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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Elmo

It all started with Elmo, truly the ugliest Lhasa Apso ever to exist. I had always had a love for dogs but had resisted getting one for the kids because I was having a hard enough time coping with just the two girls to raise. The added responsibility of a dog seemed over the top to me. But I was in the middle of my year of tears, having split from my second husband, feeling lost and alone, thoughts of an adorable lap dog to snuggle up to began entering my mind, causing me to cave, causing me to run to the library for some quick research, needing a dog that did not shed, finding myself on the wrong side of town at a pet store crammed with cages, looking into the big brown eyes of a bundle of fur the size of my hand. Elmo did not look big enough to be weaned but I knew he was meant for our family.

Elmo With Turd

When I brought him home the girls both ran and squealed in delight. It was clear that my visions of a lap dog to cuddle up to were out the window. This dog would never again be put down if I did not insist one of them take him out to do his duties. He actually managed to do his first dutiful turd right on the middle of Kelly’s bed. The girls were so thrilled with the magnificence of his performance that a picture of the turd with the offender was taken before Kelly took him on a walk in the neighborhood.

The very next thing that happens and it seems to happen almost instantly, is that Kelly comes screaming up the stairs and into the apartment: “Elmo’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, Elmo, he’s dead.” Kelly had bleeding scratches up and down her arms and legs. There were some deep gouges. I was terrified, images of terrorist type attackers in our little apartment complex flashing through my mind. It took what seemed like several minutes to calm Kelly down enough to tell me what happened. A bunch of cats, which seemed to her to be coming from every direction, attacked Elmo.  Kelly tried to rescue him from the attacking cats, getting herself attacked in the process. Later, I discovered that the cats were strays with kittens that were being rescued by one of my neighbors and Elmo must have been a threat to their little brood.

Kelly continued wailing for me to go find Elmo and would not allow me to take care of her until I found him. I wandered in the direction that she had walked with Elmo, wary of the attacking cats and thinking the worst about what might have become of the little bundle of fur after seeing what the cats were able to do to Kelly. I found Elmo under a bush. It did take some doing to extricate him from the thicket, and when I picked him up he was still shaking from the experience but there was not a scratch on him.

After bringing the unscathed Elmo home to prove to my daughters that he was indeed alive and well and after they were allowed to swoon over him a bit, I was able to get a better look at Kelly’s wounds. She clearly needed to be taken in for some medical treatment.

I went over to my friend Dee’s place to see if she would watch my youngest daughter, Daryl who was just six years old and needed supervision. I had never gotten a sitter for Daryl and Dee was the only person in the neighborhood I knew who owed me a favor. She owed me a lot of favors in fact. I had begun to drive out of the complex through the back, because if I left the usual way, Dee would more often than not see me pulling past her place and run out to ask me if she could ride along. Riding along for Dee meant that I stop at the various places for her to just do a little shopping or a few errands. I never got home in under two hours and in that time Kelly would be home watching her younger sister. My day and the things I needed to get done would be set behind schedule. When raising two kids by yourself, schedules are everything. I think Dee was just lonely and wanted the attention. She was in her early thirties, had a good job as a Dentist and she did own her own car. Fortunately, Dee was very happy to watch Daryl.

At the clinic, Kelly’s scratches were all cleaned and bandaged and she was sent home with pain killers but no stitches, the whole process took over three hours. When I got back to the apartment complex, I saw a police car with the lights flashing at the front office and when I got to my door there was a police officer waiting for me. I was taken to the office where I found my six-year-old in the custody of another officer. My youngest daughter, Daryl was grinning from ear to ear. I knew why she was grinning. Daryl is a very special child and has difficulty with many things but the one thing she knows and loves are police officers and police cars with lights going. She was the type of kid that after going to Disneyland and being introduced to getting autographs from Disney characters decided she wanted her autographs from police officers and had a small stash of police officer autographs by this time. The only thing missing was the siren blasting and her world would be perfect.

“I found your daughter with another kid smashing out windows in the complex with a baseball bat. She has been with me, in this office, for two hours now and there was no parent to be found. I was just about to pick up the phone and call child protective services. Is there any reason why I should not?” the officer demanded. I started with the story of the cats and taking Kelly to the clinic and Dee and that she should have been watching her. I knew I was not convincing and I was searching for a way to explain and making no sense. The officer looked at me skeptically, “We have been here for two hours and there has been no one looking for this child,” he interjected into my ramblings. It was then that Dee popped her head into the office, “Oh, there she is,” Dee said feigning exasperation. “I was wondering where she went off to.”  I was happy for her late appearance but wanted to strangle the woman just the same.

The officer was at least now convinced of my story but he started on a completely different tactic, “Your daughter just broke out several windows and does not seem to show any sign of remorse for what she has done. I am extremely concerned about her ability to understand right and wrong.” I looked over at Daryl who was beside herself beaming at the police officer, thrilled by the flashing lights on the police car coming through the window and dancing around the office, delighted by the entire spectacle.

How do I explain this one? Daryl had no diagnosis that could sum all this up for the officer. I had taken her to see many psychologists, a psychiatrist or two and councilors but the conclusion was that she just had needs and would take a lot of one-on-one work and would always have needs. Medications were tried but did not work. She was prone to extreme tantrums but was a very happy and loving child. In the end I just decided not to respond to the officer. He was both right and wrong. Daryl did have trouble always knowing right from wrong, but she did try to understand and by the time she was an adult she got it better than most people get it. She would always and forever remember this experience as the time her bat got taken away. In the end we were released with strong warnings about next time should this ever happen again.

After Elmo’s brief introduction into our family, which turned out not to be very off the mark on what life with us would be like, he stayed on with us for the next twelve years. We were the only ones that ever took to him. From that little hand sized bundle, he did grow into a cozy lap dog, taking turns with each of us in our needs, his hair never shed, his big brown eyes turned out to look in opposite directions and his teeth were extremely bucked. Most people who came to visit grew to hate how he nipped at their heels and growled at them and how he humped small children. But for us he was perfect. We learned to leave him alone when he was under a bed and learned to control his nasty edges but mostly we loved and adored him, thinking he was the best thing the universe could have ever placed at our feet. He has been gone for years now and we look at his old pictures with a bit of awe. How could we have found that ugly face to hold such unbounded beauty? “We were blinded by love.” Kelly recently explained. We were blinded by love.

Elmo

Pam

Pam opens the door to her small apartment and I meet her for the first time. She is tall and lanky thin with wavy brown hair coming to her shoulders and has a quick, friendly smile. I think she is pretty. My friend Jerry introduced me to her, having known her through his brother and the motorcycle gang his brother ran with. Pam’s husband, the father of Penny, Pam’s four year old child, was in the gang and off somewhere cruising, leaving Pam and Penny home alone and needing a roommate.  I had just graduated high-school and landed a job at a pizza factory and needed somewhere to stay besides my parents’ home. As Pam and I introduced each other, I found out that Pam also had a job at the pizza factory. We could not only share an apartment but we could also take turns driving to work every morning. The deal was quickly made.

Pam was on welfare, so I had to write a note to the Department of Economic Security (DES) stating that I lived with Pam and we shared the rent but I bought my own groceries and she bought hers. I had to be at home at our apartment for the meeting with the lady from DES so that she could interview me to make sure we weren’t trying to pull a fast one on them. Pam would never cheat the system. She had too much integrity for that. I could tell that she was embarrassed to ask me to write the letter to DES and to have to ask me to be there for the appointment. I would never occur to me to think any worse of her for it. I was just so happy to have a buddy to live with. I needed a good friend at that time, the same as I needed air to breathe. I felt lost and alone with no direction, with no idea what life as an adult should look like and no idea of what I wanted for my future. Pam was a woman living on her own and making it. She was even making it with a kid in tow. I admired her.

At first Pam said she would not go out with me on the weekends. She said the she would rather just sit home with Penny, telling me she never went out. I was amazed and told her so. What was life except for living?  We were adults now. We did not need permission. We could make our own rules. We could have fun.  She was actually afraid to leave the house. I cajoled her, wearing her down, a little at a time, telling her that we could find things to do with Penny in tow, that it would be so fun, the three of us and I would help with Penny. She eventually consented, packing a bag of goodies to keep Penny entertained, and we were off, the three musketeers, taking on the world together.

That summer ran past like a dream, Pam and I working at the pizza factory, getting ready for work together every morning, pulling on own white uniforms and white thick-soled shoes that kept our feet from getting too sore standing at the lines all day long, talking about our lives on the drive to the factory, at lunch at the factory, on the way home and until we retired to bed at night. On the weekends we went to see bands that played in country fields and parks, dancing and getting high. We brought Penny along for the fun of running around and dancing in the grass. Every weekend there was something fun to do. We never left Penny alone with a baby sitter. We always went somewhere that she could tag along.

I don’t remember how it came out. I noticed that Pam had a couple missing teeth. I assumed that it was because of gum disease or a tooth problem or something dental going wrong. But she said it was from her husband hitting her. She never brought up her husband and I didn’t even know his name. It was weird to think about Pam being married. I had never laid eyes on the guy. I had heard he was somewhere in Colorado with the motorcycle gang. This was not the type of gang filled with teachers and accountants dressed up in leather.

I had encounters with this gang many times. They showed up in a bar once where I was hanging out and one of them covered in tattoos and leather, cuddled up next to me, dragging his nose ring up my neck as he recounted to me how he once killed a man and wanted to know if that thrilled me. I knew better than to bolt. I had been put in a scissor hold by one of these guys at a party once until I passed out. I was always saved by Jerry, who discovering me in distress would call it quits to my tormentor. Rocky was the leader of this gang of ruffians and Jerry was his brother. Jerry was the opposite of any of these guys, sweet and soft-spoken as butter, gentle and unassuming as a doe, but the gang never crossed him because that would mean crossing Rocky. At one party far out in the woods the gang showed up, taking over our spiked water melon, shooing us all to the edge of the woods. I always assumed Jerry somehow let on to where we were. They brought a woman along on the back of one of their bikes, calling her peachy cheeks, taking turns with her in the woods. Through the rest of the party there was always one of them yelling toward the woods something in the order of, “Are you done yet, it’s my fucking turn, get the fuck on with it.” I hid next to Jerry keeping my mouth shut.

I saw Pam open up during that summer we spent together. There was an edge to her that seemed to ease and relax over those easy summer days with the rhythm of the life we made together.. As the summer stretched on, we laughed more, played the music louder and danced more. We melted into each other in the way friends do when life is new and you get to figure it all out together. I left at the end of the summer to attend a technical college 45 miles away and had to move on. We were sorry to say our good-byes. I knew that I would always remember her.

The next summer I called Pam and asked to come by for a visit. She told me her husband was back. I was surprised, thinking that he was history for her, not understanding how she could take back a guy that left her stranded on welfare with his kid to feed and clothe. But I didn’t question her and she told me I could come by in an hour. She said to come by the back door. I found the instructions on how to park and how to use the back door strange, but again I didn’t question her. When I got there I saw her peeking out of the curtains watching for me and she actually pulled me into the apartment. When I got in and my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw the bruises on her neck and face. She said I could only stay a few minutes because she was afraid he would come home and catch me there. The Pam I knew over the prior summer was gone. The old fear was back but now it was far worse. I tried to convince her to leave him in the same way I had convinced her the summer before to go out with me on the weekend. But I only saw the fear in her eyes grow the longer I stayed and the more I talked. There would be no more music and dancing in her life.

I left wondering what I could do. I still wonder.

Deal Breaker

The bar is filled with college kids, some older, but most of them younger than me.  I am here to scope out the guys who are saddled up to the bar, filling the small cramped spaces, chatting and laughing, looking so free. I try to make myself fit in, knowing that I do not. I am different, having started college late, after getting married, after having a baby, after getting divorced. It never escapes my mind that I have a kid at home. I am not free.

Val is still outside the bar. It is a trick that she taught me. I go in first, looking as if I am looking for her, but really I am there checking out the crowd, seeing what the guys look like. Val will come in once I have had a chance to work my way through the thicket of people to the other end of the bar.  She will come doing the same thing, making it look like she is looking for me, but really checking out the guys, meeting me at the other end to compare notes. There are more guys than girls so we will stay here for a while. We order a beer, having already gotten tipsy at home where beer is cheaper, nursing this beer as long as we can, unlike the beer at home which we chugged to get fast results. We wiggle into a spot at the bar where we see the most guys hanging out.

I know the kid at home is a deal breaker with the guys. I have been here before. I struggle with the deceit of hiding my life, hiding who I am. Do I see if I like this guy before I tell him, breaking the deal? Do I wait to see if someone likes me before I tell him and break the deal? My heart does not like this idea.  I try not to think about it. I don’t want it to be so important.  I am just here to have fun, I tell myself. What am I supposed to do, wear a red badge on my chest?

Val has taught me everything I know about this game of flirting. Val, who did everything the normal way, had nice boyfriends in high school, went straight to college, dating more nice boys along the way. During the years Val was going out with nice boys and having fun, learning the art of flirting, I was at home with a child and diapers and a husband who wished I didn’t exist. Val picks up with the guy next to her, easily moving into conversation, accepting a light for a cigarette she bums. She will talk about anything except medical school, thinking that is a deal breaker. I can’t imagine how being in medical school can possibly be a deal breaker for her. I admire her. Actually I love everything about her, her bouncy brown hair, her Wisconsin twang in her voice, but mostly the fact that she is free in a way that I am not. I am shy and it takes me awhile to warm up to this game of flirting, even with a few beers under my belt.

On campus the other day, this guy chewed me out. He saw me waiting for the light to turn green at the cross walk, me with my bike, my bike with the child seat attached to the back. He yelled at me, chiding me for leading him on, pointing out that he did not know I had a kid. I was embarrassed, my head hanging, saying nothing. It was true, I hadn’t told him. The light finally turned green. I walked off, my bike at my side, the child seat like a red badge of shame beside me, the guy still yelling at me.  I did not even know his name. Last weekend I had been with Val, flirting with him at a bar, a bar just like this one. He was the bartender.  I flirted with him when I got my drinks. He never asked me out. We never kissed. Why did I need to tell him?

We are being offered drinks now and the night is fun, full of laughs, everyone looking for someone to love, no one showing it. The game of flirting is in high gear. I have forgotten about the guy on campus. I can be just like Val, just like everyone else here. Free.

There’s a guy I think is cute, long wavy hair to his shoulders, a beard, small round wire rimmed glasses and a nice smile. He’s interesting, goes to the University, the economics department. I am in Business school and we compare classes we’ve had in common.  Having a kid is the most important thing in my life but I don’t say anything about her. We are just talking. This is not serious.  He tells me his mom is Jewish and his dad is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but wants to be a Jew. I am an atheist and want to know how a person can want to be Jewish.  This conversation is more intimate. Still I say nothing about my daughter. We end up outside, kissing, me thinking I should tell him, not wanting to, thinking I should, knowing it will be the end if I do. The kisses are nice, having been a long time since I kissed anyone. I’m just here to have a little fun, I tell myself. This won’t go anywhere.

Five Kids

“I never wanted five kids” mom says casually as we are rolling cinnamon and sugar into a layer of store-bought dough that had been rising all morning in a warm sunny window. “The doctor never told me about birth control until after the fifth one; I really only wanted one or two.” I am fifteen years old and convince myself that being the second oldest means that I am safe; that I am a wanted child. I imagine what my family life would look like with just my older brother and me. I could not help thinking life would be calmer and more in control than our current reality which was anything but that.

Doctor Cook and Doctor Phefercorn have a clinic that services our small town of Dorchester as well as other small towns on southern edge of the north woods of Wisconsin.  I often hear my Aunts discussing which one of them they go to and which one is more of a quack than the other. Dr. Cook once diagnosed my sister with a spider bite and sent her home when what she really had was rheumatic fever and should have been sent to the hospital. The doctors are respected but not trusted.

Most families in the area have five kids except a hand full of very large Catholic families. Those families are talked about: “There is no way that one family can handle that many kids. They have to be getting welfare. How can anyone even keep track of that many kids?” Maybe most people wait for the doctor to bring up birth control.

Mom is proud of the fact that we always have food on the table and there is always a bowl of fruit in the kitchen for us to snack on. Mom grew up in the far north woods and life was not as easy for her. As a child, she sometimes wore clothes that her mother made from gunny sacks. Milk and cheese were not on the table at every meal.

I know very little about my mother and what it was like for her as a child. The rare snippets I have are from little things that she let slip in rare moments when her guard is down. She doesn’t like to talk about the past. If I ask a pointed question, the response is something like, “Oh I don’t know, that was so long ago, why do you want to dredge up that old stuff?”

I have been to the little shack, in the north woods near the equally tiny town of Spirit, where my mother’s parents lived and where my mother was raised.  The grey, wooden shingled one story house seemed swallowed up by a  field of tall, wild grass where rabbits waited for me to feed them Twix cereal. The house was sparse and poorly lit and my grandmother’s ailing sister, Great Aunt Tillie, lived in an overly humidified bedroom on the side of the living room. Mom talks about the miles and miles she walked to school through the woods in knee-deep snow. The relatives before Mom came over from Germany to be loggers. I guess there is not a lot of money in logging.

I never wonder very much about my mother’s past or about what her dreams might have been and what she wants from life. She is just my mother. She is the person I fear at times, hate at times and respect at times but she is never a fully realized person with wants and needs of her own, separate from mine. We are living the generation gap. In her world you do not talk about dreams and desires. The belief that you can be anything you want to be in life is one I pick up in school. For Mom, life is hard and you do the best that you can and then you die. You play the hand you are dealt.

I don’t think I will have five kids.

We Decided to Name her Daryl

We decided to name her Daryl after watching a sci-fi movie about an android child by the name Daryl that was programmed to be the perfect child. Daryl was so perfect that the he reprogrammed some errors into his psychology so that his mother would feel like she had some purpose in raising him. The android was a boy child but we didn’t like Daryl as a boy’s name. We liked it as a girl’s name. The fact that we were so struck with that name after watching a movie about a child so perfect, that he had to reprogram himself to give his mother something to do, tells you something about our expectations for this new daughter of ours.

We were so convinced about the perfectness of our soon to be born child that we scheduled her birth to happen during summer break between my second and third year of law school. As it happened, it took the whole three months to get pregnant so Daryl’s due date was scheduled at the very end of summer break. I was delighted to be able to take summer classes after all. That left one week to have the baby and return to classes in the fall. Things couldn’t be tidier. Obviously the heavens were pleased with us.

Daryl would be my second child. My oldest daughter was now ten years old and had already gotten used to following me around the country as I dragged her with me through college and law school. She knew the ropes and had been an easy child. I attributed her easiness to my being such a superb parent. I was one of those people who looked on in horror as parents dealt with unruly children in restaurants and grocery stores. I could not understand how a parent could allow a child to over react, throwing fits in public places. I would never allow such a thing.

Daryl came along a few days early. I started contractions during one of my summer final exams. I was able to finish the exam before heading to the hospital but I still had one exam that I would need to make up later. It was just a small hick-up in the perfect plan; nothing that I couldn’t sort out.

Daryl arrived into the world with five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot, a perfect ten on the Apgar scale. Our plan to have a perfect family with two perfect children was moving along with near perfect timing. We brought her home and installed her in the basinet in our room and fell head over heels in love with her. She was beautiful and perfect, every parent’s dream.

But this second child, this perfect child named Daryl was not going to let me skip merrily along the path I had plotted out for myself. She was not like her older sister, who knew the score she was born into and agreed to the party line. Daryl had her own party line and she was not going to budge from it. She decided not to start talking until she was three years old. She did not like falling asleep at night or ever. It took tremendous coaxing to get her to sleep each night.  She wanted an enormous amount of my focus and had an amazing ability to get what she wanted. She could throw a tantrum to beat all tantrums. She had terrors of many things: squiggly toys of any kind, bath tubs, trees, bugs of any kind, and sand to name a few. Even as a small baby if we walked under a tree she would scream her head off. I had to carry her into the street and around any overhanging limbs.

Daryl did not need any reprogramming to make me understand that this child needed me. She needed me more than the few hours I had to spare between classes and exams and work. It would take me years to see this. She never gave up on me though. She kept after me with all the tools she had in her arsenal. She threw more temper tantrums with far more violence that I had ever seen in my life. She threw them in department stores, grocery stores, restaurants, and at the hair dressers. Now I was the mother that other people stared at and shook their head.

I continued to try to make Daryl fit what I thought was normal and she continued to be just who she was. I have seen other people try to make Daryl fit into some type of a mold with no more success than I had.  Daryl was determined to be Daryl. She was not going to be reprogrammed by anyone.

When Daryl was very little she was most at peace when she cuddled up next to me on the couch and we would do nothing. We would just lie there together. I didn’t know it then, but she was giving me exactly what I needed: a little rest from the world and the values the world held for me.

Daryl has always been the one who was right to hold fiercely to who she is and not let anyone mold her into someone she is not. I was the one that was trying to mold both her and myself into what I thought was the perfect person. I was better off leaving all that behind and just being me. I needed a little and perfect Daryl to show me that.