I’ve been working on my novel a lot lately, and reworking some old ideas. I came across this one the other day, and it’s a true story,or at least memoir-kind-of-true, which means only kind of true, but with embellishments. In any case, I can’t use it for the book. Thought I would share it here:
I don’t remember my father much before it happened. I mean, he was there, certainly. He was loving, fun and supportive. He took the training wheels off my bike and all. But mostly he was just doing what she told him to do. He drove the car. He packed the trunk, moved the furniture, and carried things into my grandparents’ house when he was told. They pretty much had the division of family labor split along traditional gender lines. He was the hunter gatherer, occasional piggy-back pawn. We loved him, but other than riding on the top of his feet when he first came through the door from work, we hardly noticed him when she was around.
They were old-fashioned in terms of the gender roles. I remember once, they were telling my brother that when he grew up, he would be a doctor, the greatest profession one could aspire to in the 1960’s. “What will I be?” I asked from the backseat of the Impala. They just looked at each other knowingly and told me: “You’ll marry one.”
Again, it’s not like he didn’t love us. He did, and with all that he was. (Still does, still is.) He was just busy finding the bacon to bring home. So, it must have been pretty hard for him when all of it ended. He says now, that looking back, he kind of wishes he had let me know what was coming. But I don’t feel the same. I think he did the right thing. In the end, I got two more years of a natural childhood. Sure, there are times these days when I worry that the rug is going to be pulled out from under what feels like a pretty secure standing. But who’s to say I wouldn’t get that feeling anyway?
My father was out of town when the priest’s car pulled into the driveway. He’d been working in upstate New Jersey, just outside of New York City, building 1970’s versions of McMansions for some guy named Mr. G. The story of that last day is a heartbreaker that I won’t share here. But as for Mr. G, we were kids who saw that whole relationship through naïve kid eyes. We thought Mr. G was our father’s buddy. We’d seen them laugh together, so they must have been friends. Turned out Mr. G was no friend. He’d been hassling my father, the foreman of the job, for showing up late and leaving early, even though he knew that my dad was commuting more than three hours in each direction every day and every night, racing back down the New Jersey Turnpike in the dark to get one more night shift with my mom, who was dying in their bed.
By the end of the summer, things had almost returned to normal. Despite being stranded as a single parent in June, he began to find a kind of groove with the three of us. We went to the beach when we could. He took us to upstate New Jersey, and we would spend nights living in one of the model houses. I remember three things about that summer: 1) The model had a central vacuum system, into which we kids put all manner of items. It was more experiment than mischief, but still, I’m sure it wasn’t good for the innards of the thing. 2) We went to a day camp for a week or two where we played camp games, learned archery and swam in a plake. They had a series of swimming tests you had to complete that included treading water for 15 minutes, and another thing where you had to make like your boat had capsized and create flotation devices out of the old clothes they had you wear. Fun times. 3) I had a T-shirt with a glittery decal on it. The decal was either The Fonz or the Sweat Hogs.
One day we were having lunch, sitting at an outdoor table of a McDonalds, under a red and yellow striped umbrella made of steel. Traffic was going by on the street, close to the outdoor tables, the exhaust fumes and noise creating an ambiance that we loved as children.
There had been a lot of talk about heaven that summer, and even though we’d been raised Catholic, and my brother and I had both gone through our First Communions, heaven was a hard concept to grasp. It was this faraway place, gauzy with clouds, where everyone went, wearing white robes and sandals, where some day (some day?) we would see our mother again.
Out of the blue, my brother, who was eight, looked up from his french fries and asked Dad, “What do you think heaven is like?”
Our father paused, squinting in the summer sun. He thought, and he said, “Well, I think it’s a lot like it is right here.”
Which, if you think about it, was probably the most beautiful thing in the world to say. There he was, with the three people he loved most in the world, on a warm summer afternoon, just hanging out and having a good time.
My brother was cool with that ethereal idea for about two seconds before his follow-up question: “You mean, they have McDonald’s in heaven?”
Today would have been my mother’s 70th birthday, which means that give or take a few months, she has been dead for as long as she lived.
It’s strange how this is such a defining thing for me, such a huge part of who I am and how I approach the world, and yet it is suppressed, not really on the surface, a taboo subject for the outside world. I never talk about my mother with my friends. They never ask about that part of me. When I do bring it up, I can always tell right away that I’ve crossed a line. I don’t know if they can’t deal with it, it’s too emotional a thing for them to contemplate happening to themselves or their children, or perhaps they just don’t know what to say.
I do have one other friend who has lost her mother, Lyra, though Lyra’s mother passed away just before Lyra had her first child five years ago. I know this because Lyra told me once, when we were alone, and she was pretty drunk. I don’t even know if she knows I know what that’s like, kind of; I don’t remember my experience being a part of that conversation. And I have to say, that I have hesitated to bring it up to her, just as I hesitate to bring it up even to my own siblings, for fear of bringing them all down.
At the holiday gathering of my book club, we always do this sort of recap of the books we’ve read over the past year. We use a poll that we made up a few years ago, and then I compile the answers and share them at this gathering. One of the questions asks which character we felt we related to most. Usually there are as many answers as our club has members. My character this year was Elizabeth from Marisa De Los Santos’ Belong to Me, a young mother dying of cancer who leaves two small children behind. The women in the group gasped when I gave my answer, and they questioned why I had chosen her. I said that I felt De Los Santos had really captured what I always felt my mother had gone through.
And the subject was dropped, along with all their eyes.
It’s a weird and kind of lonely feeling. But today is her birthday, and I really would rather celebrate her than mourn her, though my current state of PMS weighs me toward the latter.
She was a wonderful mother, and an amazing wife. The woman ironed absolutely everything, including sheets, handkerchiefs, even my father’s boxer shorts. She was funny, and had a wide smile that lit up any room she was in. She liked chocolate Tastykakes. She used to get her hair done at the beauty salon, where they would spray it hard like a helmet (one could argue that it was that PVC-laden indulgence that killed her), and then, with her hair perfectly set, she could somehow swim in the summers without getting it wet.
She loved to tan. She loved the beach. She loved her kids and my father. She never went to college, though rumor has it that she wanted to. She was pretty heavily into Catholicism, and I was born nine months after she married my dad. She was always, always there for us kids, right up until she died.
They hid that from us. She was sick for two years before, and we never saw it coming. Sometimes I have wondered if that was the right thing (and my father has too). But you know, even though in a lot of ways, it seemed as though the rug was pulled out from under us suddenly, I am thankful that they gave us that much more of an almost normal childhood.
God, I miss my mom.
Today turned out to be a day of celebration. Clooney’s birthday is two days away, and we celebrated with a moonbouncing party attendend by about two dozen of his friends. I turned my focus on that fun. As my father has always said, I have to look at all the wonderful and beautiful things that I have, let the things I don’t have be part but not define me. Most days, that works.