Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Back To The Family

“Living this life has its problems
so I think that I'll give it a break.
Oh, I'm going back to the family
'cause I've had about all I can take.”

- Jethro Tull, “Back To the Family”

            If only people were as honest as these squirrels, Gene Getty thinks to himself. It is a warm spring day and he sits alone in his backyard feeding squirrels walnuts that he collects specifically for this purpose. He gently tosses them into the grass and watches as they vie and tussle for their bounty. They furtively run away and disappear up nearby trees. Such is the nature of a squirrel. They harbor no pretensions of fealty and make no secret of the fact that their undivided attention is dependent on his continued largesse. In the instant that he ceases offering walnuts, they will abandon him completely. They’re honest and people never are. To him, these simple animals are paragons of candor.

            He is a barrel-chested man with deeply set, mournful eyes. His hands are large and rough-hewn. His face is rugged and possesses a quality of unlikely sweetness. He is an automobile factory supervisor, a father, and husband who puts the proverbial food on the table, pays the bills, and ensures that those aspects of his life continue with precise, unspectacular dependability.  His diligence in these areas rewards him with material security; he measures his worth by the durability of such achievements. His peers like and respect him for his easy going and convivial nature. Despite this, the joy of life is an unknown commodity to him and his spirit is a deflated vacancy haunted by the echoes of eviscerated passions. His life is duty and obligation and any emotional turbulence meets a stunning lack of will to address the issue that begat the disturbance. It is no small testament to his depression that feeding walnuts to squirrels is one of the few things bringing him pleasure.

            He hears the familiar sound of a school bus stopping in front of his home. His daughter is home from school and he knows it is only a matter of moments before she rounds the house searching for him and calling out his name.

            “Daddy! Are you back here?”

            “Yes, Ruth, I’m here.”

            Ruth comes around the corner of the house and her face brightens when she makes eye contact with him. He smiles in return. She is nine years old and has a stocky build for a young girl. She is dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans that have the legs cut off to make them shorts. She has thick, straight blonde hair tied in a pigtail that reaches her shoulders. Her chubby, cherubic face suggests sweetness and a generosity of spirit. Despite her frequently animated conversation, she rarely says anything without first weighing the potential consequences of her remarks.

            “Come stand beside me, Ruthie. How’d your day go at school?” Gene asks.

            “Well, I got to play kick ball with some boys today, but they were mean to me.”

            “Did’ja tell your teacher?”

            Ruth shakes her head and smiles slightly. “No. I told them they were mean and couldn’t even play right. Then I got away from ‘em.”

            Gene laughs a little. “That’s good. I bet they won’t mess with you again. What else did ya do?”

            “Well, do you remember me tellin’ you ‘bout that big walnut tree we have in our playground?”

            Gene nods. “Sure, I remember that.”

            “Well, I’m almost able to climb halfway up it. I will soon!”

            Gene’s expression turns grave and serious. “Ruthie, I know you love to climb trees, but be careful.” he replies, but his words of caution seem insufficient. He feels adrift and cut off from the authentic emotion that the situation requires. He can’t even bring himself to hug his own daughter usually. What’s wrong with me? I’m totally useless. He looks distractedly for his squirrels; they are situated nearby and watching him attentively.

            Ruth notices her father’s caution. “Don’t worry, daddy. It’s only a little taller than this one here in our backyard.”

            Gene looks at her wistfully. “Ok, Ruthie. I trust you. Just be careful?”

             “Sure, daddy. Wanna hear what else happened today?”


            “These girls in my class started makin’ fun of me at recess! They said I was fat! They said we were poor and my clothes weren’t as nice as theirs!” Her indignation and pain alike knows no bounds and the anger in her voice is palpable.

            Gene regains his focus and looks questioningly at her. “Did’ja tell your teacher?”


            “Why not, Ruth? You shoulda told your teacher. So what didja do?”

            Ruth suddenly looks ready to cry. “I told ‘em they were mean and they should quit being mean to me and leave me alone.” Her voice, full with primal outrage only moments before, is now distressed and choked with emotion. Gene stares at her for a moment in frozen horror. Her intense emotions are a direct challenge to his apathy, but all that he has to answer this challenge with is his sense of duty and parental obligation. Give her a hug and tell her everything’s gonna be alright, he thinks.

            “Come here, Ruthie, give me a big hug.” he says and opens his arms for an embrace. She virtually leaps into his arms with desperate ferocity. He absently strokes her hair and mutters, “It’ll be alright in the end, trust me. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with ya.”

            “Ruth! I need you to come here for a minute!” It is the shrill, demanding voice of Gene’s wife, Beatrice, calling out from a window above them.

            Gene gently pushes Ruth away and frowns. “Better go see what your mom wants.”

            Ruth nods silently and runs around the house to its front door. She is careful to make sure the soles of her shoes are clean before she goes inside. The interior of the Getty home is a bastion of orderly middle class taste. The arrangement of the furniture in the living room and their attendant accessories is typical and lacks any personality. The dining room is modest in size and has large windows on the western wall that floods the room with hazy streams of light. This is the scene of a crime. The crime is that there isn’t a real family living here. This is a cast with little discernable skill offering a performance of family life. Their home is the stage.

            Beatrice Getty steps out of a small kitchen adjacent to the dining room. She is a tall, slender woman with a well-manicured appearance. She is in the early years of middle age and a few strands of gray are visible around her temples. She has fierce, intense brown eyes and a face that is a mask of worry and tension. She has been cooking dinner and looks a little flustered. The smell of chicken, cooked vegetables and bread fills the air.

            “You wanted me, mommy?”

            Beatrice nods. “Yes, I do, Ruth. Dinner’s almost ready and I want you to set the table.”

            Ruth takes three glass plates from a nearby cabinet and steps back out into the dining room. She eyes her mother wearily; her mother does not return the gaze. Ruth is afraid of her mother and that maternal dread has many faces. She can falter in the face of her mother’s hypercritical diatribes and frets with the threat of her censure.

            “Wanna hear about what happened at school today, mommy?” Ruth asks.

            Beatrice nods distractedly as she works at the stove. “Sure, Ruth, tell me.”

             “Well, there’s this walnut tree in our playground that I’ve almost climbed half way up. It’s even bigger than our walnut tree!”

            As she cuts some chicken, Beatrice glances back at her daughter. “I hope you’re being careful, Ruth.”

            “Oh yeah, mom, don’t worry.” she replies. “You wanna know what else happened today?”

            “Sure.” However, she doesn’t really care now. Her interior diatribe eats at her constantly. I work all day and I have to come home and cook every night? Why can’t he cook some? All he does is watch other people work. There’s nothin’ hard about his day. And Ruth climbin’ trees… what kind of nine-year-old girl likes climbin’ trees so much? She should be interested in dolls and maybe even in boys. Not climbin’ trees. What a strange kid.

            “Well, I was playin’ kick ball with these boys and they were ok at first. But then they started talkin’ mean to me and I told them they should leave me alone!”

            “Uh huh.” Beatrice says as she steps from the kitchen into the dining room. She looks the dining room table over, frowns, and glares at Ruth.

            “Ruth, you put things too close together! Someone’s gonna knock their glass over when they reach for their silverware!” she says. When she glares at Ruth, Ruth does not see her mother.  What she sees instead is a monster.

            “I’m sorry, mommy, I just got to talkin’ and wasn’t payin’ attention.” she pleads.

            Beatrice is unmoved. “That’s your problem, Ruth. You don’t pay attention. I’ve told ya how to do this over and over, but you never listen, you’re just off in your own little world. You need to grow up.” She sighs deeply. Here is the eye of the storm. “Just go tell your dad that dinner is ready. I’ll fix the table.”

            With that, Ruth walks away utterly defeated. It leaves her feeling as if her mother does not love her and has little interest in her life. It is only a fraction of what is going on. Ruth cannot see the worry around her mother’s eyes. She is too young to note the wild, unhinged look on her face when she starts on one of her customary tirades. Her mother and father are sick, but she doesn’t know it. She is far too young to understand how a child can inherit all of this and carry it over into adulthood and parenthood. All Ruth knows is the pain of rejection and its savage agony will cling to her for the rest of her life.

            As she walks around the corner of the house with her head down, she bumps into her father coming from the opposite direction.

            “Whoa, watch were you’re goin’, Ruthie.” he says. His smile is unenthusiastic.

            “Sorry, daddy.”

            “Dinner ready?”

            “Yeah, mommy said to come get you.”

            “I figured as much.” He nods and forces another smile. “So… what has your mom fixed for dinner?”

            “Boiled chicken, cooked vegetables, and some bread.”

             “Yum. Let’s go eat.”

            The two of them walk inside the house together. Ruth finds her place at the dining room table and carefully watches her parents interact. They do not embrace or exchange any kisses. Beatrice stands at the kitchen counter transferring green beans from a cooking pot into the serving dish. Gene leans over her shoulders and smells the air.

            “Smells great, Bea.”

            She smirks. “I’ll be surprised if you can eat it. I didn’t have time to make it and I’m damn tired. I never know exactly when everyone is gonna be home so I can start dinner anyway.”

            Gene frowns with profound displeasure. “It doesn’t have to be done so soon, Bea. I can wait a little while after work before we have.”

            Bea slams her right hand down on the counter. The sound reverberates throughout the entire house. “I don’t wanna wait until after six to eat! I need my rest, dammit! I have to work too, you know!” She sighs loudly and her mood suddenly changes. “Besides, the last time the two of you ate was at lunch, and I’m sure it wasn’t much.”

            Gene sulks away from his wife and sits down at the dining room table. Beatrice joins him and sits directly across from Ruth. She picks up a nearby serving dish of green beans and passes it to Gene. Once more, the nightly imitation of family life begins with the communal meal. This is the prototypical nuclear family, circa late 20th century America; the father, omnipresent head of the family unit, flanked by his loving, nurturing wife and his lovely, luminous daughter. However, something has gone awry here; for this family, that celebrated ideal ran off the rails long ago. There is no real meaning behind their gestures of formality, only a grim insistence on decorum in the face of the undisputable fact that their lives, individually and collectively, are shattered.

            Beatrice cannot believe the lack of consideration she gets from her husband and daughter. She works hard as a cafeteria cook for the local college and meets her obligations as both a mother and a wife, but no one seems to give a damn. They don’t appreciate her efforts or sacrifices; they don’t appreciate how hard she works for them and worries about them. They just don’t seem to care. Perhaps they really don’t care. I give and I give and they take and they take and that’s my life. This over-heated reasoning echoes through her mind like a mantra. She glances at Gene. He has his head down in sullen concentration eating his dinner. He’s no help. Look at him. He just gives his stupid, harmless grin and goes through life showing up for things and nothing more. And he can barely do that. She turns her attention towards Ruth.

            “Tell me again about your day in school, Ruth?” she asks.

            Ruth glances briefly at her father. He looks at her with an expressionless gaze and resumes picking away at his dinner. He is a cipher, disengaged from virtually everything, and has nothing to offer. Ruth looks into the eyes of the most important woman that she will ever know and does not know what waits for her. She begins to talk about her day.

            “Well, I climbed halfway up this walnut tree that we have in our playground.”

            Gene briefly stirs to attention. “How much taller is the walnut tree in our backyard?”

            Ruth’s eyes widen as she pictures the tree in her mind. “Oh, jeez, ‘bout twice its size, daddy.”

            Gene frowns. “Like I said earlier, Ruth, just be careful. Don’t climb any higher than you can handle.”

             “Yes, daddy, I will. Don’t worry.”

             “I don’t think you should be climbing up any trees at all,” she says with palpable haughtiness. With this opening salvo, Ruth’s attention is completely riveted on her mother. Gene stops eating for a moment, but stares down at his plate. He knows what is coming. His inability to respond perplexes and terrifies him.

            “There’s nothin’ wrong with a kid wantin’ to climb trees, Beatrice. I did it myself when I was her age.” he says.

            Beatrice snorts slightly. “But she’s a nine year old girl. Why is she climbin’ trees? I don’t get it, I guess. Nine-year-old girls should be spendin’ time with other nine-year-old girls, playin’ with dolls, whatever, but not climbin’ trees. It’s weird. Maybe it’s too much to ask that people make an effort to fit in.” While her words are sheer invective, the tone of her voice is sad and disappointed. The tone doesn’t matter to Ruth though. She hears her mother’s rancor and trembles within at the idea that she has let her down once again.

            “I don’t wanna be like those girls! They pick on me and call me fat!” Ruth says.

            “Did’ja tell your teacher that they were callin’ you names?” Beatrice asks.

            Gene shakes his head and says, “No, she didn’t, and I’ve already scolded her.”

            Beatrice smirks derisively. “Lots of good that did, I’m sure.” She turns her attention squarely to Ruth and stares at her. “You know, Ruth, you are a little heavy. If you would lose a little bit of weight, those girls wouldn’t be able to say some of these things about you.”

            “Ruthie, there’s nothin’ wrong with you. Don’t listen to what your mom says. If those girls bother you again, tell your teacher.” Gene says. He offers Ruth a wan smile that barely registers on her. She is horrified. This is turning into one of those spectacular family dinners that scald a child’s psyche. She wants to weep, to scream, to lash out. She harbors these things inside of her, nameless and powerful.

            Beatrice and Gene look silently at one another for a moment. There is a mixture of sullen resignation and outright contempt in their faces. The palpable tension that colors their lives with one another has smashed any memories of the days when they were on the same page and striving for common goals. It was only a few years before their communal love tumbled into discord and acrimony. They remain connected by inertia alone. Beatrice hates herself, but you will never get her to admit to it. It is marital brinksmanship, jockeying for position, and little Ruthie is a pawn. Gene is fighting back for now and when he rouses from his compliant stupor, the deep fissures in their marriage leap to the fore. Gene looks away at last and breaks the spell. He looks fearful and confused as he absently picks up his fork and begins to pick at his dinner once again. Beatrice gives him a final, curiously sad and wistful glance before returning to her food. The resulting silence is taut with fear. Gene picks away at his food and loses himself in thought. I can’t lose her. I can’t do anything about this. I couldn’t bear it, Ruthie couldn’t stand the divorce. I can’t stand it.

            Ruth is falling to pieces inside. She is dumbfounded about how to reach out and say she is hurting. She is afraid and feels alone with her agony. Her eyes well up with tears, but her parents cannot look at each other, let alone her. With great difficulty, she makes an effort to defend herself.

            “I don’t wanna be friends with those mean girls! They say my clothes suck and I’m poor!”

            Beatrice is grossly offended, but not for the reasons you assume. This assault on her daughter is not only an affront to Ruth, but, more gravely, it is an indictment of her failure as a mother to furnish her child with such things. She has worried what other people think about her all of her life and cannot abide the displeasure of the crowd.

            “Who in the hell do these girls think they are? Born of royal blood?” she asks her husband. However, she isn’t looking for an answer from him. She is seeking someone to affirm her molten rage.

            He disregards Beatrice. “They’re snobs, Ruth. They got no place at all to be talkin’ about you. Their parents might have some money, maybe more than us, but most ‘em aren’t good people. Mark my words, Ruthie, those girls will grow up to be just like their mommies and daddies.”

            Beatrice nods vehemently. “You think there’s anything wrong with her clothes, Gene?” she asks. Her sudden interest in his opinions is illusory. The truth is that this husband and wife only have any use for their partner’s opinion when seeking agreement with their own. This is not give and take; this is not a parental unit working in tandem to address the pains of their child. This is theater.

            However, Gene plays along. “No, I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with her clothes. I think she’s a pretty little girl.” he says and offers a well-practiced smile. She smiles in return. She knows that there is something wrong with her father, but she does not know what.

            Beatrice looks at her daughter skeptically for a moment and asks, “Do ya think somethin’s wrong with your clothes, Ruth?”

            The question fills her with fear. She knows that her mother is looking for a specific answer. She feels anxious as she searches for the safest response.

            “No, I like my clothes, mommy.”

            Beatrice sneers; she finds her answer unconvincing. What a little brat! She doesn’t appreciate a damn thing I do for her. “Well, you just tell those girls that not everyone has doctors for parents or whatever and can afford the nice things they’ve got!” Little Miss Priss. The things I do for her, and look at the gratitude that I get in return. The emotions within Beatrice are bilious and profane.

            Ruth says nothing, cowed by her mother’s incoherent accusations and rage. She is afraid to look at either one of them. She has watched them before in moments such as these and did not like what she saw. In her father’s eyes there is always the same emptiness and square-jawed detachment that somehow makes it clear that she is on her own against her mother. In her mother’s eyes, she sees unbridled contempt and an absolute absence of warmth. Her face has hardened into a swollen, embittered mask.

            Gene breaks the silence and points at a pie on the opposite end of the table. “Bea, can ya pass the raspberry pie here please? I think I’ll have me a piece.”

            Beatrice hands the pie to him. “Are you gonna mow the grass soon, Gene?”

            He glances at her and then turns his attention to his piece of pie. “I’ll need to do it before the weekend. I won’t have time for it then. Tomorrow probably. Hopefully it won’t rain.”

            “Is that piece of shit lawnmower gonna start? I don’t know why you had to buy something so damn cheap. When ya gonna get a new one?” The disgust infecting her voice is impossible to miss.

            Gene frowns and sighs deeply. “There’s nothing wrong with the lawnmower that can’t be fixed. We don’t need a new one.” His voice is hushed and unnaturally calm. He works mightily to keep his temper reined in. Don’t let her bother you. Keep cool. It’s the way she is and she ain’t gonna change.

            Beatrice smirks. “Of course you don’t think so.”

            Gene frowns once again. He cannot muster the necessary indignation to challenge her. “I’ll get it fixed, Beatrice. Don’t worry.”

            “Yeah, sure.” Beatrice replies disdainfully.

            Ruth finishes her dinner. She cannot get out of here fast enough. “I’m done eatin’, can I go outside for a while?”

            Beatrice stares blankly at her. “I suppose.” she mutters.

            As Ruth stands and moves around the dining room table, Gene looks up from his plate and says, “You have any homework?”

            Ruth nods slowly. “Yeah, daddy, but just a little bit.”

            “Well, don’t spend too long out there. A hour at the most. It’ll be getting late soon enough.”

            “Okay, daddy, I will.”

            Beatrice says nothing and looks at her. It is a cold, vacant stare. Ruth quickly returns to the backyard and discovers Gene’s lawn chair and sealed barrel of walnuts exactly as he left them. She sits in the chair and feels a cool breeze pass over her as she begins to cry.

            I just want my mommy to love me. Why can’t I make her happy? What can’t daddy make her happy? What’s wrong with my daddy anyway? He seems so sad all the time. I just want them to love me. Is there somethin’ wrong with me? Why can’t I be like they want me to be?

            Ruth doesn’t understand any of this. She doesn’t understand how her father can let her mother behave in such a way. She cannot fathom why he is always so removed and distant. She cannot penetrate the veils and masks that he has adopted to conceal his terrible despair. He is sick. Nor does she understand her mother in any meaningful respect. She has learned precious little more about her other than the value of her scant approval and the withering vehemence of her criticism. There are no subtleties in their relationship. Fear and anger dominate their dialogue.

            Why are things so hard? Why can’t they just love me? Through the stinging vision of her tears, she sees that a few squirrels have gathered in the grass nearby. They look at Ruth with glassy, startlingly attentive eyes.

            Her father suddenly appears from around the corner of the house wearing a faint smile. He walks the short distance to where his daughter is sitting.

            “Hi, daddy. You wanna sit here?”

            He shakes his head. “No, honey. You sit there. Can I sit down beside you on the grass?” he asks weakly.

            “Sure, daddy.”

            He sits down close to her chair. Their eyes lock for a moment and a brief swell of emotion threatens to overtake Gene’s carefully maintained equilibrium. She’s been cryin’, I gotta do somethin’. After that performance in the dining room, I gotta say somethin’ to make it better. Oh my god, what have I done? I can’t do this. I hafta try though. He suppresses his sudden surge of emotion and begins to speak.

            “Ruthie, I wanna talk to ya for a minute.”

            “Okay.” she whispers. The same fears that assailed her in the dining room return with renewed intensity. The near-hysteria already boiling within her mind leaves her struggling to process the implications of another confrontation with a parent. It is miraculous that she can even speak.

            “I’m sorry for what happened at dinner, Ruthie. You know, sometimes we don’t have a choice about who we love. We may wonder why we love that person and we can try to tell ourselves that we don’t, but we know better. We love them, in spite of themselves. Do you know what I mean, Ruth?” Gene asks. He’s tentative. I sound ridiculous. Can she even understand this? And who am I really saying this for, me or her?

            “I think so. We should love mommy no matter how she treats us?” she asks. Her tears threaten to overtake her. The restraint that she displays is no virtue however. It is yet another by-product of fear. They’ll hate me if I cry in front of them. I can’t cry. I’ll cry alone, but not in front of mommy and daddy!

            Gene nods slowly and frowns. “Yes, Ruthie. Mommy will be better one day. You watch. And you know, she loves you very much. Whenever you feel sad like this, just remember all the nice things she does for ya. The birthday cakes, the nice Christmas presents. But you should love your mommy no matter what. Never think for a moment that she doesn’t love you.”

            Her eyes are narrow slits as she turns back every urge to weep, weep as no other child could weep on this day. She wants to howl with anguish that these words from her father cannot assuage. No child should know this woe. This is a woe so insidious that it will thicken the entire thread of her life. She wants to believe that her mother loves her. She wants to believe that so much. However, the evidence often seems circumstantial at best. Nevertheless, for the benefit of her father, she lies.

            “I know she loves me daddy, no matter what she says or how she acts.” she says. The strain in her voice is noticeable.

            Gene fights back the impulse to erupt in tears and hugs her instead. She returns the hug with considerable ferocity. “You’re a good little girl, Ruthie. And I want ya to know I love you too.” He releases her and stands up once again.

            “Are you okay?” he asks.

            She isn’t. “Yeah, daddy. I’m okay.”

            I don’t know what to do. I’m a fucking failure as a father, a husband, and as a human being. I’m worthless. What kinda man lets this happen to his daughter? I should kill myself.

            “I love you, Ruthie. No matter what happens, always remember that.”

            “I love you too, daddy.” Her voice is little more than a hoarse choke.

             “Alright then. I’ll leave ya alone now.” He stands once again, brushes himself off absently, and walks away. As if on cue, the tears begin to seep from Ruth’s eyes at last. The hesitant trickle soon gives way to a convulsive eruption of tears. However, she remains oddly silent throughout it all and, soon enough, the tears begin to subside. She stares straight ahead with a fixed, resolute look on her face.

            I wish mommy and daddy were like these squirrels, she thought to herself. Simple. There are three adult squirrels near her. They have a healthy appearance and their brown fur was thick and robust. Of the three, two scramble through the grass with their tails up in the air and their noses to the ground. The third stands upright on his haunches near Ruth and watches her with vigilant eyes.

            I’m all alone. I’m not like other girls and they don’t like me ‘cause of that. My mommy can’t love me or daddy. She’s so mad at me. My daddy is sad and doesn’t know what to do. Why can’t we be happy like the squirrels? Why’s things so hard?

            She leans over the side of the lawn chair and removes the lid from the barrel. There are many large, dark walnuts inside. She reaches down, plucks up three of them, and slides herself to the end of the lawn chair. The squirrel nearest to her still stands in the grass and watches her intently. He is less than four feet away. She takes one of the walnuts and, placing it in the palm of her hand, fearlessly extends her hand towards the squirrel.

            “Come here, I know you’ll love my little treat for you.” she whispers softly to the animal.

            The squirrel remains inert and stares at her hand. He suddenly jerks to life and scampers across the grass towards Ruth. He stops just out of her reach. With raw, impatient speed, the animal snatches the walnut with his claws and viciously bites Ruth’s index finger as he draws back. He runs across the yard and up a tree. A warn stream of blood runs from Ruth’s wound and her howl of pain shatters the sunny afternoon.

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