Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

This post was inspired by the book, Expecting Adam by Martha Beck.  As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book. This is not a review, it is a post inspired ll opinions are my own. You can read other members' posts inspired by Expecting Adam on book club day, November 9, 2011 at From Left to Write.

“This is the part of us that makes our brief, improbable little lives worth living; the ability to reach through our own isolation and find strength, and comfort, and warmth for and in each other. This is what human beings do. This is what we live for, the way horses live to run.” from Expecting Adam.

I applaud Martha Beck’s discovery that relationships are the true essence of life. I also want Martha to know that not all of us start with the loving family that Adam got.
           As sure as my love for unsweetened iced tea, one glass of white wine with dinner and Lindt chocolate peanut butter balls, relationships are essential to my very being. For connection, I started with what I received biologically. Decades later, I continue to define relationships as the richness of life and I am forced to admit, I started with interesting raw material.
We’d take the big round table in the corner if I gathered my family at a local restaurant. Older brother Bill, in bib overalls, no longer reeks of alcohol but his wrinkled skin, droopy eyelids, and dark circled orbs broadcasts that his body has not recovered even though his spirit is a perpetual “pink cloud.” (Alcoholics Anonymous jargon for the euphoria from getting sober.)  As he laughs too loudly and tells stories of drunken days and lost weekends, I see glimpses of the little boy and the teenager who greeted each day with “Hello world!” and wore a Japanese happy coat (generally translated to English as hapi or happi coat not happy) through much of high school. Bill could fix anything that needed fixing especially if it was a hydraulic engine. During the worst of his drinking years, he worked for two companies that maintained big garbage trucks in the Chicago area. He would wear out the patience of one company with his priority on alcohol and the other company would hire him by the next afternoon. His extraordinary skill encountered something he could not control when one of the giant tires on a truck exploded at his chest. His injuries are not visible at this dinner but they continued to scar his health the remainder of his life.
Bill’s logical explanation about The Incident that caused him to be a registered sex offender by the state of Florida hangs in the air like a leftover party banner. Perhaps his pink cloud drifted away on that day he raged at his mentally challenged stepdaughter and grabbed her breast.
Pretense only brings Bill to this dinner because his early life of drinking and smoking took its toll and Bill died of lung cancer at age sixty-five in 2010.
Sister Margaret arrives after Bill. She, too, looks on the outside like the choices she made on the inside. Her anger worn thick like her mascara, her bitterness as brittle as the tenth coat of hot pink polish painted on her nails. I dig deep to find the bright little girl who skipped second grade or quick sense of humor of her young adulthood. Margaret’s laughter at a joke or situation that struck her as funny spread like news of the best shoe sale in town.
Margaret blurts out as soon as she is seated, “Can you believe I have to have another surgery? This time it’s for carpel tunnel syndrome.” She delivers this news with excitement rather than the resignation or frustration usually accompanied with surgery. 
Bill reassures her, “Margaret, you may have had cirrhosis of the liver when you were five but you don’t have it now and you’re not that sickly little girl anymore. You should have dropped the hypochondria decades ago.”
I accepted Margaret’s hypochondria and surgery-of-the-moment ages ago, I wonder how someone as bright as Margaret cannot remember when to use she/her and he/him and they/them?  When confronted or teased about her grammar, she tells you rule by rule the correct usage, yet refuses to use such rules in daily speech. This stubbornness completes the picture of refusing to get her undergraduate degree. For decades, she worked at a university where she could have finished for free. She dared to call colleagues “educated idiots” when they didn’t see things her way.
Sister Ashley hobbles behind Margaret, the years of looking like Linda Carter of Wonder Woman fame locked away in her memory. A run-in with a forklift on the factory floor interrupted her work life, sapped her will and drained her desires for years afterward. This waning of her will started early but the accident squeezed its last breath. Her creativity, sensitivity, beauty and wit might as well be specimens in the jars of a science lab for all the use they were to her. Perhaps her children have taken the jars off the shelf, handled them with curiosity and put them back, thinking “Surely these belong to some one else. They couldn’t possibly belong to the hollowed-out, used-up, emotional cripple that is our mother.” Ashley sparkled on stage when she sang and acted. Her wit, even as a child, shined through in letters she wrote to me when I was in college. If Emerson is correct in saying, “What is needed in life is someone who will make us do what we are able,” Ashley didn’t have that someone in her life. I thought it would be me then discovered it wasn’t.
            Our final sib Vivian, may be the most fortunate in having less potential to work with. She wonders aloud, “Am I retarded?” We assure her she’s not, but quilt-like comfort can’t be found in some simple diagnosis. The family shakes its corporate head and says, “She’s just Vivian.” In subsequent generations, Vivian would have been diagnosed with multiple learning disorders. As a child, her waif-look, quaint vocabulary and general neediness manifested as Cosby-kid cute. At forty, it evokes wells of sadness and pity. Circumstances will require legal intervention to protect one of her children from Vivian’s lack of parenting skill. Her other child will spend time in prison, may still be there. Vivian doesn’t hobble physically like Ashley but the weight of her mother-guilt rests so heavily on her psyche it cannot be alleviated by crutch or cane. Pretense also brings Viv to this dinner, she too succumbed to an early death at age forty-seven in 2006.
            At this imaginary dinner, I, of course, made the reservation, order some appetizers and resolve for the umpteenth time not to pick up the whole check. I wear my excess of education like my expensive, well-tailored Doncaster clothes. The skinny little girl whose crinoline always hung out below her skirt no longer exists. The smile, grooming and practiced charm weave a curtain of denial which covers the pain, vulnerability and poor self-esteem of the Family Enabler Extraordinaire. I keep nurturing the thought that I can redeem every embarrassing characteristic of my family with my own perfect behavior. It’s exhausting not to mention arrogant.
Then there’s the general perception hanging in the air like humidity in August that Brenda experiences no pain because, “She has money and a good man. My God, what more could she want?”
Oh, my, I sound bitter and angry. I must work on that.
As I pick my fingers raw (under the table, of course), my soul longs to be seen as a whole person by these people--fragile and strong and oh, so, imperfect. That’s what I want. Perhaps it is an unreasonable request of these people who are immersed in their own struggles and rendered myopic by their own pain. I bore the weight of guilt about rearing these siblings before I ever became a mother. My plan that a college education would pull each one of them along with me failed before I framed the diploma. This guilt rests like concrete blocks on both my shoulders.
            Oh, I forgot, Mother is here.
Ashley surely chose Mother’s too bright Wal-Mart dress; Margaret must have fixed her low-maintenance hairstyle and Vivi hovers over her expecting her to actually be a mother. Tall, big-boned, a bit overweight, Mother looks older than her years. Her high forehead and rectangular face hit at attractive but don’t quite make it there.
From her earliest encounters with motherhood, Violet Lee struggled. She laughs at herself and tells stories about her attempts at parenting like the day Bill swung a fish hook into my eyelid. She called a taxi to rush me to the hospital and left Bill, age six, alone on the sidewalk.
Surprise! Surprise! Dad arrives late. Perhaps we should honor him for showing up since he has built a life around the role of absent father. He doesn’t have his pet pig in tow this evening and appears sober. At eighty-six, he looks one hundred and five and the self-proclaimed “shit-eatin'” grin that made all women between twelve and sixty weak-kneed now seems as rusted out as the moonshine still in his back yard. Dad pulled off this larger-than-life character with stunts. For example, he had a photograph of himself framed and surrounded by individual pictures of all six of his wives. He had nine marriages to these six women.  Friends flocked to his place on the Ohio River where an extra refrigerator devoid of shelves had its belly-filled with a keg that hooked up to an exterior spigot. Dad invented this decades before appliance companies got the idea to have water and ice accessible on the outside of the fridge door.
            If my family is the poster child for wasted genius, Dad is the Jerry Lewis circus barker trying to convince the world that it’s cool to underachieve. I cringe because I’m so afraid he will grab his chair, straddle it backwards and order a “smart alec.” I don’t know what that drink is but I know he can’t pull off the devil-may-care party animal anymore. At this pretend dinner, we will laugh, have fun and never acknowledge or deal with realities like alcoholism, divorce, education, intimate relationships or caring for Mom or Dad when they’re old. The strain put on the fabric of reality causes even the table, chairs and menus to tense the fibers of their being.


  1. Your post causes me to imagine what a dinner with my family members would be like. It's funny how much promise some of them had when they were young and how life turned out. Maybe someday I too will write a post like this. Like the saying goes, "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family." That might be a good thing considering how well we know our families. Interesting post.

  2. I am stunned by your well written post and applaud you for what you have shared here. That's all I can say!

  3. There are a lot of layers here, and yet so many more underneath those of how they would imagine their family dinner table. Kind of overwhelming to think how many came before to create these characters. And intimidating to think of what our children would say about their imaginary family dinner table.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, April. You are so right about the layers. And I often think of how generations effect each other. Great subjects to write about!