[This is piece I wrote in December, but you need to have read it to understand what is coming next.]
Forgive me, Spirit of my spirit, for this, that I have found it easier to read the mystery told in tears and understood Thee better in sorrow than in joy.-A.E. (George William Russell, 1867-1935)
I think I know why we’re in an economic recession. It’s because of Wall-E. As I drove my kids past the local cinema, I was reminded of this film because it was the last movie I saw in a theatre, and may well be the last one I see for many many years. Wall-E tells the story of a planet so completely demolished by consumer greed that humans (or rather, what humans evolved into: huge blubbery masses unable to walk because they’re so lazy they haven’t had to in centuries) are now living in a spaceship circling the earth. I witnessed a theatre-full of people, adults and children alike, weeping at the conclusion of this film, and I know it greatly influenced me immediately to curb my spending to the bare necessities, increased my resolved to buy only local products and to give my children only the leftovers discarded by their cousins and older friends. Doing so makes me feel good these days, much more so than the way going on a shopping spree used to give me a lift. Perhaps the whole culture, or enough of it, has done the same and that’s why for the first time in a generation K-Mart has a layaway plan.
Meanwhile, Tom wants a truck. I respect this. He arrived in my life as a man with a truck, and I gladly accepted him this way, even though his truck had no airbags and got lousy gas mileage. He was Tom. He was perfect, exactly the way he was, the way lovers are in those first sweet months. (I have a friend who said of these early months—that period that lasts for at most half a year—“these are our representatives. They will be leaving soon.”)
Anyway, Tom had a truck and he sold it during the three month period between the day we got married and the day I got pregnant and bought instead our friend’s station wagon. He said he wanted a car more appropriate to a family man, and also one with airbags. I shrugged. I didn’t care. But as the years have gone by, Tom kept wistfully remarking on how great it would be if he still had his truck. He could pick up free compost from the farm across the street. He could get free kids plastic outdoor playhouse things from across town. He could plow our driveway in the winter.
Meanwhile, I have a Subaru. That was the car with which I arrived into Tom’s life, and I am unapologetically emotionally attached to it because my father gave it to me on the 11th anniversary of my last marriage (which, I would soon discover, only had two more months of mileage on it). This car sheltered and protected me during my divorce years; it was the fanciest snazziest car I’d ever driven, complete with what my father called “Woofers and tweeters” for a sound system. Single for the first time in a decade, I drove all over the country in that car, blasting the sound system, crying over my new, unexpected loneliness and marveling at my father’s love for me. So whenever Tom talks about wanting to trade the Subaru in for truck, I balk and make up reasonable excuses: the Sube gets better gas mileage (though sadly, not by much—Tom’s old truck got 20mpg and the Sub gets 25), the Sube is better for carrying kids around (true), the Sube has a better sound system, and, with 125,000 miles on it, and surely at least that from whatever truck we could trade it for, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
One Sunday in December, we were having the truck argument, only this time, using some skills I usually use on my clients, I admitted that I am emotionally attached to my car and not ready to give it up. But I also see that Tom is emotionally attached to the idea of being Truck Guy again, and I respect that, but I don’t like it. We were late for church. I was supposed to sing the prelude and Tom was on for children’s time. On my way down the stairs with Elle's clean clothes in my hands, I saw my daughter at the bottom of the stairs playing with two of her dolls.
“Time to get dressed,” I said.
“Mama,” she said. “I want you make Maya walk up the stairs to my bedwoom.”
“Well, I can’t right now. We’re going to be late for church,” I said, descending and picking her up to maneuver her clothes onto her body.
“Nooooooooooo!” she whined and lay on the floor and did her Toddler Resistance Movements: a combination of gyro-skirming and break-dancing. Her diaper was sopping wet.
“I have to change you, “I said grimly, “or you’ll have diaper rash.”
“DON'T TAKE OFF MY DIAPER!” she screamed. And I lost it.
“ELLE!” I shouted.
She jumped, shocked, and burst into tears. “Don’t yell wike that!” she wailed. And I so wished I hadn’t. She is named after my saintly grandmother, who never ever yelled at anyone, unless she was on a sailboat. My grandfather, her husband, used to shout her name in the exact tone I just used. All my life I wanted to be like her, and not like him, but living on the inside of my body, I knew how angry I could be, and I knew it was useless to pretend I wasn’t as angry as he was, at least on the inside.
Now, with the clock ticking and a 35 minutes drive ahead of us still, I used my advantage of 100 pounds and thirty inches. I grabbed her, carried her kicking and screaming upstairs and deposited her on her changing mat where I took off her wet diaper, held her kicking legs up over her head and grabbed a clean diaper with my free hand.
“I am very angry,” I said.
“I don’t want you to change my diaper!” she screamed. But change it I did, and I also dressed her in tights and a dress, silently carried her down to the kitchen and handed her to Tom.
“We’re in a fight,” I told him.
“I can tell,” he said, raising his eyebrows at me. That’s when I started to cry. I cried all the way up to church, pausing to point out to Tom that parenthood is a really hard gig.
“You’re not the only one who wants a truck," I said. “Only my ‘truck’ looks like a week off getting to write and not have to change anyone’s diapers or clean any dishes. My ‘truck’ is a week of touring and living in hotel rooms where someone else picks up my towel and makes my bed.”
Tom reached over and patted my knee, and I felt partly better. “If you are going to beat yourself up for all the bad things you do as a parent, you also have to give yourself credit for the good things you do, you know,” he said.
I ignored him. “I wish I were Catholic so I could go be absolved,” I muttered.
We arrived in church, and I slunk over to my corner to set up my guitar for the prelude. A wonderful white-haired friend followed me over and asked how I was.
“I’m ok,” I said glumly. “Except I yelled at Elle and I feel terrible about it.”
She took my by the shoulders and pierced me with her big green eyes. “So you’re human,” she barked. “Welcome to the human race! Welcome to motherhood!”
The sermon was about parenthood, and how we remember the hard times, the sad times much more vividly that the easy joyful times. “I want you all to stop for a moment," said Steve, our minister, “and think of a time when your mother laughed and laughed. Someone tell us a story.” And several people shared stories of mothers laughing hysterically. I remembered my own: it was the winter of 1982, an unusually cold winter for northern VA. The temperature hadn’t gone above freezing for several weeks. Our own minster, Dick Grear had died the year before of Hodgkins’ Lymphoma and his widow had moved away to NYC, but she took the shuttle to stay with us every weekend. We bought her Dubonet and Saga cheese and ate dinner in the dining with her, and Katryna, aged 12, crawled into her lap when she wept. This particular February weekend, the temperature soared to 48—it felt like spring. Sandy convinced us all to go sledding, which was something we never did as a family. So we dragged the sleds out of the closet and took turns soaring down our hill, the adults whooping and hollering more loudly than us kids. And I have a distinct picture of my mother, her mouth wide open, laughing with Sandy, pure unabashed joy.
My mother, as I have written, was a tomboy, and she was bemused by her daughters who much preferred to play with dolls and wear pink than to compete in a 50 yard dash or demolish a tennis opponent. And she yelled at me a lot. She yelled at me a lot when I was playing with dolls, which only reinforced my notion that playing with dolls was a sissyish, slightly shameful activity. But suddenly I realized that she might not have been yelling at me for playing with dolls: rather, she was probably yelling at me because she wanted us to go to church on time and I was dawdling, immersed in my fantasy, not wanting to be torn away in the same way Elle was busy having her dolls make their long journey up the stairs to her bedroom this morning. I internalized her rage, and confused it with disapproval.
At the end of the service, we took communion by standing in a big circle around the perimeter of the church. We held hands and blessed the quilt Annie made to be sent out to the community to comfort those who were suffering. I was still crying, but the crying was a little different now. Steve’s wife, Connie hugged me after we sang “God Be With You,” and I told her what had happened.
“What do you wish you’d done differently?” she asked.
“Honestly, I have done this differently, many many times. Most of the time when Elle has a tantrum, I keep my patience. I lost it today because I was mad at Tom. So I guess what I wish I’d done differently is I wish I could keep my issues with Tom out of my interactions with Elle.”
Connie raised one eyebrow and looked at me skeptically.
“But I guess I’ll never be able to do that, and instead I could just be glad that Elle lives in a family where people can apologize and forgive.”
Connie threw her arms around me. “That just took you two hours,” she said.
“Is that an absolution?” I asked hopefully.
We picked Elle up from Kids Church. On the way down the hill I told her the story of The Wizard of Oz again.
“Mama, I want you talk about da house dat takes that girl way far away. And then she come home.”
“”OK, That’s important,” I say craning around to look at my sweet, strong, ambitious girl. She has a pink fleece hat attached under her chin and magic marker all over her dress. “Dorothy goes away, but she always comes home again.”