Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Becoming a Thief.

Venus tonight is a diamond next to the pearl of the moon.

On November nights like tonight I remember a particular walk I took at 19 on a clear night through a hillside cemetery. The smell of woodsmoke, curled oak leaves beneath us, me and this boy, a red-headed Irish boy who liked music and books and could play with words. He knew the difference between Bodoni and Baskerville. He became my editor on the school newspaper. We were blood-brothers and could read each other’s minds.

That was a long time ago.

//

My sister called this afternoon. We talked about kids, then skidded into a conversation about money. Somehow I managed to be honest (or, rather, forthright: I can be honest without revealing much) and admit that I’ve avoided for years my ability to earn money.

“What do you mean you’ve AVOIDED earning money?” she said.

In our alcoholic family, my sister, five years younger than I, shared with me an eight-by-ten-foot bedroom with two bunk beds, two dressers, and a tiny closet. It was on the northwest corner of the house, and in winter the windows froze over; winter mornings I’d wake in the top bunk with ice-foliage etched into thick ice on the panes about a foot from my head.

My sister and I hated each other throughout our entire childhoods. By the time we were both out of school and working, we’d achieved a truce. It was only when we found ourselves pregnant, due quite literally a day apart in September 1997 with our first babies, that we found any closeness. (This was part of the subject of my first book.)

Now, we usually agree on everything. Almost.

With five years between us, my sister and I didn’t have the same experiences in our family. We didn’t really have the same mother. It helped my sister that she wasn’t artistic: my mother couldn’t compete with her. She couldn’t shape the bulk of my sister’s identity and expectations of herself. My sister worked as an environmental engineer before she quit to have kids.

But I was artistic and literary. And my mother had failed out of a top university art program; and what she really wanted to do with her life was write and teach.

I could hardly explain to my sister this afternoon what I meant by “avoiding earning money” but I remembered, in a flash, all the art I’d been asked to give away as a kid—all the times people needed me to draw or paint; all the times my mother wanted me to whip up something in calligraphy on the fake parchment she liked so much: gifts for her friends, favors for the church. I have a steady hand and a good eye. I tried selling my art but with my mother as my manager I never made much any money.

It’s interesting to phrase it this way: “with my mother as my manager.” She was my manager, in so many ways. In recovery we say that drugs or alcohol were “our manager.” The first guy in recovery that I called the day I admitted to myself I was an addict?—he told me 18 months into my recovery,

I could see you were letting go of your old manager.

But I haven’t let go of my mother.

I’m not alone. I know people in their 30s, 40s, 50s who are still afraid of their parents’ censure, who still operate as if to avoid that censure, even though the parents are dead.

My sister sat on the other end of the phone. All this flashed through my mind in half a second’s time. In another half-second, there was other stuff: I began learning calligraphy when I was my son’s age. I was way ahead of everyone else in art class; the teacher let me sit at the back and do whatever I wanted. Art teachers always did. I couldn’t see then but I can see now that I was quite often better than the teacher at whatever we were doing in my ordinary suburban-American public-school art classes.

Rooting through the tall metal storage cupboards I came across some calligraphy nibs and ink and a Speedball instruction book and taught myself cursive hand. I was fascinated: you could combine words and art! I began doodling letterforms in the margins of my algebra notebook.

At home I found some nibs from 1959 in my mother’s old tackle-box in which she stored her college art supplies that she never used anymore, preferring instead to spend her days reading Catherine Cookson and Agatha Christie. I opened the box, which lay in the bottom right-hand side of the hall closet, covered with dust-bunnies, and out blossomed the beautiful fumes of linseed oil and mineral spirits and turpentine. I found several old flat nibs and a wooden pen-holder with a chewed tip (my mother had a habit of chewing pencils and pens, an oral fixation for which she never in her life, unfortunately, found a moment’s satiety). I pulled them out and began writing with them using ink I’d brought home from school.

“Dad,” I told my sister today. “Dad came to me and said Mom had told him she was pissed that I was using her nibs. He told me she wanted me to put them back.”

Classic communication method used in an alcoholic family: someone gets “pissed” at someone else (usually for doing something great) but doesn’t confront that person directly, instead sending a flunky to do the dirty work.

I put the nibs back, feeling not angry but mortified. I had to shell out for my own at the art shop.

Or was that when I became a thief? Did I steal the school’s nibs?

I can’t remember.

Certainly this set up the structure of feeling for me to become a thief later—and not even much later, 18 or 19 during a Christmas job at the mall.

“I know you might not understand this, because you didn’t have the same experience with Mom as I did,” I said slowly to my sister, “but I couldn’t allow myself to get better than her at anything. If I did, she’d get pissed at me.”

And oh God, the world was so unhappy when my mother was pissed.

I expected my sister to laugh at me. (I expect most people to laugh at me.) But you know what?

She didn’t.

//

Did you know Jimmy Page stole some of his riffs? In this song is a riff Jimmy stole from Bert Jansch (who died the same day as Steve Jobs). Jimmy nicked Jansch’s fingerpicking and hardly even bothered to change the song’s name—”Black Mountainside.” One addict stealing from another. But Jimmy made a ton of money, and Janch died poor.

I heard Jansch play this song when he came to town last year with Neil Young’s wife Pegi. It’s about a girl and her Irish boy:

All through the full part of the night
How we did sport and play
Till this young man arose and he gathered his clothes
Saying, Fare thee well, my dear

That’s not the promise you gave to me
When first you lay on my bed
You could make me believe, with your lying tongue
That the sun rose in the west

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5 Comments

  1. I enthusiastically enjoyed reading about you and your sister. It sounds so much like my life, my family relationships, my artistic experiences. You articulate about it so warmly. I’m not ashamed to relate. Thank you.

  2. I assume you know about Underearners Anonymous? I can’t link here as typing on phone but I think it’s the first link up on Google.

  3. This post has helped me more than you can possibly imagine. Thank you.

  4. Wow. This touched me. So sad for you and so sad for your mother. I’m guessing her life experiences led her to control you to such an extreme. Imagine how helpful Al-anon would have been to her. Love you G, your artwork, your writing and your beautiful heart. Thank God you are able to express that now without fear of having it all taken away.

  5. Thank you for your great post, Guinevere. I’ve been in that place too, where I thought I had to hold myself back for someone else’s sake. Now I wonder if I ever had that right.

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