My Mother’s Theories of Child Rearing

Kathryn Starbuck

I had my first migraine when I was twelve. I knew what it was because my mother had taught me. She would moan and wail around the house ten or twelve days each month. She would yell at me to be quiet. “Don’t you know my head is splitting?” “Turn off that light.” “What’s that awful smell?” “Fix me a milkshake.” “My God, I’m dying of pain.”
    Well, she had more than migraines, of course, and I felt sorry for her a lot of the time. She was a somewhat functional crazy person.
    When the throbbing pain struck on the right side of my head, I knew what it was. When my right eye became swollen and my eyelid drooped almost shut, I knew what it was. I did not want to tell my mother because I knew she would just say I knew nothing about pain. She owned pain. She owned suffering. She owned meanness. She owned lots of things. So I kept quiet.
    My father noticed my swollen eye. He took me to the doctor. My mother punished me for telling him, not her. It was not pleasant. I got another migraine. “Don’t tell Daddy. Tell me when you’re sick,” she told me as she was hitting me. She always told me never to tell my father that she hit me. I never did because I was afraid of her. I also loved her with a passion as crazy and unfathomable as she was.

Sometimes when I had a migraine, I’d tell her and she would be nice to me. You never knew. If she was being nice, and not hitting me, she would make potato soup for me and keep me home from school. If she didn’t want me to go to school even though I wasn’t sick—but just for some odd reason of her own that she never explained except that she wanted me at home to take care of her—she kept me in the kitchen, where we sat and played cribbage all day. She talked nonstop, mostly criticizing and threatening me.
    It was not easy to figure out how to survive this woman. I seemed to do it by being an exceedingly sweet and compliant child who was often sick. That at least is the uniform judgment of my elementary school teachers in their remarks on my report cards, which I ran across in my attic the other day: “A very sweet child.” “So sweet and pleasant.” “A joy.” “She misses many days of class.” “Her attendance is not as strong as I’d like.” “How quick and intelligent she is.” “She has such a sweet nature.” “She is very helpful to others.”
    Whenever I tried to stand up to my mother, I felt like a fish trying to swallow the ocean.

My Greek immigrant father, Alexander Leonidas Dermand, revered doctors. He would cook special braised vegetable dishes in our main street restaurant for our family doctor in Algona, Iowa, then have me get all dressed up and hand deliver them to the doctor. He wanted the doctor to cure my mother of her migraines and her mean madness. She was nuts, and it was hard on all of us in the family. My mother was clever and devious. She never acted mean or crazy in public or in front of the doctor, so how were we going to get anywhere? I doubt my father had ever heard of psychiatrists or specialists. It was the 1940s. This was rural Iowa.
    My father’s English was thick with his Greek accent. Some people had trouble understanding him. He was exceedingly proud and protective of his wife and family. He was autocratic and old-fashioned. He could be formal and diffident. He did not know how to tell the doctor about her. My father seemed to fantasize about miraculous medical intervention in the person of this small-town doctor.
    I was terrified of my mother. The kindly police chief patronized our restaurant three times a day. I prayed for the courage to ask him to take her away. Far far away from me.
    My father and I early on formed a solid compact full of mutual lies, secrets, and withholdings in our broken household, which also was composed of hard work, love, and innocence. I wonder if either of us would have made it without the other.
    I had a brother, Leonidas Alexander. He was two years older than I. Early on he retreated into a world of his own, isolated from his family. He never came out of it. Years later he killed himself.
    It was a terrible life in many ways, but since we knew no other, who can say? I know I did not feel sorry for myself. I often felt puzzled. I do not know what my father felt about his lot. I do not have a clue about my poor brother. I know I felt sorry for him and wanted him to be my friend. And I know I felt profound aching sorrow and hatred and unquenchable, passionate, protective, unending love for my mother.

Neither of my parents had much education. Two years of elementary school in Greece for my father. Six grades in a country school in Illinois for my American mother. There were no books in my house. There were few expectations of me except that I grow up to marry somebody who could find a job.
    The hard work that I performed from age four onward in the family restaurant was a welcome and saving buffer from the terror of being at home, where my mother took out her sickness on me. I got up at 4:30 each day and went downstairs to have coffee and hot milk with my father, who then walked the two blocks uptown to the restaurant to start cooking for the day. He was a gifted chef who could turn out four hundred four-course meals a day pretty much by himself—everything made from scratch—then turn around and do it again the next day, six days a week.
    By 6:30, I was dressed for work and school. I walked to the cafe, put on my little apron, and prepared for the breakfast run. I cut cold butter with a butter cutter that divided a whole pound into inch-square chips and distributed them on tiny individual butter dishes. I climbed a ladder and poured cold water into the top of two huge coffee urns. My father would come out from the kitchen to do the important task of lighting the two large round gas burners whose blue flames set the urns to boiling. I filled salt, pepper, and sugar shakers, poured fresh, thick cream into individual coffee creamers, polished and replenished the paper-napkin holders for the breakfast run, folded cloth napkins for lunch and dinner diners, served hot coffee—without spilling it—to the earliest breakfast customers, and, when the time came, removed my apron, said good-bye to my daddy and the breakfast waitresses, and toddled off to kindergarten a block and a half away. When that half day of school ended, I hurried back to the café to work for lunch. By then my mother was out of bed and had arrived to manage the front of the café. She was always fashionably dressed. She never looked like a mad woman.
    This pattern of work and school was agreeable to me. I enjoyed talking to the customers. I believed I was a grown-up person. When I reached full-day school age, I worked through late afternoon and dinner and stayed at the café, sometimes taking a nap in the back, until closing time around 8:00 pm. This allowed little time at home with my mother—although she always somehow managed to corner me in private to issue threats and ultimatums, upon which she often delivered.

Her capricious and inconsistent orders made it dangerous to disregard them. She never punished me physically in front of my father. But she often belittled me, criticized and complained about my many stupidities. She did not allow me to defend myself. In private she said she would kill me if I told him of her punishments. I believed her. I never knew why she hurt me. She often apologized and wept, demanding forgiveness. Of course I forgave her in words but not in my heart. If I did not accept her easy apologies, I would be hurt again.
    I never told my father that she planned to kill me. Often I told him that she was trying to destroy my soul. He told me that my soul was my own and that no one could take it from me, “Not even Mama.” I did not always believe him on this.

One day during one of my mother’s migraine sieges, my father abruptly locked the café and said to the two of us, “Get in the car. We’re going to Mayo.” He drove us north to Rochester, Minnesota, to the Mayo Clinic. He demanded immediate attention for his wife’s head. “She’s got the migraine. Eight days. And now my little girl, too,” he said, pointing to me. “She’s got it too.” I had begun my own lifetime of migraines. I was twelve or thirteen.
    Mayo looked for tumors and epilepsy and found neither in either of us.
    Mayo gave us pills and sent us home.
When I married and had been living away from home for more than a decade, my father told me the reason he had stayed with my mother was because of me—because he knew he would lose me in a divorce. “Do you think an immigrant man barely speaking English in the 1940s could get custody? Of course not.” I am sure he was right on the custody issue. But I am also sure that cannot have been anywhere near the whole story. She had some horrible hold on him as well. She was an American of Irish-German stock and was in many ways his ticket to American business and American ways when they met during the Great Depression. The woman controlled all our lives, including my brother’s. Much of it she exercised from her sick bed, much of it in whispered threats and delivered punishment in my case. God knows what she did to the two men in my family. I never asked them. They never asked me. We all lived together. They are all long dead.
    My parents ran the café only intermittently during my childhood. They leased it out for a year or so at times when my father would get overworked and exhausted, giving my mother whole years to stay in bed and deliver threats, giving my brother more and more time to retreat from us and into himself, giving me time to try to grow into something resembling an exuberant whole person, which—at least externally—I did. My father lived to be ninety-six. My mother held on to her migraines and her meanness and died howling at eighty-seven, a year after he did. They were married sixty years.

The summer of my fourth year, when I was almost five, we went to nearby Clear Lake, Iowa, for a couple of days. My mother suddenly hit me and then threw me off the end of the dock and into the water. I did not know how to swim. She jumped in the water and held me under, trying to drown me. I broke free. I was a fat and buoyant child and popped to the surface, struggling and screaming. She held me under again. I struggled more. I heard my father, who had come out of the cabin yelling, “Save her, Hazel, save her.”
    At this point my mother “saved” me. After that, my mother always proudly said in public that that was how you taught children to swim—throw them in the water and then “save” them if they can’t hack it. It was one of my mother’s favorite theories of child rearing. She left out the bit about holding them under water in order to drown them. She always told me in private that she would finish drowning me if I didn’t do as she instructed at any given time about any given thing.
    Later that summer, my boyfriend and I went often to our town’s swimming pool where kind lifeguards gave us children’s swimming lessons. Soon I could swim like a fish. I learned to hold my breath under water for a long time, all the while hoping my mother would never be able to drown me even though she was bigger and stronger. The bathtub at home had become a place of dread. How I yearned for a home with a shower. It was not to be. At least during summertime, I could use the showers at the swimming pool to avoid bathing at home.
    I do not remember fearing my mother was going to drown me after I became seven or eight years old. At that age, a new fear took over. She started talking about signing me over to the county home to get rid of me. That was where the poor mental and physical defectives were warehoused in the late 1940s and after. She used to whisper to me that that was what was going to happen to me if I didn’t do as she said—whatever she said—at any given moment.
    Occasionally, a few residents of the county home were brought to our café in the afternoon for ice-cream sodas. They were accompanied by staff members, I suppose, or perhaps by relatives who had committed them. They were noticeable because of their physical deformities, some of which were extreme. Others were clearly what were then called “idiots.” My mother would tell me scary stories of what went on at the county home. She often called me an idiot and said I would feel right at home with the “idiots” at the county home.
    Her stories and threats seemed altogether real and unreal. I was rarely aware of doing anything wrong to deserve such treatment, since I worked so hard to be an obedient child. I was bewildered. It was as impossible to predict what next I might do to displease this big important person in my life as it was to know when she might next wallop me.

When I became a teenager, she pretty much stopped threatening to dump me at the county home. It was then that my mother came up with her most refined theory of child rearing—one that was literally criminal as well as pathological. She liked costume jewelry, especially cheap and gaudy rings, the sort one could buy from displays that sat exposed atop locked department store jewelry cases. They usually cost three or four or five dollars.
    One day when I was in ninth grade, when she made me stay home to play cribbage with her, she suddenly decided we were going to drive to Fort Dodge to go shopping for rings. On the way there—it was a forty-two-mile drive that took a little more than an hour—she coolly outlined a crime I was to commit on her behalf as if she were patiently and lovingly teaching me how to bake my first favorite homemade chocolate cake. Even though I was used to her abuses and depredations, I was shocked at the public nature of what she was telling me I had to do. I begged her to relent. I said I would not do it. “Of course you will,&rdquo she said, as she pulled the car to the side of the road and began her most persuasive punishment. She broke me down. I knew by the time we got to Yonkers Department Store in downtown Fort Dodge that even though someone in my life had taught me the difference between right and wrong, I was about to become a shoplifter. I had gotten sick to please this sick person. I had gotten migraines for her. I had taken care of her for as long as I could remember. Now I was to steal for her.
    My mother was an intimidatingly big woman: five foot ten, about six inches taller than I. She weighed about 235 pounds, to my 145. She explained that she would pick out and identify the ring she wanted. Then the recipe for thievery would go like this:

        1. Stand behind Mama while Mama continues to talk to and distract the clerk.
        2. Check to see that no one in the store is watching you.
        3. When you are sure that Mama has distracted the clerk, take the ring and slip it in your pocket.
        4. When you’re sure it’s safely in your pocket, step around Mama to where Mama can see you
            so Mama will know it is safe for us to leave.

How proud she was of her recipe. She was excited. She was glowing. She said if I messed up and got caught, she would punish me so badly right there in the store, that the authorities would beg her to stop and take me home. She said they would not arrest me because I was a child—as if that would comfort me. If by some chance they called my father in Algona, well, she said, could I even imagine how my father would react upon learning that his precious little princess turned out to be a thief. Could I even imagine? “Don’t worry,” she told me, “he’ll believe me, not you.
    I stole five rings for her in four years. Once, I got the courage to refuse. On that occasion, I stomped out of the store and went back to the car, not caring what she did to me. How could it be worse than what she was already doing? When she left me alone for a few minutes, I ran back to the department store, purchased the ring she wanted, had it gift wrapped, and presented it to her when we got home in an attempt to shame her. Of course I failed. Because of my rebellion, she made my life a living hell for months. She convinced me everything was all my fault. She constantly called me a thief. She said I deserved much worse than what she was doing to me. I felt deep shame. At times I wanted to die. High school graduation could not come too soon, because it meant my physical if not my psychological liberation. I left home and never lived with my mother again. I was seventeen. It was l957.
    In 1993, when I folded up my parents home in Algona after they both had died, I came across a dusty collection of my mother’s old costume jewelry. There sat the stolen goods. I recognized at once the five rings I had stolen among dozens of others. I took the five and wrapped them in a handkerchief, then drove to the local Hardee’s and dropped them in a huge dumpster. I did not want to profit from the pennies they would bring when the household goods went up for auction.

My father practiced two professions throughout his life: he was a professional poker player as well as a chef. Because he worked long hours most of the time, he simply enfolded me into the sidelines of his jobs whenever he could to keep me away from my mother, to protect me, and to give me respite from her demands and wailings.
    When he would grow exhausted at the restaurant, he would leave it to the lessee and turn to poker. He was experienced. He had spent his first two decades after immigrating to this country, before marrying, gambling in Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, and in smaller spots in the Midwest. When Las Vegas was established, he played big games there. When he got old and closed the restaurant for good, he continued his poker playing in local games in Iowa until he was well into his nineties. My mother kept careful records of his earnings, of which they were both proud. He made a decent living at it; he bought a few commercial buildings in our small town that gave them a comfortable living in their old age.
    The summer of my sixth or seventh year, my father took me on my first major gambling trip to Las Vegas. We stayed a couple of weeks. He played poker all night and slept during the day. He checked in on me often at night. He had me spend the days in the casino supervised by the women dealers and cocktail waitresses he knew. They doted on me, gave me special treats, and braided my long hair in unusual and pretty ways. He gave me strict instructions on what I could do and what I could not do. I loved it and felt very grown-up.
    We went again to Las Vegas when I was about twelve, and the final time when I was a senior in high school. During that trip I got in trouble because I accepted too many free drinks at the casino, got drunk, got sick, got a migraine, and disappointed my father.
It made me deeply unhappy to disappoint my father. It was years before I took another drink.     We made shorter gambling trips to Omaha, Chicago, St. Louis. On these trips, I stayed with Greek families my father knew in every city. These were “fully Greek” families, where both the father and mother were Greek. If English was spoken at all, it was by the children. I did not know Greek, but I knew how to be loved by these naturally loving people. And I was fascinated by all things Greek because they reminded me of my father. I was sorry there were no Greeks other than my father in Algona. Always I invited the big-city Greeks to move to our farm town as we said our good-byes.
    My father often took me fishing and hunting for pheasant, quail, and rabbit. I know he did all this to give me some protection and relief from life with Hazel—but always there was a price to pay for leaving her when I returned. She of course refused to come hunting or fishing with us. She hated the outdoors. And she said she would be bored in Las Vegas because she did not gamble and had no interest in talking to cocktail waitresses. She preferred to stay home in bed. It infuriated her that my father was giving me a bit of respite because it meant I was not available as her caretaker and abusee.

I had realized, even as a young woman, that I could not save her, could not know who or what she was, could not make her whole, could not take her pain away and let her love me the way she should. This did not stop me from trying. It took me decades to stitch together a picture of my family that I could look at without wincing.
    Now that I am old, I look back in wonder when I examine my fractured family. I am overcome with gladness that at least half of us survived: my father and I were resilient. We lost my brother. My mother was lost before either my father or I found her. But my dad and I survived—and then some. He led a long and remarkable life that was as full of joy and adventure as it was of grief. I can say the same for myself. I slowly learned how to live without despair and implanted migraines. I slowly learned how to reap the joys that my father and I painstakingly, awkwardly, planted in me all those decades ago when we both worked long and hard—in the restaurant, on bizarre gambling trips, while hunting, while standing in waders thigh deep and perfectly still in the river smiling at each other while waiting for a fish to strike—always trying to do the best we could with whatever we had. And when we landed a fish? Ah, then we broke the silence and burst into song—he in Greek and I in English. Sometimes we got carried away and started dancing the kalamatianos, a Greek line dance, until my waders and my heart overflowed.

Kathryn Starbuck is the author of a collection of poetry, Griefmania, published by Sheepmeadow Press in 2006. Her poem “The Shoe” was anthologized in the 2008 edition of The Best American Poetry. She edited two volumes of her late husband George Starbuck’s poems with Elizabeth Meese. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“My Mother’s Theories of Child Rearing” appears in our Winter 2008 issue.