My mom took one look at me and said, “Look at you; a dirty, filthy mess.’’
I was six years old, mixed a concoction of dirt with too much water to cement a small fort of stones for my army action figures. My face and clothes were streaked with mud, hands caked with it.
It was supper time. My dad and sister, Jane Theresa, were sitting at the table while my mom wiped the mud off my face and hands with a hot washcloth.
“Why can’t you be like your sister?’’ she asked, kneeling in front of me, wiping me down like a zoo animal. I didn’t respond; I was trying not to cry from the pain of the washcloth. I looked at Jane Theresa sitting at the kitchen table; she was staring back at me in her pink-and-white striped dress and her brown hair pulled back, napkin placed perfectly on her lap. That’s what mom taught her — to be a lady. Mom was a teacher, and while establishing strict control was the norm for a classroom of 32 kids, her staunch adherence didn’t have to translate to home.
Jane Theresa was the model, I was the lump of clay, so “why can’t you be like your sister?’’ was a refrain I heard all the time. My mother would say it, sometimes daily, but that’s because I was busy being a boy; I supposed the boy that mom wanted to be a girl. When I came home dirty in the summer after being in the woods all day with my friends; jumping ramps on our dirt bikes and coming home with cuts, scrapes, ripped jeans; making mud bombs to whip at each other; playing with matches and getting caught by the neighbor girl who squealed to my parents; that’s what she said.
“Why can’t you be like your sister?’’
I never bothered to answer, never felt like I needed to. I walked away thoughtlessly, not caring what was said to me, or what anyone thought of me, including mom and dad. I was too young to care about the pressures that people placed on each other.
My sister was a little more favored: three years older and well-behaved, good grades in school, only leaving the back yard to play with her friends when she went to a different back yard, and never walked into the house a scruffy mess from a wild day of adventures like me. I don’t think mom and dad loved either one of us more than the other, but since I didn’t equal Jane Theresa in so many aspects of our childhoods, I learned not to try.
Whenever mom said that, Jane Theresa seemed to be nearby. She would stare at me, cold, indifferent, and would never say anything. I never knew how to interpret it; was she reflecting mom’s frustration, was she telling me that I would never be as good as her, or was she saying she was mom’s and dad’s chosen child to be the achiever of the family?
In high school, dad would say it – not nearly as often as mom — in reference to my grades, which were average, never comparable to my sister’s. She was away at college at that point, making the Dean’s List, so I didn’t have to deal with the cold stare, but I still had that feeling she was there, behind me, or standing in the next room, just looking with that gaze I hated to meet.
I didn’t go to college; I knew it wasn’t for me. Mom prodded and tried to persuade me to go, but I sat in enough classrooms throughout high school and was bored with it. Again, mom pedestalized Jane Theresa as my example and went further, saying, “You’ll never amount to anything without an education.’’ I went into the world of work instead, and attended a technical school. I learned welding, got good at it, traveled throughout most of the Northeast welding huge sheets of iron to make boilers for industrial heating systems. When I worked close to home, I came home dirty and scruffy from the soot.
Once mom and dad met me at the front door of my apartment, not knowing they caught me immediately after a long shift at work. They saw how dirty I was. That day, I was extra scummy because I was repairing an old boiler system that was rotting away; besides the soot, I was covered in rust stains from decades-old iron. My green hoodie was streaked black with soot and sprinkled with orange, my hair looked like it was full of dull orange glitter “Look at you,’’ mom said. “You’ll never change; always dirty.’’
“But mom, I just got home from work. Didn’t even shower yet.’’ Neither of my parents understood a dirty job like the one I had. As a teacher, mom was always dolled up in a pretty dress, makeup applied perfectly; and Dad, who sold expensive suits and clothing at a special store for men, wore his gold ring and bracelet on manicured hands. He wore a suit and tie with a buttoned vest; and kept a special closet at home for the suits he wore to work.
“Do you think you’ll ever be like your sister?’’ mom asked me.
“What do you mean? Like always dressed up?’’
“Not only that, but working at a better job where you don’t come home looking like that.’’ Her ignorance of how I made a living wasn’t shocking. It was just plain dumb. And my dad stood there, behind mom, staring at me.
“My job is a good job. I make quadruple what Jane Theresa makes, and I have a much better skill.’’ I walked through the front door of my apartment, forgetting to brush off the soot and rust my clothes accumulated; it fell off me with each step, sprinkled all over the old linoleum floor of my kitchen. I grabbed my paycheck from last week, showed it to her.
“You only get paid once a month?’’
I laughed. “No. That’s what I make in one week, Ma.’’ She was surprised and so was dad. “I have so much cash in the bank saved up that I don’t need to deposit my most recent check.’’ I explained to them there are only a few people on the whole east coast who do what I do, so I make a very good living despite looking like a bum.
“And in two days, I get another that’ll look like this one,’’ I said, still holding the check up to their faces.
They finally came in the door. I don’t know if they were afraid to get close to me for how dirty I was or if they thought my apartment was as scummy as I looked. They stood against the wall of my kitchen like they were criminals in a lineup. They didn’t stay long; all they wanted was to tell me that my sister was getting married. It made me think they were more interested in making me envious of my sister than paying a sincere visit. This was the first time they came to my apartment, so I believed my hunch.
“Will I be going to the wedding?’’
“You have to go,’’ my dad said as he and mom walked out the door. “It’s your sister.’’
If the relationship between my parents and I was cold up to now, that encounter made it colder. I know they didn’t like that I made more money than Jane Theresa. She became a teacher, like mom, was responsible for giving knowledge to little kids like a good citizen, like mom. I was a low-brow welder.
Months had gone by, and I only saw my parents twice. I ran into Jane Theresa and her future husband at my parent’s home on one of my visits. That was when I first met Gilbert, the man my sister was marrying. He was a teacher, too, at the same elementary school where my sister taught. He asked me to be in the wedding party, and I affirmed, which meant that I was going to spend more time with him as wedding time got closer. I went to his bachelor party, which sucked; it was the most boring party I attended. I dished out $150 to help pay for a banquet room and the booze that came with it. I was the only one who drank that night — what a waste. Everyone else nursed the small amount of alcohol they consumed while playing cards.
My father attended and swilled one beer but stayed for hours. I got tired of sitting there, drinking one beer after another, one whiskey after another, so I called up an escort agency which sent two dancers to the banquet room. Finally, things came to life, and no one knew who sent them, although my father alluded that he knew I made the call. He didn’t like it, but everyone had a better time.
Gilbert came up to me. “These girls are going to get me in trouble with your sister.’’
“No they won’t. My father has his eye on you. And so do I.’’
Wedding day came and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was happy for Jane Theresa, although I think Gilbert is the one who’ll benefit most from the union. He gives the impression of being abundantly well-behaved, and the little bit of interaction I’ve seen between he and my sister, he obeys her well. No doubt, my parents love that. They couldn’t get me to be like her, so I suppose their son-in-law will make up for it.
A few days after the wedding, I came home from work to find a note tacked to my apartment door. “I have to talk to you,’’ it read. And it was signed, “Jane Theresa.’’ I don’t know if you can decipher tone of voice in a one-sentence note, but she sounded angry. I wondered what it was about: the strippers at the bachelor party, something I said or did at the wedding reception. I got drunk and some parts have been tough to remember. Whatever it was, I knew it wasn’t good.
Jane Theresa knocked on my door the next day. “Why did you do this?’’ She was holding the card I bought for her and Gilbert with the money still inside. She was holding it in front of her, pointing it at me from about chest-height like it was the source of a force field between us.
“I didn’t do anything,’’ I said. “Come on in.’’
Jane Theresa stepped inside the door. “This is too much. You’re showing off.’’
“To who? You’re the only person to see what was in the card.’’ I stared at her the way she stared at me when mom asked why I can’t be like her. “Did Gilbert think it was too much?’’
She didn’t answer. But she said, “I would never give this much. It’s an insult.’’ She might have been pissed at me, but she was pissed that I was able to afford giving her that much. Mom and dad made her the standard that I had to live up to, and I passed her by, at least financially. Now it’s coming out. But I think mom and dad would have loved to see me express the dissatisfaction, not Jane Theresa.
“Listen,’’ I said to her. I stepped closer to her, close enough to be able to poke her in the shoulder. “I love you, and I want you and Gilbert to last a long time.’’ I’ve heard enough stories from my friends who went through divorces, and it always came down to money issues, constant bickering over there not being enough cash. I didn’t want that to happen to my sister. “And if you don’t need it, that’s fine. Save it for part of your down payment on a home, or when you decide you want a kid.’’
Jane Theresa finally let her hand holding the card drop to her side. Was the force field gone? I gave her a hug, and I could feel that her body was stiff, not fully accepting; but she put one of her arms around me.
“Come visit some time,’’ she said as she was leaving.
Did she talk to mom and dad about this? For days I expected them to show up at my door, but they never came. I visited Jane Theresa and Gilbert a few times; we had cookouts on the balcony of their apartment. I either brought the steak or the beer, and we ate very well. Mom and dad never came while their kids were together, having a good time. That was strange.
Mom and dad came to my apartment about six months later. It was cold outside, one of those usual Pennsylvania winters where it’s freezing outside one week and 50 degrees the next.
“Hello, Mr. Moneybags,’’ my mother said when I opened the door. Jane Theresa told them about my wedding day gift, I assumed.
I hugged them both and shook dad’s hand, told them to sit down. They didn’t. “We just came to let you know that your sister’s pregnant,’’ dad said. I knew for two months.
“Do you think you’ll ever get married and have kids?’’ mom asked me.
“It’s not a priority, Ma.’’ I was living alone in this apartment for seven years and I was enjoying it. I dated some women, one for over three years, but having a roommate never felt right. And I never liked going to beaches, which seemed to be a turnoff to many of the women I met. I preferred camping in the mountains and going on long hikes in the forest. The one woman I dated longest kept trying to talk me into taking her to Florida. I told her no. I went to Florida once, to Disney, when Jane Theresa and I were kids. I hated it: too hot, too humid, and you can feel the air sticking to your skin. It felt scummy, like I always needed to take a shower.
“What about your parents?’’ mom asked.
I looked at her. “What about?’’
“Don’t you want to give your dad and I a grandchild?’’
I smiled at mom. I wanted to ask her, what for, so you can compare Jane Theresa’s kid to mine? But I didn’t; they were my mom and dad, they rarely visited, and I didn’t want to piss them off. “Jane Theresa is about to give you a grandchild. She and Gilbert want that responsibility.’’
I told them I loved them both and even apologized for not wanting a wife and a kid. Mom said, “You might regret that some day.’’ I shrugged my shoulders. They walked out.
I turned 28 and I figured it was time to look for a house. I visited mom and dad to get some advice, and they were full of it. Mom talked about living in a good school district, still hoping I’d get married and have a child. The one thing my dad kept saying was “fixed rate mortgage.’’
“Don’t buy a house with an APR. With today’s economy, interest rates might go sky high, and so will your monthly payment.’’
After looking at nearly 30 homes, I finally settled on one. It was a three-bedroom ranch. It wasn’t for a future wife and child. My apartment was small, and I wanted some more room. Over the first two months in the house, I slept in every bedroom until I felt comfortable to choose a permanent one. I was thinking about my parents, too. They both have creaky joints and look forward to climbing the set of stairs in their house the way most people look forward to getting their teeth drilled. When the time is right, they can move in with me.
I called mom and dad numerous times to come visit after buying my new home, but they put it off. I was 30 and living there two years before they came.
“You’re the typical bachelor,’’ mom said. She ran her finger across the television screen and picked up a clump of thick dust. “When was the last time you cleaned?’’ she asked.
“I don’t remember. Being the typical bachelor, I do it when the mood hits.’’ She looked at me, and I was smiling at her. She didn’t take it as a joke. “Don’t worry, mom. The stuff that needs to be cleaned always gets cleaned.’’ I offered to put out some chips and salsa. Mom said, “No thanks.’’
“Your sister and Gil are looking into buying a home,’’ mom said.
“That’s good. They’re going to need more room as that kid grows up.’’ Jane Theresa bore a fat, little boy and named him Samuel. At first, Jane Theresa and Gilbert wouldn’t trust me with the boy, but when he came close to three years old and was walking, I babysat the kid when they wanted some time to themselves. My house was full of kiddie toys and I had one of the bedrooms furnished for him. He slept at my place on Friday nights usually.
I was playing with Samuel in the front yard, throwing a ball back and forth. It was more like fetch because he didn’t have the body coordination to be able to catch a ball yet. Mom and dad pulled into my driveway.
“Looks like you like kids,’’ mom said. She and dad decided to retire, and they both seemed happier, much more laid back than I ever noticed.
“It’s easy when you can hand them back to the original owner.’’
“You certainly look like you’re capable. Does this change your mind?’’ I didn’t want to say yes because I wasn’t sure. “Maybe. Something I think about.’’
Mom walked up to me, close enough to poke me in the ribs. She grabbed both my arms. “I’m proud of you. You deserve to be happy.’’
That was a surprise, and I didn’t know how to react. “I love you, Ma,’’ I told her.
“If things work out, then I’ll go with it.’’
It took some time — around three more years – before things worked out. I married my wife in the back yard with all of the fancy things that women like to have at their wedding: a rustic gazebo, a pristine-looking white piano and concert pianist, and an overabundance of flowers among other things. We had a daughter 20 months later and named her Alicia Kelsey. I called her AK for short.
“How do you feel, Ma?’’ I asked at the christening. She was too busy crying to answer. I assumed she was happy to have a granddaughter, but it lingered in my head for years if she was relieved that I listened to her.