On the morning mom left for her first vacation without us, Dad was alone for a full twenty minutes before he realized he had no idea where to find his underwear. Her trip was long overdue after 22 years of marriage, 15 of motherhood, and what seemed like a lifetime of managing dad’s drawers. Her choice of destinations, like her pick of partners, proved problematic; surrounding oneself with hundreds of neurotic barking, drooling monsters running around yipping and snapping with their dogs in tow looked nothing like a vacation to me. I had learned that lesson the hard way when she’d forced us to travel with her, my sister, and their ferociously overgroomed cocker spaniels to the Illinois State Fair competition – a place where the only glimmer of hope for redemption manifests as a one-ton butter cow. If only she’d become obsessed with sculpting all that glorious butter into precious farm animals that I could have featured at the garden parties I was longing to throw; those damn dogs were definitely the proverbial hairs in my butter. In retrospect, though, my insistence at twelve years old upon hosting high tea in our back yard – though I demanded everyone, English-style, call it ‘the garden’ – may have also contributed to mom choosing dog days that summer.
If I’m honest, her stress had been showing for several years, and not just because of all the hibiscus tea I’d been cajoling her into choking down in the punishing August heat. I probably should have given her a break after she’d duct-taped me face-to-face to my older brother out of desperation over endless squabbles, insisting that such drastic measures were the only way to reach détente, but I didn’t. Her chasing our trashy neighbor and her German Shepherd down the street, baseball bat poised overheard caveman-style, after their dog bit half my sister’s best friend’s ass off while they played in the front yard was probably also a clue that she needed some down time, but it went ignored. We laugh about that now – and don’t worry, the half-assed girl’s family won 68 million in the Illinois Lottery later that year and bought her a totally new rump – but there’s always a vague mirthlessness in that particular recollection because we know she wanted to beat something, anything, to a pulp that day. It’s not easy being responsible for a pack of people on the best of days, especially when many of them can’t even locate their own underwear.
As a result, some days she did actually beat something to a pulp. She’d slammed a door repeatedly – intentionally – until its glass pelted all of us when she discovered we’d spilled milk all over the newly clean kitchen floor. She was justified, if unhinged: she’d spent all day cleaning and when she slogged outside to push-mow the yard single-handedly, we collectively lost our shit like Muppets on acid, undoing her work. Tears weren’t her style, so the spilled milk inspired her to pepper us with glass shards, using the door like a dirty bomb. To be fair, that protest may have been cumulative; she’d recently confiscated all our stuffed animals when she caught us ventriloquizing them with foul language while sexually harassing one another. My teddy bear, Button-nose, was mid-assault on my sister’s gray Wrinkles dog when she caught wind of our perverse tomfoolery. Her tactic in that situation, and many others, was to stand silently in the doorway, taking it all in and waiting for each of us, domino-like, to notice her presence and then freeze like Lot’s wife. Once we were all rapt, she exploded a la Vesuvius and it was on. That day our fuzzy companions discovered the harsh realities of crime-scene cleanup as she hauled them away in black garbage bags to be quarantined. It would be months before that particular witness relocation plan gave way and we reunited. She crowned that particularly fiendish disciplinary feat by shoving a bar of original-scent Zest into each of our mouths. As a result, I vomited everywhere, and not because I couldn’t help it.
Oddly enough, though perhaps unsurprisingly all things considered, that was not the only glass she’d shattered that summer. My father’s favorite child – a two-tone, two-door ’55 Chevy Bel-Air sedan – and the most unruly of us all, had proven profoundly disobedient one scorching Friday that June, when she had travelled with no less than nine children the twelve miles to the nearest grocery store. Despite we three kids being enough to drive any decent human being to distraction, that glutton for punishment also tasked herself with the care of numerous neighborhood children in an attempt to raise extra cash. It became de rigueur for her to shop with two carts: one filled with children, the other foodstuffs. That car was perfect for the task because its interior was as big as Texas and in the late 80s those pesky child restraint laws hadn’t yet cramped her clown car sensibility about child transportation. That particular day, though, she’d been tasked by my prescription drug-addicted kleptomaniac grandmother with delivering an assortment of popsicles and frozen waffles to her and by my father with getting the car washed. As was his way, he neglected to mention that the distributor cap on that beast was cracked and that she shouldn’t turn it off for at least thirty minutes after the wash because the moisture from its bath would prevent the motor from starting. Imagine her surprise when, after the generous act of placing nine children on the sidewalk in an orderly fashion so that she could surprise my father with a bonus vacuuming, the car refused to start no matter what mayhem she threatened.
I can’t remember if she evinced surprise when the car which no longer required a key to make the ignition fire didn’t start, but I’m guessing she was far too cagey by that point to betray such emotion. After all, we’d spent all our lives with that man’s cars and their inevitable impending disappointments. Actually, that’s a serious understatement: Dad had been trying to kill us vehicularly since at least the late ‘70s, albeit unsuccessfully. He never got over the fabulous fifties and he insisted that we wouldn’t either, even if (unless?) it killed us. Ours were frequently Flintstone-style cars, and that’s not hyperbole: I can’t accurately list the myriad cars we drove with holes in the floorboards large enough to place foot-to-earth. And then there were also the ones with no seats or interior whatsoever; or those in which the brakes hadn’t existed since Kennedy was in office. Dad’s advice when we asked how to stop those cars? “Find a bush and aim for it.” And we did. “GET DOWN!”, a ubiquitous maternal refrain during my childhood, never reassured me that doing so would prevent our pulverization by a grain truck or tractor-trailor. I could go on and on – I’ll chronicle my father’s vehicular infidelities someday – but suffice it to say that we’d all been stranded by his hobby so frequently that it completely justified the rage that motivated her to launch the lunch-sized Igloo cooler of Gram’s orange popsicles and L’ego Waffles at his head with such a velocity that it shattered the safety glass rear window like a quinceañara piñata.The prize that she collected afterward wasn’t so much showering candy as it was dad’s concession to her demand to flee all those children, her mother, and most of all, him. He hadn’t the faintest idea what had gotten into her, but he wanted it to stop. It bears mentioning, too, that he was so distraught as his favored child stood motionless in that discount car wash parking lot that he probably would have agreed to anything just so that he could gather up its deconstructed window and fondle its distributor cap. Mom was not insensitive to this vulnerability; she knew the road to Cincinnati was paved with hard manipulation and wanton violence. Her only regret was that the children – well, other people’s children – had witnessed her explosion.
That car always demanded special attention, even on the morning that she prepared to depart for Moline, IL, to meet her dog breeder friend Karen, who would be ferrying her to that dreamed-of pup paradise, Cincinnati. Karen, a dog-breeding lunatic, financed her mania with a stultifying career in insurance claims which was subsidized by Frank, her husband, an orchid-fostering homosexual of a certain age with a pronounced inclination toward hairstyling that meshed nicely with his mania for being surrounded by 60s-era Dusty Springfield-lookalike dogs. Their cockers had the most voluminous bouffant top-knots I’ve ever encountered, and all thanks to Frank’s delicate sensibilities. Come to think of it, I should have invited him to tea; he wouldn’t have required an explanation for the value of hibiscus tea served in a silver plate mug as one battles heat stroke. That’s another matter, though: Karen had recently lost her closest “dog friend” Janet and she had selected my mother for promotion as she had occupied the place of runner-up closest “dog friend” for a respectable duration. To be honest, she hadn’t actually lost Janet; Janet had given away all her earthly possessions, including her cockers, in her certainty that she was about to be raptured into the heavens that September. Like so much air travel these days, though, her flight was delayed; I’m certain she would have deeply regretted missing that trip to Cincinatti had she not been utterly fixated upon reclaiming her mattress, clothes, and maybe even some of her recently bequeathed dogs.
Mom, on the other hand, drove “like the wind,” thinking all the time of Dad’s favorite Christopher Cross song and wishing him something other than well. She’d capitulated just slightly and cooked a few meals to sustain us when he had pointedly implied we’d go Donner Party in her absence, but otherwise she expected us to fend for ourselves. I could cook – so she knew that we wouldn’t die of starvation – but I think she feared that my endless offerings of cucumber sandwiches and fancy tea might incite infanticide or fratricide without her there to shield me. My older brother, Sean, would be occupied at the mechanic’s job they’d found him because he’d been a demon-spawn since birth and it was either that or juvie. He opted for a paycheck rather than a homemade tattoo and a permanent record. My grandmother had recently gifted me my dad’s childhood perambulator, so I was obviously preoccupied with staging a full-scale themed vignette based upon a photo I’d seen in an issue of Victoria magazine, fretting over where exactly one buys a parasol from the 1890s. In short, she wasn’t unusually vexed about me beyond her usual nagging low-level global concern for a child preoccupied with living like a Victorian. My sister, Idaho spud that she was, drew little concern or attention. She was always fine, or at the very least, exceptionally undemanding. Dad, however, hadn’t lived an unsupervised moment since sometime in 1962, and we were all unsettled when it came to his welfare.
His undershorts were, I’d venture, among his smaller concerns as she drove away though. Because I was still heavily enmeshed in my “butler phase,” he felt a certain reassurance at my willingness to deliver meals and answer phone calls – I longed to be the Jeeves of their dreams – and I eagerly anticipated mom’s absence so I could demonstrate my domestic aplomb. That optimism held until I realized that meant sending out a search team for his tighty whities and laying his clothes out for him each day, just as my mother had for decades. While other people were reveling in the sexual experimentation and the glory of ill-gotten narcotics of the late 60s, mom was learning the ropes of indentured servitude, aka marriage to dad. Little did she know when they started their family that he would only consider us additions to his staff; we were tiny manservants birthed to ferry dirty dishes from his recliner to the kitchen and sort thousands of grease-slimed bolts dumped for sport on the garage floor from the five-gallon petroleum bucket collection he’d been curating for decades. He always knew prima facie that not a single bolt in that bucket had ever had a mate; they were the tar-hued snowflakes of the automotive repair world. Nevertheless, hope sprung eternal and his exercise of such buoyancy meant forcing us into the Sisyphean task of hunting that special screw that affixed that tiny molding to the rear of this or that gorgeous old heap. We fretted over his welfare for naught anyhow; no one understood better than he how to survive by subjugating others to his will, and in this case namely me. Sean was at work fulfilling the masculine fantasy of mechanicry and Amanda continued to perform her Oscar-worthy impersonation of slightly wilted produce, so the middle one who could have passed for the love child of Shirley Booth’s Hazel and a young Oscar Wilde suited him just fine. I dressed him; I fed him; I explained day-to-day life to him; I watched him eat a Fruit Roll-Up without removing its cellophane wrapper because it tickled me. Like a newborn bird, he would have expired posthaste without my constant watchfulness; no wonder mom developed an acute case of wanderlust.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, mom and Karen pulled up to the Hyatt and unintentionally, without warning, confronted Feminism. Because she was unfamiliar with hotel crowds, she didn’t immediately grasp that the universe was immersing her in a live action experiential lesson in women’s rights in the form of that year’s National Organization of Women (NOW) conference. As far as the eye could see, NOW members swarmed the place, unamused by the folderol of commingling with dog show folk. There were banners, unshaven armpits, and a miasma of resentment seething from all parties involved, including the cockers, who suddenly found themselves the focus of political ire thanks to their impractical, labor-intensive hairstyles and devil-may-care total dependence upon their handlers. They may as well have been French monarchs or, as I was discovering, my father, for all their skills of self-sufficiency. Had he been there, a battle royale betwixt him and man’s best friend undoubtedly would have broken out, if only to settle which would succumb to natural selection first. Alas, the battle that actually erupted was waged between women everyone assumed were lesbians thanks to their support of equality for all people and actual lesbians who hid behind flowing buff canine fur that looked suspiciously of having been curled with an iron as their beards. In short, getting away wasn’t actually a vacation for mom.
If you’ve ever encountered Christopher Guest’s Best in Show (2000), then you’ve seen footage that approximates at least part of her getaway. “Dog people,” as she calls them, “are nuts,” she would frequently say in the weeks after returning home. I think what broke her heart most violently was the realization that most of those folks don’t actually like animals all that well and that they participated in that world for their own narcissistic reasons. They were petty, mean, neurotic and willing to commit any order of genetic interference to claim responsibility for breeding the dog with the most perfect looks, never mind that such tampering created animals similar to tomatoes in January: easy on the eyes, rotten on the inside. She’d been duped by her love for beauty. Well, who hasn’t? Granted I was never seduced by a creature with breath foul enough to peel paint, but I probably would have gone on a date with Ted Bundy without giving it a second thought until he suggested I wear a nurse’s uniform. We all have our blind spots.
Marriage had unquestionably contributed to her cataracts when it came to my father and his all-consuming dependence, though, and the women with whom she shared that hotel insisted that she excise those blinders – as well as her love for the AKC – NOW, or at least that’s the way I like to tell it. As a professor of gender studies, I’m fond of imagining her “come to Jesus,” by which I mean, “accept Gloria Steinem as your savior,” moment as rapid, all-consuming, and irreversible. I imagine her tearing off her bra right there in the Hyatt lobby, and incinerating it as some bewildered bellboy explains that smoking is no longer permitted in the hotel. I wanted them to fill her head with all their heady ideas about fairness and equal access that I kept hearing about on the news that seemed to have everyone so incensed. I even hoped she’d go avant garde and get us one of those glass ceilings – ironically, of course – so that I might embark upon building that gilded-age conservatory in which I dreamed about serving tea from my Gram’s silver service. What can I say? Some of us just are hothouse flowers.
Rather than giving her ideas, though, they just gave her a headache. She was too tired from her endless, herculean domestic drudgery to commit to changing the world. The vacation, punctuated with a dog show that only served to highlight how much better those high-strung powder puffs had it than she did, ended up feeling like a waiting room for Hell populated by screaming Sirens and haughty handlers. As the week plodded forward in its disappointment, she felt increasingly anxious about what awaited at home, certain that no one would keep up the house and that my father would have overlooked the death of my sister through starvation as he seduced some carburetor or other. She also started to wonder how she would ever justify escaping us again when she had only ugly stories to tell about how all pretenses about fighting for universal equality utterly evaporate on the battlefield of continental breakfast; that some women would rather afford their poodle the privacy of defecating in a single-stall bathroom than forfeit it to a feminist in gastro-intestinal distress; that there were moments in which the vitriol of the rhetoric of both conventions proved so heinous and destructive that it was difficult to differentiate them, especially where treats were involved.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, I was getting the workout of a lifetime as I carried my father, corpse-like, and finally came to a clear understanding of why the butler always did it. My recurring thought that entire week was, “I don’t know how she hasn’t killed him,” which was rapidly followed by “I don’t want to be a butler!” To be fair, I must admit that he worked harder – though not necessarily smarter – than anyone else I knew when it came to being a mechanic. But that was all he did. He never managed any other detail of his entire life – mom managed it all. Where she left off, I picked up. Suddenly it became quite clear why when he demanded that his children hand wash his prize jalopies using only their hands – any sponge or brush might mar the paint! – that mom always encouraged us to use the same towel she dried her cockers with as a chamois: they coated those nightmares of wheels with dog fur that danced in the breeze at low speeds, which drove him berserk. I also abruptly began to grasp why when, weeks earlier, mid-bite on a taco mom had just served him, Dad started to howl about a hair hanging from it. Her response, “sorry! It’s probably from Busy’s butt,” made us cackle uproariously as he dry heaved in protest. Busy, our geriatric cocker spaniel whose bark box had been cruelly removed because of her enthusiastic use of it, even got in on the commotion as she mocked him with her barkless grumbles. It’s a wonder he didn’t have us all put down.
As it all started to make sense to me – the violence, her devastating retorts, her lust for leaving – I began to understand that life was beating the crap out of mom and that she didn’t have the time to strategize the kind of frontal assault necessary to secure even the rights those handlers safeguarded for their prized pooches, let alone to meet the lofty goals set forth by the rageful women with a seemingly endless selection of sensible shoes. She identified with them to a point; they were all exceptionally angry and rightly so. Still, when we talk about that trip today, and we sometimes do, we tend to agree that they lack style, wit, even humor. Their earnestness saps possibility. She admired their assertiveness and intelligence, but they never once made her laugh. She wanted the audacity of crushing wit delivered alongside appeals for fair wages and equality. She longed for a woman with a bat fighting for all our equality rather than solemn, well-intentioned appeals to the alleged better nature of those who held the power and feel no desire to cede it based on the logic of “fairness for all.” Her life up to that point was lived evidence of what they were battling against, but she was still no second-waver. Political correctness left her seasick and she wasn’t about to abandon the nightmare she’d helped create at home – even if she understood better than ever that the system had been rigged to force her into that role – so she would continue with her violent outbursts for at least the next few years until her kids were grown up enough that she could start to think about what feminism might mean for her. In the end, she was like a lot of women of her generation: in no way apolitical or indifferent to the injustice and glaring disparity they faced, but so caught up in the mechanics of the life whose narrative were basically all she’d ever known that she couldn’t just drop her basket and set the house on fire – even if I hoped desperately that she might after only a week of trying to imitate her.
At twelve, I’d held my own, but I was not her replacement – though I proved equally acerbic – especially as my patience wore thin fielding my father’s endless requests for information about a world which his behavior suggested he’d only just entered, despite having over three decades on me. We were all extra perky and attentive when mom returned home, resolved to treat her better and appreciate her more. I guess that must have lasted all of a day or two before we set off to get groceries and ran out of gas – the gauges in our cars never worked and dad rarely refueled them, so one had to guess how near empty we were – halfway to town and had to walk home. Dad, of course, was nowhere to be found and when she finally hunted him down in those pre-cell days, his life was not worth living for several weeks afterwards. This would be the cycle of our lives for the rest of our time at home as children and I’ll never know how she survived it or how he, in all his vague, noncommittal insistence that others attend to his most basic of needs, did not ever manage to lose his shorts completely, both literally and figuratively, and at her hand. Disappointingly, she did not embark on another vacation again for many years, the convergence of the feminist dog show proving altogether too overpowering to risk again. After all, that trip had convinced her to abandon dog showing and refocus more intently upon antique collecting and she could only imagine the explosive potential of a longed-for trip culminating in a hotel stay that would doubtlessly include an army of gay men, antique glassware in hand, and some other fringe group – the Republican National Convention perhaps – battling to the death over the meaning of our history and how best to preserve it. No, no: she’d had enough of the feminist dog show NOW.