The earliest memory I have is waking up with my back against the door of on an campus apartment in Stonybrook, New York. I had cried myself to sleep, refusing to move away from the door that my father had just closed after he dropped me off. My mother was crouching over me as I awoke, her eyes full of tender love and pain. She picked me up and held me, but that’s all I remember from that day.
I was 3 years old at the time and upon graduating from Stonybrook University, where my mother was completing a Master’s Degree in Anthropology, we moved to Brooklyn, NY where my mother became a teacher and my step-father was a real estate appraiser. My father was also a teacher, lived in Queens, and came to pick me up three Fridays a month to spend wacky guy’s weekends full of late night TV, ice cream and everything else I couldn’t do at my mother’s house.
By the time I started school I was well accustomed to this schedule and any hopes I had ever held of my biological parents reuniting had faded. Truthfully, I can barely remember my mother and father ever being in the same room. They would occasionally speak on the phone, I was always the subject and the tone of the conversation was rarely warm.
For the earliest years of my life I remember my step-father as a mostly innocuous presence. He was, as far as I could tell, chiefly the concern of my mother, and little more than a roommate and a friend of a friend to me. His indifference never struck me as resentment so much as a recognition that I would always be the highest priority in mom’s life, and for the sake of his marriage I was best left alone.
My first sister made her arrival in the year of my fifth birthday, and I suppose that was when my mother’s house began to feel like a place that a family lived. I had desperately wanted a brother, but to my great dismay my younger sibling was a girl and very much a girl at that. She had little interest in sports or video games, preferring dolls and clothes and other things which struck me as very useless and silly.
I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t reading, solving math problems or in some way using my mind. My mother and father were both deep lovers of knowledge and shared this love with me early and often. Books before bed, numbers at the breakfast table, thinking games in the car and on walks. Each seemed impressed by the speed of my progress and in some way I suppose my own development was like a conversation between the two of them, lost lovers who could no longer say kind things to each other directly. But they could compliment me on my spelling and arithmetic, my knowledge of facts in history and biology; and they did, often. Each compliment followed by a new lesson, in some attempt to outdo each other, perhaps.
Mom and dad each had their own weapons in this war to be the superior parent. My mother was barely more than a teenager when she had me and my step-father was younger than her. My father was much older and more financially established. Weekend adventures with my dad included dinners at restaurants, concerts and ball games. My dad’s fridge was always full of every imaginable treat and my room in his apartment had more material possessions than I knew I needed, until I had them. My mother’s home was much more Spartan in comparison, and the nature of our schedule meant that the unpleasant duties of waking me up early in the morning and getting me to bed at a reasonable time were always her responsibility. Where my father’s home was a place of adventure and abundance, my mother’s was one of duty, responsibility and oftentimes of extreme frugality.
Even at this age, I think I understood that the custody of my person was a source of conflict between my mom and dad. My father felt he could provide for me better and wanted me to live with him. My mother had the benefit of a legal system that favored custodian rights of mother’s in conflicts like this, and while the legal battle had been won, she was riddled with anxiety that she may be losing the battle for my heart. From this desperate position, her primary tactic came in the form of slander against my father, an approach that would be taken to violent extremes in the coming years.
Truth be told, I think I would have preferred to live with my father, had my mother been indifferent to the idea. But from the love and pain in my mother’s eyes that formed my very first memory, I knew my mother didn’t just love me, she needed me. So when my father would occasionally explain to me that if living with him was something that I wanted, he could fight for me, I would say no. He never pressured me.