Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Home Again, Gone Again," Ch. 7 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

“There’s Oma,” I told Randy as we made our way through customs. Our landlady in Germany had established “Oma” as my mother’s title. It stuck. To this day, it is what she is called by everyone in the family.

Randy was being his normal hyper self – pushing and pulling at me and generally being a noisy nuisance. The customs guy at Kennedy International Airport waved us through with hardly a peek. We fought our way to my waiting parents and celebrated. We couldn’t have been happier… or more excited. We would be a family again, at least for a while. Ash was due back in a few days, and we planned to stay with my parents until Ash headed back to school in January. We would be together for Christmas (a really big deal), and only a four-hour ride from home after that.

Ash found us a decent apartment in Endicott about fifteen minutes away from his alma mater, Harpur College (in Binghamton, New York), where he had been readmitted. We furnished it with everybody’s leftovers: Gram’s bed and dresser, Mom and Dad’s kitchen table and chairs, an old couch from someone’s basement. I don’t remember where it all came from, but we had a four-horse trailer crammed full of stuff when we moved in. A four-horse trailer is big; it holds a lot, and we lacked for little. Connie even gave us some of her paintings on burlap. Décor even.

We didn’t have much money, but we decided to have another baby as soon as possible. (Randy was almost three, and we didn’t want to have our kids too far apart.) So, we lived on Spam and eggs and the care packages we brought back from our weekends at home. We managed, but not without a lot of help from Gram and my parents. They were just as anxious to keep our future on track as we were.

Beth was born on December 17th, 1966, in Endicott. She was beautiful… and calm. These two kids couldn’t have been more different. Both were physically precocious (Randy walked – yes, walked, unaided at seven months, one week and Beth at 8 ½ months), but their temperaments were miles apart – from day one. I will allow that some differences are caused by environmental influences, but not these differences in temperament. Granted, I was an experienced mother – an adult, if you will, by the time Beth was born, but excepting the first two weeks or so after Rand’s birth (when I was a lost soul), he was just as thoroughly adored as Beth had been from the start. I didn’t think I’d had enough time to influence, let alone create, such extreme differences in attitude and behaviors.

At that time, the blank-slate theory was fully accepted; the nature/nurture debate had not begun… at least not to my knowledge. My conclusions were based on my personal observations, and Randy had provided many “off the charts” moments. Luckily, I didn’t know how “off the charts” he was at the time, because I didn’t know that many kids until Beth and some friends’ children showed me the normal model. Ashley’s Aunt Trudy (a pediatric nurse) had alluded to his rather extreme behavioral tendencies when she learned I was pregnant with Beth. She had said, “I didn’t think you’d be brave enough to have another baby after having Randy.” But, at the time, it didn’t register, I guess.

As I’ve said before, “normal” is what you’re used to… and I was used to Randy. I was used to his leaving broken lamps and dishes and knick-knacks in his wake. I was used to finding him on top of the refrigerator and making pancakes in the middle of the kitchen floor (with all the correct ingredients), and darting out in front of cars, and having screaming fits when I tried to distract him from his mission or remove him from danger. I simply didn’t know any better. He was Randy.

I know much of this sounds sort of normal, but these weren’t sometimes happenings; they were all-the-time happenings – and done six months or a year before average kids did them. I can remember beating my head against the wall to keep myself from losing it. What made him so difficult, I think, was the gap between his cognitive and physical abilities. According to Dr. Spock, who wrote the baby raising Bible of the era, Rand was only slightly above average in cognitive development, but way beyond average in physical accomplishments and co-ordination. The doctor’s charts didn’t measure “quickness,” but this kid could (and did) change directions in a flash. Everything he did was in fast-forward. He didn’t walk; he ran. He didn’t pick up something; he grabbed it. He didn’t put something down; he threw it across the room. This combination of behavioral tendencies – reckless abandon and unmitigated determination – put him in danger all the time. Randy climbed out of his crib before most kids could stand, but didn’t have anywhere near enough sense at the time to be careful. In the early days, keeping him alive was my only priority.

After a day of observing Randy (and my child-rearing practices with him) Trudy said, “He is one lucky kid having you for a mother. Anybody else might have killed him.” Ah, sweet confirmation from an experienced critic.

Beth was very easy by comparison. What a delight! She just rolled with the punches, cuddled (something Rand seldom did for more than a brief moment), and smiled, and smiled and smiled. She liked Randy despite all the grief he caused her. He’d steal her toy and she’d just go get another. Their adorable big-brother/ little-sister relationship didn’t last forever, but when they were about one and four, it was great. She was barely walking when Rand started dressing her up in a towel-cape to play Robin to his Batman. Beth, of course didn’t really understand her role, but she was game. I’d hear Batman yell, “Robin, get out of the garbage.” (one of her favorite places to explore at the time). She would obey and toddle off after him, and I’d put up the garbage.

I was immersed in motherhood and did little else. I still had no transportation or money or friends. I read a lot, but most of my time was spent marveling at the differences between these two kids. What I observed sent me on a life-long investigation of “why people act the way they do.” The more I read the popular child-rearing “experts,” the more I thought they were wrong. They blamed Mommy for everything from autism to zealotry -without any scientific evidence. It all seemed logical, but to me, most was pure conjecture. Few of their proclamations and little of their “advice” aligned with my personal observations.

Ash graduated from Harpur and we moved to Port Jervis, where he had gotten a job as a chemist in research and development at a cosmetics factory. We rented a nice brick house with an acre of land, installed our battered old furniture, got a horse and a dog and had a beautifully restored, 1952 Aston Martin in the driveway. We certainly presented as Yuppies. (I don’t know if “Yuppy” was a popular term yet, or not, but though we weren’t in an urban setting, we still appeared to fit the other criteria – a young, up and coming professional family.) NOT!

Ash cannot be considered a “typical” anything! And, by association, neither can I. I could easily have fit into a Yuppy culture, if I’d married a Yuppy-type guy. I could have gone in any direction and found a niche, I think. I’m just that kind of person. In fact, I often played the “what if” game – considering what my life might have been as Mrs. Whoever. It’s a fun game and shows how dramatically one’s choices can affect one’s future. Just as surely as Uncle Donald’s illness both limited and prescribed my Grandmother’s choices, Ashley’s atypical personality limited and prescribed mine – not absolutely, but critically. This is true for most people, I think.

Ashley’s getting an Aston Martin had nothing to do with “image” creation. He didn’t care then, and he doesn’t care now, what others think. His was a practical choice. The Triumph was too small for our family, and he found a good car he could make better. When he bought it for four hundred dollars (a new Chevy cost around $2400, then), it didn’t run, needed to be painted, and needed the seats recovered.

He did it all himself, with a little help from his motor-head friends. We used it as our only vehicle for a few years, and he was offered ten thousand for it a few years after that. We still have it in the barn, though – it’s his baby. We’ve never had a new car, and he’s always managed to trade up because he bought worthwhile wrecks and fixed them. Now that I think about it, we’ve never bought a NEW, mechanical anything. He’s always accumulated other people’s junk, and fixed the ailing components – often on the kitchen table. He could fix damn near anything before the computer age, so we never lacked for useful stuff – just “nice” stuff, excepting the cars he drove.

We lived very cheaply, with no pretenses. The lifestyle he was creating for us was not exactly what I’d pictured. I had pictured and hoped for a lifestyle of the Pat and Si variety, his brother and sister-in-law with the “perfect” house and kids, but that was not the direction we seemed to be heading.

Ashley was not a “family man.” In his mind, kids were clearly “woman’s work.” In the mid-to-late sixties, that was the cultural norm; men were the bread-winners, the car-fixers, and the lawn-mowers, and women took care of everything else. The traditional roles were beginning to change, but he was a real hard-ass about tradition, and I was a malleable subject. Few of the dynamics I saw in other marriages existed in ours. Other couples displayed a lot more give-and-take than we did. I had to adjust my wants and needs to suit his MUCH more often than he ever deigned to adjust his to suit mine. Now, I suppose, that’s one of those “eye of the beholder” things, but I have the consensus on my side. Everyone wondered how I put up with his idiosyncrasies. In other words, people noticed that he was different from most. They didn’t dislike him or think he was bad; they just scratched their heads a lot – at both of us, I think.

For example, Ashley had offered to truck a horse that our friend, Connie, wanted to buy. We drove four hours to her farm and followed her to the current owner’s place. Ashley examined the horse, discussed its shortcomings, and told Con she shouldn’t get it. Connie wanted it anyway. He promptly refused to truck it. Who does that? He wasn’t angry; he simply would not be a party to her making a bad deal. That’s how he operates – with anyone, about anything. There are hundreds of such stories. He’ll help any “needy” person, but only if he deems their project worthy of his help. If they are about to make what, in his mind, is a mistake (use the wrong building material, hire the wrong contractor, spend more money than they should, or do something he considers frivolous), he tells them whether he’s asked, or not. Neither is his advice always offered as a suggestion; he will just as often call the advisee an “asshole.”

I need to add a disclaimer here. I mentioned the horse-trucking event to Ash, Con, and Dick and none of them remembered it. Ash said it must have been a dream. So, take it as the truth or a dream. All I can assure is that the story (true or not) is representative of the Ashley I’ve lived with for over fifty years.

Spock was my favorite character in Star Trek; Ashley is my Spock – all opinions are arrived at logically, with little regard to touchy, feely considerations. I guess I got what I wanted, but man, is it hard to live with!

I think our choices at any given time and place are driven much more by our current circumstances than anything else. I learned to upholster furniture because Ashley wouldn’t buy a new couch. To wonder why he said “no” or why I decided to reupholster it myself is not particularly relevant.

Yet, in the late sixties, everybody who could afford it was searching for deeper, hidden meanings for ordinary choices. The days of the advice-mongers had arrived.

Ashley had a tough childhood: the early death of his mother, the entrance of the “evil” stepmother and two younger half-brothers, an aging and mostly absent father, and a dwindling supply of money. His defenders explained his eccentricities by alluding to his childhood. “He’s so frugal because he never had anything,” they’d say. It’s easy to look back and explain just about anything.

Whether such explanations are correct or not is irrelevant. So what! To my mind, there are far too many genetic, cultural, practical, and “of-the-moment” influences on any choice for even the best “expert” to predict what any momentary choice will be. So why bother? There is no legitimate excuse for bad behavior, no matter how deprived or even abused a person might have been.

As brother-in-law Dan once said, “It doesn’t matter why your tire went flat; you just have to fix it.” Likewise, it doesn’t matter why Ash is the way he is; I just had to learn to deal with it, if I chose to stay with him. And I did. 


We are serializing Judy Axtell's memoir, which I edited, now available from etc. and the publisher,
Outskirts Press.

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