Silence is the necessary time for renewal.
The finale of a great symphony is followed by the resplendent moment just before the applause, when the entire work resounds like a golden coin dropped into a silver chalice. I’ve known silences when thoughts seem to have thought and written themselves. Even the minute pauses between beautiful words, like the spaces between pearls on a string, afford meaning: they illuminate each other in a network of relationships.
There are also unnatural silences. Something you wanted to say was interrupted by someone and did not come into being. It is the echo of the biblical parable about the plowman scattering seeds. Only a few fall on fertile ground; the rest are lost: the wind carries them away, the rains fail, untimely frost comes. Someone you love is not speaking to you, and you don’t know why. You leave messages on his telephone device, and you hear his recorded voice telling you that he’ll “get back to you as soon as possible.” But the message is never returned. You talk to his friends, and they are evasive. My son, my firstborn, the artist with his moods, the funny one who makes everyone laugh, the one for whom I fought bitterly with his father, is not speaking to me right now.
What has happened is a shift in relationship between father, son, and absentee mother. For many difficult years, I played the role of the buffer between two bucks locking each other with their horns. The arena was most often the dining room during our evening meal. And because the verbal abuse from the older male so devastated the younger one, I intuitively sided with the latter, even when he had obviously incited his father with righteous indignation. It is as natural as stepping on your brakes on a dark road when your car headlights are reflected in two terrified eyes. You swerve off the straight course of the road — anything to avoid killing a creature. No, it is not rational, but neither is having a baby.
The role I played in this triangle came to an abrupt stop when I recently left San Diego for a teaching position in Monterey for a year. The two were left to redefine their relationship (so I hear from his father). They teamed up; a team united against me.
Is this my story or my “prodigal” son’s? Is this my silence, or his? The Scriptures don’t concern themselves with the mother’s feelings toward her estranged child, only the father’s joy upon his return. Is it possible that he sees me as the prodigal mother, after his father and I were divorced five years ago and I have since remarried? Through this chasm I’ve come to understand the shock of the recognition that we are extensions of each other, although I had the misfortune of being born as a female into a world that relegated our sex to the function of being cheerful, practical, and superficially amusing. Above all, to keep our mouths shut on major issues. My husband and his peers, all physicians throughout San Diego, were convinced that women in the late ’60s, after such personalities as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer had published their views on feminism, had lost sight of their primary function as women and that they (meaning me in particular) talked too much. The fact that women talked at all was too much. I unfortunately had majored in philosophy and literature, both grounded in language.
I see my son as the person I used to be as a child: steeped in impatience for a reality that would await me upon the completion of childhood. Childhood — the prison sentence barring me from all those enticing choices begging outside my bedroom window.
Whose story is this?
We both have the same impetuous nature, pretending to sit still for a facsimile of suburban family life — mine on the outskirts of Philadelphia, his in Shadow Hills, east of Mt. Helix. Both our fathers are stern, puritanical. When I was a high school student, the spirit in me, like my son’s, was off running, even if I looked every inch the baby face.
If someone had asked me why, after my husband’s tour of duty as a MASH hospital physician during our Vietnam involvement, we decided to live in the typical oversized house in San Diego’s East County, equipped with a legendary terraced yard, fruit orchard, pool, spa, and horse corral, I would not have been able to give a convincing answer: probably for the same reason my parents and most parents I know seemed to believe that suburbia was a healthier environment for children than the city.
Those late ’60s were a time before aerobics, jogging, exercise classes, and low-salt, low-cholesterol diets; it was acceptable practice to drive down the hill in order to pick up the mail in boxes lined up on wooden poles in rows of ten or twelve, because some of us lived on inclines so steep that it was an imposition on the mailman to deliver the mail at the door. Only the milkman delivered. Yes, we still had a milkman.
On our street, a street without sidewalks, the children ruled. It was not uncommon for someone driving on that street to have to stop and be permitted to proceed only after a natural pause in their improvised ball game. No one complained — anyone driving on this street was invariably someone with lots of children of her own living there.
Just about all of our children were tow-headed, given the exposure to sunshine and chlorinated pool water. Looking out of my kitchen window on the familiar street scene, I could often not distinguish my own two blond, bronze-skinned little boys from anyone else’s, except perhaps by whatever family dog followed his respective child-owner around.
One Halloween I counted more than 130 trick-or-treating children, in groups from three to eight, and year after year we were rewarded by the obligatory egg and water-hose pranks despite our generous handouts. It was part of the time-honored cliché that “boys will be boys.”
One Christmas we loaded up four little children, our own and two neighbors’, on the back of our gentle mare Chacha, decked out in red ribbons and Christmas bells to create the illusion of authentic Christmas, and went from door to door caroling to the accompaniment of my baritone recorder, a relic from my childhood in Germany, where I was born during the war.
I remember my first school year only vaguely: children were ruled by stern but caring nuns. I was obedient, on the fringe of circumstances that obligated my mother to concern herself with raw survival for herself and her five children. The flip side of my shyness was a kind of private world I had invented for myself, a world that was full of furry animals. For in the years following Germany’s defeat, such necessities as food were so scarce that having a family pet was a luxury. I would dream that I would have a kitten (I had even named it Mitzi) and keep it in my room, take it to school, and seat it on the chair next to me during classes. It would be taken for a stroll in the doll carriage around the garden of the old, well-preserved house in which we lived for a time in a little town on the Rhine near the Dutch border. During that time, my father worked in Hanover as a physicist. Transit systems were still erratic, and so he came home so seldom that his occasional visits with us seemed like an intrusion.
One day, after I had come home from school and placed my leather book bag into the kitchen where my mother was, she told me in a mysterious voice to go into the parlor. When I asked her what was in the parlor, she whispered “a kitty.” I tiptoed into the formal room where we children were normally not allowed, and there, curled up on the pale blue satin divan, was the gaunt figure of a man sleeping — my father, who had unexpectedly come home. I remember standing there a long time, watching him, awed, intimidated, and slightly disappointed that the “kitty” I had envisioned as red striped turned out to be this man.
During those few days he was with us, I would try to get his attention from his mathematics books and notes by anthropomorphizing the abstract symbols dancing across the pages, inventing dialogues and a course of action for them, like the ones I was familiar with from my story books. A certain symbol seemed to be standing on one leg, like Rumpelstiltskin, and I attributed the same sinister characteristics to it. The attraction between the mathematician-father and the dreamer-child was based on a curious selective affinity: we were light years apart in consciousness but found a common world beyond talk. While he pretended that he did not know I was there, I watched him silently while he was working on his math problems — understanding nothing of what he was doing, yet understanding.
What did Andrew experience when his father returned after the long separation imposed on us by circumstances that had sent his father to a MASH hospital in Vietnam? Andy (I’ve changed his name in this story) was little enough not to have a clear idea as to who this stranger in uniform was at the airport that day — a frame without a picture in it.
During the months of his absence, I had been an indulgent parent. Everywhere I went, my babies went — an indulgence born from necessity. After my husband’s internship in Philadelphia was completed, we came to San Diego, where he was initiated into navy life prior to being assigned duty in Vietnam in 1965. I had no family here and few acquaintances. We lived in a small but attractive A-frame house in Clairemont, and I filled those days with outings to the zoo, the beach, Scripps Aquarium, and “Balboa Park. One day I had promised them a picnic, but this plan was canceled by rain. Nevertheless we picnicked: we spread our blanket over the king-sized bed, passed out paper plates and cups, put on our beach clothes, and rigged up the standing lamp from the living room with a yellow floodlight in lieu of the sun that would not come out for us. When Andy’s dad came back, these fanciful games came to a stop. Gone were those long evenings way past normal bedtime when we three would curl up on the day bed in the guest room with quilts, mugs of hot chocolate, and graham crackers, and the family cat Mishka to watch the Johnny Carson show. Their father, understandably, demanded proper bedtime. I don’t think he comprehended that their habitudes were the extension of my loneliness and served to keep my nagging fear, the fear that he might never return from this fearsome place 8000 miles from our shores, on the periphery of my thoughts.
Now that he was back, he was obviously the intruder into their cozy microcosm. Surely they were not entirely delighted with his commitment to some “long-overdue discipline.” It had not occurred to me before that they were “bad.” I never thought that undivided time and attention could “spoil” a child. Consequently, their sophisticated, almost comically adult way of talking was the anathema to the imperative that children should be seen and not heard, especially after 8:00 p.m., and was met with typically childlike impudence. My husband, determined to re-establish himself as the authority figure, set up a list of house rules. It was intended to be in their best interest, as was the decision to move to La Mesa: children are supposed to have space, room for play, clean air, good schools within walking distance, and safe streets.
We became suburbanized. If my husband’s busy schedule as a young physician permitted, weekends were planned around the poolside. We always insisted that our friends bring their children also. Summers we played round-robin tennis, we barbecued, we took our annual cultural pilgrimage to Carmel’s Bach festival, and went to Europe every other year for a month while the boys were farmed out to their grandparents. Winters we packed up for ski vacations in Utah and California’s Sierra Nevada. Both our boys were expert skiers by their tenth year.
While the other mothers drove their children to the obligatory Little League, Pop Warner, and Bobbie Sox practices and Cub Scout meetings, I chauffeured mine to violin and piano lessons, youth rehearsals in the park, and whatever art workshops for children were sponsored during the summer months. Everything evolved around the activities of the children, and we mothers in our station wagons were essentially means to their end.
Ever since then, I’ve asked myself if this really was in their best interest. Did we perhaps create a generation of children who saw their mothers as chauffeuring devices and their fathers as blank checks? Everything had been handed to them. Their parents virtually arranged their dinner time around Little League games, their school athletic activities, and their orthodontia appointments. Even their teachers were a commodity to them. Each mother, determined to get her offspring into the gifted program, would invariably hold her child’s teacher responsible for mediocre grades. Ironically, a lot of these “gifted” children struck me as incredibly mediocre. We were bent on reshaping the world, instead of preparing our children for the world.
But even then we could not spare them from the reality of drugs lurking around the corner. First it was so subtle that it was a temptation to ignore the whole matter as the first few sprinkles of raindrops might be: the downpour may never occur. But drugs were ubiquitous.
During the early ’70s, when Andrew was still in grade school, my husband and I came home from a concert one evening to find our medicine cabinet in a state of disarray. I suspected the babysitter, particularly since soon after, on another occasion, we found her drunk in a puddle of her own vomit on the couch. After that we installed a lock on our liquor cabinet. Frequently I had the impression that someone had been through our mailbox looking for drugs: doctors were known to receive all kinds of drug samples from every conceivable pharmaceutical house. What I did not go through to put a stop to these mail deliveries!
Then, during a late balmy summer evening, I heard subdued voices and laughter up by the horse corral, and I discovered three neighborhood boys of about 13 or 14 in the tack room, with flashlights, a six-pack of beer, smoking.… Funny, I was at the time too concerned about the fire hazard during these dry months; and it dawned on me only much later that they were not smoking cigarettes. I did, however, relay what I had witnessed to the boys’ parents out of purely parental concern. Their reaction was unanimous denial: they had questioned their sons, who insisted that they had not smoked pot or drunk beer. Their boys were church affiliated and therefore did not lie. The case was closed.
About a week later, I found my mailbox torn off and lying in a nearby ditch. Soon after, our tenderly-raised koi were floating belly-up on the surface of the lily pond, obviously poisoned. One day my husband came in with our Burmese kitten, which he had found fatally shot through the head with a pellet gun under the orange trees. A favorite activity among the boys was to raid barely ripe avocados from our trees at nighttime, in their haste breaking off delicate branches. I could have sworn that I bought my own fruits on the corner of Avocado and Fuerte Drive sold by the same boys.
And then, gradually, I noticed Andy becoming more secretive. His grades dropped, and he became surly and noncommunicative. Once I overheard on the telephone, “Well, can’t you get hold of your grandma’s birthday money tonight?” a reference to a fifty-dollar gift from my mother, which I had insisted he put into his savings account. This was the beginning of his high school involvement in drugs. I was so anxiety-ridden that I wonder to what extent it contributed to my progressive estrangement from my husband, or was I confusing cause and effect? Was Andy’s problem the result of the rift between his father and me when I discovered that he had been chronically unfaithful? (I won’t digress into a psychological analysis here, although all of us did consult with a psychologist.)
The final blow came when we received a phone call during Andy’s senior year: our son was at the El Cajon police station. Apparently, he had teamed up with a group of boys, the ringleader and driver of which had lifted a bottle of hard liquor from his father’s supply. They were arrested in a parking lot passing the bottle around and shouting obscenities when a policeman found them. My husband, after picking up Andy at 1:00 a.m., declared that he was through with him, ready to kick him out. And I was heartsick unto death.
Should I have sided with his father? How do you throw out a child, confused, troubled, with no place to go? I was prepared to decide that if I had to choose, I would choose my son — all the while assessing that perhaps I had not really been a “good” mother. It occurred to me that we had given him “things” and invariably turned him into a consumer at the expense of any spiritual insights.
One April afternoon, as I was talking among the trees in the garden, all this came to me in a single moment, a moment as pristine as the air that day. I remember it had just rained; that spring had been unusually wet, and there was a rainbow over the canyon. The moment was bathed in pure light and so still that you could hear the silence. I was inspecting the avocado trees below and the orange trees on the second level for pests, then the vegetables, berries, and fruit trees on the third terrace, and I met with our resident skunk munching on the strawberries. Come to think of it, I haven’t mentioned all the animals that took up residence with us over the years. There was a baby raccoon that someone had dropped off once; he hadn’t been weaned, and we nursed him to maturity before depositing him at Wildcat Canyon. There were two ducks, the result of giving in to a whim against my better judgment on Easter. These two downy golden fluffballs grew up to discover that our pool could be reached by flying over the gate; they found their eventual permanent home in the duck pond by Anthony’s Fish Grotto off Highway 8. For a while we had a rosy boa constrictor on the premises who was friendly enough to slither onto the back patio, much to the horror of some of our more timid visitors. There was a bantam rooster named Chanticleer who habitually attacked our cross-eyed Siamese cat, and a yellow sheepdog who one day tried to cross Avocado Boulevard while my son and his friends “sold” avocados and was fatally hit by a car.
Yes, it looked like paradise, but a paradise rotting at the center. Our personal lives were elsewhere: my son’s was with his drugs, mine with my graduate studies (I had enrolled at UCSD after encouragement from the psychologist I was seeing), my husband’s with one or the other beach community hospital — or mistress. On top of everything, he had taken up surfing, while a hired pool cleaner continued to clean our pool, which no one used anymore. The admiring comments of friends and visitors about how beautiful this place was had only elicited a sense of guilt in me. If this was so idyllic, why was everyone so dissatisfied?
Early in our marriage, we had lived in a gently run-down brownstone house in the heart of Philadelphia near Jefferson Medical University. Walking was the most efficient method of getting about. The park near our house was full of university students, business people on their lunch breaks, and young mothers pushing baby carriages. There were bookstores and coffee shops, and, contrary to what people say about city folks, my neighbors were friendly. I guess I am essentially an urban spirit. I love the excitement of city life. I had been declared an insomniac by my husband, yet in Paris, where we stayed in a hotel in one of the noisiest parts of the city near the Champs-Élysées, I would open the window and go to sleep to the lullaby of roaring traffic that never lets up.
On my birthday in 1980, we moved to the beach; our neighbors on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard were a cross section of all kinds of people: old people who had lived there for forty-five years, young singles, people with children, career women. The day we settled in there, I already felt better. The streets were full of joggers, cyclists, and, yes, tourists going for a stroll. You could actually walk to the post office or to the neighborhood store to buy a carton of milk. That first summer, I talked to more strangers on the cliffs across from our house, many of whom were foreigners visiting California, than I had all those years in La Mesa.
Is this a happy ending? Yes and no. Andy enrolled as a student at SDSU upon graduating from Point Loma High School and made a clean break with drugs when he joined the University cycling team. He is also a very talented artist, living near the campus. Unfortunately, I could not save my marriage. I am since then remarried — happily, I should say. Andy is learning to become friends with his father, although I wish it weren’t at my expense. The consequent silence between us is possibly two-sided; what I’ve experienced as an unnatural rift between us is most likely a period of renewal for him. When the time is right, he will know where to find me, I am sure of it.
Before I left for Monterey last spring, I took a drive out to the old neighborhood. The hillsides, which later on in the summer burn to a terra cotta brown, were still green. The eucalyptus trees gave off a pristine yet intoxicating fragrance; the avocado trees were in their prime, covering the ground in front of the circular driveway like green cupolas. The acacias lining the left side up to the pool level were in full bloom, the magnolias on the uppermost terrace serving as a natural fence on the north side were in bloom, as were the almond and plum trees. I did not recognize the family name on the mailbox; the people who bought the house from us must have sold it since then. Many of the families who lived there when we did have been split by divorce and another set of families has moved in. Nothing much had changed, really, except that the street that I remember teeming with children was deserted. But it could be that school had not let out yet. As I sat in my car on the street at the bottom of my former driveway, wondering if someone would come by whom I’d recognize, I experienced the taste of salty tears in the back of my throat. It passed quickly, and no one came by. Yes, the place was beautiful, but my husband and I have already decided that we will live in Hillcrest or Kensington when we return to San Diego this fall. — Susanne Kimball