People, Let Me Tell Ya ‘Bout My Best Friend

Short and slight, a beehive hairdo, hypochondriacal, a Salem 100 perpetually dangling from her wrinkled mouth, and a purse full of Valium. That’s Lorraine, my father’s second wife. I never really called her stepmother because technically she wasn’t—and she was far from the mothering type.

I don’t remember meeting Lorraine, but later I learned the story of her entanglement with the Duffy clan. My father, while on duty as a Newcastle County cop in Delaware, met Lorraine, a recent divorcee who was forlorn and living alone in an apartment at the time with her cats, Smuffy and Baby. She had three children of her own, some of whom were living with her ex-husband and others who were grown. As I explained in another post, my father was a sucker for a damsel in distress—mostly because lending a helping hand made him feel better about himself and also provided him an opportunity to exercise his unquenchable desire to control other human beings. Classic Type A.

Soon after that chance meeting, their regular rendezvous began; my mother, who had been married to dad for at least a decade at that point, was ignorant about the affair. She was eventually educated though, when dad boldly invited Lorraine to pack her meager belongings and join our family caravan as we moved to Florida. Ballsy, huh?

I was seven years old, and I had unknowingly enjoyed the most stable part of my childhood.  But life was about to become much more colorful. For reasons unknown to me at the time, mom, dad, my brothers and I packed the station wagon to the brim with all of our belongings, bid farewell to our yellow, two-story house near Kirkwood Highway in Wilmington, Delaware (the only house I had ever known), and headed south. I imagine my father had secured a job on the police force in Bradenton, Florida, and we were all following his career aspirations. And yes, Lorraine tagged along.

You might be wondering how the hell something like this could work? Recently, my mother said to me that she thought it was strange—there was this lady she didn’t know, packing her undies and shoes and cats next to ours, who was taking this journey with us. But for all his violent tendencies, my dad was a clever SOB. He finessed it by telling a half-truth. You see, there was this vulnerable woman who he met while on duty who was in a bad situation and needed a new start. And since we were heading to sunny Florida already, she asked if she could accompany us, not wanting to travel solo. Apparently, the story was believable enough that my mom agreed. She has since described herself as dangerously gullible. If I were the snarky type, I’d say it was probably less like a caravan and more like a mini-harem. But I’m not the snarky type, so I won’t say that.

After our family settled in Florida (with Lorraine only living a few miles away), dad’s half-truth became a full-truth, and mom filed for divorce. Strangely, that’s where the focus of the story shifts away from Lorraine and towards other actors and events, some of which led me to changing my home base (sometimes with mom, sometimes with dad, sometimes by choice, sometimes by force). Rather than telling those stories now, though, I feel like I’ve not really explored Lorraine’s both complex and clichéd character, the details of which I discovered while intermittently living with her and dad (they eventually married). This is best done with a series of tiny snapshots:

Lorraine taught me how to smoke. She paid me in Salem 100s for vacuuming the apartment. I could only smoke them when dad wasn’t around. I was 14.

Because she wanted company at home during the day when she was alone, she regularly let me stay home from school to play Yahtzee with her all day, sip on her screwdrivers, and, of course, smoke, smoke, smoke. I still like Yahtzee.

When dad exploded in one of his biweekly rages and began beating her silly or choking her to unconsciousness (incidents she often helped to enflame in some way), she always screamed out my name to come and save her. Having no power, all I could do was watch.

Her cats were king. Randy, my younger brother, was highly allergic (even asthmatic) to them, but none of that ever seemed to matter much. The cats ran the place, and Randy wheezed all night in his bed, the ubiquitous inhaler on the nightstand. I would lie in bed and listen, wondering what would happen if he stopped breathing.

One of our rituals was grocery shopping: Lorraine would park the car, I’d light up two cigarettes for us, and we’d enter the store with billows of smoke trailing behind. This was the mid-70s after all.

I know nothing of Lorraine’s previous marriage, but it must’ve been a doozey. More than one of her own children, with whom I have only passing familiarity, is highly dysfunctional—unable to work, nervous dispositions, living on welfare, prescription drug addictions, jail time. I’m not laying blame, but none of this surprises me greatly.

I’ll add some more snapshots if they occur to me, but that’s the gist of it. With a mother like her, who needs a mother? Lorraine hated Randy, my younger brother who often chose to live with dad and hence had to tolerate Lorraine. They fought like cats and dogs. Oh, the names Lorraine called Randy under her breath to me. (The perennial “That goddamned little bastard” was one of the less offensive ones). I’d smile and snicker along with her, mostly to keep the peace.

Honestly, the friendship that existed between Lorraine and I had no real foundation—most of it was feigned on my part just to help pacify the warring factions. Things were broken, but they needn’t also be soul-draining. It’s amazing to me the complex roles that even emotionally undeveloped adolescents can play, unwittingly or not. But having said that, living with dad and not having Lorraine around was a much more terrifying notion. And for a short while, I had to face that scariness: Due to her nervous disposition, Lorraine had been living on doctor-prescribed Valium for years by the time we became friends, daily doses. Needless to say, this habit caught up with her. One weekend while she and I were hanging out (probably playing Yahtzee), she abruptly arose from the table, lurched into the bedroom and locked herself into the bathroom. I knew something was wrong and followed a few seconds later. By the time I reached the locked bathroom door, I heard a loud THUNK which was clearly Lorraine hitting the tiled floor. This was followed by a series of smaller thuds as her legs began flailing against the door. Completely confused (and half thinking this was a joke or something), I screamed out for dad, who was under the carport engaged in his favorite hobby—detailing his emerald green Pontiac Bonneville. He rushed in, assessed the situation, forced the door open with his shoulder, and we stood there staring at Lorraine who had gone into full blown convulsions on her back. I was horrified as dad dug into her dentures while forcing a tablespoon through her clenched teeth to depress her tongue (a maneuver I now know is generally unnecessary). But I was more horrified when we left the hospital 3 hours later without her. It was just dad, Randy, and I in the car. What would life be like without the buffer (and antagonism) of Lorraine?

My fear must have been greater than the reality of it though. Things get hazy after that, and she must’ve returned home with a new set of dentures (and a modified prescription for her daily sedative) shortly thereafter. My next memory involving Lorraine concerns our next, short-lived family move to Arizona; but that story is less about Lorraine and more about having to straddle the shat-in litter boxes of her two cats, which were placed strategically on the floor of the car underneath the backseats where Randy and I sat. Yes, yuk.

The last time I saw Lorraine, she was in a nursing home, several years after dad died from lung cancer–I had an inexplicable urge to visit her after being out of contact for five or six years. But this being real life, there were no teary-eyed reunions. When I entered, she recognized me eventually. I sat with her in her small bedroom that had a curtain for a door; her beehive was still there, but it was thin with age and lopsided from a pillow dent. She wore a housecoat. In an irritated voice, she asked me why I had come, and then she complained for five minutes about not being allowed to smoke in her room. We walked outside, where she lit up; I had since quit smoking and the smell of cigarettes turned my gut, so I stood apart from her. More than anything, we avoided each other’s glances for another ten minutes, and then we said goodbye. She went back inside. I suspect that by now, Lorraine has died. But she was a tough bird. Maybe she’s playing Yahtzee in that nursing home right now.

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