“To my mother and me, Grey Gardens is a breakthrough to something beautiful and precious called life.” --Edie Beale, 1976.
We Learned to Live in the Castle and the Castle Lives in us Still.
Amelia stood near the blue and beige curtains covering the glass paned French door, alert, her eyes wide. In bare feet and standing a slender five foot eight on the smooth, aged, hard-wood floor, she looked far older than a 16-year-old teenage girl. Someone had knocked on the front door of our home, and we were not expecting company. We had just moved into the house a few weeks before, in early October of 2008 and I had already explained to her the importance of never letting in strangers, which was something she well understood. “I'll peek through the curtain” she offered quietly, pulling the new pale green cotton and satin bathrobe she wore closer to her. “No, let me look through the blind over here” I suggested in a thin whisper. She stood where she was, silent and still and nodded her head, waiting. I tiptoed to the window and looked through one narrow portion of the blind. With a clear view of the front porch stoop directly in front, I could see some kind of political canvasser, a young woman in her 30's probably, carrying a placard. Someone who wanted us to listen to her speech about some political movement or cause and would we please sign her petition, donate money or volunteer our hours of precious time? No. We would not. She was a stranger. We didn't know her. And despite the seeming harmlessness of her gender, the door would remain locked. We would not even bother to explain through the door that we weren't interested. We would ignore the knock. We would ignore her and quietly return to the kitchen, where we would continue to eat our breakfast of simmered potatoes, scrambled eggs, salted kippers and heavily seeded Rye bread with butter and apricot preserves. In the dim silence of late morning, we sipped the hot Lipton's Tea, cupping the two matching orange mugs in our hands, leaning into the table silently, relishing the warmth of the mugs on a cold Saturday morning in Fall, 2008.
Probably the one role I cherished most during my adult life, and took the most seriously was my role as a mother. The main reason being I had only the one child and consequently, she was precious to me. There was never a moment when I didn't question myself from nearly every conceivable angle on how to properly care for my daughter or what might be appropriate, healthy or even the wrong thing to do. I read countless self-help books on motherhood, and various books on child rearing, seeking ways of parenting that seemed healthy and agreeable to me. I considered every possible danger, every angle that anyone might have; every ulterior motive that might exist in the hidden minds and hearts of outsiders. Those people we did not know, were not indebted to and had no prior connection to were the outsiders. Their questionable 'otherness' a threatening uncertainty I fully rejected.
I never resented the elaborate care I extended to my daughter; never felt there was a time when her needs were too much or made me feel as if I were losing touch with myself or my own personal identity. Even back then, when my daughter was small, I identified myself as a writer. I kept a detailed daily journal, writing short nonfiction essays on yellow legal pads on various topics of interest, and experimenting with poetry composition, jotting down unique word choices and anything else that captured my interest. All that mattered to me however, during that portion of my daughter's young life, was that she was protected, nourished, nurtured and guided in a way that I felt was better than my own upbringing had demonstrated to me.
The truest reality is that I loved being a mother and my daughter brought me endless moments of happiness, surprise and contentment. I began reading to my daughter for one to two hours a day, beginning when she was seven days old, and I read to her daily until she began kindergarten (on scholarship) with a fine catholic school that had a reputation for academic excellence. Creating a balanced, mentally stimulating and safe environment for my daughter was one of my greatest concerns and it was something I took very seriously.
My grown daughter is unique in one special and memorable way. She is exceedingly pretty. Not just in a normal way, like many girls are wholesomely pretty but in an exaggerated way that defies explanation. She has large, almond shaped, pale blue eyes, dramatic darkly arched eyebrows, a finely formed mouth that is often a naturally and unusually dark salmon color, a heart shaped face, and a small nose. Her look is completed by milk-white skin dusted with a constellation of countless auburn freckles that spread across her nose, cheeks and forehead. Every feature is balanced with the other features in her face, until an astounding level of "pink and white prettiness" exudes from her like a light that will not be extinguished. In a word, she is stunning.
As far back as I can remember, Amelia was always fussed over due to the way she looked. From the time she was a small infant to her years as a toddler, to her time as a little girl, I was told over and over by exuberant parents, as I pushed her in her stroller, that she looked “exactly like the Gerber Baby” and "she should be a model!” or even “a Movie star!” one mother gushed to me. Strangers stood with me on city street corners and seriously encouraged me to contact various companies and agencies, all in an effort to sell my daughter's beauty for money. I thought about it once or twice but never really considered it seriously and ultimately, I refused.
My husband John and I became accustomed to the constant compliments and Amelia also became accustomed to the comments, smiling awkwardly, often unsure how to respond. In time, however, it became a burden. Strangers would accost me, offering to babysit, telling me about child modeling agencies they knew about and how I should "cash in" on my daughters good looks.
I always smiled and thanked them but in my mind, I began to resent their presumptuousness. Did I really look that naive? Would I simply hand over my precious and only child to some oddly behaving stranger I didn't know, or some "professional photographer" that might want to do a "photo-shoot" with my child? I sometimes smiled coldly and walked way, too repulsed to respond. One woman, a local Portland Gypsy in her 50's, with an unattractive hook nose, and thinly ragged dark hair sat in front of us on a Trimet bus. She had turned to look at Amelia hungrily, almost unconscious of my calmly watching eyes. “I'd be happy to babysit her any time” she offered aggressively, not taking her eyes off my daughter for a moment. I smiled falsely and murmured a noncommittal “Well, thank you.”
I then leaned away from the woman, hoisted Amelia up and turned her around, away from the woman to rest her chin on my right shoulder, looking in the opposite direction. When Amelia tried to turn around, and lift her head, I gently but firmly murmured, "You stay there now Baby" and she took my cue and laid her head on my shoulder.
Presuming my short response meant agreement, the woman grabbed a pen and scrap of paper from her dirty, fraying burgundy colored purse and scrawled down her phone number and only a first name, shoving it at me hopefully. As I watched the woman exit the bus, through eyes narrowed with contempt, I stretched my hand to the center aisle dramatically, and dropped the paper in an exaggerated display of disdain. I was disgusted. And silently furious. I felt threatened—my daughter's safety felt threatened and the attention Amelia drew often made me uneasy, wondering just how far it might go one day. A middle aged couple sitting to the right of me laughed good naturedly and said, “Wow, what a weirdo!” I smiled in response, looking over at them and said, “This town sure is full of em” with false exuberance. My daughter had been a mere 24-months-old, the year 1994.
As Amelia matured and grew into her early pre-teens, the comments sometimes came from well-meaning older men, who were astounded at how pretty she was, how well spoken and how intelligent she could be. They would smile at her fresh clean face, with only a layer of pink lip gloss on her mouth, and say things like, “You know young lady, you just GLOW.” Or, “Your daughter is a lovely girl, Miss! She has such poise!” Amelia and I smiled again, our typical guarded appreciation, often quietly saying “Thank you” and walked on. The looks from younger men were a constant occurrence. She was about 12-years-old when they began in earnest. The double takes, the appraising expressions from men in their 20's, to early and late 30's. Ninety percent of all this Amelia did not take in or perceive in any way. She would be looking elsewhere, lost in some imagining, telling me a story she considered important or explaining to me some dynamic she thought I needed to know about. But those curious expressions were countless and I was always aware of the men who wore them.
They seemed to look at Amelia as nothing more than some kind of desirable object that demanded consuming. Like a piece of meat. The older she got and the more this happened, the more I began to despise other people, particularly the men who did not see the child in my daughters face but only the woman they were searching for. The sexual object to be used, then discarded.
They knew nothing about the intelligent, caring and questioning child she was. Or of her innocence. And her innocence was enormous. It was something I cherished and something I strove to protect. Her innocence I knew, would serve her well later, when despair and depression might preoccupy her, as she began entering the Dangerous Land of Women. When she became an adult in other words.
While steadily coaching my daughter on the realities and dangers of the world, as a child and later as a teenager, I simultaneously did all I could to protect her and instill in her a joy and appreciation of life and its unexpected delights and pleasures. And part of that process meant shielding her from the unwanted influence of people I deemed unworthy. I felt it was my prerogative as her mother to do that shielding. Parenthood, in my mind, was to be taken seriously and involved the highest levels of sacrifice.
That meant taking care of Amelia by myself, when she was small and not attempting to foist her off onto others to “babysit” so I could take a break for example and have fun. Going to see a movie, attend a concert or take a night off to go to a restaurant or a bar for drinks? I did virtually none of that, because my most important role was to be a mother to my daughter.
Lost in that knowing obligation existed my intimate awareness that life was full of ugly dangers. Some of those dangers I had experienced first-hand as a child and I wanted to protect my daughter from those random dynamics that could suddenly present themselves. I didn't want her to have to go through some of the things I had been forced to endure. As a result, I was often accused of being “over protective” and a “helicopter mother.” I was unapologetic about this and didn't care what others thought. I still don't. If they wanted to put their children at risk, that was their problem. I would raise my daughter in the best ways I knew how and seek no one's approval while doing so.
In some of the lower income apartments my husband and I found ourselves in, I developed a reputation as someone who was “stuck up,” this according to a few of the women who confided in me. I was someone who thought she was “better than us” because I would not allow Amelia to play with the other children unsupervised. I took this new information in stride. It simply didn't matter to me. I would not allow Amelia, for example, to go with the other parents into their homes by herself. Ever. I dealt with the looks and the accusatory glances with a pleasant indifference. I could not have cared less. Nothing was more important to me than my child.
This attitude of indifference and separateness on my part must have been perceived by Amelia because by the time she was about four-years-old, she began eyeing people suspiciously, sticking her chin out and ignoring people who attempted to ingratiate themselves to the pretty little girl with the red ribbon in her hair and the shiny black Mary Jane shoes, walking hand in hand with her mother.
I sometimes worried that I'd been raising a child who was prone to "putting on airs." Ultimately, I decided it was a small price to pay for her being safe. I wanted her to regard herself as special and apart. I never told her, for example, that she had to "obey" adults, simply because they were adults. I advised her on the dangers of ever trusting strangers and why. I told her stories of little children who'd been fooled by lying adults who wanted to do bad things to them and most of all, I told her she was different. "You're a fancy lady Amelia. You're not ordinary. You're better than ordinary people, and you always will be" I would often tell her. She drank in this sentiment with wide eyes, smiles and childlike trust and I saw her confidence grow. As I said, it was a small price to pay for her being safe.
Eventually, my husband John and I struggled under the weight of his infidelities, psychological frailties and his consistent inability to be truthful. When Amelia was 11-years-old, and enrolled six years in a Catholic school, her father and I separated. But in reality that meant Amelia and I together, separated from him. By the time we moved out of the two bedroom Apartment we were living in, in SE Portland, Amelia was grateful. His outbursts, general unhappiness and aggressiveness were making our life miserable. His verbal and emotional abuse compelled us to finally leave the pervasive unease that life with him had become.
The year we left him was the year Amelia and I really began the process of finding ourselves and creating a path that was not dominated by whether or not her moody father was hungry, tired, needed a cup of coffee or which television news program he wanted to watch, at the expense of her kid shows on the Oregon Public Broadcasting channels. When we moved out, we finally had peace and quiet.
2003 was the beginning of our new life and in time we grew accustomed to the isolation of living alone and unseen by the outside world. We lived a bit over one year in an old WW2 “temporary housing” apartment called “The Civic” on 19th and West Burnside. With two bedrooms, a large living room and small kitchen and a lot of old world charm, the entire structure consumed one full city block. But sadly we got written notice that it was scheduled for demolition seven months after we moved in, due to some structural weaknesses that put the tenants at unknown risk. Once again, I started packing.
From there we moved into another two bedroom apartment. The Cashmur Manor, near Beaverton, was a fine 1950's building, with strong hard wood floors, a sun-room, and a pot-belly fire place in the living room, which we never used. We lived there for just over four years, until October 1st of 2008, when we we moved nearby into the first house I ever lived in as an adult and the first house Amelia had ever lived in period.
In the five years we lived away from her father, we were able to safely create an entirely separate life. I was an adult student completing several undergraduate degrees and preparing to enter graduate school at Portland State University, and Amelia was a high school student, who charmed many of the students and teachers she spent her school days with. She was popular enough to endure the jealous stares of other less secure girls who found her a double threat; smart and beautiful and she did well.
While Amelia was in high school, I attempted, while contending with my own studies to encourage her and stay in contact with her many teachers via phone and email. I tried to create a routine for our lives and keep her on track. That routine involved our four cats, which was often problematic. We had to keep them a secret which was not easy and involved constant vigilance. The cats were all stray or orphaned animals we had collected in our travels and sworn we would raise and protect; as like us it seemed, they also had no one either. Since the year my daughter was born, and particularly after we left her father, it had always seemed like it was “us against the world.” The cats had become our extended family and for an only child, they became like siblings to her, and consequently indispensable for her health, happiness and well-being.
The house we finally moved into represented the 13th move in her short 16 years of life. After living in previous apartments in all that time, we finally had a house. It was a large 1938 stucco house, painted a pale gray color, with four bedrooms. There were two ancient Weeping Willow trees and a huge Cottonwood in the spacious backyard and lots of space. The kitchen was large and retained heat well and became the area we most seemed to gravitate towards.
After surviving several petty "apartment rivalries" we were grateful for the sudden and complete privacy of living in a house. I was genuinely pleased not to have to remind Amelia she couldn't run in the living room, for fear she might disturb the downstairs neighbors. Now, we didn't have to concern ourselves with that. In the first month, I could sense the new-found freedom Amelia felt, running around the house, charging from the kitchen to the living room and not having to worry about being quiet. “You can walk as loud as you want, Honey!” I told her one day. “I know!” She declared happily, stomping her feet in mock protest.
After moving into the house, we became acutely aware of the atmosphere of strangeness that our arrival seemed to represent to some of the longtime neighbors; a strangeness that was exacerbated by numerous external factors which were beyond our control. We were quiet. We were cool and unwelcoming, and with that attitude which could only be described as lofty and separate, we made them wonder about us. In time, we got to know some of the more intrusive neighbors, some of whom attempted to insinuate themselves into our lives. A couple of them could not conceal their envy that I had acted so quickly and gotten the only rental house in the entire area. They openly wished, they had been able to move into our house.
I refused, for the most part, to conceal my veiled disdain for them, appraising them coolly and politely but refusing what I considered to be their suspicious attempts at friendliness. I was after all, a single mother and I knew what that meant to some people. The solitary woman alone, eager for company, welcoming, naïve and hopeful. No. That was not me. Because I knew it for the invitation to disaster that it was. I had been fooled more than a few times in my life but not anymore.
In 2006, I had foolishly allowed a relationship to form between a PSU graduate student and myself, with disastrous results. My daughter had never liked this man and had warned me about him, but I was lonely at the time and in a rare moment of inattention, I had allowed myself to trust a troubled man, who though capable of great generosity and sincerity, was also narcissistic and selfish. The after effect was that I had been conned, robbed and then abandoned. I would never make such a foolish mistake again, I told myself. I would be even more diligent about strangers or those who might want something from me using the guise of just being neighborly.
In time, I set about to repair and decorate our slightly rundown house and was able to furnish it nicely enough, or so I thought. Amelia, however, felt it was a rundown and embarrassing looking structure. She never invited friends over, afraid of what they might think. To my way of thinking, it was not unattractive at all. We had a sofa, chairs, a dining room table, numerous charming framed prints on the walls, and bookshelves overflowing with valuable and antique books, but she insisted the house was an embarrassment. In reality, the house was furnished entirely with used, second hand furniture and it was rundown. I tried, with my typical optimism to create something Amelia would not be ashamed of, but it was difficult if next to impossible to create that desired look of just purchased, fresh, new furniture, with what we had.
Eventually, we developed a routine during the school week, in which we both attended our classes and toward the end of the week, we would go to the theater and see films downtown. For Amelia's benefit, I developed a focus on films, which was done as much to entertain my daughter, as it was to give her things to think about and ponder, and I always took the selection process seriously. There would be no blood and guts, horror films, or cheap action films. I always took her to the theater with the idea in mind that film was a continuation of her education. And her education was something I took very seriously. Buying books was also a regular occurrence and we spent hours in the Cafe at Powell's City of Books, looking over books we would purchase to add to our growing collection, reading magazines and conversing about current events, art and literature.
Eventually, the three most troublesome neighbors near us finally understood they would not be invited over for specialty coffee drinks and dripping, butter soaked rum-cakes, (as people prepared for their neighbors in days of old) and our reputation became set in stone. We were not friendly. Though it did take some time to achieve that reputation.
Despite that realization, one afternoon, shortly after we moved in, the most annoying of the three came by the house when I was in class at PSU and my daughter home alone. “Brad” banged on the front door and when Amelia came to the door, to see who it was, she broke the rule by peeking through the beige and blue checkered curtain. When she saw it was him, she said through the glass, “My mother's not home right now” to which he responded, “I jus wanna talk to ya.” She then repeated herself saying, “My mother's not home, I'll tell her you came by” and walked away. Back into the dark shadows of our unlit living room she disappeared, sitting on the light green sofa, waiting for him to finally leave, feeling afraid and alone. He continued to bang on the door for an additional five minutes before finally walking away.
As she told me this new information, later that night, I sat on the sofa leaning forward, stone-faced, my eyes wide with fury, trying to absorb what she was telling me and staring at the floor as if it held the answer to some mystery. “It's okay Mom, nothing happened” she pleaded. “But were you scared?” I asked stonily, knowing that she must have been. “Well, yes” she replied, “A little, I guess” I nodded my head, looking away, furious, not at her of course, but at the man. I seethed for several hours.
Later the following afternoon, as I was sweeping the front porch, (knowing that this simple action would invite his interest) Brad began strutting over. His comical back and forth shoulder strut, and head bobbing gait of masculine bravado made me smirk, as I saw him approach. I watched him cross the driveway and gritted my teeth, preparing myself for what I would tell him. I was still livid, recalling when Amelia told me he had tried to get her to open the door while I was away. “You knew you weren't supposed to even come to the door Honey!” I had told her gently, trying to disguise my feeling of instant panic. “I know Mom. Next time, I won't answer it, I promise. That guy's such a loser anyway!” she had said to me with a laugh.
I didn't stop sweeping when Brad finally approached and I waited for him to speak first, not looking at him. He kept a respectful distance as he began to talk and I relished his clear and obvious discomfort at the prospect of speaking to me. “Uh, you know, I came by here the other day” he began. I waited a few seconds before replying. “Uh-huh?” I responded in boredom while I continued to sweep. “I knocked on the door and your daughter wouldn't let me in?” he continued. “Is that right?” I asked, looking at him directly now, leaning against the broom handle with a smile on my face, my chin slightly raised, my head tilted, my eyebrows raised. “And so what's the problem?” I asked point blank, the smile disappearing from my face in an instant, replaced by a look of seething loathing. He was instantly confused.
“Well, I mean, she wouldn't answer the door!” he responded, growing more confused. “Well, Brad” I began, “that's because I'm the head of household here. And when I'm not home, my daughter is not allowed to answer the door, unless it's Police, Fire or Medical. Do you have a problem with that?” I asked, smiling cheerfully again. “Well, no, I guess I don't...I mean, it was ONLY me!” he protested. “Is that so?” I asked. “And you don't see a problem banging on my front door, a grown man in your late 40's I'm presuming? Trying to get my minor child, who was home alone, to answer the door and let you in? You really don't see a problem with that?” I asked, smiling frantically and glowering at him with wide eyes.
And suddenly, Brad could see a problem with that, and that perhaps that was not a good idea after all. By this time, my blood pressure was up and all I wanted was to bury the broom handle in this short, skinny man's scarred up, wrinkled eye socket. “I wasn't gonna dooo anything...” he began. “No, I'll tell you what Brad” I began quietly, “Don't you EVER come to MY home” I hissed, “bang on MY front door with the idea of getting my minor daughter to answer it. You got that Buddie?! Because if you don't? I'd be happy to have some nice Beaverton Police officers explain it to you!”
And then Brad was afraid. He had a quick remembrance apparently, of all the times he'd been arrested in his life, and had to get himself out of problems he'd created for himself by breaking the law for one reason or another. The ancient three inch scar that connected from his left nostril to his mouth told me he'd been in a serious knife fight once.
The casual way he'd once mentioned his “problem with Meth years ago” and the way he chain smoked and constantly drank cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on his apartment balcony, also told me all I'd ever need to know about this not too bright buffoon. I watched, satisfied and smiling, as he quickly walked away, mumbling, “Okay lady! Okay, I won't bother you guys again!”
I had first become acquainted with Brad when he approached me one afternoon as I checked my mail. He had wanted to introduce himself and proceeded to tell me “I'm the Watchdog of the neighborhood. I make sure everything goes alright around here” he had said smugly, nodding his head in approval of himself apparently. I had smiled indulgently and said, “Is that right?” but he'd failed to notice my condescension or the amusement in my voice. “Yeah, I've lived in that one bedroom apartment over there for over 20-years now!” he stated proudly. “Well, that's nice Brad, it's nice to know another renter in the area looks out for things.” He smiled uncertainly, unsure of the meaning of what I'd just said. “Well, I gotta go buddy” I told him. “You have a great day.”
After that first introduction, I made every attempt to discourage any contact, eventually making that perfectly clear to him. But all that mattered on the day we discussed my daughter not answering the door, was that he'd gotten the message loud and clear. The message that he'd do well to stay away. Or he'd regret it. Fortunately for Brad he'd gotten the message. Though about 3 months later, drunk and pacing on his Apartment balcony across from our driveway, he'd barked across the divide, as I walked to my front door, “Hey! How's the kid?!” I ignored him and walked inside the house. He'd gotten the message alright!
The privacy of our new home was something my daughter and I both cherished but in time, our lives became increasingly isolated. I had developed, over time, a well-known disdain for others, derived from my continual disappointment at what I considered a series of betrayals of trust. I felt burnt out and bitter. And to a large degree, Amelia felt the same way. However, I tried to combat the social deprivation I knew she was experiencing by indulging her in as many other ways as I could. Though indulging my daughter was not difficult. I loved to shower her with time, fun, gifts and whatever other fanciful endeavor she wanted to pursue. In her life there had been ballet lessons, violin lessons, Taekwondo lessons, art classes, and then at 16, she finally discovered her real talent and passion was opera. She began voice instruction with a local opera singer with the Portland Opera company and truly discovered her forte was music.
All during our time at the house, and for years before it, I had attempted to support Amelia through her youthful discoveries. I had encouraged her to maintain the friendships she'd created in high school and also to protect her from negative influences. I had been almost always successful in that endeavor.
I spent money on her, whenever I had it, taking her for shopping sprees at the Ross and Nordstrom Rack stores and generally tried valiantly to keep her happy and feeling that her life was good and rewarding. It was a continuous struggle, as I spent 8 of those years as a single parent, surviving on student loan money to get through school. But as she got older and progressed in high school, it became apparent that, like many high school students, she was becoming depressed, though she hid it well from classmates and teachers and always had a smile on her face.
I contacted her high school and talked to countless advisers, counselors and even her teachers. I was promised endless services and ultimately, after going to her high school and filling out numerous forms, for academic counseling, tutoring with math and science and even therapy with a psychologist, the administrators did nothing. There was always a reason why they could not keep their word. “Budget cuts” were the most popular reason, though I heard from Amelia that the most problem children, (the girls using drugs and having fights in the halls) were always getting all manner of support in the form of therapy, counseling, and tutors, but none were available for my quiet, polite child.
All their promises were empty promises and eventually, I knew I was completely alone in providing support for my daughter. In my case, there would be no “village” to help me raise my child. Even when educated professionals were obligated to do their jobs, they failed.
I continued to persevere all during the years my daughter was in high school and then later, when she moved out of our family home and went onto college. With my guidance, I helped her figure out how to traverse the university and apply for and receive financial aid, along with navigate the entire labyrinthine maze of university life, something I was all too familiar with. I helped her learn good study habits, helped proofread many of her papers, (which were always wonderfully written and carefully composed) and generally helped her adapt to the new and drastic change that college had become.
Though Amelia left home at the age of 19 and ½, because of the interference of a particularly disturbed and neurotic female relative, (experiencing several months of confusion and extreme unhappiness) due to this woman's reprehensible and tragic need to interfere in the lives of others, my daughter and I survived that dark time and were able to move on. The female relative has no concept what boundaries are or why they exist—or decent behavior for that matter, and ultimately this extremely troubled woman created a situation that was doomed to failure. It ended up backfiring in her face in a most humiliating manner.
In her deluded compulsion to “save” my daughter from her mother, (she claimed I lived vicariously through my daughter and that this warranted her interference) she succeeded in thoroughly annihilating any and all contact she might be able to maintain with my daughter in the future and basically ended up with egg on her face and a destroyed relationship with both my daughter and myself.
Attempting for years to fabricate an untruth, that I lived vicariously through my daughter and was an “unfit mother” as a result, which was completely and comically untrue, and unable to honestly confront her decades long jealousy of me, and wish to undermine me at all turns, this woman became a parody of herself; something she probably even to this day will not fully understand, accept or come to terms with.
Despite the dissension and betrayal of the female relative and her predatory live-in boyfriend, and all the unhappiness she had created for me and for my daughter most of all, Amelia and I returned to the the merry lightness and mutual support of our normal mother/daughter relationship that had always previously existed. When my daughter expressed shame at what had happened in this hostile and unsafe home, asking me if I was “disappointed” in her, I told her no, that I would never be disappointed in her. She was my “precious daughter” and I would always be on her side, no matter what, and that was what all decent mothers would do in a like situation. We left the mentally disturbed female relative to our collective past, along with her alcoholic and hedonistic boyfriend, and simply continued as we always had, a loyal unit of best friends who always had each other's back.
Years before, as we sat huddled together for warmth on the sofa in the “TV room” of our gray house, during a very cold winter, with soft blue blankets covering our legs, eating unsalted popcorn and drinking mineral water, we watched the notorious documentary film “Grey Gardens” and were both slowly and simultaneously struck with the compelling awareness that in a way, it was our own story.
Weeks later, when we both read the compelling and Gothic novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson, we again saw the sameness of a relationship that seemed eerily familiar. Both stories involve the struggles of two marginalized women cut off from the world, disenfranchised and alone. One involves a mother and daughter, the other story concerns two sisters, and both stories struck a chord with us.
They were women with little or no support, who struggled to survive in an extremely hostile and dangerous world. This was something we could entirely relate to. I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when she leaned into me and said, “God Mom...that's us.” There was no condemnation in her voice, just a gentle weariness, as we watched the documentary “Grey Garden's” slowly unfold. I tried to lighten the moment and made a joke that we were “much better off” than those two weird “cat ladies” with their 30 plus cats, but I knew that it was the social isolation she had been referring to and identifying with.
“Big Edie” and “Little Edie” had struggled to survive together in a world in which they did not easily fit, and a world in which they had been abandoned by family and relations. All they had was each other. How well we could relate to that reality, I thought to myself. And the same was true of Constance and Merricat Blackwood, in the Jackson novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” Both are stories of women alone in a world in which they have little or no influence and certainly no power or control. Just like my daughter Amelia and I had experienced.
My daughter is now almost 22-years-old and is a junior at one of the local universities in Portland. She is an opera student and has a stable two-year relationship with a fine, young, graduate student and is doing extremely well. She works full-time and attends university full-time, and is also my best friend in the world. Through all the travails and hardships that often follow single mothers, and their desperate attempts to raise their children well and keep them safe, we never lost our love, affection, loyalty or respect for each other. And she never stopped being my number one priority above all others.
Looking back now, on my time, which was a little over eight years that I raised my daughter in the best ways I knew how, as a single mother with virtually no support, I've come to see that the protective coloration of our disdain, (a disdain I encouraged in her) arose from a need to effectively conceal our fears of the unknown and protect both of us from the random dangers that were everywhere.
The unknown held dangers I was all too familiar with. Liars, thieves and predators. They had hurt me before, from the child molesters who had violated my person, as a toddler and a small child, to the sexual assault I endured at the age of 13, in 1979. They were all players in that vast unknown. Even the mentally disturbed female relative and her hedonistic boyfriend were part of that vast unknown of danger and risk that I sought to protect my daughter from.
In our time as mother and daughter, we had an intimate awareness of the corruption and callousness of most people and it was that corruption, callousness and danger that I wanted and needed to protect us from. But protecting 'us' really meant protecting her first and foremost. My daughter. My precious only child and the best thing I'd ever done, in the whole of my life.
Looking back I cannot say I would do anything differently. Looking back I cannot say I had many options. Looking back I cannot say I regret the manner that I was forced to raise my daughter; to distrust others, maintain a friendly but removed distance, and to think of herself as apart from them. So many people and even those in our own “family” have demonstrated to us that they did not have our best interests at heart, and never will.
It is because of the way I raised my daughter, that I was also able to protect her for so long, and ultimately, the way I raised my daughter has also made her very strong. There are times, though, when I can still see that cold remoteness come to her face. The lifted chin, the disdainful eyes, and tight mouth, as so often happened when she was a small child and then later, when we lived in the gray house together, all during her lonely teen years, when all she really had, sadly, was me.
It happens sometimes still; the mask that appears on her face, as we walk together in downtown Portland, heading to a fashionable restaurant for dinner, or to a coffee shop to sip hot coffee and talk. Just as the homeless person or drug addict ambles our way, to beg for or demand our money, I can see that look form on her face. That disdain and distrust of other's that I encouraged in my child exists in her still. The way her eyes narrow, the manner that her mouth curls in disgust. “Don't ask me for money! Don't invade my personal space!” that look seems to say. But more than that, it is the remoteness that she learned, that we both learned, when we realized there were few people we could ever count on or trust.
There is little that feels empowering or uplifting when you cannot trust or engage with your fellow man. There is little that feels good about feeling that, like Constance and Merricat Blackwood, you have always lived in a castle.
In our case, it was a castle of my own devising and Amelia saw the need and benefit of the castle also. It was a castle of modern times. A castle that denotes perfectly the transience of American relationships and lost family ties. It was a castle that we lived in, a castle that I created and I've found, it is a castle that lives in us still.
Jackson, Shirley. (1962). We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Canada. Macmillan Company.
Maysles, D. (Director). (1976). "Grey Gardens." [Motion Picture] Available from the Criterion Collection.
ABSOLUTELY NO PORTION OF THIS PERSONAL ESSAY MAY BE REPRODUCED OR DISSEMINATED WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR, THERESA GRIFFIN KENNEDY, UNDER PENALTY OF COPYRIGHT LAWS!!