often he turned up very drunk and very brutal. My mother fled deeper into her psychoses or pretend-psychoses, till finally she was put away in insane asylums. But that’s another story for another day.