“Family.” He shook his head. “It’s all Bosch and Brueghel.”Complete essay available online at Ploughshares
The prior story, “In That Time,” let us watch a twelve-year-old discover, in one moment on one morning, a different way of viewing his father, a discovery that altered their relationship going forward. Here there’s a similar core event – new information alters the perception of a person – but it takes place over a longer period of time, and by adults, one of whom was not involved in the relationship to begin with; whether it alters anything going forward is uncertain.
Foster was aware her husband had been spent time in foster care as a very young child, never knew his father, and was abused by his stepfather and, ultimately, his mother. His rage at his mother is understandable, almost inevitable. For reasons I don’t understand, they obtained records of his mother’s involvement with state agencies, and a different picture of the mother emerged: she was, in post-WWII-America, simply another girl who couldn’t find her way out of poverty to reclaim her son. But she tried – boy, did she try.
The 40s were a different era from today. An unwed mother was an abomination, and mercy was in short supply. In order to retain what today we would call parental rights, she had to pay for foster care out of her salary as a waitress and factory worker. She visited him as often as possible: first, four times a week, then, when the foster placement was changed, once a week, the maximum permitted.
Because I’m writing this and because I can, I decide to give Ann a happy moment, an hour of delight playing with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s pushing a shiny red fire truck across the floor, a toy she’s just bought him, though it will mean she’ll have to scrimp on laundry soap and stockings. But as he bends down to a crawling position and runs the toy back and forth on her old wood floors, making rrrrrhhhh-rrrrrhhh sounds with his scrunched lips and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, look,” she can’t imagine why anyone would give a fig about new stockings. His hair sticks up in a ruff, his pants are a bit too long, but he’s so gloriously occupied with the thick rubber wheels and the white plastic ladder that raises and lowers she forgets that very soon she’ll have to take him back. Back to his foster home, back to sleeping in the hallway in a house where the older boy has taught him to sing out, “Bad boy! Bad boy!” with such glee he too thinks it’s funny.
There are those who feel that most troubles are caused by bad choices. That may be true, but there are people living in circumstances where the only choices are bad ones.
And yet Ann managed to run a boarding house that provided some financial security. She still had to work, of course, and with childcare still decades away – and with the predominant moral attitudes of the era – she was still unable to claim her son. “It turns out that getting him back also requires a husband.” So she got that as well.
How can she know—can any woman know?—that the very thing that is her salvation will also be her undoing? How can she know that though the husband will adopt the boy, he’ll come to resent him and resent her for having him, will punish the boy for being such a pain in the ass without even a drop of his blood? How can she know he’ll beat him, step on his hands with his construction boots, mock him, berate him, make him stand naked in a chalked circle for punishment? “I gave the kid a name, for shit’s sake,” he’ll yell at her years later, as if he’s the one who’s been played for a sucker.
This man, who once seemed so easygoing, so playful, eating a huge forkful of birthday cake, thick with frosting, while holding her boy in his lap, will, in three years, become an alcoholic, crashing again and again into Bridgewater State Hospital’s detox unit, while she’ll be passive and hopeful, then devious and resentful, and finally depressed.
It’s quite a task, to turn an abusive mother into a sympathetic figure. Her husband finds some peace in the information. Not a happily-ever-after kind of uplift – hence the marvelous line quoted above about family being something out of bizarre and often horrific art – but a realization that his mother loved him, a realization that went a long way. “And she really tried,” he tells his wife. Yes, she did. It doesn’t make up for everything, but it makes a difference.