Those Words

w204I’d like to be small again, just for a little while, and feel close to her. I never really appreciated my mother. I never appreciated myself.

~~ From THE BRIDGE LADIES

I’ve just finished reading Betsy Lerner’s latest memoir. I sat down to skim the prologue and the next thing I knew it was time to get dinner and I was here, at page 119: When I finally get up to leave, we are awkward as always. I give her a peck on the cheek at the door, then she suddenly and uncharacteristically pulls me close and hugs me like a normal person, the way I hug my daughter. The way you might expect mothers and daughters to embrace.

And just like that, I’m in my own recurring scene. My mother standing inside her farmhouse door, where I know she’s been on watch all afternoon, anxious for me to arrive. The familiar crunch of gravel under my rental car tires as I ease up her long driveway and park under the shade of 3 pecan trees. The way my untouchable mother and I will—no matter if it’s been weeks or months or even a whole year since we’ve seen each other—fumble the hell out of a simple hug hello.

TBL sets out to tell the story of Lerner’s mother, Roz, and the mysterious women she’s played Bridge with, weekly, for the last 50 years. But while interviewing the women, sitting in on their games, and learning how to play Bridge herself, Lerner gets to what she’s really seeking in telling this story: her own search, her own lifelong ache, for a connection with her mother.

If anyone had asked, I’d have said my mother and I had a connection. We talked on the phone at least once a week (daily in the years before she died), and yet there remained such a long, impenetrable distance. We talked about “safe” things: my job, Cardinals baseball, family gossip, soap opera storylines. I remember her telling me once about a talk show guest who, after finding out his mother was dying, told her he loved her for the first time. “God, don’t ever say those words to me!” my mother had said. “Those words and I’ll know I’m a gonner.”

The mother/daughter discord in TBL is at once heart shattering and devastatingly funny, the way daughters (and I include myself here) can focus so intensely inward that our mothers and their friends become as flat and fragile as paper dolls. Just mothers. Just the Bridge ladies. Boring, predictable, and insular. Sellouts. But as Lerner struggles to keep up with even the most basic concepts of her beginner Bridge lessons, we see Roz in a similar struggle to understand her daughter, to say and do the right things while dealing with concepts she doesn’t completely grasp.

If this mother/daughter business were a game, how would we ever agree on the rules?

My mother died when I was 36. I think now about how self-serving I still was, how judgmental of my mother’s every decision and the grudges and petty grievances I could not let go. I envy Lerner’s courage as she forces herself, no matter her own vulnerability or anger or discomfort, to get beyond this and ask her mother the questions she’s always wanted to ask. And to accept the answers.

When, if ever, do we decide it’s time to take that risk, the chance to know our mothers as real women in the world, separate from us? And yet. How do you know someone who doesn’t want to be known? Lerner asks. How do you console someone who can’t be consoled?

In my own final scene, I am alone at my mother’s bedside. She’s been in a morphine sleep for days and the sun is setting dark red and the nurses are gone and the machines around us are, one by one, going quiet. It’s time. It’s time, and I feel the weight of a million unasked questions. But I still can’t make myself touch her. And I still can’t choke out those words.

______________

THE BRIDGE LADIES will be released May 3. Click here to pre-order.

 

The Choice

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My Mother, age 18, 1963

On January 22, 1973, by a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas law and made abortion legal in the United States. Roe v. Wade stated that a woman had the choice to end a pregnancy in early months without legal restriction, and with restrictions in later months. This ruling was based on her right to privacy.

In the years before Roe v. Wade, my mother gave birth to 3 children: in 1965, 1968 and 1972. Her first 2 pregnancies began without a husband, which in the 1960s meant she had to get married twice to men she should never have even considered marrying. My mother did not have the option of ending her pregnancies. She also did not have access to birth control, though Enovid, the first birth control pill approved by the FDA, had been on the market since 1960, and by 1965 was being used by 6.5 million American women.

The Pill was only accessible to married women. The Pill would not be legally available to single women for 7 more years. And The Pill would never be approved by the Catholic Church.

*

For decades to come, and 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.

I was born in 1965, the same year the Supreme Court invalidated state laws prohibiting the use of birth control within the confines of marriage, though this did nothing to help my young, single mother: 19, pregnant, and Catholic. She told me she was waitressing full-time at the Pizza King when she learned she was pregnant, and that when she started to show she lost her job because the sight of a young pregnant girl waiting tables, her boss told her, was bad for business.

In an effort to save me from being born illegitimate, my mother waddled into the county courthouse and married my father—a 20 year-old boy, already divorced, with a baby he did not support—and hoped for the best. She give birth. She got a job at the local factory. Her husband divorced her within the year, then disappeared. And my mother, alone with no means to support herself and her new baby, had no choice but to move back in with her parents.

*

In 1967, my mother began dating again. Birth control had become legal for married women, but since my mother was divorced, and therefore single, she had no access to The Pill. And she got pregnant. My grandfather kicked her and her baby (me) out of the house, and though my grandmother begged and begged him to let us stay, my grandmother had no choice in the matter. Her husband was the man of the house.

And so my mother, 22 and broke with a toddler and another baby on the way, went back to the same county courthouse and married husband number two.

I’ve often heard people say that my mother had a choice. That if she did not want to chance getting pregnant, she should have abstained from having sex. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet I’ve never once heard anyone say those words about the men who got her pregnant.

*

My mother delivered baby number two in 1968. A boy. The same year, Pope Paul VI—in direct opposition to the recommendation of his papal commission on birth control— released Human Vitae, reaffirming The Church’s ban on all contraception, excepting the rhythm method.

From The Washington Post: “In 1967, the commission’s report was leaked to the press, revealing that a significant majority of its members favored lifting the ban, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of the 15 cardinals. The minority who were opposed issued a separate report. After much consideration, the pope issued a formal encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) in 1968, siding with the minority and reaffirming the church’s prohibition of any form of artificial birth control.”

My mother, now 23 and with so many mistakes (sins) piling up, did not feel like she could afford another mistake by going against The Church and secretly taking The Pill. She wanted to make things right. She still hoped for an annulment of her first marriage, hoped to be welcomed back to her church by the Monsignor, and longed to be better than what people were saying about her. She wanted to be thought of as “good” again.

Her friends and her older sisters, however, secretly admitted (within their ranks) that they were taking The Pill, though most all of them also confessed they had not gotten The Pill from their doctors. It’s a small town, they said, and in a small town there is no such thing as privacy. What if their parents found out? Their in-laws? Their Church?

If and when they got caught, they insisted to their parents and their priests, and sometimes their husbands, that they used The Pill strictly to manage irregular periods and to lessen the pain and mood swings caused by menstrual cramps. Therefore making them healthier and happier and more available to their husbands. Therefore making them better wives and better mothers.

Therefore making these women … better.

*

It is so easy to talk about choice, who has the choice and who does not, in the abstract. When it’s happening far away, and to someone else.

In 1972, just 2 months before the Roe v. Wade decision, my mother gave birth to her third child. Another boy. I was 7 by then, and what I remember most about those days is the daily tension in our house, and waking in the middle of night to the sound of screaming adults. I would sneak out of my bed and tiptoe to the top of the stairs where I would hang upside down by my toes from the landing and watch my mother and her husband throw anything they could get their hands on—dinner plates, glasses, candle-holders, toys, end tables, lamps—at each other.

Mornings after were filled with silence and regret, a crying baby and the sweeping up of broken glass, and the scratchy sound of my mother’s favorite album on the turntable, Charlie Rich’s deep, sweet seduction on repeat:

And when we get behind closed doors
Then she lets her hair hang down
And she makes me glad I’m a man
Oh no one knows what goes on behind closed doors

*

It is 1973. My mother is 27 years old. About to be twice divorced. With 3 children. Making minimum wage working shifts at the Hosiery Mill. The same year, in a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court will overturn a Texas law and make the choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy legal in the United States. Roe v. Wade will state that a woman has the choice to end a pregnancy in early months without legal restriction.

It is 1973, and my mother’s first husband has long-ago gone off to live another life and never paid a penny of child support, while her second husband fights her for custody of his boys. At first, she refuses outright. The thought of it is absurd. What kind of mother gives away her babies?

But when she asks her parents for help, she is told they cannot help with a court case, and that she cannot live with them again. They do not have the room, nor the means, to help her with 3 children. How can she expect such a thing? they ask. She should have thought of this, her father says, before she went and got herself into so much trouble. Before she went and got herself knocked up. Her older sister tells her she will be alone for the rest of her life, because no decent man will ever even look at her again, not with 3 children in tow. And yet, here she is. How will she afford childcare, a home, food? Who will take care of her children when she works nights, or weekends? What choice, her married girlfriends ask, does she have?

And that is how, in 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose, my mother signs the papers to give away her 4 year old and her new baby to their father. The choice that will keep her from ever feeling she is good again. The choice that will cause her and her children such great suffering. The choice that will gut her, every day, for the rest of her life.

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

104361-M

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.