A Pauper’s Tale

June 15th, 2008

I had a better Father’s Day post planned, but I can’t find The Picture. The one taken five years before my birth, in which either my son or I appear to be about two years old. It’s hard to tell the gender of the child in the Hawaiian shorts and white t-shirt, but s/he is definitely one of us — one of the dark-eyed, olive skinned ones in a sea of green eyes and pale skin. A brother? A sister? I don’t know.

That picture has always been a curiosity. I like to imagine that one day, someone else will see it and be able to connect all the scattered dots and fill in all the blanks. If they couldn’t do that, maybe they’d just be kind enough to tell me his name. As long as it’s not Warren Beatty or Rod McKuen. My mother tried to pass those two off on me at the height of my pubescent naivete, the era of Shampoo, (my favorite movie at the time), and a poetry album I played until there were no more grooves. At ten years old, I filled my mind with lines like I will fly into your belly like a plane flying into Rome. I had no idea, really, what it meant, but I loved the visual of that line, the romance of it, and the way the words rolled off my tongue.

Later, MJ brushed off my who’s-my-father inquiries with stunted lines like “some guy in a bar”, “some sailor”, and my personal favorite, “what does it matter anyway?” Sometimes the chill of her mind was just stunning. MJ was full of high-drama and bittersweet illusions. Her magic was in the way she could sometimes make her wild and fluid self appear to be stable and solid. Her solid self appeared to be promising — it tantalized and teased a moment of reality — a sliver of truth that was just out of reach. I’d struggle across the brutal desert of my mother’s psyche only to discover mirages, like nightmarish funhouse mirrors that scoffed at my efforts, and sent me crawling back to the starting gate. It took me years to un-love her enough to abandon my perpetual place at that gate, and years more to quit torturing myself trying to make sense of her kind of crazy.

Anyway, I was sure I’d get the answer before she died, because that’s what she told me in 1996. “I’ll tell you before I die.” Except that she didn’t. The two months between the cancer diagnosis and her death in 1999 were full of opportunities for mother-daughter moments. Truthful moments. Ones that might have had led to some sort of redemption or understanding. Yet MJ chose, even while dying, to keep her illusions, particularly the grand ones in which she was superior, infallible, and invincible — and not the bulimic-anorexic, violent, narcissistic, and callous woman she really was.

So I have no idea who he was, that dark-eyed and olive skinned, long lost, and never known father of mine. The pauper who left me with an imperious Queen and her soulless stand-in husband. Maybe he, too, stood perpetually outside the gate and tried to pluck the thorns from the roses. Maybe he was just a bastard, a one-night stand, or a really bad poet. Maybe he just wasn’t that memorable.

Except that I live, part pauper, part Queen, and no small part a dark-eyed Alice who can’t stop wishing there was something of substance on the other side of this looking glass.

12 Responses to “A Pauper’s Tale”

  • “It took me years to un-love her enough to abandon my perpetual place at that gate, and years more to quit torturing myself trying to make sense of her kind of crazy. ”

    I have lived this. Yes, yes, yes.

    Unlearning, unloving and finally forgiving - myself.

  • I am repeatedly left speechless by the power that parents have over their children, particularly during those moments when our daughter is most vulnerable to us, when the most damage could be done were we other people.

    That time you’ve spent standing at the gate … I’ve stood there, too. For years. It’s a confusing place that leaves no reflection of who we are, only the bars that we can barely see through if and when she decides to be visible. I was content, for a time, to wait, begging for scraps, because I knew no better. And then it seemed that any kind of relationship my daughter might have with her would make her a begger, as well. I couldn’t abide by that.

    When finally I was able to let go, I was surprised at how easy it was, how disgusted I was, how ready I was to stop looking for my relfection in her eyes. How strong I had become.

    I have to admit, though, it bothers me that she may be old and infirm, completely bed and diaper ridden one day, like my grandmother is now, her mother … and in that she may become a begger like my grand mother is now, as well. Begging for attention from where she lay with no escape, begging for pain relief, begging to go home.

    I wonder …

    Should she become a begger, will I be present enough and compassionate enough to stand at the gate one last time just in case …


  • You are no part your mother’s kind of queen, Jane. And as for wanting to find something on the other side of that looking glass, I see you, and you’re strong and wise, funny and humble, full of passion and love for others.

    Donna, I think you’ll be there. We’re always the hopeful children in some way.

  • “Her magic was in the way she could sometimes make her wild and fluid self appear to be stable and solid……to quit torturing myself trying to make sense of her kind of crazy. ”

    i had to read that whole passage several times this afternoon and now because it’s so good. so true. going to hit home with so many of us daughters-of-crazy. now that i’m thinking of it, there should be a sorority or secret fellowship like the masons.

    i’ll start working on a logo


  • I’ll join that club. I think we have to be at least 40 before we admit they didn’t love us and we don’t love them. My Aunt used to say, some people shouldn’t be parents. I used to wish my parents would get a divorce but now I realize if they had, my mother would have remarried another just like the first. To this day I cannot call either one of them mother or father (they are desceased). I refer to them by their first names. But all is well that ends well, no?

  • I’m learning who you are Jane through your web posts. It is interesting, I came hear from Rosie O’Donnell site awhile back on your posting Elephant Girls. Something…all your lyrical,humorous, painful, revealing, elegant writings, keeps me checking back here to learn that there is “always more to the story” This post today reminds me that there are no accidents. I have a rough relationship with a very cold mother, who lied to me up until I figured out the truth at 30 that the man I thought was my father wasn’t. Did she know who was my father…only that he had big feet like me! Nice..anyway, Jane I just want you to know that the curiousity we all have about who we are from…and how those two parts (mother/father) some how molded or shaped us is inevitable. Yet Jane, you’ve written your own beautiful story, with a beautiful life story and became the mother you didn’t have! Thanks for sharing

  • Maybe she didn’t know who he was. Maybe she truly could not tell you, Jane.

    My mother kept many secrets from me, hidden away in a little metal box until one day when I found them. It was like learning there was no Santa Claus, but on a much more personal level. I don’t know if she intended to take those secrets to the grave or if she wanted me to find them all along, but it all started to make sense to me from that day on.

  • Jane, I’m just guessing here … but it sounds like MJ graduated from a little school of dysfunction that I like to call ‘Mamie Eisenhower High’. Like many women of her generation she probably didn’t feel that she had many options or power …. so try to look pretty and work on finding a good man. In the meantime, don’t take responsibility for your feelings, and don’t ever ask for what you want … rely on others to figure it out. Someone else will fix it.

    Unfortunately, our society is full of these archetypes:

    status parents who are so busy attaining things that they treat their children like posessions.

    self -centered parents who are very busy exporing themselves, and raising free-spirited kids (i.e.- left to fend for themselves with little or no consequences).

    …old school dads, hover parents, control freaks, shamebasers, fairytale parents, dead beats, absentees, and let’s not leave out those religous fanatics … we are indeed a product of our times. I wonder DAILY what kind of parent I am becoming and how many years of therapy it will take my kids to overcome the damage I do.

    The flip side: I believe that we all manifest the type of family we are born into in order to work through the necessary issues.

    You’ve become the awesome woman that you are today in part because of the challenges MJ presented to you. Did it suck? … yes. Are you better because of it? … most likely. Will you ever be like her? ….. NO FREAKIN WAY! To quote Martha Stewart … ‘And that’s a good thing!”

    just my 2 cents worth!

  • John R is incredibly wise.

  • My mom attended Mamie High, too. I kept waiting for us to have a good relationship, for us to be close. To have real feelings between us…I waited until she died I think.

    She was cold and self-centered and focused on being beautiful and on her husband–my dad–who was abusive to us but never struck her. As a mother of two, I can’t imagine standing by and watching him throw us against the wall and knock us unconscious. I can still see her, in skirt and pearls, out the corner of by eye, asking my dad to stop, but standing far away, taking herself out of harm’s way. Strange.

    My mom was a product of the depression, was probably was abused herself, was afraid if she left that she and her kids would be poor. And we weren’ t poor. So maybe your mom, Jane, had similar secrets and untold stories and that generation of women were taught to keep silent . Like my mother, it sounds like her spirit was broken and she tried to break yours–you may have reminded her of when she was young & beautiful &full of dreams, and it may have been painful for her. Not an excuse, but an explanation.

    As a result of her lack of concern for me, I took note and made sure my kids would be held, protected, enjoyed. I was kind and gentle with my kids, my singular accomplishment that isn’t resume-worthy or a particular marvel, except it makes me like myself. I sense you were gentle as well with your kids. No small accomplishment when you’re raised with cruelty.

  • The work of adulthood is coming to terms with our parents. Mine were solid and dependable and repressed by each other. I grew up in a small crowded house in an even smaller world dominated by a Catholic theology that glorified suffering and sacrifice and vilified anyone who dared to say what they really wanted. Stifling, yes, but I never doubted they loved me, I always knew where I came from and I always had a place to come home too in body and spirit. Stories like yours remind me what an enormous gift that is…

  • This blog was so beautifully written. Just had to say so.

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