As usual, Jody and I were quiet on our ritualistic ride in to Readville, each of us getting ourselves mentally prepared for the gloomy visit to the “loony bin,” as we called Gert’s place. It was during these rides that it would take Jody all she could do to resist bringing up to me all of the things that were wrong with my mother and the rest of my family, and telling me what I “really should do about it!” I knew she was puzzled at what I fully understood was my hypersensitivity at being pressed to discuss potential courses of action to address the dysfunctional dynamics that surrounded my family. A lifelong dysfunction that had led to my mother’s essential estrangement from all but three of her eight children, diluting the pool of possible support that could have helped manage her, and to a time now where I now found myself as the de facto ringmaster in the gloomy circus that had become her life.
“You really need to start checking out assisted living for her Mike, you know that don’t you?” Jody said for the countless time.
“YES, I know, I know. I will!” I said, thinking here we go again.
“And what’s wrong with your sister, she lives two miles away, and here we are, yet again, coughing up another Saturday and a tank of gas. For what? All for some ungrateful old lady who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself?”
I knew Jody didn’t get how I could truly have any sense of obligation any more. Hell, I couldn’t completely explain it myself, and I started to tell her why it wasn’t just me but also really somewhat my father’s fault that I dragged her on these trips in to Readville every couple of weeks, but I just sat there glum, glancing out of the passenger side window as we sped by the old Polaroid factory on Route 128, nearing Waltham. It wasn’t easy being “Mighty Mike” but for whatever the reasons were I soldiered on.
“Look, it is what it is, okay?” I said breaking the silence. “Ma burned that bridge with Judy years ago, and even if my sister rebuilt it, the old bitty wouldn’t know how to or even want to cross it okay? Let’s just let it go, alright?”
“You’re right, I’m sorry, I just get so frustrated with…”
“I KNOW, I know, “your family.”
“Sorry. I won’t bring it up again!” Jody said.
“Yes you will,” I smiled.
“You’re right!” she said, both of us laughing at finding ourselves repeating our own silly and predictable dialogue that we exchanged every other Saturday.
I struggled inside and more than even Jody knew with my powerlessness to change my mother, the past, or whatever it would take to help make all of the maddening neurosis, bitterness, resentment, estrangements and all of the other crap that was stuffed under the big top of my family’s circus magically harmonious. Why did I even want to try? I felt just as a friend did who once described to me how trying to “fix” her family was like “moving furniture around the deck of the Titanic.”
Why did I always feel compelled to try to fix things, especially when those people needing the fixing weren’t really all that interested in trying to do that themselves? In the military things were so much easier. You set a shared objective, developed a strategy, and executed an action plan to get things changed. Try as I might, I just couldn’t muster any master plan to fix the lifelong conflicts and distress that had always gone on in my family but I couldn’t allow myself to just walk away either.
“Look,” I said. “Like we always say, and the docs agree, for our own sanity we have to think of her as mentally ill, that’s all, and what matters most is not how horrific she acts, or how bad she tries to make us or anyone feel, but how we focus on controlling our reactions to her. Not let her craziness to get into our heads and our lives.”
“That’s right, that’s right, we can’t do that,” she said nodding her head in agreement, both of us knowing we’d already allowed both of those things to happen and all too often. “Seems like the only time we get tense with each other is….”
“I know, when it comes to my family,” I said with a sigh finishing her sentence.
Jody pulled onto the exit ramp at Route 1 in Dedham, and we took the back road that wrapped around Legacy Place and down past the luxury condos where the Hersey Meter factory where Dad had worked some thirty plus years ago once stood, and now shared property with some newly constructed senior housing. Then it was through Oakdale Square and down the steep hill through the “four corners” intersection where we crossed over the Boston-Dedham line and into Readville to complete our mission.
Readville is part of the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston where I graduated high school and made a few million memories playing hockey on the frozen reedy ponds near the Fairview Cemetery. It had been called Dedham Low Plains from 1655 until it was renamed in 1847 after a Mr. James Read, a resident and cotton mill owner, and it was part of Dedham until 1867. It’s bordered by the Town of Milton to the south and the Town of Dedham to the west.
Not many people knew it, but it was home to Camp Meigs during the American Civil War, a training camp for Union soldiers, including those of the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry, portrayed in the film Glory. In the early part of the 20th century, a pretty well-known harness racing facility called “Readville Trotting Park” was located there too. That property later became a huge Stop & Shop warehouse and distribution center where we played street hockey in the parking lot, running back and forth chasing an orange plastic ball for hours on Sunday mornings. Now it’s just a big warehouse property.
Jody took the right turn now off of River Street onto Ernest Avenue, then the first left onto bumpy Sanford Street, and we were there. Jody put the car into park, cut the engine, and popped the trunk from the inside so we could begin trudging up the walk with the groceries. As I lifted myself out of the bucket seat with yet another sigh, I glanced at the living room window of Ma’s blue, split-level ranch house and could just about make out what appeared to be the silhouette of Gollum, from The Lord of the Rings movie, peeking out at us as my mother stood stooped, just out of full sight, in the shadow of the sheer drape that had been pulled aside by the bony fingers of her gnarled hand.
End of Chapter 1