Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Make Sure to Tiptoe Around Mom

tiptoe around mom house of cards picture

Middle child of six, my childhood can be best described as muddled — or better yet, “fair to middling” as my father used to say.

But charmed and enchanted is what outsiders saw.

My dad was a successful surgeon and my manic mom, a stay-at-home mom. Our six bedroom suburban home was well appointed 1960’s style: wing back chairs, antique sofa, oriental rugs. I had French Provincial furniture in my bedroom and my brothers had Ranch Oak bunk beds in theirs. And four bathrooms, so there was little need to share.

And all was spit and polished just about all of the time. Most of the time.

With six children, three adults, and a dog, the upkeep of the castle was intense. So Downton Abbey style, we had household servants. All African American, I am more than a little ashamed to say. Two full time maids: Nan and her daughter, Cornelia. And a handyman, a grown man, we shamefully called Sonny (Joseph, being his given name.). All members of the Simpson family. And Cora, whose last name I do not recall. She came twice a week to do the ironing.

Thanks to them, we were always freshly pressed in our uniforms or nicely dressed in our department store clothes. Shoes from Hahn’s or Stride Rite. Only the best.

And oh my goodness, we ate well too. Very, very well. My mom had a wall of cookbooks  which she rarely consulted but seemed to inspire her nonetheless. While other kids had meatloaf for dinner, we dined on Beef Bourguignon. While other kids wolfed down fish sticks, we feasted on Filet of Sole Almondine.

And all six of us went to private schools: Holy Family, Gonzaga, La Reine, Immaculata — with all the standard extracurriculars: piano lessons, softball practice, swim teams.

We were privileged, well to do. And while we were not taught explicitly to look down on anyone else — it was made very clear that we were to be looked up to. Or least to act like we were. “Remember you’re a Peacock.” my dad would say every time we left the house. Like mini model citizens, our appearance was supposed to be polished, our behavior beyond reproach.

Materially we lacked for nothing – or so it seemed. While maternally and paternally, we were falling apart at the seams.

My dad the workaholic doctor was barely at home.

My manic-depressive mom retreated more and more behind her bedroom door — a door on which I was very nervous to knock.

Each morning, I would check out  my mom like a weather report: dark and stormy; bright and sunny; cloudy with rain. The forecast was often in doubt and subject to change. When bright and sunny, my mom was the life of the party! Fun loving, story telling, cooking up a storm and shopping ’til she dropped.

I loved this mom very much – but as I grew up I saw her less and less. More and more she was dark and moody, drugged with valium, and with a drink her hand. Medicating herself for this malady for which we had no name. (Which now I truly understand.)

And this middle child — who was just a child – thought it my job not to upset her. I thought it my job to keep the peace, to maintain the status quo, not rock the boat in any way, if I could help it. So straight A, goody-two-shoes Joani kept her head down.

And little old me believed, that if I could be a better little kid, a better little daughter, a better little student, a  better little Catholic — that I could keep my house from falling down on my head. I could keep my house from falling down and crushing us all.

Not my job, right?

Of course not.

My own healthy, bipolar, grownup self knows this now. Knows this to be true. I know that childhood chores involve making your bed, doing dishes, and picking up toys. No, childhood chores do not involve saving yourself and your siblings from your very troubled mom and your mostly absentee dad. Though I do believe they loved us as best they could.

But funny how history repeats itself.  And funny how whatever we learned at our parents’ knees will stay with us until the day we die.

And it bubbles up in our grownup lives. Sometimes imperceptibly. Sometimes overwhelmingly.

I am still a middle child, peacemaker, model citizen, goody-two-shoes, bleeding heart, employee of the month. Raining sunshine wherever I go — or at least so I think.

And what goes wrong in my world – whether it be my fault or not — whether it be at home, or at church, or at work — I have the uncontrollable urge to fix it. Where things get rough, let me make them smooth. When things are sad, let me cheer you up. When things get messy, I will tidy them up. When others fail, I will take their place. When things get crazy, I will make them sane.

And I will tiptoe, tiptoe around “mom” — hoping against hope — that this “house of cards” wherever it is — this “house of cards” will not come crashing down on those who live or work there. On my head, or the heads of those I care about, on the heads of those I love.

Not my job, right?

Damn right.

Not anymore.

JoaniSign

 

 


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Mad about M.A.S.H.

MASH cast goodbye farewell amen

Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

My dad, the M.D., was mad about M.A.S.H. This surgeon was crazy in love with the show about surgeons.

When M.A.S.H. played on primetime TV, my dad, Dr. Peacock, was in the prime time of his career – chief of surgery at Cafritz Hospital and a teaching doc at Howard U.

High priest at the hospital, his every word was gospel. Young doctors came to sit at his feet. Colleagues sent him patients they did not know how to treat. Nurses snapped to attention at his command. And grateful patients who could not pay, paid him homage — with bushels of crabs and crates of cantaloupes.

Bernard F. Peacock, Jr. (BFP, for short) was both brilliant and brash. Jesuit educated, he was top of his class – whatever that class might be. Insatiably curious, he consumed the news – reading three papers daily and the Wall Street Journal — just because. A voracious reader, he subscribed to the more scholarly book clubs – Penguin Classics and Heritage Historical, and the Book of the Month — just because.  A musical dilettante, he’d spin the New Christie Minstrels  just as soon as he would listen to Mozart or Mad, Madam Mame. Fastidious as a fox, he fussed over his attire and fiddled with his ties.  Drop dead handsome, he rivaled the likes of  Cary Grant – or maybe it was Rock Hudson — or at least, so he believed.

Being a doctor, of course, he worked doctor’s hours: weekends, holidays, Holy Days, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter – no exceptions. As a child it seemed to me he was always making rounds. And on very rare occasions, I got to go round with him and troop behind him – like an acolyte.

My father once told me, that there was nowhere he was more at ease, there was nowhere he was more relaxed than in surgery. He was most himself in the operating room.

Can you imagine that?

I thought him a miracle worker and a healer and I was in awe of him.

Not even Dr. Kildare could compare with the likes of Dr. Peacock.

Both grandiose and grand, at home my dad stayed up nights building short wave radios and practicing the piano. He was commanding and demanding, expecting the home front to function like the hospital. And to my father’s great disappointment, nothing was farther than the truth.

And all of us were – at least to some extent – a great disappointment to the good doctor. Sadly, most of all, my mom, Mary Lou.

The physician could not heal his own wife. He did not know how to cope with my mother’s illness – what we came to know as bipolar disorder. And so he coped very badly or he coped not at all. And it drove him mad.

A practitioner of the most compassionate of professions, my father could say the cruelest of things to the woman he loved. (And loved her, he did.) “God damn it, Mary Lou!”, was his most oft and mildest of refrains — so painful to recall, on the first anniversary of her death (in fact today, June 19th . God rest her soul.)

So God damned complicated, this Father’s Day weekend. So God damned complicated, for this Christian who signs herself in the name of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”.

Is it any wonder I am prone to call upon my God as a SHE and not a HE?

Because of my dad, the doctor, I know what dysfunction is.

Because of my dad, the doctor, I know what it looks like to inflict pain on the ones you love.

Because of my dad, the doctor, I know just how sick one’s household can become.

And I know that I loved him. I loved him dearly.

Because of him I am a bibliophile. Because of him, I have the audacity to sing. Because of him, I buck authority. Because of him, I know that I am smarter than any man. And even as a kid, because of him, I knew that this little Roman Catholic girl could grow up to be any God damned thing, she could dream of.

Maybe even a doctor. Maybe even a priest.

And because of him, I am mad about M.A.S.H. And binge watching reruns on my couch, I realized that this is the homily I never got to give at his funeral.

So who was my dad?

He was Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, brash, and brilliant, and bold.

He was Colonel Sherman Potter, commanding and demanding, extremely knowledgeable, and sometimes wise.

He was Captain BJ Hunnycut, dedicated, driven, devoted to his work — and as best he could be — a family man.

He was Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester, pompous and arrogant, and truly the best at his profession.

Not quite as crazy as Klinger. Nor quite as compassionate as Father Mulcahy, he had all the sex appeal of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan – a very handsome man, indeed.

He was Dr. Bernard Francis Peacock, Jr., my dad. And he ran for 78 seasons and went off the air in August of 2004.

Mad, mad, mad, and so God damned complicated, he was my dad. I loved him madly. I love him madly still.

Happy Father’s Day, dad, 2015.

JoaniSign