Saturday, 2 May 2009

Montezuma's Revenge

My parents met when they were still at school and became teenage sweethearts. At my mother’s insistence, they married when my father was called up to join the army in 1940. After a brief two-day honeymoon at my uncle’s house in suburban London, my father sailed off to fight in North Africa. Narrowly missing capture by Rommel’s troops, he was posted to India where he spent the rest of the war on internal duty. My mother endured the blitz and worked first as the manageress of a laundry and then as a supervisor in a factory that made guns. My parents didn’t see each other for five years.

After being demobbed my father went back to his old job in the office of a builder's merchant. They bought a small home and my mother stopped work to become a housewife and later a mother. Life settled into a comforting routine. It was a typical relationship of that generation. My father was the bread winner. He handled the money and gave his wife her “house keeping” every month. He dealt with the bills, the bank, the house, the car and generally fronted the external world. She handled the baby, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning and the organisation of the home.

I never saw them have an argument. Their motto seemed to be “don’t rock the boat.” In Voice Dialogue terms they stayed in a positive bonding pattern. Dad was the Generous, Providing Father to my mum’s Grateful Daughter, whilst mum was the Caring, Nurturing Mother to dad’s Adoring Son. In this way they both took care of each other’s Inner Kids. Life was predictable and secure and they avoided any upsets that might threaten the relationship. But there was a price to pay.

As a child dad would tell me bedtime stories of his adventures and experiences during the war. They were vivid and exciting and I loved them. Mum would tell me of what had happened during the blitz and how a bomb had landed near her house and how everyone had pulled together and helped each other out. I noticed how they seemed to come alive when speaking of that time of their lives. Where had that aliveness gone 20 years on?

Part of my teenage rebellion was against what I felt to be the airless, stifling atmosphere of home. I wanted to breath and expand and break out of their now routine, two dimensional world. When I was sixteen dad said something very interesting that gave me a glimpse of what he had sacrificed to maintain their relationship: “Travel while you are young son. You will have so many responsibilities when you grow up - a job, a wife and children. See the world while you can.” I sensed a sadness in his voice, as if a part of him had been cut off and buried. I felt that he empathised with my feelings of wanting to escape the confines of their neat terraced house.

And so I travelled. As a student I hitch-hiked around Europe, and later I did the “hippie trail” overland from Istanbul to India and down into S.E. Asia. I lived and worked in foreign countries far away from home. Dad was always excited and interested to hear about my experiences. Mum worried about me. She did not like travel. I came to understand that in order to maintain the positive bonding pattern and keep their relationship on an “even keel,” my dad had to hold back his Adventurer self - the part that had been so primary during his army days. It was just too threatening to mum.

For many years I blamed her for holding him back and saw her as responsible for locking him into a relationship that was nice and safe and secure but with little spark or vibrancy. But of course it always takes two to tango and it was not until they were in their 70’s that I saw the other side of the story.

After many attempts and much cajoling, dad and I finally persuaded mum to take a trip to visit me in Tucson, Arizona where I was living and working. She had been worried about the flight, whether she would like the food in the USA, whether she would be able to find a toilet when she needed it, what she would find to talk about with people, and a hundred and one other things. But finally she had relented.

For the first few days, I drove them around sightseeing. Dad sat in the front of the car with the maps and guidebooks, mum sat in the back quietly gazing out of the widow. Being so near Mexico dad said he would like to do a day trip to the border town of Nogales and experience something different. His Adventurer was definitely in charge now and mum seemed unable to hold him back. She anxiously acquiesced. We drove down, spent the morning looking around the many souvenir shops and then had lunch in a local restaurant. We all ate the same thing - chicken enchiladas with rice and refried beans.

Later that evening dad started to have stomach pains. They got progressively worse and he ended up spending a good portion of the night on the toilet. In the morning he looked pale and drawn. I contacted a friend who was a doctor and he wrote out a prescription and advised plenty of liquids and to stay in bed. Mum and I were both fine. What to do about our plans for the next few days? I expected her to go into a state of high anxiety and insist on staying with dad and taking care of him. How wrong I was! To my amazement she said, “Your dad is such a grouch when he is ill. It is best just to leave him on his own. Let’s go out as we planned.”

My friend Carlos came by and picked us up and as we left dad moaned, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” in a “poor me” kind of way. Off we went, me in the front and mum in the back with Bill - a tall, elegant black friend of Carlos from New York. I could hardly believe my ears as mum confidently engaged in conversation with him. He was very charming, and I swear it felt like she was flirting with him! We visited some local beauty spots and were introduced to more of Carlos’ friends along the way. Each time mum was outgoing and engaging. Over a long lunch she started telling jokes and got the giggles. I was gob-smacked!

We came back to the apartment that evening to find dad still in bed and watching TV. “How was your day?” he groaned. “Oh, it was wonderful. I had a marvellous time. Bill is so handsome and has such beautiful hands,” answered mum enthusiastically, “We met lots of people and it was so much fun!” She looked at least ten years younger and was grinning from ear to ear.

And so it went on for a few more days - dad languishing in the apartment while mum and I went out and about having fun. For the first time I could see what parts she had buried in order to make the marriage work. Thanks to Montezuma’s revenge her sensuous, confident and fun-loving self had the chance to emerge. Just as dad’s Adventurer was threatening to her, so this juicy, out-going Aphrodite was too scary for him. It would upset the applecart.

Over the next week I saw the status quo slowly return. As dad grew stronger he regained his authority and control. And as this happened I saw mum shrink back into her dependent role, once more sitting quietly in the back seat and worrying. I felt sad for them both. I could see the price they both paid for restricting the number of selves that showed up in their relationship. I wondered how richer their lives might have been if the Adventurer and Aphrodite had been allowed out.

My parents were married for 52 years and in their terms they had a happy life together. A few months after mum died I asked dad if he would like to do some travelling with me. He jumped at the idea. After a couple of short haul excursions to Europe, we planned a round-the-world trip and he spent his 80th birthday in Hawaii. His adventurer was happy. The promise of his army days had been fulfilled.

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