S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Fortunate Son,” Park talks about his family and ponders why they missed his wedding back in 1977.
Sometimes, after my mother and I have a spat on the phone, I feel guilty afterwards. She’s a hundred-and-one years old for Christ’s sakes, with all the irritability and stubbornness attendant to that age. Why can’t I be the bigger person? Why do I let her push my buttons that way?
Then I remember the main reason: she and my father, like two of my three brothers, skipped my wedding. It was the Fall of ’77, and not only had I given them ample notice, but it took place on beautiful waterfront property in the Puget Sound and I was marrying a brilliant (if quirky) girl.
And they couldn’t be bothered to attend. I’ve had lots of practice with rejection, and I’m not inclined to grudges—I made adversity a partner a long time ago—but skipping your own son’s or brother’s wedding? For any reason, much less none at all? I’ve nowhere to put that; it seems unforgivable to me.
I mean I was obviously the black sheep of the family, much less a Scientologist at the time (would the wedding be a creepy cult affair?) and I’d certainly done enough drugs and alcohol to besmirch the family name, but my father and older brother were no slouches in the booze department, either. Plus if you’d taken me aside as a teenager, suggested my family had bent over backwards to accommodate my otherness, I would have agreed.
I still would. So what happened between then and my nuptials (much less the decades since)? Are my memories of an idyllic childhood false? Was it all a charade? Were my parents and brothers just humoring me?
If so I’ve gotta hand it to them: they grounded a moody, erratic personality in WASP bedrock, which was invaluable for the roller coaster ahead. I was never in a mental ward, halfway house or jail, in fact, where I felt like a victim or didn’t believe I was the toughest-minded loser there.
Much less the least neurotic, as I got the jock version of Leave It to Beaver growing up, while many addicts I’ve known had tortured upbringings. I could be dying of spinal meningitis, then encephalitis, or have my face halved by a mailbox flag, or light whole forests on fire or grow to be a foot taller than my peers, or be sent home for refusing to recite The Pledge of Allegiance or drawing nude savages … and my parents’ support never wavered.
“Oh, that Wilson,” they’d say. “What a character.”
As if they’d gathered my brothers around years before, told them: “Look, we know he’s a weirdo, but play along till he’s gone.”
Then pointed to my cartoons as proof. Because they hardly noticed them otherwise; they were ballplayers. They felt sorry for me when I received books instead of balls at Christmas, or preferred solitude to team sports.
It was the same when I got 4.0’s and they earned B’s and C’s: the disparity was rarely mentioned. That made it a dream upbringing from my perspective, and the problems only arose when I left home.
This was my first hint that all was not as it seemed. I was eighteen and attending Portland State, and my buddy Jake McDuff had asked me to move in with him. He’d rented a studio for ten bucks a month (making my share five) and, even more importantly, claimed the place was a whorehouse.
That was all the convincing I needed: I wasn’t inclined to lie to my parents, but I’d kill to live in a place like that. So I prepared a presentation that was rife with ass kissing and light on details.
My mother’s feelings were paramount, after all … she’d be losing her second son to the world and that was bound to be difficult. I waited until she was busy washing dishes, then approached her from behind.
“Mom,” I said, clearing my throat, “Jake McDuff is renting an apartment downtown and asked if I’d like to move in with him. Now I …”
“That’s fine, Wilson,” she said, not even turning around. “And you can still do your laundry here if you wish.”
Was that it? Did I detect a sigh of relief there? Part of me was offended, but not a big part (I was out the door five minutes later, grinning from ear to ear). In the years to come I cited it as the Greatest Generation at its finest, how you raised the brats for eighteen years, then gave them the boot.
Now I imagine my mother doing a jig with the neighbors afterwards. I further sealed the deal when—on the pretext of delivering laundry—she and my father visited the apartment later that Fall. I’d been in class and caught them as they exited the building.
Their faces and bodies were rigid with shock: not only had the girls propositioned my father, but neither of my parents had ever been in a place a tenth that seedy.
My heart went out to them. (Well, as much as it ever does to OCD’s.) I’d offended their sensibilities and validated their worst fears at the same time, proving I was—and would always be, despite their best efforts—an irredeemable wretch.
It was a benchmark moment and I, for one, was at a loss for words. Fortunately my mother lightened the mood by vowing she’d never visit a place I lived again. (Which she hasn’t, but then … neither have my brothers.)
It took me a moment to process the enormity of that gift, as this was a woman who meant what she said. I bent to hug her but she shoved me away instead. Slipped into the front of the station wagon with my father and sped off.
Yet I continued to believe (against all reason) that my parents “got” me. This persisted into my twenties, even though my father had set me straight in high school. I read philosophy as a hobby, and one evening I took the old ball turret gunner aside, asked if he could help me with Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave.”
He looked at me as he often did, as if there’d been a mix-up in the nursery.
“You really don’t get it, do you, Wilson?” he said softly.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t understand half the stuff that comes out of your mouth, son, much less what’s in that mind of yours. I never have and I never will.”
It was a stunning admission to me, as I truly revered my father. I was so shocked, in fact, that I pretended it hadn’t happened. How else to explain my letters home later? (Granted it was my wino years, but cringeworthy is cringeworthy):
Dear Mom & Dad:
Woke up behind a dumpster this morning with no idea how I got here. Fortunately I still have my boots (no one wants size thirteens, and they’re wrapped in duct tape, anyway), and a couple bucks in change.
Also the last of a pint of Mad Dog 20/20. Always have “hair of the dog” around … that’s my motto. It’ll get me on my feet and down the street, where I can sell my blood for ten bucks. Hate how cold that plasma is when they pump it back into you but hey! it beats working for a living!
Just kidding: I’m sure I’ll find another bad job soon. In the meanwhile forgive the stationary. I prefer paper but cardboard’s the only thing available …
Really? I’d made the whorehouse into the good ol’ days.
When I was a boy I considered myself the luckiest kid around. Not only had my parents chauffeured me to all those art classes as a boy, but neither of them ever missed a game I played. Even when I was growing too fast to walk and dribble at the same time; even when I was sitting on the freshman or junior varsity benches. (They were often the only parents in the gym. They show that kind of support … then skip my wedding?) I go to reunions and classmates still ask about them.
“Those two were always there,” they’ll say. “You High boys … it must have been something, being loved like that.”
It was: you won’t get any complaints from me. Then one afternoon, when I was twenty-eight and living up the road in a wino hotel, I went to my parents’ apartment for a visit. They usually greeted me at the door, but this time they remained seated. When I walked into the living room I was met with a stony silence.
Ah Jesus, I thought. Whatever it was, they’d obviously worked themselves up to it. My mother rose from the couch, handed me a bundle of letters. They were bound with string and, as I leafed through them, I realized they were all ones I’d written.
I was surprised. “Wow!” I said. “You so appreciated my letters that you saved them?”
Then I got closer to the bottom, noticed many of them were unopened.
“Eh, not exactly,” said my father.
“Remember what we taught you as a boy, Wilson?” my mother asked.
“That’s a long list,” I said.
“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all?”
I looked down at those missives. “Oh … right. Forgot about that one.”
I’d broken every WASP rule by highlighting my struggles with addiction over the years, overestimating my mother’s irreverence and taking their admonitions about “honesty” too seriously.
Then I read some of the things I’d written and was more embarrassed than they were. I kept a couple of those missives (excerpt above) and tossed the rest; other than a letter to my father on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day I never wrote my parents again. (They didn’t thank me directly, but I could tell—during my annual Christmas call—that they were grateful.)
So yeah, I suppose I’m a disappointment as a son and a brother. That’s still no reason to ignore my wedding (I did, after all, attend their ceremonies), even as they’d argue that they couldn’t take my nuptials seriously.
This was apparent when I called my mother in the Winter of ’78 and told her Patti and I were divorcing. She swore under her breath.
“So you’re saying it lasted … what?” she asked. “Six months?”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Well, yeah, mom,” I said, “August through January. Now I know you’re disappointed, but …”
“Darn right I am! I had ‘eight’ in the pool! This makes Ben the winner.”
That was vaguely disquieting, he being the only one who attended the wedding.
Of course, I had to make him Best Man first.