Friday, January 22, 2010

The Girls in the Hood

I can never say goodbye to my sisters without crying - it's a family joke. At 57, I’m the baby, and people have sworn at various times that I look just like all three of them. Yesterday my colleague and friend saw a picture of my sisters and told me that I look just like Mary Lou and asked if she was the youngest – but her eyes aren't that good. Several times when I've visited my sister Barbie in Pennsylvania, people have wrapped me in a bear hug and started chatting me up, thinking I was her. Years ago when I worked in the corporate world, I attended a class where one of the presenters kept staring at me: he went back to Chicago and told my sister Pat that her doppelganger resided in Arkansas.

After our dad died (mom having passed almost exactly a year earlier), we were faced with cleaning out their house, dividing their things and all that entailed. Nightmares are made of such stuff. To say we had complicated relationships with our folks is like saying that my gangrenous leg has a slight odor, and the color is not looking too good either. Dad was always playing us off against each other; we said many times that it was a wonder that we didn't loathe each other. There were always favorite children, depending on his mood, and favorite grandchildren, which he was amazingly open about. For example, he threw an 80th birthday party for himself, where he raved about what a local waitress had meant to him but never mentioned our mother, and although two of his grandchildren were there, the only ones he spoke of were his two (absent) favorites, which someone in the audience finally pointed out to him was rather tacky. There is a picture of me at that party, looking as if I smelled something bad while listening to him celebrate himself. He told one of my sisters one time that he couldn't understand why he was pretty popular, but no one in his family liked him. It hurt him that none of us ever said "you're a good Daddy." I forgot to mention he was a military man: for an excellent portrayal of our family life, read The Great Santini by Pat Conroy.

It's not a nice thing to say about your father, but he was a sadist at heart. One of the many ways he tormented our mother was by proclaiming, out of the blue and often during a nice dinner when we were visiting, that he wasn't leaving anything in his will to his kids. Although she strongly opposed this, she never merited consideration: all she did was run a household and raise five kids while living under his reign of terror. After she died, he talked constantly about his will: what charity du jour would receive his money, which of us he'd leave everything to, which of us would be cut out. He loved the thought that his kids were fighting over his money. We all echoed the same refrain: all for one, and one for all. No matter how many times we said and demonstrated that, he never got it. In the end, he indeed felt some were more equal than others.

I'm the only one who lives in Arkansas, where my parents also lived, but unlike the stories you hear, I was never left to take care of everything on my own: my sisters visited often, many times in shifts during the really hard times. My oldest sister described it as visiting the House of Usher. At the end, when I could no longer even visit because his craziness and viciousness sent me into a tailspin, they didn't lecture about familial obligations but assured me that I was doing what I felt best for my family and me.

Pat pretty much arranged everything for both funerals, including writing the eulogies for both parents. We agreed we could not present him as a good man, a good father, a good husband in his eulogy - he was a mean, bitter man - but Pat wrote about him in a respectful, sympathetic and charitable way. (Much unlike the way I am writing about him now: he was probably mentally ill if not severely depressed: I think of how I feel on my darkest days and know that was the way he felt all the time. Still, he was the meanest man I ever knew and I write on. Maybe later I can be more kind to him.)

After the funeral, we cleaned out the house in what could have been a painful, divisive process. And although I have a very selective memory, my memory of that week is clear and truthful: it was a sad, depressing but harmonious time. We took joy in all being together -- it doesn't happen that often. There were no quarrels about who got what. Although he would have loved a fight there too: he knew that I wanted a particular necklace's of mom's, and gave it to Barbie with instructions that under no circumstances was she to give it to me. And she didn't: I plucked it from her pocket one day.

I think of that time now because I recently received a check from Mary Lou, which I opened and puzzled over: was she sending me an overly generous New Year's gift? If so, why wasn't it a more balanced number? Mary Lou received more than the rest of us, which she shared equally, and this was money from some bonds he gave her that had just come of age or whatever it is that bonds do, and she split the money among us. The thing is, she thinks nothing of it: she doesn't think she's done anything special or exceptional - she was just abiding by the rules of the Mustakeers. As did Pat -- all the work she did, both as the eldest sister and an attorney, was just what you do for your family. No big deal. I write this sitting at our new (well, flea market new) dining table that we bought with our share of the money.

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