The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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There I was on a cold spring night, playing midwife to a panic-stricken pig. The sow was too young to be having her first litter, but my rancher boyfriend, Mike, had been careless in his record keeping. The pregnancy had been difficult, and now labor had her in a frenzy. Mike had called me for help because I was a medical social worker with nurse’s training — and because the large-animal vet would have charged him after-hours rates for a visit.
Dimming the lights, I soothed the sow with touches and whispers. Once she was calm, her piglets began to emerge just minutes apart. After clearing the newborns’ nasal passages, I put them to the sow’s teats, coaxing them to latch on.
Like most ranchers, Mike preferred to remove the piglets from their mother at birth and put them under a heat lamp, fearing the sow might step on them — and there would go his profit.
“This is a business with me, you know,” he said, “not just some hobby.”
I tried to explain how the babies’ nursing caused uterine contractions in the mother, speeding up subsequent births while preventing hemorrhaging, but Mike was insistent. Finally I told him, “Do what I say, or I won’t ever come help you again.” Unable to deny my 100 percent success rate with difficult deliveries on his farm, he backed down.
Eight piglets were born that night. After making sure that the new mother was comfortable and clean, I got ready to leave. “Good job, sweetheart,” I whispered to the sow. She looked up at me and grunted. Her piglets were sprawled at her teats, all doing well. I drove home smiling.
Mike was proud of his pigs, which always earned the highest prices at auction. He wanted me to come to an auction and see how well they did, but I dreaded it. When I finally did attend, I couldn’t hold back my tears anytime one of Mike’s pigs was offered up for sale. I’d helped to bring each of them into this world.
Never again, I swore to him — and to myself — and I ran from the arena.
After Mike and I broke up, he sold his ranch and moved to town. I now have a wonderful life with a gentle man. Still, on cool spring nights, I sometimes wake up thinking of the sweet fragrance of fresh straw and the mewling sound of baby pigs. I miss them.
Santa Rosa, California
On Sleeping Bear Dunes in northern Michigan I saw an older man standing ankle deep in the sand. He was about a third of the way up the five-hundred-foot slope and gazing toward the top. As I passed him, I said, “It’s a tough climb today, isn’t it?”
Yes, he replied. It was too steep for him. He was going to call it quits.
“Well, maybe tomorrow,” I said.
He shook his head and explained that he was eighty-four and just couldn’t make the climb anymore. He had been to the top of the dunes every year since he was a boy. “It had to come to an end sometime,” he said.
The man didn’t seem to mind not finishing the climb. Instead he talked about what a gratifying experience it had been for many decades. He pointed to the dunes’ crest, where he said there had been pine, beech, and birch trees fifty years earlier. The windblown sands had eventually buried them, as they someday would the trees to our right.
The next time I have an experience for what I know will be the last time, I hope to approach the occasion with the same acceptance that man had.
Nelson Henry Goud
Steven and I were in college together in 1955. He was a junior, and I was a sophomore. I kept running into him at fraternity dances, and we went out a few times. It was hard not to fall for him. He was tall, muscular, and handsome. But there was always something a little off about his personality. None of his fraternity brothers liked to hang around with him.
We broke up and got back together again several times. In the middle of his senior year we were at the point of splitting for good, but Steven wouldn’t give up. Finally he said, “Let’s just go to a justice of the peace and get married.”
I was stunned. It sounded so romantic and daring. I said yes.
On the ride to the justice of the peace, I changed my mind and cried, but Steven just kept driving. We were married that afternoon.
Steven was not easy to live with. He liked to have control. We rented a small apartment off campus, and one night I didn’t finish washing the dishes. So Steven decided to show his displeasure with his fists. I was beyond shocked. I couldn’t even scream as he beat me. For the last half of that semester my body was a mass of black-and-blue marks, but he never hit me where the bruises would show. During most of the beatings I didn’t just curl up and lie there. I kicked and bit and scratched. But Steven weighed more than twice as much as I did, and he was strong.
One Saturday night he was doing some schoolwork, and it was not going well. By this time I could recognize the warning signs, so I dressed quickly and left to see a movie with a girlfriend. Everything was quiet when I got back.
The next morning I got up early and made pancakes. Steven was still in bed reading the Sunday paper when I called to him that breakfast was ready. When he answered, I could hear in his tone of voice that he was about to go into a rage. A strange calm came over me. I picked up the cast-iron frying pan, walked into the bedroom, and told him that breakfast was getting cold.
He tossed aside the paper to lunge for me, and I drew back and slammed him in the head with the pan. It made a frightening sound, and he fell to the bed in a daze. “You will never hit me again,” I said. And I was right.
Mount Prospect, Illinois
As an introvert I used to think prison wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for me. I was unmarried and had no kids. It would give me more time to read. I pictured a cozy cell with a stack of books by the bed.
I’ve since learned the hard way about the reality of prison — a minimum-security one, anyway. It’s basically an adult day care. Thirty-four men share a single sleeping area, one of four in each building. Being incarcerated here is like living in a warehouse that happens to have shower facilities.
Deprive me of my freedom? I can adjust. Feed me lousy food? I can stomach it. Stall my progress in life? I can prepare for my second act. But plop my introverted self into a place where I’m surrounded by people all the time? That’s cruel and unusual punishment.
If anyone ever asks me whether I’ll commit another offense, I know what my answer will be.
Garrett Hamer Phillips
Asheville, North Carolina
When my brother became forgetful in his early fifties, we made excuses for his strange behavior: He lost his car in the airport parking lot and had to call his son for help. There was a mountain of unopened mail on his desk at work. He could not master a new computer program despite numerous tutorials.
Next came the doctor visits, first with our family internist and then at the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Aging and Dementia, where my brother underwent extensive testing: MRIs, brain scans, blood work. He failed every cognitive test, including “Place the pen on top of the sheet of paper” and “Draw the face of a clock.”
He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He could no longer drive, had no use for a watch, couldn’t grasp the meaning of a calendar. He stopped carrying his wallet, reading, or using his cellphone. After he vanished during a checkup at the dementia center (he was found by transit police fifteen miles away), we made sure somebody was with him every time he left the house.
Words escaped him so often that simple conversation became a game of charades. One morning in June 2005, while I drove him to his weekly early-onset-Alzheimer’s support group, I asked my brother what he planned to wear to his oldest son’s upcoming wedding. He fidgeted with his pant leg and then said, “Blue. White.” Fortunately I knew what he meant: a blue-and-white-striped seersucker suit. His face lit up when I said the words for him.
At the wedding my brother danced with our niece, smiled proudly at his wife and three grown boys, and looked wonderful in his suit, despite his faraway gaze in every photo.
That was the last time he got to be out in the world. The following week, at the age of fifty-three, he moved into an assisted-living facility in Oakland. His small suite had a fabulous view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but he didn’t like it there. After a series of outbursts landed him in a local hospital, where he was put in a straitjacket, the facility asked that he not return. He was moved to a psychiatric hospital, where he received excellent care.
In the late spring of 2010 I watched a nursing-home assistant feed my brother puréed sweet potatoes from a plastic plate as he sat facing a window filled with sunlight. At one point during the feeding he opened his eyes, and that’s when I realized I hadn’t seen his eyes in many months; he normally kept them squeezed shut. His irises were the blue of Caribbean waters. I couldn’t look away until his lids fell again. I took the spoon and fed him another bite, hoping it would cause him to open those blue eyes once more. But he never did.
I was my parents’ fourth son, and their last attempt to have a girl. When I was four years old, I wanted a walking doll for Christmas. I’d seen her in the Sears catalog and had already named her Marla. On Christmas morning 1956 my wish was granted. Marla arrived with a complete wardrobe hand-sewn by my mother, including a green velvet evening gown lined with silk.
The next month, while my parents attended their monthly Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting, I played with Marla in a corner of the VFW hall. A girl came up and began mocking me for having a doll. Then a crowd of kids gathered to join in humiliating me.
I never again brought Marla out in public. She stayed hidden in the back of a closet when I wasn’t playing with her at home.
In college I had my first relationship with a man and came out to my family. After graduation I accepted a teaching position at a public school in a tightknit rural community. A female co-worker and I began spending time together after work. When I’d dated girls in high school, the relationships had all fallen apart as soon as we’d become intimate, but this one was different. I believed she could change me. We married and went on to have two daughters. But the struggle to be someone I wasn’t proved too much, and in the spring of 1985 I admitted to my wife that I was gay. We tried therapy and religious counseling. Finally I did what was best for everyone and ended the marriage.
I reunited with my college boyfriend and shared custody of my girls with my ex. At first I tried to pretend for my daughters that my boyfriend and I were roommates, but as they got older and started asking questions, we confirmed what they already knew.
My partner and I are both retired now and living in the country outside the college town where we met forty years ago. Marla is prominently displayed near the entrance of our home. Never again will I hide her in a closet.
Samantha and I began seeing each other secretly the day I turned thirty. It remains the most memorable birthday of my life. Each new encounter after the first left me hungry for more. The X-rated theater across the street from where we worked advertised the movie 1,000 Times on its flashing marquee. I felt as if we were racing to reach that milestone.
After my wife found out about the affair, she left me and our two daughters. I was happy she was gone.
Sam would always call me after one of our late-night trysts. She would speak in hushed tones for fear that her husband might hear. One night, when neither Sam nor I wanted the conversation to end, she told me she loved me. I said the same to her, as I had before. She gasped and said, “Oh, God, I do love you!” as if she had finally admitted it to herself. And then she hung up. The house was silent. My girls were in bed. I thought the next act in our relationship was about to begin.
But that was the only time Sam ever said those words to me. And though our affair continued, I came to realize that she would never leave her husband, and I would have to move away to end it. And so I did.
Sam and I said goodbye on a bare mattress in an otherwise empty house, and then the girls and I drove to another part of the country. As I steered a U-Haul over the mountains, I thought that I would wait two years for Sam, to see if she would follow. (She didn’t.) I also vowed never again to have an affair: when I remarried, I would not keep secrets or lie to my spouse, and I would expect the same honesty from my partner.
Five years after I left town in that U-Haul, I got married. J. and I have been together for twenty-eight years now. I have kept my vows to myself and to her.
From time to time over the years I would hear about Sam from friends. She often appeared to me in vivid dreams, and I would occasionally search for her online. That’s how, two years ago, I found her husband’s obituary. I wrote to Sam expressing my condolences, and she answered. We’ve kept in touch.
We tell each other things now that we never talked about long ago. I get up each morning and check my e-mail to see if she has answered my latest message. When she has, it is a very, very good day.
While my housemates look on, I open my mother’s gift to me. I’m nervous because she sometimes sends me presents that in no way reflect who I am, as if she doesn’t know me at all.
The card reads, “This is your life, Honey!” The gift is a collage of photos from my childhood — a sort of pictorial biography.
“Heavy, man!” Forest says as he leans over my shoulder. “Look at you!”
And I do look at the photos my mother has chosen: me as a baby in a lacy baptismal gown; as a girl in a First Communion dress, complete with virginal veil; posing proudly in a cowgirl outfit in front of the Christmas tree; standing at attention in my brand-new Brownie uniform; dressed in a Catholic-school uniform of plaid skirt, blazer, and starched white blouse; wearing a tiara and prom dress for the homecoming court; posing in a college-graduation gown; forcing a shy smile in my wedding dress, again with the (no longer appropriate) virginal veil.
I study the photos closely. Do they really tell my story? What is my story?
Fantasia scoffs. “You’re in costumes in all of them! What was with your parents?”
She’s right. Every photo my mother has chosen features an outfit I didn’t normally wear. What does this mean? Was I always playing a role that had been thrust upon me? Did I ever pursue my own dreams? Did I actually want to be a Brownie, a college graduate, a wife?
I laugh to cover my confusion, then take a toke of the joint someone offers and declare that this is exactly why I left that life behind. Never again will I wear anyone else’s costume. I am free now from my parents’ expectations, their pressure to conform. My friends and I are independent thinkers who don’t live in bondage to jobs, suits, and fancy cars.
I pass around my mother’s collage so everyone can laugh. And for the first time I notice that my housemates all have the same long hair and loose-fitting, colorful clothes. Just like me.
Lynn Marie Bain
At last I am free from his disapproving sighs, his continual texts, and his never-ending questions about who I am with, what I am doing, and when I will be home. No more waking at 2 AM after working a double shift to find him glaring at me because I said something two days ago to upset him, or because he had a dream about my infidelity. No more being escorted to lunch because he doesn’t trust me to be alone. No more having my cellphone use monitored. No more enduring his explosive outbursts because I didn’t change out of an outfit he’d deemed inappropriate. No more seeing him sitting in the parking lot across from my job, spying on me. No more having him check the mileage on my car to be certain I am driving only to and from work. No more arguments about anything, everything, nothing at all.
A new man whispers in my ear now and marks my neck with his passion and assures me of his devotion. But the other man started out sweet, too. Already I feel the noose tightening. My circle of friends is shrinking. This new man monopolizes my free time. He says he just loves me so much. Though I am not entirely free of the first marriage yet, he speaks of making me his wife. I have promised myself that I will never walk that path again, but my feet remember the way.
Lately my husband and I have been fighting like two children, snarling at each other through gritted teeth. I’ll think that he looks ridiculous, and then, ten minutes later, I’ll act twice as ridiculous myself. As we always do when we argue, we come back over and over to the same hurts:
“You don’t appreciate me.”
“You expect too much.”
For twenty years it’s been this way. It’s depressing.
After a particularly harsh exchange that leaves me stewing, I come to my senses and go looking for my husband. I want to apologize. I find him in our walk-in closet, looking for the appropriate socks and shoes in which to storm out of the house. He is really mad this time. His face is red, and his nostrils are flared. But he also looks sweet and vulnerable as he bends over to search. The sleeves of his sweat shirt are pulled up to his elbows, revealing his forearms, and I am suddenly strongly attracted to him. I want those arms around me, those hands upon me. I think of all the ways he’s touched me: how he rubbed my back as I labored through thirteen hours of childbirth; how he stroked my hair at my father’s funeral; how he held open the door to his broken-down Buick on our first date.
I go to him and bury my face in his chest. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Let’s not do this anymore.”
Sheri A. Smith
After World War II my eastern European parents were living as refugees in Austria. They stayed in barracks that had been part of a forced-labor camp. They had four children in six years, putting a strain on their already scarce resources. My mother coped by attempting to create order in a chaotic world. She washed clothes by hand, without soap, proud of the snow-white diapers that fluttered on the clothesline. My father worked in the mines and supplemented his income by fashioning pots and pans from scrap metal and then trading them for food. Still, we were always cold and hungry.
In June 1951 our family immigrated to the American Midwest under the sponsorship of the National Catholic Welfare Council. A newspaper story five months later shows a picture of us piously huddled together in a church pew. Although the article is optimistic about my family’s future, the photo reveals the grief and exhaustion on my parents’ faces.
The opportunities my mother and father hoped for never materialized. Their poor English limited their job prospects. My father worked tirelessly to provide for us, holding down a full-time job and taking on as many part-time jobs as he could. I learned years later that he had dreamed of becoming a surgeon in Hungary. But he never complained or railed against his fate, never became short-tempered when things didn’t turn out according to plan.
My mother, on the other hand, had a mercurial personality and a short fuse. My oldest brother used to say that if you could harness the energy she spent flying into a rage, you could power New York City. She hated that her lack of education and language skills relegated her to cleaning work. She believed people were plotting against her. We, her noisy children, didn’t share her passion for neatness and order. An unwashed dish could set off a terrifying tirade that sometimes ended in violence.
As a teenager I found out that my mother read my diary, looking for secrets she could use against me. I was overcome with a fury so hot it scared me. The outburst that followed was the first of many.
When I became a mother, I vowed I would never treat my children the way I had been treated. And I kept my vow, even through bouts of depression and a month-long stay in a treatment facility. Sure, there were moments when I expressed anger: a harsh word when my daughter misbehaved, a swat on the bottom when my son ran into the street. But I never lost control.
One day my sister and I were comparing notes about how difficult our childhood had been. She said that watching our mother attack me had frightened her so much that she had often tried to make herself invisible.
I confided that I felt as if I became another person during those fights with our mother, a howling banshee who was nothing like me. I told my sister how proud I was that I had never screamed like that at my own children.
“Really?” she said. What about the time I’d been staying at her house, and my son had broken a glass, and I’d started screaming that he was terrible and I hated him, and she’d had to make me stop before a neighbor called the police?
I grew up one of just a handful of Jewish kids in a Catholic neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. Other children would laugh at my name and tell me that I’d “killed Christ.” Once, some friends suddenly began ignoring me and then later confided that a priest had told them to do it. I hated being different and wished I were like everyone else. Ballgames in the street were the only equalizer. There, at least, my status was determined by how many home runs I could hit, not by my religion.
My parents were friendly toward our neighbors, but also reserved and distant. They made it clear to me that we should stick to our own. I asked them why they needed to be so aloof. Couldn’t they just blend in? The answer always came back to the Holocaust. End of discussion.
Throughout my childhood I got my hair cut by John the barber. Trips to his shop to have my pompadour fine-tuned were as certain as the Phillies coming in last. Once, when I was in fifth grade, I was waiting for John to finish with the customer ahead of me, a regular who worked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The man started ranting about how the Jews were the cause of all his problems, and everyone else’s, too. John said nothing. I wished I could disappear.
My parents were surprised when I told them I wanted to switch barbers. I was too embarrassed to admit why. Also I didn’t want to prove them right.
Years later, when a car dealer told me he wouldn’t “Jew” me on the price, I considered not saying anything. But after the initial shock wore off, I said, “We need to talk.” And we did.
I hated going to my grandparents’ house when I was young. My two sisters and I would fight the whole way there — a three-hour drive. When we arrived and got out of the car, we would hear the TV blasting from inside the house because my grandfather was hard of hearing.
At the door my grandmother would tell me I looked horrible and give me twenty dollars — “to get a permanent.” In the living room my grandfather would be sitting in a green recliner and wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence as I kissed him on the cheek and shouted, “Hi, Grampa!”
This was my father’s childhood home, and to me it felt creepy and frozen in time. The living room smelled like rancid walnuts, caramels, and candy fruit slices. There was no comfortable place to sit, so I had to settle for a wrought-iron kitchen chair. The only soda my grandmother ever had was supermarket-brand root beer, which she kept in her spooky, dirt-floored cellar. She always made me go down there to get it. She would give me Beech-Nut gum that she kept in a junk drawer. When I tried to chew it, it was hard and tasted like rubber bands. She loved ham in any form and ate it all the time. I must have had hundreds of ham sandwiches and root beers in her kitchen.
My grandmother scared me. An unfiltered cigarette always dangled from her lower lip, and she had a hacking cough. When we played cards, she got angry. She had trouble walking and hopped around the house, yelling at everyone. I couldn’t understand why she never went upstairs. She even slept on the couch. One time I asked her if she’d been afraid during the war in the 1940s, and she said, “No, stupid, the war was in Europe.”
Years later I learned that my grandfather had gone deaf due to the radiation he’d received during cancer treatment, and my grandmother couldn’t climb stairs because she’d been born without a hip socket. After my grandmother passed away in the 1990s, I sorted through her junk drawer, throwing away the playing cards and the Beech-Nut gum. It made me sad to think that I would never again be a kid in that house.
Dad and Mom never forgave me for coming out as gay. They made their position clear: I was a sinner destined for hell, a danger to children, and an embarrassment to the family.
My parents stayed overnight at my one-bedroom apartment only once when my boyfriend, Dave, was there. I gave them the bed and rolled out sleeping bags for Dave and me on the kitchen floor. I thought we were quiet when we made love, but they must have heard, because they never again stayed overnight with me — nor would they allow my boyfriend and me to stay at their home, not even after he became my husband.
No longer welcome at holiday gatherings and summertime reunions, I wrangled an invitation to my parents’ fiftieth-anniversary celebration by volunteering to plan and coordinate the event. Dave and I chose the date, reserved a hall, and mailed the announcements. Then my mother called to cancel the party. She said she would be ashamed to have her family and friends see Dave and me together. Finally her younger sister prevailed upon her to go through with it — but only because the extended family had already made travel plans.
Almost three years later my father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Dave and I visited him in the hospital before he died. Three years after that, we returned to the same hospital, where my mother now lay comatose, felled by a terminal illness. She rallied just long enough to talk with me before slipping away again.
A few days later the doctors determined she could be sent home with hospice support but would require twenty-four-hour care. Dave had been a hospice chaplain for twenty years, and he and I volunteered to stay with her the first week.
That’s when my sister told me that Mom had left firm instructions: under no circumstances were Dave and I to sleep together under her roof. My sister asked if I would mind telling Dave to stay somewhere else.
Hell, yes, I would mind. For the twelve years since I’d come out I had made allowances for my parents and their hateful opinions about gay people, but no longer. I returned to my mother’s room, where she lay with her hair matted and tubes up her nose. I stood for a long time at her bedside, then leaned over, kissed her, and whispered, “Goodbye. I love you. I let you go.”
My mother eventually came out of the coma, but I never saw or spoke with her again. I didn’t return her calls, and I refused to attend her funeral. I had made my choice.
In the fall of 1963, in a college dorm room in Washington State, I learned how to smoke. We were a group of six girls, sitting on the floor in a circle, hands shaking while we struck match after match to light our filtered Kents. A friend had told us that smoking would help us relax while studying.
We tried to inhale like movie stars, but instead we coughed and gagged like patients in a TB ward. I remember the smoky flavor on my tongue the first time I inhaled without choking. I was transformed from an awkward young girl into a sophisticated, worldly woman.
Back then, smoking was allowed in grocery stores, libraries, and college classrooms. While studying, I measured time by how many butts crowded the ashtray. I was hooked: A cigarette before dinner. A cigarette after dinner. A cigarette before bed. A cigarette after the morning alarm.
By my thirties restaurants had added nonsmoking sections, and I had developed a smoker’s hack, which I chose to alleviate by lighting up another to suppress the tickle in my throat. By my forties I was gasping for air when I climbed stairs. I began trying to quit — after this carton; after this pack; after this cigarette — only to feel like a failure each time I lit up once more. Modern science came to the rescue with the nicotine patch, but it was like a band-aid covering a gaping wound. Plus I gained weight. (A friend laughingly told me I wasn’t supposed to eat the patches.) Finally I stopped craving cigarettes. My taste buds began working again, and I was able to breathe deeply.
I was a city bus driver, and one winter, almost a year after I’d quit, an epic snowstorm covered the streets in ice. Unable to drive any farther, I walked zombie-like into the nearest store to buy a pack of cigarettes. The first puff brought on a familiar euphoria and made me feel young again. I spent fifteen more years enshrouded in smoke.
As I reached the end of my fifties, my partner, Yvonne, was put on oxygen to keep her alive. Sitting in the garage, filling the air with shapely clouds, I wondered how I could justify smoking while someone I loved was hooked up to a machine twenty-four hours a day due to chronic pulmonary disease. I finally quit for good.
I sometimes find myself dreaming about having a cigarette. The illusion is so real I can taste the smoldering tobacco. I wake up relieved it was only a dream.
My father was given to unpredictable rages. I never knew what was going to set him off. One day he would ignore my brothers’ roughhousing, and the next he would beat them. Once, I got screamed at for “walking like an elephant.” For years I tried to make as little noise as possible.
In my twenties I confronted my father and asked him to apologize for the cruel things he’d done and said when I was a child. His response was that he had been a good father and had nothing to apologize for.
I swore I would never have children, because I was afraid I would become like my father. I spent nearly twenty years in therapy trying to grieve, understand, and forgive. When I turned forty, the longing to have a child became overwhelming. I thought I had healed enough that I could handle my anger.
The first time I lost my temper with my daughter, she was five months old. She had always napped in my arms and was struggling to make the transition to napping alone. If I laid her down, she screamed. If I held her, she screamed. I was exhausted and scared. One day I just jumped up and down with her in my arms until she stopped crying. When I realized what I had done, I was overcome with guilt.
My child is now two years old. Looking at her, I cannot even imagine what could make me so angry that I would want to hurt or frighten her. But when I am especially tired or have a headache, I will scream at her to shut up or grab her arm or sit her down with too much force. Later I’ll apologize and tell her that I have no right to yell at her or grab her, that I love her very much and am trying to do better. But no matter how often I acknowledge my mistakes, no matter how much I talk about them with my husband or therapist, no matter how many times I count to ten or leave the room or recite affirmations, the rage always comes back, and always when I feel least prepared to fight it.
I know I am not my father. I take responsibility for my own terrible behavior. I work hard to understand why I lose my temper so easily. I practice being patient and conscious of my feelings. My daughter deserves a loving, caring mother who can get frustrated and angry without turning into a monster. One day I will say, “Never again,” and it will be the truth.
In the summer of 1984 my boyfriend of six years and I decided to move from Southern California to Maine. He had never been there before, and he didn’t have a job lined up. Our primary goal was to get out of Los Angeles, where we lived in an ugly concrete-block building, in a neighborhood where the predominant color was a sun-bleached gray. I dreamed of colorful New England autumns and snowy winters. I also imagined my boyfriend and I would get married in Maine.
As I was packing to leave, my neighbor and his eight-year-old daughter came over to say goodbye. The little girl really liked me. She told me that if I decided I didn’t like Maine, I could always come back to LA. Her dad, Barry, had said I could stay with them. “Listen,” I told the girl, “I will never come back to California, and if I do, I will certainly not come back to Iowa Avenue.”
My boyfriend couldn’t find a job in Maine, so he returned to California. I moved back in with my parents while trying to figure out what to do next.
My sister was still in LA, so I decided to go back and start over. Two years had passed since I’d left. I called my old neighbor Barry, tossed my pride aside, and asked if the offer was still good to come and stay with him on Iowa Avenue.
Barry is now my husband, and that little girl is my stepdaughter.
My mother never left the house without turning to my sister or me to ask, “Do I look fat?”
I never thought of her as fat. Her curves mesmerized me, and I stuffed tube socks into my training bra to mimic her. I never questioned her beauty until one day when I was home sick from school and pretending to nap on the couch while my mother talked on the phone with a friend. My body had begun to change that year, and I no longer needed the tube socks. Although I was only eleven, I could easily have passed for sixteen.
My mother’s voice lowered to a whisper, and I heard my name: “I’m afraid Magin has been cursed with my thighs.”
Quietly under my blanket I began to cry.
In the years that followed, I inherited my mother’s shame regarding her body. I stole her calorie-counting manuals and the diet book she kept hidden at the top of her closet. I starved myself until I had headaches. I avoided parties because I didn’t want to be tempted to eat junk food. When I looked in the mirror, my eyes always traveled to the same place: my cursed thighs. I would have cut them off if I could.
My mother had juvenile diabetes and died in her sleep from an insulin reaction when I was twenty-one. The morning of her funeral I checked my lipstick in a mirror on the wall. As always, my eyes landed first on my thighs, and next on my hips, both identical to my mother’s. I understood then that I carried my mother in my body just as she had once carried me. I felt proud of this connection to her, and I vowed never again to feel ashamed of it.
I wish I’d been able to keep my promise.
Magin LaSov Gregg
When I graduated from high school, college was not an option. I had to get a job. And for the next twenty years I worked for others in stifling, uncreative environments where my contributions weren’t appreciated.
In the 1970s I was working at a large radio station in New York City, where I produced public-affairs programming. Because I was a woman, I was also expected to get coffee, type, and do filing for many of the male employees, who were given credit for work that women had done. Some male co-workers spoke to me in demeaning ways, and if I objected, they would say, “Can’t you take a joke?” If I had a legitimate complaint, it would be dismissed as “that time of the month.” When I could stand it no longer, I wrote on a piece of toilet paper: “This is the shittiest job I’ve ever had. I quit.”
The general manager said that if I resigned in that fashion, he wouldn’t be able to write a reference for me.
He didn’t get it. I didn’t want his reference. I never wanted to work for someone else again.
And I didn’t. I walked into a lovely New York City day, ready to start my new life. I created my own business and got my book published. I probably worked three times the hours I had before, but it didn’t seem like work, because I loved it.
New York, New York
At the New Year’s celebration I stand on the street corner and enjoy the fireworks at midnight. Three years ago my sister and I brought our mother to this same corner to watch the fireworks. We’d bundled her up against the cold in her wheelchair, wrapping her feet and legs in a down sleeping bag.
My mother loved fireworks. In one of my earliest memories she swings open the tailgate of our old station wagon, and I am borne out in a rush of sweaty siblings and cousins, running for the sand at Amityville Beach on the Fourth of July. I remember the sizzling neon-colored fountains of sparks, the whistling whine of rockets, the chest-thudding booms. And I remember how beautiful my mother was, the bright explosions reflected in her eyeglasses.
My mother isn’t dead. I could go get her and bring her to this street corner, but she wouldn’t have a good time. She has Alzheimer’s. I’ve had to stop taking her out in the evenings, because she is easily frightened. First it was the reflection of my car’s lighted gearshift in my windshield, which she thought was a meteor streaking toward us. (I learned to cover it with my mittens before turning on the car.) Then she grew anxious about shadows on the pavement, believing they were yawning holes that might swallow her up. And loud noises startle her now.
So I watch the fireworks alone, the smell of gunpowder stinging my nostrils, tears streaming down my cheeks.
The mall parking lot was as expansive as a sea and largely empty because it was Sunday morning. The entrance I parked near was locked, so I decided to walk around the outside of the mall to J.C. Penney, which opened early.
I had just learned that I was pregnant, and the baby was still the size of a coffee bean. I was so absorbed in thinking of names that I paid no attention to some boys yelling from the far end of the lot. Then the voices came closer, and I began to make out the words: “Hey, baby! Looking good! Want to have some fun?”
I faltered, but kept walking. The parking lot suddenly seemed even larger and emptier than before. There was no one but me and a gang of teenagers out to prove their manhood. I quickened my pace, remembering my mother’s advice to ignore catcalls. I had followed this advice in high school as I’d walked to the cafeteria through the gauntlet of boys who lined the narrow hallway. I’d followed it while passing construction sites on my way to work. But now I grew angry. What right did these boys have to intimidate me? And why should I have to scurry through the world like some frightened creature just because I was female? What if this baby I was carrying was a girl? Is this how I would want her to live?
I wheeled about.
“What’s your name?” I demanded of the boy who seemed to be the leader. They stopped about thirty feet away and gaped at me.
“What’s your name?” I repeated.
One of the other boys said, “His name is Larry!” in a tone that told me this was supposed to be a joke.
I continued to address the leader. “If I were you,” I said, “I’d think twice before doing something that made me embarrassed to give my real name.” Then I turned and walked away.
I could hear the boys behind me mocking “Larry.” Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him grinning, red-faced, as one of his buddies punched him on the arm.
I crossed the lot feeling like a battleship with my tiny passenger — my daughter — growing strong and proud and fearless inside me.
As it turned out, the baby was a boy.
Terry J. Hamilton-Poore