“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
I was probably about 8 or 9 when I realized that my mother was not like everyone else’s. Despite her outward efforts to appear like a typical, loving mother, inside there was a broken circuit. Neurons were not firing the right way. Her brain was off. You would never know to meet her. She was so charming – all smiles and laughter. She was effusive and energetic. Everyone enjoyed her company and found her fun and engaging. She strategically hid her disease. She kept it tucked away for only the most special to witness and experience. She wore her costume every day and, over time, as it began to wear around the edges, her true self would peek through. She worked awfully hard to keep her cloak on for as long as she could but soon she would combust, flames burning around her and her protective garment would melt away and she would be the mother I knew. The mother I understood. The mother I loved.
It was a warm, sunny day as she sat in her plastic-strapped lawn chair in our postage stamp of a yard. For the 1970’s, in Queens, we had a substantial chunk of ground to call our backyard but it was all concrete and chain link fence. My father attempted to bring his Italian heritage to our land, grooming lovely flowers and plants but they were just window dressing to hide the ugly poured ground that encompassed our brick row house. It was Mother’s Day and Spring was in full bloom. I am not sure if my father was still with us at this point but, without question, my mother was the center of my life. She was the sun, the earth, the moon, the stars, the planets, the galaxy. I worshipped her. I needed her. I craved her love and approval. And, yet, I knew, deep in my core, that I would never receive it. But, like any overachiever, I set out to do whatever necessary to try to succeed.
Our house was one block off of the main boulevard in our town. The street was riddled with all of my favorite haunts – the little novelty store where I bought my Hello Kitty trinkets, the candy store where I attempted to shoplift a grocery bag full of Barbie dolls when I was in kindergarten, Woolworth’s, the upscale stationery store where I would wander in to test out all of the fancy Cross pens. My father used to carry a slim gold Cross pen in his shirt pocket or in his jacket and I coveted it, knowing I would be ridiculed if I dared to touch it. Often, I would find it lying on the table and would scribble notes on scrap paper, feeling the sleek instrument in my small chubby hands. During the summers, I would wander from store to store, window shopping, or looking for items to buy with my small savings that came from loose change I would find or random slips of cash from my father when he had been drinking and felt guilty about his disregard for me. It was so easy for him to forget about me. I came at the end of a long line of kids for him. He had his daughter and son from his first marriage – the ones he abandoned when he found out my mother was pregnant as a result of their illicit affair in the 1950’s. He started a new family with his young mistress and sired my sister and then his precious son. I was a late addition to the party. A requirement for my mother after she suffered through stillborn twins the year before my birth. I was a salve for her wounds. A sacrifice to numb her pain. She always told me how much I was wanted. I was the chosen child while my sister was the accident.
I’m not sure how I understood this but it was always quite clear to me that my role was to please my mother and try to make her happy. I was the ideal candidate – it was as if they bred me to absorb her pain and cleanse her soul. I was open and welcoming, willing to endure anything she would throw my way. I bravely stood before her as she screamed and yelled at me, calling me names, beating me with belts, spatulas – anything that would serve as a conduit allowing her internal demons to seep out and brand themselves into my skin. She needed to transfer her torment and I was her sweet, sacrificial lamb. I protected her fiercely, devotedly sat at her feet, ready and willing to accept whatever small treats she would toss my way. I worked hard in school to make her proud, I towed the line, rarely talked back, kept myself entertained. During the cold months, when it was just her and me in the house, we would sit for hours on the weekends playing Gin Rummy at our small kitchen table. Later we would move on to Milles Bourne and I treasured these times. She was peaceful, we were together – just the two of us in our cocoon. I basked in her sunlight. I was warmed by her attention. I took my role seriously and I was determined to serve her well. These moments gave me hope for success. They made me believe I had a shot.
On this Mother’s Day when I was about 8 or 9, I saved all my loose change and gathered some dollar bills together so I could find the perfect present for my mother. I loved buying gifts. The ritual of searching for the perfect item, wrapping it in beautiful packaging and topping it with a bow was a joyous process. I would hunt for the absolute perfect card and, in my youthful voice, using my limited vocabulary, I would share my love, my affection, my gratitude for the recipient. “Love always and forever and ever” was my sign off. I rarely actually said the words “I love you” nor did I hear them much but skirted around them using variations to express my eternal adoration.
For this gift, I spent hours wandering from store to store on Bell Blvd., searching for something that would be perfect. The gift that would elicit a wide-eyed smile, ensuring that she felt the transfer of my love as she unwrapped my token. My mother, a master artisan in bullshit, seemed to fail miserably when it came to masking her feelings in front of her children. If she was dissatisfied with her gift, there would be no questioning it. I never had to wonder if I was successful in my mission. Her face would tell me everything I needed to know. When I found the small jewelry box, with all its little drawers and secret compartments to hold her various baubles that lay strewn around her top dresser drawer, I knew I had discovered my bounty. This was sure to make her day. It would serve a purpose and showed that I was thoughtful. It was not a meaningless bottle of perfume (which she would have certainly enjoyed) and it was more substantial than a potholder crafted in school or a mail holder built from stapled white paper plates. This cost a good deal of money and was meant to hold her precious gems that my father regularly presented to her in exchange for her forgiveness after a drunken debacle or a bloody fight.
When she opened up the package, I knew I had hit my mark. Her smile built slowly as she unwrapped the box and her eyes lit up as she inspected the jewelry box. She exclaimed with joy how much she loved it and offered the gratuitous “You didn’t have to buy me this!” I looked at my mother, sincerely and confidently, and said “Yes I did.” She patiently stared back at me, awaiting my next words. “If I didn’t, you would have been mad at me.” I remember the moment like it was yesterday but I have long since lost any memory of what followed. I have no idea how she reacted. There is no recollection of surprise, dismay, disregard. I spoke my words and, regardless of what followed, I knew that I spoke my truth and it was evident that I was now a participant in this game with her.
Years later, when I was a young adult in college, my mother would send me hate mail. I would open my mailbox at school and find long white envelopes addressed only to “Palazzo” followed by my address. The words were written in her trademark cursive. Big, bold lettering, all curvy and bodacious. Often, my friend Joe would be standing with me as I reached in to pull out the letters and he would steel himself for what he knew was coming. My back would straighten up and I could feel the tension growing in the pit of my stomach. There would be no letter of support, no check to provide me with some spending money, no lovely words to transmit her pride in my being the first and only of her children to attend a university. When the seal was broken on the envelope, what emanated from under the flap was anger, hatred, venom. Words intended to threaten me, shame me, to level the playing field because I decided to shut down the games. I decided that I was no longer a willing participant. I dared to abandon my role as her healer. The rules of engagement had changed, without her permission, without her approval. The letters came regularly – sometimes daily, sometimes weekly. If it were today, it would be a daily onslaught of emails to remind me what a monster I was. It would be a regular diatribe to continue the transference of her pain and she would have to be relentless about it because she would never have the satisfaction to ensure that I was suffering in her place. She would never know how I received her hateful messages. She would never have a glimpse into my soul to know if I had simply shut her out or if I was crippled by her venom. If her child, her miracle, her required offspring was collapsing under the weight of her torture. She was vigilant because she never got her answer.
Her words were first painful and then they became absurd. It was the same message over and over. For four years, I anxiously checked my mail, fearing and then dreading the attacks. But, after a while, I became numb. They were part of my life. Just as my role as her salvation became normal and acceptable as a child, I knew that this was what she needed to do. I hated it. I resented her for it. I prayed for her to stop and then I simply stopped caring. I shut down. If her goal was to get my attention, I became unwilling to bite. If her intent was to hurt me, I found painkillers to dull the ache. If her intention was to use me as her human punching bag to release all of her frustration and sadness, she was going to be disappointed because she had long ago knocked the stuffing out of me and I no longer had the solidity to withstand her blows. I was done. She kept writing those letters and later emails until months before she succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 82. And, to me, they just became items to move into my junk mail. They were tossed away or tucked into a special storage cabinet I built inside myself. A place where all of that sickness, all of that sadness, all of that abuse could be locked away forever.