Sunday, May 5th, 1985…around 8 or 9pm.
The evening church service had just ended. As we were leaving the main auditorium and heading into the lobby, my mom told one of her friends, that she needed to go to the hospital. By this point, she was ready to have the baby…everyone in church knew it, and now it was time.
Folks in church rallied together to make sure my mom got to the hospital, while the family, in whose home we were staying, took me back to their house.
I was nervous…soon I was about to be a big brother.
That night, alone in my small, dark and drafty room, I hardly slept. The next day the lady, who owned the house we were living in, drove me up to Kent County Hospital to see my little brother for the first time.
I remember walking into the new baby ward, looking into the nursery room, and seeing the nurse wheel up a small receiving crib to the window. Inside was the smallest person I’d ever seen. His eyes were all squinty and his face all squished with a little tuft of brown hair on his tiny little head. I met my little brother: Benjamin Michael Mattera.
After a couple of days, my mom and new little brother were released from the hospital.
We all stayed in a couple of the small rooms at the big house. Mom had a room that she shared with my baby brother, and I had another smaller room for myself.
Strangely, my mom would often make me stay with her, in her room. It was already too small, but it felt absolutely cramped with three of us in there.
We didn’t have a lot; nearly everything was donated or borrowed. My mom didn’t have a job. What little money we had, came in the form of some small checks from Social Security which my Papa had arraigned for; survivor’s benefits from when my dad was employed for a short time. We also collected a small stipend of Food Stamps which partially covered our eating expenses. Everything else was from either welfare, charity or friends at church.
A short while after my little brother Benjamin was born, I started to notice tension develop between my mom and the owners of the house, where we were staying.
This is when I began to see that there was something not-quite-right with my mom’s behavior.
The same defensive and paranoid behavior she had shown toward my Nanny and Papa was starting to show again. She was overprotective and nearly always defensive…to the point of being extremely emotional and unstable. She acted like everyone was out to get her.
And of course, I was hardly ever allowed to be out of arms reach. She kept such a strong leash on me…I hated it. Other people noticed it too.
It had been almost a year since our dad had passed away. My new little brother and I needed stability. We needed financial, emotional, spiritual, and physical security.
As I mentioned in my previous post, A Broken Family – Part 1, when we moved out of my grandparents’ house earlier that spring, my mom dis-enrolled me from the nearby school and enrolled me in a school closer to where we were staying during this particular time. All the confusion and turmoil caused me to struggle in school. I was behind in my work and found it hard to interact with my peers. I was easily distracted and anxious all the time. I didn’t feel safe, accepted or happy.
Like I said earlier, this is around the time where I really started to experience and notice strange things about my mom’s behavior. During the first several months, we never seemed to settle in one place for too long. My mom’s adamant denial of the reality of my dad’s death and her refusal to get the help we REALLY needed, always kept us in an unstable state.
This would affect the climate and well-being of my little brother and me well into our teenage years.
In the summer of 1985, we moved out of the big bed-and-breakfast house, in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and spent the summer with another single mom and her daughter in North Stonington, Connecticut.
They had a nice little place out in the country; complete with a pool. Despite all the crazy stuff that was going on around me, I actually (somewhat) enjoyed that short season.
During this time, we continued to go to the same church. At the church, there were a couple of good Christian gentlemen that took a genuine interest in making sure that my mom, brother and I were o.k.
These guys would spend time with me almost every week. We’d play catch, go to the park, get ice cream, or just hang out. One of the guys, in particular, seemed to really like my mom…and my mom seemed to like him.
I also liked him…I thought he was great. He was kind, generous and showed genuine and sincere care for my family and me. He would spend Thursdays taking me out to do guy stuff…stuff that a dad would normally do with a son.
But all this wouldn’t last long. After a short season, my mom would end up pushing him away…the same way she pushed everyone else away, who she felt got too close.
As the summer of 1985 drew to a close, I was about to enter second grade, so we moved out of the house in Connecticut and moved in with a family living in Charlestown, Rhode Island. Attached to the side of their house, they had a spare one-bedroom studio with a foldout couch. Because of my mom’s overprotectiveness and extremely guarded behavior, we really didn’t socialize with the family who lived there; in fact, we were only there about a month or two. Her paranoia and inability to trust anyone caused an underlying tension between her and the homeowners who had graciously taken us in.
Sometime before winter we moved out of their house and into an apartment about five miles away. We were going to have our own home.
Up until this point, we had moved in and out of three different places, not including my Nanny and Papa’s house. When my little brother was born, there was an added level of complexity and drama. Every place we stayed at was small and confined. There was no privacy and no real personal space. On top of the cramped quarters, my little brother would wake up several times during the night and cry, as it is with every newborn baby. My mom, brother and I were always sharing one room; so whenever he’d wake up, I’d hear him. Sometimes I’d try to ignore his crying…most of the times, I’d get up and help my mom take care of him.
During the times when he was inconsolable and crying relentlessly, the instability and insecurity going on around me were overwhelming. My mom was angry and frustrated…I felt scared and alone. I knew that people wanted to help us, but she kept pushing them away.
The night we moved into our apartment, we had absolutely nothing except a couple of bags of clothes and a donated couch to sleep on. My mom and I shared the couch; I’m not even sure where my baby brother slept.
It was small, tight and cramped, with my mom and I on that one couch…I remember wiggling and trying to get comfortable. My mom got angry and pulled my hair. “Stop wiggling!”, she seethed as she yanked my hair and slapped me. It was absolute misery!
For the first couple of months living in our new apartment, we didn’t have a car. If we needed to go somewhere (like the store, to church or to the doctors) we had to get rides. All our rides were provided by either ride-sharing-program volunteers from the local community center or by people from within our local church. The church was where the same group of regulars who would take turns giving us transportation.
In and through these experiences, I’d once again notice my mom’s unique ability to push people away because of her paranoia, lack of trust and warped sense of control. She absolutely refused to let anyone give her advice on how to better her situation or how to advance herself.
People in the church would offer their best advice and try to give her a hand-up out of the situation we were in. She would vehemently push them away while acting hostile and defensive. She didn’t want their advice, mentorship or guidance…she just wanted their hand-out.
Quite frankly, my mom’s mental and emotional health issues were taxing on those who genuinely wanted to help us. She was high maintenance and demanding. My mom had adopted a victim’s mentality…she believed it was the church’s job to take care of us…according to her because she was a widow, and my brother and I were fatherless, we were entitled.
Her victim mentality would end up tainting and, quite frankly, straining every relationship and friendship we had in the local church. This pattern of life continued for years…even up until I joined the Navy back in 1998.
Like I said previously, for about what seemed like half my childhood, we didn’t have a car. In fact, there were only a couple of times growing up where we had our own personal transportation. The first car we had was an old AMC Hornet. My mom never took care of it and the inside of the car was a pig pen. There were piles of garbage and junk in the back seat and she hardly ever had the car serviced. During the rare instances, she did get work done on the car, it was often because one of the nice guys at church felt bad for us and decided to help us out. They’d take time out of their busy schedules to conduct repairs and make sure it the car was still running.
That old AMC Hornet finally broke down; the engine ended up failing due to a lack of simple stuff, like getting the oil changed. It was the same scenario for two other cars we had: an early 1980s Ford Escort and then a 1985 Chevrolet Cavalier station wagon. All three of the cars were either given to my mom as a gift or sold to her for a really low price, The Ford Escort was sold to her for about $50 a month and the Chevy station wagon was sold to her by a friend for $1. In every case, her cars ended up being neglected and run into the ground.
These stories about cars may all sound superficial and trivial, but the transportation challenges I had growing up were just the tip of the iceberg. They were really symptoms of something much larger and worse going on in the background.
After completing second grade in public school, I was enrolled in a private school for third grade. Strangely, although my mom refused to let my brother and I have any real relationship with our Nanny and Papa, she had no problem asking them to pay for my private school tuition.
Third grade would be my last time in a formal classroom setting with other kids. From fourth grade until twelfth grade I would end up being homeschooled.
The overprotective and overbearing apron-strings were about to get a whole lot shorter and tighter. My homeschooling simply became a means an excuse through which she could have a near constant presence and exercise complete control.
Monologue: For the next nine years, I’d end up being a prisoner in my own home; constantly and unceasingly connected to a mother who was wrestling with her own mental and emotional issues, for which she refused to get any help.
This was a turning point for me. Slowly, I stopped looking at my mom as ‘mom’; she simply became ‘mother’…a word that, for years, I mentally and emotionally related to the word ‘smother’…because through her broad range of strong dysfunction, she tried to smother so much of my individuality, independence, and purpose.
My mother was becoming more obsessive, controlling, oppressive and abusive. She started to become emotionally codependent on me; while at the same time, her increased emotional instability, paranoia, religious zealousness, and extremism took on a life of their own.
Although we actively attended several wonderful church fellowships, she would covertly begin to demonstrate obsessive and religious zealot behavior; all of which were on the fringe of cultish.
I would end up having to suffer beatings which lasted for hours and endure late-night inquisitions until dawn. The graphic and chilling details would become an unseen and shameful dark side of my childhood, which no one else in our neighborhood or church community would know about…