My parent's marriage was a mystery. My mother was a warm, outgoing woman with a heart-shaped face and a gentle manner. She made friends easily and kept them for life. Children adored her. So did men. But Mom never responded, in spite of her many opportunities.
I distinctly remember being with her at a shopping center when she ran into a handsome man she had known before her marriage. I was 15 at the time; Mom was in her 40s and still a stunner. I was surprised when she quickly rebuffed her friend's invitation to have "lunch" with him sometime. I was all for it. The man was everything my father was not: charming, funny, personable.
"Why not?" I asked after the man left. "It's just lunch."
"Because I'm married," she said.
I didn't get it then. I'm not sure I get it now. My father was a difficult man, to put it mildly. He had an explosive temper. (There was no such thing as "anger management" back then.) When Dad didn't get his way, doors slammed or were kicked down. He never hit Mom. He didn't have to. He controlled her and us kids with his volcanic moods. He could erupt at any time, but never in public. Only at home where there was no other male figure to contest his power. My mother lived in fear of his outbursts and did everything she could to prevent them and to pretend they never happened.
When I was old enough to understand how deeply unhappy my mother was, I asked her for an explanation.
"Why did you marry him?" I asked.
Her response was a bit jolting to my teenage ears.
"I wanted to get away from my family and your father wasn't this way before we were married. He was very nice," she said while setting the table for dinner.
"So, when you found out how he really was, why did you stay?"
Mom shrugged decades of misery.
"By then, I had a child. Where could I go?"
I saw my mother as not much more than an indentured servant, doomed to get dinner on the table and the house quiet for my father' return from the office. Nothing was more important. One time, we were at a new shopping mall when my mother suddenly looked at her watch and practically fainted.
"We have to leave right now!" she said.
"Why? What's wrong?" I asked.
"You're father will be home and dinner won't be on the table."
I tried to reason with her. I reminded her that Dad was more than capable of making his own dinner. He was mechanically minded and would have no trouble opening a can of tuna, making a salad or burger. I urged her to call him and explain that we are out having "fun." You would've thought that I had suggested she strip naked and jump in the mall fountain.
Flash-forward 20 years. Mom and Dad retired to Boca. I am in Los Angeles and under the impression that my father has calmed down in his old age. When Mom announces she wants to visit me without Dad, I am thrilled and perplexed. In their almost 50 years of marriage, my mother had never gone anywhere without him. (How else could he eat?)
When I pick her up at LAX, Mom is smiling wildly and pulling two huge suitcases. She had always overpacked, but this was ridiculous. It looked as if she had brought her entire wardrobe with her. She had.
"I'm thinking of leaving your father," she said. "I thought I could stay with you."
My brain reeled. They were in their mid-70s. Why had she waited so long? Why now? Over dinner at a Greek restaurant in the Valley, where the waiters danced and broke dishes, Mom told me she couldn't take it anymore.
"Now that he doesn't have an office to go to, he follows me around, driving me crazy," she said. "In the supermarket, he has to check the price on brands I've been buying my whole life, telling me which are cheapest." (Did I mention my father was a miser?)
I had always suspected that my father's mercurial moods were due to us kids and that my parent's would find some kind of peaceful coexistence in their Golden Years. Mom quickly dispelled that.
"The other night, I was standing in the kitchen," she said. "I opened a drawer and picked up a large knife. I wanted to kill him."
It was the first time I ever heard my mother acknowledge the anger she had repressed for half a century. I put my arms around her and encouraged Mom to make a new start in Los Angeles. Just as sunny and warm as Boca, just as many palm trees but without my father's constant abuse.
"Isn't it awful?" she said after a few days, "I don't even miss him."
It wasn't awful. It was fabulous. I organized dinner parties, took Mom to Venice Beach where she toyed with the idea of being a fortune teller. I even drove her up the coast to tour Hearst Castle. Mom was a trooper. She adored my friends. Learned to ride buses in Santa Monica on her own. And discovered the forbidden pleasures of wandering around shopping malls without a curfew.
After seven days, I found my mother packing up her things.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"It's time for me to go home," she said.
"You don't have room for me," she said sadly, looking around my one-bedroom apartment as if seeing it for the first time. "Your father needs me."
She was as deaf to my arguments then as 20 years earlier. Something inside my mother, that had seemed so fresh and resilient, had collapsed. Nothing I could say would change her mind. I drove her to the airport feeling I had somehow failed her. It would take many more years for me to fully understand that the mother who had picked up the sharp knife had somehow made peace with the one who had put it back down.