He called me his “Lucky Lady” when talking to the other customers at the doughnut shop where I worked; he told them how one day I’d sold him four winning lotto tickets. He was ruggedly handsome, owned a construction company, and could change the course of my blood just by walking through the door.
It was flattering to be called “lucky,” but it was the “lady” part that made me blush. I thought I really had him fooled, that he thought I was at least eighteen. He had to be around forty, I figured. Our age difference only made me want him more.
One May afternoon, I was stuffing long-john shells with angel cream when a thunderclap brought me from the kitchen. The downpour was so heavy it seemed the doughnut shop was going through a carwash. Outside the window, my bicycle was visible only as waves of muted color. I was about to call my parents for a ride when the object of my desire walked in looking like an after-shave commercial.
We sped away in his sports car. I felt uncomfortably wet, and nervously picked at the rubber weatherstripping around the window until he told me to stop. He turned the radio dial, trying to find a song he thought I’d like. My street came and went.
“I haven’t been to this field since the carnival,” I managed to say between swallows after he parked. It wasn’t raining so hard anymore.
My fingers tasted sweet, he said. My breasts were firm.
His breath was sour, I thought, his skin too old.
I remember trying to find my way home, cutting through random back yards in a panic, running like a rabbit.
Mineral Point, Wisconsin
Ten years ago, my husband, Jim, was killed by a drunk driver. Afterward, I felt like a baby bird abandoned by its mother. I could barely balance my checkbook, let alone cope with an exploding water heater, a snake in the family room, a phone call informing me that my son had been badly injured in an automobile accident (on Father’s Day).
One time, I parked behind my daughter’s apartment and returned to find vandals smashing the windshield of my station wagon, uprooting the steering wheel, ripping out the radio. I had to purchase a new car, a nearly impossible feat for a woman who’d never even taken her old one to the mechanic.
Since our four children had left home, Jim had always been the one to handle their crises, while I hovered on the sidelines. Now I’m the family matriarch. Whoever needs me, I’m just a phone call away.
How would Jim have reacted when Jody introduced him to her lesbian partner? Would he have gone hiking with the two of them in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Would Jim have flown with Anna deep into the rain forests of Belize to explore caves in search of two-thousand-year-old Mayan pottery? Or stayed in a three-room hotel on stilts in Crooked Tree Wildlife Reserve, where lizards climbed the walls of the makeshift bathroom?
Ten years have gone by, and his death still feels like an amputation. My eyes fill up every time I see a husband and wife walking hand in hand. Still, as I take stock of my life without Jim, I feel buoyed by my resilience — even as I dig my car out from under this winter’s seventeenth snowstorm.
I always wanted my dad to be proud of me. But he worked hard and never had time to look at my drawings, or take pictures of me in my ballet costumes. He never knew me.
When I graduated from high school, he went with me to visit college campuses, but he never asked what majors I was considering or what I wanted out of life. In the end, he demanded that I go to a Catholic women’s college because the boys at all the other campuses were “too wild.” The school he chose didn’t even offer any of the majors that interested me.
I got married at a young age, and had two lovely children. (He never knew them, either, but sent generous checks for their birthdays and Christmas.) When my children were both in school, I went to work as a freelance artist. Dad never commented except to say that my sculpture of myself as a little girl bore no resemblance to how I’d looked.
Then I went back to school, got an advanced degree, and landed a well-paying job at a major corporation. I worked long hours and didn’t spend enough time with my children. I had some success, mainly because of the work ethic Dad had instilled in me, but I hated my job and was so overburdened that I had nightmares about work. When Dad introduced me to his friends as his daughter “the executive,” with his chest puffed up and a big smile on his face, I felt as if I’d been stabbed in the chest with a butcher knife.
I was a young girl, stoned and looking for love on a mattress on the floor of a darkened room. I didn’t see the boy again for a long time.
Soon I started to feel the kicking inside, the sweet, subtle movements of life stirring. On dark winter mornings, my mother took me to an inner-city church to do volunteer work, so I would realize what a hard life single mothers had. I returned home in the evenings after dark, wearing a coat I couldn’t close over my expanding belly.
Weeks before my due date, she put me in the Salvation Army’s home for unwed mothers. There were many other girls there, but no mothers or grandmothers giving sympathy or advice, no lovers or husbands standing in awe and patting our heads. Each of us had her own private pain, and would enter into labor and give birth alone.
My water broke in the middle of the night. I awoke in a puddle and went to the bathroom, amniotic fluid dripping down my legs. It felt soft and silky, and smelled like the ocean and semen. I cleaned up the mess and said nothing.
The next day, I went into labor. They put me in a green room with two beds and a TV. I was there a long time. Other girls came and went in the bed next to mine. They screamed and cried and were taken down the hall to push their babies out, most never holding or seeing them, the adoptions arranged long before.
I never cried out for my mother. When it came my time to go down the hall, there was lots of panic, everyone yelling, “Scoot over here! Put your legs here! Breathe from this mask! Push, push, push!”
“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked. I overheard someone say, “She’s breathing,” then saw her feet as they huddled around her before taking her away. I felt peace, the kind you experience only after you’ve done something truly great.
The next day I told my mother on the phone, “I’m not giving her up for adoption.”
“You can’t keep her,” she said. “You can’t take care of her alone. You have no idea what you’re getting into.”
And she was right; I had no idea.
Catskill, New York
It has been more than a year since my mother died, after a lifetime of suffering from asthma and chronic pulmonary disease. She had always survived on grit and sheer force of will. Growing up, I was often resentful of her never-give-up, never-stop-moving attitude. I was a dreamy, dawdling kid, and she never could stand to see anyone sitting still, not doing anything. But when we brought her home from the hospital that last time, she was bone thin and passive, and I had to bathe and feed her. To see her standing helplessly while I toweled her emaciated body broke my heart.
At her memorial service, while I was still numb with grief, my mother’s girlfriends stood up to remind us of her joyful sense of mischief and sparkling good humor, how she was always enlisting them as allies in some project intended to do good and be fun. As her daughter, I had been subjected to her controlling will more than they, but hearing their descriptions of her escapades, I remembered how much I’d loved being included in her benign, playful conspiracies. I remembered what a good teacher she’d been, always taking pleasure in getting her hands dirty, in doing things together with me.
Then the pastor described his vision of her in heaven, running through a field like a joyful doe, freed from the fragile vessel that had carried her on earth, breathing deeply, never again exhausted or let down by her body. Though I do not share his beliefs, the image became so real for me that it surfaced unexpectedly throughout months of grief, and has become one of my clearest memories of her, her spirit triumphant.
San Francisco, California
The man who had hurt me, terrified me, and violated my little body ultimately taught me to forgive. If I could forgive and feel sadness for a man who’d betrayed and damaged me so, then whom couldn’t I forgive? After all was said and done, it turned out that forgiving him was the only way to forgive myself for wanting to be close to him, for loving the attention he gave me, for not telling right away, and most of all for not hating how it felt.
When I learn to love myself again, I will truly have triumphed — not over him, but over the hate and fear he left behind.
Daddy once tried to steal my 1972 Pinto, which I kept hidden in the back yard. (He had already stolen Mother’s car and traded it in on a new one.) When I heard my car start, I ran out and jumped on the hood as he backed down the driveway. He spun the wheel, trying to throw me off. I reached in the open window, and he rolled it up on my hand. I clung to the windshield wipers and he turned them on. This was the only car we had left, and I wasn’t going to let him take it.
We ended up at his apartment, where I told him that, so help me God, if he kept my car I would come over in the middle of the night and put sugar in the gas tank and bash in the windows. He took me home and later that night sheepishly returned my keys. I was fourteen. How I came to have a car at fourteen is another story.
In junior high, my friend Adam and I took classes in downhill skiing. On the last day of our lessons, our instructors arranged a race. Not expecting to win, I was stunned when I tied for second place with Adam. “I guess you’ll both get trophies,” the judge said. I was excited, because I’d always looked with fascination and longing at the trophies in their locked cases at school.
The night of the awards ceremony, Adam and I stood next to each other, anxiously waiting to hear our names called. But they announced only my name for second place. Confused, I went up and got my trophy. When I came back, Adam was weeping silently and being consoled by his dad. It turned out the judges had decided to give me second place because I had “better form.”
Luckily, the incident didn’t cool our friendship. One night, Adam and I were hanging out in my room, and he asked where the trophy was. “It’s in the attic,” I told him, and we went back to listening to Pink Floyd.
The truth was I had thrown it away. Instead of making me feel proud, the trophy had reminded me of Adam’s silent tears.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I’ve always loved to give blood, watching the Red Cross nurse neatly insert the needle into the blue vein, and the red blood race up the plastic tube. I’m proud of the good bulging veins in the crooks of my arms. The nurses smile to see me coming.
I was adopted and never knew whose blood flowed in my veins until this past fall, when, after years of fruitless searching, I finally uncovered something about my ancestry. A file in the basement of the courthouse contained a musty, forty-year-old letter from my mother. In it she told me why she was giving me away, told me I was born in Jackson County, Missouri, told me she was French and German and my father was Italian.
The next day there was a blood drive. I went in shouting, “I know my blood!” The nurses just looked at me like I was crazy. Like most people, they were surrounded by and oblivious to their genealogy, like fish in water.
My childhood wouldn’t have been so bad if Mother had gotten to sing at the Met. She performed in light opera and summer theater, but she never reached the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, which caused big problems for me.
Mother was determined that, since she hadn’t made “the big time,” one of her children would. We were subjected to classical opera, foreign languages, and, worst of all, piano lessons. Every Saturday morning, while my friends slept in or played kickball, I had to practice for my lesson that afternoon: a perfectly good Saturday, ruined.
I was tubby and short-fingered. My feet didn’t reach the pedals (not that I would have known how to use them), and my hands couldn’t manage the scales. My older sister was pretty and mildly musical, so Mother lavished affection on her. My total lack of rhythm and my tone-deafness were attributed to “not trying,” and more practice was prescribed — all of which would almost have been bearable had it not been for the dreaded recital. The final straw was scheduling me to play “The Happy Farmer” in front of hordes of parents one Sunday afternoon in late spring.
For this agony Mother had a seamstress fashion me a pink, ruffled organdy dress with matching panties and a huge bow over my prominent rear. Nothing less becoming to me could ever have been devised. I looked like a scowling kewpie doll.
When the day arrived I couldn’t remember a note of that awful tune. The other students and I gathered in our teacher’s garden to await our turns. I picked up gravel from the path and tossed it into her stagnant fish pond to watch the ripples. Adam, my enemy since kindergarten, said I looked awful. As if I needed him to tell me. Showing off, I began to walk around the crumbling parapet of the fish pond, and — somehow — I fell in.
At the other children’s cries, all the parents rushed out to find me rising from the water covered in slimy green algae, and Adam yelling, “I didn’t touch her! I didn’t!” Father helped me out, and I stood, dripping, before Mother, who was furious.
“You’ve ruined your new dress!”
“Now you can’t play in the recital.”
“If you think I am going to waste your father’s hard-earned money on lessons that you just throw away, you have another thing coming, young lady.”
“It was an accident,” I mumbled.
Mother never believed me.
Sitting on newspapers in the car on the way home, I silently rejoiced. Now I would have Saturdays all to myself! My triumph was short-lived, though. For the rest of the year I was sent to embroidery lessons.
Ardeane H. Smith
It was the summer of 1956. I walked through the front gates of the college, transcripts in hand, prepared for my appointment with Miss Winton. I had dressed carefully for the interview: business suit, dress pumps, a new haircut — very professional. I had been a freshman at this college seven years earlier, but had dropped out to get married. Now, after my divorce, I desperately wanted to continue my education. But nothing had prepared me for my reception at this interview.
“I’m sorry,” Miss Winton told me, not looking sorry at all. “There is no way we can admit you. You are raising two children by yourself, and all freshman and sophomore girls must live in dormitories or with their parents. Anyway, we couldn’t have you influencing our girls. After all, you are experienced; you were married.”
Ordinarily I accepted defeat, but this was too important a battle to give up. I had to fight it, and I had to win. A faculty advisor helped me take my case to the State Board of Higher Education, although he was severely criticized for doing so. Eventually, the board determined that the school had no legal basis to refuse me an education.
Miss Winton hated me the entire time I was a student in her pristine empire, partly because I was “experienced,” but mostly because I’d forced her to back down. For the twenty-two months it took me to complete my degree, I had to apply for a housing waiver every term, and have it signed by all my professors. This meant I had to endure the humiliation of having my circumstances publicly discussed, and my behavior scrutinized. But I was in.
I became a fry cook and eventually night manager of the school’s lunchroom. I rented a tiny trailer more than a mile from campus and walked to class and back. Seven years of marriage, work, and motherhood had left me unprepared to cope with even the most fundamental courses. Freshman English nearly finished me. But I worked harder. I had no choice.
My success paved the way for another divorcée, who would eventually become my son’s first-grade teacher. But it was not until I watched my last child earn his advanced degree that I finally could savor my triumph. It was too late then to go back and tell Miss Winton that she was wrong, but not too late to know that I had helped bring down an outmoded system.
My parents were the first hippies in our neighborhood. Struggling to blend in despite them, I joined the Brownies. One day, my mom got me all dressed up for a special Brownie field trip, destination unknown. My troop ended up in a big, brightly lit room, where we sat in bleachers and watched a performance called The Bozo the Clown Show. I had no idea what it was about. We were each assigned a number, and those lucky participants whose numbers were called out would join Bozo on the floor and compete in various contests for prizes. While I waited for my number to be called, I scanned the prizes and settled on a six-foot-tall stuffed lion.
Just when I was sure the show was almost over, it happened: the MC called my number! They lined six of us up side by side and explained the rules of the game “Mexican Hat Pass”: while music is played, you pass a sombrero from head to head, up and down the line. When the music stops, whoever is wearing the sombrero is out of the game. Pretty quickly it was down to me and one boy. Every time he put that hat on my head I heaved it back at him — I hadn’t gone through all of that waiting and anticipation to lose to a Cub Scout. And I didn’t. I won.
Bozo congratulated me and gave me my prize: an album of patriotic tunes. (At the time I was listening to Otis Redding and Bob Dylan.) I tried to insist on the six-foot-tall stuffed lion instead, but Bozo brushed me off.
When I returned home, all the kids on my block were there to greet me and celebrate my victory, which they had witnessed on television. “What?” I said in amazement. “I was on TV?”
Santa Cruz, California
My dad bought his first Triumph motorcycle in 1954, when he was nineteen. He and his cousin Eddie wanted Harleys, but when they went to the Harley-Davidson dealer the salesman told them not to waste his time and shooed them out. So Eddie bought an Indian and Dad bought a Triumph.
He rode that bike while he courted my mom. My Southern Baptist grandmother didn’t approve of boys who rode motorcycles and forbade Mom to see Dad. So Mom had to leave the house with her girlfriends and meet Dad at the top of the hill. By the time they were married, Dad had a 1956 Triumph TR6, which he sold a year later because he needed the money to buy a refrigerator. He was so miserable without it he bought a 1958 TR6 six months before I was born.
My first road bike was a 1979 Triumph Bonneville. I bought it the summer after my freshman year at college. At first Dad didn’t think I should, but when he saw it he said I’d gotten a good deal.
One Saturday afternoon, I was riding back to college and picked up a nail in my rear tire about eight miles from home. I called Dad, and he brought the motorcycle trailer, but when he looked at my tire he said we could fix it. Although I was skeptical, we laid the bike on its side, broke the bead on the tire without taking off the wheel, pulled the tube out, and patched it. I doubted it would stay up, but I decided to trust him and rode back to college. The tire lasted until I replaced it four years later.
Dad died a year and a half ago. What I remember most are days like that hot summer afternoon fixing a flat tire together, the unspoken love between us as we worked side by side.
San Francisco, California
I have always resented the fact that I’m not as healthy as others seem to be. I spent most of my early childhood playing host to a variety of illnesses, from tonsillitis to scarlet fever. I’ve always felt that I am defective in some way. I know, from overhearing my parents’ fights, that my father shared this view. When I was a newborn, he apparently saw my constant crying as evidence of some flaw. As an adult, I still contract the flu any time I get run down, and recurrent bouts of depression often accompany my physical ailments.
A few weeks ago, I felt a tightness around my eyes and a raw feeling in the back of my throat. I knew a bad respiratory flu was going around and figured this was the beginning. But this time, rather than being at the mercy of the illness, I decided to help my immune system fight it. I fed myself echinacea, vitamin C, ginger, and loads of garlic. The symptoms lingered tenaciously for nearly two weeks. At one point I felt my sinuses fill and figured I was on a downhill slide. But then, just as quickly as the symptoms had arrived, they retreated. I had successfully fought off invading germs for the first time, and I felt triumphant.
There are some parts of teaching I hate — specifically, office hours. The basic idea behind office hours is great: a time for students to drop by and chat. Problem is, more often they come to complain.
A very persistent student is coming in today to protest for the second time a grade I gave him on a paper. The grade was a D, and it was difficult to give to such a polite, attentive, and well-spoken student. His paper, however, barely addressed the assignment. When he showed up at my office a few days ago, I was prepared for the usual brand of bitching — “This is unfair; I worked so hard; I’m an A student” — and was caught off guard by a serious, thorough discussion of each of the comments I had made on his work. He used color-coded highlighting to politely point out why the problem I had seen wasn’t really a problem, or how he had indeed done what the assignment sheet asked of him. This went on for forty-five minutes before we both gave up — he from frustration, I from exhaustion.
Now I sit here awaiting his return, envisioning a drawn-out appeals process. I am prepared this time, having brought with me the department’s grading guidelines, an example of a well-written draft of this same assignment, and other assorted justifications for my evaluation, all as neatly highlighted as his previous evidence. I can’t help but feel his behavior is a little obsessive, and that he’s causing me to become that way myself. It’s easy enough to feel insecure about slapping a grade on someone’s hard work without that person fighting tooth and nail to get it changed. How far will he push me? I shift uncomfortably in my chair.
When he arrives, we make small talk for a minute, and then I ask what I can do for him. He tells me that after our last conversation he still thought that I was being unfair. I bristle, reaching for my stack of supporting documents. He goes on: He figured the best way to handle it was to let it sit for a few days, and then to reread his paper. So he did just that — printed out a clean copy, cleared his mind, and read.
“And?” I say.
“And you were right,” he replies. “The paper was poorly written and deserved the grade it got.”
I am speechless.
“Thank you,” he tells me. “I learned a lot.”
When I was very young, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Even before I could read, I searched newspapers for pictures of ballerinas, which I cut out and carefully saved and studied to see how a ballerina held herself. I became so obsessed that whenever I heard music, I danced in imitation of the one ballet dancer I had seen in a movie. I walked to school with what I thought was perfect posture, picking things up off the floor with a swooping arabesque, hurrying to answer the telephone on my tiptoes.
In the second grade, I heard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” in music appreciation, and I informed the teacher that I knew the dance to go with that music. The moment this lie left my lips, I believed it passionately. The teacher did, too, and invited me to perform for my fellow first- and second-graders. I can’t remember what sort of dance I performed, but it must have been convincing because the teacher asked me to repeat it for the third- and fourth-graders that afternoon, and to perform for the fifth- and sixth-graders the next week. The loud applause each time seemed to turn my fantasy into a reality. I really was a dancer.
A week later, at Parents’ Day, I heard my teacher say to my mother, “We so much enjoyed your daughter’s dancing.”
“My daughter doesn’t know how to dance,” my mother told her. “She’s never had a lesson in her life.”
Recovering from her surprise, my teacher was kind enough to conclude, “Even so, she’s very talented.” At least none of my classmates overheard. With them, my triumph remained intact.
It’s been many years now since I took a women’s self-defense class. I still recall the torturous hours I spent learning to scream, kick, punch, bite, and poke mock attackers, who whispered our worst nightmares to us, trying to paralyze us with fear. When one of them pinned me to the mat and told me that he had tied my five-year-old son up in the next room, my blood ran cold and I froze: all of the moves, all of the strength, all of the rage was gone. I couldn’t do it. I cried and went limp. Then I heard my teacher’s voice in my other ear: “You’re a huge, powerful mother bear. You will do this now.”
Is she kidding? She’s going to make me do this? No, I can’t.
“You are a strong mother grizzly whose cub is in danger and you will act now!”
Then, from some place deep inside came a roar, a rage that overcame the fear, the paralysis. Effortlessly, I threw my assailant off and heard the cheers of my classmates.
Today my son, Ian, is competing in the Special Olympics. His event is the one-kilometer Nordic race. A group of athletes stand on their skis near the starting line. Most are handicapped adults. Where are the children? I wonder, and search for others with Down Syndrome. When I find a few I am relieved — and confused. How old are they? I don’t like looking at them; it’s like staring into my son’s future.
I and my daughter, Mia, position ourselves under the pine trees on the far side of the course from the starting line. When the whistle blows I send Mia up the knoll to where she can watch Ian start.
“He’s going!” she yells to me.
He doesn’t have a prayer of winning, even though all his competitors also have special needs. He can’t coordinate his poles. He’s great at going downhill, and at double poling, but he can’t get that cross-pattern stride down. And he’s slow. Ian doesn’t know the meaning of rushing, let alone pushing himself. I’m not sure what racing means to him — something about getting a trophy, but I’m not sure what else.
“He’s coming!” Mia yells.
I can’t see him at first; then a group rounds the bend, and I feel a surge of desperation as, one by one, the other racers pass Ian, who is slowly plugging along, struggling to coordinate his arms with his legs, planting his poles wildly. I want to ski up behind him and put my arms on his, giving him the rhythm, moving his arms, planting his poles. Have I failed him again? Did I not prepare him? Why does it even matter? He’s racing — his heart’s desire. What else matters?
“You’re doing great!” I yell. “You’re over halfway there! Keep going!”
“Do you think he’ll win a medal?” Mia asks.
“I don’t know. It depends on how many kids his age are in this event.”
“I think he’ll get a medal,” Mia says. “I think everybody gets a medal.”
We stay until the last racer has rounded the corner and passed us; then we head back toward the finish line.
When we find Ian, he yells, “I won!”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “But you did great. You finished the whole course. It was long, wasn’t it?”
We wait to hear them announce the winners. Medals are given in each age group. I listen for Ian’s. He sits at a distance from me and his sister, as though to make it clear this is his day, not ours.
“In the twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds, first place goes to Ben Bishop. Second place goes to Ian Schultz-Baer.”
I watch as Ian has a medal placed around his neck. He walks over to me, throws his arms around my neck, and says proudly, “I won!”
Tears wet my cheeks. “That’s great,” I say.
Mia was right: everyone wins. And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for his moment of pride. I’m grateful that he can hug me, flash his medal, and say, “I won.”
It’s not always obvious how little he understands, but here it is clear — he no more won the race than walked to the moon. Still, what does it matter?
“I won,” Ian says again.