I have to believe that being a divorced woman in a neighborhood of nuclear families was pure hell for my proud mother. At that place, in that time, women stayed married for the kids, for the paycheck, for appearances. When my mother found it unbearable to stay married any longer, the neighborhood wives worried that she would start trolling for a man to pay the bills, fix the plumbing, mow the yard. And she damn sure wasn’t getting one of theirs. They closed ranks quickly and silently.
After finally breaking up with Ralph, my mother started dating in earnest. There was the guy who took us all out to dinner at Sambo’s and let me order ice cream for dessert. There was the one who looked slightly horrified when I opened the door. There were the ones who occasionally showed up for breakfast. And then there was Ronnie.
In my memories my mother looms large as a humorless (except when humor was at the expense of others), angry figure with zero tolerance for shenanigans. Like zero tolerance—in 5th grade, I tried to surprise her on her birthday by making a fancy card, putting candles in a Little Debbie snack cake, and having a mini-party where we all jumped out and yelled “surprise!” Seriously, who doesn’t love that shit? She responded with a put-upon sigh and “I knew you was all hiding in there.” No joy, no excitement, no appreciation. Just a flat statement that she had not been surprised, making it clear that I had wasted my time and hers. This, in my experience, is the core of who my mother was.
None of which explains Ronnie. Ronnie was at least ten years younger than my mother, maybe more. I remember him as tall and lanky, with hair like Jackson Browne’s—a bit long, kind of feathery. He moved in with us, and he enjoyed what he called his “wacky tabacky”.
Have I mentioned that I was a clueless, flighty kid? I didn’t know what he was smoking, I just figured he rolled his own cigarettes because he liked to roll his own cigarettes. I never occurred to me to think beyond that. Ronnie laughed a lot, had the munchies a lot, and my brother hated him.
I think my brother would’ve hated anyone our mother brought home. When he was 11 years old, after our parents’ divorce, my mother took him aside and said “you’re the man of the house now.” He took those words to heart. Ronnie, therefore, was an interloper. A scrawny, long-haired, weed-smoking interloper, and my brother wanted him gone. I mean, my brother also helped himself to Ronnie’s stash, but mostly he wanted him gone.
He used to plot ways to get rid of Ronnie. One notable time, my brother hid a walkie talkie in the kitchen fruit bowl (plastic fruit, because it didn’t go bad. Just dust it once in a while and it stays fresh forever), went around to the side of the house and fired up his end of the two-way radio then announced that he was the police, the place was surrounded, and Ronnie needed to come out with his hands up. It sounded like serious stuff to me. Ronnie’s eyes got big and he looked worried, except that I couldn’t stop giggling which kind of gave the game away. Ronnie went stomping out of the house, his arms folded across his chest. When our mother got home from work, she sent me to my room. Raised voices happened. Unsurprisingly, my brother’s plan didn’t work and Ronnie stayed on.
During Ronnie’s tenure at our house my mother’s standards, always too high for mere mortals to maintain, started slipping. Dishes spent a little longer in the sink. Vacuuming was less of a priority. The grass in the back yard reached epic heights; I remember wading through it, the tips of the stalks up to my hips. I felt like a grand adventurer on the savanna, pretty sure there was a snake getting ready to pounce on me, and yes, I expected them to pounce. The usual Banquet turkey dinner with canned corn was scaled down to Hungry Man on TV trays. She was out a lot, and occasionally would be at home in the middle of the day, sleeping. I came home from school once to find my mother and Ronnie asleep, naked, on top of her bed. It was weird, and so unlike my mother that it made a life-long impression.
For as long as I can remember, our back yard was littered with big wooden spools—spools taller than I am now, and they were the best things ever. My father, an electrician, had brought home from his various jobs. We would tip them on their sides and race them around the yard—think log rolling, but on a spool. I was the undisputed champion of spool racing, the envy of my friends. After Ronnie entered the picture, the spool racing stopped because you just can’t roll those things through long, thick grass, and that was if you could find them in the first place.
In the beginning of Ronnie’s time with us, friends didn’t stop by as much as they had before. As he continued to live there, they stopped coming over altogether. I learned that if I wanted to play with them, I had to go to their houses. Eventually I stopped doing that, either, because I always felt out of place and uncomfortable, like they knew something I didn’t and never would. Slowly, our lives began to atrophy. My brother, then about 14, discovered not just weed but also booze and the occasional hit of speed. His anger at the situation—our father, Ronnie, the atrophy—solidified into a single target that couldn’t effectively fight back. Me.
I debated, when I set out to write these stories, how much time I wanted to spend on my relationship with my brother. The conclusion I came to was very little because while his choices and behaviors have had a profound impact on my life, and while he had a very different relationship with my mother than I did, these stories aren’t really about him. Not directly, at least. Kind of like my father, he’s a key player but one who most often offstage. But there are things that need to be acknowledged.
During the Ronnie year, my brother was physically abusive. With the hindsight that comes from of a lot of years and a little therapy, I understand him better. Understanding has made forgiveness possible. He was a young teenager, hitting puberty pretty damn hard, whose life had been upended without any explanation or warning. The father he remembered as a good guy, always willing to help him build his beloved models, to play ball, to go chasing rainbows, had effectively disappeared. His mother gave him responsibilities that should never have been placed on a 14 year old boy, including looking after me. And he had been replaced, again without warning, by Ronnie.
Before you assume that I spent my time cowering in corners, be assured that I fought back in the best ways I knew how. Sometimes sneaky ways like flushing his drugs down the toilet and pretending innocence (I was 8, of course it was convincing), and sometimes by screaming at the top of my lungs until the neighbors called my mother who called my brother and told him to knock it off. For the record? I can still scream queen with the best of them.
Despite all of this, I really was the world’s most clueless kid. I thought that Ronnie’s whole wacky tabacky thing was a big joke and would tell it to anyone who asked and even a few folks who didn’t—it was just that funny. It never occurred to me that there might be something wrong with it.
What was a lot less amusing, however, was when a month after my brother’s walkie talkie gag the real cops knocked on the door and asked to take a look around our back yard. Someone, it seemed, had reported our resident stoner to the cops and the overgrown yard was the perfect hiding place for a few plants.
My mother suspected the neighborhood wives, any and all of them. She wasn’t discriminating about casting blame and pointing fingers; the women she’d known and liked for years had all become mortal enemies. I suspect, though, that he was reported because I’d been running my big fat mouth about the guy with the wacky tabacky living in our house and someone didn’t think it was as funny as I did. I don’t know if she ever figured that out or not. Sorry mom.
Not long after that, Ronnie was finally gone. The yard got mowed, I got a cat named Patches for Christmas, my brother, though still angry, was learning how to redirect his temper, and life returned to a semblance of normal though my mother was even less happy than she’d been before. Possibly this was because as Ronnie was leaving he and his brother cleaned out our house. I came home from school and the TV and stereo were gone, along with my mother’s not-so-secret cash stash.
The neighborhood women never did warm back up.
The often disconcerting thing about telling my mother’s stories is the insight they give into who she became, in her later years. Her life was regularly neither kind nor fair and the resentment that clouded most of her later years becomes almost understandable. And yet, my brother doesn’t remember her this way at all. If you ask him, he well tell you about her warmth, kindness, and generosity, waxing poetic about the woman who raised him and who set the unreachable bar for every other woman he has known.