Going through a bunch of old stuff for last week’s column, I found this story. Thought I’d share it here. It originally saw print in a magazine called CARAVAN about fourteen years ago. It’s all true– I wrote it about a week after the events, so it was all very fresh in my mind. I hope you enjoy it.
Well, it was inevitable. Julie and I had been together long enough that it was time to suck it up and take her to meet the family.
This was a terrifying prospect for me.
I should explain this, I suppose. It isn’t that Mom is a monster. The trouble is all the history we have tends to color everything. We don’t trust each other, because we’ve each given the other lots of good reasons not to trust each other over the years. And the spectre of my father’s death from alcoholism, and my own troubles with the same disease years later… it hangs over everything, like smoke. Despite the fact that I’ve been a clean, sober, upright citizen for over seventeen years, Mom is always braced; always ready for the wheels to come off the wagon. This constant suspicion leads her to imagine all sorts of terrible things, and then I have to disprove them before we can have any kind of real conversation. I knew that no matter what I said, that same cloud of distrust was going to envelop Julie too, especially given my mother’s I-told-you-so attitude about my ex-wife Marti.
The thought of Julie, whom I had come to love deeply over the last year for her compassion and guilelessness and generally sweet nature, being faced with all this suspicion and psychodrama… it just got down into my stomach and burned. But the longer we put off visiting, the worse it would get, and the more suspicious Mom would become that I was hiding something about her.
I hated the idea of Julie having to endure that kind of scrutiny from Mom, it was a million times worse than the usual meet-the-folks grilling the new girlfriend gets. I especially hated the fact that it was my fault… the ugly truth was that Mom had good reason to doubt me, given our history. But there was no help for it. I picked up the phone and dialed.
The conversation with Mom went like this:
“You know the kids –” Meaning my brother Tom and his wife Liz and their son Bryce. “–and I are leaving for Sun River tomorrow.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Oh, just four days. Till Sunday.”
This points up the difference between my brother and me. A four-day vacation with Mom in an environment where there was no escape (they rent a cabin) would make me insane. There would be no ‘vacation’ involved. For Tom, on the other hand, it simply meant free baby-sitting while he and Liz went skiing.
I took the plunge. “Well, Julie and I were thinking of driving down over a weekend, but obviously this one’s out. And the next one I’ve got a class thing.”
“Oh! Well, that would be very nice. But I have something the weekend after that… what about the 27th?”
“I don’t see why not. Just a visit, no big deal,” I added, hoping to head off any obsessing over planning Fun Activities.
There was a tense sort of pause.
“Well,” Mom said, “I have to ask what this means. Are you two getting serious? Is she the one? Maybe? Do you know?”
“Serious enough to meet the folks. You should meet her, that’s all. We’re making the rounds. We had dinner with her sister Jean and her husband a couple of days ago, and I’ve helped to babysit her nephews …and on my side she met West and Cyndi, and we went and saw Letty this last weekend, and Letty said ‘you should take her home and introduce her to your mama.’ And I agree. You should meet Julie.”
“You know Letty screens them for me,” Mom said with a chuckle.
This is in fact not true at all. Mostly Letty tries desperately to explain Mom to people… she had been trying to explain her to Julie when we’d gone up there the previous week, in fact. But I knew invoking her name would instantly mollify my mother — Mom has a low opinion of me, but she thinks the world of Letty. I don’t think she’s ever quite realized that Letty isn’t my English teacher any more, and trusts her to discipline me like I’m still in high school.
Anyway, for whatever reason, a lot of the tension went away. Mom went on, “Well, tell me about Julie. What does she do? What’s she like?”
“She works at Union Gospel Mission, as an administrator. Sort of coordinating the various volunteers. She’s very sweet-natured. We met at the art studio where I teach. She makes pottery and was one of the monitors — not a teacher, but sort of a, I don’t know, a TA or… well, we just always called them monitors. Somebody who looks after the studio when people are working.”
“How long have you two been an item?”
“I guess it depends on when you start counting. I mean, we’ve been hanging around together for almost two years but I guess you could say our first real date was in May.”
“Well, how old is she? Has she been married before?” Translated, this meant: Does she have baggage? Is she some neurotic broken-bird girl you met in AA or one of your other save-the-world volunteer projects, someone that you feel compelled to rescue?
“She’s forty-one as of Monday. Never married.” Mom started to question this and I added hastily, “She’s terribly shy and she had to nurse her parents for a long time before they finally died. It didn’t leave much room for socializing. Mom, she’s just a sweet gentle churchgoing girl. Honest. No land mines. And I really like her.” Translation: There’s nothing for you to be suspicious about, so don’t you dare interrogate her and be the imperious bitch you usually are when I introduce you to anyone.
“Church,” Mom mused. “She’s not fanatical is she?”
“Because there’s certainly nothing wrong with Christianity per se, you know, but some people get so carried away…”
“Mom, you do remember that I write for a Christian magazine, don’t you? I get that question more than Julie does.”
“I just worry, that’s all,” Mom said with some asperity. “I just don’t want you getting involved with some drug-addicted alcoholic psycho…”
“Actually, the alcoholic was me, Mom, not Julie. I daresay her family has a lot more to worry about with me than you do with her.”
This was a mean sucker punch because it hit Mom right in her pride — she hates people to know about our family’s history — but it did shut her up before she launched into her rant about Marti and how she saw what a disaster that was from the beginning, etc., etc. She chewed it over for a second, then decided that she approved. It was definitely Letty’s endorsement that carried the day. I could almost hear her squaring her shoulders and deciding it was okay. “Well, I would love to meet her. We’ll see you on the 27th.”
And that was that.
By the time the weekend of the 27th rolled around, both Julie and I were in a state of controlled panic.
Julie was terrified and admitted to me that she had been so nervous and freaked out on Friday morning that she’d thrown up. I was immediately horrified (and guilty) at hearing this. I told her, very firmly, that there was no reason for her to be nervous, this was not an audition. If anyone was trying out for anything, it was Mom. This wasn’t the do-you-approve-of-my-girlfriend trip; it was the This-is-Julie-and-she’s-permanent-so-get-used-to-her-and-deal-with-it trip.
This cheered Julie up somewhat, but she was still nervous. She added, “And you’re making too many sarcastic jokes, you only do that when you’re nervous. So it’s not that there’s nothing to be nervous about, I don’t care how many times you say different.”
“Just being in Oswego gets to me,” I admitted. “You have to see it to believe it. It makes Bellevue look ethnic. It’s like Stepford.”
Julie raised a skeptical eyebrow and waited.
I can’t lie to Julie. I owned up. “Oh hell, all right. I’m worried that Mom will be horrible to you and that it will make me so angry that she and I will end up having one of our main-event, chair-throwing cage matches that the neighbors have come to miss so much… and you’ll see what a vicious unforgiving bastard I really can be and flee screaming. That’s what.” I sighed. “Mom and I have a history of saying just vile and terrible things to each other, at really high volume, and you don’t want a piece of that. I don’t want you to be in the middle of anything especially when it doesn’t even have anything to do with you. Not really.” I chuckled mordantly and added, “Anyway with Mom it’s all subtext, veiled needling remarks, behind-the-scenes stuff. You won’t see any of it. She’ll wait until you’re safely out of earshot and then hiss things at me. Mom would never fight in front of a guest. It would be too gauche. No one is gauche in Lake Oswego. They’d get kicked out of the country club. Maybe fined.”
This reassured her a little and she laughed at my assessment of the penalties for showing public rudeness in my hometown… but in recounting all that, I had succeeded in giving myself a fine case of nerves. Now it was my stomach that was roiling.
Going home always gets me knotted up. I rarely go, and Mom never meets anyone I’m dating unless it’s reached the Really Serious stage. Of my previous lady friends, my family had only met two of them, and that was only because I lived with one for three years and actually married the other.
Still, I reminded myself, Heather was a coke addict and Marti was crazy. And both of those were decades behind me. Julie, on the other hand, radiates decency and kindness. Surely even my paranoiac mother would see this and unclench.
I lectured myself thusly for most of the five hours it took us to reach Portland from Seattle. By the time we actually rolled up to Mom’s house in Oswego I had reached a state of, if not calm, a sort of tense whatever happens, happens acceptance.
Mom was, as always, the gracious hostess. She expressed horror at the traffic problems we had encountered on I-5, anxiously inquired if we had eaten, and insisted on fixing us sandwiches. We ate and chitchatted about inconsequential things and then Julie went off to bed.
Mom settled in to watch the premiere of JAG, which is her favorite show — she apologized for wanting to watch TV but added that she had been waiting all summer to see the resolution of the cliffhanger, and I laughed and told her I understood completely, don’t worry about it. We settled in to watch the show and I debated how to broach the subject of Julie to her.
When it was over she turned off the TV and she asked about how work was going, if I’d started school yet, stuff like that. I realized she wasn’t going to give me an opening and just plunged ahead. “Urn… Mom, you need to know something. About Julie and me.”
Mom turned white. “Oh God. You’re already married, aren’t you.”
“Of course not!” I snapped. “No, it’s nothing like that! And by the way, thanks for the flattering assessment of my character. I would never do something like that and just spring it on you. For God’s sake!”
Mom winced. “I’m sorry. It’s just… you never visit; you certainly never bring girls home. I just assumed that it was… well, never mind. What?”
This is why I never do that, I thought sourly, but didn’t say. “Well, she’s the one, that’s all,” I said. “Seriously. She’s here because I wanted you all to meet her. It’s not just, you know, I was headed to Portland for the weekend and decided to bring a date. She really wants you to like her and I want you to be nice.”
“She seems very nice,” Mom said judiciously. “I don’t know her, of course.”
“That’s why we’re here. So you can get to know her.”
“Well, of course I want to know her, if it’s really that serious. Are you sure? Because with Marti…”
“It’s nothing like Marti.”
“I just want you to have someone that will love you, really love you,” Mom said. “Because with Marti….”
My teeth were clenching.
Mom hastily added, “Of course that’s all long past.”
“And yet you keep bringing it up,” I snarled. “That was over ten years ago.” This is our pattern. Mom forgets nothing and forgives nothing, and she will bring up past mistakes of mine and use them relentlessly as a club to beat me with. First I get defensive, and then I get angry.
And then, to my astonishment, Mom broke our pattern. “I just…” she sighed. “Of course you’ve matured a lot over the last ten years. I just don’t want you to get your heart broken again. I never liked Marti and I hated her for what she did to you. And there was Heather before that. I worry, that’s all. You are so trusting. I don’t want you to do what I did. My marriage was… well, you know what it was. It was hell. I was a fool and I was stubborn.” She smiled wanly. “I want you to have somebody who loves you. Even though I don’t even really know what that’s like. I guess that makes me the last one to be fit to judge anyone else’s relationship.”
This stark admission, from my mother who never admits wrongdoing ever, in ANY area, completely disarmed me. I smiled. “Surely you can see that Julie’s nothing like Marti or Heather. There’s no malice in her.”
“She seems very sweet,” Mom admitted. “And she obviously dotes on you.” She paused. “You’re really sure about this.”
“I’m really sure. Mom, I remember Marti too, you know. I’ve made damn sure there are no hidden surprises. I know exactly what I’m getting into. She does too.”
“Have you two talked about marriage, then?”
“Some.” I decided to tell her the rest of it. “I bought a ring, Mom. This is for real. But Julie doesn’t know anything about it yet, so for God’s sake don’t say anything.”
Mom was thrown by this. She didn’t know what to say and finally settled for a noncommittal “Really.”
“Really. But don’t say anything or hint or anything.”
“So you are pretty sure she’ll say yes.”
“I’m sure or I wouldn’t have bought the ring.”
“How are you two going to live?”
In poverty, probably, I thought. “We’ll get by. She has to get through school and I have to put some money aside. I’m not talking about getting married next week or anything. We have time. And I haven’t even asked her yet. I just… I thought you should know, that’s all.”
Mom smiled at that. “It does mean a lot to me that you are doing this,” she said. “That you brought her here first. I look forward to getting to know her.”
That was where we left it.
In the morning Mom was again the perfect hostess, but she was a little less brittle. Not a lot, but a little. She told us that my brother and his wife were expecting us at about six, but she was sure that Julie and I would want to go out and see Portland and maybe go to Powell’s Books or visit Anne-Marie. She and Julie had a cheerful conversation about Julie’s pottery and how the two of us had met, and they took turns teasing me about my eating habits. It wasn’t bonding or anything — both of them were too wary for that — but it was progress.
Mostly I was pleased that Mom was making a real effort. I left a message for Anne-Marie to call me back at the house, and then took Julie out to see the old neighborhood.
“You’re doing fine,” I told her once we were out of the house.
“I hope so.” Julie sighed. “She’s being really nice, but… she’s just clenched.”
“Mom’s always clenched.”
“Yeah. I can see what you meant about how leaving your house always felt like being in the getaway car… it’s nice to be out.” She laughed. “I heard you two talking last night after I went to bed. Were you fighting?”
My heart stopped. The ring. Had she heard the part about the ring? “Almost but we veered off at the last second. It was just… you know, what I told you. ‘This is Julie, get used to her.’ Mom’s still mad about Marti and we kind of had words about that. You’ll notice she was a lot nicer this morning.” As casually as I could, I added, “So you heard then?”
“I did notice her being nicer. No, I just heard your voices. You were being… subdued but tense. I heard the tone. That’s all.”
“Subdued But Tense is the town motto.”
“You’re making nervous jokes again.”
“I’m glad to be out of the house too,” I admitted.
“The neighborhood’s not much better.” Julie waved a vague hand at the street we were on. “It really is like Stepford.”
“You have no idea.”
When we got back to the house, Mom told us that we’d just missed Anne-Marie’s call, so I called her back.
Anne-Marie is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I guess you can say we’ve been through the wars together. We met when I was in high school, when I was with Heather and she was with a guy named Richard, and we used to double-date a lot.
When we both moved in with our respective S.O.’s shortly after high school, we’d get together for drinks and dope and merriment, and then when Richard and Heather decided they liked each other better than they liked either of us, Anne-Marie and I grieved bitterly and spent a lot of time in bars drinking together and wishing horrible syphilitic death on the both of them. (Ironically, the last I heard of Richard, about six years ago, he was peddling his ass for crack money on Burnside Street. No idea about Heather, though if she never sobered up I daresay similar evils were visited on her. That girl loved cocaine better than any man. It is no doubt very evil of me but my response to hearing of Richard’s woes was a smug, hey, karma’s a bitch.)
When I was thrown out of the University of Oregon for drunkenness and sloth, Anne-Marie interceded on my behalf at her college’s honors program and got me admitted there and we drank and did drugs together there for a couple of years before I got thrown out of that one too. A month or so before I staggered into my first AA meeting Anne-Marie checked herself into the first of the four treatment centers she was to attend for her heroin problem. It didn’t take with her the way it did with me, and she was in and out of rehab for a long time before she finally cleaned up for good about five years ago.
We have never been out of touch in the last twenty-five years except for brief times during the worst of her junkie periods, and even then, I worried about her and tried to find her. She is much more family to me than my blood relatives, and she was very excited that Julie and I were going to be in town and had demanded to see us if it was at all possible.
So of course I called her back right away. She was bubbling with laughter. “I know you can’t talk because your mom is right there but I gotta tell you this, I think Julie passed, I asked your mom about her and she just went on and on, she was blissed out, dude. I actually got teary. I’ve never heard your Mom talk like that. Thumbs up.”
Mom was indeed about four feet away, so although I was dying for details I just said, “Well, great. I look forward to hearing all about it.”
“Chapter and verse, I promise, paisan. Dex has to go do something about our stupid car and we were both up all night so I was thinking about four, is that too late? Starbucks at 28th and Burnside, we have to get an outside table so I can smoke unless of course they’re all taken, in which case I can’t. So we’ll see you then, I can hardly wait to meet Julie she sounds great. Love you.”
“Likewise, we’ll see you there, kitten.” We hung up.
I told Julie we had a little time to kill and Julie said “Powell’s,” meaning of course Please let’s not stay here all day, a sentiment I heartily agreed with. Mom reminded us that we were expected at my brother’s about six, and we bolted.
We ended up going out to Future Dreams first; the comic store where I’d had my pull list when I lived in Oswego.
I’d expected to just browse but Julie fell in love with the place and bought a bunch of old JONNY QUEST comics from the 80’s run, as well as presenting me with a copy of SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN #30, one of the two comics ever to print a letter of mine.
I’d protested, saying we shouldn’t spend the money, but she just shushed me and marched up to the register and bought it. (How cool is that, fellow geeks? What a doll.) I hadn’t seen this issue since the 1970s –my copy was long gone, of course — so I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it other than the fact that it had my letter.
What I discovered, rereading it, was that this is a pretty awesome book. Frank Brunner just blew the doors off with his artwork. Gorgeous. I didn’t even remember what I’d written about. Once I pulled it out of the mylar and inspected the letter column I winced at the breathlessly fannish letter I’d written, but it was still nice to have it. And I was amused to see that one of my fellow letterhacks for that issue was Suicide Squad and Star Wars scribe John Ostrander, and he was as dorky back then as I had been.
We went back across the bridge and had lunch at Rose’s Deli in northwest Portland, and then spent a delightful hour at Powell’s browsing the stacks before heading out to Starbuck’s. We’d been there for about fifteen minutes when a goatee’d barista approached me and asked me if I was Greg. I admitted it. He told me I had a phone call.
…And I think I’m going to stop this here. This is almost double the usual length already and there’s lots more to go, so we’ll wrap this one up next week. See you then.