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Growing up in Danvers, Mass., writer Domenica Ruta was extremely close to her single mom Kathi.
But Kathi not only loved Domenica fiercely and pushed her to achieve, she would also undercut Domenica’s achievements: pulling her out of school to watch movies and alternating praise with screaming fits.
Kathi also used and occasionally sold prescription and illegal drugs, which she would share with her daughter.
“Our refrigerator was full of rotten food, we didn’t have Q-tips, we were always running out of toilet paper, but we had a full medicine cabinet full of high grade narcotics,” Ruta told Here & Now’s Robin Young.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ruta developed her own substance abuse problems.
She writes about her alcoholism, and her life growing up with her charismatic but chaotic mother in her new memoir, “With or Without You,” which The New York Times calls a “luminous, layered accomplishment” (see excerpt below).
My mother grabbed the iron poker from the fireplace and said, “Get in the car.”
I pulled on my sneakers and followed her outside. She had that look on her face, distracted and mean, as though she’d just been dragged out of a deep sleep full of dreams. She was mad, I could tell right away, but not at me, not this time.
Her car was a lime-green hatchback with blotches and stripes of putty smeared over the dents. The Shitbox, she called it. We called it, actually. My mother hated the thing so much she didn’t mind if I swore at it. “What a piece of shit,” I’d grumble whenever it stalled on us, which we could gamble on happening at least once a day, more if it was snowing. Far and away the most unreliable car we ever had in our life together, it was a machine that ran on prayer.
Among the car’s many other defects, the inside casing of the passenger door had broken off, leaving the mechanical skeleton that controlled the window and lock exposed. I poked my fingers inside the levers, watching the sinewy rubber push and pull, the metal joints grasp and release. A spectacular display. I couldn’t get enough of it. “Stop it,” Mum said. She reached over and grabbed my hand. “This car’s old as me.” More than twenty years, at least. “I don’t know how much longer it’s going to stay in one piece.”
“Where are we going?” I asked her.
She lit the cigarette bobbing anxiously between her lips and slid her key into the ignition. I held my breath. It was a ritual so intuitive that I never questioned its provenance or worth, silently assuming that any exchange I might have with the present atmosphere would choke up the magic at work under the car’s hood. And then what? Would we be able to drive to school, work, and stores, like everyone else in the suburbs? Or would we hear the familiar sputter and cough that so often ruined our day?
“Come on,” Mum whispered. “Come on.”
A rumble. The engine turned over. We were going somewhere. My mother and I lived on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
Boston was only thirty minutes away, though we seldom made it out that far. Not in one of her cars. Wherever we went that day was close to home, because we drove for only a few minutes before she parked on a quiet, tree-lined street and got out. I remember watching her body pass by through the windshield, then jumping into her arms as she opened the door, lifted me up, and sat me on top of the car’s hood. It was a cool gray day and the metal felt warm beneath my legs. Mum leaned into the open driver’s-side window and pulled out our fireplace poker from the backseat. Then, without a word, she began smashing the windshield of someone else’s car.
This other car was red, I remember, but it’s possible I’m wrong, that over the years I’ve painted it in my mother’s rage. How old was I? Four, maybe five? Small enough still that my mother sometimes carried me but too old to be shocked by the things she did.
My mother. Her name was Kathleen, which she shortened to Kathi. Spell it with a Y or, God forbid, a C, and she’d lacerate your face with her scowl. She was a hair taller than five feet and I once saw her turn over a refrigerator during a fight with one of her boyfriends. The core of her strength was concentrated in her lungs. Like all the women in our bloodline, Kathi was a screamer. Sometimes she opened her mouth and the screech that came out sustained for minutes without breaking or getting hoarse. She used to bend down to scream directly into my face, and I would get lost staring at the black fillings in her molars, the heat of her breath touching my skin like a finger. But volume was never an accurate herald of my mother’s mood; loud was simply the who and the what of her. That voice, those big dangling earrings, the long red nails and skintight jeans and shirts slit open a few inches below the cleavage of her enormous breasts. I was forever climbing onto my mother’s lap, trying to button her shirt higher. “No, Honey,” she’d say, pulling my hands off her chest. “Mummy wants to show off her boobies right now.” Her hair was almost black, but she insisted on bleaching it Deborah Harry blond. She had one tattoo, a small but regrettable crab on her left ring finger. It was her astrological sign—the Cancer. Even she was ashamed of it, I know, because she hid it under a gold wedding band long before she ever married.
What else do you need to know about this woman before I go on with the story? That she believed it was more important to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one; that she allowed me to skip school whenever I wanted to, and if there was a good movie on TV she wouldn’t let me go to school because, she said, she needed me to stay home and watch it with her; that, thanks to this education, I was the only girl in the second grade who could recite entire scenes from Scarface and The Godfather by heart; that she made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine; that her ability to make money was alchemical; that she was vainer than a beauty queen, but the last time I saw her she weighed more than two hundred pounds and her arms were encrusted with purulent sores; that she loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me; that at least once a week I still dream she is trying to kill me.
Now, where was I?
Bashing the windshield of a red car.
This car belonged to a woman named Josie, an ex-girlfriend of my mother’s only brother. I don’t know whether my uncle asked my mother for this favor or if she had volunteered. Either way seems plausible now. My mother’s Italian-American family had a thuggish, moronic code of honor that everyone violated as often as they upheld it. This windshield job was an act of loyalty. I learned as I grew up that my mother would demand nothing less of me.
At this point in Kathi’s life she weighed about a hundred and twenty-five pounds. With such a pillowy shape on her diminutive frame, the woman didn’t have powerful torque on her side. But put a metal bar and some anger in her hands and Mum could swing like Ted Williams.
After what seemed a long time, the windshield chipped in one spot.
“Don’t look at Mummy right now, okay?” she muttered to me. What else was I supposed to be watching? And who was she trying to kid? My mother loved an audience. No one knew this better than I did.
She took a few more whacks and the chip began to crack outward in jagged spokes, the shape of the sun as I drew it in my crayon land- scapes.
Sitting on the hood of the car, I wanted nothing more than to hear the glass shatter, but it was taking forever. My mother and I seemed to realize this at the same moment, because she stopped, turned to look at me, and shrugged, as if to say, “You’d think this would be easier.”
My body leaned toward hers like a plant stretching in the direction of the sunniest window in the room. I prayed with each strike that we would finally hear it—the lovely, delicate rainfall of something whole now in pieces. My mother beat that woman’s windshield with everything she had, but it would not shatter. Eventually she gave up. We got back into the car and drove home in silence, both of us longing for the sound of breaking glass.
Excerpted from the book WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Domenica Ruta. Copyright © 2013 by Domenica Ruta. Reprinted with permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.