Chapter One - Part One
I expect it all starts with the parents, doesn't it. I mean, they are the ones who fell in love and got married, and I was born - they started it. "O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived." (Ps 50) I've noticed at Mass, whenever Psalm 50 is used as the responsorial psalm, this particular verse is often skipped over. Despite the fact the verse refers to original sin, I sometimes imagine its deletion may be more of a politically correct over-compensation. Considering the contemporary situation of so many children born out of wedlock, or in irregular circumstances, such as in a petri dish, the liturgists may leave it out so as not to offend anyone. However, that would never have been a concern in my family.
My mother Betty had been married to Bob before she met my dad. My uncle Tom once explained to me how my mom had been pushed into an arranged marriage by my grandmother. Therefore, even though she had two children by him, my brother Skip and my sister Beth, uncle Tom claimed mom could have had her first marriage annulled - although she ended up with a divorce. I know my grandmother liked Bob - aren't those typical 1930's names - Bob and Betty? I'm also fairly certain my grandmother thought Bob would be a successful businessman. Always the status conscious snob, my grandmother very well may have insisted my mother marry him. That entire story is so sketchy however, and since most of my relatives lie, I'll probably never know for sure what happened. Why are these details important? Because of the "O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived" reference. The reader will find out it was the source of all the insanity.
Weighing all the stories as to what happened with the first marriage, I can't imagine my domineering mother consenting to an arranged marriage in the first place. My grandmother - Nana -as we called her, Ethel to her husband Frank - is that name funny or what? Which reminds me of a fight my brother Skip and I once got into. Somehow Nana's name came up - Ethel - and I cracked up. I said she was Ethel the ape from the Laurel and Hardy film Swiss Miss. Skip thought I was being disrespectful and started yelling at me, then crying, as if I killed Nana or something. Anyway - I felt pretty ashamed, especially since I had also been accused of not loving my mother for disagreeing with Skip who had insisted mom was more beautiful than the Blessed Virgin. Even then I thought he was a tad too obsequious in his relationship with parents and relatives. But I digress.
Getting back to the subject at hand, I'm pretty sure Ethel would have preferred that Betty remain an old maid at home, working, and continuing to supplement the household income, rather than marrying her off. Indeed, when my mother tried her vocation at convent school, Nana had her drop out, called her home, and sent her out to get a job to help both of my uncles through seminary. Which leads me to believe my mother either 'had' to get married, or rushed into the marriage to get away from her mother. Their mother-daughter combination was an epic love-hate relationship if there ever was one. My mother described her life with my grandmother as difficult and abusive when she was sober, when she had been drinking the language was much more colorful.
For whatever reason, my mother left her first husband, often repeating stories of poverty and abuse as the motive, and I have no reason to doubt it. In those days, especially amongst German Irish Catholics, divorce was absolutely the last resort - in fact, it would be better to die than get a divorce. However, Betty Mae did it. She met my dad Ken while waiting for the divorce to be finalized. My dad had first dated my mom's sister, Mary, as well as Ethel - they're mom. My grandfather Frank knew about Mary, but not about his wife Ethel. I think he knew, he was simply a meek man and wouldn't have said anything. That's a whole story in itself; think of Ethel as Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, and you might understand the relationships in that family. I'm not kidding. My mother knew about everything that had gone on, but fell in love with my dad anyway. My dad was a charming fellow.
Mums and dadums were married by a court clerk and I was born soon after. I don't remember the birth of course, yet strangely enough, I have vivid memories from my infancy. The most unbelievable memory marks a time when my family lived in New Richmond, Wisconsin. We moved there before I was born, and due to complications in mom's pregnancy, I was born in St. Paul. Hence the trips back and forth across the Minnesota border to Miller hospital in St. Paul, for follow up procedures. At birth, my dad was asked by the doctor which one of us he should save if things went wrong. Dad told him to save the mother.
As for my uncanny memories from the time, the way mom told it, I would have been about 6 months old, and therefore unlikely to remember anything from that period. Nevertheless, I distinctly remember being carried by my mother down the steps of a train in winter. (Of course I wouldn't have known what a train was until later.) I clearly remember feeling the cold air and snow flakes blowing across my face. Although it was night time, I recall seeing lights and the white of the snow. I felt my mother shivering from cold and covering my face with a blanket. I also sensed what I later came to understand as fear or insecurity. Although my mother always insisted living in New Richmond was the happiest period of her life.
That said, my second memory around the same period is of her lying at the bottom of the stairs in a navy blue satin robe with rose piping. My dad had pushed her. (Perhaps to be continued.)
[Photo at top: My Grandparents on a return trip home to visit us. Nana and Bumpa had moved to San Francisco, he had a printing business, she worked in fashion at I. Magnin. Yes I know - the photo is Ma and Pa Kettle - but they kind of looked like this to me. Although, Nana would have been wearing rhinestone-studded cat glasses with a jeweled neck chain. The above photo of Peggy Guggenheim is to illustrate the eyewear fashion of the time for another blogger. Nothing is made up in the above narrative.]
NOTE: This is my attempt at writing a story of my life. I think it will be too difficult to construct a text - and I don't know if I want to expend the energy. What do you think? And be honest.