When my husband got a teaching job at NYU Abu Dhabi, I found the best way to meet new people in our apartment complex was in the pool. One day I swam up to a gaggle of expat women talking about how they would never have agreed to move to the Middle East if they weren’t allowed to practice their various Christian faiths.
“Not a problem for me,” I said when they swiveled in unison to find out if I felt the same way. “I have never practiced any faith.”
One woman, who looked a little panicky at this news, asked, “How were you raised?”
Having just peed in the pool, I smiled and said. “Badly?”
The truth is, I was barely raised, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. I was fed, bathed, clothed and, when very young, tucked into bed, but by the time I was eight, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I am torn between wondering if my mother was clueless, too busy, or merely afraid that, if we were held to account, she would thwart what she most needed us to be: original, self-created humans who were not held hostage by what she thought were the banal influences of a child’s life, i.e. school, friends, TV.
I was never told to clean my room. Never given a curfew. Never punished for drinking, smoking, or getting high. Boyfriends were allowed to sleep in my room, not to mention raid the fridge. Not once did my mother ever utter the phrase, “My house, my rules.”Not once did my mother ever utter the phrase, “My house, my rules.”
I am certainly grateful for that one. Heading out across Canada when I was sixteen with my best friend, Fionna, we encountered scores of runaways who, as they eyed whatever bits of food we had, would sneer, “Their rules? Like fuck. When my old man threw his beer at me because I was, like, ten minutes late, I fucking split.” We also encountered scores of Mennonite escapees. You could always spot them because they looked like aliens trying to pass by wearing earthling apparel of jeans and a tube top. This was the 70’s.
Returning to school, there was the twice-term ritual of handing out report cards. Unless they had all A’s, most kids would quail at the thought of a disappointed parent gazing down at a long list of C’s and D’s. I joined in the commiseration, but I had nothing to fear. Mother couldn’t care less. It would be me begging her to at least glance at my lousy grades and initial the damn thing.
“Canadian history? You poor darling. No wonder you got an F.”
One morning she topped my outfit with a bowler hat that she had picked up from a thrift shop. “You look smashing,” she said, clapping her hands together. Before the first period was over, I was sent to the principal’s office for refusing to remove the offending hat. My teacher claimed it was causing such a distraction that the other pupils could not concentrate on their studies. The principal’s secretary opened the door with a flourish and said, “Welcome back.”“My school, my rules,” said the dour man who held our developing brains in his hands.
Normally Mother threw out the letters sent about my misdeeds but, in this case, the forced removal of my hat enraged her. I suspect this was mostly because she knew this episode would make good material for her weekly column in the Montreal Star.
She penned a letter that read something like this. “If you insist on quelling the creative urges of my child—and Bex’s choice of attire is entirely creative—I don’t see how you can possibly consider yourselves educators.”
This time Mother was called into the principal’s office. “My school, my rules,” said the dour man who held our developing brains in his hands.
It wasn’t long after that I decided to drop out of school, a move my mother wholly approved.
How much better to have me home reading P.G. Woodhouse and Lady Diana Cooper than to be stifled by algebra and social studies, whatever the hell social studies are. That all might have been well and good if I weren’t seriously starting to feel lost and adrift, the beginnings of what would prove to be a near lifelong battle with panic attacks. Jeeves dealing with Bertie’s charming chaos wasn’t exactly the road map I needed.
Here Mother was stumped. She tried giving me Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, thinking if I read about someone creative and nuts, I would be inspired not to just be loaded down with fears but to turn it into something wildly interesting. It didn’t work.
Years later, while staring out my Brooklyn apartment window, she said with genuine bafflement, “I assumed you kids would be exactly like me. It horrified me that you weren’t. You were a separate narrative.”
“Well, isn’t that good?”
“Not really.” She sighed. “When you started having your freakouts, it made me feel so inadequate.”
When my mother died, I started reading through all her diaries. There are a couple of mentions of my panic attacks, mostly because she had to come home from her boyfriend’s house to try and calm me down. But one night, in some churned-up madness, I thought I might kill her and my little sister. This is what she wrote about the incident.
Bex freaked out in the evening and wanted to kill Sophie and me. I am worried. Is she a visionary? She understands about time.
What the hell does understanding time even mean? But this entry is telling. No run-of-the-mill murderous thoughts for her progeny; I was a visionary!
Eventually, I went back to school, much to my mother’s disappointment. It was an alternative school called M.I.N.D., which stood for Moving In New Directions. Mother was appalled at the name. “The only direction it will take you is having some idiot telling you to read the Bible as literature.” Sure enough, senior year, it was on the suggested reading list.
Mother may have been lenient in every facet of my life except when it came to religion. Her rule: no church. No possibility of a God of any sort, including the Lord’s Prayer. “Recite that claptrap? Over my dead body.” So there was one constant throughout my spotty school career: during morning prayer, I was allowed to leave and wait it out in the empty hallway. To this day, I have a real romance with empty echoing hallways. As for the women in the pool? They never spoke to me again.