In the hierarchy of my family, it was always my mother rather than my father who held the dominant position.  Whether this was because she was naturally the stronger of the two depends, I suppose, on what you consider strength to be made of.  That she was the more determined, the more controlling, is certainly true enough.  My father for instance would discipline his children if and only if we misbehaved; my mother's intention was always to prevent us from misbehaving in the first place.  She herself was the youngest of eight, and the only female child.  Her father is said to have been a dour and taciturn man, the sort who thought that children were best seen and not heard.  He was also frequently out of work, sometimes because a floundering economy kept him from finding any gainful employment, sometimes because of the difficulties his temper got him into (he was apparently subject to sudden, unexpected fits of rage).  His wife, by all accounts a naturally ebullient woman, was oppressed first by the grinding poverty she was forced to endure while raising eight children, and later, by the deep-seated rivalry and lifelong feuding that broke out between several of her sons.  All of which may help to explain why my own mother was so insistent that her children behave civilly, show respect to their elders, practice humility, and above all never aspire to be greater than what their inherent limitations, which she continually made certain they were aware of, would allow.  In this she was a success:  she produced a brood of offspring who longed for independence but never quite knew how to achieve it, or who, even when knowing what was needed, lacked the requisite courage to break loose from those restraints, learnt in childhood, which kept them from claiming their freedom.  Only my second eldest brother has attained the kind of life my mother once envisioned for us all.  He has married, and his marriage is a strong one.  He and his wife live in a nearby town – still close, but demonstrably on their own.  They are both successful in their chosen professions; they've built a house and are raising a family.  Of all her children, he is the one who most closely modeled his life after her own aspirations, which is why, I suspect, he has been able to manage so well.  My eldest brother, on the other hand, has tried his hand at a variety of careers, each one of which he proved himself singularly ill suited for, and ended up moving back in with my parents in a last-ditch attempt to keep financial disaster at bay.  My sister married – and divorced – three times; and as for me, I dropped out of college without ever having graduated, never moved away from my hometown, and now work as a convenience-store clerk.

My mother has always tended to act as if she believed her children were, or should be, mere extensions of herself – not just physically, but psychologically and morally as well.  It's this which has caused us the sharpest disagreements over the years, for on this matter there has always existed between us a fundamental difference of opinion.  My mother has always taken it as a personal affront when I expressed and acted upon attitudes and beliefs that differed too greatly from her own; I, on the other hand, always felt that the development of my own unique personality, whatever its inherent limitations, was one of the most important goals I could achieve.  This has led us to engage in many bitter battles.  My father was more or less content to let me find my own way; my mother insisted that in some fundamental way my path should be no more than an extension of the one she herself had chosen.  I was frequently the cause of much disappointment to her.

Her attitude – and her disappointment – is no longer hard for me to understand:  it is, after all, only an extension of the attitude society as a whole holds towards its individual members.  Society commands us to excel, to be the very best we can be – but only on condition that we don't stray too far from the beaten path.  This stricture is reasonable enough, I suppose; my problem has always been that the "beaten path" never made much sense to me.  It didn't make sense because there was too much in my nature considered unacceptable by society, too much held to be of no benefit to those who had helped to raise and support me.  They were wary of my excessive bookishness and of my penchant for solitude; they did not approve of, nor even understand, my impulse to treat self-exploration as the highest endeavor one could hope to pursue.  My homosexuality they considered subversive, hence frightening; my decision to avoid the trappings of a career they found inexplicable.  The one thing my mother successfully understood, at a subconscious level if in no other way, was how much at variance with society's norms the essential nature of my character put me.  She too did not approve of me; often I felt that she did not even particularly like me:  I disturbed her too much.  But she did attempt to protect me, from both society and myself, by trying to force me to be as "normal" in my thinking and behavior as possible.

As the years have gone by, I have learned to appreciate the heroism, if only on a minor scale, of her task; and to admire her ability, in the end, to let it go.  Eventually we were able to reach a sort of truce over our conflicting needs and desires.  This truce is similar to the one I have reached with society as a whole:  I obey its laws, flaunt no transgressions against its norms, earn my own keep and pay my own way.  All I ask in return is to be left alone, to be allowed to explore in privacy the sanctum sanctorum of my inner world.  It's not an entirely satisfactory answer for either side:  it keeps the peace, that's all.

My parents are growing older now.  They are presently on the threshold of what is sometimes sentimentally referred to as "the autumn of their lives."  I see them often – once every week or so.  My father has, over the years, become increasingly conservative politically; my mother the same in matters of religion.  He rails at the political commentators he so avidly seeks out on the TV; she drags him off to church every Sunday.  I am, in my qualified way, fond of them both, as they in their qualified way are of me.  We've learned to avoid any topic of conversation into which the strain of our differences might creep; neither do we probe too deeply into the interior realms of each other's lives.  It no longer seems to matter.  We restrict ourselves to discussions of the mundane:  how my job is going, what they did with their day around the house – that sort of thing.  They tell me about their neighbors, I recount for them the latest antics of my two cats; together we ruminate over whatever newsworthy events might be happening in town.  These things, I find, are as important in their way for keeping us in touch as any discussion of the more personal issues we tend to avoid might be.  As the years go by I even find that occasionally, during one of the chatty conversations we have about the commonplace matters which make up our lives, a small hole may be discovered in those walls we have built up between us.  Through these holes we sometimes witness some token of the damage our differences have inflicted – may even offer a word or two of sympathy in reply.  For now at least, it's enough.  The journey one takes through life with one's parents is a primal one, deep and abiding.  With my equally deep and abiding interest in primal causes, I find it is a journey I am glad not to have forsaken.


Anger can last for years
It can stretch for miles and miles

from horizon to horizon

in all directions flung

it's everywhere I look

Once I was inside you
Then you were inside me

like sheets of sky

amplified with fear

a child's god

Dragged into the future
Someday I'll drag your corpse behind

only death brings order

not decency, as you believed

that's just all you had

Fresh knowledge of our hopelessness
Eases with compassion

a worldly tribe

new primitives

we have outgrown gods

Mutual autonomy
A distance in each other's eyes

heaven's nowhere


you'll see it in our smiles