Spinning Wheels


1962 was one of those memorable years for Melanie. She was 12 for it (January birthday), on the cusp of adolescence, her vision widening with every week.

That was the summer her parents first let her out of the house alone. She rode her bike to the library twice a week or more, checking out the maximum number of books each time, and then devouring them in her room, with her mother complaining that she should get out and be with other girls and her father lamenting her sedentary habits.

She didn’t understand their complaints. She tried to ignore them. Melanie had a best friend, with whom she spent some after-school time and had slumber parties. She preferred to socialize with Candy outside, taking walks and talking about boys and breasts, or at Candy’s house, where her mother paid them little attention and let them eat tacos and watch The Twilight Zone. Neither she nor Candy liked to hang with groups of girls. They were both put off by the shrieking and jumping, and neither was interested in cosmetics. As for her father’s “I’d call you a vegetable but it would be an insult to the plant kingdom,” Melanie was stymied. She walked and rode her bike all the time! Just because she wasn’t into helping her folks with the garden or eager to camp with her parents and younger brothers didn’t mean she was immobile.

But so it went. She was her parents’ first kid and she was very expressive. It took her years to understand that they were scared of her.

In July of that year she discovered classical mythology. It started with a juvenile synopsis of Greek myths, and it grabbed her. Soon she was devouring any stories she could find. She began with the Greeks and she remained loyal to them afterward, disdaining the Roman names and versions as derivative and unoriginal and probably never believed. Besides, Melanie found a role model of sorts in Athena, and Rome’s Minerva simply wasn’t a personality of the same stature.

She was also taken by the Oedipus story. By the end of that summer she read the Sophocles play, which opened up another avenue of pleasure for her; she learned how much fun and fast it is, to read scripts.

She was into Oedipus not for the psychiatric reasons. She didn’t think the story had a thing to do with sons loving (let alone sexually wanting) their mothers. No. As far as Melanie was concerned, the fable was all about failure to communicate. What did the parents do as soon as they heard the dire prophecy that their baby would kill dad and marry mom? They buried it. They got rid of the kid. And they didn’t anticipate the unintended consequences of their actions: that the person nominated to execute the baby might take another course. And that the baby, growing up in complete ignorance of the prophecy, was thereby enabled to fulfill it. Melanie knew the tragedy would have collapsed in on itself if the parents had kept the child and informed him.

It took her a couple of years to connect the Oedipus story with the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. Then it was like a lightbulb firing above her head; she was talking to Candy about the tragic failure to communicate in Thebes when it hit her. “It’s just like Sleeping Beauty!” she exclaimed. Candy looked confused. “No really! Remember how the king and queen responded to the bad prophecy by destroying all the spinning wheels? And then when the teenage princess encountered one, she had no idea what it was. Her not knowing permitted the accident that sent her into that coma. Just imagine how the story would have gone instead, if the king and queen had raised their daughter to understand spinning wheels and the evil wished upon her.”

That was her summer lesson. In October Melanie experienced another. She was with her mother on an annual visit to relatives in New York. Melanie’s family were all New Yorkers. She and her parents and brothers had moved to southern California four years earlier, and her mother hadn’t shifted to the west coast yet. She talked to her sister as often as she could afford the long distance rates. This was back when all calls required telephone lines, and long distance was costly. Melanie’s mother would place a person-to-person call for herself, to her sister Sophie. Who would answer, if she was home, and promptly deny the call. But that signaled Aunt Sophie to call station-to-station to Melanie’s mom, which was cheaper than person-to-person AND placed from the east coast so at evening rates.

In addition to the phone calls, Melanie’s mother flew across the country to visit her family, once or twice a year.

That fall Melanie accompanied her. They brought a basket of produce with them because no one in New York saw red tomatoes after August. (The easterners had no avocados. Jicama wasn’t imagined, even by chefs.) They stayed in Sophie’s house and it seemed to Melanie like every day was a shopping trip. In the middle of the week their target was Stamford, Connecticut, for knitting supplies.

That was a revelation for Melanie. California is so big it’s hard to leave. But in the NYC area, one can get to other states with a short drive. It seemed to take no time at all to go from White Plains to Stamford.

But the memorable event occurred after they arrived, just as they exited the car.

There was an old man sleeping in the gutter. Melanie thought he was dead at first, but then she saw his belly move. He breathed.

His skin was pasty white and his whiskers were sparse and gray. His mouth was agape and Melanie could see yellow teeth between thin lips amid dirty whiskers. His jacket was torn at the elbows and had a patina of filth disguising its original color. His trousers were streaked with something dark and twisted around his legs so his sockless bony ankles showed within mismatched too-large shoes.

“Melanie,” hissed her mother as she grabbed her left elbow and pulled her away from the scene. “Stay away from that guy. C’mere.”

On the sidewalk Melanie looked to her mom. Her question was obvious. “He’s drunk,” her mother whispered hoarsely, as if the man could hear her. “That’s what happens when people drink too much.”

Melanie doesn’t remember what yarn they bought or even much about the rest of that visit, but the image of the old man in the gutter stayed with her. In today’s terms he became her icon for alcoholism.

Her brothers weren’t along for that trip, but they must have imbibed the same idea about booze. The family drank wine in moderation at celebratory and holiday meals. The parents often had a cocktail before dinner. The understanding in that household was that alcoholics crashed their cars and/or wrecked their marriages and/or lost their jobs and/or worse.

Melanie married at 24. Her brothers were 26 and 28 when they acquired wives. All three siblings managed to select spouses who were functional alcoholics.

It was easy. Booze was a part of dating. Drink was included at all circum-wedding gatherings. Eventually Melanie and her brothers noticed that their beloveds kept drinking, once started, as long as the inventory and/or consciousness lasted. But no one ever fell down, wrecked the car, or let any after-effects interfere with work.

It was as if birthday forecasts were made for Melanie and her brothers – your intimate futures will be wrecked by partnering with functional alcoholics – and their parents reacted by banning the idea of unobtrusive alcoholism from the house. When Melanie and her brothers encountered it, they had no idea what to make of it.

The spouses didn’t reform. Rehab was never considered. Melanie’s marriage ended after a decade, and most of the problem was the booze and the way it let her husband stuff his feelings. Her youngest brother’s marriage limped on for almost 22 years, and then devolved to a divorced friendship, with him continuing to provide occasional care for his deteriorating ex. The older brother and his wife stayed together but ran out of intimacy. She had healthy daytime habits, albeit with chronic whispered complaints, but started drinking every evening at 5, no longer whispering, till she passed out, and then resumed when she woke up.

Poor kids. The lot of Melanie and her brothers was nowhere near as bad as Oedipus’s. It wasn’t even close to the suspended animation of the pricked princess. But they think their lives would have been happier, if only they’d known.

Ultimately Melanie concluded that parents hug their kids wrong. She says frontal hugs are for condolences and foreplay. Melanie suggests that parents embrace their children from behind. They should offer their faces, cheek to cheek with their offspring, and provide information about life.

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