It was December of 1999, and as we stood on the crust of a new pie, a new century, a new millenium. I remembered when I was in my pre-teens and I had forecast that in the year 2000, I would be forty years old. Of course, at that point, I never imagined that anything so heartrendingly literal would happen. Like the shortsighted computer engineers of the sixties, I imagined that I would remain forever 19 something, with nary a wrinkle on my brow, nary a love handle on my hip.
And here I was staring forty in the face, reconstructing myself as an adult, trying to redefine myself in my own terms, rather than by the recipe my mother left scratched into me. It’s hard cooking from scratch.
I tiptoed through the hotspots that I faced as a child with my son, who made me so proud with his accomplishments that I couldn’t imagine my ‘little’ criticisms would carry nearly the weight my parents’ did.
Chris and I had been fighting that day over whether he should do the extra credit math problems – six problems, true/false tagged onto the fifty that he was required to do. I tried to explain that if he did the extra six, it would raise his average on the rest of the page, and ultimately, his grade. Try explaining that to a ten year old who hasn’t covered averages yet in school. He did not want to do it. I unsheathed my tools of negotiation: first I cajoled him. He responded by nastily copying my cajoling in a sing-song, head swaggering thrust. I bribed – he called me on it. And ultimately, I threatened.
“Go to your room, then.”
“That’s blackmail,” he parried.
“No, that’s called parenting.”
“I’m not doing it,” Chris parried back again. “And that’s called kidding.”
Touché! Ultimately, he did the math extra credit work. And the literature extra credit. The whole exercise took exactly 30 minutes, during which we saw the whole array of pre-tantrum warm ups. The banging on the table with the pencil. The whining, the falling out of the chair, the imagined injury and retreat to his bedroom to “recover.” The whole thing left me so exercised and tired that I considered canceling my gym membership.
Then we spent the rest of the evening in the living room, classical music playing, Chris playing his game boy, and me reading the New York Times. At one point, he asked if he could come sit on my lap and I watched over his shoulder as he mastered this mind-numbing feat of dexterity his generation can do without batting an eye. If you’d told me when I was twelve that this is what I’d be doing on the eve of my fortieth birthday, I’d have called you a big fat liar. Isn’t it swell?
Another morning that week, we had been sitting in the dentist’s office, waiting for Chris to have his retainer removed. Popcorn stuck in the gum had caused swelling. His best friend, Mikey, was with us, and the conversation moved to braces.
“Are you going to get them?” Mikey asked Chris.
“Yeah. In about five months.” Chris said.
“What color braces are you going to get?” Mikey asked. “Silver or clear?”
“But Chris, if you get red, you’ll look like a vampire with blood in your mouth,” I said.
“Cool. Okay, how about blue?”
I wondered that morning if my parents had asked me about the color of my caps. Whether I’d elected to have the silver because of the way the question was phrased? Or had the question been phrased at all? I think not. But there’s a wonderful innocence about Chris’ desire to stand out with his blue or red grin. It was so untarnished, so replete of hurtful memories. Kids are such a miracle. Such a clean slate. You can fuck up so badly if you make the wrong decisions under pressure.
House guests, dentist whose golf game was interrupted, your daughter screaming and crying in front of you. Sunday afternoon, and the dentist’s lab is closed. Dr. Bailey was there all by himself, of course. Make a decision quickly. You have to get home to make dinner for your husband’s Yale roommate and his family.
“I think silver. It won’t show up under the braces. You can get white caps after the braces come off.”
Did Mom ever regret that decision? Did she ever have a discussion with Dad about the wisdom of having a girl entering puberty with chrome fenders in her mouth? Was it to protect me from being attractive? It certainly stopped me from becoming vain. I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. To this day I have trouble looking in the mirror.
That long ago day, December 14, 1999, I had housekeeping issues to discuss with my therapist.
“I can’t make it Friday, because I’m the room Mom and Chris’s class is having their party. ”
“You’re excused,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“And I’m anxious about going back to work and still being able to come.”
“We’ll work it out so that you can still come, but without hours and specifics, we can’t schedule.” (That sounds much more patronizing on paper than it did in person.)
What I was really worried about, more than scheduling and going back to work, as if that isn’t enough, was that I was stalled in therapy. I told Jimmie on the phone that I felt that I wasn’t “going anywhere.” Which of course is exactly what we’re working on in the analysis. That you don’t always have to be going somewhere. That just where you are is enough for the moment.
“I’m afraid, too, that I won’t have the memories to help me do this work.”
That I’m not interesting enough.
The previous Sunday, when we were walking into the Iceoplex rink, I was following Chris, carrying his hockey bag when my foot slipped off an uneven place in the pavement and I fell to my knees, scraping my left knee. Chris was in front of me, hitting his tape ball ahead of him like a puck with his stick, and didn’t see me fall. When I exclaimed, “Ouch,” he turned around and looked a little embarrassed by my clumsiness. Someone passing to my left put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Are you alright?” I didn’t meet their eyes (too embarrassed to have fallen) but said, “Yes, thanks. I’m fine.” I told Chris I needed to go get a bandaid – I could feel that I’d broken the skin on my left knee and didn’t want to bleed all over my new suit.
“Go ahead and put your skates on, sweetie. I’ll be right in,” He shouldered the hockey bag and started off, looking back over shoulder.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“Yes, sweetie. I’m fine. I just scraped my knee.”
It wasn’t until the next morning when I was getting dressed in stockings and a dress that I remembered an incident from when we still lived in Pittsburgh that had been unburied by my fall on Sunday.
We were walking home from the church in North Hills, Don, Larry and I. I must have been five years old, and Larry would have been about seven, Don nine. We had to walk through a little patch of trees which separated the back yards of the houses across the street from ours. We were running, me in my black patent leather shoes, which were slippery to begin with. I stumbled over a tree root and fell forward, my exposed knee landing hard on the ground. Blood immediately glistened on my knee, and began to spill down my white knee socks onto my black patent leather shoes. I began to cry, both from the pain of cracking my knee and from fear that Mom would scold me for messing up my dress. (Blue with a white Peter Pan collar – how’s that for memory?)
Either my cries or my absence made my brothers turn around and come back to me. They helped me home (or as I said to my therapist, “I had them help me get cleaned up.”-important narration, as she pointed out, because it made me responsible for getting help, rather than being helped automatically by my brothers.) and I limped home, blood coursing down my shin.
I don’t have any memory of Mom or Dad in this event. Again, an environment where children are on their own a lot of the time. Coming home from church. Where were Mom and Dad that we didn’t all go together? Probably in the car driving around the long way. They’d probably made us promise to walk home.
“Take care of your little sister, Donny.”
I have a memory of this overwhelming fear of being scolded or punished for getting hurt – I was running in the woods. I should have known better than to run in the slippery shoes. My brothers would have been just about the age that Chris is now, and turned and looked at me with a feeling of helplessness and responsibility for my welfare and disgust at my clumsiness.
So, with regard to this process of analysis, my therapist asked, “Do you think I can help you if you’re bleeding?”
“It’s so complicated,” I said. “I’ve told you so much about myself over the past two years (I said three – Freudian slip) and I know so little about you. It begins to seem unbalanced. It’s not that I want to know details of your personal life, but it is just such a strange relationship.”
“It is a strange relationship,” she conceded. “It’s like no other relationship. I’m happy to answer your questions about me. When patients come, this process that we’re in is always a surprise. We won’t solve your problems in your life, but we look at the sources of them. We go back and forth between the interior and exterior worlds. As you get deeper into the analysis, we find ourselves more involved in the interior world. And you find that while you have gotten to know me better, it’s really doesn’t matter.”
I’m also worried that I’m not interesting enough.
“What other times didn’t you feel interesting enough?” she asked kindly.
“At the dinner table.”
“At whose dinner table?”
“At my parents’ dinner table.”
“For example? What would have made you interesting enough?”
“There’s really nothing I could have said that would have made me interesting enough. Maybe if I could have said something adult.”
“If you said something adult you would have been interesting to your parents?”
“When else don’t you feel interesting enough?”
Back to the alcohol. As Joye pointed out, the alcohol helped to erase my responsibility, gave me an excuse to act outside of myself. “To be more interesting.”
I acknowledged that my fear of not being interesting enough was a direct echo of my mom’s own sentiment about herself. She’d come out and visit us and we’d go to a party and she’d be so quiet. Coming home, I’d say, “Mom, you were so quiet. Why didn’t you talk more? She’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything interesting to say.’”
Stalled you say? No, you’re in it, kiddo.
“Can you tell me if you think I’m stalled? If I’m “doing this right?”
“That’s certainly a legitimate question. You aren’t stalled, and you’re doing just fine. The most important thing is that you say whatever is on your mind. If you are feeling stalled, then you tell me. If you can’t tell me, because you don’t think I’m interested, that you tell me that. If you are ever uncomfortable and don’t want to come any more, that you tell me that.”
“It’s not that I don’t think you are interested, because I think you are. It’s that I’m not interesting enough.” (does she see the difference? Yes, I think she does.)
The coda was that this particular evening, when I was walking the dogs for the final walk of the day, the sky streaked with pink, I fell again. I had rounded the corner of our street and had begun walking west when my right foot gave way under me. Almost as if in slow motion, I saw myself falling, my hands outstretched to break my fall, my right knee landing with a dull thud on the ground as it had thirty five years before on my way home from the Lutheran church. I heard the air expel from my mouth, “ooufff” like the sound you might hear from a football player going down after a hard tackle. I felt my charms from my childhood charm bracelet under my palm as I landed on the pavement.
I scrambled to my feet, maintaining my hold on the dogs’ leashes and started off briskly down the sidewalk, whispering to myself aloud, “I can’t believe I fell again today. And landed on that knee.” As I rounded the next corner, I looked down to note that my stockings were torn on my right knee, and blood was beginning to come forth through the scrape on my knee. As my eyes raised up, I had a moment of clarity- I heard a dog bark in the distance, a bird flew across my path and the sky was resplendent in its colors. I took a deep breath and found that my chest was free and my breathing relaxed. I padded along happily behind the dogs, not stalled anymore, but alive.