Summer: Mother, Me, and the Demons (1)
|Photo on left: The author and her grandmother, June 5, 1968, just before she left for L.A.
Photo on right: The author's mother
I have a complicated relationship with my late mother.
I spent most of my youth in my grandparents’ custody, for my time with Mother had been sporadic and haphazard – life, in her house, often filled with drama, domestic violence (on her part; she married nice men), and insecurity.
Mother was smart, beautiful, artistically talented, and sweet – when she was sober.
When she was drinking – which was most of the time – she was unstable, mean, and slurry. It was like she was speaking another language, which, in a sense, she was: the language of drink.
The language of drink is a mish-mosh of incoherence and mispronunciation with a good dose of anger.
Woe-be-onto-me if I couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. She never hit me – she saved that for her men – but she had a way of making me feel as if I were the smallest and thickest person in the world.
I was terrified of her, this tiny, wobbly five-foot woman who could barely walk a straight line; even as a child, I probably could have poked her lightly and she would have fallen over in an unconscious heap.
No, it wasn’t a physical fear; I was afraid she would stop loving me.
What the child Jennifer didn’t understand: drunks are totally self-absorbed, and love is conditional, premised on how quickly they can score the next drink – in my mother’s case, a beer.
After my high school graduation, my grandmother decided that I should go to California and get reacquainted with Mother, who I hadn’t seen since I was 10, when she had blown into Sioux City for a visit.
She had spent most of that two weeks trolling local bars at night, doing God-knows-what, sleeping in during the day, hungover.
But now Mo felt as though Mother was stable enough to host her 17-year-old daughter for a few weeks. By June 1968, Mother had a new family: a common-law husband and two boys, two and four.
Mother insisted she was up to the task, telling Mo she had quit drinking.
What could possibly go wrong?
Mo’s plan for me was to spend the summer looking for a job in Canoga Park and then finding my own place.
Perhaps eventually enrolling in Dental Hygiene school and maybe even USC.
My agenda was slightly different: to bask in the Summer of Love, which, unfortunately, had already begun its cultural descent into the waste heap of history.
Always a girl out of step with her time.
On June 5, 1968 – a date burned into memory because my hero Robert F. Kennedy lay dying at Good Samaritan in L.A. – I flew into L.A. International, where Mother, my stepfather, their two kids, and my boyfriend “F” (a vet, fresh from Vietnam, with whom I had corresponded for the past year) awaited me.
Mother waved from a roped off area.
I hadn’t seen her in seven years, but she looked the same, except that she seemed thinner and smaller. Her hair was now a two-toned color: platinum bangs and auburn locks around her shoulders, the two colors separated by a turquoise hairband.
She wore a slinky, black jumpsuit and jangly, flashy costume jewelry: hoop earrings, turquoise necklace, and bangles.
She was heavily made up, pale caked face powder topped with rouge, thick red lipstick, false eyelashes, and lots of black eyeliner and mascara.
A slim, 100-millimeter cigarette dangled casually from her fingers, a stream of blue smoke drifting off behind her – in those days, even in California, smoking in public places the norm.
Despite her skintight garb and flashy jewelry, she looked childlike and vulnerable – and so small, not the omni-presence of my childhood.
Looking back, I can scarcely believe that she was just 37, 30 years younger than I am now.
She would not see 50.
In flight, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay with Mother, after all; part of me was still angry at her for not being the nurturer I wanted and needed, the mother who would have remembered my birthday, the cheerful mom who would have called long distance and spoken to me in a crisp, coherent voice.
The mother who loved unconditionally.
During various summer visits with my great aunt in Hollywood, I had refused to see Mother – probably just as well. From what I have heard, she had been at a low point in a life consisting mostly of low points.
But, now, at landing, my heart did a little flip; I felt impatient, anxious, and excited – and curious – to meet her.
Over the phone, Mother and I had agreed to put the past behind us, to make a fresh start, to make things good between us – but could it work?
Would Sober Mother, with her new family, be settled and loving and ready to be the mother she should have been for the past 17 years?
Has she forgiven me for being an angry child, just as I am trying to forgive for being an absent mother?
“Jeffer!” She said, invoking my childhood nickname and waving madly, just to make sure I didn’t miss her. “Over here!”
In that moment of first contact, she seemed normal enough, though a bit brassy and overly made up.
But it was California, after all, where just about everything was – and still is – exaggerated.
I waved back and wended my way through the crowd toward her, my stepfather, all dapper and dressed up in a pin-striped suit, and two shy tow-headed boys, my brothers.
My boyfriend F, dressed up in a leather jacket and khaki pants, stood at the side, a goofy grin plastered on his face and smelling like a perfume factory – on his own, he had decided to drive to the airport to meet me, although he knew my family would be picking me up.
Later, Mother admitted an instant dislike toward F, referring to him as a “sneaky swinger” – Mother may have been a drunk, but she enjoyed a well-honed bull-shit detector, and F was certainly full of it, I later discovered, certainly another story.
“Bobby’s still alive,” Mother said. She pulled me into her arms.
I smelled beer, which surprised me; she had insisted to Mo that she had quit drinking for good.
“I thought you’d want to know. Ma said you took Jack’s death hard.”
“That was almost five years ago.” I kissed her cheek, which, in addition to the alcohol, smelled like powder, tobacco, and Lilies-of-the-Valley.
“Yeah, but you know how it is. Negative karma and all.”
I didn’t know – I nodded anyway.
She looked me over and took a drag from her cigarette. “Honey, where on earth did you get that outfit?”
I felt my face reddening; evidently, my mauve polyester skirt and jacket set, the kind that old ladies wore and still wear, with matching, low-heeled pumps and a light blue blouse, did not impress her.
“It wasn’t my first choice.” My typical outfit consisted of blue jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers.
But Mo had insisted that unless I dressed the part of “pious young lady,” she wouldn’t pay for my plane ticket, so I complied.
“I believe you,” Mother said. “We’ll have to get you some new clothes and then dump that” scanning my outfit, up and down “– thing – off at Goodwill.”
I nodded – I was on board with that plan.
* * * * *
I soon discovered that Mother disliked fat people, even if they were just a little bit fat.
The day after I arrived, Mother said, “I don’t know what Ma’s been feeding you.” She patted my stomach and checked out my backside. “Woo! You’d be a knockout if you’d shed about 20 pounds. Cleo (2) can hook you up with some diet pills.”
“Oh, just my best friend. She lives in Bel Air. Her housemate –” Mother clears her throat “– is a nurse.”
I could feel the air hissing out of me. Yes, I was a bit chunky, but I had already done the diet pill dance and wasn’t anxious to do it again. Still I didn’t want to disappoint Mother, at least until we had established a rapport. “I dunno…”
“This is California, honey. Men like their women sleek and gorgeous. You’ve got to crush the competition.” Sighing and shaking her head in disapproval, she looked me over again with even a more critical eye. “You can’t go out in public looking like a lump.”
I’m not that fat, am I?
As if she had read my mind, she added, “You’ve got good potential: nice boobs, slim legs, good cheekbones, and gorgeous hair. By next month, you could be a star in the making. I’ll ring Cleo…”
“Mo says it’s not safe to take pills without a prescription.”
Mother rolled her eyes. “Would I give you something dangerous?”
I had to think about that, given her propensity toward the wild side.
But I figured that Mother meant well.
Still, I was queasy about popping diet pills, especially ones dispensed from a stranger who happened to know a nurse who might have filched the pills.
I hated them when I was eight years old; after all, they obviously had not worked.
Besides, they made me half crazy, keeping me up well into the night.
I still cringe when I think of those sleepless nights, when my head and heart pounded from the night terrors:
Cancer! Polio! Nuclear war! Nikita Khrushchev! Communists! Death!
The dark has never been my friend.
– Random thoughts, one tumbling after another, in rapid succession, and I couldn’t stop them.
Tossing and turning in my bed, begging and praying for sleep to come.
Finally, at first light, my eyes growing heavy – when it was time to get up for school.
No one could figure out why I would fall asleep during arithmetic class, but, then, no one bothered to ask me about my sleeping habits. I was too young to make the connection – until I had been taking the pills for about three months.
Then I had to pop downers at night.
I am now a night owl: do I prowl half the night because of those childhood pills?
As if she read my mind again, Mother said, “Why don’t you just try them for three weeks? You should be able to drop 20 pounds easily. And then you’ll never ever have to take them again.”
I wanted so much for this summer to work out, to finally win my mother’s love, just like crazy Junior, the oldest and wildest of my little brothers, had obviously done in his short four years.
If being skinny was a prerequisite, well, that’s a price I would have to pay.
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Good.” Mother picked up the phone and dialed.
* * * * *
Cleo made a dramatic entrance into my life, bearing a large bottle of white pills that looked like small mints.
“Bennies,” she said. “Take one every four hours.”
Which I did faithfully.
After taking the diet pills for about 10 days, I felt as though I was about to jump out of my skin.
I had lost count of how many times I’d circled the backyard, playing toss-the-stick with Baron, Mother’s large German Shepherd.
After a rough start, Baron and I had become good friends, having arrived at an understanding after I’d whacked his snout with a newspaper after he snapped at me.
This day, Mother called me inside.
Junior, a special needs child suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (a term not coined until 1973), was in the kitchen, naked, jumping up and down on the kitchen table while eating baby food cottage cheese, laced with marijuana seeds, straight from the jar.
I soon learned that Junior’s diet was limited to pot-infused cottage cheese, strong coffee doctored with cream and four spoons of sugar, and a joint, which he smoked after every meal, before bed, and when he awakened.
To this day, I wonder how he survived; he seemed to have had more energy than all of us put together, including me, who, on the diet pills, climbed the walls.
I can only imagine how Junior must have felt inside.
But the kid was a royal pain in the ass, sucking the air out of the room, always on, always whining about something, always picking at himself and everyone else.
He was like a perpetual buzzing, dive-bombing fly – harmless but annoying.
I was so concerned that I called Mo and complained about Junior’s hyper antics – although I left the marijuana part out. I feared I’d be yanked back to Sioux City if Mo knew that her grandson was being dosed with weed.
Besides, as Mother rationalized, Junior needed to be seriously calmed down – Marijuana seemed to be the only option.
“He’s retarded, Jeff,” Mo said softly, over long distance. “You have to be understanding.”
I felt ashamed for being so intolerant; after my conversation with Mo, I tried not yelling at the kid when he got on my nerves. Really, I did. But sometimes....
“Jeffy! Jeffy!” Junior screeched, not once breaking his stride.
I waved to him just before I rounded the corner into the rec room, to slip away from him.
“I need your opinion on something,” Mother said, holding a cigarette in her right hand and a beer in her left.
I thought she was going to ask my opinion on how to handle Junior. Instead, she pointed her cigarette at the wall. “You think it needs painting?”
Really? I thought. While Junior ran wild like a Tasmanian devil, Mother was mellow and nonchalant and all worried about paint, yet whenever I curled up on the sofa with a book, it got on her nerves.
In fact, my very existence seemed to get on her nerves.
I looked around. The yellowish walls did seem a little dingy, but nothing a little soap and water wouldn’t have fixed. “Maybe.”
“I think I’ll hire a painter.”
“I can do it!” I had never painted a wall before, but how hard could it be? Besides, it would be something to do, a way to blow off some of this extra energy and make myself at least a little bit useful.
And get Mother off my back about getting a job. I had applied at several places, but I didn’t drive and public transportation was spotty, and potential places of employment in the Valley were far apart.
Mother laughed. “Thanks, honey, but I think we need a professional.”
“I know I could do it. Please?” I thought that if I made myself useful around the house, it would take some of the job-hunting heat off me.
“I just don’t think so....”
She hired a professional painter.
* * * * *
As the painter spiffed up the walls, Mother glowered as I plopped back on my butt, settling in to read Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, a book she had given me because she, a former stripper, had known Bruce and his ex-wife Honey personally.
Little monster brother continued ripping around, filling the house with his antics –
Nary a peep from Mother.
Three weeks later, I popped my last pill.
I stepped onto the scale: 120.
I no longer had to worry any more about cutting my appetite – I could now eat whatever I wanted.
It had been a month since Mother called Cleo about the pills, and ever since, both women had been monitoring my progress, making sure that I didn’t eat any starch, fat, or sugar.
My diet had consisted of two poached eggs (breakfast), carrot sticks and an ounce of cheese (lunch), and two ounces of broiled lean meat or fish and a plain lettuce and tomato salad (dinner).
“You’re so lucky, Jeffer, that you live in California,” Mother reminded me each morning. “You can get fresh lettuce and tomatoes year round.”
But I was tired of it.
Still, in my unformed 17-year-old mind, 20 pounds in four weeks wasn’t too bad – now I realize that such rapid weight loss was not only unhealthy but also unsustainable.
In that moment, though, I felt thin–gaunt even – I liked how my hip bones jutted out and my new sculpted body appeared.
I liked my smaller breasts.
I was ready to face the world, to strut my new stuff.
It had been tough, though – Cleo’s pills had been potent, much stronger than the ones from my childhood.
During that three weeks, I hardly slept.
Fortunately, I, without a care, could sleep late; I didn’t have to get up for school and no job prospects were in the wings, so Mother and I stayed up all night, she slurping beer, smoking, and working crosswords, I drinking Tab and reading trashy romance novels – that is, after having struggled through Lenny Bruce’s book.
I no longer had the inclination to worry about the problems of the world or Bobby Kennedy’s death – I was too hepped up.
I didn’t like Cleo, but Mother obviously adored her; I have never figured out why. She was a Lesbian, and Mother hated Lesbians – called them dykes – although she adored gay men, and to the chagrin of my stepfather surrounded herself with them – they flattered her and made great drinking and dope buddies.
Somehow, Cleo got a pass from Mother’s anti-Lesbian rhetoric.
Cleo was one of those women who had been around. She didn’t hesitate to talk about her sexual exploits in the crudest of terms; despite her sexual orientation, she claimed to have balled over 500 men, although I doubt that there would be 500 men out there who would want to touch the woman, let alone – well, it was enough to make me sick.
Also, an unpleasantness wafted from Cleo – she smelled like rancid baby oil, which she rubbed all over her leathery skin – and she looked at least 50, although she was only 39, two years older than Mother. Her hair, a dead straw, hung from a thin ponytail, and her voice cracked, probably from the cigarette that never left her lips.
“Gawd,” she would cackle in her loudest voice – which carried anyway, with or without volume – as she pointed out a stranger in Zayres. “Get a load of them balls on that dude.”
Mother would blush, still cracking up, as the target scurried away from these gross women who presumed too much. Sometimes Cleo would grab Mother by the arm, and they would follow the hapless fellow around the store. I never went along on these expeditions – I hid out in the junior section – so I don’t know if these guys gave them the dodge or if Mother and Cleo just got bored with the game and gave up.
Once, when I couldn’t dodge the dopey duo in time, a victim called Cleo’s bluff: “Ya think so, lady? How’s about givin’ ‘em a workout?” And then he gave me the leering once over. “‘Course, I’d prefer this little one here.”
A chill ran down my spine.
Mother grabbed my arm and hustled me out of the store, leaving behind Cleo and the stranger.
“Get in the fucking car,” she said. We sped off without Cleo. “That bitch!” She clung onto the steering wheel and floored the gas pedal. “Who the hell does she think she is?”
Later, after Mother cooled down and everyone was friends again, Cleo told a ribald story about spending the day in this guy’s apartment, engaging in all kinds of sexual acrobatics, positions I have never heard of before and wouldn’t want to talk about now.
Besides, I didn’t believe one word of it.
* * * * *
At the end of summer, Mother finally got fed up and kicked me out of her house.
Instead of fulfilling Mo’s grand plan, I had sat around all summer, sleeping in, reading bad novels, devouring the Bennies, hanging out with the Vietnam vet from Beverly Hills and drinking Bali Hai on Sunset Boulevard, running around with some Malibu kids of movie industry people, smoking weed with them, and dropping LSD for the first time.
Eventually, even Mother grew disgusted at my laziness and handed me off to Auntie, my great aunt and Mo’s older sister, who didn’t suffer young fools lightly.
Auntie lived on Hollywood Boulevard and agreed, with strict conditions, to take me in on a temporary basis.
Where Mo was short and squat, Auntie, considered quite a beauty in her day, was tall and statuesque. Where Mo was blunt and to the point, Auntie was sneaky and manipulative, but they shared one common trait: they abhorred lazy bums, and I was fast becoming one.
“You have to get a job and your own place, or I’m sending you back to Sioux City,” she said, wagging her long, skinny finger at me.
She didn’t exactly set a deadline, but I knew her patience was not unlimited.
And I wasn’t anxious to return to Sioux City.
Long story short, I landed a job as a credit checker at Bank of America on Sunset Boulevard, right on the strip, and a room in a boardinghouse for “young working women,” where I had a roommate who was still in high school – a real party girl who pretty much did what she wanted to do, while her dad dated a bevy of young and gorgeous Latinas.
Within six months, I had returned to Sioux City, for reasons I have outlined in my book Memoir Madness – suffice to say that I lived a colorful life within a short period of time.
While still in Hollywood, I saw Mother only sporadically; our summer together had not brought us any closer.
In fact, she had the audacity to judge me for my marijuana smoking and LSD use.
Within a year, Cleo was dead (suicide by pills).
In 1973, I would see my mother one more time when we both happened to be in Sioux City at the same time. By then, I was married to Jeff, my first husband; our son Eric was three. Mother was drinking heavily and seemed to be in a perpetual kerfuffle with Mo and Dee Dee (my grandfather) and other relatives.
She spent most of her visit in local bars and fending off advances from my childhood dentist, who I had bitten when I was nine – he did not appreciate Mother dragging me along when they met for lunch.
– I wasn’t his favorite person.
Six years later – April 24, 1979, to be exact – Mother, at age 48, was found dead in bed – probable cause of death: a crapped-out liver.
A sad end to a sad life.
* * * * *
Postscript: Within six months of Cleo’s diet pills, I gained the 20 pounds back and for the next year hovered between 130 and 140, until I became pregnant – my post-baby weight shot up to 180.
Throughout my adult years, my weight would yo yo, up and down, between 120 and 230 pounds (the mid- to late 1990’s my heaviest weight).
So far in my life, I have achieved 120 on the scale five additional times: in 1970, 1973, 1980, 1984, and 2000, the first on some self-inflicted plan that involved starvation; the second the seminal Weight Watchers diet (high protein and no bread, potatoes, or pasta and liver once a week); the third back to starvation (another self-inflicted regimen involving 500 calories and one meal per day); the fourth on a still-popular meal delivery plan currently promoted by a celebrity with the initials of M.O.; and the fifth a return to the old diet pill routine and no-carb diet, prescribed by a skeezy diet doc – at this point, I should have known better, but, alas, I had once again been seduced by the lure of the quick fix.
At no point did I maintain 120 for more than a few weeks or even days, because those diet plans were not sustainable for the long haul.
These five diets do not even include the myriad regimens in which I never even sniffed at 120.
During my fat interstices – most of my adult life – I must have started and stopped various diets – it seemed that each day started with good intentions and ended up in Bingeland, where buttery mashed potatoes was my go-to food, among other high carb and high fat delights.
I hope this time will be different, that I will have finally slew my life-long demon, but I have quoted this chapter and verse several times in my life, and I absolutely cannot not take success for granted –
Mother also tried to tame her demon, but in the end, the demon won.
(1) Parts of “Mother, Me, and the Demons” have been adapted from “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” to reflect my real story. Full Citation: Siegel, Jennifer Semple, Adapted from “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Are You EVER Going to be Thin (and other stories), West Conshohocken (PA): Infinity Publishing, 2004: 145, 146, 149-151, 156-157.
(2) “Cleo” is a pseudonym, but she was a real person.