I was surprised to find myself spiraled into the lines of an obituary. Somebody was mindful of the cracks, maybe the parent of the other 3 step-grandchildren (though I’m not sure who they are.)
I was already an adult when we first met so I don’t know that I ever considered the deceased my step-grandmother, though perhaps some if not all of my younger sisters did. Surprisingly, I find myself touched to be included all these years later, to be thought of as family, even while the ground beneath that sentiment shifts, inviting closer inspection…
My “step-grandmother” was an elegant woman, or maybe graceful better describes her, some born of self-composure, not wealth or finery. Despite her graciousness, however, she stung me once, irrevocably, and all these years later, when I am the age she would have been then, it spirals back around to me again.
My only father, the surgeon, began sleeping with her oldest daughter, the twenty-something operating room nurse, back when I was in college. My parents soon divorced and my father’s new bride had the large church wedding denied to my mother two decades earlier. My mother, a lifetime Catholic born on Christmas Day, was turned away from her Church not because she was expecting me, but because my father’s grandfather was a Jew. There was, as a result, nothing to be annulled of my parents’ city hall marriage, and the Church no longer cared about my father’s heritage.
After an extravagant parish affair, the newlyweds built an exorbitantly extravagant home on the water. I helped them move in, and soon after I stopped by with my childhood friend to show her around. My friend knew my father back when my family and I lived in a stately brick home on a more southernly island over the toll bridge. That island, I gathered, was considered a lesser island by my father and his new bride. While the home itself, originally built by the town founder for his daughter, which belonged to my father’s parents before us, was deemed almost campy in comparison to their architecturally modern home. My friend knew my father when we lived in more modest home on a side street of the same lesser island over the toll bridge. It was there, in fact, that my 5th and 6th sisters were born, less than a year apart, “Irish twins,” they call them. My mother was Irish. As #1, I stayed home from school with #5 so that my mother could give birth to #6. It was in this modest home on a side street on the same lesser island, that my mother began to buckle under the weight of too much to bear alone. It was there that my father’s career took off as did his earnings along with his sense of self which was already atmospheric as a surgeon. My mother was left behind to tend the earthly realms of caring for children and home, not to mention the books for my father’s office, and the calendar of social obligations expected of a wife of a surgeon. It was within this modest house on a side street with six children, ages 0 to 15, that my mother found herself at the edge of disappearance as my father’s life revolved increasingly around itself. And it was soon after we moved from the modest house into my father’s parents’ home on the main thoroughfare that my mother jumped, as they say, from the frying pan into the fire, but not without warning me first. I was 16.
“If your father and I ever split up,” she said, seemingly out of the blue. “He’ll be with that OR nurse, the tall, pretty one. She’s more his type.”
She said this matter-of-factly, two years in fact before it was public. She had just picked me up from my summer job at the hospital when she said it. My father had just introduced me to the tall, pretty nurse outside the operating room. She wasn’t much older than me.
My father helped his new best friend, the renowned architect, design the waterfront home, placing at its center a sweeping spiraled staircase, seemingly suspended in mid-air. My old best friend and I arrived at the waterside mansion through the garage door where I had been instructed to enter, but only after knocking. No one knocked at my grandparents’ home on the lesser island over the toll bridge not even when it became ours. Knocking was for guests, I was told, and even close friends were considered family. I knocked on the door inside the garage and found my new “step-grandparents” inside, seated at the kitchen island with its view of the water through the open spiral staircase. No one else was home.
“Hi Kelly,” my step-grandmother said gracefully. She was almost always graceful. Her husband nodded from his stool beside hers.
“I want to show my friend around,” I said enthusiastically, and they nodded their approval, as I proceeded past the spiral staircase to the sunken dining room and beyond that to the living room with its floor to ceiling view of the water. From there, I took my friend out on the deck and down to the dock and then we spiraled around through the side door, passing in between the den and the office, back into the kitchen where I turned to head up the stairs.
My “step-grandmother’s” voice pierced my momentum.
“Kelly,” she said, from her watchful perch at the kitchen island. “I don’t think you should go upstairs.”
I was half-way up the spiraled staircase when she said it, and I looked back, confused at her meaning, and so she elaborated, that I should wait until my father and her daughter were home to give permission to go upstairs.
Stunned, I looked up the remaining curve of the staircase knowing that my four younger sisters’ bedrooms were just beyond the railing on the street side of the new home, just past the guest bedroom with its balcony view of the water. But as was true in the home that my mother bought with her alimony, a three-bedroom Victorian with a single bathroom, there was no room in my father’s new home for me. There was, however, a single photo beneath the staircase in the sunken dining room, a photo of his “Six Misses,” the name he had given to his first boat, a pun on the absence of a son, each miss belonging to our mother. Of this he reminded us often, how the very sight of his six girls was at times a source of pain to his new bride of the children she would never have with him. In the months and years that followed, I’d often pause and look at the photo beneath the spiral staircase in the sunken dining room and see it as a sign, however vague, that I was once included in my father’s life. That he and I had built campfires in the Rockies and that we had learned to ski together at Copper Mountain; that we had ridden his motorcycle along the beach with my arms wrapped around his belly just before my parents split; that he’d taught me to swim in the ocean as girl and how to ride a two-wheeler after which he’d sewed his first stitch in my knee in the kitchen of our rancher in New Port News; that we’d lived together in the rancher in Virginia, and before that in the high-rise in Philly and the trailer in NJ; and also in the split-level in Colorado and on the base at West Point where I’d begun to accompany him on his rounds; that I used to scrub with him and stand beside him in surgery, and that just before my parents split, which was just before my father fired me, I’d assisted him with minor procedures at his office which I had frequented as a girl when it first belonged to my grandfather. My father sold the office too, like he sold my grandparents’ house out from under us, disposing of what remained of the past we’d shared, disposing of me too I suppose. I had lived above the office in the apartment upstairs. The oldest of my younger sisters lived there after me, as did the sister after that, each of us displaced, seeking solace in what remained of the familiar.
I’d meant to continue spiraling up the stairs of my father’s new pride and joy despite my “step-grandmother’s” admonition, but my best friend paused at the foot of the sweeping staircase, looking up at me suspended in mid-air and back at my “step-grandmother” perched on the kitchen stool beside her husband, certain of their place, both firm in their assertion that I should not continue on with my tour.
“Maybe we can come back another time, Kel,” my friend said, and felt the gravity then that awaited me.
I held my head up high as I unspooled my steps and said goodbye to my “step-grandparents” before exiting through the door to the garage.
It was in this way, little by little and sometimes like a crack in the earth beneath my feet, that I came to understand that I was no longer related to my father, not in the way I had been, and not in the way I had taken for granted that I always would be. And something else. Something unspoken. I was never to speak of this. The cost was made quite clear over the years. I would not see my father for some time. I would not have my calls answered. I would not be invited over. And most unbearable, I would be prohibited from seeing my four youngest siblings who had been forced to move in with my father when my mother could no longer care for them.
My siblings and I had been split in the year before my father remarried. It was soon after my mother moved six girls and her new beau and their new baby, a boy, into the house with the single bathroom, that she began spiraling toward bottom, having jumped into the fire to escape the frying pan. The oldest of us called my father then to say that the youngers were no longer but he ignored our calls until the neglect became public knowledge. He was dating the OR nurse then, living in a townhouse by himself, and so he renovated the garage into bedrooms and turned over the care of his four youngest daughters, ages 5 to 14, to his twenty-something girlfriend, who until then had been enjoying nights out on the town with her new boyfriend, the surgeon.
“You’re a mother now,” my future step-grandparents told me that they told her. “You have responsibilities.”
When the OR nurse began to buckle under the weight of caring for four children and a home, my father did what he did when my mother began to buckle, he expected more of his children. This as how I came to be fired from his office in the summer before I left for college just before my parents split. He’d arrived at my bedside one morning in the dormitory above the garage in the house that had once belonged to his parents, and I looked up surprised to find him on that side of the house.
“Kelly Ann, get up and do some laundry,” he said sharply. “Your mother needs help.”
I explained that I had been taking my own laundry to the laundromat that summer and not only that but I had work that morning.
“You’ll go in late today,” he said.
“But they’re expecting me at 9,” I said.
“You’ll skip work today and do the laundry,” he countered, after which I made the fatal mistake.
“Why don’t you ever help with the laundry?” I asked.
He fired me then, storming out of my room above the garage at the house that had once belonged to his parents like he stormed into my younger sisters’ bedrooms in the renovated garage of the townhouse where he lived after the separation. He told my little sisters, ages 5 to 14, that if they didn’t behave, if they didn’t treat his girlfriend better if they didn’t’ help her around the house, that he would send them back to live with my mother who had been too drunk to pick them up from school or make them dinner.
He never made good on that threat, but by the time he’d remarried and moved into the waterside mansion, one sister was sent away to boarding school while another moved out before she’d graduated high school, crowding into an apartment with a grown sister rather than live in the mansion beside the water. During those years, I would find my father’s new in-laws–parents and brothers and sisters and spouses and kids and family friends—happily ensconced inside the mansion, certain of their place and belonging. My father and his bride would extoll the helpfulness of her family and friends so that I might understand how much I’d come up short, how relational ties had been commodified. Center stage had been earned then by my father’s new life, while I was forevermore cast an “extra,” easily forgotten, often in the way, and mostly ignored as I was some years back when I traveled 300 miles to attend the funeral of my “step-grandfather.”
On rare occasions, say if I stumbled upon my father home alone or if he’d had a couple drinks, but not yet too many, say at his annual black-tie Christmas Party to which I was somehow always included even as I was excluded from his annual birthday celebrations, my father would appear to remember me as if the fog of his amnesia had momentarily cleared beside the glow of the twinkle lights with a snifter of Grand Marnier in his hand. He might bend down then in his black tux to kiss my forehead or tussle my hair as if I wasn’t only a reminder of the wreckage he’d helped create and left behind, but a daughter that he wanted near just as I now long to have my grown sons near. In those warmest of moments, my father would suggest that we get together again, soon, often inviting me to dinner or to an outing the next weekend. I would blink then, holding back tears.
When I’d arrive at the scheduled time, however, it was never what I’d been led to expect. Other guests were there for instance, or had evidently been invited to arrive much earlier than me; and no matter the occasion, I would be seated as far away as possible from my father. Once, maybe twice or even three times, I shudder to recall them at all, I arrived at the set time, dressed to the nines, something that was a challenge on a first-year elementary school teacher salary, only to knock on the door inside the garage to find that no one was there. The stools. The kitchen island. The spiral staircase. The sunken dining room. All of it empty. I might call my father then from inside his vacant house if I could get past the reeling heartbreak and embarrassment, but he never answered the call. He rarely did. Does.
Eventually, I came to understand that as my mother’s daughter, I too was my father’s ex, tolerated or endured, particularly on holidays and special occasions, though she was never once invited, but otherwise, I was derided as if I too was responsible for my mother’s affair to which as a wife she hadn’t been equally entitled.
“You are a failure as a daughter,” my father said on the occasion of my graduation from college, Magna Cum Laude, with the added honor of The Education Award for the most outstanding student in the field.
My sister had called me that morning sobbing.
“Mommy isn’t going to make it,” she said. “She’s drunk again.”
“It’s okay,” I told her. “It’s okay.”
My father insisted that we not talk about my mother’s absence that day, just as we were never to talk of the pain beneath the surface of his new and improved life.
“I’m only having a graduation party for you because it is the thing to do,” he later said. “People expect it.”
He’d sneered as he said this, his voice riddled with disgust. My younger sisters had just moved in with him, and he couldn’t get a hold of the laundry. He’d called me, desperate for help, but I couldn’t come.
The spiraled staircase at the center of my father’s new and improved life eventually began to crack, and I don’t mean this figuratively. The staircase literally was no longer able to withstand its suspension in mid-air, requiring, I suppose, what we all required, firmer footing. In the absence of such footing, I turned toward the page, toward expressing what others refused to see or say. I chose the page again and again until it became a practice and the practice became a center and the center became the thing around which I began to shape a life of my own.
There were times during those years when I sensed an opening in the cracks within my father’s new life, an opening into which I might purchase belonging, however brief, by deriding, say, my younger sisters, who one by one acted out their unmet pain and trauma as adolescents. My ache for belonging was so deep then that I regularly felt the temptation at the tip of my tongue, particularly when it came to the derision of my mother, who was easy an target, an uneducated woman without a career who not only had an affair with a man half her age, but who went on to have two children with him, two children who cancer would orphan before they were out of high school.
“You need to talk to your mother about her hair,” my father said in the hallway of the hospital, with my mother’s admission chart under his arm.
An hour earlier he’d stopped to explain my mother’s diagnosis to the oldest of my younger sisters. He’d leaned over the nurses’ station and drew an illustration in triplicate of our mother’s torso and head, notating each of the organs where cancerous tumors had been found.
When my sister ran away from the nurses’ station in hysterics, my father grew furious, with her copy left in his hand.
“What is wrong with her?” he said, handing the pink sheet to me.
“She has always been overly emotional,” I might have said, but instead I looked at him blankly. “She needed a father. Not a doctor. She needed an embrace. Not an illustration.”
I turned to walk down the hall to break the news to our youngest siblings, the ones who were a result of my mother’s affair with the man half her age, my only brother and my baby sister. They were seated in a separate waiting room so as not to inconvenience my father with their presence. I led them through a set of doors into a private sunny hallway where they leaned against the wall as I broke the news.
“Mommy is going to die,” I told them.
In my memory of that moment, they are small children, but they would have both been in high school by then. I took them to see our mother then and I left to go downstairs to get snacks and drinks for everyone.
I came across my father in hall with my mother’s chart under his arm. I’d long recognized the sound of his heels coming around a corner in a hospital. My heart had always quickened at the sound when I was a girl working as a candy striper on the base of West Point, where passing nurses and doctors always said, “You must be Dr. Salasin’s daughter! You look just like him!”
I smiled when I saw my father come around the corner despite myself. I tried to avoid him, but he wanted to talk to me about my mother.
“It looks trashy,” he said of her hair.
“It does,” I might have added then, and on this we would have both agreed. I always preferred her hair brunette instead of blonde. Maybe he would have comforted me in the face of my mother’s diagnosis and my sister’s hysteria and my half-siblings impending orphaning if I had joined in the derision, but instead, I told him that his new wife had done the same thing.
“She just spends hundreds of dollars on her dye job,” I said. “Mom can only afford $20.”
As the cracks continued to spiral around us during those years, my “step-grandparents” remained steady at their perch on the stools beside the kitchen island with it view of the water through the staircase that had begun to crack under the weight of its suspension in mid-air.
Each time I brought a kind young man around, the one who would become my fiancé and then my husband and then the father of my boys, my “step-grandfather,” would go out of his way to find ways to insult him, asking for instance, again and again, how old he was and what he was planning to do with his life, which admittedly wasn’t much at first as far as dollars go, and when this was less of a deficit because my beau had gone back to school and was studying to become a teacher, my “step-grandfather” took to critiquing the summer work my beau did around my father’s place, wanting to be sure that Casey knew what I was always to know, that we would never measure up, i.e. We didn’t belong.
These casual cruelties of my “step-grandfather” were one of the constancies of my early adulthood, as was the gracious presence of my “step-grandmother” at his side. I was always struck by the grace she embodied. In large part, I see now, because it sat in such sweeping contrast to the spiraling horror in which I was invisibly suspended and about which I was to remain silent.