It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog.
~ Mark Twain
Sometimes my husband speaks from brain quarks. The other day, as we drove past the hideous concrete landscape of strip malls, auto dealerships, and fast food restaurants, Ed said something unintelligible to me in a nasally, Mr. Peavey voice. I thought he was referring to the ugliness.
I expected him to say something funny about obese alley – those side-by-side hip packers: Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King, our personal favorite for veggie burgers and crispy chicken sandwiches.
"I'm channeling Harrison Ford," he said.
I took a beat to reconnoiter. "Yeah, right,” I said. “Harrison Ford. A dweeb."
"No, really. In BLADE RUNNER. He talked like a weenie to get information from the snake lady - like this . . ." Ed squeezed his face into a prune. "Have you felt yourself to be exploited in any way? - Don't you remember?"
Then Ed asked, "Do you ever channel anyone?"
I thought about how I often I become our daughter Katie, especially when I'm excited - or mad.
"Katie," I said. "I feel like Katie sometimes. I hear her voice when I say stuff."
I smiled. Katie and me. One entity. I liked that.
"And then there's my mother. I feel like my mother - a lot - too much. I see her in the mirror - with that mouth and - Oh, God - I can't talk about it."
I looked at my hands, my arms – at my mother's knuckle-wrinkles, her undefined wrists, her dry skin and age spots. I yanked at my sleeves and recoiled, cringing at the likeness. I wondered if Katie felt that way.
"So," Ed said. "It's okay to channel Katie. It's not okay to channel - or resemble - or be – your mother? Ever write about that?"
Our grown daughter, Katie, an only child, and I have a remarkable relationship. At least, I think we do. According to Katie, we do. Ed and I live in the Chicago suburbs. Katie lives with her family in California. We see each other a few times a year, but our regular connection is by phone. She tells me, in great detail, about her life, and I tell her about mine. We give and get the truth – straight from the heart. Advice and all. "Mom - you're retired. You're supposed to relax and enjoy life now. You work too much on your projects. You need balance." Or "Katie –meeting someone in a parking lot? Some seller you found on Craig’s List? Someone in a white Cadillac? To buy an ersatz Louis Vuitton purse? You who locks her doors to ward off serial Killers? Hello!”
We joke, we laugh, we cry, and we compare notes about terrible, guilty pleasure TV shows - shows like "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and "The Bachelor." Don't you think Camille is manipulative? Michelle is such a snake. Will Brad be sorry he chose Emily?
When Katie was a baby, I smothered her in kisses and hugs. "You can never spoil a child with too much love," a wise woman told me when Katie was little. I cemented that in my heart and gave Katie enough love to cover the planet.
Ed and I encouraged Katie to tell us what was on her mind - regardless of the discomfort it might trigger. We didn't censor her emotions, her thinking, or her reading material. When she was ten the book Coma was on our dining room table. I had read the first two pages and refused to continue. Katie picked up the book and walked toward her room. "I don't think you'll want to read that," I said.
"I can read it," she said to the cover. "I can read anything." And she disappeared down the hall. Ten minutes later she stormed into the dining room and heaved the paperback. It skidded across the table, plowing my grade book, pen, and first period essays onto the floor. "That's disgusting!" she said and plopped into a chair.
If readers remember, Coma is about an intensive care facility with brain dead patients suspended on wires from the ceiling. These "samples" are kept alive and healthy until there's a need for vital organs, which are surgically removed and then sold on the black market. I believe the first two pages of the book details one such surgical removal - not good reading for a kid, I wouldn't think. But the incident instigated a bunch of questions about blood, guts, comas – and the black market.
Through Katie's adolescent years, our patterns of communication paralled a yo-yo in motion. Katie continued to say what was on her mind: "I don't want to talk about it" followed "You know, Mom, there was drinking at that party."
Ed and I continued to guide her journey to responsible independence: "You need an adult driver to take you to the rock concert" followed "No, Barry can’t take you – he just got his learner’s permit."
Ed and I trailed at her heels with ready support as Katie leapt—then faltered, then jolted, then graciously cruised—into adulthood.
I feel energized and comfortable when I channel Katie.
My mom was our small town’s delight. Everybody loved Norma Volckmann. A pro-active woman. A natural at everything – cooking, golfing, playing bridge, ice skating, knitting. Mom took meals to the needy, made better-than-best chocolate chip cookies and devil’s food cake, wrote clever ditties for celebrations, headed committees, and directed the church choir. Mom returned to college in her fifties and received her teacher’s certificate in special education, which she then taught with humor and grace.
What better mother could one have?
It probably happened in many households during my generation. Moms and daughters not very close. My mom’s lack of affection toward me probably came from her own upbringing. “Nobody ever showed affection or said I love you in my house when I was growing up,” Mom said once. "It just wasn't done in my day." She sighed. "We laughed a lot, though."
They did laugh a lot. My mother’s family of eight sat around the dinner table and gabbed and laughed until someone decided to cover the pie and do the dishes. They say laughter is the best medicine, but Aunt Bebe ended up with stomach ulcers, Uncle Charlie ended up with never-ending hiccups, Uncle Tuey ended up with an early heart attack, and my mother ended up with my father.
When my dad came to the house to date my mom, he'd sit in the living room and wait until Mom was ready. Dad didn't join in the table banter. “He was too shy,” Mom said. “An only child.”
Whole-hearted laughing didn't follow my mom into the home she made with my dad. Probably because of my father, who got nervous when people hung around the dinner table gabbing and laughing. He sat at the head of the table waiting for that part of the conversation when the laughing stopped and the arguing began. It was the potential arguing that made him nervous.
When I was a kid, we ate a dessert of surface humor – pie a la sterile punch line. Humor of least resistance. Nothing of significance discussed. World affairs? Intimacy? Religion? Off the table. Not allowed.
By the time I knew her, my mother used laughter to wash away anxiety. And she sighed - at everything. I suppose my mother had the nails knocked out of her when she made a home and family with my father. Instead of being a whole-hearted, easy laugher, my mother morphed into a sigher. She sighed at everything. She sighed when I asked for new shoes, she sighed when Dad brought in the zucchini from the garden, and she sighed when she looked out the kitchen window and watched the grass grow.
I avoided being anywhere, at the same time as my mother. Close proximity to my mother made me tense and self-conscious. I might have to talk to her, and talking to Mom made me feel agitated and awkward, as if my clothes were on backwards. Mom asked me questions – putting me on the spot about my friendships, or asking if I liked any of the nice boys. Always that word. Nice. It gave me the creeps. And then Mom would suggest that I phone my nice friends. “Why don’t you call your nice friends and see if they’ll come over?” Especially Danny Smithfield. “Now, there’s a nice boy,” she'd say, “Why don’t you phone Danny Smithfield?” making me uncomfortable and itchy. “Why, when I was your age, I had lots of boyfriends.”
If Mom had developed a closeness with me before I could walk or talk, then maybe I would have been more receptive to these heart-to-hearts. When we were together, like at church, or at the store, and ran into someone who played bridge with Mom, someone I didn't know, my mother made it look like we had a close mother-daughter bond. On one such occasion, Mom put her arm around my shoulders, an action as phony as Ritz Cracker apple pie, and introduced me.
“Agnes, this is my daughter, Eloise. She’s going into ninth grade in September.” Then she patted my arm and looked into my face, and said, like she was trying to impress her friend, “You’re going to really study this year, aren’t you, Eloise? We want you to get into a good college - like Colgate where your brother Dicky goes - well except a girls' college.” Then Mom turned back to Agnes and said, as if she were a martyr and I were a deaf mute, “She’s turning thirteen in November; she’s one of the youngest in her grade," she looked at me and tilted her head, ". . . and, well, sometimes it’s hard for her to keep up." She wiggled my shoulders. "Isn’t it now, Eloise?”
If shrinking into the woodwork had been possible, I would have disappeared altogether, slipping into nothingness, in order to escape the nods of sympathy and understanding for the mother of a dolt.
And to make matters worse, I always felt as though I were getting the short end of the proverbial stick, having been called naughty and lazy since I was a little girl. As it was, I endured my mother’s efforts to engage in conversation, but all it did was ratchet up my anxiety to higher levels of discomfort.
In September of 1988, when Mom and Dad celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, my brothers and I gave them a scrapbook filled with a lifetime of photographs. Mom laughed at the early pictures of her and Dad. She oohhed and aahhed at the pictures of her first son. “There’s Dickie. What a sweet baby,” she said. She looked at Dick and said, “You were such a good little boy.” After several pages she came upon her second child. “Oh, look – it’s Davey.” She looked at Dave. “You had such funny ears. But you were real cute.”
Then, a few pages later, she came across a third baby. She stopped - and stared - and screwed up her face. “Who’s that?”
Everyone laughed. Everyone but me.
Someody said, “That’s Eloise.”
“Eloise? Oh, for heaven’s sake. Eloise?" She studied the picture and screwed up her face. "She sure was naughty."
When Mom ended up in a nursing home with the onset of Alzheimer's, my brothers and I visited whenever we could. During one visit, while I was out of earshot, Mom told my sister-in-law Carol, that I was a wonderful daughter and, "I don't know what I would have done without her." Nice to know.
I feel stifled and parched when I channel my mother.
Ed pulled into Burger King. "I'm in the mood for a veggie burger," said Mr. Peavey aka Harrison Ford aka brain quark.
I laughed. It felt good to be me again.
EVS - 01/11