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Teri Carter's Library

The Choice

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My Mother, age 18, 1963

Until her early death at age 56, my mother carried a massive weight of regret and shame. Regret for mistakes made. Shame within her large, devout, Catholic family, with one aunt who answered her phone, “Hello, Praise the Lord.” Shame within her small Missouri town. And shame within her family’s Sprigg Street church where her father had paraded himself for years as a pillar of purity and faith and righteousness, even has he threw his wife—mother to his 8 children— into the backyard some midnights while sitting inside the door with a rifle, drunk and laughing and daring the whore that she was to try, just try, and come inside.

My grandmother was poor and uneducated and not allowed by her husband to drive a car or to work outside the home or to write a check without his signature, and with so many children to care for, she did not have the choice to leave. She had no rights.

____________

You can find me over at The Manifest-Station today.  An essay about our right to make choices about our bodies and about our lives, and what happens when we have no choice.

A Stepson’s Summer Visit

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My stepson is smart. He knows his mom and dad make the decisions. He knows his mom and I never (why would we?) speak.

He knows I have less authority than a teenaged babysitter. “What are you going to do?” he says sarcastically over a giant bowl of Cheerios. “Call my mom?”

___________

IH12Q1k7_400x400Mothers and stepmothers are supposed to hate each other — but who made up this rule?

I’m over at Motherwell Magazine with a story about what can happen when mothers and stepmothers work together. If you are a stepparent or stepchild, I would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments section!

And as always, thanks for reading.

The Serena In Us

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Serena Williams is arguably—though I can’t conjure any reasonable argument—the greatest female tennis player of all time, both fiercely respected and roundly feared on the court. And yet with the start of each tournament, especially the majors, the unrelenting commentary on Serena begins.

At this summer’s Wimbledon, the comments are about her dress. More specifically, the comments are about her breasts. More specifically than that, the comments are about her nipples.

Serena is number 1 in the world, about to turn 35, and playing in the championship match at the most respected professional tournament in the world, going for her 22nd major title. But the mention of her name brings this before all else: you can see her nipples through the white dress and can’t she for god’s sake do something about that, find a way to hide them, cover them up, strap those things down?

I am a fan. Of tennis in general and of Serena in particular. I’ve almost passed out in the searing heat at the U.S. Open. I’ve snagged lucky on-line tickets to Wimbledon. I’ve spent the entire first week at the Australian Open from the opening of the gates until closing. And for the last 2 decades, I’ve watched Serena become a champion as the barrage of criticism, rarely if ever about her tennis, has only gotten louder.

Look at that ass, someone jokes. Those thighs. You’d think she’d try to cover that up, but there she is on the practice court, in leggings. In white leggings! In shorts!

Her face looks odd doesn’t it, her nose is smaller? Come on, she’s had surgery, you can tell. And what’s with the eyebrows, the long painted nails, who can play tennis with nails like that? The big dangling earrings, showing off the diamonds, a belly button ring for god’s sake. Is that permanent eyeliner?

And what the hell is she wearing, can’t she afford a dress that doesn’t fly up?

On the first changeover in every set she plays, Serena Williams does not stroll to her chair. She does not pause for a drink of water. She does not grab one last thing out of her bag or waste time refolding a towel. She does not make her opponent wait. Excepting sister Venus, Serena is the only player who, holding herself accountable to this most basic (though never enforced) rule of the game, walks around the far post and stands ready, always ready, to resume play.

Arms like a linebacker, a friend laughs, maybe she’s part man. Those biceps, those shoulders!

Sore loser. Never gives her opponents the benefit of saying they played well. Surly in post-match press conferences after a defeat, arrogant, nasty, angry, dismissive, egomaniac.

Oh man, has she gained weight? Again?

Compiling this list—the laser-like focus on Serena’s body, her clothes, her jewelry, her makeup, her temperament—I feel exhausted. A familiar pattern emerges. The unrelenting attention we pay to pounds gained. The clothes in our closet that may never again fit. The need to hide, or at least make some grand effort to disguise, the size of our breasts, our asses, our offensive, ungainly thighs. Too much makeup or not enough. The pressure to follow such a long list of fake rules while tamping down our anger, our competitiveness, our desires and aspirations, all to be more lady-like. To be more tolerable to everyone else.

Today, Serena Williams was crowned Wimbledon Champion for the 7th time, tying Steffi Graf’s record of 22 major titles in the Open Era. She held her trophy high overhead, and as she smiled and twirled for the cameras in her white Nike dress I wondered how much of Serena is somewhere, buried, in all of us.

What champions might we become if we stopped worrying so much about the extra pounds and the fake rules and what we need to hide, and simply walked around the post, ready to resume play.

How To Be Divorced: A Stepdaughter’s Wish List

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When asked, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I might give any of the following answers: only child, oldest of 3, or oldest of 5. All true. All lies.

This is what it means to be a stepdaughter.

1,300 new step-families are created every day. I am a statistic, a stepdaughter three times over, starting at ages 2, 9, and 15, with two half-brothers, a stepbrother and a stepsister. Everyone and I mean everyone offers advice. Over the years I’ve heard dozens of opinions from the well-intentioned about how divorced parents and new stepparents should and should not behave.

Most get it wrong.

If anyone, including my own parents, had asked, this is what I would have told them.

_________

Do we really want “what’s best for the kids?” after a divorce, or does saying it just make the adults feel better?

You can find me over at The Manifest-Station today with a child’s thoughts on that question.

The Case for Calling

1011741_10201433159127281_2010972233_nMy mother, gone 14 years today, died before text messaging became a thing, and I often wonder if texting would have worked for her. For us.  After I left home, we talked at least once a week.  When she was sick, we talked daily and more, even if it was just to say hello.  We both, for our own very different reasons, craved that constant connection.

But times, as they say, have changed.  I recently wrote an essay about texting vs. calling my kids.  The irony of it being published on the anniversary of my mother’s death is not lost.

You can find the link here.  http://grownandflown.com/wrong-to-be-texting-family/

And thanks, as always, for reading.

Excerpt:

“When I was growing up, my mother called her mother every day, and Grandma called our house almost daily. Unlike my grandmother, I feel like I rarely talk on the phone with anyone. Even my own children. Both of our kids left for college and, after graduation, found jobs in the Midwest and did not come back. There is a 2-hour time difference with our daughter, 3 with our son. We are a texting family. How did this happen?”

A Stepmother, Losing Her Marbles

Illustration by Allison Steen
Illustration by Allison Steen

The game was simple. Two clay jars rested heavy atop our bedroom dresser, one loaded with marbles, one empty. “Every time we have sex,” I said, “I’ll move a marble to the empty jar.”

At 31, I’d arrived childless into my marriage, but my new husband had sole custody of his children—a girl fifteen and a boy nine—and we had never spent an entire day, or even an evening, alone. “Once you’re married,” my friends warned, “you’ll stop having sex.” One friend confided she and her husband were sexless for seven years. This terrified me.

Click here to continue reading at The New York Times: Motherlode —
and join the conversation!

The Appointment

When you’re of baby-making age but not making a baby, trips to the OBGYN are hammer-blow reminders of who you are not.

OBGYN office

Waiting rooms full of pink chairs and women with round, expectant bellies.  A bulletin board plastered with photos of your smiling doctor holding newborns, though you’ve never actually met the doctor; your annual pap is only worthy of the nurse practitioner.  The questionnaire on a clipboard, “How many children do you have?  How many live births?”  Heels pressed into cold, stainless steel stirrups with accompanying lecture — while lying there, legs splayed, staring at the ceiling — about how women who do not give birth are more prone to breast, uterine and cervical cancers.

The blast of energy it takes to happy-talk your way through the appointment and get the hell out of there.

________________

Then there was my first appointment after I became a mom — with a big twist.  You can find the whole story at Brain, Child – The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. (click here)

Excerpt:

I’ve barely been at this stepmother thing six months, but I’ve already learned an important lesson: there is always someone to remind me who I am not.

Sometimes it’s the mom across the street or at the bus stop; sometimes it’s my son’s teacher at back-to-school night; and sometimes it’s just me staring into a mirror.

Today that someone appeared in the form of an OBGYN nurse behind the receptionist’s window.

 

The Hotel That Built Me

decent-quiet-place-toWhen I go home, I do not drive my rental car to my parents’ house or my grandparents’ house. Those places no longer, and in some cases never did, exist.

For three decades this Missouri girl has been going home from Arizona and Minnesota and Washington and Iowa and California, and I drive straight from the airport to 104 South Vantage Drive. To the one place I’ve learned I can count on. To my home on the hill.  To the one place that’s always had a room for me. I go home to the Drury Lodge.

You see, the Lodge and me, we have a history.

The two-story hotel opened in 1969, the year I turned four. I discovered it as a teenager. I’ve never known my father; my two half-brothers lived with their dad; and when I turned 16 my single mother remarried and moved us to her new husband’s farm. How do you define home? Feeling in-the-way of the newlyweds, I stayed gone as much as possible. I slept at the homes of friends, and I spent time at the Lodge, a neutral zone that lacked the tension I felt at the farm. Summers felt free there, and as teenagers wanting the darkest possible tans, good friends Tammy and Tracy and I laid out (illegally?) at the hotel pool, rubbing our bikinied bodies with baby oil and iodine. In a flash of memory, we are girls again, tossing Tammy’s baby sister Lindsay off the side of the pool and into our waiting arms. One-Two-Three Jump!

“Our baby,” we all called her. Baby Lindsay, now in her 30s, with a baby of her own.

At 19 I got a job in the Lodge’s restaurant. Cedar Street. For 3 years I manned the hostess stand for breakfast and dinner as well as Easter, Mother’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Holidays spent with my work family. The cooks taught me how grill steaks and serve proper portions and make eggs to order; David Poe and Rhonda Owens made me laugh at 5 am and 11 pm and all the long hours in between; and I can still feel how cold and hard the winter wind blew down that hostess hallway to announce a customer. The calm dark eyes of Pete Poe, the ever-lurking manager, the night he gave me a stern, dad-like talk for kissing my college boyfriend at my station.

Funny, the places we find fathers.

Our high school class held reunions here. There was the 6 year because we forgot to have a 5 year. There was the year Rick’s wife Mary had cancer and chemo and we danced all night while belting out 80s tunes and trying on Mary’s wig. Our 20th when I played quarters at Cedar Street with Shockley and spilled so much beer on my dress the dry cleaners could not save it. The year we hired the wrong sound system and they did not know our songs. The year Class President Chris showed up with a deep tan and bleached blonde. Malibu Chris.

I left Missouri for good at 27, and when I flew home to visit I quickly learned it was best to stay at the Lodge. My grandmother lived in a one-bedroom.  My half-brothers did not have a space.  Friends had scattered.  My mother’s farm never felt like home, and, as I look back now, I see how childishly her husband and I fought over the only bathroom and clawed at each other to get my mother’s attention.

Though my mother was openly hurt when I started staying at the Lodge—a good 20-minute drive away—she was also relieved. And so was I. For the next years we enjoyed our limited mother/daughter time so much more when I could be alone with her during the day (while her husband worked in the field) and if I left before supper.  Your mother’s home, it turns out, is not always your home.  And that can be okay.

Out here in my real life, I’ve moved more than 30 times. But the Lodge? The Lodge stands still. Martha and Joan like familiar den mothers at the front desk. “Welcome back!” they say when I check in. “Welcome home!” Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, this place remains, all these years, exactly the same and worn in the way a home should be the same and worn.  I request an inside room, close to the lobby, so I can pad down for an early cup of coffee in my pajamas or grab a candy bar and a bottle of water from behind the desk before bed.

A few years ago, when my friend Evy emailed me the video of Miranda Lambert’s song The House That Built Me, I could not stop replaying it, imagining my 30 homes and wondering what house that could be for someone like me.

I know they say you can’t go home again

Well, I just had to come back one last time

And Ma’am, I know you don’t know me from Adam

But these handprints on the front porch are mine.

I remembered the night I had a huge fight with my brothers and came home (see what I mean?) to my room at the Lodge to calm down and run a hot bath. My daughter called and, thankful for the happy distraction, I forgot the bath water and looked up some minutes later to see water flowing as over a dam into my bedroom.

I dialed zero and Joan sent some young boys to help, my fight with my brothers briefly forgotten.

I was 36 when my mother died.  The first person I told was Martha. March 2002. I had been at the Lodge for more than a week settling my mother into hospice, spending long days with her at Chateau Girardeau Nursing Home and sleepless nights alone in my off-the-lobby-room. I’d checked out early that day, planning to fly home to Minnesota, but my mother took her last breath at noon, and it wasn’t an hour later when I dragged my bags back to the Lodge and to the front desk and told Martha I needed my room back. “Oh honey,” she said. “You’ll be okay. We’ll take good care of you.”

If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave

Won’t take nothin’ but a memory

From the the house that

Built me.

Come January, the Drury Lodge will be torn down, replaced by a fancy 8-story hotel with adjoining restaurant and conference center.

So this December, before the walls come down, I’ll go home to the Lodge one more time. I’ll have breakfast at what-used-to-be Cedar Street and spend the evening there with old friends.  I’ll ask for an inside room with a view of the pool right off the lobby so I can pad down and get coffee in my pajamas.  I’ll hug Martha and Joan and miss my mother. And when I check out for the last time, I’ll be spectacularly and devastatingly greedy.  I’ll take every last one of my memories. From the hotel that, built me.

________

This essay can also be found here:

https://human.parts/the-hotel-that-built-me-231329d7c346

http://www.semissourian.com/story/2248121.html

The Diversion Channel

For Chris

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You used to call me on your way home from work. Five o’clock in Missouri, three o’clock in California. If I didn’t answer, you would leave this message. “Hey friend!” you’d say and you’d say it like you just spotted me after a thousand years away and wanted to make sure I saw you, “I’m inching along in traffic at the Diversion Channel. Again! Call me! I miss you! When are you coming home to drink a beer with me!”

I miss the way you left messages with exclamation points.

By the time I heard you’d left us it was tomorrow already and Laura had left me too many messages with no information. “Hi Teri, it’s Laura, call me.” As if I didn’t know who Laura was. Then “Teri, it’s Laura, call me back as soon as you get this,” then “Teri, you really need to call me.” By the second message I knew. We didn’t talk like this, you and me, Laura and me, using our names like that, with pretend-calm, like actors on stage in a play.

I think of you when I hear the songs from West Side Story. When we were 17 you played Bernardo and you trusted marginal me with my zero play/musical experience to do your makeup. I can still feel the triangle sponge in my hand as I leaned in, our faces, our laughs, inches close. “Thanks for making me look so good,” you wrote in my yearbook. You drew your heart. You signed it ‘Nardo. Forever-friends don’t need real names.

How can you be gone 2 whole years already.

I woke the other night thinking about you on I-55, heading south. Heading home. You with your, “I’m stuck here at the Diversion Channel!” Your great big mighty love as wide and as powerful as the Mississippi River. Your exclamation points.

When I was little I thought the Diversion Channel was a TV station, a special place to turn to other than the basic 3 channels we got. I figured there must be something better there, something original. I never knew until I grew up and left home how important the Diversion Channel was, how that one waterway served as the path for the fringe creeks and the marginal rivers to—no matter their difficult and ornery ways, their waywardness, their lesser selves—find their way home.

Hey friend. (Exclamation Point) It’s me. It’s five o’clock in Missouri, and I’m still here.

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