I saw something on TV once  – maybe a movie or show – that showed soldiers playing cards in the trenches (I think it was WWII). Bombs were going off overhead, debris was raining down, but these two guys were just drinking coffee and playing cards – totally engrossed in their game. That’s basically my brother and I, for the better part of our childhood (and frankly, adulthood too). We knew perfectly well deep down that serious stuff was going on. But we just chose to build a bulwark to stave it off. Our wall was made of things like the Ninja Turtles, Ghost Busters, the Blues Brothers, Spiderman, Batman and the X-men. Action figures, sugary cereals, Saturday morning cartoons, comic books and video games. If things were rough – Mom was breaking down and calling Russ at all hours, let’s say – it was time for us to play Super Mario Bros or Final Fantasy or Battle Toads. Or talk passionately about Ninja Turtles or Star Wars. Why didn’t Yoda just leave Dagobah and kick Palpatine‘s ass? We hadn’t seen him fight (this was years before the new trilogy came out – and don’t get me started on how terrible that was) but our little fan-boy selves were confident Yoda could take on Vader and the Emperor any day of the week. By himself. What’s more, if we were deeply enthralled in conversation – particularly a conversation that Mom couldn’t follow – she would probably just not even bother us. Or forget we were even there and sink further into herself.

This isn’t to say Tim and I never fought. When he was still very young, we fought like cats and dogs. I’d terrorize him with remote control Robot toys (I had one that I used to chase him with, which I thought was hysterical. Mom and Grandma didn’t think it was quite so funny). Sometimes our arguments would come to physical blows, and I always held back. Usually I would give up in the middle of the fight and just stand there and let him hit me. Once, when I was about 8 or 9, I actually had him on the ground and was punching him in the chest or arm or something. I don’t remember what happened, exactly, but I think he drew on one of my toys and broke some others. Grandma walked in and glared at me.

Grandma: You’re just like your father.

That took the air out of me like nothing else could. I never hit him again. At some point soon after, I think Mom had another one of her meltdowns. I don’t think either of us actually said anything, but a moment passed between us. I can’t put it into words, exactly, but it summed up everything neat little package: We’re the only sane people here. Can we be cool? And basically, after that point, we were. We rarely ever fought after that (something Mom marveled over a time or two), and we just built our own little world to keep stuff out. We knew it was there – it would always be there, no matter what we did- but if we could wish it away even for a few minutes, it was worth it.

I had my books, of course – I always had those – and they helped when I wanted to recede from everyone, even Tim. Tim wasn’t as much of a reader as I was, though. Not that he wasn’t intelligent, he just wasn’t a voracious reader. He immersed himself in things like facts about wildlife and science. Once again, this was a world Mom couldn’t follow him into and I think that helped. He’d also put his Walkman on and listen to tapes over and over, with the volume up quite loud. Mom would try to talk to him and he could ignore her with plausible deniability. I think that really was his way of blocking everything out. For me, those things that were “hobbies” probably saved my sanity (and Tim’s). I think I view them in a context that few other people are able to appreciate.

Tim and I developed sort of a non verbal form of communication. I remember being in the car with Mom and she was going on about Ross Perot and the War and stuff. Screaming and yelling “at” us (not really at us, but venting about everything).  I just looked at him. He sort of smirked and nodded. I was saying Dude, she’s really going off today. And he was like Yep, this’ll be a fun trip.

That’s not to say our family unit in general wasn’t tight – Mom and Grandma and us two kids were very close. Especially because I worried so much about what might happen to us. Money was always an issue. Then there was all of Mom’s delusions of being followed or poisoned or having a hit-man break into our house and kill us all. Even though I was becoming increasingly convinced none of this was terribly plausible, I did hold that it was possible. I knew for a fact she wasn’t just telling me stories – she believed this stuff. And if she believed it, it must be true – at least in some fashion. The fact that this was all entirely in her head didn’t occur to me until much, much later. So in a way, it was the four of us against the world, and then Tim and I creating our own little universe to keep everything else out. In other words, we were playing cards in a trench on a battlefield.

  1. Jessy says:

    my sister and i became very close, in much the same way. our life growing up was very tumultuous… we had to stick together because no one else could ever understand what it was like… and we were the only sane ones. we only had each other. so, i totally get where you’re coming from.

    my mom was crazy in her own way… i wonder if everyone kind of feels like this, or if we really did just have a crazy life.

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