By the time I was born, the damage had already been done; not that I fully understood the difference between damaged and normal dysfunction. I merely grew up believing that everyone’s fathers were like mine. Someone who came home from work to eat dinner once his three children were in bed and then left again to sleep at his parents’ home. He’d mysteriously appear again in the morning to pick up the sack lunch my mother prepared for him to take to work.
Of course, it wasn’t until I became a more sophisticated grade-schooler that I began to notice that my family structure did not quite match most of my friends’ families. Friends would talk about their parents being divorced with one parent who lived in a completely different home – this didn’t match my situation at all. My father lived with us. Sort of. I had friends whose parents were divorced and who had stepparents – this definitely didn’t fit my life, I knew that for sure. I was born in the 70’s and grew up in the 80’s, so there were even some friends in my grade who had parents that weren’t even married to each other, or who just had a single parent. I wasn’t allowed to play over at their houses for reasons I didn’t understand then, but it had something to do with being “loose”, and my mom would never tell me what they had loose at their house.
I did know without being told that something was not right about our home. The expectation to pretend everything was normal weighed down every interaction without anything ever being explicitly said to me. The pretense hung thick in the Southern California humidity, and I never felt comfortable in my home – never felt comfortable growing up.
By the time my older brother and sister left home, I realized I had no escape. I was left as an only child and learned to retreat into my own solitude in order to survive. The house had grown angrier by then. My mother’s moods were increasingly unpredictable. One moment she would be happy to see me, while the next, she would be angry for no reason. I learned that it would be easier for me if I stayed quiet in my room.
I woke up almost every night to my parents yelling at each other. The hostility a predictable crescendo, drawers slamming shut along with pots and pans banging around as my mother prepared my father’s dinner. I’d bury my head beneath my comforter and try to drown out the sound somehow, the angry television volume rising along with the deafening silence that went along with it. Later, in junior high and in introductory Spanish, Señora P couldn’t understand why I couldn’t break through my learning block for Spanish – especially since my father taught high school level Spanish and my mother is from Lima, Peru. She pulled me aside one day and gently asked me why I was struggling so much with even basic conversation starters, and stood there perplexed when I couldn’t possibly explain what even I didn’t understand at the time. How could I speak a language that terrified me in the middle of the night?
Both of my parents were somewhat mysterious when I was growing up. My mother, with her thick Spanish accent and permanent scowl, would spend several hours of her day watching soap operas on the ABC network, and to this day, I know more about the fictional Quartermaine and Buchanan family histories than I do my mother’s. For many years I was positive sex involved a woman wrapped tightly in a bedsheet while a man lay next to her, loosely covered with another, kissing her on the chin. I didn’t know this then, but now I understand the same depression my mother lived with, and I have experienced the same disenchantment that happens when life betrays you.
When my mother grew up she became an executive secretary for a prominent company and, soon after, married my father. An American. My parents had my brother, sister, and then me. They bought a home. It was the American Dream. Their life was ideal until my father took a mistress and my mother stopped smiling. Secrets came to live with us after my mother confronted my father and I learned at a young age that Secrets is a temperamental houseguest.
My mother learned secret keeping, without realizing it, from her family in Peru. After her parents died, my mother’s brothers and sisters raised her. They all had various personal reasons for withholding information about the family from my mother. Her family was just one example of generational hushing. I’ve since learned most of this information but my mother still does not know it; out of respect for her I won’t write about it until I’ve spoken to her first. However, my mother was the youngest of a large family and she would not have been aware of anything that had happened, nor could she have possibly remembered.
I would not blame her for purposefully forgetting.
As I’ve pieced together my mother’s life I am struck with a predominant theme: secrets are toxic. This toxicity is as much of my genetic code as is my olive skin and dark eyes. I inherited secrets from Peru; the DNA replicated the moment I was conceived.
My personal relationship with each of my parents has obviously evolved through the years just as my peers’ relationships with their parents have changed. Even now as I approach my 40th birthday, I find myself in the same emotional push and shove with them. I want them to be the parents I wish they were, while at the same time, recognizing that they never will be. And, most of all, I understand that it isn’t fair to want such a thing in the first place. They can only be who they are at their own rate of being right now.
I am nowhere near understanding what my role was as a child in bearing witness to the complicated dynamics in my parents’ marriage. While I can empathize with my mother’s anger and unhappiness, I cannot excuse the same anger and unhappiness directed towards me. I cannot excuse my hair being pulled for supposedly not listening or having to redo homework assignments multiple times late at night because they weren’t done perfectly. I don’t think I’ll ever understand not being allowed to close my bedroom door whenever I wanted to because my mother didn’t trust what I was doing in there, or the assumption I was always “up to something.” I won’t ever forget being told I was “dirty” because I liked a boy before I was 16 years old.
And I can’t forget the fear I still instantly feel as an adult when I hear people screaming at each other, when I feel like I’m being questioned, or if I feel like I have to defend myself. Or the confusion I feel when I begin to recognize that my father isn’t an enemy like I’ve been told all my life.
In the last three years my father has made an effort to become someone I can talk to and get along with. I appreciate his efforts, even if they leave me confused. My kids spend time with him. I want them to have a relationship with him, and they always have. Now that he’s retired and struggles with depression, I know it is good for him to be busy with activities or he really will stay in bed all day and watch Fox News.
I have begun to experience a type of revisionist history when I spend time with my father. I start seeing things from his point of view and recognize that I had fallen victim to my mother’s version of events in many circumstances. And while the long-ago affair was 100% my father’s fault, so many other situations were not entirely his alone. Secrecy has a way of protecting the wrong people, creating a vintage veneer that is more faux-finished than true patina. Even now my mother has no idea of what her own personal history is and I see her rootlessness haunt her as if she isn’t truly real. When I look into her youthful eyes in old photographs from Peru I see a woman who doesn’t question the lies told to her by her family. Sometimes I wonder if she questions them now.
After writing and illustrating her first bestseller in second grade, “The Lovely Unicorn”, C. Streetlights took twenty years to decide if she wanted to continue writing. In the time known as growing up she became a teacher, a wife, and mother. Retired from teaching, C. Streetlights now lives with her family in the mountains along with their dog that eats Kleenex. Her memoir, Tea and Madness, won honorable mention for memoir in the Los Angeles Book Fair (2016) and is available for purchase on Amazon.