My mother wanted to avoid looking back at my father’s character disorder and how that secret had brought down our family. “You’ve just got to forget the past,” she said periodically. But I persisted in examining chaotic childhood events with the hope that time would give me the perspective to understand them.
When she read a memoir I’d written about my father’s explosive behavior and other family secrets, Mom said, “Don’t publish it until I kick the bucket.”
I said, “What if I kick the bucket before you do?”
She laughed, hoping perhaps I would kick first and take the volume of secrets with me.
But she kicked it in December, 2015, at one hundred years of age, and I’m still here, although it has occurred to me that I might not find a publisher interested in such a sordid tale. But since both are now departed, I feel the freedom to reveal my father’s narcissistic personality disorder and why this condition should have prevented my mother from marrying him.
Betty wanted a handsome man who had muscular legs and could shoulder family responsibilities. Rolf wanted a sexy wife who would mother him at home and indulge his Casanova behavior while he was away. Despite her intelligence, there was no way Betty could know by a man’s legs whether he would be inclined to cheat with other women or that he would always blame others for any problem that involved him. As M. Scott Peck states in his book The Road Less Traveled, “When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world, they automatically assume that the world is at fault.”
Rolf’s mother, sister, and unstable grandmother, had indulged him as if he were a prince. His mother had decided things for him. The trouble with having been a beautiful and pampered child was that it led my father to believe life should revolve around him. When it didn’t, his frustration boiled to the surface, particularly when he was the focal point of a problem that no one else would solve.
I suppose it was my father’s charm and the giddiness of love that made Betty overlook his volatility on the tennis court and tendency to blame others when problems arose. Her father was just the opposite — a quietly strong decision-maker who had traveled the world as a company’s export manager, sold industrial saws in countries from Russia to South Africa, and run a small office out of New York City.
Unlike my grandfather, Dad was an authority on beer, sports, and the dynamics of driving a car. Behind the wheel of a car, he was the master of his domain. I was eight years old when I first feared the escalation of an argument in which Dad claimed that none of the problems to which Mom alluded were his fault.
We are in our old Pontiac, returning from an autumn foliage drive to the top of Hogback Mountain in Vermont, where Mom has photographed every view possible. She has also bought my sister Donna and me maple sugar candy at the gift shop there and promised I could tap maple trees in the spring to make my own candy. Baby Karla is asleep in Mom’s lap when Mom implies Dad is failing as a beer salesman. She says, “I’m worried we won’t be able to pay our bills this month. We’re getting an oil delivery next week and a truckload of wood for the stove. Then there’s bills from Sears and Macy’s, plus the normal household expenses and your traveling expenses.”
Dad says, “You manage the money. You knew we’d need oil when the weather started getting colder. Did you forget to plan for the oil?”
“No, I didn’t forget. There just hasn’t been enough money to set any aside.”
“Why can’t you pay for the oil in monthly installments like you do with Sears?”
“I don’t think they’ll let me do that.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“Maybe you could ask Narragansett for a raise.”
“That’s not the way it works. They don’t raise a salesman’s base pay. If you sell more than your quota, you get a bonus, but they always keep your quota so high you don’t have a chance of getting the bonus.”
“I don’t think we can survive on your base pay.”
“What do you want me to do? Rob a bank?”
When Dad says things like that, I know he’s angry. I hope Mom will drop the conversation, but she presses on.
She says, “Rolf, don’t be ridiculous. Just think about the problem for a minute or two. If you have no hope of making more money with Narragansett, then maybe it’s time to look for a job that pays better.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be so extravagant spending the money I make.”
“Extravagant? Where am I being extravagant?”
“Lots of places. Look at today. Maple syrup. Maple sugar candy.”
“That’s inconsequential. You can’t begrudge the kids a few pieces of candy.”
If their fight is about maple sugar candy, I think maybe this tension is my fault. If I hadn’t asked Mom about buying the candy, maybe this fight wouldn’t be happening.
Dad says, “All those little things add up. It’s the goddamn little things. You keep buying all these little things and fritter the money away so we can’t handle bigger expenses when they come along. So they deliver the goddamn oil. If we can’t pay for it right away, what are they going to do? Come and siphon it out of our tank?”
Mom sighs, gazes out her side window, turns back to Dad. She says, “I don’t fritter our money away. Most of it covers your expenses while you’re on the road. Meals, the Y in Portsmouth, gas for the car, maintaining the car, your cigarettes. I spend very little money that’s not essential. Food, clothes for the kids, things to keep the house running. I haven’t bought anything for myself in ages. We live in a house with no rent or mortgage. You’d think we could get by. But the truth is, Rolf, you’re making barely enough to cover your expenses on the road let alone the expense of running a household.”
Dad’s shoulders jerk back. “So you’re saying it’s my fault then. So you’re saying it’s all my fault. Okay. If I’m such a failure, then I see no point in living. I’m going to kill us all.”
And with that last statement, Dad jams the gas pedal all the way to the floor.
“Stop it, Rolf. You’ll scare the kids.”
Dad’s mouth is set, his jaw is out, the car is picking up speed. We are on a straight stretch of road, everything is whizzing by, Donna is whimpering. I tell her, “He’s just trying to scare us.” But I’m not sure about Dad’s mental state. Maybe he’s going haywire. The car is speeding faster, and Mom seems to be watching the scenery, as if ignoring the situation will call his bluff.
I tell Donna again we aren’t going to die, he’s just trying to scare us. But Donna grabs me tight, buries her head in my chest, and whimpers she doesn’t want to die.
The car must be nearing ninety, because it’s starting to vibrate. I can see Dad’s hands shimmy with the steering wheel. Maybe old cars fly apart at a hundred.
Then, for no reason other than some click in Dad’s mind, he lets up on the gas and the car slows down. He drives normally again. Except for Donna’s sniffles, there is only the sound of the car engine and the hum of the tires on the road. Karla sleeps through the whole episode. Mom and Dad don’t speak the rest of the way home.
That evening and the next day, Sunday, Mom and Dad behaved as if nothing had happened. Mom drove Donna and me to the Congregational church in the village to attend Sunday school. She left us there, bought a New York Times, and drove home so Dad could read the sports pages.
The next week Dad went on his weekly sales trip and brought home three tiger kittens that one of his customers was giving away. Mom and Donna named them Jackie, Jiggie, and Triggie.
In November Mom posed Donna and Karla and me outside for photos that she could use on our family Christmas card. She had us sit on the front steps, Donna holding a kitten, and me steadying Karla between my legs. Mom told us to smile. It was difficult to smile all the time as Mom did. I decided getting three kittens was supposed to make you forget about almost flying off the road in a goddamn Pontiac.
As I look back at this time, I think Mom savored the illusion of happiness. To a woman from the Everything’s Okay generation, a radiant smile allowed you to cover up secrets like your handsome husband being a failure who acted like his wife had kicked him whenever she mentioned money problems. She would shoot an entire roll of film of us kids in various locales and search for one perfect photo that told the Christmas world we were a cheerful crew on a steady ship. She wanted relatives and her New Jersey friends to know that living in my grandparents’ old summer house in New Hampshire was the fulfillment of her dreams, that all the happiness she had experienced as a child in this setting was the vision of her new reality.
That spring I tapped maple trees, carried buckets of sap home, and boiled it in Mom’s biggest pot on our kitchen’s old wood stove. The steaming liquid thickened until it became a remarkable candy. Its sweetness was almost an antidote to my fear that our family would be forever volcanic and nothing at all like the image of serenity in Mom’s photographs.
This was the time when the trouble began. Then there were subsequent periods when I sensed that my family would be living forever in enormous discord. As though fulfilling a prophecy, Mom suffered physical and verbal abuse off and on for the next ten years, until she finally divorced a man whose temper and drinking had grown steadily worse over time.
To me, that time of secrecy with my volatile father had felt like an indefinite period of anxiety that would have no end.