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How I Have Mothered Before

January 2, 2009

Long ago I was driving through Texas on my way from a fourteen-day military expedition and stopped at a shack on the side of the highway that claimed to be an antique shop. Shabby antique shops often got my attention because most of the time I could fine an Occupied Japan cup and saucer for less than six to eight dollars. But, I was only able to enjoy this secret during the 1980s because by the 1990s antiquing had become all the rage for yuppies and wannabe yuppies. Suddenly rubbish including cups and saucers that were previously unwanted because they did not belong to a set were going for twice as much, if not three times as much as I had previously paid. The fun had been stolen, so I abandoned my hobby. Nevertheless, this trip was before the 1990s. I was getting close to the Louisiana state line and had not gotten a memento from the great state of Texas and decided that shop looked just as good as all the others. The shop was typical to most antique shops I have visited on highway side roads in the American South. Dusty and disorganized with glass and china sectioned off, a few metal Aunt Jemima and other product endorsement signs from eras long ago, and southern plantation themed artifacts along with a loft full of old Life, Reader’s Digest, and National Geographic magazines reached by climbing a shaky and creaky flight of wooden stairs. Things considered most valuable were locked up in yellowed glass cabinets or jewelry cases in which getting the attention of the shop’s proprietor was needed if you wanted to look closer. I am afraid the proprietors were often very archetypal. Usually a lone man or woman well into their twilight years readily displaying a little bit too much cantankerous hubris. No one knows more than they do. No one has lived as they have lived. Everyone who entered their shops, especially anyone who dared to bring a child lacked all redeemable qualities, and no decade had ever been as great as the decade that etched out their identity.

After not finding any pretty cups and saucers, I was heading for the door when a shiny metallic blue glass caught my attention. There were two pieces, a candy dish, which was a wide bowl sitting on top of a pedestal, also called a carnival bowl, and the other one looked like a miniature cookie jar, it was round, much taller than wide, and had a lid, probably another candy jar. An embossed grape vine pattern covered the outside of both pieces. She wanted twenty-five dollars for both but I only wanted to give eighteen. Hoping she would accept my bluff I bought just one piece and left the store. She didn’t try to stop me. All the way to the Louisiana state line, I tried to talk myself out of turning back, to just let it go, to accept the fact that I would only have the one piece. Besides, I was playing with money I did not have, money that I needed for the upcoming week’s gas and lunches. Yet, I turned around. I turned around, drove back to the store, went to the dusty old shelf where my candy dish rested, where it would probably still be if I came back the following year, got my dish and gave her the second twelve dollars and fifty cents. I was satisfied and disgusted with myself at the same time.

For years, those two pieces were my prize possessions. My daughter, Fleur and I lived in apartments with barely enough furniture but I would have those candy dishes sitting up on something for all to see. When Fleur  was about twelve I bought a coffee table, something we had never had before to go along with the new couch I was able to buy the year before. She was very excited and proud of the table so she kept it polished and often would think of things to display on it. I left it up to her as long as she did not try the old magazines on the coffee table move. That always reminded me of a doctor’s office and trying too hard. The same year I went to school full time, for the first time. I relied on student loans, tutoring money, food stamps, a weekend job and the military reserve’s one weekend a month pay to get by. Throughout the next year, one bag at a time we bought enough marbles to put in the carnival bowl as a decoration. It was what she wanted; she had a vision in her head down to the colour of the marbles.

I had only been gone for three hours. My niece Holly was over for the weekend. Holly and my daughter was both thirteen and enjoyed being left alone. I had to go into the city; coincidentally it was to the military center to file a travel claim for reimbursement for a fourteen-day exercise I had completed the week before. I wanted to make the claim as soon as possible for the money. When I went on those military trips, I was stingy with my per diem. Unlike other people, mostly men who used the fourteen days to party, to blow through money, I refrained from eating out and drinking so I could come home with more money than I left with. My paperwork was not in order though, I was missing a receipt, a large receipt, it was for the expense of parking my car at the airport for fourteen days. They would not process the claim without all the receipts, so I had to drive all the way back home. When I walked in, the house was clean, very clean. The girls had decided to surprise me by cleaning up. Together they stood smiling and waiting for my approval, a compliment, an acknowledgement. I was conscious of what they expected but chose to dismiss their needs until later, for then, I needed to find that receipt and get back to the center before closing time. The pile of papers I had left on the table was gone. I demanded to know what happened to the papers. They hurried around the apartment like they were looking for the papers the same way my siblings and me would do when we only wanted to look like we were doing what my mother wanted us to do so as not to be hit or screamed at. Finally, my daughter said that she thinks they threw them out. I couldn’t believe it, I could not believe they would have the audacity to throw out my papers. After rushing to the dumpster, the one she said they used to throw the trash into, I found it empty. It was empty, just like a scene out of a movie, the garbage men had came only an hour before. The realisation that I was not going to be reimbursed did not seek in fully until I got back in the apartment and saw them standing there like they didn’t have a care in the world, how nothing was important to them accept that compliment. I picked up the carnival bowl full of marbles and launched it over their heads. It hit the wall and shattered sending broken glass and marbles flying all over the living room and kitchen. There they stood, frightened and demoralised. Strange how I had enough control over my rage that I sent the bowl over their heads but not enough control to not throw it. As the marbles rolled I felt ashamed. Not too ashamed for pride, I screamed at them to get out of my face, like it was their fault that I did not keep up with my receipt. Within a second, my anger had transitioned into desperation and I started turning over in my mind ways I could make up for the money I would not be getting. I thought while I cleaned up the glass. Each marble I picked up brought another shameful tear. Thinking of the two of them, who cleaned the apartment in order to surprise me, closed up in the room wondering when it would be okay to come out, made me even more ashamed.

For months we found stray marbles. When I found one, I could look away, but when she found one behind the couch or under the stove or wedged between the washer and dryer and announced her discovery, the pain and shame would return in my gut like it only just happened.

It has been over fourteen years since that incident, and she still remembers, she still holds it against me. At times, innocent times I can see her brace herself expecting that I will fly in a rage like that time long ago even though it never became a pattern and now I am far too distracted or well-fed perhaps to work up that level of rage. I have never denied that it happened. I would never do that to her, because I possess knowledge of how it feels when others attempt to revise what I remember and I would not want to do that to anyone, especially my own child. She forgets other times though, times that I had to negotiate circumstances in order to pay for her eyeglasses that she needed but wanted a nicer pair or times that I managed to get her school clothes and shoes when there was nothing to get it with. But, I suppose that was my job by default so why should she remember or void one bad for one good as if it is a point system. She does forget that though and remembers, remembers the times that were bad and scary. She holds on, and I cannot blame her, because I probably would too if I were her. Actually, I have before with my mother and still do to a certain extent. I have acknowledged and apologised but that does not change her memories, the impression that was formed at the time. I understand that. I understand it so well that I am aware that nothing can change the past, no matter how many times I wish I could go back and re-do that moment, that magic time machine will never be available to me, for us. It is what it is. It is how I have mothered before.

  1. Chris permalink
    January 2, 2009 2:19 pm

    “displaying a little bit too much cantankerous hubris.” A hilarious description and unfortunately accurate.

    I had in my mind that this was going to be a “dish accidentally got broken, kids tried to hide/fix it” type story until it took that turn. What really hit me was the line about having control enough to miss them but not enough to not do it in the first place. I think all of us have been in that position before. Whether it be physical “near” violence (I know, it was violence whether or not contact was made, but you get my point) or words, we’ve all had to pick up the broken pieces and marbles in our lives.

    I’m glad you can relate this tale with such ownership of it. I’ll admit I’m not the best at that.

  2. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 2, 2009 8:23 pm

    “I had in my mind that this was going to be a “dish accidentally got broken, kids tried to hide/fix it” type story…”

    Somebody watched the Brady Bunch too much. LOL!

    Chris, what’s up, you haven’t returned my email yet about your blog.

  3. CountryDew permalink
    January 2, 2009 9:08 pm

    I too thought the kids were going to break the dish.

    I held my breath as I read. I think we all tend to remember the bad more than the good. The day to day simply goes into one large file while single incidents get their own place in memory.

  4. Anna Belle permalink
    January 2, 2009 10:54 pm

    Weird, I thought the story would turn on the glassware being worth enough to make up for the loss of money over the very large receipt.

    Thanks for sharing this very honest story from your life with us. My child isn’t grown yet, but I do understand your frustration with how much blame I should take considering how I did everything I could, include change myself to be a better person in the pursuit of good motherhood. At 15, she already looks back in terms of what she lost instead of what she gained.

  5. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    January 3, 2009 11:23 pm

    Interesting. It seems that examining our expectations when reading the beginning of a narrative would make a good exercise in self-reflection, or in a broader more psych/social bent, to help us see who and what have influenced what we are ready to fill in the blanks with.

  6. Anna permalink
    January 5, 2009 1:57 pm

    Kitty – I have a long list of things I am hoping my child will forgive when time passes & maturity hopefully leads to understanding of loving yet stressed motherhood. Thanks for the story – it is nice to know I have company.

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