Research Notes · 03/26/2021

Research Notes: Silver Beach

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Claire Cox writes about Silver Beach from University of Massachusetts Press.

+

Stoner Mom

My mother was a pothead, not a drunk: this was important. She started smoking pot in tenth grade, introduced to it by her best friend, a brilliant gay boy, and she didn’t stop until she was in her fifties, long after I’d left home. In California in the 1970s, smoking pot was what you did when you were curious and open-minded. Under her senior portrait in her high school yearbook, her stated goal was “to live, laugh, and find out who I am!”

She worked as a hairdresser when I was little, but when I was six, she got a job at the post office, and everyone in the family breathed a sigh of relief. We moved to San Marcos, a suburb in the northern part of San Diego County, where she started working as a mail clerk. The post office didn’t do drug tests in the early 1980s, and if you signed your contract then, the mass drug testing instituted in later decades didn’t apply to you.

Throughout my childhood, my mother smoked pot like it was a supplement: inhale three times a day with meals. My godparents grew it at their house and sold it to her for a good price. She didn’t hide her habit: the table in our kitchen was a kind of altar, and my mother, big-bellied, serene as a Buddha, would sit there smoking joints and burning incense with stately patience as sunshine filtered through the patio curtains and something beautiful played on the tape deck. The sink would have been full of dishes, the table furred with clutter. A Christmas cactus in a ceramic pot bloomed in the center of it all, catching the light.

We’d go to my godparents’ house on the weekends, which was usually full of family and neighbors and friends, and their son and I would play together, our children’s flurry a natural complement to the laughter and shouting coming from the adults, who sat around the kitchen debating current events. At some point, they would migrate to a room in the back of the house, two small bedrooms converted into a den with a wide opening that could be closed with vented bi-fold doors. We could hear their talk and laughter, and smell their smoke, but they pulled the doors closed with an air of secrecy, something like shame. If we needed anything from our parents once they were behind the folding doors, it was awkward to get their attention. You couldn’t knock because the doors moved when you touched them — it was like knocking on a curtain. There was a weak little latch that locked from the inside, so you couldn’t just go in: you had to worry the handles, jiggle them until someone noticed and poked their head out, suspicious, to ask what we needed.

I was 11 when I understood, finally, what they were doing. For years, it was just the background of our life, ever present but not something I thought about. My mother explained it to me when I was in fifth grade, and I connected her kitchen table ritual to the room behind the folding doors to the D.A.R.E. assemblies at school. The notorious fried egg commercial — This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions? — had come out a few years before and taken root in our collective consciousness. “I finally told you I smoked pot,” my mother said, “because I was afraid you’d rat me out at school once D.A.R.E. became a big thing.” Certainly, in the social world of our North County suburb, it was more pathological to be a pothead than an alcoholic. This was not the Bay Area in the 70s; this was a working-class, largely Republican town in Reagan’s 80s. What I felt was panic: would my mother and her friends all go to jail? I didn’t understand the degree to which white privilege protected them; I just knew that I was a rule-follower, and this wasn’t only against the rules — so much about my family broke the rules — this was against the law.

I had two close friends in our apartment complex, a pair of brothers from a family of devout Seventh-Day Adventists. Well, devout except for their father, who lived with them but was somehow utterly separate: every morning at sunrise, I saw him sitting on the pad-mounted transformer near the dumpster, shirtless, drinking from a paper sack. He didn’t work and seemed to spend his days piloting a remote control car in figure eights around the carport. When he spoke, he grunted cartoonishly, usually at their dog. But despite his dereliction, my friends’ father filled a normative outline: he was masculine and gruff, unashamed; he seemed to have no social relationship with his wife or children. He fit, somehow, within my friends’ family’s conservative politics.

They were ashamed of their father, sure, but they found my mother scandalous. I don’t know if they understood she was a pothead, though our apartment must have smelled like weed; they were more horrified that she dressed like a man, in plaid shirts, jeans, and sensible shoes, and left books laying around the house with pentagrams on the covers (she was in her Wiccan period). They sensed my home was a leftist, queer-friendly, dope-smoking, feminist space, and this made them nervous.

It felt like everyone in town sensed this about me, about us. We were not normal. My best girlfriend from school lived in a spotless, potpourri-scented house with white carpet and little vases of silk flowers everywhere; her mother was blond and soft-voiced, unmistakably feminine. She had a woman’s job (nurse), and my mother had a man’s job (postal worker). My friend’s family had progressive politics, and judging from our mothers’ respective Facebook posts in retirement, her mother leans more Wiccan than mine, who decided that being a pagan was too much work. But growing up, I was the weird one with the weird mom and the weird house. My mother’s pot smoking gave our life a shameful, noirish haze: it occurs to me now that my clothes and hair must have smelled like cigarettes, incense, and weed.

I never smoked with my mother. I’ve gotten stoned maybe three times in my life and couldn’t stand how it made me feel; I never had an interest in drugs. Growing up, I couldn’t admit what I really felt about my mother’s pot smoking: it was dirty, sloppy, and expensive. It was an irresponsible thing to prioritize. It insulated her from being fully present in my life, or her own life. It was depressing. She was an addict.

Writing that sentence, my body ripples with the chill of disloyalty: some part of me remains committed, decades later, to protecting her, and maybe myself.

When she got sober, my mother started using that language, calling herself an addict. I knew her drinking had escalated since I’d left home and that she’d taken to polishing off a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck most evenings. She had a breakdown at work and took a mental health leave; in order to return, she was evaluated by a doctor and a psychologist, and it became clear that she had both a drug and a drinking problem and was encouraged to seek treatment.

It was an incredible, unanticipated relief. Not everyone who smokes weed is an addict; not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. But the volume of my mother’s pot smoking and drinking, and the way it interfered with her life, meant she was both. The post office covered the cost of rehab (and paid leave), a Scandinavian-level miracle that might not even be available to the current generation of postal employees. She is still sober, still going to meetings, still reworking the steps, 14 years later. In recovery, she has grown into someone more self-aware, more deliberate, more balanced. She owns her condo. She retired from the post office.

She is nothing like the alcoholic mother at the center of my novel, who never changes.

Early in her recovery, she seemed to want me to castigate her, to reckon with the harm she’d caused, but that wasn’t precisely how I felt. I was grateful: I didn’t have to laugh anymore about my stoner mom and pretend it wasn’t depressing. I was liberated by her honesty. Was I angry, too? For years, I couldn’t access it.

The weekend I turned 38, I flew to San Diego for a work conference. My mother picked me up at the hotel on the harbor, and in the car, she told me she had something she needed to say when we got to her place. She was redoing the fifth step, where you “admit to God, yourself, and to another human the exact nature of your wrong.” We were inside when she took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry. I made you responsible for my emotional well-being your whole life.”

It knocked the wind out of me. I hadn’t seen it before — I was probably too busy feeling responsible for her emotional well-being.

My mother is a Gemini, and she is convinced she has more than one self. She does not have multiple personality disorder, but she’ll say things like, “Since there are two of me…” In my experience, this meant she was both parental and not-parental. There were things I appreciated about the less parental mom: she was an amiable roommate, a cool older sister, a confidant who listened without judgment. We made each other laugh. But it also meant she trusted that I was handling my life when I needed more support and guidance. When I became an actual adult, I had a pretend-adult’s bluster, a way of seeming confident and collected when I was actually vulnerable and unsure. I still do this.

The internet tells me I experienced something called adultification, when a child is treated like an adult, exposed to adult knowledge, and expected to take on adult tasks in the family. A more specific term, peerification, describes a child gaining status equal to her parents; another, parentification, refers to the expectation that children step up as caregivers in the household. Our situation wasn’t extreme: I didn’t cook and clean and pay the bills while my mom was passed out somewhere. I wasn’t offered drugs or booze. But in high school, if someone had asked us who the adult in our house was, she might have pointed to me. She lavished praise on me and made it clear she thought I was wonderful, smart, capable, talented, etc., and is (still) fond of telling me the “sun shines out of my ass.” But it was a setup: I had more power than I should have had. If I was so smart and capable and talented, I deserved to be in charge — I could handle being responsible for my mother’s feelings (and she, by contrast, could not). To claim otherwise would be ungracious, would mean I wasn’t so smart or capable or talented after all.

I am angry about this.

Two summers ago, my mother was about to visit us for a week, and I found myself becoming increasingly anxious. One night, the week before her arrival, my husband and I were having a beer in the kitchen, and I realized the anxiety was familiar. Layers of cricket sounds pulsed through the window screens; our son had just fallen asleep; it was early summer, and I had finally quit a brutal teaching job. Why wasn’t I more glad? I knew my mother and I would have a good time together — why was the prospect so exhausting?

Growing up in her exclusive orbit for 18 years, I became adept at dancing in my mother’s unpredictable winds, quick to intuit need and offer solutions, or to disappear when it got too turbulent. It was a kind of training: for as long as I can remember, the tiniest shift in another person’s mood can trigger my sense of reflexive responsibility: I can fix this! When someone is upset, angry, dissatisfied — friends, coworkers, my own child — this is how I respond, at least internally. Some part of me panics: I want to sate the need and make it go away. I do it with my husband, and it drives him crazy. You could argue that I mean well, but in my compulsion to offer a solution, I run past him rather than being present with what he’s telling me. I am always scrambling to right the ship.

My mother is a force, like a sudden change in the weather: you were minding your own business, and suddenly it’s a little darker, and the sky looks green. This can be exciting: who doesn’t love a summer thunderstorm? What’s not to love about the way my mother tells a story, her wisecracks, her candid opinions? She has an indomitable presence I have always appreciated for the way it modeled womanhood as the opposite of shrinking. But, like the vacuum effect between warm and cool air that creates a storm, she swirls the air in the room toward herself, and it takes more work to remain steady and undisturbed in her presence. You are subject to the will of the weather, not the other way around.

My husband is less deferential about this than I am. He can’t hide the way she throws him off, how she enters a room and re-tunes it to her own key. I just find the melody and hum along, and he, in turn, feels like I’ve left him there, alone and disoriented. That night in our kitchen, I finally put my finger on why I was so tense about my mother’s visit: I didn’t want to be caught between the two of them. I had learned a long time ago to feel responsible for my family’s peace and satisfaction, and without realizing it, I carried the habit into my marriage. This worked when I was with one of them, but not both: I can’t right two ships simultaneously, especially if they’re pointed at one another.

I thought this was an essay about drugs.

My mother’s visit ended up going fine. I had a shrewd therapist at the time who gave me advice for navigating the week without feeling like a scrambling deckhand. It’s a new thing I’m trying: staying inside myself, present with another person instead of running around trying to fix whatever I think might be wrong. It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m trying, at a minimum, to notice when I’m doing it.

An addict can’t sit with herself as she is, and she flees herself, her history, on the rails of addiction. Recovery is about integrating the pieces of yourself, loving the ugly parts and admitting at least some of you is beautiful, worthy of love. I am forty years old, and I am trying to sit with myself as I am, with life as it is. I’m learning to tolerate dissonance, to meet tension without panic. It’s difficult work, partly because these patterns live in the body: you feel them before you understand them, and the sensation is so familiar — it’s just how your life feels.

My mother and I are both growing up. We received the dark gift of seeing a habit that wasn’t working, even when it had been central to how we navigated the pain and tumult of being alive. My mother still has plenty to be sad about, alongside everything she’s grateful for; she does not have her father’s crippling (and fatal) depression, but she describes herself as someone who is usually “a little blue.” I don’t know how anyone can persist in the world we all live in and not have at least a passing relationship with despair, but in sobriety, my mother’s coping mechanisms are more productive than smoking weed all day.

My own “recovery” is more elusive. I’ve known for years — decades — that I need to “be more present,” to live inside my body, to listen closely, to cultivate stillness and be more patient. The only thing I’ve tried that helped — literally the only thing — is meditation. In the early months of pandemic isolation, it got to the point where, if I didn’t meditate every single day, I would end up fighting with my husband. The correlation was uncanny. We were locked in an absurd, relentless proximity — just us and our four-year-old in a Brooklyn apartment — and if I didn’t claw twenty minutes out of the day to stare at our bedspread in silence with the door closed, I would do or say something that tossed a match onto our haystack of mutual irritation.

When I meditate, I interrupt people less. I don’t do that thing where I’m fake-listening as I wait for my chance to jump into a conversation with my own idea. Instead of mentally charging ahead like a slingshot, I listen to what another person is telling me. I told my husband it’s like there’s suddenly an anteroom in my brain: whatever I was going to impulsively say waits there for a moment, and I can see it before I say it; much of the time, it fades. My talk is less incessant, more meaningful — on a good day, anyway. Some days, especially weekends, I skip the meditation. If I skip it two days in a row, the results are immediate. So I try again the next day.

Do we ever stop recovering? Do we ever reach an enlightened plane, a room full of light, where we are pure equanimity? Maybe I’m just describing death.

Do we ever stop processing our earliest wounds? I still play the what’s worse game in my head: what’s worse, a stoner mom or a meth and pills mom? A stoner mom or a heroin addict mom? A mom who drank too much sometimes, or a mom who drinks like the mother in my novel? A parent with my mother’s dorm-level cleaning standards, or a hoarder mom? A mom who wasn’t great with money or a gambling addict mom? The answer, of course, is always the same.

There was never any doubt that dinner would show up on the coffee table each night, and usually, we ate together in front of our television, enacting, more or less, the sacred family ritual commanded by all the parenting books, the articles about our fraying social fabric. My mother and I attached. This isn’t guaranteed, and if you don’t form a secure attachment with at least one primary caregiver, it really fucks you up. Is it important to do this, to situate your family on a spectrum of fucked-upness? To pay respects to the details you’re grateful for? Or am I compensating? Editing the picture?

As a parent, I am different from my mother. Our difference from our parents is a running joke with my friends, who grew up in the 70s and 80s: they weren’t watching us half as closely as we watch our own kids. I don’t mean helicoptering — we just pay attention differently. Here’s my (mean) impression of a mom in 1978: I pull an imaginary cigarette from my mouth, exhale, and say in a raspy voice, Go play. My imaginary child disappears into the streets.

“You benefited from benign neglect,” my mother has told me more than once. Practically, this meant I was outside playing, out of her sight, for hours after school, on the weekends, and in the summer, often by myself. I became a latchkey kid the year I turned nine. I remember, in particular, wandering the decommissioned dump next to our apartment complex, which led to a shaded gulley with a creek running through it. I don’t know how many hours I spent there, pretending I lived in the countryside somewhere back in time, creating slow, manual tasks for myself out of fallen branches and wet stalks of Spanish cane. Is this how I learned to appreciate solitude? For me, solitude is a nourishing spring: I need to return to it regularly, or else risk a kind of spiritual and artistic death. My childhood and adolescence gave me the gift of abundant solitude, actual privacy. The freedom this gave my mother — and my grandmother, who often cared for me — to sit and read mystery novels, to simply focus on a task of their choosing for an hour or more, absolutely floors me.

My son is five, not really old enough to wander around by himself, though I have memories of wandering my grandmother’s ghostly trailer park by myself, barefoot, with no sunscreen in the relentless San Diegan sunshine, at his age. It is unimaginable to me that I could have the space, the quiet freedom, to sit and read, to really sink into a book, while my son is awake. Maybe it will happen at some point; it must.

I don’t know what I’m doing. Parents never do. We try, and often fail, to shape the mess we made in creating a family, to give it coherence, stability, morality, joy. You could say I am more thoughtful about the enterprise of parenting than my mother was, but there are important, complicated ways this isn’t true.

Parents and children are in forever in tension. You force life on your child; he is necessarily dependent on you; he must learn, and then decide, to separate from you; you die; he dies (a death you gave him by bringing him to life). Even when the relationship between a parent and child is healthy and functional, there is a mutual rage that never goes away. The parent’s life is permanently transformed — deformed — by bringing this other person to life, and by the effort to keep them alive, this willful part of yourself that now wanders around in the world. My mother loved her mother, but is still angry with her. My grandmother loved her mother but was definitely angry with her. Judging from accounts of what my great-grandmother was like, she raged against her mother, too, somewhere in her heart.

(Fathers can choose to be equal co-parents, or not; they can choose to loom large or small in a child’s life. The weak ones are written off or forgiven. Fathers are for another essay.)

I see my son’s rage. This isn’t his defining aspect — he is generally a curious, sweet, empathetic person — but throughout his day, moments of fury will overtake him. His face reddens and puckers, he tenses his limbs, fists balled up, legs wide in a kind of angry grand plié. Sometimes he growls or yells. It usually dissipates with a gentle conversation or an offer of a hug, but the rage is real. Parents have an unholy amount of control over young children — a requirement of the job — while children try, and often fail, to make sense of this profoundly uneven power dynamic, until they gain enough power to break free.

Perhaps our little pilot lights of rage, the flickering blue flames at the center of the self, give us something important. An essential fuel, a propulsion to set out and define ourselves. Maybe we need the heat, the pressure, to shape our lives into something that belongs only to us.

+++

Claire Cox holds an MFA in creative writing from Hunter College and was a finalist for the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Originally from San Diego, she lives with her husband and son in New York City, where she has taught high school English since 2005.