My mother eloquently captured the incongruous nature of her marriage to my father with a powerfully mundane anecdote: her own mother, dirt-poor Irish immigrant though she was, offered her every penny of her paltry life savings to not marry my dad. For my maternal grandmother, an ever-suffering Catholic from the land of perpetual potato blight and British oppression, it was unthinkable that her only daughter — shy, studious, virginal, and still living at home at the age of thirty — would choose to let herself be physically and spiritually defiled by a man who could most politely be described as White Trash.
Obviously, my mother felt that the only way to escape the insufferably boring life of the “good girl” was to marry a “bad boy.” And, in this regard, my father was eminently qualified. As he confided to me late in his life, he’d been in and out of prison more than once for car theft, breaking and entering, and assorted other legal transgressions well before the age of eighteen. It was only the prospect of doing hard time in an adult prison, rather than vacationing in juvenile hall, that motivated him to curb his more severe criminal impulses.
The differences between my father and mother, however, ran deeper than their respective degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity with the inside of a prison cell. My mother scrimped and saved in her various menial jobs — most memorably, registering cattle at the 4-H Club — in order to earn a bachelor’s degree and, eventually, a master’s degree in literature. This hard-won higher education enabled her to advance into an underpaid career as a teacher of other people’s spoiled children in an upper-crust elementary school of Catholic persuasion.
The income that my father earned as a construction worker, on the other hand, went towards the purchase of hard liquor, loose women, and bail bonds. The cost of college tuition wasn’t a salient issue for my father since he’d never gotten through high school. As he recounted it, studies were interrupted with regularity by police storming through the school’s front door, prompting roughly half the student body (my father included) to hall ass out the back door rather than wait to see who was on the wanted list that day.
There was also the matter of on-campus racial strife, in which the school’s administration played a less than neutral role. My father recalled a particularly large brawl in the courtyard that pitted white students against Mexican students. At one point, as my father took a break from pummeling the face of a brown-skinned classmate, he saw the principal stick his head out of a second-floor window, pump his fist in the air, and yell, “Get those wet-back sons-of-bitches!” This was not an environment conducive to high levels of academic achievement.
Still, for all their differences, my mother and father shared a few commonalities that drew them together in what would otherwise have been a union of inconceivable improbability. They grew up poor in the same neighborhood on the “bad” side of town. And they both grew up in families characterized by levels of dysfunction that, although different in nature, were high even by the lax standards of the Midwest.
My mother never met her father, who abandoned his wife shortly after impregnating her. For many years my mother didn’t even know his real name. She simply referred to him by the same term of endearment that her mother used: “that bastard.” Fortunately, my mother acquired a step-father who provided her with siblings: a half-sister who eschewed higher education, and most higher brain functions, in favor of marriage to an investment banker; and a half-brother who almost became a successful artist and had the foresight to marry another almost-successful artist who happened to be the heiress of a lucrative portable-toilet business empire in the Deep South.
My father, in turn, was reared in a family that, while technically “intact,” was populated by black-belt Baptists for whom misogyny and child abuse were as integral to the religious creed as the belief in One True God. My dad’s father was an especially charming man, given to punching his wife or any of his several sons in the face if they dared speak at the dinner table without his prompting. He also taught his offspring a distinctly old-fashioned form of conflict resolution. In the event of a disagreement among brothers, the two parties to the conflict would don boxing gloves and proceed to beat each other’s brains out until one of them went down and didn’t get back up, at which point he was officially declared to have lost the argument.
Under these circumstances, my mother couldn’t help but serve as a civilizing influence upon my father’s brutish nature. Under her tutelage, he achieved an appreciation for classical music and 19th century English poetry. He came to recognize the folly of both the Vietnam War and Protestantism. Eventually, he even secured a G.E.D. that filled the void left in his life by the absence of a high-school diploma. In other words, he became a Refined Redneck.
But a Redneck he remained at his core; fond of crude humor, public flatulence, and large-breasted women of Northern European extraction. In return to my mother for introducing him to the cultural wonders of Tchaikovsky and Kipling, he introduced her to the primal joys of heavy drinking. Of course, she was a more than willing student in this regard, given her natural, Irish Catholic predilection for guilt, suffering, and the medicinal consumption of alcohol.
Together, they embarked upon a shared lifetime of gradually intensifying alcoholic isolation. On weekdays, they went their separate ways: he to the construction site with its caricatured male bonding among the hard-hats; she to the Catholic school with its hermetically surreal female bonding among the teachers of the privileged. During the evenings and on weekends, they reunited over Dutch beer, California wine, and Irish whiskey within the ever-narrowing confines of our suburban home. The already-limited circle of friends and social gatherings shrank until it disappeared altogether, leaving just the two of them — and me.
It may not have been what Norman Rockwell had in mind, but it was quintessentially American nonetheless. And it is from this dubious union that I was spawned; which goes far in explaining why I am the way I am. At least, that’s the excuse I use every time I cross the threshold into my psychiatrist’s office, or check into the hospital to embark upon another round of detox and rehab.