How I Met My Mother

My mother, Carla Bosch, was born in 1946 in a displaced persons’ camp in Bucholtz, West Germany. Her father was loving; her mother was cruel. After WWII they moved to Amsterdam, Holland, where they lived until my mother was 11. Then they moved to the states. The school district bumped her up two grades. I know little about her life during her teen years except that her mother constantly called her “ugly,” and if she showed signs of angst, her mother checked her into the psych ward at the local hospital.

In 1965, my father and mother met in a pizza parlor in Binghamton, New York. She said he looked like Woody Allen with black hair. They started dating and within several months, she became pregnant with my brother Tony. My parents married in Nov. 1965, spent their honeymoon in Cooperstown. Then they moved into a rented house on the south side of Binghamton. Tony Jr. was born in May 1966, and slept in a toy chest. My parents paid for diapers by hustling pool at local taverns.

My father doted on my brother, however, he was not a man easily tamed. He believed women stayed home, and men went out partying. In an attempt to keep him out of the bars, my mother became pregnant with me. No matter how cute I was, and I was cute, her plan failed. She started leaving my brother and me with sitters, and according to gossip, sometimes alone. When I was six months old, my father kicked her out of our house, filed for divorce, and took full custody of my brother and me. He told her never to contact us again.

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Growing up, Tony and I were not allowed to talk about “Carla” in front of my stepmother who insisted we call her “Mom.” And if I asked my father’s family about my birth mother, they said, “She left you. You don’t want to know her.” But I did. There were only about five photos of her in the entire house. I studied her high cheekbones, green eyes and square chin. Did she ever think about usWhere did she live? And when I walked around town, every woman I saw was a possibility. Is that her? Is that her?

As I came of age, I tried to make peace with not knowing my mother. Tony always said, “Don’t bug Dad with your questions.” But, Tony was three when she left! Surely he had some memory of her. He said he remembered her throwing a plate. And that she taught him to read. But I had zero. Not a voice. Not a scent. Not an image. I stored a few memories of the women my father dated before he married my stepmother.

After I graduated from high school, Tony was killed in a motorcycle accident. That cemented my dislike of my stepmother. In 1989, I joined the navy. Perhaps, I thought, if I “traveled the world,” I might eventually find our mother. In 1992, while stationed in Monterey, California, I became pregnant. The doctor asked, “Did your mother take drugs when she was pregnant with you?” I said I didn’t know. He said, “Can’t you ask her?” I shook my head and waited until I got into my car before I cried.

One night while I was nursing my daughter “Jessica” and watching the news, a segment called Finder on the Money explained “How to find a long-lost relative.” I took down the number. They put me in touch with a private investigator. And though I knew my mother’s name, birth date, and birth place, he said he needed her social security number.

I ordered my birth certificate, and my parents’ social security numbers were on it! Within a couple of days, the investigator called with my mother’s address in Newport, Rhode Island. I drafted a letter. “Hi, Mom. It’s me. Your daughter Cynthia. Do you want to know me?” Then I bought a pack of Marlboro Reds and chain-smoked while waiting for her response.

In her very first letter she asked me to imagine being a 21-year-old mother, pregnant with her second child, surrounded by the tumult of the late 1960s–the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Vietman War. And then she asked, “Does your brother want to know me?” I had to write back and tell her Tony was dead. She sent back a short note: “How tragic. I broke my glasses. More later.” I can’t imagine the guilt she must have felt — leaving us behind — knowing she would never see Tony again.

Several months later, my mother and I made plans to meet in Binghamton. I was 24. She had gotten remarried the year my brother was killed and was bringing her husband Bill. I had to keep the entire thing secret from family, because my father would not be happy. (A friend dropped the dime on me, and I got an earful from my dad. See earlier post–Secrets Cause Cancer.)

My mother and I met at a restaurant that no longer exists. It was encased in glass, and I saw her before she could see me. I looked in and waved, and she got up from the table to greet me. My mother is 5 foot 11, with salt and pepper hair cut in a bob. She wore a linen blazer and long skirt. She leaned over and gave me a half hug, then invited me to sit with her and Bill. He stood to shake my hand. He had black hair and glasses, and an inviting smile.

The dinner conversation was superficial. With Bill there, I was hardly interested in poking into my mother’s reasons for leaving. However, when he left the table, she said she was sorry she left. I didn’t quite know how to respond, except to say Thank you. One thing I did appreciate was that my mother wore silver jewelry, which was also my favorite. At the end of the dinner, I went to where I was staying. The next day, before they left town, my mother and Bill stopped by to meet Jessica. And then they were gone.

Now, my mother and I are pen pals. She does not have a computer. She does not have a cell phone. She will never travel to Idaho. I send her a birthday card every August, and an Enjoy Your Day card in May. At this point, we will never be best friends. However, I am glad I got to meet her. My father made his peace with it as well. I’m hoping someday we meet again, but I have no idea how that might happen.

 

 

 

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On the Broken Family

My mother and father split up when I was six months old, so my experience with the broken family started early. My first memories include my father, my older brother Tony, and many members of my large extended family. We are Italian-Americans from upstate New York, and except for mafia ties, we live up to the copious stereotypes: loud, romantic, passionate, beautiful, dramatic.

In 1975, my father remarried. I was six and Tony was eight. It was a different time, and we were not invited to the wedding or reception. In fact, Tony stayed with a friend, and I stayed with a friend of my stepmother’s. And although I don’t remember the woman’s name, I do remember playing the piano, and incorporating “turd” into an impromptu song. She yelled, “Hey! We don’t use that kind of language in this house.”

Six months after the wedding, my father bought us a house on the west side of Binghamton. My stepmother was 19, Tony was 9, and I was 7. My baby brother was 9 months old. We were told he was a “preemie” — but he weighed six pounds, six ounces at birth. You do the math.

Tony and I started at a new school. Although I wasn’t sure how we were different from other families, I knew we were different. My father was a shoe-repair man who owned a cobbler shop. Instead of wearing a suit to work, he wore denim and leather. My stepmother was a stay-at-home mother who wore no bra beneath her T-shirts, had Farrah Fawcett hair, and marble blue eyes. One of the young men in our neighborhood asked her out.

Mine was not a peaceful childhood. There was a lot of fighting between my father and stepmother about Tony and me. She was intensely jealous of anyone stealing attention from her. She was a screamer. My father was slow to anger, but once he broke, look out. And while he was not quick with the belt, she was. Any small thing could set her off–pots and pans “shoved half-assed in the cupboards,” food splattered on the floor, a crass remark. And she hit in public.

Tony started running away from home at age 14. I hid in my bedroom with books, TeenBeat, and sketchpads. My younger brother was beaten so often that when I reached to touch him, he ducked. When my father was home, my stepmother never yelled or hit us, and spoke with a sickeningly sweet voice. When my father was gone, she was a ticking bomb ready to go off at the occurrence of spilt milk. To this day, when I meet a person who reminds me of my stepmother, my antennae lift in response. And I have a sincere distrust of people who bully children. A therapist I saw for a while told me, “You have strong feelers for a reason. Trust them.”

In 1998, my father divorced this wife, after two decades of her infidelity, fighting, and confession that she stuck around for the money. One day I asked him, “Why did you stay so long?” He shook his head. “Ah. When you and Tony were small, whenever I saw your messy hair and dirty faces, it broke my heart. I wanted you to have a mother.”

The decisions we make out of love, or what we think is love, are often ill-fated. Self-delusion has to be one of the most powerful tools of the mind. Think here of the spouse of the serial killer who says, “I never knew.”

My first pregnancy and marriage was at age 23. It took me less than two years to rip that apart and create what I loathed–a broken family–all because some guy said I was his true love. Luckily, my ex-husband Jeremy is not a grudge holder, and we are still friends. God bless that guy.

Something about turning 50 has made my brain go wonky. I keep having dreams about my two ex-husbands, and my late husband, and I spend a lot of time wishing I had done things differently. Perhaps made decisions based on logic instead of “love.” Regret, coulda, shoulda, woulda, etc. Because of childhood abuse, I have been in therapy most of my adult life, and I am still working through a lot of the muck.

The therapist I’m seeing now is helping me connect the pain of my current heartbreak over losing Eric and the chance to rebuild our family with the lingering issues from my childhood. It’s a scary process, however, I’m determined to reach a place of peace and happiness. It’s easier to run away–drink, have sex, ignore your kids, and pretend everything is great. But at this point, I’m way more interested in doing the hard work if that’s what it takes to become unbroken.

 

Secrets Cause Cancer

When I was 14, I told my younger brother that his mother was not my mother, and that we were half-siblings (we never have and still don’t use that term.) Within a day, I stood before my father, staring at my feet, listening to his diatribe about my stupid decision. He punctuated the lecture with a hand in the air, and said, “You gotta b–iiiii–g mouth!”

Even as I write these words, I’m not entirely sure why I told my brother the truth, and I still feel pangs of regret. However, if we look at the overall picture, how long would it have been before he figured the truth out himself? Our father was born in 1946. My stepmother was born in 1957. My older brother Tony was born in 1966. I was born in 1968. My stepmother moved in with my father, my older brother, and me in 1972. She was a 16-year-old sophomore at Binghamton Central High. And then, my younger brother was born in 1975.

The weird thing about getting yelled at for telling the truth is that my father detested being lied to. If he caught my older brother or me lying to him, the punishment was immediate and severe–my father had us open our hands, and he slapped them with his hand or a leather belt. In today’s “never harm a child” society, I realize this makes my father look bad. He hated lying.

There’s an episode of That 70’s Show when Red asks Eric to keep something to himself. Kitty, with her stiffly sprayed hair and infectious giggle, says, “Secrets cause cancer.” 276968f5a3b460c7c52492fbc73ad0d0--best-mom-kittyI believe wholeheartedly in this statement. My daughters, 26 and 22, and I, often recite this quote. And now, my 13-year-old son has come on board. One thing I love about my relationship with my kids is that we have very few secrets. There’s yelling and tears, and there’s hugging and laughs. So many laughs.

I have been criticized by people who practice more discretion with their children and families. My boundaries with my kids are as flimsy as boiled lasagna. I’m okay with that. And, I have a circle of true friends, a group whom I refer to as the “truth tellers” I can call on. There are too many to mention here, however, when I want the truth, I ask Andrea, Sandy, Aimee, Stacy, my daughters, and a few more. Someone once said, “Enemies stab you in the back. Friends stab you in the front.” I’m okay with that too.

Before I close, I have to give props to my father because he was the first person to insist I tell the truth. And, to be honest (hah!) he was one of the most honest people I knew. His honesty was hardly tactful, and he pissed off a lot of people. Then again, so have I. Not everyone likes to hear the truth. Phoebe from Friends once said, People will believe anything as long as it’s complimentary. I believe that is also true.

 

 

 

Writing About People Who Hurt Us

In 1997, I was a junior in Humanities at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. The journalism program was defunct, and since I had just become a 27-year-old widow with two young daughters, I switched to creative writing and enrolled in my first creative nonfiction class. I just wanted to learn how to write.

I wrote my first nonfiction piece when I was about five. It was a typed paragraph, and the paper I used ended up with a small coffee stain in the right corner. The text read something like, “I asked my father for money, but because we don’t have a lot, he said no. But at least I have a new mother, and I love her!!!!!” My father found and folded the letter, and hid it in his safe for years. In 1989, when I was in the navy, he sent me the letter with a sticky note that said, “I hope you still feel the same.”

At age 20, I did not feel the same. As a matter for fact, after my beloved older brother Tony was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1987, my father turned to his wife not me, to grieve. I blamed his wife for Tony’s death. She had been an abusive monster when we were growing up. My brother turned to drinking and drugs, I turned to men. The night my brother died, my grief trickled out into absolute hatred for my stepmother.

I mention the letter because it shows how long I’ve been in love with writing “the truth.” As I came of age, even when I wrote fiction, I used the first person “I” and described events from my actual life. Write what you know they say. As a teenager, I knew blackheads, bullying, and boys. If my stepmother had ever caught me writing negative things about her, she would have shown them to my father and I would have been punished. I was the “big mouth” who complained all the time.

When I was 13, a woman I babysat for gave me the memoir Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford, actress Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter. My life was never the same. Mommie Dearest is an expose on child abuse. Christina’s biological mother had given her up (just as mine did) and she was being beaten, ridiculed, and shamed by her “new” mother. I had no idea that other kids suffered abuse. No one at school EVER talked about it, and when I told Tony our stepmother was mean,” he said, “Shut up. Dad doesn’t need to hear that shit.”

By the time I was in college, and had gone on to graduate school, writing my “truth” left some of my colleagues unsettled. “How can you write such nasty things about your family?” they asked. I wrote the truth, nasty or not. And since my father had divorced my stepmother in 1998 and she lived 3000 miles away, I felt somewhat safe. Writing about people who hurt us is no new debate. If you’ve read This Boy’s Life, The Liar’s Club, Hungry for the World, or Mommie Dearest, imagine the criticism those authors faced.

If anyone cares to know, writing nonfiction for me is telling the truth of my experience to the best of my memory. My father once paid me an enormous compliment after reading my work, and I keep that in mind when I write. He said, “I remember it differently, but those are your memories.” For a man with a high school education and shoe-repair man’s apprenticeship, I thought he sounded damned professorial.

And speaking of professors, my first writing teacher, who is also a dear friend and mentor, once said, “No one is all evil or all good. You have to show them as a rounded human being.” Believe it or not, rounding out my stepmother is not that difficult. Writing about my brother Tony, however, whom I worshipped until the day he died, that’s a whole other story. I was his patsy, his sidekick, Laurel to his Hardy. One day, I may sit down and write the truth of our story. But I’m still working on it —

 

Unlucky in Love

My father was not the best at picking women. My biological mother who was “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen” became pregnant several months into their dating. They married, had my older brother, and fought all the time. I’ve heard both sides of the story and my interpretation is this: My father was a good-time Charlie, and my mother was a feminist. He liked the Doors; she liked the Beatles. Neither was flexible. She became pregnant with me to keep my father at home. When that didn’t work, she had an affair. He kicked her out of our house and our lives. (I didn’t meet her until I was 24, a story for another time.)

The woman my father should have married, a lovely artist named Angela, was brushed aside after my father met the woman who would become my stepmother for two decades. She was a bleach-blond hourglass and 10 years his junior. She quit high school, moved in and they got married. She cheated on my father during the first year of marriage, and though he stayed married to her, he later told me “I never forgave her.”

By age nine, I loathed my stepmother. That was the year I came to new awareness. She had borrowed five dollars from me and promised to pay it back. Days later, when we were at the store and I wanted to buy a toy, I asked for my money back. She said, “I took you to McDonald’s today. So, I figure I paid you back.” I stared at her in disbelief. What? Food is not cash. I want my goddamned money to buy a Magic Eight Ball.

Over the next 20 years, she cheated more, beat my brothers and me, called us names, picked my father’s pockets, and flew into rages for little more than a drop of food on her “nice clean floor.” And then, sometimes, during movies like Sound of Music, Oliver, and Terms of Endearment, she would sit on the couch, and weep like a little girl. She was a puzzle. In 1998, my father divorced my stepmother and when he called to tell me, I danced through my kitchen singing, “Happy days are here again.”

My father, bless his soul, had what one of his brother’s called, “Broken wing syndrome.” He liked to save the damsels in distress. Angela didn’t need saving. I am guessing my mother and stepmother did. Although you can see it as an altruistic method of operation, if you’ve ever tried to save someone, you know it just doesn’t work. If you’re lucky enough to find one person to love who supports you and you support them, hang on tight. When I shake the Magic Eight Ball and ask, “Will I find my prince?” It says, Ask again later.

 

On Growing Up Poor

David Spade once said that when you grow up poor you don’t know it until someone else tells you. For the first few years of my life, my father, my brother Tony, and I lived in a couple of rented houses before being evicted because my father was in his 20s and liked to party. We finally settled in an apartment and were on food stamps, although my father never told me until I was in my 20s.

My brother and I went to work with my father almost every day (he owned a shoe-repair business) until we started school. Sometimes we had babysitters, and sometimes my father dated women so there would be someone to take care of us. Unfortunately, some of these women stole his record albums and never came back.

When I was four, my father met a 16 year-old-girl named Vickie who was happy to quit high school and move in with us. (that is another blog by the way) Vickie kept my brother and me clean, fed, and had us in bed every night by nine. She also beat us when my father wasn’t around and insisted we call her Mom.

My father married Vickie two years later and bought us a house. The place was crap brown with a wrap-around porch, a rotting roof, and black windows. My brother and I cried the day we moved in. Over the next two years, although my father spent a lot of money and time to have our “haunted house” remodeled, I still sensed it was shoddy compared to the other houses on the street with their Ionic pillars, manicured shrubs, and intact families. When friends visited, they said, “Oh, your house is nice on the inside.”

When I was nine, my father moved my brother and me out of public school and into Catholic school. We had not been baptized and I only heard “god” when my stepmother said, “You goddamned kids.” Because we wore uniforms, it was easy to blend in. And I was never the kind of girl who could look at people’s shoes and know how much money their parents made.

In middle school, we no longer wore uniforms, and my stepmother bought my clothes (polyester pants, blouses) at J.C. Penney and Sears, which felt normal. One day, the Queen Bee walked over to me, felt the material of my blouse, and said, “Where did you get this?” I said, “Sears.” She smirked, and said, “Ohhh.” I think it was then that I knew. Some of my friends wore Aignier and L.L. Bean. I had never heard of either.

Over the next year, after I noticed the Queen Bee and her cohort wore Izod Lacoste polos, which I saw as a symbol of wealth and status, I became obsessed with getting a shirt of my own. So, my stepgrandmother took me to the outlet mall and bought me two Izod polos. I couldn’t wait to show the rich kids I was not a loser.

Of course, now I know those Izods were like me–slightly irregular. And even though my stepgrandmother bought me designer jeans and name brand clothes, I never really fit in with the Queen Bee and her friends. They played tennis and golf, and I ran track. Their parents had cocktail parties, my father went bowling.

Growing up poor taught me humility. Sometimes I think my life has been one “character building” event after another. I know the value of a dollar and love to do hard work. The things I hold dear, after family, dogs, and friends, are the sentimental gifts I have received over the years–books, toys from my childhood, love letters. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up rich, or be rich, however, I imagine it feels as though you can never have enough.

 

Understanding Betty Broderick

If you haven’t seen Meredith Baxter’s portrayal of Betty Broderick in the 1992 TV movie A Woman Scorned, set aside a couple hours and watch it on YouTube. If you’ve ever been cast aside by a lover for someone “better,” you’ll probably relate to her story. I’ve watched it twice in the past several months. In no way am I in agreement with how Betty sought revenge on her ex-husband Dan and his plucky new wife. However, I understand.

Betty had supported Dan for 20 years through love, stay-at-home motherhood, and loyalty while he built his career as a lawyer with a medical degree. (He specialized in malpractice suits.) The couple had four children together, a beautiful home, a summer home, and a true partnership. Betty even worked side jobs to keep them afloat while Dan was in school.

Like many women who’ve birthed children and worked hard their entire lives, as Betty aged she was no longer the skinny, apple-cheeked 20-year-old girl Dan fell in love with. And when Dan hired a 21-year-old legal assistant who couldn’t type and looked remarkably like his wife in the early days, Betty grew suspicious. Just as she thought, Dan started an affair with his assistant, dumped Betty, and used his legal expertise and connections to cut her out of his life.

As we watch Betty descend into madness and lose control over her behavior, it’s sad and yet, honest. Why has she been discarded? Dan and his new wife get the house, the kids, much of the money, and she is left with nothing. As she reflects on how Dan’s “amazing” new life was created through her loyalty and back-breaking work, she starts calling the house and leaving vile messages on his answering machine. He will not communicate back. So, she visits the house, drives a car into his livingroom, and tells the kids he no longer loves them. Dan files multiple restraining orders that Betty ignores.

When I met my ex, I was in college and he was a tire technician. He was chubby and cute with a raucous sense of humor. We fit together perfectly. I finished college and we married after three years of dating. He helped support me through two graduate degrees, and I helped support him through college and his MBA. He also helped raise my two daughters, and after seven years as a couple, we had a son. I experienced severe post partum depression and was never really the same again.

In 2009, after 11 years together, my husband and I drifted apart. Somehow, we hadn’t built up enough trust to turn toward each other during this time. He turned inward. I had an affair. Over the next year, we tried to mend our troubled marriage, however, once he learned of the affair, we were as good as done. He filed for divorce in 2011, blocked me on FB, and ignored me for the next five years.

We maintained a cordial and united front for the kids, and attended school functions and sporting events together. No matter whom we dated, we kept our son as a top priority. That changed with his current GF. In February 2017, my ex and I tried again to reconcile. However, when I look back, I see he was calling the shots. When we would hang out, when we would have sex, when we would communicate. I suppose because I was the one who had the affair, I felt like I owed him as much freedom as I could offer. He was adamant he did not want a commited relationship with anyone.

In August 2017, my ex attended his high school reunion. By this time, he was no longer chubby, he had earned an MBA, and had a good job. The “girl of his dreams” from back then, a spoiled cheerleader who was married to a millionaire and lived seven hours away, showed up unexpectedly in a micro mini and no stockings. The married mother of three went to an afterparty with my ex and told him, “You are my true love.” She also said she was separated but failed to mention she was living at home with her husband and kids, had not signed the papers, and was begging her husband to take her back.

I reached out to her husband on LinkedIn and found out she had cheated on him, took a secret trip to Europe to be with her lover, and was physically abusive. He filed for divorce in June 2017, but she had convinced him to let her stay with promises of sobriety and faithfulness. That ended August 12. She drove back the seven hours to her home and started an emotional affair with my ex, which turned physical the following weekend. She made about 10 trips to our hometown between August 12 and September 27. She almost lost custody of her kids but cancelled a trip to Mexico just in time.

Did I tell my ex? Hell, yes. At first, he believed me. He was heartbroken and asked me how this could be happening. However, after talking to his GF over the weekend, suddenly I was a liar, a “mean-girl bully,” and a trouble maker. Her husband kicked her out in October. During those early months, she sent my ex dozens of love letters, photo books, plants, and one weekend, helped him stowe anything I had ever touched, looked at, or given as a gift. What did she tell her friends about her failed 17- year marriage? She had dumped her husband for true love.

So, now, the man I thought was my true love has slowly and methodically cut me out of his life. We share custody of our son, but he has changed his custody to match his GF’s even though she only has her kids part time. My ex ignores me unless it has to do with our son. He and his girlfriend see each other every other weekend, never with the kids. There are no bills, no responsibilities, no day-to-day monotony of being married. It’s like a perpetual affair. They’re cheating the system.

Watching the Betty Broderick story gives me perspective. At first, when my ex cast me aside, I called and left sad voicemails. When he starting dumping our son at my house so he could visit his GF for a week at a time, I screamed at him over the phone. After I texted him and said he was a bad role model, he filed a complaint with the local police. Talking to him is like talking to a rebellious teenager.

Like Betty, I have no recourse. My ex prefers to live in the bubble of the affair, and the kids and I are to keep our mouths shut and let him live his life. In the mean time, the kids are surviving a second family break up, having to lean on one parent (who’s not always doing that well) and wondering if this other woman will destroy their father. Betty shot her ex and his wife. I am not going to do that. So, I will continue to live vicariously through the 1992 movie. I do not condone the behavior. But I understand.