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Saturday, April 03, 2004

Am confused ...

Was the role of Tina Turner in "What's Love Got To Do With It?" played by Lynne Whitfield or by Angela Bassett? Constantly confuse those two actors, both fine and equally gifted.

Saturday again. Dorian is off to basketball practice for Special Olympics. She'll take BART to her apartment afterwards and continue to pack boxes on her own. It's important that she be allowed to separate from the old environment at her own pace -- to the extent that we can afford it. Having her actively participate in the process is probably an important element in getting her to "move" psychologically, with my role minimized as much as possible. It's all going terribly slowly, but that seems unavoidable right now.

I'm here in a blissfully silent apartment. Hadn't realized how much my ability to go in and out of my busy world day after day is dependent upon a critical balance between that and the luxurious stillness that comes with living alone. Having the time to vegetate, meditate, mull over, ponder, dream big dreams, and reconsider is something I was beginning to miss terribly, though only now am I beginning to sense what was missing.

Thinking in the wee hours about that day long ago when -- into my office at the university came an agent from the Internal Revenue Service. I had only recently been hired as an administrative assistant to the chief administrator of a research project on campus. In a less than a year I would be married to the chief investigator of that project, Project Community. This would be Dr. William F Soskin, Ph.D., psychologist, graduate of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Clinical Researcher and Professor of psychology at the University of Chicago at Urbana, Associate Professor at Harvard, and -- most recently (at that time) associated with the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) in Washington and a member of a Think Tank that served as advisors to Presidents Lyndon Johnson and later to John F Kennedy. Along with his best friend and our best man, Psychiatrist Leonard Duhl, shortly after Kennedy's assassination, Bill had arrived on the West Coast on assignment to study the Flower Child phenomenon in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Leonard came with a grant that was designed to initiate the first comprehensive school desegregation program in the country, in Berkeley. Two learned and fascinating men on a mission.

Back to the visit of IRS:

My marriage to Mel had ended years before -- but refused to truly die. We'd grown apart as a couple but were both clinging to our parental roles -- and trying hard to be respectful friends. I knew little of his life -- or of the fact that he'd begun to lose everything of value over a period of several awful years. His desperation led him into regular weekend trips to the gambling tables in Reno and huge losses that eventually robbed him of everything he'd built over all a lifetime.

Over the same summer all four of our children had moved on. Rick was now 21 and living in a rented apartment in Berkeley. David was living with my long time friend, Jean, and her husband, Roger, while attending Berkeley high school. We'd given up on the suburban high school for him since neither Rick nor Bob had succeeded in making all the way through to graduation, though each remained in class until the end. We'd taken David from the local public school and enrolled both him and Dorian at a wonderful private school in the Alhambra Valley -- some miles from home. To now put David through that misery was unthinkable. Racism had proven too difficult for any of them to get through, especially since their parents were so distracted by problems too devastating to share and the resulting growing alienation. Neither Mel nor I were aware of what our sons were having to live through. How I regret having to remember that truth.

Rick's homosexuality was by now a huge factor and (I later learned from him) he was cutting school and spending his days wandering the streets of San Francisco in the Haight Ashbury -- exploring the underside of the Gay lifestyle that would later take over his life. The indignities suffered at school from his skin color in childhood were now replaced by gay-bashing as a young adult. This was complicated by the fact that he was working for his Dad at our Berkeley store on weekends, and witnessing Mel's other life, a life that involved other women and the high life of being a handsome and important concert promoter and manager of the renowned Edwin Hawkins Singers as well as successful merchant and entrepreneur.

I remember one terrifying night when the telephone rang and it was Rick rasping out, "...I'm in a phone booth across the street from the store, Mom. I'm gonna kill him!" He was talking about Mel. He was obviously spaced out on alcohol and out of his mind with rage! I was terrified and helpless -- and 15 miles away in Walnut Creek. Spent the next hour talking him down and silently desparately praying to some unknown God ... .

By now I was living pretty much alone in Paradise, with David and Rick in Berkeley while 17 year-old Bob was spending the summer hitch-hiking across Canada (with my permission, I blush to say). Bob and I had attended the Unitarian-Universalist General Assembly in Cleveland where Bob had the heady experience of receiving a standing ovation for remarks he made on the Sanctuary Movement -- this was during the Vietnam War. He was so bright and so capable (I believed) that when he came to me and asked for permission to return home via Canada as an adventure, I agreed, and flew home alone. Dorian was by now living at a boarding school for the mentally handicapped in Marin.

Taking a job seemed the only answer after years of child-rearing, and finally trying to make decisions about how to spend the rest of my life as a single adult woman.

Back to the Treasury Department Agent:

"Mrs. Betty Reid?"
"Yes."
"Mrs. Melvin A. Reid?"
"Yes."

Then he presented me with an official document that announced that our beautiful home of 20 years in Walnut Creek was being seized for non-payment of income taxes. I stared in disbelief!

"I must ask you to be off the premises within X number of days -- at which time it will be placed on the market for sale."

I'd never had the courage to not sign the income tax form, even after I was no longer Mel's wife. Had no idea that those taxes had not been paid for an unknown period of years. He had systematically gone through every cent and piece of property we'd owned -- at one point a single-family home, a small duplex, plus a newly-built commercial building that housed our business -- all situated on a single block from one street corner to the next on a main street in Berkeley. An estate meant for our legacy -- for the kids. Gone. Everything gambled away. All that was left was the building -- but even that was facing foreclosure, though I wasn't yet aware of it at the time.

I'm certain that Rick had known all and held secret since he'd worked closely with his father in the store since a teenager. How I wished he'd shared that burden, but how? It must have been almost unbearable for him... .

My life separate from Mel was still relatively tolerable. I'd become a pillar of my UU church with a host of friends. It was easy to shut it all out in busyness, and I did. Was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement -- was filling the empty spaces with song-writing and social action. Leaving my marriage was not an option since the indelible mandate of a Catholic ceremony had sealed my fate and my parents' dominance over that fate could not be challenged. At that time, there had not been a divorce in the family. My father was adamant. I was compliant. Foolish when I think back on it, but lives have been guided by less, I suppose. And after all, a woman's role was to tolerate a man's excesses, and by and large, Mel had been good to me and never abusive. This satisfied the bargain as far as my folks were concerned. My expectations were limited and he lived up to most of them. Sound familiar?

There was a long period when I knew that I would eventually be divorced, but that period coincided with one of inertia, emotional paralysis. Was still defined by my roles of wife and mother, with the missing part being that of woman. After being married so young and for so long, the thought of stepping off into independence was too frightening to seriously consider. So I sat and lived in the land of "what if" and "if I'd only ...," and postponed decisions day after disconsolate day. Convinced myself that there was only one man in my life, ever, and that I'd failed him miserably. Can't recall ever actually taking charge of my life and stepping forward into that unknown future. Spent months on end simply existing without a compass. Then, the job opening at the university opened new doors through which I stumbled one day in early September of that year.

Given that history, it should come as no surprise that -- within months I'd become the spouse of another. It simply had not occurred to me that I might be capable of existing as a free-standing being, or that I had the strength and the power to do so.

Some time before I'd gone through a mental breakdown and 3-year recovery at home. The experience served to break through the vise-like grip of a failed marriage. A fine Jungian psychiatrist, Dr. Jean Neighbor, gently pulled me from the edge, opened the doors to thoughts of escape from my marriage, and into a new future that would begin the unfolding of a life I'd never ever have anticipated. Looking into the seductive face of suicide can be the catalyst for monumental change -- for those of us who survive the temptation to use this permanent answer to temporary problems.

Am beginning to understand why it's been so hard to look back. But there's much about those days that I now know contributed substantially to providing the steel that holds me together now. These were the years when I learned something about the human capacity to bend and sway against adversity, how pliant is the soul. I learned to take away from the experience -- the tools necessary for survival. Some of them are pretty primitive, I guess, like acquiring a keen sense of just where the bottom is -- and how to touch down ever so lightly -- just enough to spring back up into whatever comes next; after the fall ... .

But it's Saturday again, and there's all this beautiful silence to bathe myself in -- before it ends and the din of senseless chatter has to be withstood ... .

More tomorrow.

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