You want to know about my mother?
I’ll tell you about my mother.
Her name, as of this date, is Alice O'Leary Squamata McCloud, which makes her sound like a Jackie Collins multiply married hyphenated Hollywood harlot, but she was born into a working class Irish Catholic family and will maintain that unkillable blue collar frequency until the day her flesh meets forever.
HER Mother was a loving but judgemental Matriarch who looked exactly like Margaret Thatcher.
Her Dad was a kind and gentle alcoholic who would openly tell all his other children that Alice was and always would be his favorite. She grew up not knowing that.
She had two brothers and four sisters who were all popular in their separate sectors and subcultures.
My Mom wasn’t popular. She never lacked for friends, mind you. She had and has a boisterous warmth and wicked humor that can win over and vitalize the surliest y bar-rooms in a matter of minutes. I’ve seen it happen. But she was always just a little too tender and sensitive underneath her outrageous laughter to swim with the bullies and the beauty queens.
She liked soft things. Corny things. Kid things that most kids are in too much of a hurry to outgrow. When she was ten, she invited her brothers and sisters to a meeting of "the Zippy club", a fan club she’d formed in honor of some cheeky TV chimp. No one showed up but her oldest brother. He brought his football friends. Unstuffed monkeys and catastrophic cake damage and tears and scandal ensued.
My Mother’s life became a struggle, perhaps at that moment, to keep the dreamy things in her world safe from the encroachments of adolescent violence and hardboiled East Coast common sense.
By carrying this crusade into her twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties, she has become the de facto shaman priestess of the O'Leary family, shedding a soft focus but somewhat streetwise new age light on their Catholic gloom, which tends to offer only the grimmest consolations to those afflicted by tragedy, mystery, or mortality. Throughout her life, they’ve laughed at her dreaminess when all went well and depended on her all-inclusive compassion for the children within them when their own ways of seeing stopped making sense.
Her hunger for the dreamy side of life is probably what drew her to my father, Jack Orvis Squamata, who was also, incidentally, ...the devil.
A rakishly handsome self-educated white trash comedy devil.
They met at a party.
He wooed her with jokes. He was brilliant, neurotic, and obviously, passionately impractical.
He had literary obsessions but no ambitions.
He seemed to have made a lifestyle out of flinching on the threshold of genius. She must have thought her love and his library would be enough to blow out the cold blue flame of his self-loathing. Maybe he thought so, too. She had always wanted to give all of her love to someone, to anyone.
For better or for worse, Alice O'Leary chose him.
By the time I was nine months beyond being a gleam in his maniacal eyes, his compulsive cruelty had revealed itself. His tantrums. His silences. His own special methods of finding the imaginary friends in her unconscious and breaking them because their uncorrupted gentleness made HIM feel broken by contrast.
My Mother was going into labor at Malden City Hospital while my sulking Dad and my loving but harsh grandmother commiserated in the cafeteria about having to deal with my Mother’s whining. The mother of five in the next bed warned her that the first would take forever, that she’d be delivering me for days. General Hospital had just started on their little wall-mounted TV. My Mother, in her agony, swore that I’d be out of her body before the episode was over. And so I was.
Though it would be seven years until the divorce, my Mother knew that, she and I would be in this together. And In so many ways, we’d be in this alone.
When Dad finally lost his mind utterly and went storming off in search of his next surrogate dysfunctional mother, Mom’s shuddering premonition became our daily reality. Living downstairs from the lofty grandmother. My Mother working three jobs at a time to keep us alive. Hers was the first divorce in the family. She was fed a story by all and sundry about a dreamer who couldn’t stick it out, stuck with an already strange little boy who’d be fucked up for life because she gave herself to a fantasy.
She swallowed that story whole.
Eventually, she struggled with the way it painted her. She was only twenty-nine and she didn’t know who she was yet. Stitched into the lineaments of a grinding kitchen sink tragedy, the Zippy Club within her went right on dreaming in chimp-shrieks and crashing cymbals. She went right on hoping for some place of ease and sweetness for her secret self and the dreamy little white-haired boy she grew inside her body.
So we grew up together, in a way.
Maybe everyone says that. But I knew that there was us...and then there was everyone else.
My mother couldn’t pay the electric bill, from time to time, but she found money somehow to buy me a book I was mad for. She’d catch cat naps while I tried to "draw comics the Marvel way" by candlelight.
In the cool of the summer evenings after our low-budget daytrips to Cape Cod, I would slowly peel sheets of dead skin from my Mother’s sunburned back while she watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I’d fold the skin and save it in a little Ziploc bag. I found the feel of Mother’s shed skin between my fingertips to be a great comfort in times of trouble.
I would read to my Mother while she was in the bathtub, far beyond a time when such a thing might be considered appropriate. Up until 13, I think, when an awkward pause of realization in the midst of our ritual prompted her to say “...this is weird”.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and strawberries. Seeing my young Mother struggle with who she was and who she wanted to be instilled in me the idea that who I would be was for me to decide. This self-invention first manifested in anti-social barrages of nightmarish doodling on every available surface, sixty days of school-skipping, and rampages of petty crime, sometimes in the mall where she worked. I was usually stealing books. I was usually skipping school to go to the library. In the midst of her most vigorous “swinging single” phase, I was a genetically, dream-driven demon child crying out for guidance. Guidance my Mother couldn’t provide, since she was still figuring out so many things for herself. But she could give me space and trust that my defects might be symptoms of latent specialness.
I could illustrate this saintly tendency of hers with any of a million little moments, but there’s one memory in particular, a memory from before the divorce, that seems to mythically crystallize the pattern.
I was six years old, just beginning my first year at the Immaculate Conception elementary school. Before six, when the games were all about make believe, I was the mad boy king of my neighborhood, leading the Malloy boys and Michael Ververis and Kathleen Maguire into afternoon after afternoon of freestyle fanatastical group hallucination. When you’re kids, they call it “playing”.
But the onset of schooling and socialization had put an end to all that, at least until next summer, and the shift in imaginal intensity had rubbed me the wrong way.
I was having nightmares.
I was laughing in my sleep and screaming in my sleep and speaking in tongues in my uneasy feverish sleep. Inside the dream, I had a globule of some green gelatinous supersubstance embedded in my brain, where it was vibrating on ten thousand frequencies at once, telling me ten million things in ten billion languages, none of which were mine.
I knew how important the messages were.
I felt torment over my inability to decipher them and answer back.
The dreams went on for two weeks, night after night of madness.
They at one point evolved a framing sequence in which the cast of the Mary Tyler Moore show was visiting me in the hospital, offering me support, talking about the coma I was about to slip back into as if I were about to go on a great adventure. In the years since, I have identified Mary and Lou Grant and Ted Baxter, etcetera, as undeveloped facets of my evolving personality, archetypal godforms that can be invoked for various worldly purposes.
At the time, it was just another layer of crazy. My Mother, like the good Catholic she was at the time, despite or perhaps due to her tribulations, assumed that her son was possessed.
I remember a field trip from that period, the whole first grade class en route to Benson’s Wild Animal Park. Or maybe we were on the way back (cue the montage of bleating malnourished goats, shrinking from my touch and tranquilized bears dancing to the tune of a taser). Sister John was my teacher. My Mom was one of the chaperones. They were sitting together, on the other side of the aisle from me. I guess my Mom assumed that nuns had recipes for low-impact exorcisms tucked under their habits like the ticker tape in fortune cookies. She asked Sister John’s advice.
I remember the response with blistering clarity.
Sister John was talking to my mother, but looking straight at me. In retrospect, her look seems to say “We’ve seen this before”. What she said to my Mother was “I think Jason just has an overactive imagination”.
Her suggestion: remove every object and image from my environment that could possibly overstimulate my imagination. My comic books were replaced with Church-approved Highlights magazines. My Narnia books were replaced with Black Stallion novels. I could watch Saturday morning television, as long as it was live action. Cartoons were forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to talk aloud to my teddy bears, for fear that they might talk back with the voice of Satan.
It worked, I suppose,. The dreams stopped.
To this day I willfully refuse to give a damn about horse stories. Sea Biscuit can suck my balls. But the dreams did stop. The teachers could go about the grim business of socializing me without any vibrating gelatinous obstructions. But there was a nasty side effect. I was miserable. Only a week of my treatment had passed. Not only wasn’t I laughing in my sleep. I wasn’t laughing at all. I accepted the therapy like one accepts a punishment, but my Mom in short order realized that she was starving me of something that was fundamental to whatever special thing I would be.
I think she realized that that green jelly, as terrifying and weird as it may have seemed even to me, was my inner equivalent of her Zippy Club.
Whatever neglect or chaos I may have experienced in those formative years, I have that fact to cling to: my Mother the hardcore Catholic disregarded the edicts of a nun when she saw me getting timid.
My Mother would rather go to Hell than see my spirit broken.
So that’s what you need to know about my Mother most of all, I suppose. My biographers may anatomize the awkward engines that drove me and decide that I wasn’t nourished as I should have been, that I was free in areas where I should have been restrained and constrained in zones where I should have been reckless, but I wouldn’t be here today , telling you this like an expert on something and I wouldn’t have biographers sifting through my dirty lingerie in any kind of possible future if she hadn’t allowed me that space. If she hadn’t given my flowers of lunacy room to bloom.
She has since remained devoted to the Zippy in me, through all the highs and lows of an adult life and the life from which it sprang. She never questioned whether other mothers send emergency cash and care packages to wayward sons well into their thirties. She never expected grandchildren and never once bugged me about it. She has accepted the possible sole payment for her favors as promissary notes for hypothetical Cadillacs. She has taken it as a given that I wanted to hear every sordid detail of her sadomasochistic affairs, way back when.
She has remained my dreamy mother, my sister, my friend.
But I haven’t spent a summer with her in twenty years.
Mom, if you ever hear or read this, that’s how much dead skin you owe me.
From you, I learned to burn.
(originally performed at THE TRUTH OR FICTION SHOW at The Funhouse Lounge in Portland, Oregon, May of 2013)
Audio Version coming soon to THE ORAKULOID on SOUNDCLOUD.