The Smelt Fry

I wanted desperately to go to the smelt fry in town, but Denny was having none of it. Living out in farming country in the Northern half of Wisconsin, there were few things that ever really happened, the smelt fry being one of them. Smelt are tiny fish, that look like salmon, but rarely reach seven inches long. After being spotted in streams by flashlight late at night, the swarming schools are swooped up in nets. The oily little fish are brought into town, floured and battered whole, then dipped in a deep fry and heaped on a paper plates to be passed out to a waiting line of people who each paid their five dollars at the door, each taking a seat where-ever they can squish in, sitting side by side along room-long folding tables with rows of folding chairs, all lined up in the fireman’s hall. Many of my family would be there, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and a few cousins.

I had sewn a new skirt from remnants I got when I was still working at the Ben Franklin store in a neighboring town before I had Kelly, quitting that job when I went into labor, becoming a stay at home mom. I had saved the remnants to make something for myself that wasn’t a pregnancy muumuu. Kelly was now two months old and my waistline was back to 24 inches and I made a skirt that cinched my tiny waist into 23 inches. The full skirt was light blue, matching my faded blue eyes and had a white ruffle sewn in the bottom. I wore the skirt with a matching white lace vest that fit tight on my tiny hour-glass frame showing off my best curves, which were now plentiful from breast-feeding. My body felt back to its old self again after the long months of pregnancy then recuperation from a cesarean birth, I was ready to show it off a bit.

Maybe Denny sensed the joy I felt in that new skirt and my recently returned figure and felt threatened by that, thinking perhaps I would be swept away by some handsome farm hand with a redneck tan. Or maybe he just hated to see me having fun; because he dug in his heals and flat-out said he was not going. There was no more talking about it. The subject was closed.

I had been stuck out in that old farmhouse we lived in, with nothing but the fields and the garden for company for two months. My only trips into town were to get the groceries and to take the diapers and dirty clothes to the laundromat for washing. It was true that I wanted to show off my returned figure, that I wanted something back from my old self, a girl I still remembered as independent of being a mother and a wife. I loved my new baby daughter beyond a love that I could have ever imagined having, but I was still a young woman, only twenty-one years old, wanting more than diaper changing and grocery shopping.

Maybe if my life as a new wife had some fun and laughter in it, I would have felt differently that evening. Denny turned out to be a solitary husband, coming home from work each day from the factory, not offering up a word, taking up joint, blurring his vision behind red eyes, picking up his guitar, or disappearing into the bathroom for an hour or more at a time, with the door locked, or sitting in front of the TV watching the news, anything to tune me out it seemed. If I tried to pick a conversation with him, he turned his back on me, making it clear that he felt trapped into marrying me, that he only married me because he had to, because of the pregnancy. He was doing his bit working at the factory, paying the rent, paying for the groceries.

Denny also decided that I was responsible for “the kid,” as he put it. I was the one who wanted to have her, he told me. I could not understand, though, after having her, after seeing her as a real live perfectly formed creature, with little fingers and little toes, a person who looked to you for comfort, who relied on you for everything to stay alive, who showed her gratitude with those eyes peering back at you, by nuzzling in and curling up against you, by wrapping those tiny little fingers around your one big finger, how could he not fall in love the way I fell in love. But he didn’t. Kelly might as well have been a hamster in a cage that needed feeding or a cow that need milking. She only represented a mouth to feed, a diaper to be changed, a chore that needed doing. Not that Denny did those things for her. I did all of that. He explained to me that he was the wrong sex to be doing that type of thing. Men did not change diapers. That was all that was to it. Men just did not have the stuff it took to feed or care for babies.

It was a Sunday and I had spent the whole day taking care of Kelly while Denny sat around the house finding ways to ignore the fact of our existence. He knew that I wanted to go to that smelt fry. I told him about it earlier that week and let him know my family would be there, expecting me to show up. I came out to the kitchen to let him know it was time to get ready to go. I had already gotten dressed up, had my blue skirt on and my make-up and hair done. He just said he wasn’t going, said it like he was choosing chocolate ice-cream instead of vanilla. He turned to walk into the next room and picked up his guitar, closing me out the same as shutting a door in my face.

Denny’s guitar woke up Kelly who had been sleeping in the basinet not more than a foot away from where he sat hang-dogged over his guitar. I stood just inside the door watching from the kitchen, waiting to see if he would pick her up. I decided not to run to her like I usually would. Surely if I stayed put, he would see her there, right in front of him, her little crying snivels. How could he not do something for those cries? But he didn’t. He did not halter his playing on the guitar, not even a twitch came to his bony shoulder that stared blankly back at me, even while Kelly’s cries turned from sputters to full-out wails for help, he just kept on playing his guitar, head down, absolutely no reaction, nothing.

What little spunk I had in me would be worn out of me in the two years we remained married, my resolve quietly disolving like a setting sun, but there was still some of me left this early on in our marriage. I looked at this situation just long enough for the steam to build up in me. I exploded into the room with an energy that took over my usual easy-going nature, took over the place in me that could never say no, took over my shy quietness. Through clenched teeth I hissed loud enough to be heard over Kelly’s wailing, in a way that allowed no retort: “I am going to the smelt fry. You can stay home as long as that’s what you want and, as long as you’re staying here, you might as well take care of your daughter. If you hadn’t noticed, she is awake and needs to be changed and given a bottle. The bottle’s in the fridge, just warm it up, make sure it’s not too hot. It doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure this out. You can do it!” With that I left before the dust could settle.

I went to the smelt fry, but the entire time I was gone, I worried Denny was home doing nothing, just letting Kelly cry. After greeting all my relatives and making excuses for Denny not being with me, I went home early. Kelly was fed and diapered and asleep. He managed to do what needed to be done.  I knew though, I could not just leave her with him. She needed someone who loved her.  I would be the one Kelly would turn to in life, I would need to be there. I knew also, that I was trapped in this marriage, I was trapped the same way Denny felt trapped, like a skunk in a cage.

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The Race

The quest to figure out what was wrong with me started before I can even remember. It seems to have been with me since I was born. I look back now for details about where it might have gained root or where it had taken off on a life of its own. I can’t recall a time when it was not there.

From my earliest recall, I thought that there was some secret I was not getting about how life worked and constantly monitored myself against others to see where I came up wanting. It felt like self sabotage, as if there was this part of me, deep inside me where a war pitted against my success. On the playground I would choke when the ball was thrown in my direction, being all fumbled fingers. I would never get all my answers right on a test, mixing the letters on my spelling, freezing when it came to math, fumbling the answer in the same sure-footed way I would fumble the ball. I honestly considered whether other kids got some special pencil in school that helped them ease the correct answer onto their papers. I froze when called on in class, getting all blank eyed, the edges of my vision going all swimmy, the teacher’s voice coming at me down a long tunnel. As the rest of the kids looked on, I would feel my cheeks flush, willing words to come to my lips, but none would.

In fourth grade, some girls in my class wanted me to try out for a spot on their relay team. There were no formal tryouts like they have now. In my tiny town, kids just signed themselves up for what they wanted to do each year. There needed to be four girls on a relay team and three of the girls in my class were looking for number four.  I knew that I could run like the wind. I could anyway if I were not in a race, if it were not a test, if it were not something I had to win against someone else. If it were about winning, I would lose. I could not seem to stop it from happening as sure as I would fumble a ball, I would fumble a race.

The three girls on the team were looking at either me or my cousin Debbie as the last team member. This was familiar territory. I had been pitted against Debbie my whole life and had come up short. I am not sure how many times I heard my mother ask me, “Why can’t you be more like Debbie?” She would intermingle that with things like: “Debbie get A’s in school,” or “Debbie knows how to help out around the house without complaining,” or “I bet Debbie’s mother doesn’t have to drag her out of bed in the morning to get to school!”

After a time, it no longer became necessary for Mom to invoke Debbie’s name.  Even though Debbie was my best friend from birth until we separated ways in 7th grade, I grew to resent her more and more each year, Debbie becoming my standard for normal while I became my standard for everything that was not. Just seeing her became a reminder of that.

I lived right next door to my Grandmother’s house and yet Debbie who lived almost two miles away was the favored Grandchild. Grandma kept a box of toys with the nicest dolls in it for Debbie that I was not allowed to touch when I was at her house. The box was kept upstairs in the bedroom that Debbie used when she stayed the night.  There was no box of toys for me at Grandma’s house.

In addition to the special toy box Debbie had at Grandma’s house, she had a whole toy room to herself at her house. The toy room was in the attic with a window at one end overlooking the farmyard. The slanted beams in the ceiling made the place especially cozy with a soft light pouring in from that window. Debbie had ovens that made real cakes and a little table where you could have tea parties with all the tea dishes and even a place to set them in a dish drainer to make-believe they were drying after you make believed washed them. There were boxes or games stacked up against one wall.

No toy lasted in my house for very long. Games would get scattered around and there would be too many missing pieces to actually play any of them after the first week of Christmas had passed. My sister had cut the hair off all the few dolls I had while I was away at school in kindergarten. Things did not last at our house. I certainly did not have a whole playroom to myself.

I was six months older than Debbie but, due to our very different genetics, she always had at least three inches on me in height and it was me who got to wear all her last years clothes. I hated going to her house each August, just before school started, to go through all her hand-me-downs, sifting and sorting among the dresses that Debbie had picked out the year before, the dresses she liked for herself, the ones she wore new to school last year. Debbie got to go on a shopping trip to the city each year. I got to go to Debbie’s. I never wanted Debbie’s old dresses, all frilly with ruffles and lace. I was more of a tomboy to her curls. But I didn’t dare turn down a free wardrobe for school. I knew all too well that money did not grow on trees. Mom talked on and on about these hand-me-downs. On the way to Debbie’s house each year mom would want me to agree with her how lucky I was to get those clothes. I would always agree.

Each year as I tried on dress after dress that Debbie handed down to me, Debbie would tell me how glad she was to get rid of her old clothes and get new ones, feeling bad for me having to wear these old things. Each dress I would try on and have to go out to the kitchen to show my mom who was sitting over coffee with my aunt, how pretty the dress looked on me. They would say things like, “Oh now look how nice that one fits on you! Don’t you like that one?” I always said yes, and put on my brightest face. At least I did until one year Debbie pulled the cork on the whole scam, letting out of her mouth those fateful words, “No she doesn’t! Peggy does not like my old dresses!”

I don’t know if she thought she was trying to help me or if she was finally just stating some fact that needed to be known. But for me it was like a house made of cards crumbling around me. I felt the shame of it all coming in slashes of red across my face like big hard slaps. Maybe it was the shame of having to wear these dresses each year that really never fit me, were not me, the way I felt in those dresses bringing on the teasing from the other kids, the other kids smelling my shame. Maybe it was the shame of letting mom down that I felt just then, having played into this game each year for years about loving to come to Debbie’s for her hand-me-downs, it being our one time together each year, just the two of us, having heard myself just that same evening on the way over here, to Debbie’s house, tell my mother how happy I was to get these clothes, it being what she wanted to hear. Or maybe it was that I knew mom was just as embarrassed as I was,  having to rely on hand-me-downs, convincing herself and my Aunt how much I liked these clothes, making it all less demoralizing.

Mom drove me home in the quiet car that year Debbie let on how I really felt, Mom’s words hanging in the air between us, “I always thought you liked those clothes.” We never went back to Debbie’s for hand-me-downs again.

At a party with all the relatives at grandma’s house, two of my older cousins put Debbie and me together and judged us for which one of us was cuter. They looked at our hair and our eyes and the shape of our faces and noted how much taller Debbie was than me. Debbie wore a lacy party dress and had her short blond hair done up in cute little ringlets around her square face. I had on my usual mismatched tomboy attire and my thin hair was left wild and stringy against my triangular face. Debbie was selected as hands down cuter. The thing was, I wanted to be found cuter. I wanted at least that.

We all went out on the big grassy playground the size of a football field, just a big stretch of green.  Debbie and I squared off at one end of the playground and took our marks. I knew before going into it, that if I saw that I was winning against Debbie, my inner critic, that little devil that resided inside my head, that place where I was everything that was wrong and Debbie was everything that was right, would stop it all and I would just choke. I would choke. Whatever that thing inside of me was, it would take over and cause me to lose.

As we stood together that day, Debbie and I, me six months older than her and her three inches taller than me, on that starting line, I wanted nothing more than to beat her. I wanted so badly to be better at just one thing. I was small and lithe next to her tall and lanky. I knew in my heart that I could run faster than she could. I had seen her long lanky legs doing that loping run she had my whole life. My little legs could spin like the road runner cartoon if I really let them.

I needed to shut out that nasty part of me that just refused to let me succeed.  I determined to do it. On the starting line, Debbie by my side, I shut my eyes tight and listened for the go to be called and when it did I took off running. I never dared to open my eyes, knowing that if I saw myself inching ahead of Debbie, my spinning legs would just go all rubbery. With my eyes open, I would only be able to see Debbie taking the lead. With my eyes shut, I could just focus on the pounding of my feet against the green grass field and the taking in of my breath. I ran my heart out until I heard someone shouting for me to stop.

I looked back to see my classmates at the other end of the field. I was way off kilter. I could not run a straight line with my eyes shut. The girls all saw that I was running blind. They never pressed me on it. Maybe it was because they were the nice girls in class, not the ones who would spite someone just for sport. Maybe it was that in Northern Wisconsin in that part of farming country, no one was without their problems, everyone did their strange things, it being in the days of spare the rod and spoil the child, the days when children are to be seen and not heard. We all had our harsh realities and no one was immune.

The thing is they told me I ran faster than Debbie but they needed me to run a straight line. “Just do it with your eyes open,” someone said. Debbie and I were set up to race a second time. The thing is I could not open my eyes this time either. It would have hurt too much to lose now, after I had managed to outrun her, even if it was in a crooked line. I tried to self correct by veering in the other direction but I still ran off kilter. In the end, they chose Debbie as the last relay partner. I was OK with that. I had my small victory. I could run faster than Debbie. I would not be able to run the relay with my eyes closed anyway.

Juvenile Detention

“I didn’t expect it to be like this.” The lady detective said as we walked through the juvenile detention center’s long hallways.

“Is it better or worse than you expected?” I asked. This brick and mortar building with its shining tiled floors and freshly painted walls, was built recently, replacing the outdated and much smaller overcrowded colorless detention center. But to me it still looked like a jail, the entrance, double locked doors, each wing having steel locked doors, each small cell with its steel toilet and steel sink, its concrete bench with a cushion covered in hard plastic, having a steel locked door.

“It looks better,” She replied. “I expected rows of cells. Do they stay locked in their rooms all day?”

There are rows of cells, but there is also an open class room on each wing with steel locked doors to a courtyard for exercise. There are windows looking out to the paved courtyard and a row of windows, high over the row of cells letting light into the classroom.

“No, there’s free time,” I tell her. “They are out for school and time on the basketball court everyday unless their privileges are cut for misbehavior.” I realized that I had been coming back here for so many years now that I couldn’t really tell what an outsider might think. I saw how they herded the kids from place to place, lining them up in neat rows, placing them in handcuffs and leg chains. I never understood the meaning of all the locked doors and the handcuffs. Where did they think these kids would take off to? How many locked doors did it take to stop a kid? Some of the staff members were really good with the kids, taking an interest, wanting to think they had a role in changing the kids’ lives. Some were mere sheep herders.

The police investigator was there to check out the charges my client, a kid named Ann, had brought against group home staff. Ann was just fourteen and had been bugging me every day about when she would get to see the investigator. She wanted to press charges.

The three of us now took a seat around a small table in an interview room. “Did you see the pictures of me they took when I came in here?” Ann demanded before she even got seated. “There were cuts and scratches all over here,” she motioned to her arm with a sweep of her hand, “and on my legs.” The investigator for the police Department asked Ann if they did anything for the cuts when she got to detention.

“They didn’t do anything.”

“They didn’t put anything on it?” the investigator pressed.

“Well, they let me see a nurse. She gave me some cream for it. That’s something, I guess.” Ann’s expressions changed easily from bright and cheerful to distraught. She could be as impetuous as a three-year old having a temper tantrum one minute and a delightful, curly-haired, blue-eyed, thoughtful fourteen-year-old the next.

It had been a couple of weeks since Ann had been brought into detention from the group home and the cuts and scratches were nearly gone now. She was brought in to detention for kicking a hole in the group home wall. She told me she did it because they had dragged her through the desert and she was mad.

“What were you doing at the group home just before the thing in the desert.” The investigator kept an even tone.

“We were having group and they kicked me out of group so I went to the desert.” Ann looked at the investigator indignantly.

“Why’d they kick you out?”

“No reason,” Ann looked down. “I didn’t do anything, they just kicked me out.”

“Did they tell you why they were kicking you out?” They investigator said raising her eyebrows.

“They said I was being disrespectful to staff.” Ann admitted.

“What happened then?” the investigator resumed.

“I just went to the desert. It’s behind the group home. There’s a water tank there and at the other end is a wall to someone’s property. I just walked around. They came after me and I ran away to keep away from them. They gave me three minutes to come in by myself or they would drag me in. So I stopped. They came over. I just sat there. I told them I needed a minute and calm down.”

“Who came to get you in the desert?”

“It was Liz, the therapist and Gregory and Jeff. They’re staff.”

“What happened then?”

“They just grabbed me and dragged me through the desert. I told them I would walk but they wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t stand up because they were dragging me. They were laughing and talking about it too. They said ‘let’s drag her through that brush over there.’ It hurt. You saw the pictures, right?”

I don’t know why Ann ended up in that group home or where her parents were. She was new to my case load. I had no history on her yet. Maybe her parents were addicts or had mental illness or were locked up themselves.

I liked Ann. There was a spark in her, not the dead-pan-look that eventually settled in on most of the kids from the group homes, the kids who had given up on authority, had given up on themselves.

On the way out of detention the investigator asked me if Ann would be getting out of detention soon.

“Next week I think. They’ve found a place in Phoenix that will take her.”

I hoped that Ann would not be back in detention, but I expect she will. It will be that spark that gets her in trouble. She’ll have one of those temper tantrums and kick a hole in the wall or punch one of the staff and she’ll be back here.

(The names and details have been changed but this essence of the story is true)

Mother Protector

I’m still not able to take in the immensity of the relief I feel to have her here in my house, safe and alive. In the darkened bathroom, my twenty-four year old daughter sits in the bathtub filled with hot water. I can see her beautiful golden hair flowing over the edge of the basin. There’s not a bone broken or a scratch on her body. Her spirit is a bit shaken and there are a few bruises. That’s all.

I wonder if I somehow caused that car accident with all that constant worry I have over her. I have worried more about car accidents that anything else in her life. I remember the nights when she first learned to drive, waiting to hear the door open, to know she had arrived home safe. I’m going to stop right now. No more thinking about car accidents. Never.

That car was so demolished, that little green Honda hitting that huge semi. It is amazing she walked away from that. Maybe my meditations of her, surrounding her in a zone off safety, protected her. I really am crazy. Here I am almost killing her off with my worry and now saving her at the very last second. How do children survive their parents anyway?

I can’t help but wonder how I can make her a survivor, no matter what happens. I want to be God or something, being able to save her with my positive thoughts.

But there is nothing left to do.

OK, stop. Just enjoy the fact that she is here and alive.

They never told me this would be so hard.

 

Death

I haven’t checked back with my mother since Dad died. I wonder now and then how she is doing. It’s been over a month now.

Dad was cremated. There was no body at the funeral. The thought of his cremation has flashed though my mind; the big fiery pyre with Dad on top, the tribe crowded around the edges of the fire, as I look close up and see those big bushy eyebrows sizzling up in the flames.

I don’t feel that he is gone though, really gone, not the way my mom would miss his presence. It’s not like we had a close relationship. We didn’t talk on the phone. He didn’t check up on me to see how I was. There were no Sunday dinners I was required to attend. We had a connection though. It was just never stated in a way that I could touch it.

After the funeral we flipped Mom’s mattress for her. She wanted to sleep on Dad’s side of the bed, the side closest to the bathroom. But there was a big hollow in the mattress, worn in from the years he laid on that side of the bed. Her much smaller shape fell into that hollow like into a hammock.

It was that day, after the funeral, when Daryl found her grandfather’s rack of suspenders in the closet. Mom passed them out to the grandchildren, who snatched them up, wanting to grab onto their favorite piece of him. They had each had their many turns, sitting on his lap, leaning into his round belly, grabbing hold of those suspenders. Now they put the suspenders over their dress clothes from the funeral, red Santa suspenders over little girls’ dresses, Harley Davidson suspenders over dress slacks and a crisp white shirt. Little ones running around pulling suspenders like sling shots, their mother’s racing after them to avert the potential damages. After much arguing and fussing, the suspenders got divided between the grandchildren and were carefully tucked away into suitcases to be taken home.

It’s been over a month now. I imagine Mom shuffling through draws and closets, looking for clues about who he was, making mental notes on their life together, her in the silence of his absence.

I haven’t called her yet. I don’t want to hear that silence.

Running With Wolves

I read a story in Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, many years ago. The story spoke about a girl who waited for the right suitor to come along. The girl lived in a small village and suitors came from far and near, but each time they were not the right one, and she let them go. She was looking for the perfect one. She did not try to fix this or that, in the one that was almost just right, she just sent them on their way and waited for the next one. Eventually, after many suitors and much waiting, the perfect one came.

I was so impressed with that story and could not get it out of my mind. I had never sent a suitor packing before, instead I always tried like hell to make it work. I would grasp details of something that I liked in a man, and hang on for dear life. I never imagined that there could be a constant stream of suitors for me to choose from. I never had faith that there would be the perfect one.

Just prior to reading this story, having been married twice, each marriage followed by divorce, having had numerous one night stands and many relationships of varying length, all ending badly, having given up entirely, handing in my library card, saying enough was enough, the good ones are gone, snatched up by women much smarter than I was, I woke up one day realizing that I had not had a date in five years.

It seemed like there were no men out there, even though the statistics showed millions of single and available men in the world. I imagined that all the good ones were completely taken and were now gone, even though there were divorces in the thousands that happened every day. It did not matter because in my experience, the well was dry. You get what you believe and I believed there was no one out there, no one who was perfect for me.

The story of the girl with the stream of suitors bothered me. How could there be such a story. The symbolism in the story was supposed to shed light on some truth after all.  Where did all these men come from? After being bothered for long enough, I checked out the internet and found dating service after dating service of men looking for someone. I looked up the number of single men in my city and in my state. The number was big. I started to let myself believe, letting the door creak open to the thought, with all these available men out there, maybe just maybe, there was one for me. I was a good catch and I was available, so why couldn’t that be the same for those men who were also looking.

Once I opened that door with the expectation that there were available men, the stream of suitors began to line up. Friends introduced me to their single friends. I went on coffee dates. I met men at my church. I met them over the internet. The stream became steady and reliable.

The next issue I faced was not clinging to the ones who were a close, but not perfect fit. I needed to let them go, like the girl in the story, let them go and remain patient for the right one. It was not that I was looking for a perfect human being. I am not a perfect human being. But I was looking for someone who was perfect for me. That’s a far different thing.

There were many false starts along the way to finding my perfect suitor. I thought that this one or that one was Mr. Right but it would become apparent, sooner or later, that it was not to be. There were those who came close and I had to work hard not to clutch, as I had in the past, letting him go on his way, working hard to be patient and not look back. It took everything I had at times to break the pattern of wanting something that was not right for me, remembering that trying to make it work had failed many times in the past. I needed to hold out for the perfect one. I worried often that I was just being overly picky, that what I was after did not exist, and it was hard to keep a steady gaze forward.

It was the overall feeling of the thing I was after. I wanted it to feel easy, like coming home. I wanted it to be fun and full of laughter. I wanted to be understood without having to push at the finer points. Mostly, I wanted to be loved without reservation. I did not want someone who loved me with one eye over his shoulder, looking for someone better, nor did I want someone who would be constantly pointing out small little things that I might improve on. I wanted someone who was absolutely sure that I was as perfect for him, as I was sure he was perfect for me.

So I waited like the girl in the story. I was not always as patient or as clear as the girl in the story, but I did the best that I could to stay the course. In the end it worked. Mark walked into my life one day and never walked out. The moment I saw him, I thought that he was the one, but I did not jump out of my dress and I waited to make sure. When he did not ask me out on the first night we met, I did not lose heart. I knew that if he was the one, it would happen, and I felt certain that it would happen. There was a knowing I had from the first moment, a knowing that had been missing from all those bad first starts. It turned out that he did want to ask me out, believed that he would find my name in the directory, but was unable to. He came back to the discussion group where we first met the very next opportunity that he had, and made certain to ask me then.

Mark was as keen on me as I was on him. There has been nothing difficult about our relationship and our courtship is a highlight in both of our lives.  For the first time in my life I am where I know I should be in a relationship. That is not to say that we have not come up against difficult things. We have had our share. The difference is that we know that together, we can figure things out. We also know that we are committed to being together. We are right for each other. We are perfect together.

I suppose there are those out there that get this straight out the door. They don’t have to go through marriages and divorces and many failed attempts before finding the one. For several reasons I didn’t get it. I don’t beat myself up about that anymore. I like the life that I have had. All the crazy things that I have been through and done, in the name of love, have made me who I am. I know for certain that I appreciate what I have now, in a way I never could have, if I had not gone down this long and winding road.

Trust Severed

We were already three hours late for the wedding; at least that’s what I had told them. I was standing up in my sister’s wedding that day and if they had it their way, I would get there three hours after the wedding started. We had driven all the way from Oklahoma to attend the wedding in northern Wisconsin but my husband’s mother lived in Madison which was on the way and we could never, I mean never, just pass Madison without stopping in.

When we moved away from Madison to Oklahoma, when Tim got into a master’s program there, it took a full month of saying goodbye to his mother. We had to have a special party at her house, which turned into many dinners saying good-bye, because we would not be able to see her all the time after we moved. Each of these dinners focused on how much she was going to miss us meaning miss Tim. She came up with a series of excuses why Tim had to come over to help her with this or that. The goodbyes were endless. Finally we were set to leave, but we had to postpone because Tim’s mom had to go out-of-town, and if we left as we had scheduled, she would not be able to see us off. Finally, it got to the point that if we did not leave, Tim would miss his first day of classes. Even so I felt like I could not breathe on that first day out-of-town, imagining that we would have to turn around for some reason having to do with Tim’s mom.

Tim said early in our relationship that it was just easier to just do as his mother told him. Over the years we spent together, I saw how she manipulated Tim and his brother to do her bidding. She was very free and easy with her love, affection and money as long as you towed the line and complied. I had lived on my own for several years before hooking up with Tim, and the idea of having a mother to cow toe around was foreign to me. I adored Tim’s mom at first, she being so overwhelmingly engaging, well-educated, cute and petit, she was downright charming. I soon found out that, like Tim, I was expected to follow the family rules which meant I was to show up at all the family events, put on a bright and happy face and do what I was told. The first time I got out of line, Tim’s mom gave me the silent treatment which lasted a full year. During that year I was still required to show up and put on a happy face. I was in love and wanted to make things right with Tim’s mom, so I complied.

By the time we left for Oklahoma, I was on speaking terms with Tim’s mom and for several years we returned to Wisconsin each Christmas to visit our respective families. Invariably, we would stop to see Tim’s mom before heading further up north to see my parents and invariably we would be hours late to see my parents. We could not leave late the night before, because that would be too hard a drive so late at night. Never mind that we had driven the 18 hour drive from Oklahoma straight through with Tim and I taking turns at the wheel. Never mind that we had already stayed for days with Tim’s mom. It would be agreed that we would leave early in the morning so that we could get to my parents for Christmas lunch. But in the morning we could not possibly leave without a large breakfast, a breakfast that lasted until noon making us arrive at my parents for dinner instead of lunch, my family having to tell the kids to wait to open presents until we finally arrived.

Of course that was not the end of the story. Tim’s Mom would then talk Tim into a cross-country skiing trip after Christmas so we could spend just a little more time together. On a couple of occasions we made the mistake of also trying to get together with friends for some cross-country skiing. Tim’s mom would find a way for us to have to linger on with her, while our friends waited hours at a restaurant for us to show up. The first time it happened I called my friends over and over explaining the problem so they were not in the dark. The second time I told Tim he had to make the calls. He never did. There would not be a third time skiing with friends.

So now I was faced with the prospect of getting to my sister’s wedding on time. I was standing up and this was extremely important to me. I knew from experience that we would have to stop at Tim’s mom’s house on the way up and knew there was no way out of there on time. I decided the only solution was to lie. It was the only lie I ever told during my marriage but it had to be done. I told Tim and his mother that it was a morning wedding. I told Tim and his mother that the wedding started four hours earlier than it did. Of course they decided the best solution was to wake up really early in the morning to get there on time. I set the alarm for the proper time, according to my lie and got up. I got ready and packed the car. I got the kids ready to go. Then I waited. As I suspected we had to have the big breakfast. I could see that both Tim and his mom were looking at me, waiting for me to become hysterical in the manner I usually did about leaving on time. They could not say anything though, because that would announce the fact that we were dangerously late for a wedding, a wedding that I was standing up in. We continued the charade until we finally left.

We left on the three-hour drive north to my sister’s wedding when the wedding was supposed to have started, according to the lie I had told them. Not a word was said by either Tim or his mother about how we could possibly make it on time for a wedding that was starting already.

I made it to the wedding on time because of the four-hour lie. My family was extremely relieved to see me, but was prepared to go ahead without me. Tim never said a word about it. We did not discuss it on the three-hour drive north and never said a word about it after getting to the wedding on time.

My New Car

When my daughter Daryl was six, her Dad finally came home from Japan to visit her. Daryl never gave up on her Dad. During the entire two years he was away, even though there was rarely even a card from him, she kept a tee-shirt of his in her room. As if to recreate him from his scent she would hold that old shirt up to her face and inhale, his smell the only thing she had left.

When Tim showed up at my door, I offered for him to stay with us and before the week was out I offered him not only my apartment, but my car and my bed. My daughter was not the only one starved for his scent. I found it to be delicious that he was back. Our family fell quickly into step as in the old days. Daryl was so thrilled to have her Dad back. Tim and I spent the week, cooking together, going out together to a concert, meeting all my friends from work, and in the evening after a full day, plopping down into each other’s arms and making love. It all seemed perfect. I walked around with that glow on my face that you can only get from a new relationship.

My first husband was emotionally abusive and left no doubt about my decision to get a divorce. When I started to pray that he would get into a car accident and die so that I could have a peaceful night, it was time to call it quits. After that divorce I never looked back.

Tim was my second husband and my second divorce.  The thing about Tim is that even in divorce he was a nice guy and I loved him. We just had very different ideas about what it meant to be married. I believed strongly in fidelity and he did not. I did not like the idea of sharing him and he thought as long as we loved each other, what was the difference. I even tried the infidelity thing on for size, while we were married, to see if I could manage it. I decided to bed this very attractive man who had been pursuing me for some time. It turned things even messier and I became even more confused and had to call it quits. In order to sort out the chaos, I left both the affair and my husband.

That did not keep me from believing that Tim would come around and see it my way. I imagined that he still needed to sow his wild oats and he would come around to seeing that I was the best thing since the discovery of sugar and come back to me. So when he returned to the States to visit Daryl, taking up his old space in bed beside me, I imagined that all my dreams were coming true and we would be back to our old selves, madly in love with each other once again, but this time it would be just the two of us, Tim finally forgetting all those other women.

It did not help that before Tim showed up on my doorstep I was in a very low spot, feeling like a twice failure for having two divorces under my belt, not having found another person I thought could possibly replace what Tim and I had, being overly stressed by the tension of being a single parent and having to do it all by myself. To add to the trouble, when I divorced, I chose to move to Arizona where I did not know a single person and had no family or emotional support besides my colleagues from the office who were all delightfully single and child free and had no idea what I was dealing with.

Just before Tim left to go back to Japan, where he had a temporary position at a University, he totaled my car. He ran into the car in front of him while trying to find an address, not knowing where he was headed. Daryl was in the car and they both had on seatbelts. Fortunately, no one was hurt except the car, it being towed away for salvage. We went to the used car dealer and I picked the best car that I could get for the $10,000 Tim was willing to spend and drove away in a used Nissan.

I took Tim to the airport the next day. He insisted we stop at a shop on the way to the airport and I spied on him from around the shelves as he picked out some jewelry I imagined was for me. When he never turned it over to me on the way to the airport, I asked him about the jewelry. “Oh, that, it’s for Gwen,” he said casually, slapping me in the face with the casualness of it, sending my whole life up in flames. The fact that we had shared a bed for the last week, had cooked together, had fun together, going shopping together, going to a concert together, acting like lovers act, was nothing.

The only thing that had changed during our week together, in comparison to the days when we were married, was that now I was the other women. Gwen was his woman. Gwen got the jewelry.

The Repo Man

Me with Elmo Somewhere in Canada Evading the Repo Man

The Nissan my ex-husband bought for me, after he totaled my car, was now being followed by the repo man. I just didn’t know it yet.  Tim had decided to quit making payments. It was not like I could make the payments. I did not have a job, having quit my last job, not able to continue one more day, being too exhausted. I was fried from the combination of depression and too many years going too strong, trying to do it all alone. In one rash moment, I gave up, quitting my job at a Legal Aid office in Phoenix, packing up the few things I owned, moving back to my parents at the age of thirty-eight. I had not lived at home since I was eighteen. In fact I had been dead set on getting out of there the day I turned eighteen. Now I was back.

I came back down the winding gravel road to my parent’s cottage on the Spirit River Flowage outside Tomahawk, Wisconsin in the Northern corner of the state near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A flowage is a lot like a river except that the only reason it exists at all is because a dam was put in causing a spillage area. The one difference between a river and a flowage is that a flowage can shrink to a slick stream of mud when the water is low at the dam. On the summer I moved back, the flowage was running high with water and I took it as a good sign.

Fortunately, both my daughters were taken care of for the summer. My oldest had graduated high school and was exploring life in Milwaukee, living with her father. My youngest, Daryl, was visiting her father in Japan for the summer. I had insisted that Tim take her, recognizing I was on thin strings at the time.

It seemed like a perfect place to recuperate. There was a little shack on the half-acre lot my parent’s owned that I cleaned out, packing in my few belongings, making it my home for the next three months. My parents were not thrilled to see me lulling around their place every day, looking forlorn and with no plan in life except to recuperate. They suggested little things each day over breakfast to get me moving along in some direction or other. “There is surely a job at the grocery store in town,” Mom would say with an edge in her voice and a frown on her face. “Tim should be helping out more with Daryl. When is he coming back from Japan?” my dad would demand. Dad always thought there should be some man who should be sorting this out for me.

I had a law degree. I was not going to work at the grocery store. The problem was that I was only licensed to practice law in Oklahoma and Arizona. This was Wisconsin. Not only was this Wisconsin, but this was the north woods. Making money here as a lawyer was not anything I had any familiarity with. People here tended to stick with who they knew. They did not know me and I was a woman to boot. Anyway, I did not even have the $500.00 necessary to pay for the bar exam and I had none of the study materials to get prepared to take the bar. I had no plan and there was no man who was going to sort this out for me.

I spent the summer looking up old friends and going to visit them. I liked it away from my parent’s house and the constant reminders about how lost I really was. In my Nissan rambling down the road in Wisconsin in summer, the pine and the birch trees making a tunnel of green, nearly covering the sky, with the black-top road my only companion, that being the nearest I could get to feeling free.

My parents turned out not to be the answer to my prayers in the way I had hoped. They did not understand the concept of being burned out. They had worked hard their whole lives and had no one to complain to about it. It was my choice to marry the men I married and I had made my bed. They wanted to enjoy retirement, not take on the care of their adult daughter and all of the problems that come with that. It was not that they were kicking me out. They just wanted me to figure things out and get on with my life.

Coming home from one of my visits, I found my parents sitting in their usual spot, outside in front of their house, taking in the sun at the time in the late afternoon just before the mosquitoes come out to drive everyone inside. “The Repo guy was here, wanting to know where you were.” Dad said sternly. “He wants to pick up the car.”

I had no idea Tim had been stupid enough to let this get this far. He had threatened to quit making the car payments, thinking he had paid enough and it was time for me to make the payments. I figured he had totaled my car and should be required to replace it for me. The Nissan was in his name, not mine; it was his car to pay for. “How the hell did they find me here” I wanted to know.  I could not believe that they could possibly find me out in the Wisconsin woods. It had not been that long since I had left Arizona and I left no forwarding address.

For the next two days, I made sure to park the Nissan in with my parent’s vehicles blocking it so that it could not be snatched away when I was not looking. It was time to leave my parents place.  The repo man was making that clear. The only answer was  to move back to Arizona where I could get a job as a lawyer without having to wait the next half a year or more that it would take to pass a bar exam.  Daryl would be back in another month and school would start for her. I needed to find a job and an apartment and get her registered for school. After two months of floundering, I felt purpose returning to my life.  I knew what I needed to do.

I sent in a request to cash in my only retirement account which totaled a measly $3,000. It would take a couple of weeks of process. When it got here I would move back to Arizona.  I still had a couple hundred dollars left in my pocket. With that I left town, both to evade the repo man and to go on one last road trip before I went back to my life of work and single parenthood.