The true revelation of character is how one behaves under pressure. Right? Or is it? Maybe a truer revelation shows up when we assume no one is looking. When we react without having orchestrated a response. What we say and how we look and what we do in unguarded moments.
An instance of this from my childhood has long stood as a barometer for me of understanding emotional reactions and has proven especially useful in understanding a certain character in my novel, Better You Go Home.
When I was seventeen, the day after high school graduation, I set off with a buddy on a bicycle odyssey from Colorado Springs (in the shadow of Pikes Peak) bound for Sacramento. California in those days, for a kid, was still the land of milk and honey. We stalled out 300 miles later, near the border with Utah. After riding over high altitude mountain passes and sleeping out with nothing but a plastic tarp for cover, we realized we were hungry, tired, cold, and would soon run out of money. We packed our bikes and backpacks onto a bus. Two months later, we shipped our bikes home, made a food packet consisting of corn baked with brown sugar and some kinds of seeds, the mix ground into a thick powder and dumped into plastic bags, and then we hitch-hiked. South to LA. East through the desert, through Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas. We were taken to a religious youth retreat and drank in the adulation of repressed lovely girls who thought we were heroes because we had long hair and backpacks and were eating gruel. We saw Big Brother and the Holding Company (by simply walking into a bar; no one checked ID) sans Janis Joplin, but followed by a donkey show. We left when the bikers got violent. We arrived late at night in Colorado Springs. Got dropped off by the state highway. Slept that night in a ditch. Our families did not know we were coming home. The next morning we walked the last miles. We were very very hungry.
Home. My buddy’s father was a minister at the local Baptist church. We surprised him in the parking lot. They hugged like there was no tomorrow. I watched, fascinated. Never had I seen such an unbridled display of physical affection and emotion.
My home. I come from a big Catholic family, though one by one we had drifted away from a faith that seemed no longer relevant in our changing world. We lived in a satellite suburb, Security. Ranch-style one-story stucco homes, big yards, wide streets, no traffic jams. Tallest structure: the yellow air-raid siren. I walked past the public high school, giving it hardly a nod in my thoughts. Sunny day in early August. Still very much summer. Smell of lawns being mowed. Found my family in the kitchen, just finishing up lunch.
Mom’s reaction when I walked in the back door: “Oh, hi, you’re here.”
“I’m really hungry, Mom. Anything to eat?” Of course, I was imagining, after seeing my buddy’s reception, that she’d set chores aside and fix my favorite hot meal, navy beans and ham with home-made bread. My winter comfort food growing up.
“Look in the fridge,” she said. “Must be something in the fridge.”
I ran to the bedroom I shared with two younger brothers. Thankfully, they had not taken over my bed. My dad came in and made it good. But I wondered, from that day on. Why? What had made my mother react that way? It was a puzzle I could not solve, not until she had died many years later essentially from diabetes complications, when finally my dad told me about the abuse and neglect she had suffered as a child, information he felt she would not have wanted us to know when she was alive. Certainly something she had never talked about. Never. Not in any unguarded moment, ever. In unguarded moments, she was in lock-down mode, emotionally.
That long ago August day I had caught her in an unguarded moment. Surprised, she had responded with the survival deflection that had become automatic for her.
Writing my novel, trying to understand a character wrenched from his home and forced to survive in an alien land with repressed memories he did not want to revisit, I knew I had my model in my mother’s reaction. It was an easy leap to make. Below is a brief excerpt:
“So my father comes around in his big Oldsmobile. He’s chewinga toothpick. Mom would never have allowed that at church. He doesn’t say a
word. One of my aunts puts a hand on his shoulder. He just keeps chewing his toothpick. Then he says, I’ll never forget this, he says, ‘There’s probably
something in the fridge.’ Suddenly it’s like I’m seeing my father for the first time. Mom just died and that’s the best you can do? ‘There’s probably
something in the fridge?’ ”… “I realized something that day. I realized I’d never seen my father show a strong emotion. Corny jokes, okay, he was great at that. That’s how you knew
he was having fun. But actual joy? Sorrow?”
Buried beneath “there’s probably something in the fridge” lay the emotion that would emerge by stages with each forward step back home in this character’s journey. It was easy to make the parallel with the emotional lockdown that was a survival necessity in an occupied Eastern bloc country, but I wanted it to be more than a social justice issue. I took this character on an emotional journey that I wanted to go on with my mother, had she ever been able. Fiction is good for this.