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Sunday Rumpus Essay: Care Package

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Across the continent my sweet girl has been crying herself to sleep at night.  She told me this in a mouse voice—small and deflated.  I heard the scrape of hangers on her end of the line.  She, in Brooklyn, shopping at a thrift store for a sheepskin coat, preparing for her first New York winter; me, in Portland, shopping for mascara to send in a care package to her college address.  I put down the tiny pot of eye cream that had distracted me with its promise of miracles—taut, bright skin, Spanx for the eye zone—and listened to my daughter talk of her loneliness, a spidery agitation growing in my chest.  I know her nighttime sorrow.  I know it is a perfectly normal, even character building experience for a plucky young woman embarking upon the next phase of her life, surprised by a bout of homesickness and too far away to hop in the car for a weekend in her childhood bed.  But moments like this, remote from her, unable to wrap her in my arms, fill me with a faint floating sadness.  No one wants to feel alone.  “Oh Lovely, what can I do?”

I know what it is to be faced with the unfamiliar.  As my daughter, my youngest, packed up to move to her dorm, I looked away from the empty dresser drawers and pillaged closet, the walls stripped of posters, not yet ready to face my empty nest anxiety.  What would our home be like without children, just middle-aged us, my husband and me, at the dinner table?

Listening now for clues in my daughter’s tone I remember what if feels like to be eighteen and anxious.  Her wavering voice sends me tumbling down a rabbit hole.

*

When I was her age I was not courageous enough to take the leap and go on my own far away to college.  Instead I chose the safety of marriage—too young and to the wrong man.  My father opted out of his parental opportunities a few weeks after I was born, and my pretty single mom worked two jobs—teacher and cocktail waitress—to support us.  She wore mini skirts, teased her hair, and felt the most important thing she could do for me was to provide a father.  In her man-quest she endured heartbreak, married men, one-night stands, and long lonely evenings soaking in the tub in the dark, the tip of her cigarette glowing red until she quenched it with a hiss in her bath water.  Maybe, when I decided to marry at nineteen, some part of me recognized that I was trying to save myself from lonely baths on Saturday nights, that I was seeking security, but I doubt it.  I was just living my day-to-day life, grateful that this perfectly nice, stable, older man wanted me.  What I definitely didn’t yet know was that it’s possible to feel a lonely disquiet within a marriage.

Early in our life together my husband and I moved to Southern California,

for work, for a change.  I remember packing up to move three hundred miles from all that was familiar to me—my friends, my mother.  As my husband and I drove south on Highway One, passing the last exit of my hometown, I quietly wept in the passenger seat, for my mother, for me and for the uncertainty I felt at how she and I would endure being so far apart when we were all we’d ever had.   “We’re really going to miss her,” my husband said.  When he reached over and squeezed my hand I saw that he too had damp cheeks.  I felt grateful, as if the small circle that contained my mother and I had expanded to include him.  “She’s a great dog,” he continued.  I was weeping for the strange shipwrecked feeling of being alone with this stranger, my husband, forging ahead to an adult and unknown life in a city that lacked foggy mornings.  He wept for his golden retriever (a great dog by all means) that he’d had to leave behind with his ex-wife.  Emptiness opened up inside of me, all the way to my fingertips still within his grip.

My daughter frets at the experience of being alone in a new city, in a new bed three thousand miles from home.  She gets up in the morning and pursues her dream of someday being an Art Director, attending painting and design classes at her top choice college.  Driving away from my hometown, inside this marriage I’d escaped to in search of security, I thought I was living my dream, but, at the time, I didn’t know what my dream was.  Out the car window on that long drive south, the sky and ocean blurred together, not even a color, I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other began.

“What about rabbit fur?” my daughter says, still looking through the racks of used coats.

“What about a therapist?  You know, someone to talk to,” I suggest.

“Don’t try and fix me.”  She is prickly, wanting to be comforted and wanting to need nothing at one and the same time.  It’s a delicate phase, her striving toward independence—what psychologists call agency, and me still wanting to make everything better, still charged up with the importance of my role.   It was so much easier when I could take her in my lap, re-tie her shoe, serve her a hard boiled egg and goldfish crackers, her favorite four-year-old meal.

I don’t remember what helped me to overcome the disquiet I experienced when I launched from my childhood home.  But I do know, as much as she loved me and wanted to help me, it wasn’t my mother.  Finally content in her single life, my mother tried to ‘fix me’ by suggesting I find a Buddhist group to chant with, which may have helped but wasn’t even within my frame of reference.   Perhaps it was unpacking in our small apartment in Long Beach, lining the shelves and screwing in cup hooks—the day-to-day living through it.  The establishment of my own home, growing confident enough to look around and realize I needed more than someone to be with every Saturday night, that I needed to leave my marriage.  Day-to-day living is what it will take for my daughter too, going to classes, making art, meeting new people, and her period of adjustment feels just as hard for me over here on the left coast, waiting for her to recognize her mettle.

“You can’t fix something that isn’t broken,” I say, and then I tell her I’m putting together a care package, buying mascara.

“Do they have blue?” she says.  Blue mascara and a bag of Goldfish crackers, that is what I will send her.

*

When I was sixteen or so, my mother went away for the weekend and left me home on my own.  She trusted me not to have a party, and I didn’t.  But I did go to a party.  One of those sshhh! don’t tell anyone keg parties that get quickly overrun with teenagers and surfers. I spent the evening with a cluster of girlfriends, waiting for boys to bring us beer, to ask us to dance.  Someone tapped a second keg in the kitchen.  The floor was slick with melting ice and grass clippings.  Elvin Bishop, The Stones, Jim Morrison blasted from the stereo jiggling the beer in our red plastic cups while a little dog barked and barked from behind a closed bedroom door.  By midnight the neighbors called the police and drunk revelers careened down the dark street on cruiser bikes and skateboards, some in beat-up cars.  My girlfriends couldn’t come over, boys or parents standing in the way and so I found myself home alone, wobbly drunk.  I rattled around in our small house, switching on all the lights.  Then came back through each room, checking doors and windows, turning lights off.  I stood in the dark, arms crossed over my chest, peering at the neighbor’s porch light, imagining shadows.  I slept in my mother’s bed that night, or rather tried to sleep.  Mostly I felt sorry for myself, for the missed opportunity of no parental supervision and no boy in bed beside me.   I was the last of the virgins in my group and felt like a lonely loser.  I stared at the yellow phone on the bedside table, willing it to ring.  Something scraped the side of our house, a tree, a raccoon or a rapist.  Curled up like a shrimp on top of my mother’s quilt, I felt small and alone and uncertain.  I checked for the hum of the dial tone on the phone.  The scraping came again, this time with a thump at the end.   I dialed 911 then felt ridiculous and hung up.  Seconds later our phone rang.  It was an operator, calling to be certain I was okay, was there a problem?   I claimed to be fine, and I was better, knowing 911 actually worked, but I drunkenly sobbed after I hung up.  I fell asleep with my hand on the phone.  I never told my mother about that night, how unsafe I felt.  In the morning I vacuumed the carpet and washed the dishes, took an aspirin and waited for her return.

I don’t know what stories my daughter has kept from me, about boys, mishaps, arguments, parties.  She has come home drunk.  She has had her heart broken, failed tests.  She’s been adored and ditched by boys and girls.  I hope she remembers those times now, not to wallow, but to recognize that she made it through.  I hope she knows that in the midst of a dark night she can use me as her 911 and that the darkness passes, morning comes with sunlight and pain relievers.  Tylenol.  I’ll add that to the package.

*

As an only child I spent a lot of time by myself.  My mom taught at a school across town and, starting in the 4th grade, my mornings were spent eating toaster waffles before locking the door behind me and riding my purple stingray to school.  I liked the responsibility.  I liked hearing my mom say of me, “She’s nine going on twenty.”  This was in the 70’s when the emergence of ‘latchkey’ kids was something talked about by Peter Jennings on the evening news.  I wore our front door key on a piece of string around my neck, beneath the unicorn or rainbow or peace sign on my shirt.  Afternoons were occupied with spelling lists, long division, and sitcoms about families—the talented and fatherless Partridge Family, the blended Brady Bunch, and the ad hoc family of adults on Gilligan’s Island.  After school TV was a sociological study of the changing American family, none quite like my mother and I, as this was long before the Gilmore Girls, but the families broke the traditional mold.  In fourth grade, when I pictured my family-to-be, I imagined a “normal” family like those of my friends, a funny and kind and solid dad, me as the mom, making chicken and dumplings (which I already knew how to make from the recipe on the Bisquik box) and my children, Jeremy and Melissa, playing cartoon tag out front with tongues stained purple from grape juice popsicles.

If I finished my homework early on these afternoons and the day was clear, I would ride my bike to the beach.  I had a wetsuit, a gift from my mother’s current boyfriend.   Once, I put it on and rode six blocks to the beach.  I hadn’t planned on swimming I just liked the tight rubbery sensation.  The way the suit made my knees spring back to straight.   An offshore breeze shaped the waves into perfect apostrophes.  Gulls circled in the bright swimming pool blue sky and there were maybe a half-dozen porpoises playing just beyond the shore break.  How could I not?  I dropped my bike in the sand and ran.  My feet froze right away, but water trapped between my skin and the wetsuit soon warmed up and I played in the foam, pretending to body surf.  I remember feeling adventurous and free.  I drifted farther out.  I might have been singing a theme song to one of my shows, “Here’s the story, of a lovely lady,” or “Come on along there’s a song that we’re singing, to make you happy.”  Suddenly I found myself caught by a wave, my feet swept out from under me, the surging power of the cold ocean first pulling me down and then pouring me over the top of a smooth curl, then pounding down again onto the hard sand in a churning washing machine of salt water and kelp.  Hair in my mouth, eyes squeezed shut, I couldn’t tell which way was up for a long tumble.  And then it was over and I lay gasping in the sand.  I could have died, I thought.  I could have died!   No one would have known who I was inside this wetsuit.   The sun was still shining, the perfect waves continued to pound the shore while I experienced my first existential moment.  I was insignificant.  Nothing about me mattered.  Joggers ran past, gulls cried, the porpoises swam on, the theme songs to my sitcoms would play again, even if I ceased.  I was alone and afraid, sucking air on the wet sand.  Had I been older, I may have reached for a Dunhill and squinted at the horizon.

There have been other times I’ve felt existential angst, living in that cramped apartment with my first husband, reading Camus and Dostoyevsky when I finally began my college career and took the baby steps to launch from the intermediate nest of my first marriage.  At ten, after my wipeout, all it took to get over my despair was a hot shower, a blanket, jiffy pop and a couple chapters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which by the way, I read and reread all through my childhood.  At one point I carried around an onion wrapped in a dishtowel, pretending it was my doll.  I made a rag rug.  Everyone in the Ingalls family was essential.  I was essential too.  My mother relied upon me, not to gather eggs, or to make her laugh, but to give her nothing to worry about.  I was to be good, succeed in school, clean the house on Saturday mornings, sit with her over Swanson potpies on Sunday evenings, each of us doing schoolwork in the flickering light of 60 Minutes on the television.  I gave shape to her life.

Alone in her Brooklyn dorm bed, feeling a vague floating sadness of her own, does my daughter remember that she is essential?  Does she know, when she lights up her Dunhill, that she gives shape and buoyancy to our family?  How the best in her reminds us of our best selves?  At six or seven, she gave us a family to do list:

  1. give Sophie love
  2. push Sophie on swing
  3. take Sophie to paint on pottery for an outing
  4. give Sophie 1000 kisses
  5. tuck her in bed

 

And we did it all, just as she knew we would.  I’d add a Little House book in the care package so she could read about the Ingalls family subsisting on potatoes through a long winter of blizzards (much worse than the dorm food she complains of) but my daughter showed no interest in the big woods or the prairie.  She was a Harriet the Spy girl, brave, canny, secure in our love, willing to take risks and to discover new things.  Blue mascara, Goldfish crackers, Tylenol, and Harriet the Spy.  I am pleased with my care package list.

*

When I was six or so, my mother endured a terrible break-up and nearly disappeared.  She was in deep love with a brown haired man who taught me to do a cartwheel.  He traveled often to an opal mine in Australia, and he carried an amazing velvet-lined-black-box filled with stones.  Returning from one of his trips, he gave my mother a gold ring with a fire opal that threw sparks when she waved her hand in front of the candles she lit for their dinner.  When he suddenly stopped coming over, my mother took to her bed, for weeks.  She explained to me from her dim and disheveled room that this man said we were too complicated.  I had a vague idea that complicated had something to do with me.  During this time my mother was ‘getting rest’ I tried to be extra good, quiet, helpful, kind and self-sufficient.  One morning, I found her on the couch.  She was up!  Still in her coffee stained nightgown, her blond hair flat on one side and snarled on the other.  An ashtray full of butts rested on her thigh, and she clutched my kindergarten picture.  She told me that I was all she had.  I was it.  And then she began to cry.  I remember my arms hanging at my side, I felt useless for a moment, until I saw the ashtray begin to slide off her leg.  I grabbed it.  I took away an empty glass and a bottle of pills from the coffee table.  In the kitchen I used half a loaf of Roman Meal bread and too much margarine to make us cinnamon toast.  We ate together on the couch and then my mother took a shower.

I have often thought of that morning, of sprinkling sugar and cinnamon on the toast, and the pride I felt that my picture saw my mother through a terrible night, a night beyond my ken, and also feeling desperation that, in my mother’s eyes, I was not enough to define us as a family.  I was both the problem and the solution and I couldn’t hold both of those ideas in my head at the same time.  My sad mommy took away my childhood in an instant.  As a new mother, I felt crushing waves of resentment and swore to myself I would never do that to a child of mine.  My children would be nine going on ten.  And they were.  The second time around I was lucky to marry a funny, kind and solid man, and we worked hard to bring both safety and possibility to our home so our children could go off on college adventures that I did not feel able to accomplish.  I wasn’t brave enough at eighteen, I wasn’t confident that I could make a full life for myself by myself.

When I think of that cinnamon toast morning now, I feel compassion for my young mother, for her fragility, for her inability to grasp, to know in her bones, that she was enough for me, that I was enough for her.  We were a family.

When I think of myself as a young woman, lying awake at night in a cramped basement apartment next to a man, my husband, I liked but did not love, afraid to be fully on my own, I feel a tender understanding of what I did not grasp at the time, I was enough to make it on my own.

My daughter has left the thrift store now, without finding a coat.  I worry she

will be cold.  She has moved on to talking about the mess a storm made of her campus, and what a stroke of luck it was for her.  Her voice is now brisk as her stride.  I imagine her on Brooklyn streets, passing the bodega where she buys the Dunhill’s I abhor, her bagel shop, the Laundromat.

“I made a tree house,” she tells me.

With storm fallen branches she collected and sprayed gold, she turned her bed into a nest of sorts, strung lights to cheer herself up.  “Oh mom, it’s amazing.”  And then I hear her yell out a friend’s name, tell me she loves me and says she’s got to go.

My daughter has finished her venting and will be fine.  She’s hung up with a lighter heart and I recognize the gesture toward creating her own home in that nest she built around her bed.  I’m here, her 911 to voice her fears, to help her remember that she is as brave as her grandmother who at her age was left alone with an infant daughter, as brave as I was when I realized I had to leave my first marriage in order to discover my own daring and strength.  We three have had our wipeouts, dark nights and lonely baths and come through.  There will be more of course, and, as much as I would like to, there is no way for me to prevent them.  And with this third young woman launching from the nest, it seems our family may have gotten it righter.

I will send her care packages.  To this one I will add a warm coat.


Natalie Serber is the author of the story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). She is the recipient of the Tobias Wolff Award, H.E. Francis Award, and John Steinbeck Award. Find out more at www.natalieserber.com More from this author →