Archive for August, 2015


Tuesday, August 11th, 2015


By the time I was born, my parents were tired of being parents. I can’t say for sure if it was because my sisters were too demanding or that my parents were never intended to be parents but, doing their very best to be good to me, they hired a nanny slash cook. To be sure, her cooking abilities were paramount to her child care abilities but they did want the best for me.

Mrs. Aiken. Just her name, six decades later, can bring a tear to my eye. My very first memory is of her racing, in my three-year-old eyes, her grandmotherly body out the front of the house to snatch me away from pimply-faced boys who thought that driving up on my parents’ lawn to run over my dog was a good idea. I was a teenager at one time and no one can explain what passes for a good idea in the mind of a male teenager, but this one stayed just plain cruel no matter from what perspective or age I examined it.

I can’t quite picture Nicky, the dog, being hit, but I can, to this day, remember my nanny sweeping me into her arms and screaming at the boys who left behind a trail of exhaust,, laughter, and a dying dog.

Mrs. Aiken was my everything. I don’t mean to say that my mother wasn’t present. She was. Just in the background. And my father a step or two further back than she.

Mrs. Aiken would take me on outings. On the bus. An exciting thing to a young boy living in the country club zone. Or we would sit at the kitchen table and shell peas, or scrub the dirt off mushrooms with a dry cloth she had for just that purpose. Every afternoon, she prepared a hot tea and serve it sweetened with honey and cut with milk, in a cloisonné tea set with demitasse cups perfect for my small hands.

One night in my fourth year, I discovered the magic of matches. Much like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the magic quickly got out of my control and the rug I was sitting on caught fire. I can’t say how she knew but she was in the room stomping it out before I could shake the magician’s wonder from my tiny brain and before my mistake could become something more than an ostrich egg size scar on the otherwise perfect rug. She scolded me about matches and fire. Took me to the stove, turned on the closest burner and held my hand in hers close to the flame so that I could feel the heat without it hurting me. She explained in terms my little pre-human awareness could understand that fire was an element we barely controlled and we should never give it open space or free rein. She hugged me and told me that she loved me.

The next morning, she was gone. I felt it in a way I can’t express. It wasn’t a Sunday so she didn’t have her day off. Besides, she had promised me a picnic with her family on the Sunday still three days away.

I looked in her room. Her pictures, her bric-a-brac, her clothes were gone. Only her scent remained. Over and over, eyes squeezed shut, I inhaled deeply and willed her to be there smiling at me when I opened them. She never was. I went to my mother who was preparing to go the club for bridge. She sat me down and explained that, “Mrs. Aiken left because she couldn’t be around a boy as bad as I was any more.” Even if I had been able to do anything but cry, the discussion was closed as she was hurrying out of the house.

I raced around the big house in repetitive circles that took me up and down staircases and in and out of every room. I asked our wonderful maid, Effie, what I had done. She could only answer me with a hug and shake of her head. So I raced around my head instead. Mrs. Aiken’s reaction to the fire, the reaction I had witnessed, didn’t seem commensurate with what my mother just said. So, I looked deeper.

I was a boy and fascinated with the equipment boys are born with. In retrospect, I don’t think I was anymore obsessed with my penis than any other boy. Even by the age of four, I knew enough not to touch it in public but Mrs. Aiken had witnessed my interest in the bath tub. Being raised in a Catholic household, instilled with guilt from the womb, I knew, deep down, that touching my penis was a mortal sin—I was going to hell for sure and concluded that my penis was the reason Mrs. Aiken could not abide me. This was well before the “every sperm is sacred” became part of our Catholic School boys’ curriculum. That came along about age eleven when the nuns were sure we were masturbating…they were right, of course.

Deviancy starts young. For whatever reason it, like the angel of death in Passover, flew right by me with not much more than a nudge. It’s kind of like the priest in my school—I discovered much later he was an infamous pedophile—who passed me over in favor of other boys. But becoming convinced that you are deviant, that you are evil inherent also starts young. My mother’s straightforward statement that I was to blame for Mrs. Aiken no longer cooking for the family pulled me into an introverted, soul-searching that still marks my life today.

I’m sure there was an interlude between nannies. I don’t remember it. I remember waking one morning to find my world was gone then waking to find that hell was in its place.

Her name was Maria. Where Mrs. Aiken was full-bodied, Maria was wire thin. Where Mrs. Aiken was happy, Maria was…well, not. Where Mrs. Aiken was tender and loving, Maria seemed to be put off by her duties and particularly by me. The mere hint of me in the house was enough to bring a sneer to her face that haunts me still.

She was a vegetarian. She might have been a vegan but that term was not around then. She was also a very good cook. When my parents had company, I was more often than not relegated to the kitchen table with my nanny. After she served succulent meats and vegetables to the dining room and put a plate of the same before me, Maria would parboil vegetables, put them in a blender with some of the water they had boiled in and create a purée that she would consume with some relish. At least I assumed that slightly diminished grimace on her face meant that she was happy. She would look away from my dinner with disgust and I couldn’t make eye contact with her dinner for fear that she might make me have some. Conversation was beyond the scope of her employment contract. So, we sat in silence, avoiding each other’s eyes and food. Whenever eggplants were in season, I’m old enough that we only ate fruits and vegetables that were locally grown, her concoction was a sickly purple. Eggplant replaced Brussel sprouts as my least favorite vegetable until I experienced Thai food some time later.

My mother loved horror films. I was raised on horror films. The outings with my mother consisted of church and horror films. It didn’t occur to me until just now how appropriate that was.

My mother was a stylish woman. Her clothes, makeup, and hair spoke of money and a discerning eye. In church, we sat in the front, her coiffed hair covered with a perpetually black lace, mantilla. A mink stole draped over her shoulders. I loved to snuggle against the mink.

She dressed down for horror films. Still stylish but she wasn’t trying to impress God. I remember going to, with some anticipation, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when I was six. We shared popcorn. The simplicity of the film’s plot slid right by any defenses I had against nonsensical things. I sat straight, eyes glued to the screen, my mother’s arm clutched tight to make sure that she couldn’t be replaced by an alien.

Soon after Mrs. Aiken left, I had my first nightmare. Maria didn’t feel like an option so I scurried down the hall to my parents room, checking behind me to make sure that a mist of vampiric smoke wasn’t wafting down the hallway to overtake me. I quietly opened the door into their large, dark bedroom and tiptoed to my mother’s side of the bed. My father’s side was farther away but had he been closest, the idea of seeking solace from him was right down there with Maria.

I whispered, “Mom,” and touched her arm. My father was out of the bed, scooping me up, and carrying me back to my bed before a second, “Mom,” could escape my lips. His goodnight advice was, “Grow up.” I didn’t cry often as a child but tears poured out of me as he shut my door behind me, condemning me to torture at the hands of the creatures of the night.

Two years later, the night of seeing “Body Snatchers,” my dreams were populated with people who looked like friends and family but weren’t and cared little for my wellbeing.

The mantra of “Grow up” didn’t stop the blank-eyed, hive-minded, hideously familiar citizens of my room. My dark bedroom quickly became more intimidating than Maria. I knocked on her door and whispered her name with a distinct note of trepidation. She came out of her room a bundle of rage and barely contained ferocity. Her mean eyes narrowed by interrupted sleep. Her hair a curly, salt and pepper volcano. She was so much scarier than my bed and the alien pod I was sure nested beneath it, that I hustled back with only the scratchy voiced, “Don’t ever come to my door again,” as my company.

I begged my parents to let her go. My sisters who visited, as time passed, from boarding school, college, or marriage told my parents that Maria was mean and spiteful. My parents, for whatever reason, kept her for ten years.

When I was fourteen, my parents bought a new television for their room. They moved the previous one into my old bedroom which now served as a place for my sports trophies. Seeing this, Maria asked for a television in her room. The next day, she was gone. I guess good help wasn’t that rare a commodity in my parents’ eyes. Or the idea that a trusted employee would dare to ask for something not already provided by my parents’ foresight was just too much. Had I understood, at age four-and-a-half, that the snake in the garden of Eden was not the devil or even the penis and the lust it embodied—my personal interpretation—but that wonderfully insidious evil called envy, I would have slithered around her ankles hissing all the shortcomings in my parents’ appreciation for her work.

Her leaving was as much a joy to me as Mrs. Aiken’s was a trauma.

At my mother’s deathbed, thirty-six years later, my sisters and I reminisced and I brought up the story of Mrs. Aiken leaving and the reason why. My oldest sister stopped me with, “Oh, no. Mother fired her because she heard you tell Mrs. Aiken you loved her.”

I understand the pressures of child rearing can be overwhelming. Especially when the parents have been through it before and after a long hiatus, have another little present that keeps on taking. I was called “oops” for the first three years of my life.

I understand that having help corralling the exuberance of a young boy would be most appealing. But if you relinquish almost all of the boy’s childhood over to another, don’t be surprised when the boy misunderstands who the mother is and who isn’t. And if you do, don’t take it out on anyone but yourself.

That little boy, curly dark hair and angel eyes, had an irrepressible desire for life. The idea of betrayal had not even occurred to him. My mother’s explanation of Mrs. Aiken’s departure, the time with Maria and the way Maria left, clouded over those eyes with a sense of cynicism and self-loathing that have inhabited his…my life to this day.