Memoir: Helena Writes #43--On the departure from one's parents

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 43rd post, Helena tells the first of a two-part story of adolescent rebellion. Enjoy!

The Monkey: Part one

When I was fourteen and life had taken its hormonal turn, pushing me out of the childhood home that I thought was permanent, I bought a monkey. It was a spider monkey. I’d found it at a pet store in Queens, somewhere near the place we lived in Kew Garden Hills.

I see now, the monkey was a vehicle to ride with, to forget my parents, like the cabalistic Rabbinical tale of the soul born into the world, and at that moment struck on the chin by an angel, so it will forget the paradise where it has come from, in order to bear its birth into this difficult place.

I was in departure, on a slow, unrelenting train ride into another world, the world apart from the people, I would understand only later, who loved me more than anyone else ever would, though manifesting that love with serious flaws. They would love me with all the guilt and devotion of parents whose only happiness is the success of their children, whose existence depends on their children living. My children, yet to come, would love me as much, though of course, differently. And then would I understand, through my love for my children, my parents’ love for me.

If it is true, as I have read, that the brain waves of an adolescent slow down until early adulthood, I was on a brain ride, leaving the station, that monkey the conductor. I left home in a cloak of forgetfulness, my life calling me.

I loved that monkey, connected with it. I’d saved $22 babysitting, and somehow—a 14-year-old doesn’t bargain—it was the very price of the monkey. Maybe the people at the pet store were anxious to sell it and knew that $22 was all I had. Or maybe it was just so long ago that $22 could buy something, something not made in China—I never wondered until now where the monkey came from. But $22 paid for the monkey and its capacious cage.

I had only wandered into that pet store. How impulsive I was! Yet, I see now, it was the future pulling me. I brought the monkey home, poor caged thing, with his sad and anxious eyes, and set him next to the metal folding table my mother had, in her despair at the mess my paints made on my bed, without realizing the touching import of her act, furnished my first painting studio. I still have that table. It has rusted permanently open, now painted bright green enamel over my old tempera paint marks. It sits in my basement supporting boxes of other relics from my past—things, like the table, that I can’t part with. When I do the laundry and remember the table is there, I look in its direction, under the high basement window, and it startles me. It has become a bridge to my mother’s unknowing act of confirmation of my vocation—though when I was 14, it was about the mess I made. She closed that door, separating that young studio from the rest of the house. My mother needed order—and how well I understand that now.

That small bedroom was the room I’d shared with my sister, Jolene. We were intimate friends, and enemies, in our sibling rivalry. Both of us were passionate. I see my sister jumping up and down on the plastic, plug-in alarm clock when it buzzed time to wake up. My father glued the pieces back together. Jo left the moment she could. At the strike of 18, she got an apartment in Germantown, 81st Street between York and First Avenues in Manhattan, for $75 a month. She worked and went to school. That’s when we really began to get close—thick as thieves, separating from our parents. I went into the city to stay with her, sleepovers. We talked on the phone. My sister left the apartment in Queens in a cold rage. In that sense, our passions couldn’t have been more different. Devotion was my driver, to people, painting, writing, my destiny. My sister was born independent—she seemed never to look back. My forgetfulness of my parents was temporary.

By the time I was 13 and my sister was 17, the house had lapsed into a wild and hysterical chaos. Four impossible people, as I see it now, who just a few years before were a family with two young daughters; children who loved their parents, parents who loved their children, were now trapped together in my sister’s and my adolescence. In a drawer upstairs, in the sleeping loft in this house in the woods where I live, is the diary I kept when I was 13. It is an expression of unmitigated misery. We were all miserable. The next year, Jolene left. I bought a monkey; and two years later, I left, too. That’s when my parents began to enjoy each other again; they would have 10 good years.

But in this memory, I am still 14. After my sister left, my father got sick with the heart disease that would take him from us. Once my father got sick, I must have known I was on my own. That day, the day of the monkey, I waited in my room with the metal table, my paints, my bed and the monkey. My parents were yet to arrive home. My father, a teacher, came home first. He was the one with whom I had the empathic connection. I opened my door, for I always greeted my father.

The next thing I can remember is introducing my father to the monkey. My father was fascinated. And I see this clearly: My father opened the cage door. “Hello, boy,” my father said, then reached his hand into the cage to offer it to the monkey. The little thing took my father’s hand. My father didn’t seem alarmed. I know I was in a high state of alert; I can still experience it more than 60 years later.

And that was that. There, the memory goes dark. Until my mother got home. She was furious, undone. I know there was screaming, though I can’t hear it—there’s a vacuum. Then I lost my father. He became as angry as my mother. That is the gist of this memory. I felt a thunderbolt of betrayal.

Of course, from here, I see that I set it up, and, of course I didn’t know that then. I was just moving through time and space, my future dragging me by my hormones. I feel for my parents now, who had to deal with this daughter that would bring home a monkey. 

The house became suddenly terrifying. “It’s going back!” my mother hissed. I was full of adrenaline. I spent the night with the monkey in my room. I remember feeling sad. I realize now I never named it. I hope that I slept fitfully, listening for the sound of him in his cage, imagining his dark, intense sad eyes. I don’t think I cried. I would remember that. I was numb. Shut down with anger.

The next day my parents took him back to the pet store and returned with my $22—the $22 that would pay for the next leg of my journey outward, my summer of work, my first teaching job, in the Arts and Crafts cabin at Broad Channel Day Camp. There I would meet someone, who would introduce me to someone, who would introduce me to to someone else. The doorway to the rest of my life had opened.

Twenty-two dollars, a long time ago, could buy something.

To be continued in April…

Do you have a memory of an impulsive or reckless purchase or action as an adolescent? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Will you tune in for part 2 of this story in April? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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