Change sometimes happens when I’m not paying attention. For example: What triggered the writing slump I’ve been in for the last few months? When, exactly, did my shins turn to lizard skin? And when was I appointed as the matriarch of my family to host all the holidays and events?
I delight in entertaining my loved ones, and my 33-year-old daughter, Becca, always attends. She is a bright, creative soul with an altruistic nature. She also has a healthy self-esteem, which I lacked as a young woman. Her friends refer to her as “The Golden Child.” And, truth be told, this nickname isn’t entirely off base. I indulged her a bit when I was a guilty single mother.
I think it goes back to one of my favorite childhood movies, Swiss Family Robinson. The film is about a family that, after being shipwrecked on a desert island, works together to build the coolest elaborate tree house. I suspect my fascination with this movie was rooted in its fairytale family environment, which was one of total security and trust. I wanted to be part of a family like that—and I so deeply wanted that type of environment for my own daughter.
Throughout my childhood, I had longed for Daddy to build me my very own fort or playhouse. He wasn’t that kind of dad, but I decided to be that kind of mom. For Becca’s third birthday, she became the mildly impressed recipient of an adorable cottage-style, Pepto-Bismol-pink playhouse. I also painted the trim, shutters, and Dutch door white as an accent, and I made the sweetest white eyelet curtains for the windows. (A seamstress I am not—but I tried.) When Becca was little, I wanted more than anything for her to have the kind of family life I lacked growing up and hadn’t provided for Mary Claire, the daughter I gave up for adoption when I was 15 years old. Becca was my second chance, and in my mind, I had failed her by being a single parent.
Becca’s friends call me “Momnica.” It’s probably because I have an open door where they can dump their troubles and get unsolicited advice. With all the crap I’ve gotten myself into over the years, I can match just about anything they’re going through with a similar experience. In my twenties, my life decisions were a field of domino rows in a windstorm. One problem caused another, which caused yet another, and I was always picking up the pieces. I like to think that my destiny was to transcend my trauma so I could be the sounding board and mentor I never had. The more love I give, the greater my capacity grows to give more.
Getting out of my own head and working with others has helped me so much during these last two years of writing. I feel that I have finally emerged from a swamp. I didn’t realize it, but I had been in a funk. It crept up on me—a lot like my lizard legs did. (I’ve since started exfoliating and moisturizing.) “Depressed” is not a label one would use to describe me, but it might look that way. I gained a shit-ton of weight while I was working on my memoir (half of which I have now taken off), and the once-outgoing Monica turned inward like a roly-poly bug that curls into a ball when poked. Introspection was never really my deal, and neither was writing. I have always been a talker and a doer, not a thinker. But I have had to turn inward in the process of writing my memoir, and it’s dark in there.
In the days following the recent Easter holiday, I have turned inward in a not-so-dark way to reflect on the occasional friction that I have had with my “Golden Child.” I also remembered the confusion I felt when I found out that I was pregnant with her. I was 26 and, as they say, I was not wrapped too tightly. I had been clean and sober for about 60 days and had known her father for a whole six weeks. In my naivety, I assumed that sobriety would be a magic wand. I thought life would be perfect since I wasn’t drinking and hanging around with lowlifes. I would have a white picket fence with my handsome prince, and we would ride off into the sunset with our sweet baby angel.
That’s not what happened.
I held a shotgun wedding and married Becca’s father, Kenny, in 1984 when I was six months pregnant. We drove to Reno, home of the quickie wedding chapel. As we parked in front of a tacky storefront chapel, I saw our blurred reflection in the filmy window and thought, “I gotta get him in there before he changes his mind.” A little gold bell rang as we entered.
We were a pair of plastic wedding cake figurines, Big-as-a-House Barbie and her handsome Ken perched beneath a rickety arbor, draped with a dusty vine of white plastic roses. My keen pregnant nostrils didn’t miss much. All this elegance was punctuated by the faint scent of stale beer wafting from the red carpet. I stood alongside Kenny, my hand in his, with a smile plastered on my face in an effort to trick myself into believing this wedding was the joyous event I had dreamed of. It had seemed like just yesterday when I said goodbye to Mary Claire at the hospital, and this was my do-over. I felt the vibration of Kenny’s toe tapping through his clammy palm. I knew he loved me, but he was clearly terrified by the responsibility the day represented.
While a rotund man in a preacher getup read the vows, I realized the stale beer smell might be coming from under his ’stache. Each of his embellished words further emphasized that this was a cheap and tacky union to a man who didn’t want to be there. The only thing I truly heard was Kenny’s “I do.” I was a girl with unrealistic dreams, trying to make right her sins from 12 years ago.
I internalized a huge sigh of relief when Kenny squished the 10-karat gold band onto my fat finger. I had purchased it at a discount store the day before with the last few dollars in my bank account. I remember how disappointed I was that I couldn’t afford the 14-karat band and how humiliated I felt looking into the glass case as I tried to hide my girth, hoping the other couple looking at rings didn’t notice that I was buying my own.
A few years later, after the divorce, I had a jeweler cut a slit in the band and pull it apart to set a mate-less ruby earring inside. It’s not a great ring. It looks pieced together to me, but even so, Becca has worn it on and off over the years. I guess it symbolizes what she, too, always longed for—the security of a complete family with a daddy and a mommy. Daddy moved out for the final time when she was only one year old.
Thirty-two years after Kenny left, I am still trying to create that rich sense of family for my daughter—most recently, I did this by hosting an Easter celebration. I had been asking for a few weeks if Becca and her two-year-old son, Miles, would be coming over on Easter Sunday, and if so, when. They were recovering from a virus, as were my mother and brother, and I hadn’t heard whether any of them were planning to celebrate the holiday. Easter was on pause. There were no baskets with chocolate bunnies; no plastic eggs filled with lotto tickets, cash, and candy for the adults; no food and goodies for Miles.
Then, on Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., Becca told me she would be coming over at noon the next day. I was literally the last person out of the grocery store at 11:00 p.m. as I frantically loaded up on supplies for the family celebration. The manager had the look of a lost child longing for home as she followed me around while I threw the last few items into my cart. She eagerly locked the door behind me, and I had to make a second trip in the morning.
I was relieved when my mother picked up the phone at 9:00 a.m. and also agreed to come to my house for the Easter celebration. Unfortunately, my exceedingly brilliant and handsome son—who lives two hours away—couldn’t make it.
When Becca and Miles arrived, she was tired and hungry. She felt crappy because her allergies were bothering her. She also had PMS and very little patience. (Her visits always seem to coincide with her time of the month.) She wanted to know why the food wasn’t ready right away at noon. When Miles could search for eggs. Why they had to wait for me before they did so. Never mind that she and Miles are the only vegetarians in the family and, because she is the “Golden Child,” I made her and Miles a special pasta salad. All of this while preparing the rest of the food, arranging appetizers in spring splendor on my pink and green depression glass, and setting out a vase of bright yellow tulips (my favorite flower).
I had bought plastic eggs for my grandson that were patterned like an assortment of baseballs, basketballs, and soccer balls. Early on Easter morning, I hid them with delight for his first formal egg hunt—all in plain sight inside of plant-less, dirt-filled flower pots, atop blooming pink azalea bushes, and nestled inside the crags on the trunk of my huge sycamore tree.
While preparing the meal, I quickly stuffed the “adult” eggs with cash and lotto tickets. Some I hid so well that they will likely become gifts for the gardener. I did this while cognizant that Becca would arrive early and be outside with Miles, scoping out the hiding places. And indeed, while Miles ran around the backyard, Becca asked. “Did you get a chance to hide our eggs?” I knew she would start her hunt early if I told the truth. “No, I’m sorry honey. I didn’t have enough time to do that, too. It was all I could do to get the food prepared.” I had just finished with my lie when she bent over and brushed some leaves out the of the hose basket to discover a pink plastic egg. Guess who got most of the cash and lotto tickets.
At day’s end, after everyone had gone home, I was cleaning the dishes and putting things back in their places. It was around 6:00 p.m., the time when the setting sun cuts above the fence and my patio. I turned in its direction as it shined warm, golden light, which was filtered through my patterned curtain sheers. It created a soft glow that illuminated my living room. I stopped what I was doing to breathe in the light and take in the melody from my porch fountain, which sounds like rain falling on a pond. That moment brought forward remnants of conversation and laughter from a few hours before, and I realized that I felt wonderful. It wasn’t the kind of wonderful I feel when I get a new pair of shoes, lose weight, receive praise, or win an argument. It wasn’t a worldly feeling—it was different than that. There was no pitter-patter of my heart, and there was no sense of the peace and gratitude I feel when praying or meditating. It was a completely new feeling.
It dawned on me that I was experiencing joy.
I once read that most people spend their lives regretting the past and fearing the future; therefore, they are unable to experience joy in the present. I suffer when I live in my head, like I did when I was newly pregnant with Becca—I created my own suffering by reliving the humiliation I felt when I was a child who was pregnant with a child. And how isolated and alone I felt keeping the secret of my virgin rape. On the rare occasion that I was seen in public during my first pregnancy, I shrank from each look of shock, pity, and disgust because they reaffirmed what I knew people thought of me…and what I thought of myself. My belly was proof of my low self worth and poor choices. This was a humiliation that I couldn’t repeat. When I was pregnant with Becca 12 years later, my mind vacillated between two opposites: (1) my vision of walking hand in hand with my handsome husband and protector, Kenny, as our daughter’s laughter filled me with absolution for my past and (2) my fear that this secure, happy family wouldn’t become reality.
I can see now that my long-time fear of life and circumstances has really been a fear of my emotions. It’s not the facts themselves that I have feared but my feelings about them. While writing my memoir during these past two years, I have dug out and swept away many of the painful remnants by naming, feeling, and releasing my emotions.
My compulsion to purge and write my wrongs had lessened. I have cleared away much of the shame and guilt in my subconscious that used to filter out the light of my joy—joy which, I realized, has been there all along, patiently waiting to reveal itself. Perhaps this is my destiny. Whether it is or isn’t, I am committed to writing and I’m eager to find the gifts that it will bring to me, still waiting to be uncovered—like pink plastic Easter eggs—whether I’m ready or not.