Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Lois and Liz

Woke to the news this morning that Liz Taylor has died. Boy, did that take me back. As a kid, I remember our family going to the movies to see National Velvet on the big screen. My stepmother just loved her. (Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, too. I think she aspired to be Scarlett O’Hara.)

My parents volunteered at a local rescue squad in dispatch. It just so happened that there was a big parade down Broad Street in Richmond one year (not the Tobacco Festival; I honestly don’t recall the occasion). The rescue squad had a float in the parade, and my stepmother was on it. It was just a long flat-bed truck decorated with what looked like aluminum foil with a desk on it, and my stepmother sat there the length of the route, pretending to be talking into the microphone the whole way. Very low budget.

For some reason, Liz Taylor was the Grand Marshal of the parade, so Lois was very excited. Dad, Wayne, and I stood perched along the parade route in front of whatever public building it was that seemed to be the parade’s operations center. Along came Liz Taylor waving in her car. And then the car stopped, right in front of us. Men from inside the building came out to help her out of the car, fanning her, offering her a cold drink, as people began swarming around us, calling out, “Liz! Liz!”

She smiled weakly, gave a small wave, and was escorted right past me into the building. Later I learned she’d not been feeling well (probably the heat and humidity). All I really remember was that she was way tinier than I’d ever imagined her to be.

And that is my Elizabeth Taylor story.

And then it struck me. (For some reason, this is the kind of stuff I wind up musing about when I'm showering in the morning.) My parents volunteered dispatching at the local rescue squad. I mean, there was even a police scanner at home and when one or the other of them was doing a shift, we could hear Lois’s or Dad’s voice over the radio. Much older now, I realize what a stressful job dispatching can be, much less doing it for free, and I marvel over the fact that these two people cared enough about complete strangers and the world at large to volunteer for that kind of work on the weekends.

And then I was reminded how many people actually loved my stepmom, how many times people took it upon themselves to tell me how lucky I was she was my mom. She was secretary of the Richmond chapter of Cat Fanciers, she volunteered at the rescue squad, she drove a powder blue Cadillac, she dyed her hair red and wore it piled high on her head in a beehive, even in the 1970s. Outside of the house, she was a ham.

What they didn’t know was what went on inside the house: she was a cat hoarder (13 cats in the house; read here). She was a racist. She had anorexia/bulimia. She was meaner than a snake and pussy-whipped my Dad. When I was fifteen and hospitalized at Tucker Pavilion at Chippenham Hospital with severe depression, after speaking with her, even the psychiatrist, Dr. Fultz, told me she was a lunatic.

She died of kidney failure after years of gobbling laxatives and sticking her finger down her throat in order to stay skinny. I used to like to think she poisoned herself with the self-same venom she spewed at anyone who crossed her.

I hated my stepmother for many, many years. Or maybe it wasn't hate. Maybe it was just profound hurt.

Now I just wonder. I wonder what made her the way she was. I wonder if her gestures of humanity salved her conscience, or if they were just an act. (We are talking about a woman who once snatched a drawing I’d made out of my hands when I’d shown it to her and threw it in the trash, telling me it was “a waste of good crayons.” I was seven or eight.) We are talking about a woman who said there was no God. We are talking about a woman who had an affair with my father while my mother was still living. Even the cats—did she really love those cats, or did she keep them merely, as she once said, to spite her own mother, who wouldn’t let her have a kitty when she was a child?

I never saw Lois shed tears. I never saw her happy. I wonder if really she wasn’t living in utter despair. Somehow, I seem tapped out of anger anymore. What I feel mostly is just a deep sadness and a need to understand her, because at heart I’ve already forgiven her, despite it all. I just feel too tired to even be angry or hurt anymore.


The Subversive Librarian said...

It is amazing, isn't it, how our public and private faces can be so different. You must have done a whole lot of work to reach this level of forgiveness, given her brutality, even if it is partly just exhaustion that got you there. Takes work to give up. Good for you!

Joyce said...

Years of therapy helped me put things in perspective, but I never really let go of some of the hurt and resentment until I got sober. I think I've realized that when I start to feel resentful, it just drains me. And then in that calmer, tired state, I find a place a peace, if that makes any sense.

I used to be terrified of my feelings. Now I just ride the wave and it's a heckuva lot easier.