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She Hates Numbers

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Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

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PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate

sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

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Things We Never Said, a short story

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Things We Never Said, a short story

She was beautiful, as all mothers are to their children, but it was far more than that. Total strangers told me how beautiful my mother was. She was particularly fine-boned and delicate. Her skin was the softest I’ve known, her arms and hands the most stubborn, the most lethal.

Mom was an alcoholic, of course, and the most gruesomely stubborn person I’ve ever known. She went past simple denial and created her own alternative universe. Once, some quack psychiatrist she was seeing told her she wasn’t a “true” alcoholic — that she only drank out of boredom. She clung to that unfortunate phrase of absolution, repeating it like a robot in a variety of situations, until the day she died at 44 from alcoholic pancreatitis.

The only way we ever got her into rehab was when we threatened to call the police about obtaining drugs by false pretenses. She’d call the drugstore and tell them it was Dr. So-and-so’s office, would they please fill a prescription for such-and-such, three refills, please.

She got stiff all over when she drank, not like a normal drinker who gets loose. Stiff, and with a duck-legged walk that made my flesh crawl. I can’t tell you how many times I just let her lay there on the floor where she’d stumbled in a drunken stupor. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her.

If only Mom could have been more like Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer in “Sweet Charity” who, after being pinched, pawed at, fondled, ridiculed, robbed, tattooed, thrown from a bridge, trapped in an elevator, and deserted at the altar, rather meekly accepts the cheery and somehow redeeming gift of a single daisy from a group of 60s flower children, pulling herself out of her misery yet again, and living “hopefully” ever after.

My mother and I both said “I love you,” a lot, and to no avail. Neither of us believed in love. We believed only in self-preservation. Trust was unknown. I have never learned the reasons for staying with another. All I can think of, now that I’m married, is what I’m missing, giving up for the other. How short life is, and how unhappy.

I took a developmental psychology course once, while my mother was still alive. The teacher explained that no child ever actually dreams of killing the mother. Infantile rage exists, yes, murderous anger exists, yes, but the true desire to kill can never be resident in the child’s subconscious. “The instinct for preservation is too great,” she said.

When I told her, later and in private, how I’d dreamed that very act, how in my dreams I’d taken the great butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and stabbed it viciously and repeatedly into my mother’s fine and delicately boned chest, she shook her head skeptically.

“You didn’t really dream that,” she insisted. “You only think you did.” I didn’t argue. I was still too afraid it might happen in reality to insist that it had happened in dreams.

She was never a very good mother. I was never a very good daughter. After she died, I went to confess my guilt over my record as a daughter once, to an Episcopal priest. “I let my mother down,” I told him.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted. “You were the child. You had the right to go off and live your own life.” I was angry at him, and never went back.

I still feel guilty about the first time I knew I’d hurt her feelings. She made me a bunny rabbit salad – a scoop of cottage cheese for the bunny’s face, cut up vegetables for the bunny’s ears, eyes, nose, and whiskers. It was adorable. But I hated cottage cheese, and salad. I was four years old. “I don’t like cottage cheese,” I told her.

“Just try it,” she said.

“No.” I refused over and over again. Finally, she ran out of the kitchen, to the bathroom, and I knew she was crying. I sat in the kitchen, staring at the rabbit, not eating it. I didn’t follow her, I didn’t apologize, and I sat there until someone, probably my grandmother, covered the plate with a piece of plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I knew I was never going to eat that bunny rabbit salad.

I mailed the invitations to my own daughter’s birthday party today. She’ll be four in sixteen days. Oddly enough, all I could think of as I wrote out the cards was how much my own mother would have enjoyed seeing my child, her first grandchild. I know exactly what my mother’s face would look like if she were at the party — lovely, tremulous, inevitably a little weepy. I also know half of my pleasure would come from seeing the tenderness in my mother’s wide brown eyes as together we would watch my little Katie blow out all her candles.

 

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Hungry Baby, a short story

hungry child

Hungry Baby

Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.

She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.

The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.

Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.

Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.

Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.

They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.

That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.

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Fast Food, poem

illustration fast food

Fast Food

 

Even a trip to the local burger joint

is a fright show these days. I observe

 

with alarm a flock of silvery shriveled

biddies: granted, every one of them’s

 

probably some kind of genius right down

to her to gnarled toetips, but as we all

 

know, the quality most admired in women

is not wisdom but rather, blank-eyed youth.

 

I myself am sliding down that gentle curving

slope to total invisibility, and worse;

 

in their gentle faces I read the pounded

knowledge of tasks left undone, words not

 

spoken, tricks never learned. One woman’s

eyes, set deep in bluish sockets, slide over

 

my small daughter’s body like guilty, halting

fingers. I know she remembers watching her own daughter

 

sleep night after night, I know exactly how she used to stand

over the child’s bed listening to the sweet

 

melody of inhale, exhale, sigh, feeling

against her wrist the exhilarating rhythm

 

of the flying hummingbird heart of her sleeping child.  Now, she smiles

to herself, clutching her cup of steaming coffee,

 

and nods.  Near her, at a different table,  is a young man, his hair

a glowing honey-blonde, drawn back tight

 

into a long, curling ponytail, and from his earlobe

dangles a dull silver cross.  His narrow hips barely

 

support his work pants, and in profile his perfect, cruel,

unshaven features promise every solemn gawker,

 

male or female, an expensive though unique mistake.

And I realize we are all here for the same thing: to fill up our

 

insides with this cheap, warm sustenance, to travel

homeward bearing an approximation of what we really

 

long for, which is to keep scrambling for the same

small favors tomorrow, the next day, and the next.

 

I find myself crying (for all of us) and stage-cough, pretending allergies,

wiping my eyes under my sunglasses and blowing my nose into my paper napkin.

 

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Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

illustration heavenly dances heavenly intimacies

Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved?  They are not “dead” to me.  Not even H.  How can I be “dead” to H.?  They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust.  It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11.  He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened.  We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos!  I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him.  Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with?  Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.”  H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school.  He was on the debate team; need I say more?  When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.

Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H.  The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me.  He left me for my best friend!  I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married.  And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did.  She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with:  dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react.  H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her.  At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her.  He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her.  Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again.  She is definitely “dead” to me.  Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.

The upshot of all this boring history?  I’ve been waiting for something a long time.  I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore.  There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered.  I gave up, when?  When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow.  When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family.  Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.”  And it’s true!  I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life.  Yes, there are still problems.  My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.”  My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father.  I am getting old.  My face is melting.  My neck is turning into a wattle.  I am drooping.

Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me.  Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her.  Wanting her removed from my memories.  Wanting never to have met her.  Not missing anything about her.  She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to.  I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend.  I don’t even want to get as close as that!  Because of reasons.  Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons!  No further comment!

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Rose, Honey, or Strawberry Moon

illustration rose honey strawberry moon

Rose, Honey, or Strawberry Moon (June)

Roses

We dug up the bushes, moving gifts from my mother’s friends, transported them to our tiny backyard, planted them in rows, a fine garden. Suddenly they took over, bursting into frenzied blooms, the metal tags dangling, all hybrids, expensive, my mother’s friends were rich, we weren’t. Tropicana, Peace, Mister Lincoln — but over the next few years they all gave up the ghost, dwindled away to one or two sticks bearing black-spotted leaves, an occasional bud. My mother & stepfather forgot the roses, neglected them the way they neglected their and my mental health. Cases of beer and gallons of wine were lugged home instead. We sold the house when my mother & stepfather divorced, the new owners didn’t care for roses, I haven’t seen the backyard in decades. I used to swing there, under a Florida holly, on a splintery board, watching the roses in their sweet decline. Remnants of a more splendid time, not mine. My dog and cat were buried in that yard, my girlhood surrendered to a more ominous time, a time of sneaking out the bedroom window. I had a purple and blue room, painted furniture, a globe of the world, matching curtains & bedspread. I lost the room when I lost my cobbled-together family. But the absence of family was no great loss, not the same as losing the roses. It wasn’t my family anyway, though people were always telling me how much I looked like my “dad.” We hardly ever had the heart to tell them we weren’t related. For a while, he liked me, but not when I started showing signs of womanhood. Then he despised me, the way he despised my mother.

I was an ugly, awkward girl. My glasses hid my eyes, my hair hid my face, the only things revealed were arms & legs like jointed sticks, bare feet with black soles, a pair of bright yellow & white plaid shorts & a white cotton shirt. My hair bleached at the ends, stiff like straw from the sun & pool water. My smile was alarming, my sullen face more of a comfort. I met my “real” father that year. He was frightening, a reminder of myself yet a complete stranger. I suffered from vertigo in his presence, the room grew long and thin, the sounds bounced off the walls like rubber, and I was covered with cold sweat. I didn’t want to touch him. After he left, I went to swing next to the roses. That rope and board swing saved my mind over & over. I could carry on after that soothing motion.

Honey

The neighbor across the street decided to keep bees. The two hives were square wooden boxes, painted white, and he kept them in the side yard, past the driveway, against the chain link fence. They buzzed in and out all day, and I was always afraid of being stung. His orange blossom honey was sweet & bright & bland. I was desperately in love with his oldest son, and the man himself hated me. The mother was slightly less hostile. His son was tall & long-limbed & had chestnut hair & dark hazel eyes. His hands were beautifully shaped, the hands of a pianist, but he was not a musician, he was not an artist, not an intellectual. He should have been, he looked the part. Instead he was an athlete, always running or riding or throwing or hitting. I played basketball with him in the driveway, always humiliated, always losing, but it was the only way to be with him. I humbled myself, and years later when I became beautiful, he loved me back, but it was too late. He wouldn’t speak, and I couldn’t stand the silence. I foresaw years of painful silence broken only by my own shouting. I gave him up, my first love. And lived to regret it. I wonder if the silence would have endured. His nervous, awkward kisses were sweeter than his father’s honey. We lay together on my bed and necked for hours. He was so shy. I was willing to let him be that way. The first time we had real sex wasn’t as good as all the times spent in preparation. We were both too young to know what we had. Everything seems possible in June. Everything seems as though it will last forever. I still have a jar with a petrified sugar-crust, remnants of his daddy’s honey.

Strawberries

One year, my grandfather planted a field of strawberries behind his house, my little brother and I wandered up and down the rows, picking the ripe ones and eating them on the spot. We didn’t care that they weren’t washed. They were so warm & sweet & soft & our lips turned red, my brother’s face smeared pinkish, like a lover’s blush. I was madly in love with everyone that summer. I just wanted to be held. Men were foreign to me, I couldn’t understand them at all. My brother and I ate as many as we wanted, then picked buckets full for later. Washed & cut up, they weren’t the same, still good, but the wildness was off them. My grandfather’s hands as he cut them up were beautiful & careful & solid, I wanted to look at his hands forever. They were not delicate, but not rough — a man’s good hands, they looked loving & trustworthy, and even though he never really touched me, I could tell they could transmit all varieties of tenderness & passion. I loved my grandfather for being that kind of man — I wished I could have been a stranger, so that he could have loved me too. All summer long, I ate sweet strawberries & dreamed of love, a man to love me like a piece of perfect, ripe fruit. I was only 14, still gangly & shy, and no one came along for several years, yet still the dream carried me along like a fast ship, driven by a cool wind.

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