It was late summer, and I had stopped in at my parents’ house on my way home from my dead end, department store security job when my mother suggested I apply to be a teacher. This was a remarkable suggestion for a number of reasons.
One, my bachelor’s degree was not finished after almost five years. I still had one, three-unit class to complete. I was already registered for the class that fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:20 in the afternoon. Surely this would interfere with any teaching position.
Two, my mother was never one to encourage. She was so much better at discouraging, or bringing out in excruciating detail all the ways I would fail in any given situation.
Third, we did not get along. This rift was especially bad that August because against my parents’ wishes, I had gotten married. Worse, my ceremony was not in the Catholic Church. My mother did not like my wife just because she was my wife. She hadn’t liked her any better when she was my girlfriend. I was her oldest, and this woman was taking me away from her. My mother felt shamed in front of other family members and their friends because we were married by one of our college professors in the Congregational Church.
It was a miracle we were even speaking, my mother and I. And here she was actually encouraging me to take a leap. My mother, a woman who had always played it safe.
My mother and father did not go to college, and they were decidedly lower middle class Irish-German Catholics who believed nothing was impossible with hard work and frugal living. They scrimped and saved and attended church on Sundays, my father mumbling through the mass with his half-remembered Latin responses, even though the liturgy had already been reimagined in English by American Catholics after Vatican II. My parents clung to their faith like a life raft, and they dragged us to church every Sunday. When I was older and was allowed more independence, they would let me choose what Sunday mass I attended based on my work schedule. I rode my bike to the church and dutifully ducked into the dark interior, but I did not linger long before ducking back out and heading to the Winchell’s Donut Shop. My father suspected as much, and would drive to the church and search the bike racks in the parking lot for my ten speed. When he didn’t feel like making the effort, he would call the rectory and ask who was saying the mass so he could question me when I returned in the hope of catching me ditching. So no matter where I ended up for the hour, I had to stop in and identify the priest and wait for the gospel to finish before hurrying to buy my glazed donut and chocolate milk.
I am the oldest of four children, and money was tight with all of us going through Catholic elementary and high school. Going to public institutions was not an option, so beginning in ninth grade, I paid my own tuition by working full or part time wherever and whenever I could find work. I did not start out wanting to be a teacher, although it was always in the back of my mind. I originally went to college to be a musician, but two years in, I realized I lacked talent and discipline to make a go of it. I loved performing, but hated practicing. My friend, Karl, a trumpet player who was also struggling, suggested English because we both shared a love of reading and writing.
The first semester, I received some of my lowest grades ever—straight Cs. My mother intercepted my report card from the mailbox. “I’m so disappointed in you,” she said when I arrived home that night from working an eight hour shift. “I knew you’d fail.”
I didn’t fail; I got Cs. But to her it did not matter. I had fulfilled her prophecy of doom. My mother did not go to college. She did not know what it was like to work forty hours a week, go to school full time, and keep up a four hour per day practice schedule on the piano. I was also playing in two bands, one of which performed on the weekends in a dive in the basement of a hotel downtown. I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle, all with a blowtorch. I could not keep the plates spinning.
Things became angry and tense at home, often erupting into screaming and threats on the part of my mother. “You need to pull your weight around here,” she would yell. “You’re always off somewhere.”
Because space and finances were so tight, I practiced piano at school or at my grandmother’s house. I would leave school, work my shift at whatever job I had at the time, and go to my grandmother’s house or to a school practice room for a minimum of four to five hours of piano study. Then it was home to do homework, where I usually fell asleep on my books well into the early morning hours. To add to all of this, I was also trying to have a social life. I began seriously dating, which enraged my possessive mother all the more. From her yelling I gathered that as her oldest child, I was expected to live at home forever.
So we were at each other’s throats, and when we were not out-and-out battling, we conducted stealth fighting. She would make my favorite dinners knowing I was going out that night, or had to practice late. At one point, I moved my study (and later my sleep) area to an old camping trailer on our driveway to get some peace from the screaming and tantrums. The tiny house was ready to burst at the seams with six people crammed into three bedrooms and a single bathroom. The quiet of the trailer did not last; she encouraged my brothers to shoot baskets on the driveway right next to my study space, and the ball slammed and bounced on the metal roof and sides completely destroying my concentration.
She demanded that I keep to a curfew, and then kept moving up the time. At one point, at the age of 20, I had to be home and checked in by her before 11 o’clock PM. My insistence that I was a legal adult fell on deaf ears. “As long as you live under our roof, you’ll do as we say,” she trumpeted.
Finally, I’d had enough and moved completely out of the house and in with my cousin who had a room available in her two bedroom, two bathroom apartment. My mother was livid. I’d never make the rent each month and would have to come crawling back, she predicted. It irked her to no end that I would be paying $250 a month for the room while she only demanded a hundred dollars for me to live in the trailer on the driveway. “It’s worth the additional 150 to not have to hear you or put up with your curfews and demands,” I told her.
I don’t think she ever forgave me for pushing beyond the boundaries of her narrow world. She wanted me to be a success on her terms, in a way she could own and manipulate. Having never worked outside the home, her only measure of success was her children’s exploits, and once I was gone, she was left out of anything good that I did on my own. What would my grandparents say, she worried? What would she tell my aunts and uncles? And my grandparents, aunts and uncles all enjoyed grilling her about me knowing how much it bothered her. I was happy to be free of the whole mess. Finally, I could concentrate on trying to keep up with my runaway life. I switched my major from music to English and I never looked back. I did continue to play in bands whenever I could, but I also began seriously writing.
So my mother’s motivation that hot summer day was probably rooted in her need to tell the relatives something when they asked what I was doing. If I got the job, she could say that I was teaching in a Catholic school. Hopefully, that might ease the sting of losing a son. And if I was able to get a position at the church they attended, she might even be able to continue to meddle in my life.
“So why don’t you apply to a Catholic school?” she suggested. “St. Genevieve’s might be hiring. You never know. What have you got to lose?”
“I haven’t finished my degree yet,” I said, already mulling over the idea.
“Still, it never hurts to try.”
This was the woman who wanted me to quit school and work in the aerospace firm that offered me full time employment if I would agree to put my degree on hold. This is the woman who never forgave me for giving up playing the accordion at family gatherings like a trained monkey in favor of the piano. She wanted me to remain loyal and make her proud on her terms and in ways she could access and understand. She wanted me to live at home and be the good boy I was in elementary school. When I refused, she poisoned the well with my brothers and sister, sulked and sobbed on the phone, and when I told her I did not want to talk to her for a while in order to cool off, she screamed into the phone “We’re here when you want us!” before slamming down the receiver.
Living with her was impossible. It was more than just the screaming and the manipulations. It was the way she saw failure in every opportunity. It was the way she promised destruction of every dream she did not comprehend. If I were Icarus, my mother assured me the fall to earth was the only possible way for my story to end.
I sent out resumes and cover letters to all the Catholic schools in Los Angeles that August, and then settled in to wait to see what would happen.
My mother and I never came to an understanding. We never truly found our common ground. She never found relief that I was in love, or that I was happy. She remained angry, disappointed, jealous of my wife and the time we spent with her family, and unable to find satisfaction with the praise and accolades her children received. Nothing was ever good enough for my mother. We were a two person tug-of-war across the years. She sank into debilitating health problems, depression, and prescription drug abuse. And then she was gone.
Someone did call in response to my resume, and in that moment, everything changed.