by ELIZABETH J. THEIS
I’ve wanted to write about The Condo for years, so when I was approached and given a deadline, I did what any gal would do: I put my blinders on and pretended it didn’t exist for a while. See, I’ve developed a defense mechanism that doesn’t allow my mind to go there very often. So, after a solid day of lying around in the fetal position, I’m sitting here with only a couple good hours left in me, and I am Totally Ready to Write This Thing. This is a story about a very distinct time period in my life that Built Me Into Who I Am Today.
It’s funny how the 90s have recently made a comeback. It seems like everyone is passing around click bait like “50 Signs You Grew Up in the 90s” with images of Crystal Pepsi and other nauseating reminders of the chemicals and dyes that were in snack foods at the time. But for me, the age of slap bracelets and TGIF elicits memories that make me sick to my stomach on a psychoanalytical level. Just seeing a certain shade of floral print thrusts me back to my stomach churning pre-teen years. So let’s start where many 90s stories begin: in the 80s.
In 1988, I remember going to lots of doctors’ appointments with my mother. Well, I remember sitting in lots of dim, brown-carpeted waiting rooms, anyway. I was 6 years old, and it was the year she was diagnosed with relapsing/remitting Multiple Sclerosis. Those were some pretty big words for me at the time, so if there was ever a family discussion about it (and I don’t remember it if there was), I’m sure it was simplified for my tiny ears by saying “sometimes Mommy won’t be feeling well.” Relapsing/remitting MS is the most common form of the disease, which creates lesions along the nervous system, and is characterized by phases of symptoms that come and go.
In the years following the diagnosis, my mother looked and acted reasonably healthy, and we continued to live as we had up until then. We had a comfortable-enough suburban, working class family – myself, my two elder sisters, my mother a nurse and my father a lineman for the telephone company. Vacations were to Disney World and vegetables came from a can. We grew up on a cul-de-sac and had an aboveground pool with a deck my father built himself.
My mother even started her own crafting business, an artisan craft where she would frame stamps and first-day covers and sell them at craft fairs across Connecticut. Sometimes one or more of the daughters would accompany her to help her sell and set up under a pop-up tent.
Then, as most do, my parents’ marriage came to an end. It was 1992 when my mother ended it. She had decided she’d had enough of “being controlled” by my father, an ex-marine who worked long hours and liked to finish his day with a Coors and a can of sardines.
When my mother was working out her thoughts of whether or not to leave my dad, she spoke to the people around her that she felt were most equipped to tell an adult woman what to do. Those people were her three daughters.
The day she brought it up, my mother took me for a walk around the perimeter of a nearby playground that was named after my eldest sister’s teenage friend, who was killed in a drunk driving accident. I remember distinctly the playground and my mother to my right and Surf Avenue to my left, with nothing between myself and the road where that drunk driver skid into that young man years prior. She asked me what I thought about her leaving my father and taking my sister, Tricia, and myself with her. The eldest would have already left the house by the time the change occurred.
Are you kidding?! I thought. Of course I wanted her to leave my father! As an 9-going-on-10-year-old child, I knew quite well that a man who gruffly tells you to eat your vegetables, finish your homework, and take out the garbage is a tyrant, and such wonders would lie before me if I were to relocate to the magical, lawless land of Momsylvania.
My mother purchased a condo on the other side of town, a brand new one, which meant we got the exciting task of picking out the color of the rugs and the Formica countertop patterns. We went with “mauve,” a dusty rose-colored carpeting for the bulk of the house. She even had contractors build out the basement so “the girls” would have a bathroom and three separate bedrooms (even one for the daughter who’d never live at home again), and each daughter got to pick out the color of the carpeting of our room. We went and picked out new furniture, including table lamps that you turned on merely by touching. They were sooo cool.
One day, before coming into the condo, my mother told me there was going to be a surprise for me. When I got inside, above the brand-new floral couch hung a $400 pastel painting of racehorses (I was a horse girl) that I had begged her to get while in a furniture store picking out the aforementioned floral couch. Our new house was a home. A 90s ladies’ lair.
Life with mom in the new condo became the norm. There were few home-cooked meals. We’d switched to more fun things like takeout from Little Caesars and McDonald’s. The only foods my sister and I absolutely remember having in the house were hamburger meat and Jell-O. (My mother was on the Adkin’s diet.) Sometimes, when I was hungry, I’d simply microwave some bacon between paper towels, and snack on that while watching Nickelodeon. If that wasn’t enough, I’d do it again.
During these years, Tricia and I became incredibly close. We shared a thin wall between us in the basement where our rooms were, but I’d often spend nights in her room, sleeping on the flip-and-fuck because it was just a little bit scary down there. Those are the last, blissfully innocent and ignorant times that I remember from my childhood. We’d laugh well into the night—we still do over text messages, her from her family’s home in Baltimore, me from my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.
On nights Tricia was out with her friends, I had a TV in my room where I’d watch back-to-back episodes of Mama’s Family followed by back-to-back episodes of Family Feud. I’m sure Channel 20 had some sort of clever “family” lineup thing going there. Even though I’d had a fresh start at a new school across town, I still didn’t have a ton of friends at school, but home life was pretty cool. It was a constant TV and takeout party. I had it pretty good.
Slowly, though, the honeymoon period began to fade. I’m fairly certain things began to decline following the death of my maternal grandmother. She was 72, and was diagnosed with liver cancer. She didn’t live more than six months after that. She was beloved by everyone in the family, and the glue that held together my mother’s family. So her passing began the unraveling of my mother’s personal family life, but also her own diagnosis changed. She went from relapsing/remitting subtype of MS to a more rare, progressive type of the disease where an individual experiences a steady neurological decline.
The beginning of her decline marked the beginning of my coming-of-age.
Like it had been in the past, my mother’s condition was simplified for me. I must have been told that she would be getting sicker, but I was still at an ignorantly blissful age that couldn’t comprehend the future. I didn’t really understand why my mother started walking funny, or why her voice was sometimes raspy, or why her moods got the way they did. If friends came over, they’d often have a lot of questions, “what is your mother doing…” when they would see her stop in her tracks in the parking lot, coming in from the car, and stare up at the sky for what seemed like a little too long.
“I dunno. She’s weird.” I’d say. Because “weird” is a word that any tweenaged girl loves to throw around. But having few friends and few engaged adults in my life, I had no perspective on just how different my life was from most kids my age.
See, I was navigating middle school social horrors during all of this. I was pretty much at the bottom of the popularity food chain during those years. It didn’t help that I went to school in dirty graphic tee shirts and one of the many pairs of stirrup pants I had with holes in the crotch. One day, while waiting for the bus, two older girls giggled behind me because they could see the distinct bulge that told the world I was wearing a maxi pad underneath those skin-tight pants. My mother also splurged and got me a very difficult to maintain spiral perm that quickly fell flat and made my hair resemble our cocker spaniel’s.
I figured it was just me that was the problem, that I was just an ugly person. And many times, my sister and I were told that we were the problem. Fights became more frequent as my mother neglected us, and all the while we were slowly being boiled alive as my mother’s health worsened. My sister would drive me to school and picked me up, and sometimes we’d just drive around just to not be in the house.
Around the time Tricia left for college, my mother was spending a lot of time with a friend she’d made at meetings she was attending at a nearby church. Her name was Gail, and although she was nice at first, she soon gave me really bad vibes like she was taking advantage of my mother. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I started to resent and dislike Gail.
One night, my mother and Gail were watching television in her bedroom. I went to ask my mom permission for something. Oddly, the door was closed, and when I tried the handle, it was locked. Unusual, I thought. They must have locked it accidentally and then fell asleep watching TV.
It wasn’t even my mother, it was Gail who told me that the two of them were having a lesbian relationship. Fucking Gail. The two of them called me into the dining room for a talk. I burst into tears and ran into my room. I think during this time my mother called Tricia and asked her to talk to me and tell me everything was going to be all right.
In the years that followed, I bounced back and forth from the condo to my old house, where my father still lived. I wanted to go back to school with my old friends, and my mother’s health had deteriorated so much that she was no longer able to take care of me. Though I often spent the summer at my mother’s house, which became a popular destination for sleepovers, because we could get away with smoking cigarettes and weed in the basement (she had no sense of smell) and sneaking out in the middle of the night with friends. I practically spent an entire undisciplined summer sleeping at my friend Adriana’s house, because my mother let me stay there night after night. When we got older and started spending time in a nearby city, my mother would sometimes pick us up with shaky hands in her Grand Marquis while I helped her by telling her when to turn the wheel.
My mother’s relationship with Gail eventually ended, and when I was 17, I had to drive over to a nearby restaurant to pick up my mother, who had fallen down in the parking lot. In that same year, the condo flooded, destroying much of the things that were left in the basement, papers, unicorn posters. I remember salvaging a pink and black Beverly Hills 90210 water bottle. It wasn’t long after that my mother moved into an assisted living home. Some of her belongings went with her, and some went to storage.
The condo was left behind, an entropic pastel shell. The metaphor of faded colors is too rich to spell out on paper.
My mother now lives in a nursing home about a mile from the house that was once home to a comfortable-enough, suburban, working class family, while across town, a new family is living in a condo with three different colored carpets in the basement. I haven’t visited her in about two years. It’s like I am wearing blinders and pretending it doesn’t exist. The times I have seen her, the visits are short, and I never go alone. The last time, she thought I was my sister’s daughter.
Mother’s Day recently passed. It is a holiday I would rather not be reminded of, but that’s just short of impossible once I start seeing the advertising, the sales, and now, my facebook feed filled on the second Sunday of May with lovely maternal dedications. I put on the blinders once again, because for me, I have fewer fond memories of my mother than I have questions I’ll never get answers to.
My father is gone now. He passed away almost a year ago now. That is still a fresh wound and a story I’ll hesitate to tell on another day. I am still coming to terms with essentially being an orphan, flailing out in the world, feeling unequipped as an adult woman at 32 years old — every day getting further away from the feeling of having a mother hold me close and tell me everything would be OK. But I’ll never know if she really did only marry my father to escape her family, or if she meant it when she told Tricia she never even wanted children, or why, during the divorce, she emptied the college funds that my father worked so hard to build up and squandered it on a brand new condo.
The answers, I’m afraid, lie somewhere under a horse painting and three different colored carpets in the basement.
Elizabeth J. Theis is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer, filmmaker and video artist living in New York. You can find her tumblr here and her twitter here. You can find her vimeo here and her facebook here.