Four years ago, driving home from picking up our twelve-year-old daughter from summer camp, my wife reached into her purse for a tissue and lost control of the car. This occurred on a stretch of Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio, near the town of Gonzales. The accident occurred as many do: a moment of distraction, a small mistake, and suddenly everything is up for grabs.
During high-pollen season, she is a perennial sniffer, and the sound drives my wife crazy. An Essay by Justin Cronin. Sometimes I got the feeling she sort of knew this about herself but was powerless to do anything about it. She wanted to be a connoisseur of things, an expert. She wanted to believe she was an intellectual. Once, among a group of semi-strangers, I heard her refer to herself as an academic. Later, when I asked her about it, she told me she appreciated college towns and academic-type people and therefore was one herself.
What was my problem? For starters, her need for praise was insatiable. And around the time of her emancipation from her old self, when she moved out of the house and seemingly took up permanent residence in the high school theatre, that need redoubled.
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We never gave her any credit, she said. That she was completely right about all of this only added to my rage. She just wanted it too badly.
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If you asked me what my central grievance with my mother was, I would tell you that I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud. I would tell you that her transformation, at around the age of 45, from a slightly frumpy, slightly depressed, slightly angry but mostly unassuming wife, mother, and occasional private piano teacher into a flashy, imperious, hyperbolic theatre person had ignited in her a phoniness that I was allergic to on every level.
I might throw in the fact that she was deeply concerned with what kind of person I was in high school because it would surely be a direct reflection of the kind of person she was. Meanwhile she copied my clothes, my hair, my taste in jewellery, so much so that I started borrowing her things they were exaggerated versions of my things: skirts that were a little too short, blazers with massive shoulder pads, dangling, art deco—inspired earrings because it seemed easier than trying to pull together my own stuff.
In the years to come, my mother would become the go-to teacher for the sexually confused and the suddenly pregnant. She found it embarrassing that I had a boyfriend.
She liked when I waited for her at the end of the day so she could drive me home, even perhaps especially if it meant my having to pace around the theatre while she finished up her business. Kids whose parents are teachers in their schools are members of a special club.
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They have to build invisible fences. They have to learn to appear to take it in earnest when their classmates tell them how cool the parent is. I never considered myself a member of that club. In those years, my mother seemed to have just slipped through the door as I walked through it on the first day of school. It was never entirely clear what she was doing.
She had no theatre experience; her background was in music. It made sense that she was volunteering as a piano accompanist, playing in the pit orchestra, coaching singers. It made less sense that she always seemed to be there even after the musicians went home. Hanging out with the set builders, feigning disapproval when kids banged out pop songs instead of the assigned show tunes on the piano, giving more and more orders until everyone just assumed she was in charge. Substance was one of her all-time most used words; in both of her incarnations she used it liberally, though her powers of appraisal were questionable.
She believed Barbara Walters showed substance on The View when she hushed the other ladies up and spoke her mind. There was no more clothes sharing after I left for college.
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During that time my mother moved out of our house and into her own place and I came home as infrequently as possible, staying with my father when I did. Her career in full throttle, she was usually too busy for family time anyway. She was out late rehearsing summer stock productions of Sweeney Todd. Still, my assignment from there on out was clear. For the rest of her life, what I was supposed to do was celebrate how little my mother resembled her own mother.
I was supposed to accept that her old personality had been nothing more than a manifestation of various sources of oppression her mother, her husband, the legacy of s southern Illinois and that what we had on our hands now the fan club of gay men, the dramatic hand gestures, the unsettling way she seemed to have taken on the preening, clucking qualities of a teenage girl, almost as if to make up for skipping over that phase the first time was the real deal.
I could not, however, manage to do those things. She had a habit of picking up the phone in her office inside the high school theatre and letting the receiver hang in the air for several seconds as she continued whatever in-person conversation she was already having. When she did this to me I usually just hung up. On the occasions when I visited the theatre, I smiled silently when her students gushed about her superfabulousness. The last time I saw my grandmother was almost 10 years before she died. I visited her with my mother. My mother told me that when she was a girl she secretly unwrapped her Christmas presents ahead of time and then rewrapped them and placed them back under the tree.
She had to plan in advance what she was going to say. A lot of people knew my grandmother to be as nice as pie, just as a lot of people knew my mother as an incredibly talented theatre arts administrator and overall fun person to be around. But there again, what can you say to that? In the history of the world, a whole story has never been told.
I recognised my cue and walked over and put my arm around her, knowing this would create a picture she wanted people to see and would therefore console her. My father understood this cruel twist, though at times he seemed to understand little else. Since he lived a minute cab ride away and since their relationship, for all its animus, still extended to things like hospital visits and accompaniment to chemotherapy appointments, he did do his share of emptying buckets when she vomited and showing up at the emergency room when she had a crisis of pain or hydration. Our family was not one to shirk its duties, even if we did not always perform them warmly.
There were many ways my mother could have chosen to tell my father she was dying and there were many ways he could have chosen to respond. I said this not because I believed it but because it seemed like the kind of thing you should say. My mother felt grateful and vindicated. My father felt snubbed.
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Or, if he did, he refused to abide by it. The code had to do with not just showing up but actually being there, which was no longer really a part of their social contract. All around us were family members of other patients, people who sobbed in the hallways or set up camp at bedsides or emerged from the elevators carrying piles of blankets and needlepoint pillows and framed photos from home.
He looked to be in his sixties. I assumed he was crying over his wife, though I had no idea. No one was crying like that for my mother. Our family had a significantly different style. Some of that time has now passed. Dungy admits to being exhausted by motherhood, particularly by her rigorous schedule of teaching and travel with a small child.
But she does not seem burdened by it. She does not seem to have been unprepared. Against the isolation that is a hallmark of many of the motherhood memoirs, Garbes is connected to a web of friends, and she pays tribute to the many women whose texts, visits, and emails helped her navigate the early days of motherhood.
Heather Kirn Lanier, whose Vela essay last year about raising a daughter with a rare genetic syndrome garnered so much attention, has a book under contract with Penguin.