Sunday, February 6, 2011

I Knew You When We Both Knew Nothing and Now That's Changed


Three point game. . . . Seven minutes to go.... [Cut to commercial] And the mind wanders. Always happens when I'm tense. No 'Grace under pressure' here. Just me, although it would have been decent for Grace to show. I'll just think about good friends who always showed. Brings Cassie, a dear high school buddy to mind. And that day a shared 'friend' popped in on her.
Seven silver cups hanging from seven equally-spaced c-hooks screwed into the bases of the kitchen cabinets. Christening presents from Bill's mother. The kids use them every day. I've never looked at them from here. That's because in the nine years we've lived in this house, I've never sat on the cushioned window=seat side of breakfast nook. They look warm, happy - the cups. And the silhouettes. White paper profiles mounted on black. The silhouettes. They make the kids look like they all have overbites. And they didn't even have front teeth when I did them. But then I'm not an artist. Just a wife and mother who couldn't sleep and came down to her kitchen at five A.M. , made coffee and sat on the wrong side of her kitchen table clutching HER favorite mug - "4 Mom 4 all you do from us 7" - and sorting. Thoughts (finished the socks at midnight)
It's more like brooding, really. Because I've been talking to Mary. She always makes me feel like I'm missing some very big point. Taking everything too lightly. We were close friends in high school. We lived near each other for ten years in NY and she became a friend and not so much fun. I don't think she liked marriage and kids.
You see Mary worked as a secretary on Wall Street (whilst I went to Queens College - English major/cheerleader until Bill and I were surprised = as was the cheering coach - that we were in "the family way" as well as the family's way, as you can imagine!) and married Tom - bonds. Then after schlepping around (Mary's phrase) for ten years, she got smart and educated and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She also had two children - Jennifer and Timothy - while schlepping and ignored them while getting smart. Mary. Slim, blond, angular, with deep-set, watery-blue eyes and a deeply nasal voice was now dumpy and terribly earnest in her deeply nasal fashion. Me? After Queens College, Bill - banking - and I married because we were deeply in love, Catholic and careless and having Nancy, the first of our seven children. Me. Cassie. Slim, vivacious, auburn-haired, brown-eyed with a deep but non nasal voice was still slim and clowned a lot. I've always believed in love, laughter, children and laughter. But apparently I never got "integrated" and smart - Mary says.
She called me six months ago to announce getting PhD'd. I was thrilled for her. Sounded REALLY happy. Then she called again the following month to see 'how I was doing'. Then it was a call a month to get me motivated toward self-improvement and get at what Mary seemed to feel were the many maladjustive tendencies which were hampering my "process". "What are you going to DO with your life," she'd ask. "What do you DO now?" And I'd hang up feeling stupid and threatened and spend the week wondering if those were trick questions or what. What do I DO?
I eat right and exercise and Bill loves me. I read a lot and roller skate. The kids see me as a Mom to be proud of and have fun with and never have to worry about prepositions during. But Mary made it sound like the nineteen years I'd just spent with my family having what we thought was a good time, have been squandered in aimless dalliance, just so many idle moments strung together into a chain which effectively choked my personal development, stifled my exposure to life - in the cosmic sense. She STRONGLY suggested I hot-foot it down to the nearest community college and gobble enrichment credits before it's too late. "Too later?", I'd ask. "Those kids are going to be gone some day, Cassie, and just WHAT will you be prepared to DO?" I'd point out that three of my children were still under ten and are emitting no true sense of exodus presently. "That's just it. You are ENTIRELY focused on Bill and the kids." (A fact I believed was in the + column - even among the astigmatic PhD'd crowd - what with easily-opened bottles of lye and bleach lurking about, available for tampering.) She spoke deliberately, tutorially, sometimes very slowly - as though speaking to somebody with the IQ of a box of frozen snow peas.
I was showing what was termed in academic circles as no respect for the concept of wholeness. And the way to reach that, it seemed, was to split your time between family and school - or SOME 'other'. Otherwise, you remain neurotically attached to the home environment in addition to being subjected to remarks like, "Why don't you and Bill come up this weekend. The Olshefskis are coming. You'll love her. SHE didn't go to college, either." (That was Mary at her subtle best.) She meant well. And frankly, I dreaded that leaving-the-nest syndrome. I just had to figure that I'd think of something when the time came. In fact, I DID have plans. But I couldn't think about that at the moment. It was five thirty and I was feeling very edgy and defensive. My own fault. I'd never learned how to say "no". And now there'd be a confrontation because
Mary was coming down that day. Driving the two hundred miles from Boston to Westport to see me - and analyze and save me. From What? Myself, I guessed. She and Tom had visited the previous month and while the guys shot hoops, Mary'd mapped out a plan that would have me all educated and ready to assume my place in our culture as a mature, informed citizen by the time our youngest was finishing grade school. I'd meant to tell her that I wasn't interested but couldn't get a word in. So I just figured she'd soon get a job and not bother me any more. (PhD's DID work, right?) She'd said she was interviewing but wanted to get me settled first. Ahh. What price friendship? Or wholeness? Or asparagus, for that matter?
I liked it better when she wasn't 'saying' anything. We really hadn't TALKED in nine years = not since we'd moved from the islands, Long and Staten. In fact, our last meaningful chat had been on moving day = mine. Bill had taken the three oldest kids and followed the moving van. I kept the baby and my Hoover upright. I was giving the outgrown house one last nostalgic, split-leveled sweep when Mary'd popped in. She'd brought coffee, prune danish, Marlboros and advice. I only needed the Marlboros but badly enough to be gracious about the rest.
She looked SO natty in her Villager blouse, crew-necked sweater, flannel slacks and tassel loafers. She sat on the floor near the window seat and arranged danish, napkins, cardboard cups of coffee on the sill, setting the lids out for ash trays. I was winding our ten year-old Hoover cord around its frayed hooks. "Cass. Why don't you leave that dangerous dinosaur here. It would be symbolic. I told Tom I'm not taking any of our tired relics up to Boston. (Did she mean Tom wasn't going?) New job. New city. New home means new appliances, you know? (I wondered if a "husband" was a clever psychological euphemism for "appliance.) I'm sure Bill would spring for a new vacuum cleaner."
"Wouldn't think of it, Mare. Just spent thirty-seven dollars and a rainy Saturday overhauling the old girl. We are rarin' to take on the 'new' dirt." I extricated the furniture brush from the baby's hand. He'd been meticulously moving a large hill of ashes out of the fireplace and on to the just-swept floor. He was two, a quiet child who entertained himself easily. I gave him the little net sack of matchbox cars (already 'packed' in my purse) and hoped he wouldn't get interested in he danish because the divine Ms. Hoover was prepped for her exit. "Cassie, come and sit. Coffee's getting cold and we have to talk."
I sat and lit a butt. I could see my old Buick wagon - sagging but SO ready to leave. As was I. Not so with Mary who obviously had something pithy to say. I leaned back against the wall, pulling my knees up and hugging them to my body, trying to let IT say, "O.K., Mary. What's on your mind?" And then, "How are you and Bill doing - really?" She was referring to the fact that right after the baby was born, I had announced I wanted a separation. Now I ALWAYS want SOMETHING after giving birth but THIS baby's post partum period had been PARTICULARLY flamboyant. Bill'd been working and going to night school in the city. Often he'd stay at his mother's, too tired to face the drive back to Long Island where I sat basking in the luxury of being twenty-six and the mother of four. I'd been feeling terribly neglected, trapped, victimized. Bill suggested we seek counseling; we did; it was great. We'd begun talking more, going out - even if we were tired, making plans. The counselor had suggested I go back to school and I did - and did well. Needed it while Bill was finishing up. But. That phase of our life over, I had no wish to continue. I needed Bill and the kids more.
"We're great, Mary. Really." The baby was straining to get at the danish - leaning over Mary's leg. But she was too intent to notice. I gave him the whole bag. "You know, Cassie, at first I thought it was very selfish of you - and vain - to go back to school. And I still don't know how you managed. I mean, when did you SLEEP?" "Mary I only took twelve credits in two years. And I wish you'd told me how you felt. I was looking for a reason to quit."
"No, Cassie. I can tell you feel differently about yourself. You're smart and you know it now. You're not in any way inferior to Bill and now HE knows it, too."
"I didn't feel inferior to Bill, Mary. I missed Bill. But you're right about my self image. I see myself in a far more enlightened fashion now that I've read Moby Dick. And not a day goes by that I don't ponder, with impishly superior interest, one of the GREAT questions. Like, how DID Wagner and his music tie in to fascism? To his mother?" I started to laugh. Mary didn't.
"Don't put yourself down for my sake Cassie. I'm so proud of you. And I think the kids will respect you more now, too."
The baby had torn the pastries into cubes with which he was respectfully building a sticky little village for his cars. I was glad I hadn't packed the Hoover and becoming piqued with Mary's commentary on my lousy twelve credits.
"Well. I have something to tell you. I've enrolled in Boston College. I'll be starting in January - after we're settled in."
"Mary, I think that's great."
"I've been thinking about it ever since you started going. We're SO much alike, Cass. It never occurred to me to look at you if I wanted to see myself. I watched you change when you went back to school." She stopped to sip some cold, cardboard coffee and light a cigarette. As she inhaled, she started to laugh, then choke. I slapped her back broadly, relieved that she was laughing. Enough of this soul-searching, Mary. Let's just have a few laughs about old times. Then you can head out for Boston and your new life and appliances and I'll lock up and launch the rest of this day with the baby and Hoover.
"What's so funny?"
"Cass, (looking around at the canary yellow walls) do you realize that it was when you went back to school that you re-did the house?" She got up and walked over to the fireplace, her loafers clip-clopping on the hard wood floors. "And YELLOW in the living room." Her body was tensing. She was really pumping up. "YELLOW. That's SO significant, Cass." She wheeled and marched toward the dining room (which was done in a rusty orange with celery trim) and I got fearful that she would get some time-consuming mileage out of this bizarre 'color thing'. I wished I'd still had my furniture so I could have taken the chair Mary would have been siting in and move it out onto the front lawn. While she marched, the loafers did sort of a hollow clip-clop, clop. The baby was trying to imitate the sound with a car. I didn't dare ask the significance of yellow. Mainly because the kitchen was red and the way things were going, the living and dining rooms were just appetizers. I had to be in Westport before dark.
"Mary, I've always enjoyed painting and papering. Remember all the stuff I did on Lloyd Street?" That was a fifth floor, two-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn. Our 'starter mansion'.
"Cass. You painted prison bars on the walls in the kitchen."
"That was a joke, Mary."
"No it wasn't. Not really. C'mon, Cass. Admit it. Things were rotten and you found a way out. And I'm getting out too. No more schlepping and cleaning and waiting on Tom and the kids. It's a dead-end street. Look at my mother."
She was kind of 'leaning' on the Hoover, now. "What does it get you, Cass? Tired, dull, alone. That's what. I will NOT become my mother and I have YOU to thank."
I could only focus on the ironies - comic and sad. It kept me from saying, "Let's not get in to 'mothers."
Mrs. O'Brien. A large, white-haired woman with a lusty laugh. I remembered her ironing the church altar linens while we stuffed our faces with her PERFECT, home-made jelly rolls and listened to her funny stories about old-time Irish politicians. She still ironed and baked and campaigned for young Irish politicians - and laughed. MY mother went, as they used to say, to business. A secretary for a fork-lift company - and an alcoholic. She still worked and went on week-long toots whenever she felt vaguely depressed. She was often depressed. No, Mary. Let's not 'do' mothers. I got up to collect the droppings from our brunch.
"Look, Mary. It sounds like you're really going to enjoy school. For me, it was just a time-filler. Bill was just so BUSY."
She looked puzzled, a bit let down. I looked at my watch. I thought of Bill, the kids and the Seven Santini Brothers trying to decide where to put furniture and seventy some-odd boxes in Westport. I walked over to Mary and gave her a quick but very hard hug. "I'm so happy for you, Mare," I was. I cared about Mary. We had shared alot. And I wanted to say, "I'll miss you," but it didn't come out. Instead, I said, "now, for old times' sake, won't you schlep this Hoover out to the car? I'll scrape this mess up and follow on your loafered-heels with the baby."
"Where's Yippy?"
"Gone. I took him to a vet in East Meadow."
"Are you going to pick him up now?"
"No, Mary. I'm not going to pick him up at all." We were outside. I shut the door and ran my fingers over the knocker. This house had been good.
"Cassie. Is Yippie sick?"
Yippie was an incorrigible, destructive gray terrier who had recently taken to snapping at the children. Nobody liked him.
"No. I found him gnawing on my new leather wallet this morning. Ruined it. So, after everybody left, I took him to this vet who boards animals. I said, "I'd like to board my dog. We're going away." He said, "How long will you be gone?" "I don't know," I said. "Has he had his shots?" "No. You'd better give them to him."
"Cassie, that's crazy! And it will cost you a fortune when he finds you."
"Don't think it will, Mary. Gave him a phony name." She was actually laughing with me. I buckled the baby into his seat and walked around to the driver's side. We hugged each other again. She slapped the rusted fender. "Hey. Are you going to be commuting to school in this old hog?"
"Mary, I. . .We'll see." Could I tell her I was pregnant? SHE was matriculating. I was GESTATING and that was that?
"I'm going to miss you, Cass."
"I know. Now Mary, let's not start slobbering.. I'll just get in and go - real fast. I'll call you."
"You're right. Go, Go." And I did.
And it's six A.M. and she's probably getting into her car while I'm getting another mug of coffee and nervous. Bill will be down soon. IS it inappropriate to want to raise children instead of your cosciousness?
And then the kids.
I don't think I'm dull and tired. I'll ask the kids what they think. Maybe I'll just ask the baby. Then I'll pick up some prune danish and be back by en because I don't run away from adult confrontations. "I'll try to get down around ten thirty so why don't you send the baby to play group," she'd said. "Then maybe we can have a few sane hours together."
"Sounds great. I'll plan a four hour brunch."
"Just make sure you're there. Write it down somewhere, Cass," she'd laughed. I didn't. You know you have a history of running away from adult confrontations."
She's been harping on that theme since my father died two months ago. My father - and I use the term loosely - died of cirrhosis in a VA hospital in New Jersey - where he'd been for two years (since his second wife's death.) My parents divorced when I was a year old. I saw him once, when I was in high school. I brought Bill to meet him after we were married. And I saw him two weeks before he died at the hospital's request. Because despite the fact that Dad never "kept in touch" I'd been listed as 'next of kin'. I thought that last visit would be traumatic, moving. He was obviously sick, but comfortable. Tried to talk about his grandchildren - showed him pictures of the fam. He smiled and said Bill reminded him of a drill sergeant he'd had in 1944. That's what we talked about - strangers talking to strangers. He asked me if I'd brought anything to toast our reunion. And then he went to sleep and I to pieces. That cry was good. The doctor called when he died. Would I please come and retrieve his effects - twelve sets of underwear, a shaving kit and dentures - and take care of the funeral arrangements. I requested cremation and the mailing of his effects. My problem was telling my mother. Still haven't. Mary couldn't believe I was putting it off.
"Cassie. WHY haven't you told your mother?"
"Well, she's just going to go off on one of her toots and I can't decide whether to do it here - which is so bad for the kids - or at her place. Then I'll be worried about finding her unconscious or hurt somewhere." Mimie (what she likes to be called) has been doing so well for a few months. I hate to blow it.
"You know, Cassie. This reminds me of Yippie."
"No. Yippie didn't drink, Mary."
"I'm serious. You couldn't face putting the dog to sleep or selling it so you just abandoned it. Now, you can't face telling your mother her HUSBAND has died so you're avoiding it."
"I hardly think that constitutes a pattern, Mary."
"Cassie. Mimie has a right to know and you have a responsibility."
"You're right, Mare. I'll tell her." And I'll see if maybe she'd like to share his effects. I'll take the lowers and give her the uppers. Final payments.
Mimie hadn't confronted Dad in 30 years. We'd been confronting her drinking for as many. I think I'll wait to tell her. And I think it's six thirty because Bill's coming down.
"How's the old prep this morning?"
"What are you doing down here, Princess?"
"Thought I'd surprise you with coffee. . . ."
"You've been down here since five, Cassie."
"But I've been down here since five and drank it all so no surprise."
"No problem. Only have time to tell you I love you and hope you getrid of Mary before I get home."
"She's not staying for dinner - has to go in to the city to see her sister. Why don't you want to see Mary?"
"Because she bores the shit out of me, sweetheart. AND seems to upset you and that upsets me."
"Mary's just opinioated and now knows SO many more things about which to have an opinion. Makes her . . . interesting. Always up for a debate."
He's just nodding and, damned it, I had two cigarettes lit.
"Shit, Bill. she makes me feel so stupid. And maybe that's good or maybe it stinks."
"Look, Cassie. Mary's recently all PhD'd and all full of herself. You can see that. And she'd been practicing - psyching everyone out. Tom's been praying for her to get a job. Tired of having his covert neuroses served every night with his TV dinners."
"She does TV dinners?"
"Told me you should get a career. If THAT'S what's bugging you, go for it. I'm behind you. But you said you weren't into a 'career'."
"I'm not. I mean I have plans but they don't feature going back to school."
"Tell HER that. Tell her 'I have plans, doctor. Thank just the same.' What plans?'
"Do you think I shun mature confrontations?"
"Certainly not. You sleep with me."
"So then, do you think I shun mature confrontations?"
"A gal who handles all bills and bank accounts for a family of nine can confront with the best of them."
"She really serves Tom and the kids TV dinners?"
"You really have 'plans' that I don't know about?"
"Yes. Didn't want to tell you till I saw how it went."
"So how's it going?"
"It hasn't. Till next Tuesday. Dr. Rosen called me - if you must know."
"Oh. Adult confrontation? I mean I can wait till next Wednesday to see how it goes."
"DOCTOR Rosen has asked me to DO the walls in his new suite downtown. Heard about my papering."
"AND I make ALL decisions."
"Great! WHY didn't you tell me? Are you thinking of a business?"
"Maybe. Eventually. I-like-to-hang-paper! There. Do you think that's weird, Bill?"
"Not unless you're hanging it on Dr. Rosen. AND - you're smiling!"
"I'm going to call it - ready? - 'Cassie's Hang-Ups'."
"Terrific. And tell Mary,"
"She's coming down to get my Karma straight for me and I say, 'Thanks. But I'm busy and then I'm going to hang wall paper?"
"Yup. And then thank her for coming, hate to give you the bum's rush but have to get ready for an adult confrontation in the city at eight. I'll get tickets to something and we'll celebrate."
"Actually, I love the whole idea and I think - KNOW -I'll be good and I think I'm going to cry. . ."
"Right. 'Bacon and tears in the morning; Champagne and laughter at night."
His hug feels very proud. Hope mine feels grateful. I'm glad Mary's coming down today. She's an old friend, you know. We're very different. She loves prune danish and I do not. And some sequitors are perfectly logical and some are non.
Later. Oh, and wait'll next year. L. . . .
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