I’ve always been fascinated with the how’s and why’s of personalities. In my two novelettes, Lunchtime Eavesdropper (we’ll refer to this as “Lunchtime” going forward) and Save an Angel’s Kiss for Me (and we’ll refer to this as “Angel’s Kiss” going forward) you’ll meet two fictional personalities: Marlee and Hazel. We’ll explore here the characteristics of quirky Marlee and her elusive mom, Hazel.
I wrote these two novelettes with a little bit of knowledge about how it feels like to live with someone struggling with mental issues, just like Mar has to do with her mom in Angel’s Kiss. You see, my son has bipolar disorder.
Don’t you find it true that the more we read (and write), the more we come to believe that there are parallels between fiction and reality? At times my son (and Marlee) is quirky, funny, industrious, full of great ideas, rambunctious, excited about life and lovable (in their own style). Other times, (s)he is dark, moody and uncommunicative.
This is what bipolar disorder looks like.
It’s best to read Lunchtime first, and then Angel’s Kiss. The reason I say this is because in Lunchtime, Marlee is a cynical, quirky and sarcastic adult woman. In Angel’s Kiss, she’s a child and acts as any child would: innocent, trusting and loving. If you read Angel’s Kiss first, you’ll be disappointed in Marlee after reading Lunchtime. But if you read Lunchtime first, you’ll have more understanding and empathy towards the character and you won’t feel so cheated when Mar loses her childhood innocence.
But why such a drastic change in personality between the stories, you ask? We’ll discuss this below and I hope that I can answer this question by the time we finish here.
In Lunchtime, even though Marlee is a twenty-something-year-old woman, she acts (and looks) older than her age. She’s set in her ways and seems to be satisfied with her daily routine: her job (a mundane but comfortable data entry position), her lunchtime pattern of going to the same eatery day after day, and reading romance novels. She doesn’t necessarily like other people and enjoys a peaceful and relaxing time with “the love of her life,” the adorable Larry. A thorn in her side seems to be her mother. We detect a disconnect between the two of them as the story unfolds:
“Why do you call your mother ‘Hazel?'” The doctor removed her reading glasses with a flair (too dramatically for a psychiatrist, if you ask me) and gazed at me, waiting for an answer, her cornflower blue eyes wide with interest. Well, this was unexpected.
“Because that’s her name,” I responded simply. I tsked and shook my head. “It’s probably even written right there in my file, doctor.” I tried my hardest to be respectful of people with degrees on their walls; I never knew when I might need a professional on my side, maybe to be an expert witness in a deposition or something.
Dr. Thompson’s lips scrunched up sideways as she hummed. “Most people call their mothers, ‘mother,’ ‘mom,’ ‘mama,’ or often even with a nickname, typically not by their given name.”
“Hmmm,” I hummed, mimicking the doctor’s lip contortion.
Marlee lives with Hazel, but is only tolerate of her. She wants to believe that her mother is living with her, instead of the opposite, that Marlee lives with her mother. Marlee simply wouldn’t be able to cope on her own. In her mind, Hazel needs her, not vice-versa. Hazel is wise enough in this situation to not want to cause waves by butting heads with Marlee over this issue. Nobody likes conflict.
I wrote Lunchtime as a stand-alone story, wanting to keep my writing skills honed while I worked on my next full-length novel. But when I was done creating Marlee’s character, I wondered, hmm, where did this contemptuous and suspicious personality come from? When and how did it originate? If Marlee were a real person, would she have been born with it? Was her personality shaped from something tragic that caused her personality to change forever?
The idea of delving into Marlee’s childhood for a second book was a no-brainer. Hence, Angel’s Kiss. (She’s called Mar in Angel’s Kiss since she’s only a child.) She doesn’t have that cynical voice we hear in Lunchtime. We notice a little quirkiness but she has a loving and attentive dad in her life and that seems to balance her out – until the tragic accident when she was only 12-years old, that is. Later, we see defiance and control issues, but this may be normal teenager issues.
In Lunchtime, we receive few clues as to Marlee’s background and we don’t get the whole picture. Her story is like a puzzle to be put together, which quickly becomes frustrating when we find that there are several pieces missing before it’s nearly completed.
In another session with her psychiatrist, Dr. Thompson asks Marlee about the tragic accident she had as a child and wondered about her dad, who died in that accident. Marlee cuts her off abruptly and doesn’t want to talk about it.
Dr. Thompson: Notes from your file, Marlee, indicate that you had an uneventful childhood. That is, until that horrendous car accident. Do you want to talk about it?
Me: Why? It’s over, isn’t it?
Dr. Thompson: Didn’t your father-
Me: Talk to the hand, Doctor, I said it was over. [Choose an emoticon of your own choice here. I see only a round empty black hole.]
We read later in the story that Marlee is in denial of the accident:
When they [co-workers] brought up the subject of my childhood accident during lunch on Thursday, I quickly corrected them. “Oh, no, no, that wasn’t me. That was my twin sister – she’s the silly one!”
In between giggles, I explained in more detail. “Part of my twin sister’s frontal lobe is missing,” I disclosed with confidence, whispering for effect. “I know these things,” I lowered my voice even further here for emphasis, “Larry’s a . . . doctor.”
There were “ooh’s” and “ahhh’s” coming from the girls. That evening, I googled “missing frontal lobe,” so I could disburse knowledgeable tidbits about things medical during future lunch hours. I even took a few minutes to research “twin traits” just in case anyone asked anything specific about my pretend twin sister. After all, I had to prepare. No one wants to sit next to a boring person at the popular table.
We still don’t quite understand why Marlee acts the way she does in Lunchtime, but we have more of an understanding after we meet her as a child and experience her life for a short time in Angel’s Kiss.
To further complicate things, but to add fodder to our study of personalities, does Mar really have bipolar illness? Or is her condescending, scornful personality traits in Lunchtime simply a shield to protect her from the world?
When her dad died in that car accident when she was only twelve in Angel’s Kiss, did it mar her for life? Was her psyche so traumatized that she never recovered? Is she still so sad that she can’t cope with reality, or, perhaps she just doesn’t care? We hear hints of a “frontal lobe” injury in Lunchtime, believed to have happened in the accident. This is not explored so we never find out whether this is true or not.
Mar is forced to live without her dad at a young age and she quickly learns by default how to live with her mentally ill mother, alone, without her father as a buffer. Maybe her disdainful ways were just a protective shield of hers to ward off unwanted questions and curiosity. As we know from real life experience, if we don’t want to be hurt, we often act arrogant and distant to keep people away.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about Mar, however. Deep down inside herself, she really did love her mom. When she finally decided to visit her dad’s gravesite, three years after he died, she had an epiphany, if you will:
After I was done tracing dad’s inscription, I carefully rolled the paper back up and placed it in my backpack. I then sat beside him, quietly contemplating. On what, it didn’t matter. There were many thoughts. Christmas and how much fun I had with dad. Laughing, opening presents, snowball fights. Making snow angels.
But intermixed with these thoughts were thoughts of Hazel too. Thoughts other than her crying. Memories of her stamping a sandwich with a star-shaped cookie cutter, asking me what I wanted to watch on TV, turning on my night-light when I went to bed. Simple things really, but things I’ve never really thought about before. They were tender moments, and I have to admit, mom moments. They were few and far between, but did that make her any less of a parent?
Should I really withhold my love from her because of her mental illness or because dad had died?
Was this dad’s way of finally getting me to think about my mother? I was beginning to believe that he wanted me to mend my ways with Hazel.
I thought of Hazel and how she would be alone in the world if I were gone too. I felt sadness for her. I felt loneliness. I couldn’t allow it. I wouldn’t leave her alone with no one. In her own way, she needed me. And, I had to admit, I needed her too. It was funny how life worked.
As we read about Marlee and her drama in Lunchtime, we can’t help but wonder what Hazel’s story is. We have more questions than answers. Why is she so stoic and why does she seem so distant? Is she an alcoholic? Is she mentally ill? Only in the last sentence of the story do we catch a glimpse of her personality, which will be touched on below.
We get to know Hazel in more depth in Angel’s Kiss and we get answers to some of our earlier questions. But what we learn is somewhat disturbing. After reading Angel’s Kiss, we have an “aha” moment and some of the puzzling moments we read about in Lunchtime now make more sense.
In Lunchtime, Hazel stays in the background and we only meet her in passing:
After I [Marlee] was done glamorizing myself, I walked into the living room and plopped down in my chair with a loud sigh, wanting mother to notice my new look. When she finally glanced over at me during the commercial break, she let out a little gasp. She struggled out of her Lazy-Boy, stood up and farted, and slowly shuffled to the kitchen for her nightly bowl of butter pecan ice cream. Her thin penciled-in “soft taupe brown” eyebrows arched as she got to me.
“What, are you trying to look like red broccoli?” she asked as she continued by.
I swear, sometimes, Hazel just doesn’t make any sense at all.
I admit, Hazel has a complex personality the more I get to know her, and I love her character in Angel’s Kiss. We discover early in the story that she has a mental illness:
My mother’s understanding of her own mental disorder ebbed and flowed like the moon’s cycle with the tide. In the good times she was happy and able to let loose a little bit, not allowing her OCD to get in the way of life. But when she’d happen to be deeply hidden away into one of her bipolar episodes, she’d snap at anything I and my dad did or said. That’s the reason I wasn’t allowed to make a blanket tent in the rec room. Too messy. That’s the reason why she couldn’t handle blood or vomit or a mild cough. Too messy, and with germs to boot.
Because she has a mental illness, Hazel didn’t always react to situations appropriately. For example, she has a meltdown after she and Mar carry in a Christmas tree . . .
Things were going okay until we figured out that we were trying to carry the tree through in the wrong direction. The branches were going against the door jam and about a thousand and one pine needles flew off and were flung everywhere.
Hazel’s OCD kicked in big time and she went berserk. She ran to the hall closet and grabbed both the broom and the vacuum, ranting that there would be “ants and rats and god knows what else” running around her house.
After cleaning up she rushed into her bedroom and stayed there for most of the evening. She just couldn’t take the excitement . . .
After reading Angel’s Kiss, a reader commented to me that she really felt for Hazel in her struggle to be a good mom. Mar tells us that while she’s recuperating from the accident, Hazel comes in and stares at her “like a scientist would study the Milky Way.” And then she doesn’t understand why her mom would put her hand on her forehead, “to feel if I have a temperature or if I was dead.”
As mothers, we all go into our children’s rooms to touch them lovingly, or to watch them peaceful sleeping. Oh boy, when Kevin was a baby, I would quietly walk up to his crib just to watch him breathe! Who can relate to that? That is a treasured (and peaceful!) time for mothers and we can easily understand Hazel’s sentiment.
This same reader told me that while she works in the mental health field, she has never really thought about a family member’s viewpoint before and that reading Angel’s Kiss opened her eyes. She said this is because the focus is usually on the mentally ill patient, not on the family member(s). The struggle of having to deal with someone with bipolar is complex.
In Angel’s Kiss, Hazel and Mar have their miscommunications. Mar has learned, through trial and error, that sometimes she just can’t trust her mom. Anyone living with someone with a mental illness will understand what this means.
“Let’s go get our tree,” she announced too loudly, emphasizing the word “our.” We haven’t gone for a tree for three years. And, if we were to be real here, Hazel had never gone with us to get our tree.
I eyed her suspiciously. I looked her up and down. She was dressed properly. No robe and slippers, but real street clothes. It was obvious she was not having one of her episodes. I couldn’t trust that this would last though. I was tentatively trying to play it by ear.
“Okay.” I ran to my room and grabbed my coat. This dream might easily become a nightmare before we knew it. I figured that if we hurried things along everything would be okay.
I don’t write either of these stories through Hazel’s point of view, but the undercurrent here is that she really does love her daughter. She just doesn’t know how to show it:
“Mar, you know your mother loves you, don’t you?”
. . . I answered his [dad’s] question in my head.
No, I actually didn’t know that my mother loved me. Maybe cleaning meant love? She was always cleaning. What would I know? I’ve often seen other mothers hug their kids at the drop-off curb at school. I think she hugged me once, but she flinched whenever I hugged her, so I had become conditioned not to give her hugs. It was like it hurt her skin to hug.
Just when we begin to believe Marlee’s point of view that her mother is cold-hearted, we get a surprise at the end of Lunchtime. Remember, we’ve only met Hazel briefly, through Marlee’s eyes and we’ve come to believe that she’s standoffish and distant. When Marlee finally comes home near dawn after a night of drama, Hazel surprises us with a “mom” moment:
I [Marlee] felt drowsy from my adventures and had almost drifted off into dreamland when I heard the soft click of the bedroom door. I caught the faint fragrance of Evelyn Rose Perfumed Bath Soap, the scented soap Hazel had used since I was a girl.
“Love you, Marlee, night-night,” she whispered before she quietly closed the door.
Getting a glimpse of that fleeting tender moment shows us that Hazel cares for Marlee after all. She is forever a mom, no matter what age her daughter is. This simple gesture shows us that Hazel accepts Marlee the way she is. Hazel has the unconditional love that only a mom can give. A mother’s ache for her child is never over.
In summary dear reader, I’ll leave it to you now. Read Lunchtime first and meet Marlee as an adult. Then read Angel’s Kiss. Reading these two books in that order is akin to eating sweet and sour soup from your favorite Chinese restaurant: it’s a confliction of taste but your taste buds are happily clashing. The soup wouldn’t be the same aromatic flavorful soup without the combination of both flavors.
Same with Marlee and her personality – we accept both sides of her. Ditto with Hazel.
After reading Angel’s Kiss, you’ll find that the Marlee you met in Lunchtime may not be really crazy after all – but simply broken – complete with flaws and exposed pain, with real-life emotions. You may just learn to love her.
And loving Mar will bring you full circle – to Hazel. You’ll forgive her flaws and feel empathy towards her anguish of battling bipolar disorder and wanting to do what’s right. After all, she didn’t ask to be born into a family with mental issues. Who would?
Meet Marlee, a woman who lives a comfortable but simple life with her loving partner, the adorable Larry. She discovers that covertly listening in on other people’s conversations during lunch hour excites her and adds to her otherwise humble life. When she overhears unpleasant gossip about herself, she becomes obsessed with changing her personality and makes the bad decision to become someone she’s not. After her total makeover, Marlee suddenly finds herself basking in the attention of her co-workers and is ecstatic when she’s finally invited to sit at the “popular” table at work. But is a personality change really worth the price? Is being popular worth losing herself, possibly the love of her life and/or redefining her own definition of happiness?
After 12-year-old Mar’s father unfortunately dies in a car crash during the Christmas holidays, she not only has to recuperate, but also has to live with her mentally ill mother without the calming presence of her beloved dad. Fast forward three years and Mar is now a fifteen-year-old. Because Mar had blocked out her dad’s death, she’s never really admitted to herself that he’s gone forever, let alone acknowledged or visited his gravesite. She suddenly decides to take a 14-hour journey on a Greyhound bus to finally visit her dad’s grave and to face the truth: that her dad is really gone. Will Mar finally get the closure she so desperately seeks?
This is a touching short story about grief, loss, acceptance and forgiveness. It’s about the comfort of a gifted Christmas angel. It’s about the miracle of healing and unconditional love.
Both books are at Amazon.