Another long-distance phone call and the miles between my mother and me fall away. With the phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear, she is rescuing sheets from the clothes-line just before another downpour. Next will come a bit of ironing and then the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next.
This transports me back to the kitchen of my childhood home. There’s ma, leaning over the ironing board, smoothing out with hot steam the wrinkles in my father’s shirts, pausing – for dramatic effect – to remind me to consider the lilies, to “mark her words” that there will be plenty of time for work and plenty of fish in the sea. Implicit in her explicit admonishment not to wish my life away, was the fact that she was not wishing my life away. Mostly, she struck an artful balance between shielding me from the world while empowering me to find the voice to explore its realities – but not all the time. Especially not when I was in the throes of adolescent boredom, my eyes rolling to the heavens in response to the kind of home-spun wisdom I long for these days.
“Daughter dear, the world is your oyster,” she would tell me, and perhaps to charm me out of my ennui, she’d add, “sure you have the heart of a lion.” Non-plussed, I dismissed her as someone who had no life before I came along, someone who could never have been a hopeful teenager or somebody’s BFF or the one with the great sense of style. But my mother was all of these . . .
She is far away, in the place that made her, South Derry, the distance between there and where I sit in the Arizona desert, stretched taut on milestone moments like her upcoming 78th birthday. A phone call or a visit on Facebook will help close the distance between us, me falling easily into the comforting colloquialisms of home, but it will not be the same as dancing with her.
My daughter learned that same dance not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen, but on the sandy edges of California before the fog rolled in on an August evening.
Facing each other, a blue blanket stretched between us, she stepped towards me, intent on matching her corners to mine, my edge to hers. In the middle we met to make the final fold, while unbeknownst to us, her father took our pictures and wrote our names in the sand, knowing the tide would wash them away. Forever.
“The cool that came off the sheets just off the line Made me think the damp must still be in them But when I took my corners of the linen And pulled against her, first straight down the hem And then diagonally, then flapped and shook The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, They made a dried-out undulating thwack. So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand For a split second as if nothing had happened For nothing had that had not always happened Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go, Coming close again by holding back In moves where I was x and she was o Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.”
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
The best year of my life was the one spent at home after my baby was born. For twelve idyllic months, with her father off at work, our girl was all mine, and I inhaled. Spectacularly high on new baby smell, I remember dancing around a house filled with sunshine and Van Morrison. I remember spending interminable hours just looking at her. Just. Looking. At. Her. I examined every tiny feature, every furrow, every flicker across her face, searching for resemblances to me, her father, her grandparents, and marveling that two imperfect people had made this perfection. She didn’t mind my hovering, or maybe she did, but this was before she had words or discovered those beautiful hands that fly with expression today. I called it hand ballet.
Mostly, Sophie bounced with curiosity and glee. When she cried, it was for food or comfort or just to let me know she was there. I couldn’t bear it. In spite of criticism from well-meaning friends, I was one of those mothers who would not let her baby “cry it out.” I picked her up the instant she began to cry at night. My mother encouraged me, reminding me the way Irish mammies do, that there would be plenty of times as an adult when my daughter would have to cry herself to sleep without me there to make it all better. When such desperate times have visited, I have found myself wishing that we mothers could bank all those hours spent holding and comforting our infant children – a rainy day fund to help us help them weather whatever storms await us.
When the time came for me to return to work, I was unprepared for the crying – mine and hers – that preceded and continued after I deposited her in the waiting arms of Bonnie, the cheery classroom assistant at a Montessori school. Most of the other mothers didn’t appear to have jobs outside the home. Usually in shorts and flipflops and – this was pre-Starbucks – with mugs of coffee brought from home, they chatted in the parking lot. I might have given a vague impression of adulthood with my Anne Klein suits and my hair on the verge of sensible. I had returned to my career in public education trying to impress on someone – most likely myself – the notion that I was “A Professional Working Mother,” that I could do it all or have it all or something like that.
In spite of my sensible job, I did not impress Bonnie. Mortified and avoiding eye-contact with her, I’d hand over my wailing, flailing girl, and Bonnie would try to placate me with reassurances that Sophie would be just fine as soon as I was out of sight. If only I would just leave . . .
Although she had to say it a couple of times, Bonnie showed restraint, never once rolling her eyes as I stood there wild-eyed and fretting about the impending separation from my daughter. Irrational and crazed, I know, but I wanted my child to have Bonnie’s undivided attention. I wanted Bonnie to spend hours staring, like the Madonna – mother of Jesus, not of Lourdes – at my beautiful girl, cheering with delight and recording on film and in writing when she did something – anything – for the first time. I was sad that I would miss the first time Sophie watered a plant in the school garden or threw a rock or cracked a nut or blew bubbles. I would miss telling my husband, my parents, my friends – just falling short of alerting the media – that Sophie had experienced another developmental milestone as when she had spoken her first word, or clapped her hands for the first time, or let go of my hand and stood straight like a little warrior to my ovation, “Sophie’s standing! Sophie’s standing!”
It’s true. I was madly jealous that it would be the magnanimous Bonnie – not me – with a magic trick up her sleeve that would charm my inconsolable daughter and make the crying stop. Walking away from the little girl writhing in the arms of “the other woman,” cleaved me in two. I would pretend to leave but then remain in the car with the air-conditioning on and the window down, torturing myself as I listened to the unmistakable sound of my child’s crying. At the same time, all the other mother’s children were crying. How, out of that early morning cacophony, could each of us pluck out the unique sound of our children’s specific anxiety?
Daily, I waited until the wails gave way to worn-out sobs and a final shuddering stop. Then I would reapply the make-up that I had cried away, and when my face matched the boring business suit and no glimmer of guilt-stricken working mother remained, I went to work with other people’s children.
Around this time, I discovered Kathi Appelt‘s book, Oh My Baby Little One. Like me, Appelt knew this anguish of leaving her child, and she relived it when her twelve year old son went off to summer camp. Bracing herself for how she would feel as he prepared to go off to college and inspired by the lovely Sweet Sorrow in the Wind sung by Emmylou Harris, she wrote the book I would find on the discard table in a Borders when we still had a real book-store where I could also get The Irish Sunday Times albeit on a Wednesday.
Every night, I read to Sophie the story of Mama Bird who reassured Baby Bird that every day when she was off at work, her love – a little red heart – would still be with him. Magically, this love would slip inside his lunch box or sit on his shoulder during play-time or nestle on his pillow at nap-time. At the same time, it would curl around Mama Bird’s coffee cup as she went about her daily business.
And every night, before closing the book and kissing her goodnight, I would ask Sophie, “Where’s the love?” and she would tell me, as though it were a secret:
All around, mama. The love is all around.
It eased those morning goodbyes when I left her with Bonnie and numerous other teachers throughout the years. There were too many of them. Never satisfied with her teachers because they never seemed to understand that I was her first teacher and that I knew best what was best for her, we kept switching schools. By the time she was in the third grade, my daughter had become a veritable tourist in the public education system, hopping from school to school, becoming ever more resilient, while I kept searching for the one teacher who would change her life as Mr. Jones had changed mine.
This morning, I packed a lunch for my girl – a young woman now – and slipped a note inside the brown paper sack the way I used to do. Watching as she strode to the car her dad used to drive, my heart cracked. How I hate that he is missing this!
But I pulled myself together and gave into the day – the way I must – knowing as it released us to our respective distractions and mundanities, that it would unfold, providing delight or difficulty or both in unequal measure.
Sometimes, in an unguarded moment at work, between emails and meetings, in the middle of things that matter and things that don’t, I’ll wonder what she’s doing at school, and I’ll find myself smiling as I recall my three year old darling, fighting sleep with all her might and poring over Jane Dyer’s water-color illustrations, searching for the love that’s cleverly hidden on each page.
Every afternoon, for the first twenty-five years of my American life, I watched Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. It was Oprah who taught me about Gavin de Becker’s “Gift of Fear” – a book written the year my daughter was born – and how to predict dangerous behavior and how being nice does not pay:
Niceness does not equal goodness. We must learn and teach our children that niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction. It is not a character trait. People seeking to control others, almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning.
Later, if ever I were kidnapped, Oprah taught me that I should remember Sanford Strong’s Rule #1: to never let myself be taken to the second location. These and other such lessons I passed along to my daughter hope burning inside me that she would never need them.
She sometimes tells me, when faced with a challenge, that she copes by weighing it against the worst thing that has already happened to her – the death of her daddy and the constancy of him. Other men, good friends of mine and my own father, have tried to fill the gaping hole. Kind. Watchful. Funny. And – perhaps afraid that I might fall apart as her only parent, more aware than I of my own fragility – they are there for her. Just there.There, sitting under a Jacaranda tree with her as she held her dying cat; there, cheering her on as she strode across the stage to receive her high school diploma; there, teaching her to drive; and, there, making a day in December feel almost like Christmas.
Between us, we provide a safe and soft place for her to fall. Prior to milestone moments – Father’s Day, his birthday, the holidays – we are extra vigilant, more active on her Facebook page with supportive comments and ‘likes’ and jokes we know she will appreciate. Stupidly, however, we do not expect to be broadsided, as we were by a moment in a department store fitting-room last Sunday.
My daughter is kind and warm with a personality made for retail. She’s good, but she is also nice. A college student, she works part-time in a local department store, where the managers frequently place her in charge of the fitting room. Patient and pleasant, a pleaser, she is the perfect associate to calm customers harried and in a hurry to find something that fits. To her embarrassment I’m sure, I went into the store last Sunday and – worse – I even tried on clothes, so she could not avoid me, the way we avoid our parents when we are so “over them.” I didn’t notice the numbers scrawled on her hand, I was too busy embarrassing her the way I used to do when I dropped her off at junior high. Mortified that her friends might hear “my music” on the radio, I remember she would turn it down before getting out of the car. Then I would wait until she was on the sidewalk, turn up my classic rock and yell out the window for all to hear, “I love you.” It’s what mothers do, right?
Mothers also usually know when something’s wrong. I can tell by the first syllable of “hello” when she calls if it is, for example, a day when grief has her in its grip – ‘a grief day.’ I can sense it. But I somehow missed it in the department store. I missed it. How could I miss it? It wasn’t until she came home from her shift a few hours later, that she told me. She had written on her hand 4:30 – 4:45, the time period during which a middle-aged man – a customer – had inappropriately touched her in response to her telling him she was sorry the red shirt he was returning hadn’t worked out. She was alone. Vulnerable. Frozen after he put his hands on her, but somehow she thought to inform security of the time so they could check the videotape and “just keep an eye on him in case he came back and bothered anyone else.” Then my darling girl worked her shift for four more hours and told herself that because she was “alright,” management would probably minimize the situation. Nobody came to check on her. She ended her shift, walked to her car alone, and came home to me.
Having had a day or two to reflect on this, to raise hell, broadcast it all over social media and report it to management, to confirm that, yes, detectives are looking into it, and to ensure that a policy will be enforced to require at least two employees in the fitting room at all times, the lingering issue remains. There are menacing men who move among us every minute of every day and that women who look just like my daughter – my mother, my best friend, me – continue to be sexually harassed in public places. My girl is now one of those women.
I know she does not want “mommy fighting her battles,” but she just doesn’t understand that I want to find that stranger and tear him apart until there is nothing left of him. Nothing. She didn’t hear Gavin de Becker tell Lena Dunham in response to a question about how young women can best protect themselves against violence:
. . . Do not accept the scam that violence is a strategy only understood by men. There’s a universal code of violence, and that’s not a code you have to crack; it’s all inside you. When I used to give more speeches, I would ask audiences, “Is there anybody here who feels they could never hurt anybody?” A bunch of people would raise their hands and say, “I could never be violent under any circumstances.” If it’s a woman, I would say, “Well, what about if somebody was hurting your child?” “Oh, oh, oh, well then I could rip, burn, bite, scrape, scratch, poke, shoot, stab,” and so the resource is in all of us.
That resource is in all of this. Except, we don’t really believe it, do we?
Last week, I went to a local bar to shoot pool with one of my best friends – a 66 year old woman. For reference, a bad thing happened to me last summer, and pool became the good thing that lifted me up and out of it – a perfect distraction. We found the quintessential dive bar – a hole in the wall, no windows, somehow smoky even in the absence of smoke, three pool tables, a parking lot aromatic with weed, “Sweet Home Alabama” on the jukebox, and bartenders who tell stories and listen to yours and call everyone ‘sweetie.’ You get the idea. I had never played pool until last August, but because of Paul Newman in Color of Money, I had always wanted to. I didn’t even want to be good. I wanted just one time to make that sound – that crack of a great opening break. I was a long way from doing so. I didn’t know how to hold the cue and could barely make contact with the ball. My friend is a lousy teacher, so we would watch YouTube videos on our phones or ask the advice of old guys who bring their own sticks to the bar on League Night, which also happens to be Ladies Night, or on Sundays when it is free to play. After months of practice and time recently spent with a man who quickens my heart and teaches me how to make the shots he makes me call, I’m not as embarrassed by my game any more. In fact, I win more than I lose (just not against him).
He wasn’t with me last Friday when I put up my quarter. Oblivious to my surroundings as I too often am, I was only vaguely aware of the young man seated at the bar behind us. Remembering him now, I recall shorts, T-shirt, flip-flops, receding hairline, slightly overweight. I recall nothing remarkable and no hint of danger. I remember half-noticing him talking to my friend, but I thought he was only asking about the boxes of pizza on the bar and if anyone could have a slice. (Yes. Anyone can.) She didn’t tell me until later that he had rubbed against her and asked if she liked playing with balls. She froze. The way so many of us do, later telling me, “Yeah, he hit on the old broad first.”
Subsequently, when it was her turn to play, he sidled towards me, and said with a sneer, “Hey, hey, your friend says you like playing with balls. Is that true?” Hey. Hey. Typically, this would render me frozen as I have been every other time something similar has happened, but this time I could feel an approximation to violence. Foreign and empowering, it made me not fear him or humor him or ignore him. I don’t know what shifted in me, but something did. Clutching my cue – and wanting to break it over his head – I eye-balled him and never looked away as I told him, coolly and quietly, “Yes. Yes, I do. I love it. But the fuck of it is that you’ll never know since you don’t have any. Now get the fuck out of my space.” I almost scared myself. Now I am no stranger to profanity – I’m Irish after all – but the words came out of me like razor blades, and before I could turn away from him, I watched as he slithered out the back door.
Still, I was left feeling guilty about cursing at him and – even worse – wondering if perhaps it had been the way I had smiled, the silky summer top I was wearing, the cut of my jeans, the length of my legs – if it had been my fault. Was it because I was in a bar on a Friday night without a man? He would not have said it had I been with a man, would he? Had I asked for it? Well, had I? And, if I am honest – mindful that I am middle-aged, postmenopausal and most of the time invisible to men on the make – should I have been grateful for the attention? This is the maddening and shameful contradiction that sends me, recoiling and ashamed, to the disconcerting reality that I am no longer the proverbial spring-chicken therefore attention from a young man must mean I’ve “still got it.” Really? Yes, really. And I am perplexed by this.
Now what? Well, today and tomorrow, I will step out into the world, and I will dress the way I always do. I will “sparkle and enchant” the way I do and risk being called flirtatious which sometimes sounds very much like “you’re asking for it.” My daughter will continue to be good – but perhaps not as nice – to strangers. We have been altered.
Like a thief in the night, those men – and every other strange and entitled man who has ever touched me or taunted me or told me I smell good when I’m standing next to him in line at an electronics store or called me a stuck-up bitch and told me to suck his dick because I didn’t smile back – have taken something from us, and we are not sure how or if or when we will get it back.
This weekend marks another Mother’s Day without the man who made a mother out of me, the man who loved me so well and for so long. Our girl plans to take time off work to spend the day with me, and we know – but we keep it to ourselves – that looking forward to a special Sunday together will lead to looking back to the way it used to be, to once upon a time when she, her father in tow, set out on the annual quest for a gift for me. Every antique store in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area was their stomping ground as they searched for something bijou, something that would bring whimsy to our backyard – the kind of thing I would never need but would more than make my day. There are reminders still – napping cats wrought of stone and metal, painted birdhouses, fading windsocks, and wind chimes of bamboo that would toil less were they hung from a Cypress tree on the Monterey coast. Always – because I would have been annoyed otherwise – that man of mine would commision for me a piece of original art by our daughter. We both knew my odds of acquiring such a piece were significantly better when he asked her to do it. We all knew our dance steps.
At the same time, every year on Mother’s Day in America, I am drawn back to another world, another time with my mother. The miles between us fall away, and there she is standing in our garden; in her arms a great armful of sheets rescued from the clothes-line just before another rain. Next, there is the folding, a precise ritual, my father her partner in a dance handed down from one generation to the next.
Our daughter learned those same moves not by the ironing board in my mother’s kitchen on the Dublin Road, but on the sandy edges of California, late on an August evening before fog rolled in. Facing me, a blanket stretched between us, she stepped forward, intent on matching her corners to mine, my edge to hers.
In the middle we met, and there we paused to make the final fold, while unbeknownst to us, her father took photographs of us and wrote our names in the sand, and waited for the tide to wash them away. Forever.
“The cool that came off the sheets just off the line Made me think the damp must still be in them But when I took my corners of the linen And pulled against her, first straight down the hem And then diagonally, then flapped and shook The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, They made a dried-out undulating thwack. So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand For a split second as if nothing had happened For nothing had that had not always happened Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go, Coming close again by holding back In moves where I was x and she was o Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.“