Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tammy, Part 4

I don't know what posessed me to call the 700 Club of all things. I'd watch it sometimes, late at night if no one else was up. I'd go into the den and smack the TV so the volume wouldn't shoot up and I'd watch the religious fanatics on television, with their unmoving helmets of hair, praying for people and promising to solve all of their problems through their direct line to Jesus. I was eleven. I was confused. I had come from a home where everything was strict, rigid, ordered and planned. Every second of my life had been controlled right down to the littlest detail. I had been sheltered from everything that could have possibly corrupted me and I was disciplined with the expectation that I should grow up to be equally as rigid, closed and self-righteous. I lived every second of my life in fear of punishment. Then suddenly, that life was all gone and I was instantly dropped into a life that was, in every way, the exact opposite. With my mother, not much mattered. There was no church, no piano lessons, no expectations of what I would be when I grew up. We had no schedules or plans and no one controlled me. I could make my own decisions. If I wanted something to eat I could go get it. If I didn't want dinner I could go watch TV. On TV, I could watch whatever I wanted and no one cared. If I wanted to run naked, I could. If I wanted to ride my bike all day long, my mother didn't think twice about it. Ice cream for breakfast wasn't a problem. If I had wanted to wear makeup to school I could have. Morals weren't such absolute black and whites. There exceptions, grey areas and as a child, coming from a life where I had known no compromises with wrongs and rights and where exceptions were never made, I didn't understand the concept that sometimes you had to do what you had to do to get by. This was simply incomprehensible. It is something that I still struggle with as an adult, though I find the older I get and oddly, the more educated I become, the better I am at dealing with nuance. Still, I can be a very rigid and uncompromising person sometimes and I think this is what my mother meant when she said I was just like my father. As a child with no concept of flexibility, who saw her father as mean, I thought when my mother said that I was like my father that she meant I was mean.

My father traumatized me. Moving suddenly between two, polar opposite households was jarring, confusing and also traumatizing for me. At eleven years old, I was unbelievably fucked up. My mother knew I was fucked up. At the same time, she was, in her own way, also traumatized. She had spent the past decade dealing with the loss of her only child to a cruel lunatic. She sold drugs to pay for lawyers. She lost her fertility, so I was her only chance to have a child and she needed to get me back. She got busted. She went to jail. She remarried. She dealt with addiction, poverty, her own parents' divorce, her father starting a new family in his late 50s with a girl who was 19 who left him with two babies. My mother had panic attacks. She had no education, no skills and a lot of big dreams. She was determined to create a family and she would do anything she had to do to make it work. At the time she finally got me back and I finally came to live with her in New York, my mother wasn't even thirty years old. She was impossibly young to have gone through so much. She was resentful and mistrusting of authority and systems because they had done nothing but screw her over in the past.

At eleven years old, I didn't know or understand any of this.

I had grown up with my biological father drilling into my head that my mother was a criminal, that my stepfather was in the mafia and that they were both going to hell. He told me they were evil people. He said if I went to live with them I would be evil too, that their friends who were drug lords and mafia henchmen would kidnap me and hold me for ransom. He said I would be murdered and that no one would take care of me and I would grow up to live on the streets if I survived. None of this was true. My parents hadn't sold drugs or done drugs in years. They wouldn't even drink wine with dinner and both of them were committed to sobriety and to creating some semblance of a family life the best they could. No one was in the mafia. While they did often hang around some colorful characters, there was never any violence and the only danger was that sometimes my parents, in their naivete and desire to become fabulously wealthy, would trust people with their money that they shouldn't have. (Like the Hungarian, but that is another story.)

At eleven years old, I didn't understand this either and when Tammy lumbered into our lives, shattering my dreams of bread baking with Prairie Dawn, I thought maybe my biological father had been right and I was going to hell after all. I thought that my mother saw nothing wrong with Tammy.

The truth was that when my parents saw Tammy, all hulking six foot something of her, with her zebra leggings, lugging her garbage bags off of that train, that they were just as horrified as I was. They realized there had been a terrible misunderstanding. They knew Tammy was going to be trouble, but they felt like they were stuck. In a depserate situation, with money quickly dwindling, they didn't have another option. They had to trust the Hungarian and be there when he demanded because he was going to make them rich. They didn't know anyone else in the area to stay with me for the odd hours that they would have to be away. Tammy was not ideal. She was not what they had in mind, but she had come all the way from Utah and had nowhere to go. Thus, an odd dependence was born between my parents and Tammy. She needed them as much as they needed her and best of all, they didn't have to pay her as long as they fed her and gave her a place to live. It was only going to be for a very short time anyway. They didn't see the deal with the Hungarian as something that would take very long. Tammy was a brief sacrifice that we'd have to make until the money came in, they could get rid of her and we could move into a mansion and live happily ever after.

My mother has always been far more optimistic and understanding of people than I have. She empathized with Tammy. She too had a child stolen from her. She knew what it was like to be dumb and young and desperate and she wanted to give Tammy a chance because no one had given her a chance. And everyone deserves a chance. She allowed Tammy to shoplift because we didn't have the money to buy her clothes and God knows we were all sick of having to see her in those zebra leggings with her gut hanging out of that cut off tee shirt. Plus, it really was getting cold and you can't let someone freeze in the winter because there's no money to buy warm clothes. Tammy shoplifted necessities, not luxuries. She didn't even have a pair of shoes.

At eleven years old, I didn't understand any of this.

Stealing was wrong, period. Tammy was crude and ugly, period. My parents appeared to side with Tammy over me, period. I was definitely going to hell for lying about my school being flooded and I didn't see any way out of the situation. So I called the 700 Club.

I had memorized the number. I felt like if I called the 700 Club that God would see that I had made an effort to repent for lying to get out of school. Maybe then he'd get rid of Tammy for me. Maybe, if I called the 700 Club, one of those people with that perfect hair would talk to me and be nice to me and side with me. A sweet voiced woman with a thick southern accent answered the prayer line. I pictured her with piles of hot rolled, platinum hair like Dolly Parton, as I told her my whole, long dramatic tale and we prayed fervently together. When the call ended, I felt renewed. God was on my side again.

That was, until the 700 Club called back to talk to my parents. I heard my mother through the door.

"She did what?"

"She told you who? Oh really. She did? Oh she said that, did she?? I see."

"And she told you how she lied about school? Mmm Hmm."

"You want to pray with me? Well let me tell you something..."

When my parents called me out of my bedroom I knew for sure that they were going to beat the living hell out of me. I knew I was in some serious trouble. If I had done something like this with my father and stepmother I wouldn't have seen the light of day for a year, but with these two, I had no idea what they would do.

"So you called the 700 Club on us?" my mother asked, "Have you lost your mind?"

I got a long lecture. It was not pleasant. By the end I was a blubbering, hysterical wreck and then my parents did exactly what parents should do. They didn't beat the hell out of me. They also didn't blow the whole thing off and let me get away with it. They punished me. I was grounded for six weeks. I couldn't use the phone or watch TV and the only way that I could get off was to get on the honor roll at school.

Strangely enough, my punishment relieved me. I could only imagine two extremes. Either I was going to get beaten or no one was going to do anything at all, which would have meant that I didn't matter and that no one cared, but when they had to, my parents actually came up with a fitting punishment which wasn't cruel and which made sense. The fact that they did that, while I couldn't articulate this at the time, made me trust them. It proved to me that although they were both extremely inexperienced at parenting, that when it was truly important and when it really mattered that they could act in my best interest.

The next day Tammy made the peanutbutter cookies. She stopped walking to the bar at night and stayed home. I still tried to avoid her as best as I could, but at least she was making an effort.

Back then, I didn't think my mother believed me about Tammy. The thing was, she had had a nagging unease about leaving me alone with her all along. The night after my punishment was handed down, after I'd gone to bed, my mother called my grandfather, her father, and asked him to come up and stay with us for a while. It would be in his best interest, because there was a lot of work for him in New York. He could make some good money in New York and get out of the slow economy of Millpond for a while. My grandfather thought about it and agreed. At the time, he was in his own desperate situation and this would be a good solution for him as well.

The next weekend my grandfather packed his three year old daughter into his rust colored pick-up, loaded to overflowing with fifty pound bags of russet potatoes,and headed north.

When he arrived, Tammy fell in love at first sight.

To be continued...


Jeannie said...

Parents just have no clue how a child will understand the ways of the world. We all interpret what we see to have it make sense to us. If parents can't or don't explain, kids can really get some twisted ideas through no fault of their own. Sometimes when we grow up we can laugh at our misconceptions but unfortunately, we sometimes don't even realize why we are confused.

MtnMama said...

I love how you have the ability to both remember how you saw it at the time, and analyze it from your perspective now. That makes it more meaningful, to me, than just relating the events.

Dayna said...

OMG........Tammy, Part 5!

Anonymous said...

I am totally hooked on the Tammy Chronicles.

Anonymous said...

I'm hooked, too. This is fantastic. I haven't been on the edge of my seat like this since The Salt Shaker stories.

You have a gift of story telling, girl.


sixmaybemore said...

I can't wait to hear what happens/happened next!

Manda said...

WOW! It is truly amazing that what we don't understand when we are younger we can get the meaning when we are older. I am completely addicted to you and your writing... I just can't wait for more!

Terminal Degree said...

I love your stories and anxiously await each installment. Thanks for sharing your storytelling gift!

Anonymous said...

I often wonder how you would have turned out if you had had the perfect childhood, never changed schools, a two parent household from birth, etc. Any thoughts about that scenario? You still seem somewhat bruised from the things you experienced as a child.

Maria said...

Oh my! The Tammy series just keeps getting better and better.

S. said...

I'm either really sensitive this week, or you're an incredible writer because you had me tearing up during this one.

Jennie said...

Is this leading where I think it Tammie really now your grandmother? Oh my oh my oh my...i can't wait for more!

Shannon Culver said...

Please hurry on the next installment! I hope you're finger is healed, and you can type fast again. This is killing me!

By the way, much of your childhood reminds me of, "A girl called Zippy" by Haven Kimmel. She also had an interesting childhood, and had the gift of remembering what she thought and felt at the time much like you do with Tammy. Its a good book. Your writing is just as good - if not better. Love this stuff!

Christi Lee said...

@ Shannon:

OMG! I loved those books ""A girl called Zippy" and "She got up off the couch". Yes, WL tells her stories the same way. We fall in love ( you know what I mean) with all the people she writes about, even if they do not deserve it.

WL. Thank you. This Tammy lady...

Missicat said...

I am amazed at what you remember from your childhood...I think I have blocked some stuff out.
More Tammy! More Tammy!

JoeinVegas said...

Oh - two cliff hangers today - Tammy and Grandpa and then the Hungarian -

Anonymous said...

This is real. This happened to you,
and although I see dysfunction (definitely was in my childhood
so much that I can empathize with
all of this)
your writing is captivating.

Still, I feel sad for that young
girl who phoned the PTL club.

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