Written by Haley Clemens
“Do you want to go to the knit shop or get the tree first?”
I’m in the car with my mom, where some kind of interview is always happening. Sometimes we ourselves are the subjects. Sometimes it’s other people: coworkers, my hometown friends, the church ladies, our neighbors, my mother’s family. We gossip and we talk a lot of shit, but mostly we are in it for the catharsis that comes with telling stories.
Today we talk about my mom’s life, specifically her childhood. We’ve done this many times before, but this time the end goal is documentation, rather than just our usual form of mobile therapy.
My mom was born in the summer of 1963. Her childhood was strange, and not just because of the usual challenges of being the youngest member of an old school nuclear family unit. Her home was abusive and unsafe in a way that reflected the cultural upheaval of 1970s Boston and its upper class. Her stories of the seventies are sometimes cool and vintage, sometimes funny. But mostly they involve the underlying sadness of someone who grew up in a neglectful home.
My Mother’s Mother
My maternal great-grandfather came to America from Czechoslovakia as peasant stowaway. He was cruel to his wife and children and it wasn’t until after he died that they discovered he was Jewish. His journey away from his home country was to flee the Nazis.
His daughter, my mother’s mother, was called Vy, because her eyes were violet. When she was fourteen, Vy tried to stop her older brother and his friend from shooting the cardinals in her backyard. As a joke, her brother’s friend shot at her feet. The BB ricocheted off the pavement and into her eye.
But Vy’s father didn’t want to bring her to the hospital.
“Was he scared?” I asked my mother.
“Yeah… He was scared and poor and paranoid. He told her to just stop crying.”
Vy’s mother took her to the hospital eventually. The doctors bandaged both her eyes and isolated her in a dark room for a full year. By the time she was released, she was malnourished and had lost all of the enamel on her teeth.
Because both of her eyes were bandaged, the healthy eye sympathized with the state of the damaged one, and she was left completely blind. When she returned home her mother told her not to eat any food her father gave her. Now that she was blind, she was just a disabled mouth to feed. Her father intended to poison her.
“I don’t think he cared about my mother,” says my mom, turning into the Home Depot parking lot. “Kids were chattel back then.”
My Mother’s Father
When my mom was a child, her father was a successful architect with offices in the north end of Boston. On Saturdays she and her siblings would travel from Newton to the North End (ages 4, 6, and 9, unsupervised) and run around in his studio.
My mother got to play with the all her father’s model buildings, and the little trees, cars, and people that went with them.
“I also ran around the offices and grabbed the pencils in the tool carousels and sharpened them all, and then emptied all the sharpener reservoirs, it made the whole place smell like Blicks!”
She was even allowed to draw at the drafting tables, in the days before digital imaging tools everything was done by hand. So she and her siblings got to use the compasses and french curves and all the colored pens that the staff did.
My grandfather loved my mom. I wish I had gotten to meet him. My mom has always told me: “He would love you. He would think you are just the bee’s knees.”
My Mother’s Home
My mother grew up in Newton, Massachusetts in a Queen Anne style victorian house with her parents and two older siblings. Her dad was a devout minimalist. Despite the very classic exterior of their home, the inside was designed with a sparse, modern aesthetic that was very new at the time.
Their big living room had only three chairs: two Bertoia’s and one Eames womb chair. Their coffee table was a slab of marble resting on copper pipes. The only art in their house were prints of photos that her dad had taken.
“Life size black and white photos of Venezuelan orphans!” My mom laughs. “My dad took them during a trip he took in his twenties. They were so depressing!”
“Our whole house was painted white, we had no curtains, no adornment, no patterned bedspreads, no nothing. And all my friends had the leftover-from-the-fifties pink kind of bedrooms.” My mom laughs with me as she talks about how different her friend’s houses were. “I worshiped those [houses]! I hated my modern house and my modern furniture and my modern clothes, which now of course I’d give my teeth for.”
My grandparents were extremely social in the 1970s. People came through their kitchen and living room all the time, every night on the weekends, and would engage in all kinds of debauchery that was illustrative of America’s social paradigm shift.
“My parents in the middle of all this precariousness used to make me so anxious, because they would flirt with everybody,” says my mom. “I was seeing all this… bad behavior. And my parents would talk about this stuff in front of us, as if we weren’t there and couldn’t hear every word they were saying. We were treated like little adults. I hated that. I just wanted a safe childhood.”
The parties at the Newton house involved a mix of hippies and conservative people, which confused my mom to no end. Her father’s conservative grad students from Czechoslovakia and Japan mingled with people in tasseled suede jackets and handlebar mustaches.
At night my mom and her two older siblings would lay on the floor at the top of the stairs and watch all the adults party. A vent connecting my mom’s little back bedroom and the kitchen also served as a good spying spot. Once she watched her parents and their friends play Monopoly with real money.
“Fuck you David!” My mom yells in imitation of her father, “You don’t own that property asshole!”
The smoking and drinking went on all night, as did a certain amount of swinging.
“I’m pretty sure there were key parties going on. People slept over all the time.”
And as much as my mom was aware of the inappropriateness happening in front of her, she couldn’t help but be drawn to the glamour of it all.
“One of my dad’s friends was a pilot. He would bring all his pilot friends over and they all had flight attendant girlfriends. They’d show up with these crazy fake eyelashes and bouffant hair and white gogo boots with their Delta bags, in uniform.”
Her mother’s friends were equally enviable. “They wore Marimekko dresses and flats with frosted pink lipstick. It was complete debauchery and mayhem, and I knew that as a kid. I loved that frosted pink lipstick gogo boots effect, but at the same time, the Vietnam War was going on.”
While my mom was party-watching with her siblings, America was fully entrenched in Vietnam. There was no censorship in her house despite the three young kids. They had an eight-inch black and white TV in the living room that was always tuned to the news. Footage of the bodies of soldiers and civilians alike was played in the company of the children almost nightly. They were involved in the horror and politics of the war weather they wanted to be or not.
The Come Down
The parties took their toll on the family, as they were bound to. My grandfather began having a very obvious affair. One time he brought his mistress (who was also my grandmother’s best friend) along with them during their family trip to London.
The divorce was finalized when my mom was twelve. It was decided that the kids would live with my grandmother.
Soon after the split, my grandfather tried to “take [my mom] away,” which was the delicate term she used for her attempted kidnapping.
“On [the day he tried to take me] day I felt… like I would never see him again. I knew it was the last time I would ever see him.” A week later he died of a heart attack while on a hunting trip.
After his death, my grandmother became meaner. She was never a good mother before, but her ex-husband’s death made my mom’s life even more difficult. As the youngest child (and her ex-husband’s only biological child) my mom became my grandmother’s prime target. My mom was abused daily, by her mother as well as her older siblings. She had no protectors when she was a child.
My Mother’s Daughter
The more that you are exposed to your family’s trauma, the more normal it seems. We rationalize our abuse as children so by the time we are adults we talk about them nonchalantly, as if they aren’t emotional burdens.
“That’s just my crazy family,” we say.
My mom had been telling me these stories for years before I realized their underlying significance. Despite the constant instability of her own home life, she had always dreamed of being a mother. Everything she never had as a child, she made sure I had. Her childhood was the context for the quality of my own life.
My mother was the carpool queen of my hometown, taking me and my friends to and from the mall, the craft store, soccer practice, and beyond at a moment’s notice. She knitted baby sweaters, sewed all my childhood dresses herself, and crafted truly incredible couture princess gowns for me to wear on Halloween. She cooked us amazing meals every night so we could eat together as a family. She made breakfast for us every single morning until I graduated high school. My bedroom was allowed to be as kitschy and over the top as I wanted; my style and personality was always mine to define.
Most importantly, I think, she always apologized to me after we fought, a kindness that she was never shown.
Incredibly, after all my mom went through, she made our home the safest, most loving place in the entire world. With every day that she grew up feeling unsafe, she was mentally planning for the lives she was going to give to her own children.
My mom has always told me that the day I was born was the best day of her life, the day when her lifelong dream of giving her daughter the best life she could began.
I am so lucky to be her daughter.