Years ago, a brilliant friend offered an observation I’ve never been able to shake:
“We learn through science or we learn through suffering.”
Lessons come through traditional sources: books, art, trial-and-error, from wonderful yet albeit imperfect creatures called parents.
My dear mother was beset upon by demons. Her entire life was a screaming roller coaster ride of mental maladies. She’d be the sweetest person, easy to laugh and compliment. In a blink, her face distorted in bottomless rage. Nights were spent, harshly whispering, bending Venetian blinds and filling notebooks with license plate numbers of every car that passed the house. Mom thought she was being followed. Who isn’t? I remember walking home from first grade. A block away, there was Mom, in some insane border dispute with the neighbor, each dousing the other with garden hoses. Police and ambulance lights added a festive mood, lighting the neighborhood. So many distant memories of this tiny, tragic woman with the 16-cylinder engine, wrapped in a straitjacket, kicking, flailing, cursing at her captors.
Her other address was often Camarillo, then more famous as a state mental institution than for seaside tourism. Was it fifth grade? Sedated, she stood opposite me, hands clutching iron bars, begging if I could, at my advanced age of 10, pull some springs and free her from that hellhole? I was well-versed in old wolfman movies. Her request was like Lon Chaney asking to be untied, right before the full moon’s rising.
Your heart always went out for Lon, a good man, trapped forever with his own, personal, monster inside.
Don’t untie The Wolfman.
Forever terrified, mom never liked the night. One rare evening of clarity, she confessed her own mother and father never cared having her around the house. They shipped her off to a Catholic girls’ boarding school. She was 4. She laughed recalling the story. One night, dead of winter, in her nightgown, she snuck out of the dormitory. Barefoot, my mother ran across the courtyard in the snow to the cathedral. The nuns found her the next morning, asleep on the cold marble altar, in front of the cross. She had cried herself to sleep, asking God to send her back to loving parents she did not possess.
Through all her fits and violent outbursts, she prayed a lifetime for someone, some saint or angel, God Himself, to come and save her. I suspect over the decades, God sent saviors by the boatload and she kicked each and every one in the yippee coyotes. Odd. We all come in so different, blessed or bent from karma, devils or misshapen DNA.
Maternal wisdom? Frequently Mom ranted: “Half the people on earth were put here to make the other half miserable.” Mom’s enemies were legion. When I was little, we’d go out to eat. I’d steal furtive glances around the cafeteria, measuring where sat my nemeses. Whoever they were, they were well camouflaged. Left-handed Christmas present? My defense mechanism eventually blossomed into my great sense of humor. It’s a great gift.
I wish I could distort time, go back to that New Hampshire chapel. I’d pick up my mom as a little girl, wrap her in a blanket and offer those soft and reassuring things children, and, frankly, all of us, deserve to hear, that someone loves us and all is not going to be OK, but already is. We’d have late-night milk and cookies, to seal the deal.
My father was shy and stoic, another lost soul in a different cloak. He lost his father when he was 5. Dad was brilliant, wise, damaged and loving. All his misdeeds were well-meaning. Once, he shaved my dog’s head. Why? Couldn’t say. He prepared fried liver sandwiches and jelly on petrified raisin toasts for my second-grade lunches.
Threw away a lot of damn liver that year.
Dad painted my prized Italian race car orange — with a large house paint brush. He designed supersonic rockets for a living, yet, once secretly cemented a space-age polymer ball the size of a cantaloupe over my car’s gear shift. I pointed out my car now could no longer get into reverse. My father’s nonplussed and standard response? “Well, son. I guess you’ll just have to be careful.”
And then, he walked away.
Aren’t kids supposed to do things like this, not the parents?
When I was an adult, Dad confessed that during combat, an artillery shell exploded nearby. For the rest of his life, he had trouble hearing and thinking. “Son. I’ve never been right in the head since then.” He was the sweetest man. When I was a boy, he taught me The Ping Pong Lesson.
Dad loved horses, nature and ping pong. He was a tournament-grade player, made his own paddles (from space-age polymers).
Table tennis is a game played in increments of five serves. Whoever gets to 21 first, wins.
Dad never once called me by name. It was always — “Son.”
“Son,” Dad said. “You always want to win every serve by at least 3-2.”
Dad’s mind was impeccable when it came to numbers, and their outcomes.
“It doesn’t seem much to be down 2-3,” Dad told his skinny little offspring.
“You’re down just 2-3. Then 4-6 doesn’t seem too bad. But keep losing each serve by a solitary point. You’re down 6-9. Then 8-12. Then 10-15. Before you know it, game’s over, 14-21.”
Fairly, flip the formula for winning.
I see that. And I’m grateful.
“It’s not just about ping pong,” my father told me.
Falling behind. One, single, innocent, seemingly insignificant point at a time. You can lose things. Your health or a relationship. Your waistline, integrity, soul and dreams.
John Boston is a local writer.