Many thanks to Ginosko Literary Magazine for publishing the “What We Are Given” in their latest issue. You will find this essay on page 122 of their PDF file. It a deeply personal essay about the years my partner’s mother lived with us.
Thank you to editors Jason Splichal and Jeff Sommerfeld for publishing “The Photograph” and “Nonconsensual” in Issue 7 of Sky Island Journal. Jason and Jeff have raised the bar on literary journals, honoring their contributors with kindness and respect. Every issue of this first-rate journal features exceptional prose and poetry.
A child needs a father like a fish needs a bicycle. That’s the conclusion I came to somewhere in my teens. Now, decades later, the notion persists despite the heartening anecdotes I’ve heard. It’s not that I don’t believe the people who tell me their fathers are or were gems; I just can’t envision that Father Knows Best kind of world. Were these men Fred McMurray nice? Did they sit cross-legged on sofas, pipe in hand and gently listen to their children’s gleeful chatter? Did they grin and tousle their hair like Brian Keith in Family Affair? Did they teach hard lessons in a tender fashion, a la Andy Griffith of Mayberry? Or did their good qualities simply edge out the bad? Society holds the bar lower for men than women as if, expecting the worse, all we ask of fathers is decency.
My father, as you may have gathered, was not a nice man. He was a sadist and a tyrant and worse. There are too many similar stories, too many women abused by a father, uncle or grandfather. I know that these men do not represent their gender and that good men are plentiful, but my view remains smudged, a streaked window I cannot wipe clean. Each time I see a father with a young daughter I look for signs of trouble. I want to save whomever I can, now that I have the power.
Two friends of mine, women happily married to each other, are raising a boy and a girl. I have observed their family dynamic for many years, and what strikes me most about these women is their keen awareness of the colossal responsibility they have taken on. These two have made a solemn commitment to motherhood, parsing every detail and possible consequence of their parental decisions in a continual quest to keep their offspring out of harm’s way and reasonably content. The same can be said of another couple I know, married men, who are also raising children. Perhaps this level of dedication comes from hard-won victories: the right to marry, the right to adopt. Perhaps it is borne of suffering, whatever ridicule or injustice these men and women endured growing up in a culture that did not include them. Pain depletes some people, breaks open the hearts of others.
There are communal families, as in the Scandinavian countries, and there are transgendered couples raising children; there are those who, through divorce or tragedy, are compelled to parent without partners, and there are those who deliberately choose that arrangement. Love being fluid and accommodating, families can be cobbled from whatever is there.
I admire these devout parents. I never wanted children—the idea makes me woozy. Motherhood requires resources I must have been born without.
I live in the suburbs, where traditional nuclear families still predominate. The notion that such environments produce the healthiest children is religious propaganda with no supporting evidence. Sometimes I stand at the window and watch the kids across the street playing with their dog while their father washes the car. I have no idea what goes on behind their front door, but the children appear well-adjusted, and I have no reason to believe they’re in danger.
I want this to be true. I want them to grow up as they should, so that the sight of children at play will bring them nothing but joy.
Once again I have said goodbye to my mother. She lives in New Mexico and each November I travel from California to visit her. Last year she broke her hip, and so I was there twice.
Each time I visit my mother someone accompanies me, a sister or my partner, though once I did go alone and it wasn’t easy driving across the desert wondering what might happen to me if the car broke down. About forty-five minutes from my destination I had to take a comfort break, and reluctantly I pulled into the only rest area on that desolate route. I had not seen another soul for many miles, and you can imagine my unease when another car pulled up right behind me—a man of course. Men can relieve themselves pretty much anywhere, so naturally I was suspicious. I deliberated behind the wheel a moment but my need was too urgent, and as I hurried into the building I imagined him right behind me. My last five minutes on earth, that’s what I was thinking. No one would ever know what had happened to me. I’d wind up in his trunk, or out there somewhere, my lifeless body withering behind a clump of sagebrush. False alarm. I passed him on the way back to my car and he didn’t even look at me.
Getting to Carlsbad is never easy, requiring two plane trips and a long drive. Other than the famous caverns, this hot dusty place has little to recommend it. Still, my mother likes the town, and my sisters and I no longer encourage her to move to a more accessible area; I wouldn’t want to be pestered either. And I understand the comfort she must feel living in a town she knows and trusts. Our senses dim as we age, and this inability to perceive things as clearly as we used to can make the world a threatening place. Familiarity is invaluable.
Much is accomplished on these yearly visits. One of us takes my mother’s car in for servicing and stocks up on supplies, while another tackles the household chores and yardwork. My mother has limited mobility and can no longer manage tasks that involve strength or dexterity. She should not in fact be living alone, which is something we don’t discuss because we all know the difficulties involved in a transition. For one thing, she is not wealthy; the sort of the retirement home she could afford is the sort we wouldn’t want to see her in. Nor does she wish to live among others. She is a lone wolf and has managed so long on her own that cohabitation would likely finish her off.
So we do with her what we can. We buy easy-reach tools, install grab bars, replace the nonskid stickers in her shower. We change the ink in her printer and order foam mattress pads to ease her aching shoulders. We clean her bathroom floors, hem her pants, bandage whatever wounds she’s acquired. And we try to do these things tactfully, to make light of them. To spare her.
At the end of each day we watch some TV, play card games, share stories (carefully avoiding politics and social issues; a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, my mother can’t fathom our liberal views.) Struggling for common ground, we retrieve mismatched memories and laugh over many of them before falling into silence. Time is running low and we can’t think what to say. If our feelings are hurt by some offhand remark, we don’t let on. Intent on minimizing damage, we skirt any trouble and keep an eye on the clock.
At the front door we say goodbye and this is the moment when my mother seems to shrink. I look back and see a tiny bent-over woman gripping the doorknob, lifting the other hand to wave. She is scared and relieved at once, sad that we are leaving and eager to reclaim her solitude. And so are we. Flying home, we will think of questions we meant to ask, things we should have done. There is more to do here, there is always more to do, but for now she is okay. We will also wonder if we have just seen her for the last time, but this thought is too painful and we push it away. As many times as it returns, we push it away.
My mother can be harsh, no question about that. I am a dutiful daughter, I’ve been told, for making this trip each year. I don’t see it that way. I feel no moral obligation to visit my mother. I go there because she is a frail woman whose life has not been easy and it makes me feel better to help her. She should be living in more sensible housing, with a walk-in tub and nonslip floors and no stairs, but she is not. She is where she wants to be. What is there to do but pick up our tools and make the best of it? Ongoing, seemingly futile, what matters more than these small repairs?