Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Crippled Mother

It is the night of your daughter's Brownie Court of Awards ceremony, a one-hour affair where the girls receive their hard-earned badges and the older ones ascend from brownie to Girl Scout status. You ask your daughter, a first-grader, if she wants you to be there. You haven't worked on any of the badges with her this spring and you're not even sure she's going to get any. She is enamored with the girls whose sashes are covered with colorful swashes of pink, green and blue, a testimony to where they've been and what they've done.

There is a book you can purchase at the girl scout store a few miles from your home that tells you what to do to earn the badges, but you didn't buy it and haven't been back to the store since last fall when you spent $80 outfitting your daughter in her new uniform; the brown tights, the official brownie pin, the brown skirt and t-shirt. You were excited for her that day. She really wanted to be a Brownie. You were a Brownie and a Girl Scout, and 34 years later you still have your forest green uniform, the green knee socks you wore, the belt, the yellow bow tie, and of course the crowning achievement, the sash, which is covered in row after row of badges that you earned and which your mother sewed on for you.

You and another mother, Jeanie, promise each other that you will share the badge book and get your girls together every month to work on sewing and jewelry projects so that your girls can fill up their sashes. But you never do. You forget all about it.

Now, tonight, months later, the thought of sitting through the awards when you're like this, when you're feeling like a freak, a maniac, when all you want, when what you really need is a cigarette, just the thought of being crammed into the trinity Lutheran church with the proud parents from Franklin elementary school, some of whom will bring flowers for their girls, just feels impossible.

When you asked your daughter earlier if she wanted you to come she said yes and that she has a surprise for you. Now, with forty-five minutes until the ceremony you find yourself careening down the streets of your town looking for a cigarette. You'd gone a week without one and you were feeling pretty good about yourself since you'd taken that nearly full pack and dumped it into the garden fire pit. You were even relieved when it rained the next day so you wouldn't have to get on your hands and knees and pick through ash and twig to collect the loose tobacco and re-roll it.

The week had gone pretty well. The sex with your lover this past Sunday at his house, after his children had gone to sleep and while his wife was across the bridge with your husband, the sex that started with sake and ended in his bed hadn't left you entirely demolished. You'd had some rough moments, the few days when he hadn't called and you began to feel desperately unloved again, but you had held yourself up, you'd put one foot in front of the other, you'd been to the gym, you'd focused on your students, been nice to your husband and you'd been writing. You were thinking that maybe you could do this after all. You could have sex with a man who didn't love you like you wanted to be loved. Maybe you were getting stronger, your skin was thickening. But something had pricked at you a few hours ago, you don't remember what, something had nicked a wound and reminded you that you were actually utterly devastated.

Your town, an island, is small, 12 miles long by 1 mile wide and in the first ten minutes you've already been to four liquor stores looking for your brand, Bali Shag light. Nobody carries it. They carry the other loose-leaf tobaccos, the Drums and the other, heavier versions of Bali Shag, but you want the light.

Freak. You feel like a freak as you drive down Central and when you see the Carter family in their station wagon, mom and dad up front, clearly on their way to the Brownie Court of Awards ceremony. You, my friend, are going to wrong way.

Five liquor stores, six liquor stores, you pull up to each one, rush in, scan the counter and ask the clerk if they carry your brand. The Pakistani, the Chinese and the white liquor store employees shake their heads, no. You end up going to nine liquor stores in thirty minutes and no one carries Bali Shag light. Each time you get back into your car and kick up the engine your panic rises. You remember a petition that you signed a couple of years ago outlawing a chain of cigarette stores from opening up and you remember how adamant you were, how you talked about it with your friends, that your town needed to support stores that the people really needed. That was a lifetime ago.

You consider buying something else but as desperate as you are, you've miraculously drawn a line for yourself; if you can't find the Bali shag light you won't smoke anything. You say a small prayer as you enter the stores, please, please, let them have it, but each time as you exit empty handed you experience the faintest triumph, that you were able to walk away without the pack, that you might go one more day without a cigarette.

Freak. Fifteen minutes until the ceremony and you know the other Brownie parents are feeding their children and getting into their cars for the church, but not you, you are driving like a maniac, faster now down the streets of your town looking for a little relief. You are oily, unhappy, dirty and tense. And you're driving in the wrong direction.

The smoke is going to ground you. You know this. You've come to rely on those measured breaths, the calculated inhalations and since you've been smoking for the last month and a half, mostly out in your garden when the kids are at school, you've re-connected with your chain-smoking dead grandmother Ginny and how much she must have needed this steady breathing to ground the out of control spinning that was her life. Like you, she needed to settle herself, needed to keep one foot in front of the other less she…less she...and then she…

But now you're the one driving like a maniac. You're the one who hasn't found her brand and who needs to get to the Brownie Court of Awards Ceremony, which starts in ten minutes. You're the one who needs to surrender to the panic, and the desperation, and your terrible unhappiness, your addiction, you're the one who needs to turn around now and get things right.

When you get to the church it's jammed with parents, and your husband too, who is sitting next to Polly Brown, wife of Max, the man who you sometimes fantasize about when you're having sex with your husband or with your lover, fantasizing that you're fucking or sucking at his house just minutes before Polly walks in the door. For as handsome and tall and Nordic as Max is, it's the hulking presence of angry Polly that gets you off every time.

Your husband turns around in his chair and he makes a coy, little wave to Catherine, another mother from school, a woman who you know he finds beautiful. You hate him in this moment. You hate everyone. But suddenly your hatred is broken by the sound of your baby daughter's clear, strong authoritative voice coming from the front of the room. You can't see her because you're in the back and many of the parents are standing, but it's her, you know your own baby's voice.

“Attention,” she says loudly. “Color guards advance.” At which point scouts holding the American flag make their way to the front of the room which signals you to stand and to say the pledge of allegiance. You hate this too, but put your hand on your heart because you're so full of shame. Shame for needing cigarettes. Shame that you didn't help your daughter earn the badges, shame that you don't want to be here and shame mostly for being obsessed with a man who wants to fuck you but not love you. Ashamed that the only high you feel these days are the moments when you're having sex with him or getting a call from him.

But now here, in the church it is your baby's voice, strong and clear and commanding and you are immediately lifted by it. In this moment the small seven-year-old girl is the strong one. She is the one asking the people to stand and to pledge. And you do it, you do what she asks you to do.

You almost don't recognize her voice. She sounds older and so sure of herself. How did she know the words she was supposed to say? She hadn't practiced at home. She hadn't asked you for help. She'd done this on her own and you realize this was the surprise she wanted you to come for.

Your husband finally sees you and comes to the back of the room where you are leaning against a table. You wonder what people think of you two. You standing there in your beat up jacket with the skull and crossbones emblem and the words Death as Your Advisor written on the lapel, and Walt, the beloved artist in resident at the kid's school, the nicest, cutest dad on the playground, the one who hugs and flirts with the other mothers, who tells them they look pretty. Walt and you, whose eyes are dead and exhausted, the only mother in the room who doesn't have tears of pride, who doesn't know the words to the Girl Scout pledge, the only one who just stands there when the entire room breaks into a silly girl scout song that requires clapping their knees and wriggling their hips. Everyone is hooting and laughing now, singing and clapping, even the couple up front, the gay man and his wife, clearly a marriage of convenience, are wriggling their asses with happiness. And there's Jeanie, who has lost her marriage this year and has just found out that her husband Frank has gotten another woman pregnant. She's laughing and wriggling too. But you're not even pretending to wriggle. You don't have any wriggle in you.

The awards begin and you have to give the troupe leaders a hand because they're moving all 35 girls through the awards pretty fast. You're glad because you're supposed to meet your friend, Mary, a divorced mother from school, at a neighborhood bar for a drink in an hour. The last time you saw her she had been dumped by someone she really loved and she was like pulverized dog meat. Couldn't form a sentence without bursting into tears. She said she was better now and you need to find out why.

You see Zoe, blond and petite, sitting with her friends and smiling. You wonder if she feels connected to these girls. If they're her friends. You usually drop her by the curb in front of the church for the Tuesday night meeting and take off, back to your office to work or to drink or to pine for emails from your lover. You don't really know what she does here; all you know is that her absence buys you silence and time.

They're calling the girl's names now and to your surprise Zoe's name is called and she marches up to the front of the room to receive a little pin commemorating her first full year as a Brownie as well an envelope stuffed with badges. You have no idea what they're for or how she earned them, but you're grateful, so grateful that she hasn't been forgotten, that these women who run the troupe, older women whose own children are grown now, women who don't get paid to be leaders and who come here every week because they love the Brownies and who have been looking out for your daughter, helping her thread needles, and measure flour to make cakes and glue jewels on pieces of felt to make puppets. These are the women who have come to know your daughter, who know what she has done and where she has been.

Beaming, she takes her place among her friends. You try to catch her eye but she hasn't been looking for you. She might not even know you're here. You feel invisible, like a stranger. Finally, in the gaggle of girls she's sitting with, she looks up and she sees you. In the chaos and the noise of the room you lift yourself up over the heads of the other parents and you make the sign that you do at home where you touch your finger to your eye as in I…then to your heart…as in love…and then you point at her…you…I love you. She watches you steadily, and without blinking or smiling she makes the same sign back to you except at the end she sticks up two fingers. I love you too.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Thriving in Neglect

You were so fond of saying that the thing you liked most about your garden was that it could thrive in neglect. You loved the phrase, thrive in neglect, and when you said it you felt a twisted pride that something so beautiful, so over-grown, so faerie-strewn, tree-toppled and plant-mangled could survive without any attention from you. That aside from a little water it demanded nothing.

You liked things that thrived in neglect. You liked your daughter's pet snake because it lived in pure silence and you could forget that it was there. Aside from the occasional trip to Petco for live baby mice, you could ignore it completely. You liked your cats for the same reason. You can't even remember the last time you fed them though someone in your family must have because they're still alive. Same with the dog. You checked his water when you remembered and tried to remind yourself to feed him when your husband wasn't around, but you didn't touch him much, didn't let him lick you or anything like that.

You appreciated friends who didn't need much extra handling. The ones who didn't mind when you didn't call them for weeks and months, friends who could just pick up where you left off, who didn't whine for more time, who forgave you when you forgot their birthdays.

You didn't think getting married would require too much. It would be like meeting another salmon in the stream and just running the same route together. What fun. You liked your independence and your husband, an artist, was an independent guy, a night owl who liked making art and jumping on his motorcycle at midnight and riding off into the forest, a guy who liked going to raves and all night parties, who didn't mind that you didn't join him, a guy who was more married to his art than anything. His focus gave you the freedom to keep yourself as separate as you pleased.

Until the day he told you that he felt neglected by you. He'd found a phrase in a book that said that in every relationship there is a fuser and an isolator and you resonated with this new tag, isolator. Honestly, though you felt a little like the meanie, it was so much safer to be that one than the other. On the other hand, you couldn't help yourself, you were, by nature, this way.

Having kids was a push. In your original fantasy you were surrounded by your beautiful, children, but in a quiet way. You were together but no one was pulling on you or spilling things on you. Your image of motherhood resembled more of a still life; a pretty picture with everything in its place. But these children needed so much. At first it was just the breast and you managed that pretty well, especially if you got to sit on the couch while you did it and watch Baywatch, which you had never watched in your life and which seemed full of pathos and purpose.

But of course they needed so much more and you found yourself retreating, backing yourself up into work and before too long you became a really busy girl. Workaholic busy. Angry, frustrated, freaked out busy. Lock your office door busy. Let the children watch TV. for hours busy. Tuna sandwiches for dinner busy.

You longed for your isolation, the quiet and the space that allowed you to think. Your temperament was not suited for the loud and messy madness of motherhood. Like your own father who liked being in proximity to his family but not actually interacting with them, you liked knowing your own people were there, but you needed more walls,

You took to wearing that old, beat up jacket with the skull and crossbones on the lapel, the one you stole from your husband with the words Death As Your Advisor, printed above the skull. The jacket and your cowboy boots brought on a calm, familiar, detached feeling. You could breathe again.

Still, something needled you, you wondered if you were neglecting the kids. But as much as you promised yourself that you would spend more time with them you found it hard. You gravitated to your office. You told yourself that they seemed to be thriving despite you; one had become a little soccer champion and the other had a flair for the stage. Still, you wondered, oh stop, you knew; like your wonderful, wild garden, they too seemed to be thriving in neglect.