I heard that a lot. My father was a big league baseball player, an ex boxer, a pure alpha male warrior, domineering, controlling, dead set on establishing the identical methods in raising HIS son as his dad established in raising him.
“I'M THE HEAD OF THIS HOUSEHOLD, AND WHAT I SAY GOES.”
“Your father's the biggest momma's boy of all,” said my diminutive but wise and feisty mother, winking at me.
Still, early on in grammar school, I rejected mother's attempt to walk or drive me to school, wished to go it alone and face bullies, and later, on the streets of Compton, California, a rough-necked blue collar town, I walked with my pals, all of us toting our baseball bats, gloves and balls. I was my dad's son all right. He only had six weeks with me after I was born before he was shipped out to the South Pacific during WWII, and he didn't see me again for 22 months, during which time I lived with my mother and four of her sisters and brother and doting grandparents, gentle, artistic people.
When dad returned, he was terrified I'd been turned into a pansy and had my blond curls sheared. He tossed a ball in my bed and things were never the same. I became my dad's boy, hanging out later in the ball player's clubhouse, learning the game from the inside out, soaking up the crusty pro ball player's vernacular and imitating them, cussing like a trooper.
Mother tolerated this, until I came home as a 10 year old and chanted: “Eeenie, meenie, minie, moe, catch a nigger by the toe.”
This was the first and only time she hit me, and today, at 73, I can still feel the wrath of this blow. My face still stinging, she dragged me by the ear into the bathroom and, both of us crying, washed my mouth out with soap. Then she sat me down and explained that saying that horrible word was the meanest, cruelest, ugliest, most evil thing I could say, and saying it made me sound like an ugly, ignorant, trashy person and made her feel physically ill and very, very sad, because she had heard it all her life growing up dirt poor during the Depression—people making fun of other people they did not know or understand.
“Dell,” she said soothingly. “You are fortunate to be white, to have educated parents, and if you apply yourself, you can do anything in your life. Most black people in this country do not have the same chance you do. They do not have the same advantages you do. Black people in this country have been treated like dirt, had their pride taken away, have been kept down by ignorant bigots, mean, vicious people, and I won't have you, my son, being a party to this. Do you understand me?”
Later, as a teenager, when I could not get along with my father, fought him constantly, often felt humiliated, demoralized, angry, seething with resentment and vengeance, and found myself manipulating the feelings of both my parents, often seeking comfort from my mother, she took me aside and explained to me that it was “up to me to learn to understand and live with your dad. The secret to life is understanding people, to try and find out what makes them act the way they do. Your father, powerful man that he is, is very insecure, like a little boy. He only sees HIS side of things, in black and white. Your father, he is a terrific storyteller, he can learn a foreign language in three months, but he is not a deep thinker, is not introspective, and he is sometimes insensitive to other peoples' feelings. So YOU have to be the mature one. But let me make one thing clear—nobody loves you and is prouder of you more than your father. Even when he's wrong, and a bully, he wants what's best for you, just like I do.”
She did not tell me I had to stand up to him. I watched her stand up to his sometimes terrifying presence, his dark Russian rages. She stood toe-to-toe with him, blistered him when he had it coming, refused to be intimidated. Fearless and brilliant.
“Your mother,” dad confided in me, when I accompanied him on deliveries as a teenager, after he'd retired from baseball and started his own shoe supply business in Compton, “she's an expert debater. I know when I'm right, Dell. All day long I drive around and I think out my arguments I have with your mother, and I try to be objective, and fair, and I gather up the facts, I practice my speech, I'm prepared to go into combat with that woman, and within seconds she destroys me, goddammit, she puts me on the defensive, and by God, it could be dark out, and if she says it's light, by god it is, and there's no winning...”
He was no match for her. He'd never met a woman like her, never knew one existed until he was swept off his feet the second he met her.
Their fights were horrific. The entire neighborhood knew about them, heard them. “The battling Franklin's.” I was in on it. And the fact that my mother stood up to him, encouraged me to stand up to him, no matter how violent and threatening his rage. There was no other way to win his respect, though he accused her of undermining my respect for him.
But in high school, when I was beaned and knocked momentarily unconscious in a baseball game, and refused to come out of the game and afterwards go for X rays, mother scolded me, near hysterical when dad defended me. Once, when I was so sick with the flu and running a high fever I could barely get out of bed, mother, before going to work as a school nurse at another high school, made me promise not to play in my game that afternoon. She called my dad, my coach, and the nurse at my high school to warn them about my trying to play. Well, I faked my dad's voice and told the school nurse I was okay, and when I got off at the team bus at the school where my mother was nurse, she was waiting for me, glaring. Later, after hitting a homerun my first time up, I rounded the bases and snuck a look and she was still glaring at me.
I had a great game, and at the dinner table, when she accosted my dad about my lying, he winked and said, “That's my boy, Rose. The only time I lied to my parents was when I wanted to play ball. I wanted to play so bad I'd lie and cheat to do it. I didn't raise a momma's boy, babying himself. My kid's no tissyprissel, like the men in your family.”
But it was my mother who turned me on to reading Steinbeck. “I don't want you turning out to be an anti-intellectual jock, like your father, who calls me an egghead because I've always got my nose in a book.” She started me out with “Cannery Row,” “Tortilla Flat,” then “Of Mice and Men,” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” and finally “East of Eden.”
“Mr. Steinbeck writes about little people, Dell, the have-nots, the reprobates, the underdogs. He writes with compassion and sensitivity and he gives them virtue and beauty. I want you to read, honey. There is more to life than baseball. Your father, he has wonderful traits. I would never have married him if he wasn't a man of immense character and substance, but he has no artistic curiosity and he's intellectually lazy. You are not just like him, you are like me, and you should never be ashamed of being sensitive and soft.”
My mother, an excellent writer and painter, encouraged me to write, something dad could not fathom. She winked and whispered to me, “Your father, he doesn't know you like I do. No man knows her child like a mother does.”
Surely so. She filled me with small wisdoms: “You just can't be good, you've got to be good for something.” “A man has to love a woman just a tiny bit more than she loves him to make a relationship last.” She never asked why my girl friends came and went over the years before I settled on one, and was aware that the most painful thing for these women was not to be able to hang around with her anymore, although several remained in contact.
It was mother to whom I wrote while I was in the Army, gone 2 ½ years. I left little notes for her to read to dad. She kept all my letters. Throughout my twenties and thirties and forties and fifties, my mother read damn near everything I wrote. She was objective, instructive, critical, but also my most avid fan. When I published something, she didn't show it off to anyone, but kept it in a book, with all my articles. And it was always mother to whom I went when something was wrong in my life, when I was depressed, upset, or so despairing as to be desperate, and needed a friend, somebody to listen, and eventually somehow making everything better, and hopeful.
She was a listener, looked you square in the eye, was the sounding board for all her sisters and relatives and friends, the calm one who never discussed her own troubles, be they physical or emotional. Privy to secrets, she never divulged them, refused to enter into gossip, and idolized only one person—Eleanor Roosevelt, “Because she took care of poor people and showed true compassion for those who needed it and could not find it.”
“I look down on nobody, and I look up to nobody,” she told me. “Nobody's that terrible, with few exceptions, and nobody's that wonderful. Eleanor Roosevelt, that tall, gangly, buck-toothed woman, people made fun of her, especially those damn Republicans, but to me, if you looked inside, that was a beautiful woman.”
When my dad was dying his grueling death, it was mother who nursed him, never complaining. It was a heartbreaking ordeal to watch this once vibrant, commanding he-man weaken and die. There was no self-pity involved. She was a nurse. And she lost him.
We became closer after that, if you can get any closer. When I visited her down south, we talked politics, art, cinema, literature, told stories and recent observations, and we laughed, usually going out to breakfast or dinner.
When dementia took over at 86, all that disappeared, and for all practical purposes, I lost my mother, though she hung on until she was 88, pretty much telling my sister and me that she'd had enough, she'd had a wonderful life, her son didn't die in a war, her daughter and grandchildren were happy and healthy, she'd done right by us and we'd done right by her, there had never been a shred of guilt imposed on us, and she was to bow out gracefully, putting nobody out, which was her way.