She would hit us with a wooden meat tenderizer, a cutting board, her hands and shoes. Enraged and drunk on wine, she once drove a spiked heel into my right elbow as I reflexively flung up my arm to shield my face. She threw whatever was in her hands or within reach, like the canned food that broke a window behind me as I ducked. More than once, she chased and cut my father with a knife. When she became violent, all of us were potential targets.
Some days, she got explosively angry, about everything and nothing. Most days, she boozed from mid-afternoon until going to bed. What played out during those hours shapes some of my nightmares and more of my weakness, destining much of the person, husband, and father I am. The curse of trying to repair a lifetime of damage from her overbearing, abusive ways kicks in when I’m at my unassertive, self-doubting worst.
This woman was my mother. Not the one who carried and gave birth to me, but the only mother who’s ever been a part of my life.
She was Olga, she was from Panama, and she was sick.
I spent much of my childhood frightened of a 4-foot-11 volcano, disliking most everything about her, profoundly resenting but not hating her, at least not all the time. It’s a visceral conflict that will never die, even though she has. I never stopped wishing for a normal mother like I figured everyone else had. At times, she was — or a mirage of one. I longed for the day I’d be away from her. I didn’t understand why, in a kid’s simplistic way of thinking, she had to be so mean to her family.
The way her deep-brown eyes and powerful voice could erupt at any moment kept my whole being tense. She mistreated us in unimaginable ways. She couldn’t stifle her drinking urges, which intensified her negative emotions and made her the embodiment of the aggressive drunk.
We can try to pack the memories that ache the most into a mental lockbox, convincing ourselves they won’t torment us there. We can conjure up moldy expressions and fool ourselves into making them fit: It’s all in the past. Let bygones be bygones. Water under the bridge. Forgive and forget. But they can’t undo what was and will always be.
Of all the life experiences I’ve collected over more than a half-century, those of growing up with my adoptive mother are the only ones I wish I could blow away like a million dandelions. All at once.
Desperately, I wanted to please her. It’s why I hurried down the stairs anytime she yelled or called my name. It’s why I rubbed her feet and worked on her calluses night after night as a teen. It’s why I stood by, silent and broken, as she confronted my director to announce she was taking me out of symphonic band, weeks before contests late in my senior year. It’s why, when she went on a rampage, I defended myself but never fought back, in words or actions.
Because of the fear that never left me? My undefined love for her? The pleading hope that if I took it like a man, she might go easier on me when she went off?
Your pale young body trembles as you stare into a large, unframed mirror in the wood-paneled den of your Houston home. Six years old, you wear a long-unused Curity cloth diaper over your white Munsingwear briefs. Nothing else. To your right, so does your older brother.
You’re scared. Confused. Humiliated. Worried.
“Stand there and look at yourself until I tell you to move!” she commands in her Spanish-accented English. “If you’re going to act like babies, that’s how we’ll treat you!”
You feel and see the tears rising in your doleful brown eyes. If you cry, she might make you stand there for hours. She’ll take away your toys and tell your dad to put them in the attic with the others, then banish you to the breezy hallway at bedtime without blankets or pillows.
You’re just young kids. Good kids. With her as your mother, you have no choice but to obey. What have you done to rouse her wrath? There’s no way you’ve been disobedient enough to be forced to wear diapers as school-age children.
But it rarely matters to her. The punishment she improvises — whether or not you’ve really misbehaved — can be impulsive and almost always involves pure anger.
Too often, your father isn’t there to step in. When he is, he usually doesn’t.
Each carrying a vinyl case of Matchbox cars, you and your brother Isaac walk down the steps after Braniff Flight 137 lands mid-afternoon at Houston Hobby Airport. You both wear white, short-sleeve shirts and clip-on bow ties, his with alternating, angled blue stripes and yours identical in brown.
Scanning the crowd on the tarmac, you pick out your parents standing just left of the staircase. He’s smiling, waving, eager to greet his boys. She looks mad, not showing even token joy at seeing you.
As summer 1968 fades, you’ve just visited your grandparents in St. Paul, Minnesota. You spent the grandest of months playing with new neighborhood friends, exploring the state, and visiting relatives, lavished with love and kindness wherever you went.
At the end of your first trip without parents, you’re just seven and a half years old. The day before flying home, you and all the kids celebrated your brother’s ninth birthday at your grandparents’ home, refined and inviting since its own birth in 1937.
Every day, two brothers hurried down the sidewalk on Grantham Street in placid St. Anthony Park, past evergreens by the dozen and the occasional birch, around the corner and over to Miller Pharmacy to buy Matchbox toys, slurp huge chocolate shakes, and spin on the soda fountain stools. As the staff knew, all the fun you were having went on your Granddad Frank’s account.
By light years, it’s your most special childhood memory, from what you’ve always called “another world.” A peaceful, picturesque setting with no fighting, no excessive drinking, nothing to be afraid of. A thousand miles from the storm clouds that always hovered ominously overhead. A haven where you could just be kids.
Back home at the airport, you see your mother’s face and know you’ve returned to an inescapable reality. She doesn’t say a word to either of you on the drive home.
Your parents have also just returned from a trip — several days on Nantucket Island, a last-gasp fling to save their marriage. Within months, your dad will move out.
She seethes, knowing you’ve just had the time of your young life with the person she despises most and you adore most. Your mother is diseased with venom for your paternal grandmother. The older you get, the colder she gets. Your dad tells you long afterward that it was over something your grandmother once said about you and your brother being adopted. It’s unfathomable she would ever say an insensitive word about or to anyone, but your mother lugs her grudge into eternity. If she can poison her heart like that forever, so can you.
When your grandparents call, she covers the yellow kitchen wall phone with her hand and tells you and your brother in a low, stern voice, “Don’t say anything.” She shoves the phone at you, and the smallest of small talk is all you can ever get out. She glares and makes finger scissors: Keep it short.
Even so, your family travels to Minnesota every year until your grandfather’s death in 1976 when you’re 15. It’s never like that glorious summer of ’68 — just two boys and their devoted grandparents, who seemed to know they needed to make you feel loved.
Before their time, your Matchbox cars idle in the attic. It’s where toys often go not long after Christmas, untouched or after you’ve barely had a chance to play with them.
There once was a seemingly unending shoreline of honeymoon, when life was falling into place, not apart, Dad would tell me years later.
More than a decade before becoming my father, tall, dark-haired, boyishly handsome Clark Lindsay Christlieb put in two years of more carousing than studying while flunking out of two private colleges in Minnesota. In 1950, when the Korean War began, a close family friend — a two-star Army major general — advised him and his parents he’d better enlist. Better to do that than be drafted and shipped out to die in wartime.
So Clark joined the Navy, getting stationed in Panama after graduating from yeoman school. He fell hard for Olga Eneida de Freitas Muñoz, a petite beauty from La Chorrera, not far from Panama City. They married the first day of August 1953 at a Lutheran church in the Canal Zone, and after he earned an honorable discharge 14 months later, they started building the perfect life back in the States.
Clark labored to grind out a business degree by 1957 at the University of Minnesota. He took a job selling lingerie for Hollywood Vassarette — a born salesman and schmoozer, he was — and the couple moved to Huntington, West Virginia. He covered three states with brassieres, panties, and gowns. They threw and went to lots of parties. He played pickup basketball at Marshall College with the likes of legends-to-be Jerry West and Hal Greer.
Clark and his Olguita, as he lovingly called her, were intoxicated on each other and on life.
But two burdens smoldered out of view. They tried but couldn’t have children, braving a couple of miscarriages. And Olga kept veiled a lingering dolor, her pain, over what she’d left behind in Panama: a young son, Chichy, the product of a fleeting marriage before Clark. His first name is all I know, and I’ve failed in a limited quest to find him. I want to meet and tell him all he’s never known about what became of his mother.
Letters from Panama that my wife and I found after Dad’s death in 2014 make it sound as if Mom left her son there with a selfless purpose — so he could grow up to take care of her family. Most likely is that her mother insisted Chichy stay, and that Mom wanted more than anything to leave Panama, start fresh in the United States, and have it all with her new American husband.
In a letter Olga received in 1976, her mother wrote in Spanish of the family’s gratitude for Chichy: Él es que nos da todo lo que necesitamos y cuida de nosotros. (“He is the one who gives us everything we need and takes care of us.”) She was also overjoyed that Mom had talked to another relative and promised to visit Panama for the first time in more than 15 years.
She never did. After flying there alone in 1959, Mom never saw and had almost no contact with her family again before her death in 2004. My brother and I never met any of her relatives.
Most of the Panama stories Dad shared with me are scattered, unconnectable dots. They’re all I have. The topper: He had drinks a few times with John Wayne — that one — who owned an island off the coast and whose first wife was the daughter of a Panamanian diplomat.
The Navy, arguing it was against regs, ordered Dad not to marry Mom. “The hell I’m not,” he resolved with candor inherited from his father Frank, whose name I would be given eight years later. Dad stood up to top brass, marrying victoriously — and still a yeoman whose only real ambition in the Navy was to get out.
As Dad’s tour grew short after the wedding, Mom’s stepfather wanted them to stay so Dad could start a career there — as a pig farmer. It’d be a frigid day in Panama City before that happened.
Mom’s estrangement from her family was sealed at the end of her ’59 visit when her mother tried to prohibit her from leaving Panama. As Dad described it to me, short on details, it took Mom’s well-connected biological father using his influence to get her out of the country.
Less than a month after Mom’s escape back to the U.S., a boy was born in Huntington and became the couple’s first adopted child. They wanted another boy, and I joined the family in early March 1961, days after being born to a divorced mother of three on the doorstep of turning 40. We moved to Houston for Dad’s work while I was still crawling.
The way he saw it, it wasn’t long before Mom changed. After a hysterectomy, Dad believed, she was never the same. I’ve never accepted his hunch. It’s a given that hormonal, psychological, and emotional changes come with the physical when any woman goes through a hysterectomy. With Mom, there was clearly much more.
A combination of factors overwhelmed her. Losing a son in choosing a new life. Not being able to have a child of her own with Dad. A gnawing sense that, in giving up her uterus, she was no longer whole. Yet I feel certain Mom’s debilitating mental issues started heating up in Panama — they just hadn’t boiled over. The more inner turmoil the years piled on, the deeper she sank into her personal oblivion, blinding her to the blessing that she really did have it all.
In my youth, I didn’t really know about mental illness. I doubt Dad did either — or, like many of his generation, he dismissed it as “all in your head.” It became part of the internal undertow that dragged Mom under.
A high school friend, whom I value for her intellect, told me not long ago that it sounded as if Olga suffered from borderline personality disorder, paranoia, and narcissism. The former was a newly researched concept in the 1970s and didn’t become a diagnosis until 1980. The latter has been around as long as mirrors. Though my friend never met Olga, her wisdom may be greater than she knows.
Painfully clear to me, the sensitive younger son, was that Mom needed help badly. I was too intimidated by my own mother to even hint at it.
Well into my adulthood, Dad eventually came clean about her greatest need: Her psyche never got the lifesaving care it, and her powerless family, needed.
Is it really possible to feel any shred of love for someone you don’t like? I’m a case study.
Regardless of what trouble a daughter or son, young or old, gets into or causes, love is usually stamped on a parent’s soul with permanent ink. That’s not necessarily so from the child’s point of view, but much of the time, love is a shared commodity. Those kids, and those parents, are damned lucky.
My love for Mom isn’t deep or unconditional. I can’t define or quantify it. It exists, but it’s nothing like the bonding love most kids feel for their parents. It’s more like I love her simply because she’s my mother. Call it superficial, even unrealistic, but it’s what I’ve always felt. I’d be most honest with myself if I called it “love.”
I can’t imagine anyone not having, at minimum, appreciation for a parent’s sacrifices, time, and expense. I “love” Mom because she helped feed, clothe, and raise me, though her methods made our lives torturous. She must’ve done something right for me to be here, not in prison, doing drugs, or shot dead by police at a crime scene.
As I sift through the agonizing memories looking for positives, all I have to do is look at my brother and myself. We both turned out “normal,” stable — husbands, fathers, professionals. Most of that has been the doing of our own character. But our parents — even Mom — get some of the credit.
Still, I trace some of my more troubling traits to her. When my self-confidence goes missing, I see her dominance over me as a factor. When I’m uptight or defensive, I know there’s a link. When I can’t stand up or think for myself or make tough decisions, and when I’m submissive to others’ demands. When I disengage to avoid a brewing argument with my wife, withdrawing rather than talking a problem through. When I’m impatient, careless, or blatantly thoughtless toward my daughter and son. When I apologize incessantly for things that aren’t remotely my fault.
Dead over a decade, Olga still wields her power over me.
In pajamas and a robe you sit, 8 years old, behind your mother in her late-’60s, light-blue Oldsmobile Toronado. That’s all she ever buys: Toronados from a dealer nicknamed “Sam the Rocket Man.” She’s driving southwest Houston not far from your home in early darkness, buzzed and belligerent.
Your dad loves taking the family for drives after dinner. You always lean your head all the way back to gaze out the rear window, hypnotized by the rolling shadows as the car passes under highway lights. Sometimes you stop at an A&W, where carhops serve too-small glass mugs of root beer on a tray hooked over your father’s window. Other nights you head west on U.S. 90, out of the city and past the old Imperial Sugar plant, “Pure Cane” flashing on the building-top sign.
But your dad’s not here this time. Your parents are separated.
Your mother is a chronic tailgater and speeder. Her driving isn’t what has you shaken with fear tonight.
Just past your house on Dragonwick Drive, some older teens are hanging out on the cul-de-sac, a concrete drainage ditch stretched out behind it past chain-link fencing. She stops the car alongside the youths and rolls down her window.
“What are you doing outside so late?” she demands. “You shouldn’t be out here! Go home!”
Standing too close, you worry, the kids laugh with disbelief and get on her case. “Who do you think you are, lady? You can’t tell us what to do. Get outta here and leave us alone!”
From her large purse, your mother pulls out her reply, thrusting it just outside the window: a butcher knife. Without your dad around, surely she carries it for protection — and now, she must feel threatened. The teens back off, suddenly not so tough but yelling at the crazy woman.
You’re scared they’ll try to do something terrible to your family, or she to them. Some of the youths know where you live — no more than 25 yards away.
She pulls the car up the driveway, then sends you and your brother upstairs to bed. Somehow, you fall asleep. From your room above the garage, you don’t hear her leave again.
In the morning, the next-door neighbor, a friendly but loud black woman named Berda, startles you awake. (Your mother, with her heavy Panamanian accent, pronounces it “Bed-a.”)
“Your mother’s in jail,” Berda says. “You boys get dressed and have some breakfast. I’ll go down and pick her up later and bring her home.”
You anxiously wonder what will happen now. How bad things will get. When your dad will come back. It seems like he’s been gone so long, and it hurts.
Your mother walks listlessly through the front door that afternoon, rumpled, sleepless, still in her nightgown. You don’t know if she was arrested for driving drunk while you were sleeping or because the teens told their parents about the knife incident.
On her soft-brown face, you can just make out what must be streaks of grief and shame.
The words echo pleadingly through your head: Please stop shouting.
It’s the early 1970s, and your parents have been back together a couple of years. Your family left the urban neighborhood, in part because — your father’s words — too many colored people were moving in. Your new two-story, balconied home sits on the southern edge of Texas’ Piney Woods. Your dad, who travels often for his lingerie sales work, doesn’t gripe about his 30-mile commute back to Houston.
Upstairs, like most evenings, you and your brother sit at your white, built-in wooden desks doing homework. You haven’t eaten dinner, but it isn’t uncommon for the four of you to eat at 7 or 8 o’clock.
Downstairs, like most evenings, they sit across the den from each other having drinks — your dad his standard rum and Coke, your mom a vodka-and-orange juice screwdriver. She got her customary head start before he made it home.
They talk about the day. He tells her about the upscale department stores he called on: Joske’s, Foley’s, Sakowitz, and about his dealings with the buyers — mostly women — he takes orders from to stock their “foundations” displays. Before long, she contrives something to get upset about. A time to unwind becomes an all-out brawl. Verbal violence first. Then you can hear her slapping him.
It isn’t like this every night. It only seems like it. You lose focus on your studies, listening near the top of the stairs, careful not to step on the spot where the floor always creaks under the nauseating orange shag.
It’s quiet for a bit. Then the yelling resumes, she the instigator as usual. You’re convinced her anger is rooted in paralyzing jealousy over his being around all those women every day. After all, he is a nonstop flirt. You trust he’d never cheat on her — not that he doesn’t have reason to. But her insecurities, mixed with alcohol, often overflow into rage. He swears by the “never hit a woman” credo, so he just protects himself and says things like “all right … yeah, yeah … whatever you say.”
Soon, during another lull, you’re summoned for dinner. The tension is heavy enough to shatter the round glass kitchen table. Your dad, your brother and you know to keep your mouths shut. She doesn’t start in again.
On this night, you eat in silence.
“Mommy, when I grow up, can I marry you?”
“Sons don’t marry their mothers. I’m already married to your dad. You’ll find a nice girl someday and marry her.”
Like lots of young boys, I had a crush on my mother. She was pretty and always wanted me, the baby by 18 months, at her side. I felt loved, and everything seemed right — until almost everything began seeming terribly, frighteningly wrong. I can’t place exactly when that was, but once life changed, it never changed back. The crush wore off; the crushing fear took hold.
As our family unraveled, Mom didn’t treat Isaac and me the way most mothers treat their kids. We were more like possessions, and as time slogged on, I became her primary property. She wedged me under her thumb, where I was stranded until after college.
Isaac was the more self-assured and independent, the outgoing, resourceful kid who rebuilt the engine in Dad’s chocolate-brown hatchback Ford Pinto. He was the cool brother with the cool friends. The home-front chaos didn’t seem to shake him as much. Emotionally, he was just stronger. We were never what I’d call close. I was the pain-in-the-ass little brother he told to fuck off when I deserved it. Our personalities were Laurel-and-Hardy opposites.
I was the reserved, naive, introverted, nerdish kid who, for years, struggled to talk to girls and had a handful of introverted, nerdish close friends. Whenever I got home from school and didn’t see Mom’s car, a gust of relief would come over me. Often, instead of hanging out with friends, I would read, watch Star Trek reruns or sit on the bed practicing my clarinet, weakly dueting with Pete Fountain’s perfection of “Stardust Medley” on one of my albums. I had lots of headaches, from the stress and worrying constantly.
Mom was suffocatingly protective of us, but much more of me. Stuck on seeing me as her baby, she seemed determined for me not to grow up. Even after I started high school, she wanted me home on the bus right away so I could sit on a tiny black kitchen footstool as she started dinner. She never let me take driver’s ed, use the phone, go out with friends, or do much of anything away from home.
Even though I played on baseball and basketball teams, she knew the clarinet and band were my only real freedom, my one truly meaningful diversion. Overruling my happiness had always been her selfish discontent about my being away from her for after-school rehearsals, football games, and trips. That’s why she wouldn’t let me audition for marching band until eleventh grade.
Girls? She didn’t want me getting close to them — a rarity anyway. They’d forever be below her standards and in the crosshairs of her jealousy.
Bridging my junior and senior years, a pretty, brown-eyed brunette smiled her way into my heart. Because of Mom, it was a clandestine romance, limited mostly to the school bus, and to the times Dad would secretly pick up Anne on the way to Conroe High football games and my YMCA basketball games.
Anne and I would slide low into our bench seat on the bus, legs pressed up against the row in front of us. We snuggled, spoke so no one else could hear, and kissed without caring. Anne didn’t know the extent of my mother’s cruelty, but she knew I didn’t dare reveal I had a girlfriend.
One weekend afternoon, Anne rang our doorbell and Mom answered. Anne was crying and needed my comfort after a motorcycle rider purposely hit her family’s dog in the front yard.
As Anne stood tearfully outside the open front door, Mom became furious. She slammed the door, grabbed the jagged-toothed meat mallet, and went after me. “Who is she? A girl doesn’t come to a boy’s house! What does she want from you?” she yelled.
When I sat down next to Anne on the bus on Monday morning, she saw the bruises on my forearms, there because a girl had come around asking for me.
In Mom’s mind, there must have been justification for her insanely possessive treatment. I was younger than everyone around me, because I’d been bumped to first grade at age 5 after the first weeks of kindergarten boredom at a Lutheran school in Houston. I entered high school at 13 and didn’t turn 17 until three months before graduating.
Yet most people thought I was the older brother, because of what they saw as more maturity. I was just much too serious for a kid. They didn’t know the hell that helped make me that way.
I can’t even remember when Mom said the three words we all need to hear. She must have, but her actions made them meaningless. I don’t recall saying them to her either, although I’m sure I did. They were just as empty. She would put X’s and O’s in our birthday cards and occasionally call me Frank-o — which, like her usual delivery of my name, came out with an “ah” sound. Those touches didn’t make up for a thing.
But this much must be true: In the rare moments when her demons were asleep, she loved us.
Sitting crisscross on a king-size bed, you rub Johnson’s Baby Oil on her feet. Pressing your thumbs into her wrinkly soles, you massage as she reads the Houston Chronicle. After a near-fatal reaction in the early 1960s, she never takes off her gold ankle bracelet: ALLERGIC TO PENICILLIN.
The only sounds are the crinkling of the newspaper and the clicking of a white clock radio, the old kind where the minutes rolled and flipped forward, ever so slowly. What other high school kid has to rub his mother’s feet every night? Why not your brother?
It’s all part of her manipulation of the weak son. You can never stop being nervous about what she, the tornado that drops down out of nowhere with devastating strength, might do to you.
So on the nights when she doesn’t get too out of control, you rub her feet. Sometimes you get out of it, when you have too much homework or you lie about being too tired.
Now, when you touch your wife’s feet, you’re back on your mother’s bed, rubbing hers.
Forgiving her isn’t something that comes naturally. The devastation she caused our family — no, it’s not too strong a word — was so irreparable that I can’t muster the will to say to her spirit, “It’s OK, Mom. I forgive you for everything.”
How could I, ever?
We all lived with her mental illness and alcohol addiction, and she never thought — or bothered — to get help for either one. Through the empathy born of grasping that her kind of sickness is an immortal chameleon, with victims both inside and outside the body, I realized in middle age that I couldn’t hold her fully responsible.
I see it for what it was — human nature at its ugliest. It happened, I survived it, and I accept it.
But forgive her? My head and heart will only take me so far down that fraught path.
And yet as bad as things were, I believe they could have been much worse. No one died or was seriously hurt. Through all the unhappiness, we brothers learned from both parents the value of hard work, how to be gentlemen, wrong from right. From our fear and her heavy-handed doses of misplaced discipline, we knew all about respect.
Although ours was never a home wallpapered with affection or an ever-safe one, it was a home. We had two parents who stayed together for us, doomed though their relationship was. It’ll never be enough to suppress images of the fury that screwed with my nerves all those years, and still does. Or her high-decibel shouting that filled the house. But mixed with the blinding madness, there are glimmers to be thankful for.
Even so, I refuse to forgive Mom — and Dad — for this: They never willingly told my brother and me that we’d been adopted. If not for an argument Isaac and Mom had while I was away at college, we might never have found out the truth — although we weren’t surprised at the revelation.
She couldn’t accept that she hadn’t been able to have children with Dad. So she kept a trivial detail — of the two mothers who came before her — bottled up with the tangled mess inside her head. We were her children, and that blotted out any consideration of our right to know.
If it was Mom’s secret, it was Dad’s, too. After we knew, he told me more than once that he’d never thought of us as adopted. We were his sons, period. I cherish his devotion, but I’ll never move past how both of my parents lied to me through their silence.
She wanted everyone to notice and love her. And most did.
The manager at Corrigan’s jewelry store in Sharpstown mall. The Oldsmobile dealer. The waiters at Kaphan’s restaurant, a swank place near the Astrodome, and at the Chinese eateries we frequented. The staff at the vet’s office. Her customers when she opened her own lingerie shop in the late ’70s.
They thought she was attractive, which she was. Unique, which she absolutely was. Elegant. Charming. A stylish dresser. Everywhere she went, people were drawn to her. But the Olga they saw every now and then and the one we could never escape were sunny-stormy contrasts.
It would be untruthful to say she was never a decent human being at home — a good, almost tolerable mother. Sometimes she could be gentle, patient, understanding. Loving.
Even after a tumultuous night, Mom would often wake up to make us breakfast, slicing bananas into our Grape-Nuts Flakes as we dressed for school. Some mornings she’d talk to me briefly in a soft voice before going back to bed. No one would believe that she and the woman intoxicated, shouting, and at times being physically abusive a few hours earlier could be the same person.
The music playing in the house often broadcast that she’d started drinking. Mornings, the kitchen intercom radio was tuned to KQUE-FM — easy listening and big bands. By mid-afternoon, when she drank her first glass of Taylor wine, she’d turned the dial to a Top 40 station.
By nighttime, she might have the huge stereo console cranked up while dancing and singing to disco. “Mr. Big Stuff.” “Rock Your Baby.” “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” Fittingly, “Rock the Boat” was one of her No. 1 hits.
Mom and Dad had a vast collection of old music. But in the ’70s, she was hooked on disco and pop, buying dozens of 45s at Lew’s Record Shop in Houston, then stacking them to drop down and play one by endless one on the console. She had a thing for Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Barry White — and Elvis. As “Suspicious Minds” droned on, hammering at my gloom, it was numbingly appropriate. The tears Dad never seemed to show poured out in the lyrics.
We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much, baby.
It didn’t bother me that Mom dug music. We all did. It just felt wrong for a woman in her 40s to be getting drunk and getting down to loud music, even in her own home.
She was obsessed with taking years off her age in the way she acted and dressed. Driven to be hip, she wore midriff-baring tops. She loved fashion but also wanted all to see her as timelessly young. I harbored embarrassment at her façade.
Her age, we never knew for sure. Even Dad. She kept all evidence well-hidden. Her driver’s license — not that we ever saw it until she died — showed her being born in 1931. A Panama document discovered at Dad’s house put it at 1924. The Social Security Death Index says 1923. A form bearing details from her birth certificate, which I obtained last summer from Panama, says 1930. Another mystery. There’s so much I don’t know about her. I want to. I need to. Maybe something in her unseen past can help me understand.
Mom’s wardrobe and jewelry showed off the extravagance in her blood. She habitually spent money on herself and decorative gotta-have-its. And her numerous wigs. After Dad died, we stumbled on a receipt for one over $300 — and that was in the ’70s.
I don’t know how we ever made it financially. Even as one of the company’s top-grossing lingerie salesmen, Dad couldn’t make money fast enough to keep up with her spontaneous wants.
But from 1979 to ’83, I watched Mom write the checks that gave me hope and kept me pushing forward — for my tuition, room, and board to attend Texas A&M. Even when her account hardly had enough money to cover it. Back when it cost little more than $1,200 a semester.
Because those checks helped ensure my deliverance from her, I’m grateful still.
If you’re ever going to run away, this is the night.
Your parents are both drunk this time, arguing and shouting — and she, in her wild haze, hitting him. You stand in the kitchen in your pajamas and robe, crying, begging them to stop. Your brother, too.
Soon, your father lies on their bed, reeling from the rum. She grabs a huge knife from the kitchen, and you’re sure she’s going to kill him. She’s never allowed you to use the phone, but you know you have to call the police. You’re too terrified and cowardly to do anything.
They wrestle awkwardly as she attacks him at the foot of the bed, and soon the knife cuts into his groin area. He yells in pain. It isn’t serious, thank God, and he gets the knife away from her. The rest of the appalling memory blurs.
You have to get out, but you don’t dare leave your dad alone with her. Your best friend Karen, who, with her family, has helped you survive your teen years by keeping you sane and supported, always implores you to run away if you’re in danger. You never leave, never even seriously consider it. This time, you’re incapacitated — afraid to stay but much more afraid to leave, fearing what your mother will do to you when you come back. And you will, like so many victims of domestic abuse do.
Your dad cries. It’s the only time you see his tears. He must break down when no one can see, during the countless nights he spends in the upstairs guest room, at the other end of the hall from where you and your brother sleep.
At 6-1 and better than 225 pounds, Dad towered over her. But her unbreakable will — and being a woman — emasculated him. Years later, he confided in me that he, too, was scared of her, and if not for his sons, he might have left. He put up with every demand, every disrespect, every blow.
In front of his sons, she made a mockery of his manhood, saying he was a failure in the bedroom. That always infuriated me. It was her hateful desire to blame him for their having no biological children. On Saturday nights when we watched All in the Family, she landed more shots by comparing Dad to Archie Bunker. She routinely called him a grumpy old man and herself a sexy young woman.
Dad did what little he thought he could to protect us. It wasn’t nearly enough, and he often wasn’t around. Why didn’t he just get us out of there? If he’d filed for divorce and pushed for custody, what judge would have sided with her? In the late ’80s, five years after my college graduation, Dad finally left her after 35 years of “marriage.”
In his final months as melanoma was shortening his life, he shook his head and curled his lips into the most forced of smiles: “Poor Olga. She was a stinker.”
No, Dad. She was a mentally unstable alcoholic. A physical and emotional abuser. A taut, frayed rubber band perpetually on the verge of snapping. A stroke-in-waiting who needed treatment for so much more than her high blood pressure.
I love Dad too much to heap all responsibility on him. He couldn’t grasp that the answer — the only answer — was to get help for her. I should have made it my mission to persuade him. Even if I’d been successful, she would have resisted and fought like a wolverine. And who were we, as kids, to say what we believed had to be done?
Just like Dad, we did nothing to help her — and our family — heal.
Olga Eneida Christlieb lay dying in intensive care. She breathed haltingly, her eyes slowly opening, closing, opening, closing. An oxygen tube and an IV catheter were inside her, annoying, beeping monitors at her side, along with her two sons. She didn’t know.
For 13 years, she had survived major and mini-strokes. She ignored her stroke-disabled left hand and lived an isolated life with her sturdy right after refusing therapy. She stubbornly stayed in her home of over 30 years as we tried to coax her into assisted living. She leaned on family and friends to get her to medical appointments and the store to buy food, and to help pay her bills. She counted on misguided friends to help her score the cigarettes and wine her doctor urged her to quit.
Standing by her hospital bed, I felt somewhat sad and sorry for her, much more for the rest of us. No matter what we’d all endured with her, because of her, she was my mother. Her gratifying earliest days of marriage had been turned to fiction by a fog that never lifted. If only she’d gotten help, her life, and ours, could’ve been so much happier and more rewarding.
Isaac and I kissed her cheeks.
My wife Kay, our young son, and I were set to go on a cruise with Kay’s family, and I knew I wouldn’t see Mom alive again. Dad told us to have a good time and not worry. On our second day at sea, the email came from Isaac that Mom was gone. It looked to him like she was smiling when she left, and that made me smile, too.
I can’t pinpoint when I began making a stilted peace with her, when some of the permanent wounds started to close. Not while she was living, and not in the few years after her death. But when I’ve thought of Mom in recent years, what has overcome me isn’t pain and bitterness. It’s regret.
When Kay and I married almost 25 years ago, we didn’t invite Mom. I didn’t even tell her that, at 33, I was finally taking my life’s biggest step. She was in irreversibly bad health but managing, so she probably could have come if we’d made the effort to get her there. Our real reason for excluding her: We were sure she’d turn our day into something we’d always remember, for the worst reasons. Head-shakingly senseless as it may sound, I feel we should have given her the chance to share in our bliss.
But my greatest remorse regarding my mother flows from what happened after our son was born in 2001: We never told her about him. Our prime consideration, our obligation, was to protect him. We didn’t want him around her, exposed to her instability. Her temper. Her vices. Her quirks.
As her body and mind weakened, she would refuse her family’s help and not answer the phone or door. The police were called out when no one could reach her, only to break in and find she was there all along — living, but not really, in her addled little world. The possibility of conflict and complications in bringing our son to meet and spend time with her was too much to risk.
If we could study my brain under the most powerful of microscopes, what would we find to explain my guilt about keeping her out of her only grandson’s life? We could spend thousands on psychoanalysis to carve out a sliver of the subconscious that turned me 180 degrees, thinking that, at least, we should have tried.
What we’d discover would only validate the person others see me as: compassionate, understanding, kindhearted, rarely hateful. Forgiving. Some of the qualities Mom showed in her calmer moments. From what I’ve learned about my late biological mother, much of my nature was hers.
During my final minutes with Mom, my 2-year-old son Will was in the hospital lobby with Dad and my pregnant wife. Maybe it would have made a difference if I had brought Will into ICU. Maybe, even in Mom’s state, it would have released a gush of joy and she’d have died happier than she had been in many years. Or maybe it would have angered her so much, knowing we had kept him from her, she would have had another stroke and died on the spot.
Like an adoption should never go unrevealed, a parent shouldn’t be deprived of the gift of a grandchild, except in the most dangerous and dysfunctional of situations. Regardless of the unknowns, the inevitable hardships, and especially the history, we should have told Mom of Will’s existence.
And then, with more caution than a deep-sea diver perilously close to a great white, we could have attempted a visit. If it turned into a disaster, we’d move on and leave her in her misery.