“Hey, you’re not really mad at me,” I said, gently tugging on his curly chest hair, already graying and smelling so deliciously of him. “Look, look, that’s a smile coming out, I can see it, I can see it!” And, as if my very words cast a magical spell, his facial expression changed. From a puckered brow and a frown, my powers of alchemy brought light into his eyes and a smile broke into blossom on his lips.
He wasn’t mad at me; I could regain my sense of invulnerability, at least in the present moment. Sitting in his lap, I felt at ease, warm, loved, and, above all, safe. Maybe I could even talk him into taking me for a piggyback ride! He would stroll through our small apartment, his strong hands holding on firmly to my ankles, and I would delight in my newfound height, being on top of the world, literally and figuratively! I could gaze intimately at the patterns in the ceiling plaster; I could glory in the texture and feel of the upside-down tulip-shaped light fixture. I was above it all. From this vantage point, I was the monarch of our apartment and thus the whole world -what joy!
It was easy for my very young self to charm my dad. My mom was a whole other story, or should I say, stories. I write about her with an unsettling mixture of feelings: guilt, love, sorrow. When my mother was in a good place, healthy and happy, she was wonderful. When she was in a playful mood, I was gaga with delight. We had a favourite game we played: Alice and Shirl. We would take on these personae and play pretend friends. I don’t recollect much of what we did together, maybe had tea parties, and, to my deep regret, I cannot for the life of me recall who was who. This lack of memory bothers me to this day, and I know of no way, short of possible hypnosis, to recover this knowledge. But what does matter is that Alice and Shirl was a source of great comfort and happiness for me. I can remember walking into the kitchen where my mother would be doing some household chore – ironing comes to mind: I can see the old coke bottle with the perforated cork top which she used to sprinkle the clothes before they submitted to her rhythmic strokes – and I’d ask if we could play. Many times she’d be willing to take a break and Alice and Shirl time would commence. I was in heaven.
I don’t believe I tried to mimic ironing; what I did like to play was “Office”: I would take scraps of paper and that old 20th ct. artifact, check deposit slips, scribble on them, and put them in piles held together with bobby pins. Putting marks on paper always excited me, from my youngest days. Whoo, this brings to mind one of the few times that my experience with my father that wasn’t as pleasurable as I had expected it to be. I had been writing a story, on the back of pink message slips that my mother had brought home from her underpaid work as a typist. All I recall now of that first attempt at a literary career, was that that Tilly was one of my characters. Derivative, you might scoff, since that was the name of one of my mother’s friends and thus not original with me. But my father’s criticism, alas, cut more to the quick – he said I had too many characters and it was hard to keep track. But I knew who was doing what, so I felt misunderstood and unsupported. Across the many miles of time, I can now imagine that he thought he was being helpful, so I give him retrospective credit.
He did support my narrative adventures when we’d take our treasured long walks on occasional Sundays, trekking up along the streets around the mountain that was at the heart of the city, Montreal, where I came naked into this world and lived for my first twenty-one years. We would take turns telling a story, making up the tale as we walked along, bundled up arm in arm in our woolies if it was a crisp winter day, or feeling sunshine on our arms when it was warmer. Maybe we would stop to rest on a park bench, where he might draw out the newspaper he always carried in his back pocket (I know where I got my habit of never being without reading material), and maybe I would take a turn on the swings or just revel in sitting beside him.
Being able to cajole a parent, as when I was sitting on my father’s lap, wasn’t an available option when it was my mother who was mad at me. She could tongue lash with the best of them, and the words to exonerate myself stuck in my throat. Speaking up for myself, or “speaking back”, as she termed it, was not a possibility for me. Instead, I was vulnerable to her anger and when she would then give me the silent treatment, one of the most common weapons in her arsenal, I was miserable to the very marrow of my bones. Life was a black hole until she forgave me my slight and was talking to me again. I was so very much at the power and the mercy of her moods and her will. As an adult I understand how difficult her life was, dealing with financial hardship, health challenges and undiagnosed depression. But a young kid doesn’t have the benefit of these insights – so Alice and Shirl and other fun times together were so precious to me. I know now that she loved me fiercely through it all. I just wish I could have been able to sit in her lap and sweet talk her into our mutual happiness.
Marilyn Myerson, PhD Philosophy, has learned to take nothing for granted and to have fun. She retired from USF after 38 years of teaching, learning and kicking up her heels in Women’s and Gender Studies. Marilyn was the first outside hire in W(G)S, starting in 1973, when the department was just one year old. She was an administrator at various departmental and dean’s levels, including a stint as W(G)S Chair before her retirement as Emeritus faculty in 2010. She shepherded the Human Sexual Behavior class through its many incarnations, developed the original women’s health classes, and taught feminist research methodology. She is currently in three writing groups , and happily involved with OLLI-USF, taking art and writing classes. She created and teaches OLLI Imaginative Writing classes and facilitates writing groups.
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