Ancient Paths Online

Seasons of Misunderstanding
by Ann Applegarth

On the moonless night in March when Mama died, snow fell softly until it shrouded the pots of  daffodils on her patio.  The next morning, I saw from her window the white expanse and the terra cotta pots, spiky green foliage, and flowers buried and almost imperceptible beneath three mounds, each with its yellow blossom resting just underneath the soft white blanket. 

Mama’s life had been much like those flowers.  She rose and bloomed, rose and bloomed, and each time, just as it seemed she finally had managed to get on her feet, life crept in and covered her over.  Like the buried daffodils, she stood tall underneath her load at first.  But the chilling weight would eventually cause her to wilt, forcing yet another struggle to rise and cope.

I realize now that this process had been her lifelong pattern, that my strained relationship with her wasn’t the cause of it, that even in childhood she had waxed and waned emotionally and physically. But because I associated her spring times with my ups and her winters with my downs, I always felt guilty about both.

For twenty years I found satisfaction in stepping back so Mama could bloom.  And, as both my confessor and my many counselors surely could tell you, for twenty years I beat myself over the head with guilt and shame for causing her world to crash at the end of every blooming period. Most of the counselors figured that out, and my priests assured the Lord’s forgiveness. Yet the guilt still stuck to me like super-glue. The social worker assigned to Mama when I was in middle school seemed to understand me from the moment he first stepped into our living room, but he didn’t last long enough to straighten things out.   And, over the years, one or two people even told me that Mama’s problems weren’t really my problems, that I had more than enough of my own.

But regardless of whose problems were whose, our cycles seemed identical.  I would call her to share some small success — a new job, a new man, a new diet, a new friend — and she would be happy and bubbly as she chattered for fifteen minutes about her latest exciting decoupage project, a new romance, or a gorgeous new pair of red suede mules with rhinestones on the skinny three-inch heels.  Weeks later, my world would fall apart. I’d call her for support, only to find that her world had crumbled two days before and that she needed whatever thing it is that mothers need from their adult daughters that I didn’t seem to possess, which, of course, left her absolutely unable to give me even one of the many things that daughters need from their mothers all their lives.

Like that bleak Thursday I lost my job at K-Mart. It had nothing to do with me or my performance, as my supervisor called it every time he talked with me.  I always wondered about the word “performance,” wondered whether I might have needed actor’s training or years of tap dancing or accordion lessons in order to fulfill K-Mart’s expectations because my supervisor probably never thought my performance was star-quality, but merely adequate, like the walk-on part with no dialogue I had in the senior play.

The layoff was a blow.  It shriveled what little self-esteem I had to a raisin-like lump, and it messed me up because I had just put down a deposit on a one-bedroom apartment, thinking I surely could afford a bigger place.  After all, I had been at K-Mart almost a year, and if that’s not security, I’d like to know what is.

Anyway, some giant company somewhere else — Buffalo? Dallas? Cincinnati? — had bought the whole K-Mart chain and was closing this store because it was one of the less-profitables. That hit me right in the stomach, because it was clearly all my fault.  If only I had performed better, our store would have been one of the more-profitables, and some other girl in some other store in some other state would be faced with rearranging her pathetic life while I would be living cozily in my new apartment, maybe with a kitten, and definitely new furniture — nothing extravagant, but a blue plush recliner chair and a real oak chest of drawers for my tee-shirts and underwear, and a white-painted kitchen table and chairs. That other girl would be trudging down to the employment commission each morning to check the job listings, while I would be leaping afresh onto the K-Mart stage and giving it my all, my dazzling Oscar-winning dramatic best, maybe with one of those stylish new skirts that flare a little at the hem and some genuine cultured-pearl earrings.

But, no, I was the girl who wouldn’t be living in the nice apartment or getting a cat, and that other girl  — blonde, no doubt, and with a smooth complexion  — was somewhere in Texas or New Hampshire performing her heart out and getting promoted to manager of women’s ready-to-wear.  Or maybe jewelry or housewares.

I cleaned out my locker and left the store, feeling at loose ends and even a bit frazzled.  I figured  I’d better go get my rent deposit back, but I guess I needed to screw up my courage to be able to do that.  I decided to go home first and call Mama.

“Oh, baby,” she said as soon as she heard my voice. “You couldn’t have called at a worse time.  Roger met this new guy at his work, and he’s one of those born-agains — you know how they are.  Well, he lured Roger and a bunch of other guys at the warehouse into going to some Friday night thing for men at his church, and the upshot is — you won’t believe this, I know, honey, because Roger always seemed so true blue — what happened is that Roger all of a sudden ups and says he can’t live with me any more and so he moved out and left me with rent due and no car and a refrigerator full of leftovers that are starting to turn green. Oh, Marcy, I guess the worst part is that I just plain don’t understand this situation.  Roger and I have been together for almost a year now, and if that’s not commitment, what is?  And he never ever, even once, said a cross word to me about anything in all that time. I told him all about my past when I first met him at the community kitchen, and all he said to me was, ‘Sue Linda, once water goes under a bridge, it just keeps flowing on down that creek.

It never once comes back to your side of the bridge to rise up and lap your toes. And I’m your new bridge, darlin', so things start counting from right now, this exact minute, and not from 1951 or 1961 or 1971 or any other date.’”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I said, hoping and praying with all my might and main that it might rain hard that day in Carlsbad, even though that was unlikely, and that new water would puddle and bubble up under Mama’s bridge until it bathed her toes and went right smack on up to her heart and gave her honest-to-goodness comfort and peace. Then I hung up the phone and faced my own smaller crisis by going to pick up my apartment deposit and stopping by the Lo-Ho-Silver for a beer.

Or, like the really good time — the day I finally had together enough cash money to make that deposit on an apartment.  Some of the complexes make you pay two month’s rent and a big cleaning deposit, but I had met Helen, the assistant manager of the Lone Pine Plaza, at my AA meeting, and she liked me, I could tell.  We struck up a friendship, sort of, at least as much as two people can be friends and not know each other’s last name. 

One night Helen and I decided to go by McDonald’s after meeting.  We got our coffee and sat down, and Helen said right off the bat, “Want to see something really amazing?”  She scooted her Styrofoam cup across the Formica tabletop until there were the cutest little ripples and waves traveling all across the surface of the coffee — just like a tiny brown ocean.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s beautiful!  How’d you ever learn to do that, Helen?” I said.

She smiled and said, “Try it.  I bet you can do it, too.”

I did, and after the little ripples on my cup died down, she leaned forward, looked hard at me for a minute, and then took a deep breath and said, “Marcy, tell me one of your dreams.  Oh, I don’t mean the kind you have when you’re asleep — I mean the kind you hope for in life, your intimate secret personal dreams about your future.”  She smiled shyly and added, “Like I dream of getting married someday and maybe even moving to Florida where it never gets cold.”

So I emptied my heart and told her about my dream of having a nice place of my own, an apartment with a real bedroom instead of just an efficiency where you have to sleep in the kitchen that is really a living room with a bed and a microwave and a mini-fridge and a sink.  I told her how I dreamed of having a long-haired pet kitten named Sandy and how that soft kitty would snuggle up to me and purr real loud while I was falling asleep.  I told her how I dreamed of working up from clerk to being a department manager at my store and that I hoped to own one of those nice comfortable recliner chairs that rock and lean way back when you pull a handle.  I said that I would sit in that chair every morning while I drank my coffee and every evening while I watched TV and that my little sweet Sandy would curl up on my lap and fall sleep purring and we would be happy together.

Helen looked at me for a long time without saying a word.  She blinked her eyes once or twice and pursed her lips. I wondered if I had said something wrong, or if I was talking too much, or if I should explain that I hoped she had such a nice life, too, or if maybe I should have made up some more exciting dream like traveling to China, or if I should just plain outright apologize.

But then her brown eyes sparkled and she tapped her finger on the table three times and said, “Marcy, you can have that dream.  You can have it, and I’m going to tell you how right now.”

You can bet I was relieved that Helen wasn’t mad, but I could hardly believe how lucky I was to have met her because my mouth dropped open when she told me how she was the assistant manager of a lovely apartment complex and how, even though they normally required two month’s rent and a damage  deposit up front, she could arrange for me to move in with just the two-hundred dollar damage deposit and, of course, the first month’s rent.  She said that would be three hundred and fifty dollars for a one-bedroom upstairs with a nice view out the back window of the elm trees in the yard across the alley.

Helen brought a two-page rental agreement to the next AA meeting, and I filled it out right then and there.  She told me to come by her office as soon as I could to make final arrangements, that Lone Pine didn’t have a vacancy right then, but that she could hold the first available upstairs for me just as soon as I paid the damage deposit.

Three weeks later, I had enough money.  I could hardly wait to see the look on Helen’s face when I marched into her office and plunked down cash for the damage deposit.  She didn’t disappoint me.  She acted as thrilled as if I had presented her with a diamond necklace, a big-screen TV, a Cadillac convertible, and the deed to a house in Florida — all in one fell swoop.

“Oh, Marcy,” she said, grinning and rolling her ballpoint back and forth between the palms of her hands so that it clicked against her rings, “I know you are going to make the Lone Pine a model tenant.”

I walked out of there feeling so proud I could have popped. I stopped on the sidewalk at the corner and gazed for several minutes at the upstairs apartments with their brass door letters — E, F, G, and H — and thought to myself how I couldn’t help hoping I might get E or H because they had an extra window on the side, but that F or G would be lovely too. I walked home, humming a hymn I hadn’t thought of in years, and knew I had to share my happiness with Mama. Surely she would be proud of me now that I was finally making something of myself and moving up in the world, now that I was about to have a real home of my own.

I dug out my phone card and dialed Mama’s number. It rang and rang.  Just as I was fixing to hang up, disappointed, her breathless voice sang out, “Hellooooo.”

“Hi, Mama, are you busy?”

“Oh, baby, it’s you!  I’m so glad you called!  I have such exciting news!  They had a baseball pool for the World Series at Roger’s work — you know how everyone puts in five dollars, and the person who guesses closest to the score in the final game of the Series wins all the money?  Well, of course everyone wanted to be in on it, and the pot turned out to be over three hundred dollars.

Marcy, you will never guess who won all that money — never in a million years could you guess that it was Roger.  Roger!  My Roger!  So of course he came right home and we got dressed up and he took me out to the SuperSteak for a nice T-bone dinner, and I wore my green brocade dress I bought that time at Thrift Town in Albuquerque and the cascade earrings your daddy gave me — the only thing he ever gave me that I liked — and those black high-heel sandals I showed you last time you came to visit.  And, Marcy!  We had fried ice cream for dessert!  Can you even imagine that, honey?

They take and roll a ball of butter-pecan ice cream in crumbled-up cornflakes and deep-fry it in hot lard!  It is the most exciting thing, Marcy!  You can’t believe how it stays cold inside, but it does. It’s real ice cream, so cold it makes your front teeth ache when you bite it — and that crunchy crust is hot and yummy and not a bit greasy. Well, I gotta go, hon — Roger’s in there fairly chompin’ at the bit for his supper. Love you!”

That happened a long time ago, but I still remember standing with the silent telephone heavy in my hand, wondering what brand of shortening — or maybe lard — they used to fry that ice cream and thinking that it had been purely selfish of me to think that my little piece of news was interesting and important. 

But now — now I had genuinely important news.  I could give my mother the amazing glad tidings that I had been given a clean bill of mental health by the patient psychologist who had spent the past four-and-a-half years, with sliding-scale pay, helping me to understand and come to grips with my crazy life and to change the way I think about and do things. There was no way Mama could upstage me this time.  This was front-page news with a banner headline and a big color photo — a news break during a prime-time show — the center ring at the circus.

I knew such news wasn’t something to convey by phone, that I must travel to see my mother and spend time with her.  After a lifetime of misunderstanding and miscommunication between Mama and me, I wanted to take things slow, take all the time needed to connect with her — find peace — let her know that I know she and I have always loved each other. Reassure her that I’ve learned that God doesn’t ever give up on anyone, that he loves both of us. 

But, before I could make plans to go, Mama’s next-door neighbor Vera called to tell me that Mama was bad sick, that she refused to see a doctor, and that she said I should come right away. She also told me that, just two days ago, Mama had been happy, telling her as they walked down to the office to pay their rent that she had been invited to go to lunch and a movie with a nice man she had just met at the senior center 42 tournament.

I had my own Avon business and a car by then, so all I had to do was put a message on the answering machine, set out big bowls of kibble and water for the cat, and take off.  I drove fast, and in spite of snow flurries the last twenty miles or so, I was at Mama’s bedside by dusk. 

“Baby,” she whispered, a faint smile crossing her lips.  “My sweet baby. This old frayed heart’s just acting up a little — it just gets all silly like that sometimes.”  She reached for my hand. 

“Marcy, honey, you know — I’m always here for you — I pray for you — almost every night.  You know I can. . .”

“I know, Mama, I know, but don’t talk. You need to get some beauty sleep now.  We’ll talk first thing in the morning.”  I plugged in her plastic Virgin Mary nightlight, switched off the bedside lamp, and scooted the glass of water and the Kleenex over where she could reach them. I tucked the white chenille bedspread around her thin shoulders and under her chin and then leaned over, smoothed back her hair, stroked her eyebrows,and with my thumb traced the sign of the cross on her shiny forehead.

I stood then, watching, and holding Mama’s hand until her breathing became regular and a little slower. She looked fresh and young, and I guess she was.  Somehow she had missed out completely on growing up.  Perpetual girlhood.  I stood there for a long time, thinking about that and about how it almost seemed as if she were my child instead of the other way around. 

Then, just as I thought I might gently pull my hand from hers and tiptoe out of the room, her blue-veined eyelids fluttered and she whispered in a raspy little voice, “I just met the nicest man, Marcy — a real sweetheart — Southern gentleman — I just know he’s going to be — my soul mate, the man of my dreams. . ."

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