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Raised By Wolves
Raised By Wolves
Just after I turned eleven my life started changing rapidly, and it wasn’t just puberty punching me in the ovaries as I got my first period that year. After living with my mom, whom I had lived with since my parents got divorced, my dad was granted permission by the state of New York to get emergency custody of me. It was at the boiling point where my mother could no longer function, stopped going to work and her alcoholism turned her into a frail, bedridden woman. I only remember her leaving our dark little apartment to go to the liquor store after I asked her to take me to the grocery store to buy food for the week. One of the pluses of being an only child who didn’t really have a lot of close friends was adapting to being a self-sufficient miniature adult- I learned how to entertain myself, cook for myself and make the best out my aloneness and loneliness. I was actually grateful for the freedom to choose most of the foods I wanted to indulge in, and that I wasn’t forced to eat salads and vegetables like my friend’s parents forced on them at their dinner table. I mostly lived on milk and cereal for my meals for as long as I can remember (I read that kids need strong bones to grow up and all the vitamins and minerals I needed were packed in my Wheaties and Super Sugar Crisp cereal.) Also, you can’t find cool prizes like a glow-in-the-dark watch or scented Magic Markers at bottom of your salad bowl or do a puzzle on a side of spaghetti box.
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My mom and I moved from the suburbs to Manhattan when I was nine. When I wasn’t in school I was pretty much on my own most of the time. I longed for the days when she would pack in my lunchbox a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of Fritos, individual slides of American cheese and a can of apple juice. My first memory of a sit-down home cooked meal made by her was was a chicken dish that had a slimy gross texture (maybe it was boiled or still raw? I don’t know if it wasn’t cooked properly or I was just picky.) I also remember trying to eat a steak from the beef she got from her parents’ farm in Indiana. I gagged on the gristle, it felt like gnawing on a hot piece of rubber. She told me to clean my plate when she saw I was spitting my food into my napkin. I tried shoving it down my throat to see if I could get away with not having to taste it, but I started choking and ran to the bathroom coughing up food. My mother was angry and insulted by her eight-year old. “Your know what? If you don’t like my cooking, you can just make yourself PB and J sandwiches for every meal and I won’t for you cook anymore”, she said folding her arms. I didn’t realize at the time this was supposed to be punishment for being an insubordinate, ungrateful child and I was so relieved. Oh my God, yes! Thank you mom!
Dinner was typically just me eating cereal out of the box but I didn’t feel deprived- I remember the joy of tearing into the box, sticking my hand all the way down to fish out prizes at the bottom. An after-school snack might consist of a bowl of Duncan Hines brownie batter. I really wanted the brownies like the photo on the box but I had no patience to preheat the oven and cook for the full recommended time it said on the box. All you needed to add was water so I would mix it up in the pan, turn the oven to 375 and stick it into the cold oven as I impatiently waited for the fifteen minute alarm to go off (I didn’t know what preheat the oven meant and besides, I was hungry now.) I took out the pan of warm brownie batter, got a spoon and headed into my room to watch Magilla Gorilla, The Banana Splits, Gillian’s Island and The Brady Bunch on the portable little black-and-white television set. I would also do sketching in my drawing pad between spoonfuls of batter and leave chocolate marks all over my desk, all while my mother was still at work for another few hours. My favorite sugar friends and TV family lived inside a little box and they were always there for me. It was my after-school ritual to come home to the box after dealing with another day existing in fourth grade: The scary bullies on the bus. Feeling so ashamed when I couldn't solve a math problem in front of the class and everyone laughed. Hiding out in the bathroom stall during gym class when it was dodge ball day.
When my dad and stepmom met me at the principal’s office to pick me up at school, I was now eleven and living in a small loft apartment with my mom who was passed out on the couch most of the time. I felt lonely and trapped in that little apartment in the big city, my only comfort was watching my TV shows with the volume down nearly silent so I wouldn’t wake her. Only being able to talk to people in a whisper in the bathroom with the door closed when I was on the phone. I had no idea what alcohol did to a person or what alcoholism was. All I knew is that I couldn’t take the anxiety I felt constantly, which is why I snuck outside to a payphone, called my dad and told him he needed to come get me but I couldn’t put into words why. I never blamed my mom, I thought it was just something wrong with me. I tried so hard to do everything right and be a good kid.
Overnight, I left my classmates and friends at my progressive school in New York’s glittering and sometimes dangerous East Village neighborhood and woke up in the beige sprawling suburbs of Long Island in my dad’s ranch style house that looked exactly like the one next to it. I started public school in the middle of the school year and was immediately called out for a fight the first week by a girl who was almost the height of all the teachers and was probably left back several grades. I was back in the cage with the wild suburban kids of public school. What was even more brutal to my ears was the tacky Long Island accent that sounded like nails on a chalk board.
“Why do you tAWWWK wEE-AD? Yo-AH jeans are wEE-AD and yo-AH faggot strait hAY-AH needs a wash and cut. Go to the mAWWW-L and buy some JAWWW-dache jeans and flip ya hAY-AH ‘cause no one like you, FAG.”
Dina, the eight-foot tall bully spat the words at me and all I could focus on was her dumbass New York whiney accent and raspy voice like she smoked for the last twenty years. The shiny bubblegum scented lip gloss and the metal bar over her front teeth while she clicked her tongue upwards pushing on her retainer. She ended up not fighting me, but was worse a few months later was getting my period during gym class while wearing shorts with white trim. The smeared blood was starting to show on my thighs, so I tied my jacket around my waist and snuck out to the playground and imagined myself levitating off into space if I just concentrated hard enough. A boy in my class who I kind of had a crush on, spotted me alone on the swings. He cupped his hands together and yelled HEY MELISSA YOUR TWAT’S ON FIRE!
Miraculously, I did manage to survive sixth grade as a new kid in public school. Bootcamp started at age eleven. There was no going back to Snoopy lunchboxes, Cat’s Cradle and now I had to carry around a purse in school to have menstrual pads on hand.
My dad had gotten re-married that summer while I was away at camp- I had only met her a few times on the weekends when I would visit him. Suddenly I was living with a younger replacement mother and I also had to compete for my dad’s attention and affection with this new woman in the house. She wasn’t quite old enough to be my actual mother and acted more like a bossy older sister as she was only twelve years older than me. B and I fought over stupid things like who would sit next to my dad in the front seat of the car and my poor dad was always caught in the middle of this sort of sibling-step parent rivalry. My dad was forty when they were married and she was twenty-three. B was a middle child in a big Irish Catholic family of thirteen kids so I think she viewed my dad as a father figure and craved the attention she didn’t have growing up. Being a psychology professor at a community college, my dad had a dream job as he got to connect with lots of young women who looked up to him like a rock star on the teaching podium stage.
But this young woman never anticipated having a child with my dad so soon- the child being a traumatized sixth grader who crashed their love nest when he got custody of me. I don’t think their marriage would have worked in the long run anyway but the tension of throwing me into the mix made it collapse sooner. I had some jealousy issues with this new dominant young woman. She was was thin and looked amazing in her spandex bodysuit doing the Jane Fonda workout on the living room floor. Always tan with a big perfect smile, green eyes with curled mascara-ed lashes, a smooth complexion and not at all shy, which was the complete opposite of me in every way. But I mostly what I admired about her is that she was a functioning responsible adult who wasn’t passed out drunk and I finally had someone I could talk to about my crushes on boys. I loved having two functioning adults living under the same roof, something I had never experienced as I don’t remember my parents being together (they split was I was three.) While I missed the energy of the big city and just being with my mom whom I worshipped and equally feared, now I could do all the things normal kids did. I rode my bike around the cul-de-sac, kind of bored but I also felt more at peace knowing I wouldn’t be followed home by a creepy man or mugged for my bicycle (it happened to me in Washington Square park when we first moved to Manhattan.) The floor plan of the ranch house allowed me to roll up the rugs in the and roller skate in circles like I had a small disco roller rink to myself, blasting Devo, Blondie and Donna Summer records on the stereo when my dad and stepmother weren’t home. They let me paint a a mural with a big rainbow on my bedroom wall and I also didn’t have to the share a bedroom anymore. I got to watch a big color TV with an HBO cable box, which was a big deal at the time as only certain neighborhoods could get cable TV. After my parents went to bed, I would be watching TV and sometimes the cable channels would have soft core porn late at night. If I played with the antenna and TV knobs just right, I could catch little glimpses of scrambled boobs and hear loud moans.
The boring beige suburbs, my new family and even sixth grade boot camp weren’t all that bad.
My father was much more health conscious than my mother, who at the time was smoking two packs of Benson & Hedges Lights a day, had only coffee for breakfast and Jack Daniels for dinner and dessert. Keith Richards might have been healthier than my mom before she quit drinking and joined AA. My dad didn’t really cook but my stepmom wanted to show she could step into the wife role and cook heathy for us, the new family. We didn’t have a microwave yet (microwaves were kind of fancy and expensive at the time) but we had a toaster oven, something I always dreamed of, like my friend’s mothers had in their kitchens. B would cook us boiled frozen raviolis, chicken patties, fish sticks and Ellios pizza, which kind of tasted like hot cardboard but it was still exciting to have pizza at home. We sat down for dinner in the dining room and had cloth napkins in napkin rings, serving dishes and full sets of silverware, which felt really fancy like we were eating in a restaurant. My mother only took me to a few restaurants in my life (mostly fast food) and I only remember a few meals with her at home (before she told me to just live on PB&J sandwiches.) I have no recollection of ever being taught table manners or food etiquette. Things like: How to prepare a simple salad. Putting the napkin in your lap before eating. Waiting for everyone to sit down to start eating. Saying grace or a blessing before eating (that’s what my friend’s families did before eating, not us agnostic heathens.) How to use your fork to pin down the food to your plate while the knife in your other hand does the sawing (I still can’t use a knife properly to this day.) Not talking with your mouth full. Not sticking your finger in your mouth to use as a toothpick at the table. Clearing your dishes when you were finished and cleaning up. Before marrying my stepmother, my father was a stereotypical bachelor and never learned how to cook, didn’t decorate, throw dinner parties, didn’t keep the house clean or organized. He was just as uncivilized as me in the kitchen and at mealtime. He was a kind of a wolf-man and I was his pup. If we had the opportunity to eat cereal for dinner in a big a trough with our hands by the glowing light of the TV every night, that would be totally normal.
Within a year we moved from the ranch house to a new town where I would start junior high. They bought a charming old house on a hill with a view of Port Jefferson harbor which was walking distance the town’s village and my school. I think they got a deal on the house as it needed so much work. There was 1950’s wallpaper in some of the rooms, a big wagon wheel for a chandelier in the dining area, no shelves or storage in the kitchen and the basement had a dirt floor. But B loved to work on home projects, so she started with taking down the wagon wheel, painted the kitchen and did flower stencils along the ceiling border (which was kind of fashionable and artsy at the time.) I think we’d been in the house less than a year when B announced she was leaving my dad. It was pretty abrupt but it didn’t take me that long to get over her. What angered me is they bought this old house that was crumbling and not much renovation happened while B was there. It felt like after moving in with this nice family, the rug was pulled out from under me- I was back to living with a single parent who also didn’t function well on their own and I would literally be picking up the pieces.
On the outside, my dad was the polar opposite of my mother- he let me express myself without shame, asked about my feelings if I was sad, cared about health and safety and he didn’t hide his own vulnerability. We had free and open discussions about politics, science, philosophy. He also made me wear a seatbelt when we got in the car even though I protested saying mom didn’t ever make me wear one and it itched my neck. Looking back, I’m glad he and my mother lived were opposites. My mother tried to get me on her side to hate him like she did- she called him “Mr Softy” as a jab because he wasn’t a “tough guy”. What my parents had in common was depression and they passed that trait down to me. Both had difficult relationships with their own mothers and maintaining intimate relationships. Not surprising, both of my parents studied psychology in grad school and found retrospective careers in the field. Here’s my armchair diagnosis (from someone who just reads a lot of articles on mental illness and family dynamics): My mother’s depression at the time was acted out through drinking and she wanted to get away from the feelings she couldn’t control. My father’s depression came from fear and anxiety of the unknown. With my stepmom leaving him, he felt he failed at another relationship. When B left and we were all alone in the crumbling house, I got to see my dad up close, without a wife cleaning, cooking and taking care of his needs. He’s messy, scattered, unfocused, anxious and lives in his head a lot of the time, just like me. Together, we hid out from the world under blankets, snacking on crackers and peanut butter in from of the tv, something we both found comforting and bonded us.
Being the child of a checked-out alcoholic, dealing with a depressed dad and trying to manage my own depression, I easily stepped into my caretaker role as the responsible parent trying to keep the house and family together. Instead of wanting presents like records or clothes, I really wanted matching furniture that wasn’t falling apart or looked like college dorm furniture found at a yard sale. I wanted my dad to clean up the piles of magazines, mail and newspapers around the living room (he insisted he was going to read or recycle them someday but I knew that just wasn’t going to happen.) I wanted a modern, clean, calm house like all my friends had. Maybe even have a cat or dog. Eventually I got him to buy a new couch, but the old one only got as far as our front porch and for some reason never left the open porch. It was like a joke every time we came home or left the house- the ratty, moldy smelling, stained white couch that stayed there until I graduated high school. I tried to accept that we had the most ghetto college dorm bachelor pad on the block. I was embarrassed when friends would come over who would say things was cool we had a couch outside (“We can smoke pot here and hang out when you’re dad’s not home. Your place is so much more fun then being around my strict parents.”) My dad was a tenured professor that paid decent wages so we could afford new things and could have even gotten a maid to clean the house time to time. When I attempted to really organize and clean it, he would freak out that he couldn’t find anything and he also might need some of the papers pilled up at some point in his life. Unlike my mother, my father owned no tools, not even a hammer or nails. So we had all this artwork that sat on the floor leaning up against the wall or in boxes so it looked like we just moved in. I finally made him buy me some tools so I could fix some of the issues with the house. I was the one who mowed our front lawn so the house didn’t look so sad and abandoned.
I was resentful and exhausted trying to be the responsible parent and create a home of calm after living in so much chaos. I missed the stability of B cooking meals and doing her home crafts. I even missed the first mother I knew before she was blackout drunk mom, when we lived in a nice house near Queens. Dinner with depressed dad were typically Tabachnik’s soups (healthy, easy frozen boil-in-the-bag prep.) Pasta with jared sauce. Canned tuna on crackers. Peanut butter on crackers. Cheese and peanut better on crackers. Low sodium V-8 juice (our fresh veggies and salad came in a can.) Desert options: a bowl of milk and cereal (ideally raisin bran or a high fiber natural cereal.) Low fat cherry vanilla ice cream (because “low fat” was considered healthy.) Entemann’s apple strudel (my dad liked to convince himself that if there was fruit or nuts in a food it counted as healthy and was part of the food group.) I knew he didn’t know how to cook or maybe just lazy and I never learned either. When I would have dinner at a friend’s house I was in quiet awe of just watching my friend prep food with her mother and serve it at a table. I would never have anyone over our house for meals or sleepovers. I had to make sure no one would find out were were secretly wolves trying to fit in with all the tamed, nice families in our town.
(Raised By Wolves: The Whole Town Finds Out is in Part Two of this story.)
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