Annie, my friend and personal librarian, a source of great books, lent me her copy of "Bird by Bird," a wonderful book on creative writing. In it, author Anne Lamott encouraged writers to mine the depths of their despair, to use their pain to find creativity and inspiration. I wholeheartedly agree—some of my best posts were written after a bikini wax.
My mother mined her despair: she’s donned the denim overalls, the hardhat, took a flashlight and a pick ax, and gone deep into its coal mines. Maybe she went a little crazy in there after confirming her suspicions of my father’s infidelity. All I know is, after a while, she dusted off the grime and dirt and emerged determined to get to the truth.
It was quiet for a month or so. Then suddenly, a flurry of activity.
My mother would disappear into dubious hardware stores. Sometimes she would take me shopping deep into Chinatown. The stores smelled musty and earthy or thick and greasy. They had weird, dried things stuffed in jars and bins. There were ducks roasted whole, impossibly orange, naked and hanging by the neck in the window. In my head, she was either concocting an untraceable poison or putting together a device that would blow my father and his whore to smithereens.
I don’t know if that is the truth, or just my penchant for lurid comics coloring my memories of that time. After unwittingly becoming her confidante, she would sometimes give me clues to her endgame. Maybe she didn’t want me to know the complete story in case I had to testify. In my mind, I was already the star witness, ready to be presented by the defense, dramatically, at the last minute, with a spotlight trained on my scrawny, twelve-year old frame as I walked slowly to the witness stand.
One day, I found her in their bedroom sitting by the telephone, with a tape recorder and a wire connecting the two devices. Those were the days before Caller ID and *69, when you could be lazy in hiding your affair, when short of a lipstick stain on your collar, you could rest easy knowing you won’t be caught. These days, all it takes is for someone to look at your cellphone call log and find some evidence.
She could have locked the door, I suppose, hid her activities from the children. But by this time all my siblings already knew of her machinations, only my poor father left in the dark.
She had been testing to see if the phone jack she bought could record conversations while somebody was using the other set. It did. She could tape my father’s conversations while she sat innocently in plain view knowing that the phone in the guest bedroom was rigged to tape the sonofabitch’s every word. And even though I was already twelve, I (and my siblings) had no concept of privacy, or of needing any. We did not question my mother's actions. It would be a couple more years before we would yak endlessly on the phone about rock stars or the hottie in class.
This went on for months. Maybe my father’s lover didn’t call him at our house. All my mother needed was that one phone call to use as evidence to confront my father. It became so common to see my mother rewinding, fast-forwarding her little cassette recorder, listening to the conversations taped in her headphones.
Whether or not she found the evidence, I cannot tell for sure. When the fighting, the screaming, the crying started, I couldn’t listen. I tried not to hear the words, the recriminations trying to get past my bedroom door, through the thick, down pillows that I covered my ears with.
All I know is that my dad, even up to now, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has denied all charges. My father would have stood in front of Congress and not buckle against evidence of his DNA on a stained blue dress.
Knowing what I know now, I would rather know the truth of my parent’s unhappy marriage, than to grow up believing that I was a prince living in a castle with benevolent and doting parents. I would rather grow up believing that even though people love each other, they can also hurt each other terribly at the same time. I would rather learn at an early age that when you say "I do," the story is just beginning, that the romance is only a prelude...
NEXT: Conclusion on Sunday, Mother's Day, 5/9.
I highly recommend Anne Lamott's book for all writers: