Monday, January 9, 2012

Some Things Right

Last week, I read Open House, by Elizabeth Berg.  (And I'll tell you right now, I'm in for everything she's ever written.)  In the first chapter of the book, the heroine is trying to convince her husband to stay, and in the second chapter, we find her on the first morning of their separation.  Ultimately, the story tells how she finds herself on the other side of marriage.

Our marriages ended differently, this heroine's and mine, but I identified with her on many levels.  Especially when she couldn't set the table without crossing paths with yet another wedding gift from the life she had once lived.

Anyway, she doesn't like her mother.  (I assure you, non-lovers of books and therein book reviews, these paragraphs are going somewhere.)  Her mother is shallow and ridiculously happy always, never willing to go anywhere near real emotions, and keeps everything an inch deep at all times. 

In a fit of rage, the heroine asks her mother, "When did you ever let anyone get close to you?  I mean, really close.  To the real you."

And in a page of brilliant writing, we see a crack in the mother's facade of happiness, and we readers realize that she has chosen to appear happy all along, thinking it was best for her children to never see her life's pain.

I stare at my mother's carefully made-up face, and suddenly I see that same face many years ago, shortly after my father died, when she came out of the bathroom after having been in there for a very long time.

"Now!" she said.  I was sitting in the hall, spinning jacks, and I looked up at her.  "I think that style is much better, don't you?" She showed me some modification she'd made to her hairdo, and I nodded, then returned to my jacks.

What occurs to me now is that what my mother had been doing all that time was weeping.  With astonishing quiet.  And that when she was done, she'd washed her face, fixed her hair, put on lipstick, and then gone out to the kitchen.  She turned the radio on low and made dinner so that it would be ready when it always was.  And then she smiled and chatted empty-headedly or fussed at her daughters all during dinner, preempting any kind of real conversation, preempting any questions, and then she put her daughters to bed, still smiling, still dispensing random advice about this and that, and her daughters squirmed and rolled their eyes and felt their love lessen year by year, eroded by embarrassment, by a terrible, defeating kind of resignation that told them she would never be different.

But what did she do after she put us to bed?  I wonder now.

And I imagine a mother who took a mask off her face, then pushed hard into a pillow to weep for the loss of her husband, for the loss of the life she was supposed to have, for the only man she ever -- I gasp, thinking this now -- loved.

And it comes all at once to me, it comes at this instant, that my mother simply lost too much and repaired herself in the only way she was able; that, in fact, she is continuing to repair herself, hour by hour, the pendulum of the cuckoo clock swinging in the light and the dark of all the days that have passed since my father died at this same brown wooden table.

I found such comfort in these words, in the idea that I'm doing the right thing by looking this in the eye, by talking to my children about the canyon that could have swallowed us whole, that I'm not preempting their questions and mine, that I'm not hiding behind a mask of any kind -- lipstick or otherwise.

I don't show them everything.  Because they shouldn't have to see it all.  But there's nothing I'm afraid of, no question they could ask that I wouldn't be willing to wade into.  And they can mention his name as easily as anyone else's.  Because he is as real to us as anyone else is.

It's great to read something and realize I might be on the right track, doing some things right.  That my boys won't look back and wonder who I was all these years.  That maybe I'm giving them the chance to know me all along.


Jodi said...

I love how you can get all that from FICTION. I'd say it was a bit of "brilliant application." I often forget how illuminating fiction can be, feeling like I'm just enjoying recreation when I sneak it in...and your post shows that it can be so, so much more than that. Profoundly more. I loved the last line of this post, especially. In a way, I feel like it applies to all of us. Thank you, Tricia.

Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side said...

I love Elizabeth Berg, and I particularly love the passage that you quoted. I remember it well because I had an experience similar to it when I was young. My brother died accidentally when he was nine, and I clearly remember two things: one was when my mom told me it was O.K. to talk about him (that was freeing) and the other was when I heard my parents weeping (no, sobbing) behind their bedroom door (that was scary). To a child, a parent's raw emotion is something really big. and in my case I didn't want to do anything that would make my parents cry like that again. They never knew that I heard them, but still, it was a terrifying thing for me to hear.

Patty Kline said...

Tricia, from what I've been reading of your writings, you're not only doing some things right, you're doing a heck of a lot right! Your sons have the best example in you of how to walk this grief road, of how to be real and honest, excruciatingly so at times, and take each day as it comes with all its glory and all its ugliness together. They will know you, and know you well.

Jaimie said...

Reading is powerful. I love it.

archerwyomrs said...

You are loving them well! And they love you all the more for it!