MIMI FROM COAST TO COAST — Adrienne Pine
As I write this, a narcissist holds the highest office in our country. The narcissistic personality is one with which I am all too familiar, for I was raised by parents whose narcissism, like Trump’s, went hand-in-hand with crippling insecurity and a lack of impulse control. My mother in particular was apt to lash out without regard for the consequences. She sought to rule her children and husband by threats and fear. My father allowed himself to be goaded by her until his breaking point was reached, and then his anger was fearful to behold. That such behavior was not effective or productive, did not lead to reconciliation, and only succeeded in making them and those around them unhappy did not prevent them from repeating it.
There was another quality about their rages as well, deeper and more mysterious. My parents would work themselves up into frenzies. My mother would scream until the veins stood out on her neck, and her vocal cords sounded as if they were stripped raw. And my father’s nostrils would flare until we could swear that flames were about to shoot out from them. Their rages, although directed at each other or one or more of us, demonstrated a curious inward quality.
Sometimes it seemed as if they might actually explode if they didn’t stop, and yet, improbably, they’d keep going, long after it had stopped seeming that either one could win. Then something would break. My mother would dissolve in a flood of irreconcilable tears, and my father would stomp off, miserable and dissatisfied. Or sometimes he would erupt in such fury that it stilled our hearts in terror. That we were witnessing a release of volcanic proportions was undeniable. And afterwards he would be consumed by remorse.
Many years passed and I was an adult before I recognized that the closest resemblance to my parents’ rages was to orgasm. But what an orgasm it was, furious and antagonistic. For my mother, it was release without satisfaction, an illusion. For my father, the release, long pent-up and denied, came with such force and violence that he could not deny my mother’s claim to being its victim. His satisfaction was at her expense, and for that he was guilty and ashamed because his desire was so great, and he could not help himself.
As if I were in bed between them, I could see in their rages against each other a mirror of their sex life. And in some terrible sense I was there with them. All of us children were.
My parents did not recognize or respect personal boundaries, another characteristic of narcissism. In some ways they viewed us as extensions of themselves. My mother walked in on us changing clothes in our rooms, in the bath. My father showered with my sister Mimi and me when we were little. They didn’t seem to care if we saw them unclothed. In fact, they seemed to welcome it. They felt free to comment on our bodies, out loud, in front of us, to our embarrassment. We had no privacy with each other either. I wasn’t aware that I was entitled to it.
Every few months Mama would organize an afternoon for the four of us girls to try on clothes together. Our clothes got passed down from oldest to youngest, and the purpose was to see who fit into what. Mama offered commentaries on how we looked in the clothes and asked for our opinions. I was self-conscious, and I disliked these sessions as much as my mother loved them. Yet it would not have occurred to me or my sisters to refuse to participate.
When my sister Mimi visited me in New York a few years ago, she came in my room without asking while I was getting dressed. When I objected, she responded, “You think I don’t know what a woman looks like?”
This is not about you, it’s about me, I thought. “Please, I’d like to get dressed in private,” I told her.
In this aspect at least, Mimi has never evolved from childhood behavior.
* * *
If we didn’t own our bodies, then what about our thoughts and emotions? It was hard to get attention from our parents. They were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of feeding, clothing, and sheltering us. Understanding was a luxury compared to putting bread on the table. Their focus wasn’t on trying to understand us, but on our obligations to them in return for their support.
The notion that we owe our children understanding is a recent concept. Throughout human history, across very different societies, parents have expected reciprocation, obedience, and sacrifice from their children. The idea that children should be free to fulfill their own desires rather than be obligated to their parents is still revolutionary in many parts of the world.
But emotions have a way of showing themselves. That my siblings and I felt unacknowledged and misunderstood as children has challenged us in our adult lives. Yet I don’t fault my parents for not trying to understand us. I fault them for their disregard for each other and their disinclination to understand themselves.
When my siblings reached the dangerous years of young adulthood, and our family was falling apart spectacularly, the therapist that my father consulted about Stacy suggested to him that he, too, might benefit from therapy. My father was furious. “My children need a therapist, not me!” His voice quivered with outrage as he reported to me his response to her. “Nothing’s wrong with me,” he had insisted. “My children are the problem.”
In contrast to my father, I was prompted to seek therapy because of my family falling apart around me. Being surrounded by people who consistently behaved in deranged and destructive ways and insisted that their behavior was normal, and they were justified made me wonder if I weren’t unhinged. I needed a therapist to help me find balance and sanity.
One of the first things my therapist told me was that my mother was crazy. This was a new thought for me. I knew my mother was volatile, temperamental, mean, vindictive, and unreasonable, but crazy? She always claimed that she was the sanest person she knew, and everyone else was crazy. She had many such pronouncements that we internalized before we were old enough to question them, mostly amounting to how perfect she was, and how flawed everyone else. We believed them until evidence showed us otherwise, and perhaps even then.
Mama also used to say that she was the most honest person she knew. In contrast, she frequently accused our step-grandmother June of being a liar, yet, when pressed, she could not say exactly what June was lying about. Yet not only did she persist in this claim, but she persuaded others. At different times I heard each of my three sisters parroting her, without any evidence.
Narcissists remake the world in their image and view others, particularly those close to them, as extensions of themselves. Our parents were no exception. When we were growing up, our appearances were constantly scrutinized and compared.
As we grew into adolescence, our parents became fixated on our weight. Mimi in particular internalized their criticism and disapproval. As a child, she had a litheness and grace that came from her weekly ballet lessons. She was an engaging performer, and one of the delights of my childhood was watching her dance.
At the end of every ballet class, mothers coming for their daughters were invited to enter the studio. I loved to accompany my mother to pick Mimi up after her lessons. We hovered just inside, against the wall or by the piano in the corner so as not to take up the dance space. It was a beautiful room, the former ballroom of a once-grand house in a part of the city that was no longer fashionable.
The classes ended with the girls one by one executing chainé turns diagonally across the studio floor. Just as one girl reached the end of the room, another girl began. Twilight slanted through the tall windows, illuminating the particles of dust and rosin in the air. The odors of dust and rosin and wood mingled, as the little girls moved through light and shadow to the tinkling accompaniment of the piano. Watching the young ballerinas awoke in me a nameless yearning, amorphous yet so intense I can conjure it still, a half-century later.
Mama and I agreed that while Paden Jones might have a better extension than Mimi, and Lisa Kramer could lift her leg higher, in chainé turns Mimi was the one to watch, keeping her proud little head steady and aloft until the last moment when it whipped around, following her body and catching up to it. The secret of not getting dizzy, Mimi said, was to focus on one spot as long as possible and then quickly snap your head around and find the focus again. That was what the girls were taught, and Mimi had mastered it.
Even before Mimi started taking ballet lessons, I liked to twirl in circles wearing net petticoats and full-skirted Sunday school dresses, until they lifted around me like multi-colored lily pads floating on air. I twirled until the room spun around me, and I collapsed in a heap on the floor. I rather liked a mild feeling of dizziness. The idea of spinning and never growing dizzy was a new thought for me.
Mimi was a gifted dancer, and I assumed she would continue her lessons, but before seventh grade, Mimi abruptly quit ballet. Adolescence is the time when girls graduate to toe shoes, but the structure of Mimi’s feet made this transition difficult for her, because her second toe was longer than her big toe. En point, the dancer must put most of her weight on her big toe, but, being longer, Mimi’s second toe took too much weight, and her feet would be bleeding when she took off her toe shoes after a dance lesson, no matter how she first wrapped them in lamb’s wool.
At the same time, the director of the ballet school was forming a state company. Mimi was invited to be a student, which would require classes five days a week after school. Mimi didn’t feel equal to it. She could have continued with barre classes at the old school, under the director’s former assistant. By not making a greater commitment, Mimi could not advance as a ballerina. She made a decision that if she could not dance with the state company, then she wouldn’t dance at all. Suddenly, everything that ballet had brought into her life was gone.
At the same time, her body was changing and so was mine, which invited our parents’ constant comments. When I was ten and eleven years old, my orthodontic treatment had required a series of tooth extractions followed by a full complement of braces and rubber bands, which often made eating a challenge except for soft foods, and I was pretty thin in those days. When I was twelve, the braces came off, and I entered a growth spurt that meant I was hungry all the time. After a year, the growth spurt ended, but my appetite did not.
When Mimi quit ballet, she went from someone who could eat three cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwiches in a row and not gain an ounce to someone who could not. Neither parent was happy when Mimi and I gained weight. They made it clear that they preferred our thin, girlish bodies to our new rounded, womanly figures. A couple of years earlier, when my breasts first began to develop, my father would refer to my “mosquito bites” in public, to my mortification. We internalized their disapproval as shame with the result that we experienced eating disorders throughout our adolescence.
When Mimi went to college, she confessed that she felt the only thing our parents noticed about her when she returned home was her weight, and she suffered from their critical comments. I felt the same way. A decade after my graduation, I recovered a trove of correspondence that I had stored in a box in my parents’ house. There I found letters from my mother when I was in college, where she referred to me as “a fucking fat slob.” Like Trump, she heaped invective without caring about the effect or the consequences, and she never apologized.
The worst of her invective was saved for me, not Mimi, but Mimi suffered more, because she needed our mother’s love more than I did, and she sacrificed so much to have it.
* * *
I came out of my eating problem in my early twenties. Mimi did not, and in her sixties still suffers from an eating disorder, although she would deny that’s what it is. What she says is that she is “allergic to food.” For decades she has practiced semi-starvation. She is so thin as to be gaunt and so weak that she lies on the sofa for much of the day watching television. She imbibes just enough calories to stay alive, mostly through protein powders and supplements. The least sign of stress propels her into fasting mode. Sitting down to a meal with others is anathema to her.
She would deny what I am saying. She believes she is exceptional, that her body doesn’t absorb food like other people. Her eating problems control her life and guarantee her isolation, since most social occasions are organized around food and drink, and she will rarely sit down to dine, or if she sits down, she will barely eat.
She hardly thinks of tasting any food for pleasure. Everything she puts in her mouth is calculated to benefit her in some way. I have never known anyone who took such gratification from denial. I’ve seen her exuberant about cutting this or that food from her diet, which has happened so often there is almost nothing left that she permits herself. She feels so threatened and damaged that she lives an entirely confined life. She complains about isolation at the same time that she embraces it. How could she possibly find a life partner who would willingly share such an existence?
Yet she doesn’t see it that way. Even now, she attributes her failure to find a partner to her appearance. She was simply never “pretty enough” to attract and keep a man.
It will do no good for me to tell her that she exists on such a narrow bandwidth that no one would want to join her there, just as it will do no good for me to tell her what I truly think of her eating issues. If I were to insist on it, it would only alienate us. Instead, I listen and try to be sympathetic.
Still, it wears on my patience, because Mimi is so starved for attention and so isolated from human society that it seems that she talks to hear herself talking. Her world is so ingrown and insular, so entirely self-focused that there is room for nothing else but her and her echo in a very small space.
She fills her time and pours her energy and intellect into plans and projects that are rarely realized. She will fixate on an idea, and it will become more and more elaborate. She will devote much effort to it. And then when the idea comes into contact with reality, everything falls apart.
In December 2015, she sold her condo in Naples, Florida, that she had bought nearly three years before that, after our mother’s death. She had decided to move from southern to northern Florida because it was less crowded and less expensive, with a more temperate climate. She didn’t want to live in a condo anymore, not even her lovely end unit on the top floor in a nice area of Naples. Instead, she wanted to live in a small house on a reasonably large lot in a decent neighborhood. As it turned out, this was almost impossible to find.
She moved to a rental in a gated development in Palm Coast, Florida, where she made expeditions to communities in nearby northern Florida and southern Georgia. In the neighborhoods she liked, small houses were on small lots, and large houses were on large lots. Because she couldn’t find anything that suited her, she decided to look for a lot where she could build a house to her specifications, which might even have room for a little shop where she could sell her jewelry and crafts. She diligently studied maps, contacted real estate agents, researched building codes, and visited properties. The biggest problem she encountered was that most properties in the neighborhoods she liked mandated a minimum building size to keep property values high, and it was more than she needed or wanted.
“I’m going to settle down for good and live in this house for the rest of my life, so I don’t care about the resale value, and I am going to design it just as I like,” she told me in one of our phone conversations on this subject. “For example, I don’t need or want a full kitchen, since I don’t cook. A refrigerator, a microwave, a toaster oven, and electric kettle are enough for me. But I do want a second bathroom. I won’t have overnight guests, but I may have occasional visitors, and I don’t want them using my bathroom.”
In her mind she was already picking out appliances. She fell in love with Amelia Island. “When I drove over the bridge, I just felt good,” she said, ascribing to it a mystical quality. But there were no lots for sale on Amelia Island that met her specifications. Next she explored Jekyll Island. There was one lot that she looked at, adjacent to a golf course. She came close to signing a contract, when an inspector found hundreds of golf balls on the lot. He said he had never seen so many in a property next to a golf course.
“What should I do?” Mimi asked me.
I didn’t think she would be happy there. “If people are constantly hitting golf balls in your yard, it could be dangerous and certainly disruptive. I’d be afraid to walk in the backyard for fear of getting hurt.”
When Mimi learned there were also barking dogs on the street, the deal was off.
“There’s nowhere for me to go, nowhere I can live,” she despaired.
Mimi is adversely affected by cold weather, which she defines as anything below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. During the years she lived in Naples, she grew sensitive to heat and humidity. Lois, who lives in the Bay Area, urged her to move to California, which she had long extolled for the perfection of its climate, but which Mimi believed was beyond her means. Lois suggested the central coast, which was more affordable.
Mimi poured her energies into researching San Luis Obispo, or “SLO,” as she called it, adapting to local usage. She located a real estate agent online, soon enlisted her help, and scheduled a trip to view building lots for sale in the nearby communities.
The advantage of California was that there were fewer covenants mandating a minimum building size. The disadvantage was that building lots in California, even on the central coast, were more expensive than similar properties in Florida. Mimi returned from her trip exhausted, exhilarated, nervous, and committed to moving there. “Lois is right, it really is beautiful,” she reported. The trip had taken so much out of her, she confessed, that she lay on her couch for a week afterwards, barely moving. But she had found a property she liked, not in San Luis Obispo, but in nearby Arroyo Grande.
“It’s got a view to die for,” she enthused. “It’s up on a ridge, and from the crest you can see for miles. It’s on town water, which is important in California, since if I were to have to dig a well, the well might run dry because of the drought. And I can build any size house there that I want.”
Mimi had suddenly become an expert on California building codes, zoning, and water policy. The property had been on the market for a year but had not sold because it was priced high. The owner lived in a ramshackle trailer on the property at the crest of the hill, and to say that she was difficult to deal with was an understatement.
Before she left California, Mimi visited the local municipal office to obtain the records for the property and inform herself of the regulations that dictated how she would have to place the house envelope should she buy and decide to build. She was not able to acquire all the documents she wanted in time for her departure and left her real estate agent with a to-do list. Of course, no one can match Mimi for single-mindedness and efficiency, and back in Florida, she fretted about delays. She has no problem plunging into tasks and no other commitments, and she has little understanding or sympathy for those who do not live up to her standards, which is almost everyone.
She saw the property in September 2016, and her lease in Palm Coast was up at the end of the year. She decided to extend her lease an extra month. From Florida, she pursued the purchase of the lot in Arroyo Grande, fielding daily calls with the real estate agent, following up with municipal inspectors, and searching for a rental in the area where she could live while her small house was being built. She refused to live in a conventional apartment with neighbors above or below. She wanted to find a guesthouse or mother-in-law apartment on someone’s property, but there was nothing available. She could have rented a small house in town, but she was unwilling to pay what she considered a high rent while constructing a house at the same time. The real estate agent suggested that she fix up the mobile home on the property and live there while her house was being constructed, and she liked the thought of saving money and being able to supervise the construction.
She signed a contract to purchase the lot and engaged a contractor to spruce up the mobile home. He estimated a cheap fix would run her about $12,000-$15,000. Comparing this expense against the cost of the rent she would forego, she thought she had a good deal. She began preparations for the move. The plan was that the real estate agent would represent her at the closing, and the contractor would begin work right away so the trailer would be ready when she arrived. She would pack her possessions in a pod and have it moved to California and hire a drive-away service to transport her car to Lois’s house. She would visit with Lois before heading down to Arroyo Grande.
Even in absentia, the closing was a traumatic event for Mimi. She called me afterwards, terribly upset. The sellers were dishonest, she said, and they had lied to her. Even worse, they maligned her character, saying that she was dishonest. She conveyed to me her fury and outrage at the accusation.
Mimi’s reaction was an uncanny echo of our parents, who were always reminding us of how upright and honest they were. If anyone suggested otherwise, they were indignant. When others did not do as they wished, they expressed surprise and felt betrayed. Criticism brought forth their righteous indignation and wounded sensitivity.
Their attitudes were deeply ingrained in us. Looking back, I can see how my sisters and I adopted them at different times in our lives in our efforts to win our parents’ approval. Eventually, however, I came to realize that such attitudes are not productive or conducive to working with others and will probably not lead to successful outcomes. Through her career in local government, Lois came to realize the same thing. Mimi has never realized it.
In Mimi’s complaints about the transaction, I heard our parents’ voices. Instead of focusing on getting what she wanted, she was hijacked by her outrage that the sellers would call her a liar and question her character. She was adamant that it was they who had misrepresented, not she. Even before she moved to California, Mimi regretted buying the property. But the plans and arrangements had been made, and she went through with them.
When she arrived in Arroyo Grande in February 2017, she discovered the renovation on the trailer had not progressed according to schedule, and she had to stay in a motel for several weeks. Neither she nor the real estate agent had been allowed to see the interior of the mobile home, and when the contractor saw it, he said it would need more work than he had initially anticipated. The “cheap fix” was going to cost a lot more.
Mimi was sick about the additional expense, and when she finally got into the mobile home, she was unhappy with it. It was too small even for her pared-down possessions, which had to go into storage. The fresh paint and new carpeting could not disguise the fact that it was not a very nice trailer home, and she had been planning to live there for months, until a house could be designed and built. Most of the lot was overgrown with spindly eucalyptus trees. The view from the ridge was lovely but it took her half an hour to get to any shopping. Given the distance, she anticipated that she would probably leave the property only once a day. Even for her, that was too isolated. Worst of all were the rats that lived on the property. She called in an exterminator to set out traps and poison. Any rustling she heard in the eucalyptus leaves awakened her fears. She was up all night with dread and worry. She also complained about “bug” infestation. She said that she had more bugs in California than she had ever had in Florida.
Overseeing the renovation of the mobile home and negotiating with the contractor proved onerous and debilitating. The contractor had talked her into putting twice as much money into the mobile home renovation as she had intended. She could have rented a small place in town for the same amount, she realized, and not forced herself to live in such unpleasant quarters. She had made mistakes, and she had let herself be talked into them by the real estate agent and the contractor. She now despised them both and was worried about her ability to withstand more persuasive entreaties in the future, when the expenses at stake would be greater.
After months of looking on both coasts for a lot where she could build a small house, Mimi now decided that she didn’t want to be a homeowner after all. Her only other foray into homeownership was when she bought a three-bedroom house in the same neighborhood where we had grown up. Back then her first act as homeowner had been to install a tall chain-link fence around her property. Soon after she discovered there was a barking dog across the street, she wanted to leave. It only took a few months for her to decide she wanted nothing to do with keeping up a yard or a house after all, and she put the place on the market and moved back in with our parents. That was eighteen years before she bought the property in Arroyo Grande.
For years Mimi’s pattern had been to move away from our parents for a while and then move back in with them. Now they were dead, and she was on her own. Fortunately, she quickly managed to extricate herself from the Arroyo Grande property, albeit at a financial loss. Approaching a neighbor whom she knew to be a contractor, she asked him if he wanted to buy the property from her. He did, but not at the price she had paid, which he said was too much. It turned out that everyone in the neighborhood knew what she had paid, and what the real estate agent had represented to her as a good deal was not considered to be such a bargain after all. Additionally, the contractor wanted nothing to do with the mobile home, which he planned to demolish. The expensive renovation would be a complete loss.
To Mimi’s credit, she quickly extricated herself from an unpleasant situation. While she obsessed about the financial hit, she would take by selling at a loss and absorbing the cost of the mobile home renovation, the profit she had made selling her Florida condo offset the loss in Arroyo Grande. Had she put the Arroyo Grande property back on the market, she might have negotiated a better price, but she would have the real estate agent fee as well as the headache of owning the property, when her plan was to leave the area as soon as possible.
She spoke to me about living “like a gypsy,” “having adventures.” She managed a gay lilt in her tone of voice, but I felt apprehensive. Two years before, in 2015, she had said the same thing about her plan to escape Naples during the summer by renting three properties in New England for a month at a time—in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Again, much planning and effort had gone into that sojourn, and it was not a success. It had proved too much for her, starting with the drive north from Florida, which she had insisted on making because she hated flying, didn’t want the expense of a rental car, and needed to transport her “equipment,” including an electric foot bath she never showed me, but which she said was responsible “for keeping me alive.”
Because Mimi was allergic to the smells of cleaning solvents used in motels, she managed the drive from Naples to New York City in less than two days, recuperating in my apartment before heading to her first rental in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Of the three rentals, the first was the only success, not because of the rental itself, which was a simple beach house, but because of the location on the Rhode Island coast. She explored some of the towns and was particularly drawn to Stonington Village. She had a nice day meeting her Florida neighbors in Newport, and she enjoyed touring Mystic Seaport. She generally liked the area, even though much of her time was spent indoors, “resting.”
By the time she moved into the Connecticut rental, the adventure had begun to pall. This property proved not to be a cottage but a real family house near a river. She didn’t particularly like the area. There were no sites of interest nearby, she reported, and by then she pronounced herself too worn out to see them if there were.
One excursion she did make was a day trip to see me on Block Island where I was vacationing with my family. It involved about a forty-minute drive and an hour’s ferry ride back and forth the same day, which was a lot for her. But I couldn’t have her stay overnight at my small rental, because I’d already reached the limit with my husband, daughter, and her boyfriend, and besides, I knew that, despite the beautiful view, it was too primitive and “buggy” for her.
We met her at the ferry before lunchtime, and on the way to the house I stopped at the grocery store to get what she wanted, which was the organic apple juice she used to mix her protein powder. She said there was nothing else I could buy for her.
The four of us—my husband, daughter, boyfriend and I—sat down to the bountiful and healthy lunch I had prepared, and Mimi agreed to sit down with us, with her little bowl of protein powder mixed with apple juice. “I mix it so it’s thick,” she explained, “and I eat it with a spoon. It’s like a porridge, and so filling.”
It seemed that I could feel her hunger as if it were my own. Feeling starved, I ate more than usual. Even Mimi seemed to admit that she could eat something else. At first, she agreed to sample the kale, but when she learned that I had cooked it with a tomato, she refused it without tasting it. There was nothing else—absolutely nothing—that she would eat. She was so visibly upset that I had cooked the kale with tomato that I felt guilty. But how was I to know? And besides, I had offered to buy her anything she wanted at the grocery store, and she had refused.
Suddenly she jumped up, willing her attention away from food. “Aren’t we going to go sightseeing?” After we cleared up, we all drove to the Southeast Lighthouse and walked up and down the steep stairs at the Mohegan Bluffs. It’s an energetic climb down to the beach and back. Navigating the rocks on the beach isn’t easy either. I worried about Mimi’s stamina. “It’s only walking. I can walk,” she said.
Not only did she keep up, but she went ahead, and I had to dissuade her from climbing up the clay cliffs. “It’s not allowed,” I said, “because of erosion.” I wondered at her energy, but now I understand that she was using up her reserves. After our entourage returned to the house, I drove her into town to tour the shops and art galleries before she left on the ferry. She had the ride and drive ahead of her. It was a grueling schedule on nothing but protein powder mixed with half a cup of apple juice.
She later reported that when she returned to the Connecticut rental, she was so exhausted that she took to her bed for a week. She never did come to New York to go to the U.S. Open with us, as she had planned, or visit Lois at her Martha’s Vineyard rental in early September. When she arrived at her own Massachusetts rental at the beginning of September, she found it dirty and buggy, with a bad smell. She complained to the owner, but he was unresponsive. Even had she liked the place, she felt that by now she had been away from home for too long.
“If I’m going to stay indoors and watch television, I might as well be in my beautiful condo in Naples,” she said. “Three months away is too much. I didn’t realize it at the time.”
I reminded her that she didn’t have to stay in Massachusetts if she didn’t want to. She could leave, and so what if she had paid rent until the end of September?
Leave is what she did. This time she was in such a hurry to get home that she didn’t stop to see me in New York City.
Given this recent history, I felt apprehensive when Mimi spoke again of “having adventures.” “But that summer in New England I stayed in a place for only a month at a time,” she declared. “This time I’ll stay longer. I won’t have to move as often, and it won’t be as tiring. And if I find some place I really like, I’ll stay longer.
“Arroyo Grande was a mistake,” she conceded, “and I’m going to wipe it from my mind. But I don’t think it was a mistake to come to the West Coast. The climate here is definitely better for me. There’s almost no humidity.”
She went down to the San Diego area to scout out short-term rentals, and she found what she was looking for the first weekend—an in-law’s apartment at a reasonable rent in a townhouse north of San Diego in a community called Cardiff-by-the-Sea. The new place was just eight blocks from the ocean, and Mimi loved walking on beaches and looking at the sea. Although her apartment wasn’t separate from the townhouse, as she would have preferred, the owners planned to be there only sporadically, perhaps six weeks in the summer and six weeks during the rest of the year. She signed a lease for six months with an option to renew and moved the second half of April. Her sojourn in Arroyo Grande was less than three months.
Before she left Florida, Mimi had donated or given away most of her furniture. Once more she pared down, offering me keepsakes she had selected when we divided up our parents’ possessions, like Grandma’s Lalique plate and Rookwood pottery and the glass balls she had kept in a bowl on her dining table. It made me sad to take them, but it would have made me sadder not to. “I’ll keep them for you,” I promised. “You can always take them back when you’re settled.”
“But if I move around a lot, I won’t have room for them,” she said. “I don’t want them back. Possessions oppress me. I need to fit everything I have in a small space.”
Her attitude surprised me because I knew she had put a lot of effort into deciding what she wanted from the family home. Growing up, I had believed her to be more materialistic and attuned to objects than I was. During the years she lived as an adult with our parents, she and Mom spent every weekend shopping at garage sales. They thought nothing of driving all the way to Atlanta just for a garage sale. Mimi liked to collect beaded handbags, cut-glass perfume bottles, art quilts.
But as it has turned out, I care more about possessions than she does. Family heirlooms matter to me. I am sentimentally attached to things because of their associations to people I love. I like being surrounded by objects that are meaningful to me.
Mimi disposed of her collections. Out of the blue, she sent me an exquisite necklace she had made of silver rings and silver beads soldered together. Over the past several years, as she had often told me, I had become her best customer for her hand-made jewelry, giving it to friends and other relatives because I thought she made beautiful things, and I wanted to support her. Her pleasure when people liked what she made was touching. She had created the necklace for herself, she said, but she rarely wore necklaces anymore. She said she spent her life in jeans and tee-shirts, and the only jewelry she regularly wore were earrings and our mother’s wedding rings.
I knew I would wear the necklace and enjoy it, but I wondered at her mania for giving her things away. Where would it end? She reminded me of Kafka’s hunger artist, except that she was not on public display. Quite the contrary. She lived a life so hidden as to be almost invisible. It seemed to me that the ruthlessness she brought to her diet applied to other parts of her life as well. I wondered if her efforts to remove and downsize were indicative of a single tendency to see how very little she could live on.
When I confided my worries about Mimi to my husband, he exploded into anger. While he admired Mimi’s artistry and creativity, her beautiful jewelry, knitting, beadwork, and quilting, he had no patience with her extreme diet and was somehow threatened by it.
I reacted with pity and aggravation at how Mimi’s phobias controlled her life. The chance of her eating a square of chocolate, a slice of bread-and-butter, or a potato chip was as remote as her shooting up heroin. No crystal of sugar ever crossed her lips, nor sip of wine. Mimi would starve and live, or Mimi would starve and die. Either way she would starve. During her summer in the Northeast, she had opted not to contact our uncle in Westchester County after I told her he was a fine cook. He was our mother’s only sibling and the last surviving member of that generation, but she would rather not see him than be obligated to eat with him.
I was at a loss to help her. All I could do was encourage, at our great distance, any effort to make a connection. At first it seemed that the move to Cardiff-by-the-Sea might be a success. The sale of the Arroyo Grande property took place in her absence without a hitch, and the money was duly wired into her account, leaving her with a feeling of great relief. In text messages, she praised the fabulous weather and sent me a photograph of the spectacular coastline from the “Swami’s meditation garden,” within walking distance of her new home. She had found a nearby knit shop that hosted a knitting circle, her most reliable social activity, and she spoke of meeting two nice women, one she might knit with and the other might accompany her for walks.
For over a month our communications continued in the same vein as previously. I bought two of her silver-and-gold-wire byzantine hand-woven necklaces as gifts for two friends. In mid-May, Lynn and I celebrated Sandra’s special birthday at a Greek restaurant. Sandra was thrilled with the necklace, and I passed on her thanks to Mimi, who replied, “Thanks for sharing this with me. It is incredibly rewarding to have someone admire and appreciate something I made. As I’ve told you before, that’s one reason I like making things for you. Because you not only think they’re pretty, but you wear them (jewelry and knitwear). No better compliment.”
We talked about her setting up a website to sell her jewelry, a subject we had discussed previously a number of times. She’d had her domain name registered for years, but as in the past, she dithered. Any of my suggestions met with objection. According to her, photographing jewelry was a task too difficult and costly to delegate, so she would have to take it on herself, and she didn’t have the right camera. She wasn’t sure what to buy, and all of the lenses were expensive. She also didn’t want to pay anyone to keep up a website, so she would have to learn how to do it herself, and she was too tired.
I had heard all of her arguments before, and I wasn’t surprised. Hadn’t it taken her five years of back-and-forth debate before she invested in a smartphone? I mildly replied that I hoped she’d find a way to create a website, because an Internet presence would definitely help her sell her jewelry. Yet I was perturbed by the way she referred to her “stupid little website.” It seemed a denigration of what was essential to her if she would only allocate resources and allow it to exist. Paralyzing and self-destructive contempt prevented her from giving herself what she needed.
Mimi’s approaching June birthday awakened my apprehension. For the past two years when I had telephoned her for the occasion, I had had to listen to a two-hour litany of her misery. The passing of Mimi’s birthday seemed to reveal a deep trough of depression. Perhaps the anniversary triggered a look backward to all that had gone wrong in her life. Perhaps it was the realization that she was another year older, and nothing had changed. Perhaps it was the fact that our mother often made sure that birthdays were unpleasant occasions. Whatever the underlying reason, I feared that Mimi’s birthday would be another bad day for her.
After she sent me her family treasures and the necklace, I felt an obligation to send her a gift, but what? Food and drink were out. No jewelry because she already made it. No clothes because what I picked out was never right for her. No decorative or useful objects, a category I usually fell back on with her, because she didn’t want to accumulate them. At a loss, I mailed her a collection of small, useful items: a set of hand-painted coasters; a package of herbal teas since she was caffeine-free; handmade, scentless, hypoallergenic soap; a just-published anthology with one of my stories; a small leather coin purse. Nothing was particularly valuable, and all of it took up just a small amount of space.
Hoping to avoid getting dragged down in her gloom for several captive hours, so I telephoned her the night before her birthday. I explained that I had a busy day ahead of me, so I was calling her early.
Her spirits were already low. The heavy tread of her landlady’s footsteps above her disturbed her. “She’s not much bigger than I am, but when she’s here, she sounds like an elephant,” complained Mimi. Mimi also objected to the shouts of her landlady’s young daughter playing in the swimming pool. She craved peace and quiet, but she was never going to get it. She didn’t want to stay in this rental, but she didn’t know where she was going to go.
It was the same old story: there was no place on earth that was right for her. Beautiful as this area of southern California was, with its perfect climate, it was also expensive and congested. She timed her shopping excursions to avoid the rush hours. If she wanted to drive into San Diego, she only had a four-hour window of time without heavy traffic.
I tried a neutral tone to counter her note of despair. “If the area weren’t so desirable, it wouldn’t be so congested or expensive,” I said reasonably. “It’s the law of supply and demand.”
But she was not in a reasonable state of mind. Although she complained of her neighbors, she was drowning in loneliness. At the yarn shop, she heard the other women in the knitting circle chatting about their busy lives and felt left out. Many days passed without her speaking to a soul. Her only outlet was television. She loved sports, especially football and tennis, and her knowledge of the teams and players was encyclopedic. “I’d die without television,” she declared. She’d said it before, and I knew it wasn’t an exaggeration. “When the announcers are talking, I sometimes think they are speaking just to me.”
The childishness of this utterance made me want to weep. There was so much naked pain in it. I had no idea how to respond. Mimi seemed like a person in arrested development, not a woman turning sixty-two years old. “I’ve only been in love twice,” she confessed. Her confiding tone took me by surprise.
I knew about the first boyfriend, Tommy, although I’d never met him. They had gone together in college, and she assumed they would get married. But he’d broken up with her. Oddly enough, a couple of years later, he’d gotten back together with her, but then he’d broken up with her again. She’d been in love with him all that time, and he’d broken her heart—twice. This all took place more than thirty-five years ago.
“The second time was when I was in Great Barrington,” Mimi said, referring to an interlude about fifteen years ago, when she was being treated by a therapist for several months in that Berkshire community. I knew it had been a crucially important time for her, when she had uncovered a great deal about her past and faced some of her demons.
“I met him at the gym,” she continued. “When I first saw him, I felt dizzy, and I had to sit down. We liked a lot of the same things, and so we started seeing each other. He wrote poetry,” she added, knowing this would appeal to me. “I knew he’d left his wife. We were getting closer, and then he drew back. He said he wasn’t ready for an involvement. I made a mistake; I begged him, if we can’t be involved, can’t we see each other as friends? But he didn’t want to. A few years ago, I looked him up on the Internet and saw that he had married someone else. Obviously, I cared a lot more about him than he did about me.” There was a pause. “I never even told Marilyn about him,” she continued, referring to our mother by her first name. And to emphasize the importance she gave to that statement, she repeated it.
I understood the subtext. The price Mimi paid for living with our parents was not being allowed to grow up. In order for them to take care of her as she so desperately wanted, she had to remain their little girl. She couldn’t be a grown woman involved with a man. So, when she’d fallen in love, she’d kept it a secret.
In our family, there was never enough love or attention to go around. Living with our parents after the rest of us had left was Mimi’s way to have the childhood she’d always wanted, with the undivided attention of our parents. Every time she left their home and tried to live on her own, it was a gesture towards independence and adulthood, but she could never sustain it, and she always came back. When our parents died, she lost more than the rest of us did.
“I’m sorry, Mimi,” I said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out with him.”
“I never thought I’d be alone all my life.”
Her regret was an old theme, one I’d heard dozens of times before, but that didn’t make it any less sad or painful. There was really nothing I could say to comfort her or heal what was broken in her.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to call you tomorrow, Mimi,” I said, before we hung up.
“That’s all right, you don’t have to,” she said. “We’ve talked for a long time.”
The next day must have been a particularly bad birthday for Mimi. She opened my gifts, and she didn’t like them. She sent me an email:
Your presents were the only gifts I received and it means a lot that you took the
time to select them and send them to me, but it also upsets me to have you spend
time and money to buy and mail me gifts I already have in abundance or
can’t/won’t use. (How are you supposed to know I have two sets of coasters that I
really like and three change purses? Or that I only use bagged teas and that
almost all herb teas (for some unknown reason) cause my mouth to dry up and
my hands and feet to swell–through trial and error over the years I’ve discovered
only a couple of herb teas I can drink without unfortunate consequences. I bring
my own tea bag when I’m meeting someone at a coffee shop….I’m fortunate
regarding your gifts, because I send you something I’ve made. And that I know
you like and use–the scarves, mitts, etc.– because you tell me that. I would have a
hard time picking out something in a store for you. I appreciate that you want to
send me a gift on my birthday, but can I suggest that you just send me a card?
Mimi’s email was polite, but I knew she was tapping into a reservoir of pain, deep and black. If she didn’t want the gifts, it would have been better had she thanked me and then gotten rid of them privately. But she couldn’t do that. And, as my husband pointed out to me, it would have been better for me had I heeded her request. Like Mimi with the man she loved, I misjudged.
Mimi had given me so many things—jewelry and knits she had made, beaded rings and boxes, our grandmother’s heirlooms—yet she wouldn’t accept anything from me. That hurt me. But maybe it was my fault. What I had given her obviously wasn’t nice enough. I resolved to give her something really lovely, something that she, with her well-developed artistic sense, would appreciate. But what?
What popped into my mind was the gift that my husband had given me for my birthday, just months before. It was lovely—an Hermès silk scarf printed with sea creatures and seashells against a royal blue background. Mimi loved the ocean. This scarf might be the perfect gift for Mimi, I reflected. It’s beautiful and useful, and it hardly takes up any room. I looked on the Hermès website for the pattern, but I didn’t see it. I snapped a picture of my scarf with my cell phone and went across town to the Hermès store.
“That design has been discontinued,” said the salesman, “but we might have a couple left.” He did not find a scarf with the same royal blue background as mine, but there was one with a bright pink background, and another one with black.
“I’ll take the black one,” I said. The contrast between the black background and the exuberant, colorful pattern of undersea shells and creatures was striking. Except for jeans, Mimi almost always wore a combination of black and white, and I thought this scarf would be perfect for her. I mailed it that afternoon with a note informing her it was an “unbirthday present.” I was thinking of her comment that her favorite presents were not for occasions. I also mentioned that there was an Hermès store in San Diego, and if she wished, she could exchange the gift for something else.
I knew Mimi to be obsessive about tracking packages. Whenever she mailed me jewelry I had ordered, she let me know in advance just when it would be delivered. When she moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, she hadn’t shared her address with me, but I had her post office box number, and that was where I sent the scarf.
Several days later, when I hadn’t heard from her, I tracked the package on the postal service website and learned that it had already been delivered and claimed. I sent a text acknowledging the former but not the latter: “Hi Mimi, how are you? Wondering if you checked your PO box recently. I sent you a package that was delivered three days ago.”
She replied, “Yes, Adrienne, I received your package on Monday but haven’t opened it.”
I wrote back, “It is something special and I really hope you will like it—an ‘unbirthday’ present.”
“Adrienne, I don’t want to open it now. Sorry.”
“Too complicated. Don’t want to discuss it.”
“I can’t help feeling a little hurt.”
“Not my intention to hurt your feelings. But I’m putting myself first.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Mimi did not reply, nor did she answer her phone when I called and left a message. I thought she must be in a very bad way. I wondered if she were sorry that she had confided in me about her old love. Perhaps she thought that by revealing to me what she had kept even from our mother, she had given me a power over her. She regretted that I knew about this deep, personal vulnerability. Perhaps this was why she suddenly cut off contact with me.
What Mimi had forgotten was that she had told me about this man years ago. I remembered it as soon as she mentioned meeting him in the gym. She hadn’t confided in me anything that I didn’t already know.
Mimi was like the princess and the pea. In the fairytale, the princess goes to bed on fifty mattresses piled one on top of another, but a tiny pea under the very bottom mattress proves so bruising to her that she cannot sleep all night. This hyper-sensitivity is proof of the princess’s royal lineage.
As delicate as that princess, Mimi was so wounded by the birthday gifts she had opened that she refused to open the replacement “unbirthday gift” I had sent in their stead. I felt angry with her. Why was it “putting herself first” not to open a present from me? Among the gifts she had sent me were a few things she hadn’t asked me about, and I didn’t really need or want them, though they were attractive objects: a cut-glass perfume bottle, a porcelain vase. Yet I would never have dreamed of not accepting them graciously. Why couldn’t she do the same for me?
I wrote back:
I sent you a gift out of love and kindness. If you cannot bring yourself to
open it or to acknowledge it, please return it to me with the tracking number, and
I will reimburse you for the postage when I receive it.
I don’t know what has happened to you to change your behavior towards
me so thoroughly, but I regret it, and I worry about you.
I hope we can get over this and move on.
I did not receive a response. The thought of Mimi sitting there with the unopened gift upset me. But if anyone can withstand a normal curiosity, that person is Mimi.
I wasn’t sure whether she would return the gift or not, but she did. At first, I didn’t notice that she had enclosed a note. I was glad when I found it, because she admitted to having opened the present. She said she was returning the scarf because she thought it was too small, and she didn’t see anything else she liked on the Hermès website. Besides, she never wore scarves anyway. She had never worn the silk scarf I had given her the previous year. She thought the gift was too expensive for her to accept.
Mimi had many reasons not to keep the scarf, but at least she wasn’t returning it unopened.
Around the same time, I gifted the second of Mimi’s hand-woven silver-and-gold wire byzantine necklaces that I had bought from her in the spring. Lynn liked Mimi’s necklace as much as Sandra did. But this time, when I texted Mimi Lynn’s note of appreciation, Mimi did not acknowledge it.
I worried about Mimi. Like her trajectory between independence and dependence, she seesawed between wanting to live and wanting to die. What if she were to starve herself to death? I tried to contact her, but she didn’t respond.
If my therapist were still alive, I would have consulted him, but three years ago he had suddenly died. Instead, I contacted a psychic recommended by a friend. I had met with her once six months before. We had ended up mostly talking about Lois, and I had found her insights helpful. This time I wanted to talk about Mimi.
Jennifer and I met in a quiet space in a downtown art gallery. When I arrived, Jennifer said that she was visualizing a sister, but it wasn’t the same sister as before. She sounded puzzled.
“That’s right,” I encouraged her. I told her about my interactions with Mimi, about the gifts I had sent, her reactions to them, and my regrets.
“To be able to let go represents a growth spurt for you,” Jennifer said gently.
“Giving gifts to Mimi showed you what doesn’t work, that you should not be acting out of guilt.”
Again, Jennifer looked at me with a puzzled expression. “I see a lot of sitting,” she said, “and a weird relationship to food.”
I hadn’t said a word about Mimi’s food phobias or about how she spends her days on the couch watching sports on television, yet Jennifer had zeroed in on that. I was impressed.
“She is good at sitting,” Jennifer went on. “She sat there and looked at your gift, and she felt depressed and not worth it. She felt that she doesn’t deserve it. She has a sense of being abandoned.”
“Yet she is so gifted,” I commented. I told Jennifer about Mimi’s creative talents, about the pride and pleasure she takes in making things.
“She is so paralytic that it’s amazing that she can produce,” observed Jennifer. “If she stops producing, that will be the worst thing for her. She doesn’t know how to get out of her isolation. The parts of the brain that respond to the controlling mechanism are the same as those that respond to addiction. Mimi is practicing denial as self-medication. It makes her feel good to be in control, because no one can hurt her but herself, and she doesn’t view that as hurt. She is afraid of anything getting into her body. Her skin reacts to foods and chemicals by puffing up. Her body is constantly reactive, in a perpetual state of puff, and doesn’t have time to recuperate.”
“I don’t know how to reach her,” I said. “She won’t talk to me or respond to my emails or texts.”
“Perhaps you needed to go out of your way to get her a really nice gift,” declared Jennifer, “but she is so depressed that she cannot respond to you. The only thing you can do now is to think of her and talk to her in your thoughts. Say to her in your mind, ‘Can we talk?’ Approach it as if she were really with you; ask her permission. You may feel resistance. Or you can try to feel her presence and not talk to her at all. Send her healing thoughts. You don’t have to ask for her permission to do that. Allow yourself to connect with her spiritually, and don’t poo-poo what you receive back as imaginary. Pay attention to it. Mimi is a soulful person, and she may take it in.”
* * *
My conversation about Mimi with the psychic took place in July 2017. The last time I had seen Mimi was on Sanibel Island, Florida, in November 2015. This was three months after we saw each other on Block Island and a month before she sold her condo in Naples and moved up to Palm Coast. We were on Sanibel to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, a tradition of long standing. Since my reconciliation with Mimi and her move to Naples in 2010, I had enjoyed our times together on the Gulf Coast. In visits over the past several years, we walked on the beaches of Naples and Sanibel with my husband and daughter and rode bikes on the Sanibel bike trail. We drove through Sanibel’s Ding Darling wildlife refuge. One memorable visit, we introduced Mimi to the Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Refuge in Immokalee, not far from Naples, with its winding boardwalk through cypress groves. Like us, Mimi enjoyed bird watching and shell collecting. She would often wake before dawn and comb the beach for shells. In time, she found some beautiful specimens, and one of the most beautiful, a large dark banded tulip that I admired, she sent to me in January 2017, before she left Florida altogether.
In the fall of 2015, I had been sad to learn that Mimi was moving away from Naples. That Thanksgiving would be our last opportunity to get together while she was still on the Gulf Coast. She had offered to come to see us, but when I called her after we arrived, she said that she didn’t think she could make it. She was putting me off, and I was upset. “Then I’ll come see you,” I said. “Which day is good?” And I started to name them. But she had an objection for each one: a meeting of her condo board, an appointment with her chiropractor. “But these don’t take all day,” I objected. I was feeling desperate. “This may be our last visit for a long time,” I said. And I burst into tears.
Not then, but the next day, she relented and called me back. She would come after all, but she wouldn’t stay long. In fact, she would be on her way back to Naples from an undisclosed location—she didn’t divulge where—and her route home would lead her close to Sanibel. She hadn’t been sure of her schedule when we had spoken the previous day, but now she was.
She spoke cagily, and I could tell that she didn’t want me asking her questions, so I didn’t. “You mean a lot to me,” I told her. “I was terribly upset when you said you weren’t coming. Thank you for making this effort.”
In previous visits in years past, we usually had lunch together. I would make a salad, and once or twice Mimi had even eaten a shrimp or two, but not this year. She arrived after lunch, and we sat for a while in the living room of our rented Sanibel condo, planning what we would do.
Our daughter’s boyfriend was with us, like the last time we had seen Mimi on Block Island.It was decided that we would take Mimi to two places she’d never been before. We drove up to Captiva Island, and on the way we stopped at Bowman’s Beach, an undeveloped beach that is part of the Lee County park system and in my opinion the most beautiful beach on Sanibel. Mimi would never think of going in the water, and she hadn’t brought a bathing suit, but the rest of us enjoyed a brief swim.
However, I cut short our visit to Bowman’s Beach when I saw how ill Mimi looked, sitting on the sand in the hot sun. A blue vein pulsed in her forehead, her skin looked white and clammy, and her face appeared positively skeletal. When we got back into the car, she was noticeably relieved. “A driving tour!” she exclaimed with enthusiasm. She loved Captiva Island and the tantalizing glimpses of grand estates down sandy lanes lined with lush vegetation.
During that visit, Mimi was visibly weaker than when we had seen her three months before, on Block Island. She scarcely seemed capable of a walk, much less a climb. And I couldn’t help noticing that during that entire visit of several hours, with a drive behind and ahead of her, she never once used the bathroom. Nor did she imbibe so much as a sip of water. Had she come to us from some strange purging treatment? That was not something I could have asked her.
* * *
At some point in our July session, the psychic turned to me and said, “I see Mimi with pretzels.”
“That’s odd,” I replied. “As far as I know, Mimi stopped eating wheat years ago.”
“Oh, she’s not interested in the pretzels themselves,” the psychic responded. “She only wants to lick off the salt. She’s dehydrated and needs the salt, and she throws the rest of the pretzel away.”
I had no way of knowing if that were true. The last thing I’d seen Mimi eat was the protein powder and apple juice on Block Island. Since then she’d moved four times. She now lived clear across the country, and I had little knowledge of what her day-to-day life was like.
“Allow yourself to accept how hard you’ve tried, but you must change your pattern with Mimi,” the psychic urged. “If you are given the opportunity, continue the conversation with her. Then back off. Don’t enable her with what she wants, which is to push people away to see how far they will go to try to come back. It’s her abandonment theme. She experiences the world like a fifteen-year-old. You’re a threat to her because you’ve succeeded where she hasn’t. You have a husband, a child, a life. Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. It is what it is. You have chosen to live in the light. Be kind. If someone only knows anger, anger is what they become.”
“I can’t give you what you need,” I wrote to Mimi after she wrote me that she didn’t like the birthday gifts. Perhaps that is one more reason why she won’t forgive me. In one of our conversations last spring when she regretted the money she’d lost on the Arroyo Grande property, I urged her not to be so hard on herself. But it seems to me that she is still punishing herself. The last time I called her, she let it go to voicemail. Only much later did she text me, “I’m dealing with some stuff and don’t really feel like talking right now. Maybe in a few weeks.”
In the text I recognized the identical message that Mimi had sent to Lois when she was upset with her in April. I know, because Mimi read it to me. Mimi knew I would recognize it, and that hurts. I am trying to send her positive energy, but I am not a psychic, and I doubt my ability. All I know is that she is alone. So alone. And it breaks my heart.
*** Adrienne Pine ‘s creative nonfiction has been published in The Write Place at the Write Time, Tale of Four Cities, The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, Carte Blanche, Feminine Collective, Gravel, Shark Reef, and other venues.