by Amber Rollo
Amber Rollo is a standup comedian and writer from Southern California, now based in NYC. Her comedy and writing has a dark New York edge with a sunny California smile. She has written for MsMagazine, Refinery29, Reductress, and more. Recently she has been a regular host for Judah Friedlander's comedy shows on Zoom. She has also been a guest on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and she headlined at the 2019 New York Comedy Festival.
Child at Heart
Family: it’s complicated, am I right? Har har har, I have started and stopped writing this hundreds of times. Even as I’m writing I don’t know if this will ever see the light of day, or the glow of the internet. It’s especially tricky writing about parents. Parents are first part of you, and then the first people you see as separate from you—then part of you again when you conceptualize the rest of the world. Eventually, ideally, parents become both part and not-part of you at the same time. Writing about them is writing about yourself and the world at once. What sort of narcissist undertakes that project?
What muddles this for me, is that my parents died when I was young: my mom when I was 11 and my dad when I was 16. This makes writing about them difficult in myriad ways. It is taboo to speak ill of the dead, and though I don’t see my parents as demons, I also don’t see them as angels. It is also difficult because family is real people and I am not the only one to experience them. If I experience my dad differently from how, say, my sister does, it can feel like a personal attack. I have hurt family in the process of talking about family in my comedy in the past, and I regret that. It damaged my relationships with my extended family. After already losing my parents, the deep fear of losing more family has made me more careful about what I say and write about them. At the same time that experience helped me understand my family and myself on a new level. Part of why I write is to understand how I see and unstick my view point.
My view of my parents is suspended in how I experienced them as a child. Especially my mom, who I only saw through an 11 year-old’s eyes, a 9 year-old’s if you only count the years until she got sick. My view of myself and the world is frozen, since I see myself and the world in opposition to her and my dad. You might say I have arrested development, or you could say I’m a child at heart.
My parents were the first two people I saw as separate entities from myself and each other, and to me they could not have been more separate. Through my eyes they were as different as oil and water, fire and ice, marshmallows and peas (I’m a child). Doesn’t matter that they were actually as different as chunky and smooth peanut butter, both made of the same material processed in different ways. I defined them in opposition to one another. If my dad was warm, my mom must be cold; if Daddy was weak, Mommy was strong. I never called them “Mother” or “Father.” We weren’t WASPs. I actually never stopped calling them “Mommy” and “Daddy.” To this day, that is what I call them to my sisters, still a child at heart. Therapists have had a really fun time with me.
My mom was not strict by any means, but in comparison to my dad she seemed cold. I remember complaining to her that I was bored and her saying “so, find something to entertain yourself.” Now that I am grown, sort of, I look back and see her with more nuance. Yes, she did keep the family on track and make sure my rat's nest hair was brushed when we went to see Nana (our grandma, her mom). But she also sang at the top of her lungs when we were in the car, and when “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison came on she would sing directly to me.
I separate my time with her into pre- and post cancer. She became a different person when she got sick: softer, warmer. When I talk to my younger sister, Megan, the post-cancer Mommy is what sticks in her mind as the “real Mommy.” This is partly because that is a larger percentage of her experience of our mom, but it’s also partly because Megan sees people with a wisdom that I hope to learn from. The mom she remembers is the one who took us each on individual trips with her to Nashville, Tennessee where she was getting experimental treatments, the mom who sang every word of “Jagged Little Pill” with us, even the dirty ones.
One weekend, when I was 10, she pulled us out of school on a Thursday for a surprise. She picked Megan and me up from Chaparral Elementary. Megan was in 3rd grade and I was in 5th. Then we went to get Brooke from A.E. Wright, the huge middle school that most of the valley was bussed to at the time, since she was in 7th grade.
“Where are we going?” Megan asked, knowing it was rare for Mommy to pick us up from school.
“Are we getting Daddy?” we asked.
“Nope, this is a girls only trip.”
We squealed in delight. “Girl power” was big in our household. Not surprising, considering our dad was the only man there, and when we got together with our oldest sisters he was even more outnumbered. He used to say “be careful what you wish for, because when I was young I wished I would be surrounded by beautiful women. Now I have 5 daughters,” with an affected eye roll and a groan.
Us girls were all in my mom’s 1997 Mercedes sedan. My mom was typically frugal, but as the breadwinner of our household and the top real estate broker at her agency, she did allow herself some indulgences—primarily this Mercedes and power suits with big shoulder pads. As we drove we all sang every word to Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic,” I couldn’t help but feel it was indeed ironic that my mom had to get cancer for us to have moments like these. Before you say it, we all know the song misuses the term “ironic,” nobody cares, stop ruining the moment.
As Brooke and my mom sat up front, Megan and I exchanged a devious look and pulled down the divider between our seats in the back and opened the hatch to see into the trunk. We saw some bags, and we reached our small arms in to unzip one. The first notable thing we saw was a purple puffy jacket with yellow and silver lightning bolts on the sides. Knowing that was one of the matching jackets we had all gotten for Christmas last year, I shouted in delight.
“WE’RE GOING SKIING!!!”
My mom, undeterred by the excited screaming child while she was driving, cool as ever, nodded her head.
“You figured it out, we’re going to Big Bear for the weekend.”
The flurry of questions started, but the most important question I asked was “can we use the seat heaters?” which started a chant.
“Seat heaters! Seat heaters! Seat heaters!”
“Once we get out of the valley,” my mom acquiesced.
Who needs heated seats in Calabasas, CA? There were some indulgences. This Mercedes also had one of the first ever GPS systems. But as we got closer to the resort we did pull over a couple of times to check the atlas. Not all the streets existed in this newfangled system. Not to worry, we were independent women.
Big Bear is not much of a ski resort. Most of the snow is man-made and icy, but considering it’s a three hour drive from the 100 degree San Fernando Valley, it’s amazing snow is there at all. No four wheel drive required. We sang girl power songs the whole way and collapsed into a giggling fit when Mommy sang Meredith Brooks’ lyric “I’m a bitch” in her Mercedes with fancy seat warmers. I don’t remember much of the actual trip. Like a kid who enjoys the box more than the shiny new toy, the drive to the mountain was my favorite part.
My dad was always silly—definitely a child at heart. To say my dad was another child to my mom would be an understatement. He kept a filing cabinet in his room, which I assumed had business in it. One day, when I was nine, I caught him, hunched over a drawer, eating gum drops out of it. The whole thing was full of candy! I do have to hand it to him, the filing cabinet was a stealth move. However, his choice of candies? Gum drops, Mike and Ikes, those peach gummies from the gas station... considering his taste, I found the lock on the filing cabinet insulting.
His eyes twinkled when he smiled and he gave the best bear hugs (it helped that he had the bear body to match). When I was a kid he always knew my emotions, probably because they matched his. My sisters and I would start to bicker and he would pull his candy apple red minivan into a Denny’s parking lot. Yeah, he had the minivan and my mom had the Mercedes, modern California family, baby.
“Nooooah, we’re not hungry,” we would pout in unison.
“Ok, well, I am.”
Of course, as soon as I could smell the food my stomach started to growl and I realized I was starving. I ordered the heaviest thing on the menu, chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. As soon as it got to the table, my dad grabbed it.
“What are you doing?” I whined as he cut everything on the plate in half.
“You are not going to eat this whole thing and I don’t want the leftovers to have your slobber all over them.”
“I do NOT slobber when I eat!” It was true, I’ve always been a tidy eater. I even separated all the foods so they wouldn’t touch each other, aggressively shaking my head when my dad suggested I take a bite of everything together. Sometimes he was right about me not finishing my meals, but this time I spitefully cleaned my plate. Of course, once I ate that whole plate my little eight year-old body immediately went comatose. So I curled my legs up onto the booth, laid my head down on my dad’s lap and fell asleep to the sounds of my family’s chatter. I woke up to the sounds of the check being paid. I knew we were leaving because I heard my dad saying one of his go-to jokes to the waiter.
“How do you say chair in Spanish?”
He always assumed the waiters spoke Spanish, which always made me blush in embarrassment, but we were in Southern California and he was often right. This time he was.
“Silla,” said the confused waiter.
“See ya!” said my dad, rousing us to go.
Now I’m a stand-up comedian.
My dad’s joyful laugh often echoed through the house. However, his lows were as low as his highs were high and he was easily overwhelmed by sadness or anger. I remember seeing him sobbing and banging his head against the wall, repeating, “stupid, stupid, stupid.” It was something I saw more than once and yet I never can remember what it was about. Alarming as it was, I understood being overwhelmed by emotions. To this day, when I see a toddler stomping and screaming in public, I think, “same.”
What alarmed me more than my dad’s temper tantrums was to see someone stopping up their emotions. My mom had the magical ability to hold her emotions in, an ability not shared by the rest of the household. It was a loud household. I often felt I was more observing it than living in it. I remember my mom and dad’s blowout fights, my dad yelling and punching holes in the walls and my mom talking to him in a surprisingly calm voice. I remember her driving away from these fights for some space, which strikes my grown self as logical, especially considering she was driving away from an unstable and violent man. But my child-at-heart self also remembers her pushing a terrified me away from her car so she could peel off into the street, forcing me off her with so little emotion that I later had recurring nightmares of it, re-imagining her in my dreams as a witch.
In time I myself mastered that skill of reserved feelings. It is a useful skill, when I want to make space for others’ feelings, or a useful weapon, withholding feelings from those who I deem undeserving. Later I had to learn all over how to un-master this skill, making space for my own feelings, so that I know what they are. A common pendulum swing for women. I think it is also worth noting that I now revere witches of all types.
My mom used her magic to tame my dad, somewhat successfully. My family lore tells of how my dad was a wild bachelor when my mom met him. He had divorced his first wife—well, actually, second, but we don’t talk much about his first marriage to his second cousin. Anyway, he had divorced Adrienne, the mother of his first two daughters, Alisa and Gina, and was thoroughly enjoying his singledom with lots of women, as the story goes. Along came my mom, 16 years his junior but decades more mature. She started dating him and defeated each and every other woman until she was the last woman standing. I assume this means she convinced him to be exclusive, but the family does frame it as if she was a girlfriend sniper. Once she had won the prize of his monogamy, she convinced him to spend time with his daughters again, and through that enterprise befriended his previous wife.
After my sisters (Brooke and Megan) and I were born, we would all go out for family dinners: my mom, dad, sisters’ mom, and all five daughters. I’m told this was very Californian of us. At these dinners my dad was full of pride, vim and vigor. He was fond of acting out Buster Keaton scenes in the restaurants we visited. He micro-managed our orders and how we ate said orders, and made wildly inappropriate jokes, often asking the waitress “guess which ones are my daughters and which one is my wife?” We were loud. At our favorite Chinese restaurant, Plum Tree, they had a special table for us, in a room, in the back. Less for our benefit and more for the other patrons’ benefit.
My mom and sisters’ mom were tied together by this unimaginable goof. They became so close that when my mom got sick with breast cancer, Adrienne was one of her hospice nurses. In fact, Brooke, Megan and I were with Adrienne when our mom passed away. She had sweetly taken us to the mall knowing that we could use some levity after the heavy shit we’d been handling for so long. Our mom graciously took that moment of privacy to pass without her young daughters seeing. After Adrienne told us the news of our mom dying, we went shopping for what we would wear to the funeral—we were already at the mall, after all. Going shopping for a new dress right after hearing about my mom’s passing was such a strange moment. At 11 years old it was clear to me that there was no “right way” to react to this news, even the adults didn’t know how to react. I remember it striking me as funny in a new way—the birth of my macabre sense of humor.
The way I remember my mom pre- and post cancer, I often remember my dad pre- and post my mom. After my mom died, my dad bought a conversion van and a dog, and opened a biker bar/internet cafe/hot dog restaurant called “The Wienery.” Yes, you read those slashes correctly. He never made any money at The Wienery, but he made a lot of friends. He took Sudafed and Ritalin every day with his vitamin C and always made small talk with people in line at Gelson’s Market. He became the Pynchon novel character he was always meant to be.
What bit of taming he had was lost. He did get a girlfriend and this new woman tried to take the reins, but no one could stack up to my mom. His new girlfriend was a married woman and, in another “very California” move, we all went on a vacation together. Traveling through Europe and Israel with my sisters, my dad, his girlfriend, her husband, and their daughter (!), was a trip in more ways than one. The aspect of my mom’s taming that did stick was the prioritizing of his daughters. He made it almost six more years on his own before he died of a heart attack, which impresses me, considering everything his child heart had taken.
I love remembering my parents. I still cry, but mostly I laugh at the absurdity of it all. I laugh at how what were my least favorite parts of them are now my favorite parts of me. My child-like wonder, my iron will, my unapologetic humor, it is all them. I have learned to laugh in death’s face, because we can, because it’s inevitable. Laughter won’t make death come any sooner or hold it off any longer. I laugh because I can’t always cry and laughter is cathartic too. Just the way I don’t see my parents as angels or demons, I don’t see death as good or evil. The same way it is taboo to speak ill of the dead, it’s taboo to speak of death at all, lest you wake it. Especially in California where they worship the idea of The Singularity. True immortality comes from telling stories about the dead. Another reason why I keep coming back to writing about my parents.