Books and Writings
WE SHOULD HAVE WAVED
a novel by Ray Salo
Chapter 1 – Prologue
Sometimes in the early morning, while in that zone between sleep and awake, Stephen Maki saw images of key moments in his life. And as the tapes played, he would wonder why it was that he and his twin sister, Marie, were born to live in such a childhood of pain.
It would take him many years to realize it was because his father was an alcoholic and his mother was emotionally unstable, and they never should have married, but they did. So Stephen and Marie shared their name and their household, and the pervading sense that something fundamental was out of kilter.
There were good qualities in each parent, and there were periods of time, lasting up to a week, when there was calm in the house and everyone seemed part of a well-adjusted family. But these periods never lasted – there was too much underlying hostility – and the absence of affection left a wound in Stephen’s heart that no infusion of love in later life could ever heal. When a child comes from a damaged family the child is always damaged. It’s as simple as that. The challenge for the child is to strive, growing up, to become as close to normal as possible.
A high school English teacher had recommended Stephen read an essay by Edmund Wilson about Achilles, which detailed how the Greek hero’s greatest weakness, his heel, was also the source of his greatest strength. It was an inspiring tale and Stephen wanted to believe that this could happen to him, too. Maybe balance the scales and give life a sense of promise.
On the morning he was to depart for college, Stephen turned over in bed and felt the memory tapes begin to play. Rather than try to suppress them, he let them play. Maybe on this important day he would learn something about life that would help him.
When Stephen was a small boy his father kept him at a distance except when he wanted Stephen to comb his hair. The sessions began when Stephen was in the first grade and his arms were just long enough, standing at the side of the living room chair, to reach his father’s head. Stephen adored being close to his father in this way. He loved the smell of his pipe and he loved being near his father’s strong shoulders and chest. But no matter how carefully he combed his father’s hair, his efforts were never good enough. “Go faster, go slower, you’ve already done that part,” were the common messages.
Every time he combed his hair, and it happened several times per week, Stephen longed to hear him say that he had done a good job. But the words were never spoken.
When he was dismissed, Stephen would wash his hands and face and put on his pajamas and go to bed on the cot in the alcove just off the living room (Marie was given the bedroom at his father’s insistence because she was the girl). His mother would come in and kiss him goodnight and sometimes sit with him for a minute or two. Most of the time she seemed sad and preoccupied and although she talked to him, she seemed elsewhere in her thoughts. Stephen would lie there physically separated from his parents in the living room by only a thin drape that kept out most of the light, but emotionally separated by a thick glacier of ice that he could not comprehend.
Sometimes he would hear his parents speaking in measured tones, as if each were being careful not to say the wrong thing. But more often there would be total silence, and Stephen would deduce that they must have had a fight earlier in the day and were not talking to one another.
One night, lying in bed, he heard music from the radio in the living room. An Irish tenor was singing, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” The wistful air of the song touched something in Stephen’s soul and his eyes filled with tears because the words were so caring and loving and unselfish. If only his father could feel that way about his mother! But he never acted that way, and she never acted that way. The sadness of his parents’ marriage made his heart ache. Stephen hoped that when he got older, he would meet someone like Kathleen.
Another image of childhood came to Stephen, lying in bed on that morning before college. His father was sitting at the kitchen table, methodically drinking himself into a drunken stupor. He was imbibing the favorite concoction of the blue-collar worker, a boilermaker, a shot of whiskey and a beer chaser. His father told him he liked them because they worked fast.
It was a Saturday night and Stephen’s mother had taken Marie to a movie for girls. Stephen didn’t mind staying home because he was reading his first Hardy Boys mystery novel called The House on the Cliff. He loved the book and just before getting ready for bed he wanted very much to share the story with his dad. But he held back because he knew that by now, he would be well into his weekend bender.
So, Stephen put on his pajamas and decided to go quickly to the kitchen for a glass of milk before retiring. It was a big mistake. His father grabbed him by the arm as he was leaving the room and forced him to sit down at the table across from him.
Stephen had never seen his father this drunk and it scared him.
“You know, boy,” he slurred, “I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but you are damn lucky to be alive.”
Stephen’s heart sank. He wanted to run from the room but he knew that if he did his father would chase him and hit him.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this...” his father repeated drunkenly. “Aw, fuck it! You have a right to know. You and Marie were not born early, as your mother likes to tell everyone, and I do mean everyone, who will listen to her bullshit. What a crock! I get so sick of her self-serving web of lies. The truth is that your mother got pregnant two months before we got hitched. I never would have married her otherwise.”
Stephen started to get up from his chair and his father seized him with both hands and pushed him back down. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said. “You little mama’s boy. She spoils you rotten and it makes me want to throw up. Jesus Christ – when you and Marie were one year old, she left me for three days and took you and left Marie behind. No wonder I favor Marie.”
Stephen sat speechless and numb.
“So, after she finds out that she is PG what does she do? She tells me not to worry and asks me to give her my last one hundred dollars and she goes on a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis to find an abortion doctor a friend of hers told her about. But she couldn’t find the fucking doctor! So, she comes crawling back to Duluth and we had to get married.”
His father’s eyes filled with tears and his voice broke as he brushed them away angrily. “I was only twenty-two and felt trapped. Trapped! But I did the honorable thing; I married the lying bitch.”
Stephen was stunned and shaken. “Dad, please stop,” he said.
“Here’s the real kicker, boy,” his father continued. “She told me when we were just fooling around that she could never get pregnant. Had some type of blockage in her tubes. And I, like a total fool, believed her. Damn it, she got pregnant! And I married her, even after she tried like hell to end the pregnancy. Don’t that take the silver-plated piss pot?”
Stephen, ten years old, began to cry. His whole body shook. He had never felt such grief. “Why are you telling me this?” he sobbed.
His father continued to slam down boilermakers during his rant and now was even drunker. His eyes were full of hatred. “Why am I telling you? God damn it, boy, listen to me! I’m telling you because you have a right to know the truth. That rotten bitch lied to me,” he repeated. “She swore she could never get pregnant, and I believed her, and it ruined my life.”
Angrily he seized Stephen’s arm, jerking him forward and hurting him. “Listen, boy,” he breathed into Stephen’s face with his rank breath, spraying spittle. “Never trust a woman. Remember that pearl of wisdom from your old man for the rest of her life. I trusted a woman and look where it got me – saddled with twins, right in the heart of the fucking Great Depression.”
His father released his hold and Stephen edged away. He fought back the tears. “I don’t want to listen to you, Dad, when you’ve been drinking. Mom warned me about that.”
His father stood up and slapped Stephen hard across the face, knocking him down and then roughly lifting him to his feet. Stephen saw stars and was fearful for his life.
“Your mom,” he said with a sarcastic tone. “Your sweet innocent mom. The same innocent mom who did everything she could to prevent your birth.”
His eyes grew teary as he experienced the abrupt mood swing of the full-blown alcoholic. “Now, after all the shit I’ve been through,” he whined, “she tries to turn my only son against me.”
His mood swung violently again, and his voice became bitter. “Your mother! Get the fuck to bed! God damn it, you remind me of her every time I look at you. That’s why I prefer Marie. She’s the one who got my genes, not you, you little wimp.”
Stephen went to the alcove and pulled the drapes, his face throbbing from the slap, and his heart aching from the words of betrayal about his mother. He felt a deep sense of shame for having been born – and especially for having been born a twin.
Stephen carried this guilt with him for many years until one day in high school, shortly after his parents had finally divorced, he confided to Marie about that awful night.
Marie’s expression became grim and her eyes flashed. “It’s a good thing he never said that to me,” she said. “I would have gotten a knife and stabbed him in his sleep. Screw him and screw all that self-pity he wraps himself in when he drinks. What an asshole he was to say that to you!” She touched Stephen’s arm. “Remember one thing, Stephen – you had nothing to do with your birth.”
Stephen smiled gratefully, part of his childhood grief removed by her words, and part of it so deeply ingrained he knew it would never leave him. “Thanks, sis,” he said. “Sometimes you say exactly what I need to hear.”
She brushed Stephen’s cheek with her hand and gave him a loving look. “Jesus Christ, Stephen,” she said, “I’m your twin sister. I understand you.”
As the memory tapes continued to play, there came to Stephen a gentler image of his father. Stephen was in first grade, just learning to read. His mother bought him Action Comics Number One, the birth of Superman, and Stephen was enthralled with the story of the Man of Steel.
One night, gathering his courage, he approached the big chair in the living room.
“Dad,” he said, “I think I know how to spell Superman.”
His father looked up from his newspaper, smiling one of his rare smiles. “How?”
His father laughed heartily and took Stephen gently by the shoulder. “Here’s how to spell it,” he said, and did.
Stephen went to bed beaming; his father had paid attention to him.
But evenings more often consisted of being part of a family under emotional siege, where there was little conversation, and where the children were often shunted off to Marie’s bedroom to find some game to play.
On those rare occasions where the children were allowed to sit in the living room after supper, it was to listen to a dramatic radio show such as Suspense, or Lights Out, Everyone, or a comedy such as Fibber McGee and Molly, or The Great Gildersleeve, which to Stephen’s amazement often sent their father off into peals of laughter. Stephen loved to see his father happy; and he loved it during the scary shows when his mother would exclaim “oh, no” and bite her handkerchief. However, their father did not let the children talk during radio time, and they had to be very careful not to speak out and irritate him.
“While the radio is playing, you two keep your mouths shut,” he would say, “or I’ll kick your asses out of here.”
Stephen could tell that this attitude bothered their mother a lot, but it was in an arena where she chose not to do battle. She just sat there and looked unhappy.
Another image of childhood was a picture of his parents on a Sunday afternoon once or twice a month when the plan was for the family to go out to the movies. About half the time they actually did, and the experience would represent the peak of family togetherness. The other times their mother would say something to their father, in a sarcastic tone, just as they were getting ready to leave, such as: “I don’t know why we can’t go out more often, especially since you always seem to have plenty of money for cigarettes and whiskey.”
And he would gladly take the bait, calling her an “unfeeling bitch,” and storm out of the house in a rage and go to the movies alone.
He never asked Stephen and Marie if they wanted to come with him. Instead, they were automatically cast as guilty parties along with their mother, and he would glare at all three of them as he made his exit.
Then their mother would make comments about how selfish and self-centered their father was. “He deliberately picks fights on Sunday afternoon because he knows that is our movie day,” she would calmly say. “And this gives him an excuse to go alone. Well, I’m wise to him, and someday he’s going to pay for all his cruelty.”
Stephen would have understood the situation better if his mother had shouted or cried. Her cold-blooded railings scared and confused him. If she were so logical in her thinking, why didn’t she just leave him?
In the absence of going to the movies, their mother would insist on sitting down together and playing Parcheesi, normally the children’s favorite game. But the fun was out of it. They were robbed of going to the movies; more, they were robbed of one of the few events that made their family life seem normal. It left Stephen and Marie with heavy hearts, and an undefined sense of guilt. Why were their parents so unhappy? Were they the cause of it?
Another image came to Stephen of being a young boy in wartime Michigan. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the family moved there so that their father could get a job in the defense industry and avoid being drafted. The lure of good-paying production work at the bomber factory with lots of overtime prompted their mother to take on full-time employment as well, even though the children were only eight years old and often had to come home from school to an empty house.
Stephen and Marie were expected to do the daily chores of adding coal to the furnace, breaking the clinkers into small pieces with a poker, and carrying them out to the refuse bin behind the house. If the fire died while they were at school, they had to start a new one, and that sometimes took a long time and a lot of patience with paper and wood before coal could be added.
If dirty dishes were piled in the sink (which was usually the case) they were expected to wash and dry them and put them away before going out to play.
Because of working long and unpredictable hours, their parents often spent their weekends sleeping in until noon or even later. As in the case of so many wartime families, this meant that Stephen and his sister did not see much of their parents at any time during the week.
One sunny afternoon, their mother announced that there would be a special treat today for the children for all of their helping out around the house. The family was going out for dinner.
Stephen and Marie became very excited; they had never done this before. Their mother helped Marie put on her best dress – a soft blue that matched her eyes – and Stephen put on his newest shirt and a pair of dress khaki trousers that had only been worn a few times. Somehow, their mother talked their father into this outing and the children were both surprised and delighted. She was wearing a tan dress Stephen had never seen before, and her auburn hair was brushed neatly and there was a glow in her eyes. Stephen was very happy.
“We’re going to the Blue Mill,” she announced. “My friend Betty says the food is good and the prices very reasonable.”
Their father said nothing.
When they arrived at the restaurant, the children walked in with a sense of awe – everything was so clean and bright and shiny. But that positive note was quickly dispelled when their parents had an argument over where to sit. She wanted a table near the other diners but he insisted they take a booth in the corner far away from everyone else. Their mother was not happy about this but she finally let him have his way.
A young waitress came over with a warm smile. “Hi, folks,” she said, and handed each of them a menu. She winked at Stephen and he blushed; Marie giggled and their mother smiled.
“Now, you children look over the menu carefully,” their mother said, “and let us know what you would like to have.” She seemed very pleased and very much in control of the situation.
Stephen studied the menu intently. There were lots of interesting selections: hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken – even potato pancakes. This was a real adventure!
“Oh my God,” their father exclaimed, “I can’t believe these prices!”
“Now, dear,” their mother replied, keeping her voice low, “you know that eating out costs more than eating at home. But we’re both working. And saving money, too. And this is a special treat for you, for me, and for the children for being so good about helping out around the house when both of us are working.”
She smiled, but it was a troubled smile, for she sensed what was coming.
The waitress returned, winking again at the children, doing her best to contribute to the fun of a family outing. “Would you like a little more time deciding?” she asked.
Their father rose abruptly to his feet, knocking over his glass of water, and angrily repositioning the empty glass. “We’ve had all the time we need, young lady,” he said, his voice rising, “and we will never again come to this clip joint.”
The other diners were staring at him.
Their mother got up slowly from the table. The color had drained from her face and she looked like an old woman.
“My God, when will I ever learn?” she said softly. It hurt Stephen to see her standing there in her special dress.
As Stephen and Marie passed by, the waitress gave them a small smile of compassion. The children tried to fight back their tears and were unsuccessful and both began to cry. Walking out of the restaurant with all eyes upon them took forever. The family never again attempted to go out to dinner.
Another image of painful domestic strife came to Stephen in his morning reverie. It was a Sunday afternoon about a year later. At their mother’s insistence they were all going for a car ride to drop in for cake and coffee at the home of one of the men she knew from work. Again, there was the ceremony of dressing up in one’s best clothes, and again there was the pretense on the part of their mother that going out together was not a big deal but just a normal part of their life.
Their mother had been given written instructions about how to find the house, but it was winter and already getting dark when they reached the general area. All of the homes looked alike. Worse, some of the street signs were missing.
Their mother became confused and nervous. “Please, dear,” she said, “let’s just stop at one of the houses where lights are on and ask for directions. I just know that we’re very close to where we want to be.”
Their father slammed his hand against the dashboard, scaring everyone. “Are you crazy?” he shouted. “Do you actually want me to walk up to the door of a complete stranger at night? Any kind of creep could live there. I’m sure as hell not going to ask to be shot.”
“I’ll go up to the door,” their mother answered.
“Oh, no, you won’t,” he snapped back. “The kids are too young to lose a mother. I really don’t care if you know this guy from work. Or how well you know him,” he added sarcastically. “When it comes right down to it, I don’t want to meet this candy-ass male friend of yours, or his fat wife, or his retarded children.”
Their mother’s sharp tongue took over. “You are the most paranoid, anti-social son of a bitch I ever met,” she said, her voice breaking. “Besides that, you’re a coward. You never took a single risk in your life, and you never will.”
“I took a risk once,” he said sneering, “and look where it got me.”
Stephen glanced over at Marie who hid her head in the seat and began to cry silently. Both of the twins knew what their father was talking about. That they were unwanted. Stephen wished that they would have a big car accident, with lots of blood, and that only he and Marie would survive.
Another memory of wartime Michigan was when their mother came home from work and told everyone that she had taken a test and qualified to get out of assembly line work and take up mechanical drawing and drafting.
“For once, my high intelligence paid off,” she told the children in front of their father. He said nothing, not even good luck, and he didn’t look pleased.
After their mother’s promotion, which made her the major income producer in the family, their father’s life became even more isolated than before. Often, he would just read the newspaper at night and speak to no one.
Although he drank only on Friday and Saturday nights, the amount of time devoted to drinking increased and his isolation became almost total. It used to be that on Friday nights he would give Stephen his twenty-five cents weekly allowance and challenge him to play ping-pong at five cents per game. His father would use paperback novels to fashion a makeshift net across the center of the kitchen table, push back the chairs, and play ping-pong with Stephen for however long it took (usually about an hour) to win back the allowance he had just given him.
Then he would pat Stephen on the head and say, “You’ll never beat your old man,” and give back ten cents of the allowance to show what a nice guy he was.
Stephen didn’t mind the money part too much. It was a price he was willing to pay to see his father laugh and enjoy himself.
But after his mother’s promotion, Stephen was no longer invited to play games with his father. And Stephen and Marie would stay out of the kitchen on Friday and Saturday nights, while their father sat alone with his boilermakers made from cheap whiskey and cheap beer, listening to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzel sing maudlin Country and Western love songs on his small Arvin radio. He would drink steadily until about midnight, then stagger off to bed, crashing against the wall and cursing under his breath.
A few minutes later, the children would be awakened by loud arguing from their parents’ bedroom. Sometimes, they would hear their father slap their mother and then hear her crying. Stephen would try to pretend it was just a nightmare, not really happening, but it never worked.
One Sunday afternoon, a different kind of disturbance occurred. Stephen answered the door to see a short, frail man with a pasty pot-marked complexion, wearing a neon green suit (not quite a zoot suit, but close) and an orange tie. There was something about the way he stood that bothered Stephen. It was as if he belonged there; there was no sense of being a visitor.
“Tell your mother she has a guest,” he ordered Stephen in a smug voice. Stephen disliked him immensely and thought, I bet I could kick the shit out of this guy.
His mother pushed Stephen aside. “Oh, Herbie,” she intoned. “What a delightful surprise.”
“I was in the neighborhood,” he said, “and thought I would take you up on your invitation to stop by for coffee and some of your delicious cookies.”
Stephen wondered how he knew about the cookies. Did she give him some at work?
Herbie gently took her hand as he stepped inside, turning it slowly and looking at it intently. Stephen wished his father would appear and put a stop to this.
Herbie released her hand a split second before Stephen’s father entered the kitchen. The two men shook hands and Stephen was asked to leave the room.
Stephen and Marie knew all about Herbie because their mother had brought up his name in arguments with their father, listing his great talents as a draftsman, and had told the children in private that he was the only man in the world who understood her and appreciated her fine points.
Here he was, all 120 pounds of him. What is he doing here? The children were upset and wished their father would kick him out. He would be no match for their father it if ever came to a fight.
But their father did nothing. Instead, they could hear Herbie telling off-color jokes and their mother laughing loudly and saying, “Herbie, you’re too much! My stomach hurts from so much laughing!”
Not a word from their father.
Finally, Herbie left. Their mother escorted him to the door, thanking him profusely for the visit and saying that she would see him at work tomorrow.
Their father remained seated at the table, his shoulders slumped forward, staring into the bottom of his empty coffee cup. As their mother closed the door, she had an expression of such evil triumph on her face that it made Stephen shiver. What the hell was going on?
Stephen asked Marie, whose eyes were full of disbelief, if she wanted to play Monopoly. She said no, and went to her bedroom and slammed the door. Ordinarily, their mother would punish Marie for such behavior, but not this time. She was deriving too much pleasure just standing in the kitchen, basking in her glory.
Another image came to Stephen of his mother in one of her hurtful moods, and this was a particularly painful one so he tried to shrug it off and was unable to. The children were in the ninth grade and doing their homework at the kitchen table while their mother cooked supper. It was two years after the Herbie visit. The war was over and the family had left Detroit and returned to Duluth, where their father got back his old job as a purchasing agent for the United States Forest Service.
“Before your father comes home from work,” she said, “there’s something the two of you should know.”
Stephen felt fear, he didn’t like the look in her eyes.
“Your father is an adulterer,” she said. “You know that drinking buddy of his, Ricky? The only male friend he ever had? Well, my friend Gloria, who is honest as the day is long, told me she saw the two of them last weekend – when your father said he was working at the office – driving around across the bridge in Superior with a couple of cheap-looking women, laughing and kissing and putting their hands all over each other.
Stephen and Marie said nothing.
“It appears that your father is not satisfied being a family man; he has to revert back to the animal behavior he exhibited when he was still single.”
The twins were shocked that their mother would speak of this to them. What possible purpose could it serve, except to hurt them?
Their mother’s expression became wary. “But don’t either of you dare tell your dad I said anything about this. He would only beat the hell out of you and shout at me.”
Her eyes filled with tears of self-pity and her voice took on a whine. “I should have known he was sexually twisted the first time I was alone with him. He doesn’t really like women. He just uses them for selfish pleasure.”
She lifted her gaze to her stunned children, unaware of the psychological damage that she was inflicting upon them. “You kids try to lead a better life, ok? None of that cheating stuff.”
Without saying a word, both Stephen and Marie rose and left the room.
In growing up, even the religious training of the children was sullied by mixed messages. Their mother took them to Sunday school and Sunday church services on a regular basis, and Stephen responded with a sense of joy to the blended voices of the choir, the intricate musical patterns of the organ, and the changing beauty of the reflections on the stained glass windows as the late morning sunlight advanced.
When he had been very young and heard the minister read, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life...” Stephen had thought those were the names of three special angels who would always be with him and protect him from harm.
Stephen remembered a Christmas Eve where there was an early worship service for the children in the congregation and each child was called by name up to the altar and given a small box of chocolates, beautifully presented in a white box tied with red and green ribbons. Stephen felt overwhelmed; it was the nicest gift he ever received, and it made him feel loved and close to God.
But when he and Marie got home and showed their gifts to their father, he gave an ugly laugh and replied, “So that’s how the Lutheran Church hooks kids – by bribing them with candy.”
The deep pleasure of the Christmas Eve religious experience was shattered, and the candy no longer looked as pretty or tasted as good.
Stephen rose from bed, saddened by this rush of memories of his youth, but determined to try to find in college a way of life different from his parents. It came to him with a great sense of clarity that he and Marie had been subjected to the strange family patterns of a mother who wouldn’t and a father who couldn’t.
Their mother was intelligent, and when she wanted to, she could empathize beautifully with her children and offer thoughtful and loving advice. But often she simply did not want to be bothered, and was more interested in taking refuge in verbal complaints about her tragic fate in marrying a cold and selfish man.
Her moods were lightning-quick volatile. Stephen often went from hero to heel several times in the course of a day. First, she would tell him she was very proud of him for his grades and leadership in school. Then she would blow up at him over forgetting to wipe his feet and tracking mud into the house, and threaten to ship him off to reform school “where you will finally realize all the things that I did for you.”
These mood swings by his mother confused and hurt Stephen. But he loved her in spite of them because of her insistence that it was important to participate in life, not just be an observer. Stephen felt the intellectual and emotional truth of what she told him, and it made a great difference in his personality. He wanted to accomplish goals, and he knew it was ok to fail as long as you gave your best. But always try if you care about something.
For Marie, the mother-daughter relationship was much simpler. Nothing Marie did ever met her mother’s standards. Her mother’s favorite story, recited many times, was that she didn’t even know she was having twins until, during post-birth cleanup of Stephen, one of the nurses felt her womb and informed the doctor that there was another baby. And then (according to their mother) Marie tore her painfully in a breech birth, so that her bathroom functions were impaired for the rest of her life. In other words, nothing Marie could ever do would ever make up for the damage she had caused during the birthing process.
To Marie’s credit, she figured this out at an early age and just accepted it. The only time Stephen could remember her mother causing Marie to cry was during their sixth birthday. Standing in the front yard, their mother wished them happy birthday and gave Stephen a red wagon and Marie a box of white chalk. Marie burst into tears, threw the chalk on the ground, and ran into the house. Their mother finally coaxed Marie outside, and Stephen let her take the first ride on the wagon all alone. Like most children, he was acutely aware of gross injustice, especially when inflicted by a parent.
While Marie could never please her mother, Stephen could never please his father. But unlike Marie, Stephen never accepted that reality. Time after time, he tried to win his approval, his love. During all of his growing up years, his father seldom spoke to him, and when he did there was usually an element of second guessing or criticism.
To complete the family dynamic, Marie could do no wrong in her father’s eyes. And although he kept his distance from her, he shared with his daughter a profoundly different parent-child emotional bond than he had with his son. When she made a mistake, he laughed kindly. Sometimes when she wasn’t aware of it, he gave her a look of unconditional love and acceptance. Whenever Stephen witnessed this, his own sense of alienation and sorrow increased.
In trying to understand his parents, it helped Stephen to think of them the way he would examine a painting. His mother was a large canvas. She was a strange combination of beauty and despair, of clarity and disorientation. As the eye scanned the picture, one experienced a jumble of contradictory emotions. The pretty images brought joy and pleasure, so it was all the more painful to have to look at the ugly ones. She could be wonderfully warm and supportive of him, so that he could envision a life of accomplishment and happiness. But she could turn vicious in a heartbeat. It all depended upon her mood and what part of the canvas she wished to reveal to him.
When it came to understanding his father, it helped Stephen to view him as a small painting, with clearly defined patterns that crowded each other and longed for expansion. But there was no place to go. There was logic and order in the painting, but no sense of vision, no sense of reaching out to a larger reality. The images, geometrically precise, had a certain harmony, but that was all. And the frame around the painting was like the bars of a prison.
Well, today, Stephen would be leaving all that behind. He would be leaving home to go to college – a place where he would live on campus for four years and be part of a new community.
He had been awarded an academic scholarship to Carleton College in southern Minnesota, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation. He had worked all summer for the U.S. Forest Service in the huge national forest of Duluth (a job his father had gotten for him) and had sent his pay check home to his father each week to cover most of the costs of his freshman year beyond his scholarship.
As Stephen packed his bags, excited about his new life, his father said, “I still don’t understand why you have to go to that rich boy’s school. Isn’t the University of Minnesota good enough for you?”
Stephen smiled and remained silent. There was nothing to say.
It was a wonderful day, the start of a great adventure, and Stephen felt confident about the future. This was the first big step away from the sadness and confusion of his youth. As he finished packing, he prayed that the three special angels of his youth – Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy – would follow him all the days of his life.
WE SHOULD HAVE WAVED is to be continued in Fall 2020.