This is Day 20 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House.
One of the sad facts of divorce is a general reduction in circumstances, especially for the mother, and children, if they stay with her.
The facts of my own parents’ divorce are far too byzantine to cover in this post. The split had its roots in my parents’ ridiculously short courtship (a long weekend at Jack Webb’s fabulous Palm Springs getaway), fundamental incompatibility, and unfortunate coming of age on the cusp of the era of self-awareness. Too much possibility and too few tools to deal with it.
But for the sake of our story, let us oversimplify and blame this on the mother. The father, who always did his duty and yet was never quite There, was as bewildered as I that this shit was going down. He was forced into moving off-campus into a dreary, studio apartment, followed by an equally dreary one-bedroom apartment, while we stayed in our fabulous (if largely unfurnished) co-op by the lake.
Within four years, however, their fortunes had reversed: Dad moved into the swingin’-est 2-bedroom bachelor pad I’ve seen yet, rooftop pool, living room furnished with pinball machines and parade of hot stewardesses and all, while Mom, little sister and I moved in with her parents.
On paper, things still looked good: gigantic mansion on Lake Michigan in a tony suburb, weekly visitation with Dad and private, Catholic school for the two of us. In day-to-day reality, though, things were a little different.
First, we moved into Enablers Central. Mom found two new instant drinking buddies in her own father and eldest brother, who’d been booted out of his own household. They had different poisons of choice, but weren’t all that picky, so anytime after about three o’clock (depending on day of the week and state of employment), you were pretty much guaranteed that someone was going to start tying one on.
Second, the Chief Enabler, our otherwise astonishingly responsible and competent Swedish-American grandmother, was, um, stingy with a few things, including the food. I don’t mean that things ever got completely Dickensian on us, but she came of age in the Great Depression and I, more often than not, was hungry. (Although because she was a kickass cook, what there was to eat was always pretty darned tasty.)
A teetotaler, devout convert to Catholicism and frugal genius without par, Grandma had one human weakness: an insane sugar jones. Everyone knew where she kept her cookie stash; we also knew exactly how many we could poach without getting busted. When the selection was Pepperidge Farm Sugar Cookies, it was tough, pretty difficult concealing cookie leakage in that small, tight stack. You were better off around certain holidays, when there were tins of home-baked goods. But you didn’t even look for the good candy stash. You pretended you didn’t know about it (even if you did), and waited for her to haul out the Fannie Mae and offer you a piece when she was feeling itchy and generous.
Possibly worse than the food situation, although for a 12 and 7-year-old, not much, was the heating and plumbing situation. While the house was grand and gorgeous, with beautiful bones, plenty of space and a gracious flow, it was a sumbitch to heat and maintain. Everyone in Chicago was hot in the summer (well, except my beloved paternal grandparents, who got A/C shortly after it was invented and were never without), but I wonder how many people in our ZIP code were as cold as we were in the winter, there on the lake, in that huge house with the wind rattling the old storm windows, and the heat turned up enough to keep the pipes from freezing but not much else. It wasn’t bad when you were fully clothed, and we learned the benefits of layering early on, but there was this insistence on bathing that made life difficult at times.
Which brings me to…the plumbing. The original plumbing, no doubt, with next-to-no water pressure and never enough hot. Forget that we were only allowed to use three squares of toilet paper per seated occasion (god knows I’d like to); far, far worse was shivering in the shower as you tried, TRIED, I TELL YOU, to get your 1970s, long-and-parted-down-the-middle girl-hair wet, shampooed and rinsed. At some point, our uncles took mercy on us (my beloved youngest uncle had moved in by then) and let me use the special shower they’d added on to one of the rooms. It must have had new pipes coming up from the main, because compared to every other faucet in the place, it was like standing under a hot fire hydrant. Which, in January, just off the lake in Chicago, is as close as it gets to heaven.
Life there was not, I must say, an unmitigated hell. I escaped every day to my wonderful, amazing grammar school, albeit an hour away by bus, and in the dark, for this was during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s. Gloomy Manor itself was an amazing place to explore and imagine, with four floors of who-knows-how many rooms, and a huge yard with steps down to the beach. I had dolls and books and all the paper and pens I wanted, plus hours and hours to myself, which I’ve always loved. If we lost half the house to the winter, sun porches and side porches and attics and basements, there were other, warmer rooms.
And while it chapped her hide, Mom never actually shut my sister and me up as we washed and dried every night to the sound of ourselves singing “If Mama Was Married” from Gypsy. While we were a dark family, we all appreciated a good joke.
Still, it was with profound relief that I welcomed her next husband, my ex-stepfather, into our lives. We went out to dinner, we sang in the car and everyone was allowed to stuff herself with food. He laughed easily, which was none too common at Gloomy Manor, my paternal grandfather’s grim-joke name for this fallin g-down house by the lake full of stoic and/or drunk people. Our rental house that summer in Evanston before I started high school was a paradise compared to the remote prison I’d been stuck in for a year and a half. I barely cared that we were moving to a new place with a new school where I’d no know* nobody in my class of 1,000; freedom was in sight.
What is there, then, in that 18-month sentence, to be thankful for? Well, Youngest Uncle, for starters. He introduced me to Led Zeppelin and Monty Python and the National Lampoon during my stay, and besides saving my bacon, opened new worlds to me. Almost 20 years younger than my mom and only 10 years older than I, we probably never would have gotten close were it not for us being thrown together as cellies.
There was the quiet, too, and the isolation. Perhaps not the best for building critical preteen social skills, but while I was sequestered in the North Suburbs, my Chicago friends were starting to get into some pretty grownup stuff. I can’t prove it, but I’m guessing that getting pulled from the city slightly before I hit 13 probably helped me hang onto my innocence for an extra four years, not at all a bad thing, in hindsight.
Most of all, though, came a fine appreciation for simple luxuries: the hot shower. The warm room. A full belly.
Love, expressed out loud.
It would have been devastating to have been deprived of these things from childhood, of course. But to have them, then have them taken away…well, like it or not, it probably contributed greatly to my gifts as an artist, not to mention my ability to see the humorous side of things. What is the comedian’s curse again? Damn you for giving me a happy childhood?
They did their best. I know that, too. Nobody writes down, as the saying goes; in the same way, few people are intentionally awful to their fellow man. There is patterning, followed by a tent of darkness.
Some of us, if we’re lucky, get just a peek under that tent. A small peek, bracketed by lots and lots of sunshine and warmth.
I am one of those people. And that is why I do what it is I do.
Thank you, Gloomy Manor, for the inadvertent gift of understanding. It’s taken me a while to put it into play, but with some luck, there will be many, many years of illumination before this light is put out.
*Wow. I was so overwrought, I plumb forgot my words.
Image ©2007 MichaÅ‚ Å»ebrowski.