Pop-Pop sat at our kitchen table with his back against the window that faced the railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks was a long wall of rusty chain link fence that separated our house from a neighborhood Mom called “the projects.” I was strictly forbidden to go past that fence so I was always intensely curious about the people who lived there, about the tall brown-faced buildings with the smashed out windows and the dogs I could hear growling and tearing at each other in the dark, even when my bedroom window was closed.
It was already night out when Pop-Pop showed up at the house. He was wearing a cotton, pit-stained t-shirt and his usual black work pants. He had a thick, wiry helmet of white hair on his head and a pair of tinted glasses on his face. The tattoos on the caps of his shoulders had faded from blue to black, their once straight lines now droopy and distorted. He sat next to me on my right side with his elbows poking through the edge of the table, his chalky and calloused hands resting one on top of the other in front of his mouth. His cigarette was fired up and resting in the ashtray next to a sweaty, red-and-white can of Budweiser.
Joe, my stepfather, was also at the table sitting to my left, drunk and slobbering. Mom was standing off in the back of the kitchen, also loaded—with glossed over eyes and a cigarette dangling between her fingers. Mom and Joe were talking and from the sharp edge in Joe’s voice, I could tell that things were about to boil over. I fidgeted nervously in my chair and shot quick, desperate glances at Pop-Pop but his attention was glued to the rumblings coming through the window from the other side of the fence. The dogs were outside fighting again, ripping and snarling at each other like angry pigs. Pop-Pop turned back around to the table, his overgrown belly scratching across the tops of his thighs. Then he jerked his arms up towards the ceiling and grunted, “Fucking bums—making those dogs fight each other like that!”
There was a quick flash of silence and then a loud smack coming from the left side of the kitchen. Joe had pinned Mom by her throat up against the side of the fridge. Her face was purple and red and her chin was pointed up towards the ceiling, the tips of her toes now blue. I waited for Pop-Pop to jump up out of his seat and rescue my mom—his youngest daughter. I waited for him to grab Joe by the back of his head and throw his sorry ass to the floor. I waited for him to take charge but instead he leaned back into his chair, spread his chest open wide like a gorilla and barked, “That’s what you get, you bitch. Next time you keep your mouth shut.”
In my early 20’s, Pop-Pop died from cancer. And when I heard the news, I felt nothing. I was invited to the funeral but I chose not to go. Mom, however, visited him in the hospital while he was dying. And she told me that before he passed away, he said to her, “You know I love you, bitch.” And she said, “Yeah, I know, Dad. I know you do.” I asked Mom if she really believed that he loved her and she replied, “I don’t know but I think he did the best that he could.” I bit down hard on my tongue, sighed a lead heavy sigh and thought: She can’t actually believe that, can she?
Years later, I was sitting in the Starbucks at the corner of 75th and 1st in Manhattan, catching up with a friend. She knew all about my traumatic childhood, about my alcoholic parents and the physical abuse. For some reason, I’d been thinking a lot about my mom that day and the time she stuffed me behind the love seat in our living room, jammed a massive knife in my hand and ordered me to jump out and stab my stepfather when he finally got home from the bar. I knew better than to deny Mom when she was drunk and insane so I did as she told me and hovered behind the love seat like a vigilant soldier in the trenches, with the point of the knife facing up towards the front door while I waited.
I don’t know why she said it but after I told my friend this story, she turned to me and said rather flippantly, “But you know, your mom was pregnant at 16—she didn’t know what she was doing as a mother.” My friend then paused and patted me gently on the shoulder and said, “You know, she was just doing the best that she could.” I had a steamy, grande cup of black coffee in my left hand and all I wanted to do was hurl it at the perfect cream-colored wall behind me.
My mom may have been good at cooking and keeping the house clean when she was sober but she was a toxic and unstable parent. My dad may have been a genius with cars and a decent brother-in-law and uncle but as a dad, he was selfish and unreliable. My stepfather may have had a perfect credit score and owned his own home but he was also a violent alcoholic. And my stepmother may have been fluent in sign language and kind in public but behind closed doors, she was childish and sadistic. My parents, in my opinion, did not do the best that they could. In their own way and to varying degrees, they were each abusive, neglectful and manipulative and I’ll never be able to understand how anyone can believe that they were truly doing their best. Clearly there was plenty of room for each of them to do much, much better. So, why didn’t they? And why have they never been held accountable for the misery and pain they caused?
I can’t help but imagine that if my grandfather, dad, mom, stepdad or stepmom had had to take responsibility early on for the way they behaved, then the abuse they so willingly dished out would have stopped before it had a chance to become tragic. Maybe then my mom wouldn’t have turned to alcohol to numb the aches from her relationship with Pop-Pop and ended up marrying his clone. Maybe my brother would have had access to the positive support he needed to kick his drug habit and wouldn’t have spent half his life in jail. And maybe I still wouldn’t be paying for a therapist and psychiatrist and have bookshelves stacked with self-help books.
I’ll never know if my fantasies are too far-fetched for reality but I do know that when relatives or friends deny the truth about my parents’ alcoholism, their abusive tendencies and their overall neglectfulness with the phrase, “They did the best that they could,” it feels like a hot slap in the face. These well-meaning people may think it’s comforting to me but it’s not and I would rather that they just say nothing at all.
My friend and I were still sitting across from each other at Starbucks where, thankfully, I did not throw my hot coffee against the perfect cream-colored wall. Instead I took a deep breath and sat up a little bit taller in my chair. I put my hand on top of my friend’s—which was still cupping my shoulder—while I pulled together an honest smile. Then I said, as gently as I possibly could, “Well, then I guess my mom’s best just isn’t good enough for me.”