Friday, March 13, 2009

Sugar, Part 2

For the first eleven years of my life the custody battle between my mother and father pulled and tore at my childhood. I was like a wad of chewed gum stuck between the sole of a sneaker and a black expanse of hot asphalt. Family court governed my life, dictating where I'd be on certain weekends or summer months. For a while I enjoyed Tuesday night dinners with my mother. Then suddenly the privilege was gone. When my mother took me to get my ears pierced, I ended up on the stand like a nine year old felon, testifying that it had been my idea, not my mother's and that she hadn't coerced me into the peridot studs at all. The same thing happened when once, against my father's wishes, my mother took me to a hair salon during one of her prescribed visitations and I'd requested bangs. My father didn't approve of bangs, earrings, ice cream sundaes or my mother. By the time my stepmother became pregnant with their first child, at the beginning of my sixth grade year, my father didn't approve of me either.

In the ten years since my mother had lost custody of me, she'd worked on growing up. She married. Together, she and my stepfather tried to make a life together. They called themselves entrepreneurs. My grandparents, with eye rolls, called them dreamers and said the two of them needed to settle down and get real jobs - jobs with weekly paychecks and benefits, in offices or car dealerships, respectable places. Still, the two of them planned and fantasized, imagining ideas for new businesses and products, some of them which came to fruition and some that never quite worked out. A few ideas had even landed them temporarily in jail, which did little for my mother's case that she was a fit mother. But by the time my stepmother was pregnant, and I was in the sixth grade, lonely and starving most of the time, while Louise and my father decorated the nursery, my mother and stepfather appeared to have settled down.

They'd moved to New York, a half hour outside of the city, where they started a cosmetics company in hopes of getting in early on the new press-on nails craze. They'd made some money with a mail order business a year earlier where they imported a Romanian face cream guaranteed to erase fine lines and wrinkles.

"And it's a hundred percent all natural ingredients," my mother would say, "Look, you can even eat it."

Then she'd unscrew the lid on the glossy black container, swirl her finger into the grainy, pinkish lotion as if it were marshmallow fluff and pop a glob of Eastern European wrinkle cream in her mouth.

"Tastes great, you want some?"

I never tried it, despite the fact that it looked like frosting.

With a house and a husband and even a dog and a cat, bolstered by the popularity of "Active-Length Fancy Fingers" in french manicure, my mother felt she finally had a good shot at winning back custody. I was old enough to tell the judge that I'd had enough of life with my controlling, fanatical father and his sour new wife. My mother could afford a lawyer and maybe my father would be more willing to let me go, now that he was looking forward to a new baby that he could more easily mold to his specifications. I pictured a plain, bang-less girl, pale and bare-eared, completely free from the burdens of a sweet tooth.

Enraged upon receiving my mother's motion for custody, my father dropped me off at his parents' house, saying he'd had enough of me. I promptly came down with a stomach virus that sent me to the hospital with a 105 degree fever and kept me out of school for over two weeks. It was so bad that the pediatrician placed me on a bland diet for a month, where I could eat little more than plain cream of wheat, saltines, broth, mashed bananas and weak tea.

My father signed away his parental rights.

"I am no longer her father," he said in court the day of the hearing.

The judge tried to arrange visitation.

"I said I'm no longer her father. Why would I want visitation with a kid that isn't mine? She's a stranger to me now. She's dead to me."

"Sir, don't you think you're being a bit extreme? This child is your daughter. Her mother has already said that you're free to have as much visitation with her as you'd like with no restrictions," the judge, unfamiliar with my father's indignant rages, attempted to reason.

"I said no."

My stepmother, almost full term, patted her stomach and smiled her thin- lipped, close-mouthed smirk.

And then it was over. A few weeks after the hearing, school ended and my new parents came to pick me up, to take me home.

My grandparents helped them load my few things into the back of their Buick. I didn't have much, just two fabric suitcases in garish floral patterns and a cardboard box containing my threadbare teddy bear, greying baby blanket, Laura Ingalls books and a music box in the shape of a windmill that wheezed out "Sunrise, Sunset" when you lifted its hinged roof.

"You can take her off the bland diet," my grandmother told my mother before we left for the long drive to New York, "She's doing a lot better now."

The tract homes and abandoned farmhouses of my home town grew further apart until we drove north through bleak farmland. Monstrous irrigators perched in fields misting new corn and soybean crops and soon these gave way to strangely named highway exits (like Secaucus and Cranbury Twp),the Molly Pitcher rest area and the imposing toll booths of the congested northeast corridor.

I didn't know a lot about where I was going and I didn't care. I was glad to be leaving my hometown. New York to me, was glamour. They filmed soap operas there. New York had Broadway and fashion shows. It was on maps and on TV. People wore shirts declaring how much they loved it. New York was going to be different.

Both of my biological parents had ruined any chance for me to lead a normal life in Millpond. In a small town like that, my mother would always be a drug dealing criminal, now married to, God forbid, a Jew from a foreign country, which may have actually been a worse offense than selling some weed and pills years earlier. My father was a tyrannical, hypocritical religious zealot. Most people in town realized he was half crazy. This is not the kind of lineage that wins an eleven year old a prime spot at the popular kids’ lunch table. For my entire middle school career thus far, I had been relegated to retard-table exile, where I sat quietly, not eating, breathing through my mouth, trying to ignore the stench of Grade D institutional cooking.

But now I would live in New York where no one would know about my former father. They wouldn’t have any idea that my mother had an old criminal record. With my new name, they wouldn’t know that my stepfather hadn’t always been my father. We would look like every other normal family and I would have two parents who were actually married to each other. I could already see myself at my new school nibbling Ring Dings in the cafeteria, wearing lip gloss, laughing with the popular girls at their table.

We stopped at a Bob's Big Boy on the New Jersey Turnpike for grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. I slept for the rest of the drive until my stepfather reached over into the backseat, one hand still on the wheel, to pat my thigh.

"Wake up, we're getting ready to cross the George Washington Bridge," he said.

I sat up, brushed my bangs away from my damp forehead and blinked.

"Where are we going?"

"To the city for a surprise," my mother told me.

I glanced at the dashboard clock.

"It's almost midnight. Don't we have to go home and go to bed?"

I had never been up that late and I certainly hadn't gone anywhere for a surprise in the middle of the night. My stepfather chuckled.

"This is the city that never sleeps Sugar."

To be continued again...


Anonymous said...

Hey Honey Bunch.

I love this post, but I don't relish the pain.

It seems right now that your "father" did you a favor in disowning you, but I am certain that it didn't feel good then, nor now.

Sometimes the real stories are the best stories. So much better than fiction.

One unrelated thing. I feel that I have been wasting way too much time reading blogs on the computer. It's the perfect way to procrastinate. I told you all about the three P's some time ago.

Today I decided to just say no to blogs. Guess which one could not be deleted! :)

Wide Lawns said...

Thank you Pat. I'm glad you didn't delete this one. I mean, I personally don't consider my blog a waste of time. In fact, I think it's the perfect use of your time and doesn't count as procrastinating at all. :)

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to find out what the surprise is - I love that city! But the rest of the post makes me very sad for that little girl.

Manda said...

Hello. I am a new follower and must say that your blogs are intriguing. I believe that you have an amazing gift in your writing. I look forward to future posts.

LegalMist said...

I'm so glad your mother never gave up on you. Your father and stepmother sound like they deserved each other. I feel sorry for their baby, though.

Anonymous said...

I love it when you do these posts in series. You have a really nice, understated style that doesn't get annoying or boring.

Joy said...

Lovely post. It was a relief when I read that your "father" gave you up. I'm looking forward to the rest of the story.

Looking forward to your book on sometime too! I know it will happen.

Anonymous said...

That was heart-wrenching - what a lonely little girl you recounted...:-(

Amy said...

You are so talented and I love when you tell parts of your personal story. Very heartbreaking and endearing at the same time.

JoeinVegas said...

And you left the city that never sleeps for Florida? (eventually, many stories later)

Christi Lee said...

Maybe I am just PMSing but part one and two both made me cry. We do have a lot in common though...

every time you write about your stepmother I want to wring her neck.

I agree that it was for the best that you went with your mom, but I don't think that just because it worked out for the best, (and that you got away from that awful woman) that it makes it less painful.

All sorts of people are assholes, even parents.

I admire you greatly and I think you are awesome.

Anonymous said...

Hello There! I love this post. You and I relate a lot about our childhood. My "father" also disowned me. Greatful in the long run though. Trials like this make us better and stronger people. What I consider our "real Fathers" are the most wonderful, sweet, caring, loving and fantastic men! (Even though they aren't perfect!) Oh, and when you said "I pictured a plain, bang-less girl, pale and bare-eared, completely free from the burdens of a sweet tooth." Little bangless, pale, bare-eared (until 13) girls can be fun too you know!!!! (When they grow up anyhow) LOL I love ya! =)

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