Neither Here nor There

1968, I’m ten years old.  Mother and her dear friend, Mildred Emmett, have hauled Jeff and I to see the musical film “Oliver!” at the cavernous Lewis & Clark theater near SeaTac airport. Their excuse was that they wanted to “study” the film for some upcoming production, so we’d get to sit through the 153 minute extravaganza twice. In a row. That’s a good portion of a work-day for those of you playing along at home.

Truth was, they just wanted to get away for a good long while and bar hopping was not an acceptable form of diversion for the two proper church ladies.

The theater and lobby were filled with murals depicting the great expedition. It gave us something to study while waiting for the movie to start.

I’m reasonably entertained early on, except that Mother keeps elbowing one or the other of us to insist that Jeff is Oliver and I’m The Artful Dodger. If she only knew that it was far more than a physical likeness.

Suddenly, I’m shaking like a three-day-old Malaria fever but I’m not cold. The scene playing out is when Oliver has been rescued by his grandfather and wakes up in the beautiful home to servants, cleanliness, and smiles all around. Plus singing, naturally.

There is something terribly familiar about the scene, it haunts me, it chills me to the center. Then Oliver is recaptured by Bill and hauled back to squalor and I’m vitally disturbed by the scene. It has shaken lose memories long forgotten until that moment.

I know this, I lived it, except I was much, much younger and there was no singing.

Mother was never diagnosed, to my knowledge, as having depression or being bipolar but it didn’t matter. In those days there was nothing to do except “snap out of it” and, for Mother, that meant picking up another show to direct. The gaps in-between could be brutal and brutal always flows downhill.

Somewhere in the particular gap that began after our stage debut, Mother rode her demons into the pit of darkness leaving a three-year-old and a two-year-old largely unsupervised.

Those two little boys who, as I’ve heard it told, were not of the docile variety, needed tending while the older kids were in school. Eldest sibling, Carroll, has said, “It was otherwise generally understood that we looked out after each other.” Nobody, however, was going to miss school to babysit two toddlers and a parent.

One day a family friend came to the house. Maria Linde is a miniscule Swedish woman made entirely of heart.

Mother gathered Jeff and I to her and Maria. “You’re going to go stay with Maria for a little while. She’ll take care of you until Momma feels better.”

I’m sure the proper reaction would have been sobs and pleadings of, “No! Let us stay! Please!” At least, that’s what Mother expected. Instead her somber announcement was greeted with cheers and, “Yeah!!! Can we go now? Let’s go!”

Strike one for the ungrateful little brats.

We then zoomed around, as we were occasionally permitted to do, until Maria herded us out the door. After the briefest hugs and kisses for Mother, we ran to her car without a backward glance.

Strike two.

Maria was married to O.R., a successful real estate broker and an accomplished violinist. Their house was modern with rich dark woods and floor-to-vaulted-ceiling windows that overlooked Puget Sound. They had a cool, dim, finished basement, a slate entry, and O.R. had a home office with a huge-to-us safe.

“What’s in the safe?!” we begged to have O.R. confirm our wildest imaginations.

“Oh, in there? Just money,” he teased, playing along.

“The whole thing? Wow. Can we see it? Can we? Please, please, please????”

Well, no, of course not. It was for his business documents but he teased us and we loved it. Even if he had shown us his Stradivarius we couldn’t have comprehended that the value was more than we imagined stuffed into the safe.

Maria bought us one toy each for our stay. One, I recall, was an Etcha-Sketch. They were for us to play with while at her house. We were thrilled.

She doted on us constantly, not in a smothering manner but simply attentive and at-the-ready. The two of us were the end of a long train of children belonging to parents without the capacity to provide the attention every child needs. Maria was an oasis in the desert, a private all-to-ourselves oasis.

It was an extended stay, perhaps six months. We were at home in our new home. Attachments grew deep in the greenhouse of earned affections. Maria was becoming our new mother and we accepted her completely.

Back home, back in the other home, the original Mother became rejuvenated by a combination of the prospect of a new play on the horizon and the deep power of jealousy towards the displaced affections of her youngest toys. I mean boys. She exercised her authority, doubtlessly in the most civil tones, to recall us to her.

Maria dutifully delivered. She had, after all, no official claim on us.

When she turned to leave, we completely lost it. We both clung to her and howled the torments of the damned at the prospect of being left behind. Somewhere in the unfrequented corners of my memory is one of Maria stumbling down the sidewalk to her car, sobbing.

I watched at the window, pounding my little fists on the plate glass, screaming her name, for her to come back, until her car disappeared.

Mother tried to calm us with her version of affection but it had no effect. I didn’t want this mother I wanted the good mother!

Strike three.

I was never fully forgiven for that day. Jeff got paroled, eventually, for being too young to understand. Ungrateful was one of Mother’s favorite appellations for me when she lost her superficial calm. You could read the haunted memories in her eyes if you dared to look.

Because Mother either failed to tame her demons, or enjoyed the ride too much, she would be forced to call on Maria to care for us from time-to-time until we entered school. From then on I knew it would end, we would always be returned.

I endured the film, twice, and remained tormented by my reaction to it for years until I was able to piece together the events from my early childhood.

I don’t much care to watch that film these days.


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