I’m Back

i'm backWhat I did not do on my summer vacation: too much thinking.

Thus, trying to write new fiction: impossible.

Trying to revise fiction (my favorite part of the process): impossible.

Meaningful conversation: impossible.

Being alone, driving long distances, showering, retrieving words like washing machine, errand, looking around me at the room/the burnt lawn/the neighbor compulsively deadheading: impossible.

I never have been able to meditate because I don’t get the clearing your mind stuff. I didn’t get it, that is, until this summer. Or maybe since there was nothing to clear, this was not a fair test.  

Not thinking left me with the following:

  1. Making and unmaking and remaking mosaic stepping stones while listening to a novel with earbuds in
  2. Watching everything on ID Discovery
  3. Reading headlines only of the upcoming election (oh, and FiveThirtyEight’s Chance of winning stats)
  4. Babytalking to Enzo, my cat
  5. Sleeping
  6. Watching my other cat, Minx, watch fish videos on YouTube

Things that made thinking lethal:

  1. The 2016 election
  2. The fact that my oldest daughter will be leaving to attend college in August

Finally, in late July, I went to a poetry reading given by a new acquaintance to celebrate the publication of her new collection  (a book I will highly recommend to you while I’m at it, even if you are on the kind of non-thinking hiatus I have been on. Buy The Uncanny Valley by Jennifer Martelli and find out how to hear her read, too.). To get to such an event, I have to summon the kind of courage I used to call upon to jump into a quarry (okay, I only did that once but I’m still exhausted from the effort). Since those days are (blissfully) behind me, I now use those resources only to usher me into potentially awkward social situations. Jennifer was gracious, welcoming. But me in a room of people I don’t know. That’s what I’m talking about.

You will, it turns out, be required to shove yourself into these situations throughout your life. Go on out there, my mother has told me in various versions of the phrase, and make some friends, you strange girl. Many times in my life, my friends might have said: Take a chance. Get involved. Join a playgroup. That kind of stuff. The option is, after all, sitting home and either thinking or vacuuming places that will never been exposed to light. Because, let’s face it, this is one of those goddamned new chapters. The world might be ready for the President of the United States to be a woman, but you aren’t quite ready for your kids to be grown up, for the house to echo around you as you babble to a completely disinterested cat and compulsively check to see if the new season of Project Runway has started yet. There are things looming that you don’t want to mull in your usual strange-girl fashion.

But poetry. Once again, it elbowed me. Wake up, poetry says, as if it’s sitting beside you during an interminable dinner party full of talk about obscure zoning laws and tips on how to improve your golf game. But poetry wants you to know: Finally something worthwhile is being said. Remember, poetry says, how nice it is to be able to think? To feel? To rush headlong into something besides housecleaning? Sit up now. Take note for Christ’s sake. Get your sleeve out of your bouillabaisse.

Hearing Jennifer read, remembering what powerful words can do –how could I not venture back, slowly, slowly to the world of thinkers worrying, spinning theories, wittily reacting, conjecturing, reflecting, remembering (oh god, remembering), shouting across the room, curling up in a ball on the sofa and listening, probing the universe, in all its bleakness and light?

 

One. Again.

635962114968686569-thinkstockphotos-516497930At my mother’s house, the usual busy-ness when we are there: Nana at the table with two great grandchildren, one grandchild playing Scrabble. Another granddaughter stops by for leftover meatballs and cavatelli. My sister is upstairs making soup for another sister who just broke her leg and is hospitalized. Dennis has taken Justina to the local sporting goods store to buy sneakers. Beatrice says she’s going on a run.

“How long will you be gone?” I ask. She tells me. “Leave the earbuds out,” I say, but she probably has them in already.

I’m looking on my phone to see if quin is an acceptable word (it is!?) when the Amber alert comes in. A twenty-one year old woman missing in Kingston, RI. Kingston is twenty minutes away. This woman, another woman, some poor mother’s beautiful daughter, has been gone for two days. My daughter is out running, wearing the earbuds I’ve asked her not to, ticking off the miles on her GPS watch, marking her way along unfamiliar routes but not paying attention to anything important. This is no ordinary day out there for one family, while here my mother, my sisters, my children and nieces and nephews carry on as if the bottom has not fallen out of someone else’s carefully constructed universe.

I borrow my sister’s car, guessing at Beatrice’s route. The road stretches out, ominous in its ordinariness. Women are not safe out here. Don’t tell me the odds are against a woman being attacked in a town like this. Quote all the statistics you want. Here’s the only number that matters: One. I remember Linda.

We were ten years old that summer. Along the mostly residential Route 1, we walked to the Dunn’s Corners Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival. On a stretch beside a tract of cedar swamp, we played games of chance for a dime, took our first ride on something called the Round-Up. At a prize-every-time booth, run by an old man who might or might not have been a firemen, I rolled balls into chutes trying to win stuffed dogs. He let me have several chances for free. The next night, I returned to his game. When my mother found the plastic poodle consolation prizes hanging around my bedpost the next morning and asked how they’d gotten there, I told her.

“A stranger let you play his game for free?” she said.

I thought it was a great coup. Fearless. Stupid.

“Well, be careful,” she said. It’s what most mothers in Westerly, RI, in 1973 would have said. The next night, I went back, my friends and I laughing at my mother’s warning.

Three months later, I climbed off the bus. My friend’s older sister sat outside their house, leaves turning colors around us, the air still warm, and motioned us over.

“Linda Robinson is missing,” she said. “She never made it home from the YMCA last night.”

Linda was thirteen. She lived a few miles away from downtown where the YMCA was. Her younger sister attended the same elementary school we did.

Someone along a dark stretch of road had heard her scream, had found her schoolbooks scattered across his lawn.

To reach my house, I had to leave the noise of Franklin Street ‘s traffic, of the kids outside playing kickball, raking leaves. Our lane was a quarter mile stretch bordered on one side by the back of a shopping center and on the other, by a stretch of woods. I stood at the top and studied — from what seemed like an insurmountable distance — the white block of my house where my mother would be watching her afternoon soap operas, behind which my father would be filling the pit silo with the final truckfulls of corn silage.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been afraid to traverse that lonely stretch; I was a child with an active and fearful imagination. But it was the first time that I understood: bad things really can happen here. A thirteen year old girl was missing in Westerly, RI. Someone had been responsible for that.

Young girls should be able to walk home alone in the dark. Young women should be able to go out for a three mile run at any time of the day or night. We should be able to park our cars and not think about it, to sleep on a hot night with our windows open. Bikeriding to school, showing up for our lifeguard shift at a local pond, lying in our sleeping bag at a slumber party in a friend’s basement, closing up shop after a long day at work. None of these situations should put us in jeopardy. None of these things should separate mothers from their daughters. But they do.

Instead of a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my daughters to take a self-defense course with me. They would rather have gotten me a plant and done our usual picnic, but they agreed. We took twelve hours’ worth of classes with officers from the Ipswich Police Department. These concluded with us participating in three scenarios where we had to fight against a perpetrator. These were police officers dressed in protective clothing, men who had taught us what we would need to do to defend ourselves, “perpetrators” who, no matter how ineffectual our resistance, would let us go, and yet we were terrified. For the duration of the two hour class, my hands shook. When it was over and they asked us to talk about our experience, I could barely say what I wanted to: that, as scary as it had been to work through these exercises with them, I felt empowered by all the women who had not had the benefit of this kind of training. The countless victims who had had no idea and perhaps no chance to fight back. How could I not learn to fight? Even Linda Robinson, thirteen, had fought back, but in the end, she had been no match for a man so intent on doing her harm.

When I reached the end of East Avenue and saw the flash of Beatrice’s neon singlet, I wish I could say I felt better. There she was, my beautiful girl, my life’s work, healthy and present, only a few steps from home. But finding her and following her back(discreetly since she doesn’t appreciate my vigilance), only reassured me for today. She has a long life ahead. So many miles to travel.

When I pulled into the driveway behind her, she rolled her eyes. Not again, that expression said. Yes, again, I thought. Again and again and again. My paranoia and her disregard. A mother’s fear and daughter’s assurance that she will be okay. Most of them will be, after all. There’s that idea on which to cling.

Inside the house, her cousins erupted at the table at Nana claiming yet another double word score. Justina showed her her new running shoes. My mother reminded us that we’d need to get to the restaurant early if we all wanted to sit together. Her aunt finished the soup that will help our sister heal. What could possibly be wrong in the world?

 

Just Remember Who Loved You First

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI shouldn’t have checked his answering machine. But the point was: I felt the need to and that impulse alone should be enough for someone to say, You know what? I’m sure there are healthier relationships in which to find oneself. He had taken a part time job at a bar down the beach for the summer, a job he didn’t need at a place where we never went. Sometimes on weekends, the only time we long-distance lovers could be together, he worked by choice. His mother’s voice, his sister’s. A guy from the gym and then the beep that changed everything: A woman’s voice that asked him to meet “us” at the bar. You know, her tone implied, as usual. That’s it. She sounded very casual, a woman used to calling this number and keeping him informed of plans. A woman who didn’t need to leave her name.

That’s the black and white betrayal of relationships. Things are okay, even if they’re not great, and then they are very, very bad. Cloudy but dry, and then torrential, unremitting, mold-inducing, apocalyptic, Biblical.

You’re twenty-three, still a stupid kid. You have a shitty job, an apartment that smells like the cabbage the woman next door cooks nightly, an apartment you’ve furnished from the stuff your sister gave you once she was through with her orange plaid phase. You cruise around in a light blue Chevy Citation, belting out Whitney Houston songs. A boyfriend, even one who might be cheating on you, is a necessary distraction, but it doesn’t remove the nausea you feel when you have what you consider irrefutable proof of his infidelity that he will still refute.

Fast forward thirty years (30?!?). At least as far as my husband is concerned, my competition is reduced to any track meet on some obscure television channel only we subscribe to, any new listing on letsrun.com of road race times, and a cat whose name is Enzo, but who Dennis calls Young Man. None of my husband’s attachments, by the way, inspire that seasick feeling, none inspire the cartoon image of a woman flailing wildly about as she falls blindly down a black hole.

But that doesn’t mean I am through with feeling betrayed. These days, it’s my teenagers who I catch cheating.

Valentine’s Day, for example. Sure, Beatrice remembered to buy me a little token gift. Thoughtful even though she went out specifically that morning to get it. It didn’t take the kind of forethought it required for her to take, print, and frame a picture for her boyfriend or to write all the cheesy notes she wrote him on the candy she bought him (another Reeses why I think you’re cute, etc). But in this flush of a first infatuation, she didn’t forget me. EXCEPT at dinner that night when the boyfriend’s mother (who I have never met) served her brussel sprouts. And Beatrice ate them.

“What do you mean, you ate brussel sprouts?” I say, fighting back the tears.

Since September, her father had been toting bowls of them into the house and I had been roasting them, urging our daughters to try these organic, heirloom, grown-with-dad’s-love-and-devotion pearls. But no. This is the kind of sacrifice, it appears, that she’ll only make for another family.

It was a painful reminder of Apphia and the cocktail wieners. Okay, we’re vegetarians, but we had decided that, if one of our children wanted to eat meat, we’d be fine with that. So, at a Christmas party at my sister-in-law’s, when Apphia asked to try a pig in a blanket, I said (indulgently, I thought): of course. Seven or eight pigs later, Apphia sat beside me on the couch as we got ready for the Yankee Swap.

“Mom,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”

That’s the thing about cheaters. They think clearing their conscious is preferable to preserving their loyal loved one’s equilibrium.

“I eat hot dogs all the time.”

“But how?” I said. “Where?”

These were the days before she straightened her hair so it was all ringlets. Ringlets!! “You know how I always want to buy the mac and cheese for school lunch? Well, they serve mini hot dogs, too. Sometimes, I’m too full to eat the ronis.” Ringlets AND ronis. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Justina would no sooner eat brussel sprouts and hot dogs than she would put her screen down and/or take no for an answer. Finally, I thought, someone deserving of my trust. Until, of course, I discovered the Poland Springs bottle. And then another one. And then a third. In the age of no answering machines, there are still clues left behind, and here was my youngest daughter, a child raised in a house of filtered tap water and reusable bottles, a house that refused to stock up on cases of plastic bottles destined to be strewn, mostly FULL, about the unsuspecting planet because, god forbid, you couldn’t remember if that was your bottle only a sip was missing from or your sister’s!

“We don’t use these,” I said. You and me. All of us on this particular, highly endangered, but still very green branch, of the family tree. Remember, I wanted to say, reading on my bed before you fell asleep every night? Remember how we used to set up a picnic in the wagon on the first great day of spring and eat outside? Remember Mrs. Doubtfire? Stellaluna? High ponytails? Webkinz? “Where are they coming from?”

She regarded me with the nonchalance of a serial offender before revealing the name of her source: “Kayla. She brings me one from her house every morning.”

The world tilted out from under me then. The world weighted down with its landfills, its soccer field trash receptacles overflowing with the non-biodegradable refuse of a generation who believes itself to be one gulp away from certain death by dehydration.

So there they were: the three daughters I thought I knew running around behind my back with other families, other experiences.

My love affair with the temporary bouncer didn’t survive, of course, but it didn’t have to. What choice do I have now, however, but to forgive my daughters for the ways in which they have hurt me? These days, every quiet moment in this big house seems a mark of their disloyalty. How could they pack up their Little Pet Shop toys, their mini kitchen, their costume box, and leave me here in this house so devoid of plastic and High School Musical songs? How could they do what every other mother’s children do and grow up so fast?

And, in the face of these betrayals, what else can I do but try to heal, take an art class, get a couple more cats?

 

Tender Years Spent Badly Dressed

John Cafferty from the Beaver Brown Band, whose song Tender Years was chosen as our prom theme. Yes. I said Prom Theme.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsF62Wd4GME[

Junior Prom for Triton’s Class of 2016 is in the books. “How was it,”  I asked my daughter when I saw her the next morning. “Fun,” she said. “But it wasn’t what I expected.” Well, I thought, there’s one thing her prom and mine had in common. But that might have been the only thing.

First of all, she got asked. Not a promposal, that modern day upping the anxiety ante that makes me glad I don’t have a son, (So far, there is no gender equity in this area so the pressure is off girls.) but a perfectly nice young man asked her the old fashioned way: face to face, no hooplah. For my prom, I had to do the asking. For days, weeks, even, I came home and said, “This will be MUCH easier to do on the telephone.” Then, I retreated to my bedroom and stared at the extension until I declared: “You know what? In person will be MUCH easier than calling.” Then I’d pass him in the hallway and think: “Uh-uh. Phone.”

My daughter and I shopped for her dress in December because I had heard horror stories about people waiting three or four hours in warehouses full of other mothers and daughters later on in the season. Too Who-Concert, I said. She looked at me the way she does sometimes and carted a few dozen dresses behind the curtain in the almost empty store.

I had my gown made by my mother’s friend Shirley, picked out the Gunny Sax pattern and the calico myself.

Beatrice chose a blue, bejeweled number that was exactly twice the amount I had intended to pay (which was still more than my wedding dress cost). I don’t remember how much my gown cost. Beatrice looked red carpet ready; I looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The week before prom, Beatrice had her nails done; I chewed mine to bloody stumps in anticipation of the big day. Beatrice did her own hair into an up-do that prompted many to ask where she’d had it done. I, thankfully and just this once, did not blow dry mine into my usual Barry Gibb lookalike style.

We had no no meeting for pictures in two scenic places with other couples. First my date and I had an incredibly awkward staging in our kitchen where I forgot to introduce my dad who came in from the barn — a rare break in the workday. We took a few pictures with the sink in the background, just me with my bouquet and my date with his hands folded in front of him. He wore a navy blue tux. Only when we got in the car to head to Donna’s house (where we have another photo op beneath the clothesline) did I notice he was wearing white socks. We also did not instantaneously upload any of these photos to the internet (thank Christ). In fact, only a year or so ago, did Donna share her pictures with me. I wish I could say I looked better in retrospect, but, no — still the beaming homesteader.

After the interminable Grand March, Beatrice and her classmates boarded busses in the high school’s parking lot, off for a safe and sober evening. After I made my date change into a pair of Donna’s stepfather’s socks, her date drove us to Providence. I’m pretty sure we didn’t wear seatbelts (ddi cars even have them in the back seat in 1981?). Before we got out of Westerly, Donna had spilled Riunite Lambrusco down the front her own WHITE Gunny Sax. (Just to be clear: the drinking age was 18 just a mile and a half away from where we went to high school and if there was an open container law, we hadn’t heard of it). Our chaperones might have smelled the wine on us, or, in Donna’s case, have seen the blatant evidence, but perhaps they were distracted by the cloud of pot smoke and Patchouli that hung over the ballroom.

I remember little about the prom itself. Live music to which we girls danced, afterwards, a party during which time I mostly could not find my date. We watched the sunrise on the beach which, in any other person’s prom night memory, might have been romantic. In mine, my date ignored me and I was left to ponder how amazing it is that such a big star starts out over the horizon as such a tiny orange ball.

When I walked into my house at 5 AM, the bathroom door had just clicked shut: my father waking for his day. My mother sat with her coffee cup at the table: “You better get yourself into bed before your father sees you,” she said. If she had asked how my night had gone, I would have parroted my daughter who neither of us could have imagined that day.

After her prom ended, Beatrice camped out with friends in a closely chaperoned gathering where the parents turned the heat up in their pool. After everyone swam, they gathered around a campfire or played cards in their tents. Soberly. The kind of night that doesn’t inspire anyone’s date to call a year later, as mine did, and apologize for his behavior.

This week, we might put her dress on Craigslist, try to recoup some of the money we spent in our attempt to get the hell out of that store before the trampling began. I don’t know whatever happened to my dress though the image of me in it floats by me somedays, and then I say: Oh, that’s right! I was never in the musical Oklahoma! I never busted sod in Nebraska Territory! That was just what I choose to wear to my first formal occasion.

Maybe Darwin Was Onto Something

I went out for the track team when I was in high school. The first day, we “ran” three miles. (I could also put we in quotes.)The coach called out to those who looked promising, who looked the least likely to need her encouragement: that was not me. I limped by her as invisible as bacteria. How did those other kids do it? Take off and keep going as if the assignment was to run out the front door and retrieve the mail? The second day we did something called the thumbscrew or the rack or maybe just ladder sprints, a series of 200’s, 400’s, 800’s and then back down the gallows, I mean ladder. On the third day there was no resurrection, only me trying to get downstairs without bending my legs to turn in my warm up. I wanted to be part of that locker room, that team bus. I wanted to see what a uniform looked like up close, but that world I hobbled away from might as well have been one of the moons of Saturn.

It is always a surprise when my house is full at the end of the school day, when I walk in and am greeted, not by the cats who have been sunning themselves on the porch or by the dogs who have been racing around the yard desperate to get to Dennis in his garden, but by the sounds of the television or the smell of a freshly toasted bagel. Are other humans actually present? Well, for a few weeks between seasons, yes.

Justina’s youth soccer career ended first, two weeks ago when the cold rain and wind gusts of a Nor’easter cancelled her final game. Beatrice’s cross country team travelled to the divisionals Saturday morning and completed their season. Apphia’s soccer team lost in the tournament semi-finals. We washed uniforms and that was that. Another season with all its glory and its heartbreak in the books. I have the afternoons to myself now. I can post to Facebook! I can re-pot plants! I can cook vegetables! In other words, I’m incredibly, incurably bored.

Am I a soccer-slash-cross country mom? I drive a van. I’ve succumbed to heavily perfumed laundry soaps to battle the stench of athletic wear. I use Google calendar specifically to keep track of practices and games/meets. I bought an ankle length down coat to keep me warm on the sidelines despite the fact that it looks as if I’m appearing in public in a sleeping bag. I guess the answer is yes. But the reason goes back to my own athletic ignominy and my daughters’ impossible abilities, the absolutely dauntless way they navigate a world that was so inexplicable to me.

I had hoped that, through my involvement with a team, I would make friends. Belong to something. Regain the kind of confidence I exhibited playing games at recess in elementary school where I was competitive and not completely inept. In my next incarnation, perhaps. But in this life, I am relegated to the sidelines, to the stands, to baking cookies and frosting them blue and white so that my (embarrassed) daughters can distribute them to their teammates on the long bus rides home. And I’m happy to be there, astonished, really, that these are my girls.

They have taught me that soccer is not only a game of speed and finesse, but that people hit you really, really hard. And my girls? They hit back. Through their examples, I have witnessed that practice really does make you better at something, that retreating to the safety of your bathtub after two days is what quitters do. My daughters are not quitters. Games under the lights don’t scare them. State meets. Rain. The kind of heat that drives the birds from the sky. Competitors much bigger than they are.

Maybe other people are in this for some kind of vicarious glory or for the hope of a scholarship somewhere down the line. I see my own beauties, these powerful young women, as proof of evolution itself. The miracle is not in the trophy case or on the resume; it isn’t a name in the newspaper, or the attention of a college scout. It’s in the tenacity and pure muscle it takes them to get out there every day and push themselves in a way their own mother could not. They run, kick, jump, throw, ignore me on the sidelines, but I can’t take my eyes off them.