Tuesday, April 7, 2009

lots of boring backstory

My dad was married to my mom when he met the woman who would become my step-mother. He was friends with her father, and ended up hiring her as a cashier at one of his grocery stores. As part of a very tightly knit group of immigrants to the US, this was a bunch of people who stuck together all the way. They worked together, the bought businesses together, they socialized together - it went well beyond insular and tipped into incestuous. They were not, to put it mildly, a group that particularly liked outsiders.

Which was my mom. My dad came to Detroit from Kirkuk, Iraq by way of Britain. The eldest son, his job - explicitly laid out on the table - was to get both of his parents and his eight siblings to the US. Along the way, he was supposed to make a boatload of money, marry a good obedient Chaldean girl and have lots of Chaldean babies. He was certainly not supposed to marry a strong-willed eighteen year old American woman who came to Detroit via Alabama, a woman who was well aware of the definition of the word obedient, but didn't necessarily find the concept relevant to her own life.

My mom you've all read about. A lot. My dad, not so much. If this was a movie treatment, I'd describe him this way: Brilliant, sarcastic, funny man who from the time he was a toddler was second in command only to his father in the family hierarchy. Mathematical genius who could have had a full ride at Cambridge, but instead had to come to the US and bag groceries. Generous with his money, stingy with his time. Always had to look like the top dog, and could talk anyone into anything - and I mean anything. Tall, dark, quite handsome, with almost black hair and eyes and pale olive skin. Sexist beyond belief. A true narcissist, he legitimately believed that he was always right, and when anyone dared tread on this belief would, quite simply, cut them out of his life without a backward glance.

The marriage, obviously, didn't last, but it did produce me. And only me. I've forgotten how many times my mom was pregnant, but it was quite a few. One stillbirth, numerous miscarriages...and me. Six weeks premature, a girl instead of the much revered first boy, and half American to boot. They stayed married until I was (I think) six, when, during an argument my dad hit my mom across the face. Not his brightest idea. She picked up a lamp, cracked him across the head with it, and while he was at the hospital getting stitches we moved out. Two years (and much drama) later, the divorce was final, my mom had gotten custody, and we headed out to California to live happily ever after.

Re-enter my step-mother. Now she swore, up until the very last time I spoke to her in 1993, that she and my dad had never gotten together until after his divorce was final. My mom (and her family) say that was a bunch of hooey and that my SM had been plotting her way into the picture for quite a while before they even split up. Whatever the truth (although I'm firmly in my mom's camp here - big surprise), at the end of my first school year in California my dad took a long look at dealing with a nine year old on his own all summer and did the only logical thing he could think of. He married her. Over the violent objections of her parents, who, although they had started out as his friends, had some serious issues with him. The fact that he was ten years older wasn't a problem, but he was divorced. And had a kid. Who had an American mom. Good lord. It was enough to send any good Catholic to confession. Permanently.

The Chaldean culture is a culture that takes its weddings very seriously. Very, very seriously. The fact that they had to elope in Vegas was probably not the best start. (So much of my dad's life starts a downhill slide in Vegas, so the irony of this has never failed to amuse me.) No family present, no wedding gifts, no priest. Just the gaudiest wedding ring this side of Married to the Mob - a $10,000 (in 1970) umpteen carat marquise cut diamond set that could blind you from across town. (My step-mother had very expensive tastes. When the FX and I got married and I was still thrilled with my quarter carat diamond engagement ring, she flicked it with her fingernail and said "I have twenty of those in a bracelet - and it looks too cheap to even wear." "Yes," I replied sweetly, "but I like my husband.")

Over the years I had learned to fight back and stick up for myself. God knows, my dad wasn't going to do it for me.


Cath said...

Oh I love your reply to her about your engagement ring. Very good.

She sounds like a schemer from the start. It must have been (and must be sometimes) very difficult for you.

aims said...

I hate to say it but I love these kind of stories.

The evil step-mother - right down to the scheming and sarcasm.

The loyal daughter to her Mother.

All revolving around a man who is to stay the least questionable.

Why do we revel in these kind of stories and make movies out of them?

In the end we cheer for the mother and the kid. Always.

Cheers RC.

Iota said...

20 out of 20 for that reply about the ring. Fabulous.

The Gossamer Woman said...

I get the feeling that when you were a kid, the grown ups in your life didn't have your best interests at heart.

Mya said...

Fascinating stuff. I had never heard of the Chaldean culture before...I'm going to gen up.

Mya x

Kayleigh said...

See, I love this, it's witty, sarcastic and bitter but funny -- now, if you are writing a novel, just turn this into a conversation with, or internal dialog of, a character, tweak ever so slightly and BAM, you got some REALLY good stuff here :)

And see, that is how I now reflect on all the stuff in my past now, the good, the bad, or the utterly ugly...it's all grist for the fiction mill, it is being put to good use and while I wouldn't have chosen some of it, it sure did come in handy!

You have a marvelous voice...very riveting.

Frances said...

These shrinking ethnic and religious groups put so much pressure on their families. I watched a programme about Chaldeans in New York city a while back and it was clear that they are struggling for survival. It was particularly interested in their weekly rituals at the waterside. I believe there is terrible pressure on Chaldeans not to marry out - so I guess your father really struck out twice, marrying out and then divorcing and marrying in non-traditionally.
Do you have any Chaldean inheritance in your life? Or are you totally modern and Western?
Do these memories still sting? or did you come to terms with it all as you grew up and then made your own life?

Devon said...

This story makes me think your kids will do great! Look at all the shit you went through and you are an awesome person!

Your kids have two parents who really do love them.. and they do know this.

So, where are your dad and his evil appendage now?

my two cents said...

I am with Kaleigh - this sounds like a good part of a book.

Maggie May said...

Although it was not a barrel of fun for you at the time, I do love reading these stories.