I don’t really know what happened with my parents when they got a divorce. I only know what I’ve been told after the fact by my mom, which I’m sure could be a bit one-sided. However, there was evidence to confirm what she told me, so I’m pretty confident that most of it was true. They were very good at keeping their problems hidden from me. I never knew we had issues with money, and I never knew they had been arguing, until a few days before my dad decided to move out.
We lived in a nice home. We had continually improved our homes ever since I can remember. When I was in the 3rd grade, we had to write a paper for the school’s “open house” for parents. We had to describe ourselves and not put our names on the paper. The parents would have to guess which paper belonged to their child. I asked my mom a few things about our history, and since she was pregnant with me she said we moved 11 times. That number seemed too high to me, and I asked her again. (She was bowling on a league at the time, and I was catching her between her turns to bowl.) She thought of all the places we lived and said it was right. I have a great recall for many memories, but moving that much is not one of them. Before the age of 5, I can clearly remember 2 of the homes. I don’t remember any of the other places, so it’s hard for me to know if that’s accurate.
My mom and dad both graduated from college. It took my mom 5 years, due to working and paying for her education at the same time. My dad graduated with a business degree, and my mom graduated with a degree to teach English and got a job teaching 7th graders. She told me it was a miserable job. She was a bit tough on the kids and gave spelling tests, whereas the other teachers didn’t, so the students didn’t like her. She got pregnant after the first half of the school year and had to leave – they didn’t allow pregnant women to teach in those days, and I’m sure she was relieved. My dad sold cookware door-to-door when he first got out of school, but apparently that didn’t last long.
With the new baby on the way, they came up with another idea. They decided to open a children’s clothing store. My mom was at the store with the baby, and dad did the business end. His parents gave them the money to start the business.
I don’t know whether the store was successful or not, but one night, my dad confided in my mom that all he really wanted to do was become a doctor. It was a long shot – it would require another 7 years of study. But my mom wanted to support his dream, and they both dreamed of the day he would have a doctor’s salary. My dad’s parents said they would pay for his schooling, and my mom said she would take care of the kids during the day, and wait tables at night, supporting the family. She told me that the housecleaning would happen after she came home from work, and sometimes ended up scrubbing the floors at 3:00am.
My dad did really well in medical school. He noticed a Chinese student who finished his exams in half the time of the rest of the class, and consistently made A’s. He befriended the young man and asked him how he did it. He explained that he used as many senses as he could while studying. He would read a chapter aloud into a tape recorder. Then as he listened to the playback, he would write down an outline. He would record the outline and play that back while making yet another, more general outline. He continued this process until the day of the test, when he listened to his most general outline on the way to the exam. My dad adopted this idea, and graduated 2nd in his class. The Chinese student, of course, graduated at the top.
It was in his residency that he started drinking more heavily. My mom thinks he picked it up from the other residents, but I have no idea if that’s true. He would be gone for days at a time, sleeping at the hospital for his long shift. Despite his drinking, one of the top hospitals wanted to hire my dad. According to my mom, he took some kind of psychological competency test, and rated very poorly, so the hospital didn’t hire him. He decided to open up his own practice. It was just him and a nurse, and his practice began to grow. So did his opportunities to cheat on my mom – which he did with several of his nursing assistants.
The double shifts for my mom were over, and soon the doctor’s salary would take care of them. She could now be a full-time housewife, and she took the job seriously. She joined the PTA, and organized entertaining shows (and performed) for the school to raise money. She became the head of my sister’s Girlscout troop and created lots of engaging activities – including turning a home into a Japanese restaurant (she even wore Japanese clothing and a black wig.) I remember her preparing for it – she was so excited. I wanted to be part of the experience, but I was told I was too young. She took my sister and I to dance class, she made us fun lunches, making faces on our plates, did all the shopping, cooked and cleaned, paid the bills, drove Ken to his music lessons and sewed us each new outfits for our first day of school each year. I remember Dad being home on the weekends, with a drink and a cigarette in each hand, sitting and watching football on TV, while my mom mowed the yard.
During all of these changes, my parents loved parties – hosting and attending. My mom’s closest friend confided in me that at her gatherings my dad would get drunk and kiss other women. She didn’t like my dad since the moment she met him – which was before my parents were married. She told my mom it was completely inappropriate. My mom replied that was just the way he was. This same friend allowed her 16-year-old daughter to babysit us, until Dad drove her home one night and made sexual advances. That was the last time she came over to babysit. He was addicted to alcohol, drugs and sex. I guess he was the epitome of the 1960s, but started his party in the 1950s, and for the most part, my mom just went along with it. He put her on diet pills to stay skinny, she took up smoking (but quit when I was younger) and wore a blond wig at his suggestion. Despite his terrible behavior, she loved him like he was a rock star. Even to this day, she would say that my dad was “so handsome” and “such a charmer”. I never saw it. She had also made the commitment, “Til death do us part,” and made it very clear, that she would never leave him – no matter what.
What I witnessed was a loving, beautiful woman, had become a slave to a man who grew less and less interested in her. She waited on him like he was the customer – and the customer was always right. Even as a young child, I saw the injustice of the situation. My dad never lifted a helping hand, not even to do the dishes. That was left to her and the kids. Even with society’s expectations of a “woman’s place” and a “man’s place”, I still felt it wasn’t right.
As we moved into bigger and better houses, the stress escalated. One day Dad brought home a black, convertible Cadillac. We were elated! It was so fun to ride in a convertible. Dad seemed very happy. Mom, on the other hand, was not.
“We don’t have the money for this,” she told my dad.
“No, it will be fine. This will be my incentive for going to work! I know I’ll have to pay it off.”
“Our cupboards have no food in them. Isn’t feeding your children an incentive?” my mom shot back.
He ignored her, and continued to enjoy his Cadillac, and our nice home. The banks were happy to loan money to a doctor. Little did they know, that every 7 years he filed bankruptcy. After 7 years, it cleared from your record (at least it did back then.)
It wasn’t long after the purchase of the Cadillac that I witnessed my parents arguing for the first time.
My mom had made chicken for dinner and my dad showed up a couple of hours late.
“You’re late again” my mom said with obvious anger in her voice.
My dad didn’t answer.
“I kept some chicken warm for you in the oven,” she said as she walked toward the stove, demanding that he engage in conversation with her. “Did you hear me? I said I kept some chicken warm for you in the oven,” she said as she pulled the chicken out of the oven. She was almost shouting, even though he was right there in the kitchen.
He took the pan out of her hands and slammed the pan to the floor. “God damn it, I don’t want any chicken! You can take your chicken and shove it!” It was almost as if he were angry at her for trying so hard; for always doing the right thing, even though he was acting like such a jerk. He was also quite drunk, but I didn’t know it at the time. He seemed the same to me, except he didn’t show this violent side very often. I was frightened.
“Not in front of the children!” she cried, looking at my younger brother and I. The older siblings weren’t even home.
“Not in front of the children,” he mocked her. “Want me to put the chicken through the TV set? Want me to put my fist through the TV set?!” He was threatening to punch the small set we had in the kitchen. I remember being frozen in fear, unable to leave this interaction. He threatened until she was visibly frightened. She asked us to leave the kitchen. I went into my room hearing the shouting, but not able to understand what was going on.
They had the same kind of argument a couple of days later. My dad was late, he threatened to punch the TV with his fist again – and this time, I really thought he was going to do it. My mom cried. Again, I left the kitchen. And again, my older siblings weren’t there.
With all the arguments, my dad never hit my mom. It was more of a psychological warfare than a physical one.
The following Saturday morning, Dad took my brother John and I aside and said he wanted to talk with us in the basement. This was unprecedented.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just come on down to the basement,” he said with a friendly smile on his face.
“Why can’t you just talk with us here?” Sometimes I was a persistent and curious child.
“I want you to come down to the basement. I’ll meet you down there.”
I made my way down to the basement with John and asked him if he knew what was going on. He said he had no idea. We were standing next to our ping pong table that we rarely used.
Dad came down and took one of our hands in each of his. He squatted down and looked up at us. He had never done that before. “Your mom and I haven’t been getting along, and we need to spend a little time apart from each other. I got an apartment less than 5 miles away, so we can just see how things go.”
“How long are you going to be gone?” I asked, my heart racing.
“Not long. We’re just going to try this for a couple of weeks or so. I’ll be back soon. And I’m not far away. You can come and visit me any time, ok?”
This was not okay. My brother was silent. Maybe he knew this was coming. I was in shock. I just saw two arguments that week and he was leaving. I didn’t know this was even an option. Dads don’t leave their kids. And parents don’t split up.
“Ken is going to move in with me for now. But we’ll be back. It won’t be long.”
That was it. He hugged us and said goodbye. I ran up to my room, and watched him drive away in a green, Volkswagon Beetle. (He sold his Cadillac by then.) The car was completely filled past the windows full of his things. At that moment, I knew he was lying. He was never coming back. (Interestingly enough, it was many years later that I learned that this was the moment I formed the belief that successful people are liars, and I was never going to be one of them.)
John visited him on Saturdays, but I didn’t. I was mad. John would tell me that Dad missed me, that his feelings were hurt that I wouldn’t come to see him. He would say, “At least call him! He misses you.” I told him that if he really missed me, he would call me and tell me himself. And if he really wanted to see me, he would invite me over. I was hoping he would, but he never did. I saw him once or twice at that apartment, because my mom insisted I go see him. She probably needed time without any kids. But when I visited him, I learned that there was more to the story. He wasn’t just leaving Mom because they weren’t getting along. He had fallen in love with my mom’s best friend. Another big surprise for my 8-year old self.
I’ll tell more about that in my next blog.