On Wooden Spoons

My former father-in-law had obsessions. His obsessions, necessarily, became his wife’s obsessions. I remember how, when my mother-in-law got her first Facebook account, that, under her hobbies, she listed that she liked to watch her husband and son (Caleb) play the guitar.

What I thought, but didn’t say was, “But how is that your hobby?”

When Caleb and I used to visit my in-laws, my father-in-law would want to show Caleb all of the guitars that he had made, the new chords that he had learned. He would want he and Caleb to go to another room and play together. He never asked Caleb about his life, or his own interests. He certainly never asked me about my life.

Caleb wasn’t very interested in guitars at that time. Caleb, too, had his obsessions, and at the time, his obsession was publishing short stories. He was more interested with publishing short stories than he was in actually writing short stories, and that didn’t work out for him.

Caleb grew annoyed with his father. His father was the type of man who, when you were talking about something, you could see in his eyes that he was just waiting for his opportunity to talk about guitars again. There was no room in his brain for anything–or anyone–else. My father-in-law also had many good qualities. He was the first family member to welcome me wholeheartedly into the family, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

Caleb told me that, when he called his father to tell his parents that he had been arrested for battering me, he said, “It wasn’t the first time. I don’t want you to be mad at Kelly for calling 911. It wasn’t her fault. This has been happening for a while.”

Caleb told me that his father had said, “Well, son, that isn’t right. It’s never okay to hit your wife.”

Caleb told me that his mother had told him to “Put your troubles at the foot of the cross.”

Caleb and I laughed at that. We were on the phone. I had left him and meant it, but I don’t think that he thought I meant it. I didn’t even really know if I meant it.

If he had known that I meant it about leaving him, he certainly wouldn’t have told his father that his abuse had been a pattern. I’ll never even know if what he said that he told his father was true. Still, the reactions that Caleb described from his mother and father both made sense. We laughed at his mother’s response.

It was a very fucked up kind of camaraderie, but it was all that we had left.

From what I can tell, Caleb has given up on short stories and renewed his interest in guitars. I’m sure that his family believes this is a sign that he is re-finding himself after a marriage with a toxic woman. Personally, I think it’s a sign that Caleb is better with guitars than he is at writing short stories.

This summer, while he was at his dad’s, I called Reed once for our nightly visit. He was miserable. He was stuck at Caleb’s band practice. Reed was bored. “He just wants me to watch,” he said. “But that bores me. I think that I am more of a player than a watcher.” Caleb’s guitar playing is not Reed’s hobby.

I wanted to cheer Reed up. I told him that, when he got home, we could have his best friends over for an end-of-summer party. Reed said that we should call the party a “Thank God I Survived My Dad’s Band” party. We both laughed.

It was a very fucked up kind of camaraderie, but it was all that we had left.

Caleb’s new wife seems like exactly the kind of woman whose hobby would be watching Caleb do things. This is good for Caleb, and good for her too. Caleb wasn’t always abusive towards me. His abuse started when I stopped watching him do things and started doing my own things.

I’m at the point in my memoir where the abuse begins in full. It took a lot of pages to get to this point. My editor’s last note read, “Nicely done, but we need to get to the ISSUE.” She was right, but I was too. With Caleb, it took a long time to get to the issue. He wasn’t always an abusive asshole.

Last night, I went to my old Hotmail account and did a search. I thought that I was going to find a bunch of evidence of us fighting, but what I found instead was a tender series of emails. We were very much in love. We treated each other with respect. They were emails that showed us both working to put the other person’s needs first. There was no indication of abuse in 90% of those emails.

But then, occasionally, there would be an email from Caleb with the subject heading, “I’m sorry.” One of those emails had the first line, “You’ve probably received so many emails from me by now with that subject heading.”

Those emails were always apologies for his outbursts, for whatever temper tantrum he had devolved into that morning (he usually sent emails while at work during the day).

I read those emails–the mostly loving ones, punctuated by the occasional angry one–and I remembered what I had loved about him. I have often said to my friends, “Why on earth would his new wife have married him?” But rereading those emails, I remembered; no one could be quite as tender as Caleb.

Tonight, I asked Reed to bring in the rest of the groceries from the car. I had a friend from out-of-town coming for dinner, and our house had been cleaned during the day. When he walked in the door, I said, “Doesn’t our house look clean?”

“Yep!” he said, as he struggled to carry in too many bags. Inevitably, he dropped one. Something broke. It was a mess. He then picked the bag up, carried it to the table, and made a bigger mess. He set the oozing bag on my fabric dining room chair.

And I yelled. I yelled at him.

I try so hard not to yell at him–and I rarely do–but I am imperfect.  My own mother yelled at me during much of my childhood, and then, Caleb yelled at me during my marriage, and I have spent most of my life with someone yelling at me.

I have tried to treat Reed differently, but tonight, I yelled.

He said, “I’ll clean it up,” and I snapped, “No, I’ll just do it!” Then, he went to his room and cried. Immediately, I felt terrible, so I called him back out.

“I’m sorry that I yelled at you,” I said.

He sniffled, “It was my fault.”

“It kind of was your fault,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean that it was okay for me to yell at you.”

“Dad yells at me like that all the time,” he said. “But he never apologizes.”

“It’s not okay for him to do that,” I said. “You don’t deserve that.”

And then, Reed told me that, in the same situation, his dad would have yelled at him, then sent him to his room, then yelled at him again.

What was I supposed to say to that? I said simply, “You do not deserve that, and it’s not your fault.”

Later, after Reed had cleaned up the mess, I gave him a hug, and he said, “I knew that you were going to apologize. The minute that you yelled at me, I thought, ‘She’s going to apologize to me,’ but, even though I know that you are different, I’m so used to my dad that, when you yelled at me, it felt just like when he yells at me.”

I’m so used to my dad that, when you yelled at me, it felt just like when he yells at me

Is there a better description for abuse than that?

When my boss seems upset with me, it’s just like Caleb is yelling at me. When my editor doesn’t like a chapter of my book, it’s just like Caleb is yelling at me. When a friend is disappointed about something, it’s just like Caleb is yelling at me.

“We can’t make a person into someone they’re not,” I told Reed. “But you can keep talking to me about your feelings, and I promise to keep apologizing if I yell at you.”

That is all that I have to offer Reed for now. Judges don’t take kids away from their dads because their dads yell at them too much.

At the end of my marriage, my former father-in-law developed an obsession with whittling wooden spoons. I realize this sounds like Appalachian satire, but it’s true. We had so many misshapen wooden spoons in our house, but Caleb and I both loved to cook, so we enjoyed them.

When I graduated from my MFA program, there was a final reading where the graduates invite all of their friends and family, and the faculty members hood the graduates. I had no one coming to watch me. My parents were coming for my actual graduation, which was actually less important, but seemed more official. Caleb’s mother told Caleb that she and my father-in-law couldn’t make it because my father-in-law was too busy whittling spoons. He wanted to finish a spoon for everyone at their family reunion in July (it was April).

Yes, my then father-in-law skipped my graduation because he was whittling spoons.

Not coincidentally, I skipped that family reunion.

When Caleb told me why his parents weren’t coming, I was hurt. Really hurt. I didn’t tell him that, but he could tell. A couple of days later, he told me that his mom had decided to come on her own, and I knew that it was because he had called her. I was then hurt and embarrassed. Still, she came. That woman drove me crazy in so many ways, but she understood how important that was to me, and she came by herself.

Nonetheless, I have rarely felt so alone.

Last night, I wrote to a friend that I have been lonely recently because I’m single, and she wrote that she understands. I wrote back that it’s okay because I have been far lonelier when in a relationship, and I was being truthful.

Still, Caleb, for all of his faults, was the person who called his mother and told her that he wanted her to come for my reading. In so many ways, he loved me well.

I miss the ways that he loved me well, but I still love myself better. I love myself better than he ever loved me.

When Caleb was arrested for domestic battery (only a short period after that reading), we were evicted from our home. The university let us leave our stuff there until Christmas break, but I had taken Reed to Idaho with me for Christmas break, so Caleb’s mother and his aunts packed up our apartment. It was an invasion for me–having them in our personal stuff. They could have read my journals. Some things that I valued disappeared.

Still, I didn’t have to do it, and that’s something to be grateful for.

When I returned from my Christmas at my parents’ house, it was to a house full of boxes. I don’t remember unpacking them. I don’t remember much about that period, but I know that I packed them again by myself only a few short months later when I moved to Ohio.

In Ohio, in the tiny third floor apartment that Reed and I had moved in to, I unpacked those boxes again. There was not a wooden spoon to be found. Caleb’s mother and aunts had taken away every, single misshapen wooden spoon.

Perhaps it’s for the best, but I still haven’t bought myself a wooden spoon, and I’m not sure why, because I often think of how much I could use a wooden spoon, but then, I think of how I had an excess of wooden spoons in my life, and of how those wooden spoons contributed to a lack in other areas, and I guess that I’m just pissed as hell at wooden spoons.

The other night, I was cooking, while also talking on the phone to my best friend, and I pulled out my only wooden kitchen utensil, which is a salad fork. It was covered in mold because I  had been gone for too long during the summer. “I don’t have any wooden spoons,” I said.

“You mean the spoons that your father-in-law was whittling?” she cackled.

We both laughed.

Screw wooden spoons.

I don’t need wooden spoons.

I have camaraderie. It’s the last thing that I have left.