To recall the events of my life more accurately as I move into forgetting my own name, I decided to catalogue my story by decades. I quickly discover that the whole big jumble of life has to be divided a little differently, starting with Learning to Be. I move on to Grade School, Junior High, High School, College, Marriage, Children – which is where things got a little fuzzy. As my father once told me, “As soon as you girls were born, everything flowed together; before that, I remember things clearly.” At the time, I was nine. I was interested in the statement, however much I didn’t get it. Except for the slight tinge of something about it being my fault.
Learning to be
In complete safety, my sister and I saying prayers at night by our mom’s chair where often as not it seems she is darning socks; then we sit in Dad’s lap to hear the breathless tales of Rapunzel letting down her golden hair. Days, I play under the trees in the front yard, with my older sister; she who teaches me all. It rains and we never get wet. This is the metaphor for my preschoolness. My innocence evaporates when my brilliant mentor abandons me for Kindergarten.
Joy of school, entrancing glimpses of a freckled boy on the playground, joining the little girl organization called Blue Birds, sliding down snow mounds/climbing trees/galloping around town/riding bikes with Margo; becoming a library rat and discovering the Silhouette biography series of famous American women and men. I wonder vaguely why boys are like they are but am otherwise caught up with my girlfriends and our clubs and secrets. Oh, during sixth grade, Square Dancing Club, a once-a-week event at Maude and Mert’s (can that possibly be their names?) for which Mom sews darling square-dance skirts and where I get to partner now and then with the freckled kid from the playground who has become my wish-upon-a-star secret. I think this has to do with his finally looking at me.
Brief two years of sudden maturing, retreating, being brave and then unsure again, often within the space of 20 seconds, wearing lipstick, still hanging out with girlfriends but eyeing the boys (well, the boy) who with his friends hangs out in our yard of a summer evening; the continuing joy of school but with the added attractions of the at-first confusing but soon cool demand of changing classes with the bells, going to basketball games on a bus as a cheerleader with Kathleen and making up a cheer that leaves us helpless with laughter: “A bottle of pop, an old banana, we’re from Southern Indiana, that’s a lie, that’s a lie, we’re from Jefferson Junior High.”
Confusing, embarrassing, and carefully spying on the goddesses above us. We are their insouciance. We do not quite pull it off, but other things intrigue -- the difficult classes and teachers of interest, band and twirling, actual flirting, studying, dreaming, working at the drug store as a soda jerk, beginning to wonder who I am and what I want besides the vague idea that it will somehow have to do with books. Falling completely in love, the bane of my existence because I am too young. It eventually works out, but these years are a trial. Honors and dishonors (getting stopped by the police with beer in the car gets me kicked off National Honor Society; it is the principal who explains to me the danger of my future because of it). Going to Girls State in Des Moines, not fun except for buying an orange mouton winter coat at Younkers Department Store, dismaying my mother when I arrive home with it. Applying for college, the one my parents want me to attend; I am a pliant young thing.
First of all, I am so homesick I can barely breathe. This shocks me; I have never been in a situation to know this frightful emotion. Besides that, I have to study. This is a serious routine not practiced much in high school. Meeting cool and nice girls and cool and above-it-all girls – the latter from Chicago and Milwaukee and other big cities, sophisticated beyond my little-town upbringing; going by train to Chicago to ride the El and walk along State Street, going to Madison with classmates to drink beer in rock ‘n roll dancehalls for 19-to-21-year-olds; cutting up a formaldehyde piglet for an entire semester, learning the real history of the Westward Ho migration that was unlike Little House on the Prairie, falling under the spell of the toughest English teacher in the school, being chosen as a literary magazine editor; dating boys I am not interested in.
Too young for this but finding everything thrilling – from going to bed legitimately in a hotel to flying to California with my childhood heartthrob-turned-sailor-- the liberation of it intoxicating. I sit on a hill by the library, the first stop of my new life obtaining a library card, and literally hugging myself, laughing out loud at the license to be something I’ve never been; I have escaped from rules, tradition, people telling me what to do, a family that protected me too much. It is all heady. I can muster the feeling still.
Also too soon, but I realize pretty quickly learn there is no such thing as being a little bit pregnant, so I settle into what is neither difficult nor overwhelming . . . until the actual birth. The brand-new little critter who has colic and cries from midnight to 4 a.m. for the first six months of his life has only me; his dad is on a ship off the coast of Vietnam. My mother and her role in my life take on new meaning. She too had been a mom with a husband gone to war a mere 20 years earlier.
What I recall most distinctly from this peculiar thing called motherhood that removed me from reality personally and adult society, in general, is my reentry into my life. After the hiatus of learning a role that involves a baby and sleeping whenever I can, I read a book. I choose Kristin Lavransdatter, a three-tome novel I’d read in college over a Christmas vacation for the paper I had to write for my favorite professor; this was a pure suck-up to that teacher, but it worked. I got an A+, unheard of from her. The second read-through as a young mother is just as depressing as my first reading of it, but it is engrossing. I am depressed already, so it is hard to tell that the book has anything but a familiar ring to it. I am told I am postpartum, an after-childbirth phenom. The book gets me out of it, Kristin having it much worse than I do.
We buy our first house, and the 30-year mortgage is something we can only laugh at. What are 30 years but an impossible stretch of the imagination. I am now in the rest of my life. What my dad had told me when I was nine is suddenly clear. The edges of my days begin to blur because the focus is no longer me. The distinction of years becomes the first birth and then the second. Soon, but as I recall, not soon enough – really, those preschool years did move like molasses – the entire business of life is now theirs: their vaccinations and doctor appointments, their little friends, their baseball and ballet, their grade school schedules. PTA for god’s sake. Because we live in California, they play outside almost exclusively, and I hose them down before supper to let them in the house for a bath before eating. Summers, I take the whole neighborhood to the beach two or three times a week.
During this period, I write 50 short stories, all of which I send out 10 times. The result is 500 rejection slips. Talk about depression; although I am strangely unaware of it and surprised years later when my husband tells me that every time I received one of those 500 returned in the mail, I went into a two-week melancholy. I have no recollection of this.
My husband becomes a deputy sheriff, soon a homicide detective. Twice a year we attend a formal dinner dance – total fun. Otherwise, we slow-dance in the kitchen, the kids at first joining us but soon rolling their eyes and going to their rooms. They are growing up and becoming me, who about twice a week is still only 10 myself.
Shockingly, both of our fathers die within five months of each other. We cling to one another, neither of us understanding nor willing to believe the tragedy of life. I am over it sooner than he; it takes him five years to let it subside; I do not know he’s doing this, I think our marriage is failing, so I take my piano music and my five-year-old and eight-year-old children and flee to my sister’s. I am home in 10 days because he misses me. We talk; this first adult honesty is the true beginning of our marriage.
The children call it “taking us away from the only home we’ve ever known.” Their dad and I call it exciting and daring. We move out of the increasing problems of over-populated California to the empty vastness of under-populated Nevada, with fewer than a million folks in the whole state. He becomes a poker dealer and I get my first job as a writer. We build a house with our own hands, and the kids leap into high school with complicated schedules that busy our lives with dance recitals, long trips to track meets, cheerleading, teen jobs and teens ranging through the house, sleeping over, drinking all the milk, at all times yakking, eating, playing music too loud. I love teenagers; interesting age as well as independent: they fix their own food.
Children moving away
My children in college? How this can be happening so soon bewilders me, so I quit thinking about it. I do not have empty-house syndrome because I am busy going back to school myself, their dad in management of the poker room at the Hyatt, a thing he laughs about and sometimes talks about – his regret at retiring from his homicide gig. He goes to school to become a golf club builder -- his other love (besides me he says) makes him happy. I am happy with the kids gone, happy when they return, happy with my own studies, my jobs as newspaper columnist and editor for college textbooks. It is a good decade – the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Children having children
This must be how my parents felt – my babies married with babies? My kids have bets on what kind of grandmother I’ll be, knowing my antipathy toward diapers, pablum and reading the same book to a tiny one every night for months. Their dad has long been a baby-crazy person, and lo and behold, I become one, falling in love with my first grandchild. Happy days, lots of time with the babe, big holiday dinners with friends and family, travel.
And then the death of a mom, of a sister, of another sister, divorces among the offspring, poor health in the form of rheumatoid arthritis for me. These things, too, are too soon.
Hitting the road
The kids are living their lives, we sell the house and hit the road in a fifth wheel, a camper attached to a pickup truck. Forced to be together all day and all night, without jobs, family or friends, we learn things about one another we never knew. We find this absorbing; after all, we’ve known one another since first grade. Life, however, is awkward for us because we are inept at being campers; we never camped prior to this adventure. At campgrounds, my mate leans on the backs of trucks with other guys and talks truck, which makes me laugh – he’s never been a vehicle nut. I sit at picnic tables listening to women wanting to be with their grandkids. Learning that we are nesters, not wanderers, we do not last long in this peripatetic sub-culture of the Americas. We land in a campground of permanent and semi-permanent campers for a two-day reservation and stay five months. We have found a new niche.
We live in Florida trailer parks during winter and in our long-ago hometown for summers. We see the kids and their kids in their homes and in ours. Traveling the country is stimulating, and we like it because we are usually on the way to see them.
We are in retirement for 10 years and then my heartthrob of 58 years dies. I survive it not because of anything but time. And speaking of time, here I sit, well into my eighth decade, pondering how very far away so much of my life seems, and how very near.
Update 5 years later
Who thought I’d be writing an update at three-quarters of a century? What could happen at this age that could be worth writing about?
It is that I am happy. Getting over the death of the beloved was long. And equally boring and anxiety-ridden. The transcendence of it finally wiggling into my being inspired toward a bit of wisdom. I have been on the road again in a different way -- making friends with his “end that never ends” and my continuing approach in a more positive way to my own end...until I wind up where he went?
This part of the trip gets me out of bed each morning wondering what I’m going to learn about myself today. As ever, often nothing happens; and then something silly comes along, usually of my own doing. Now and then I overflow with creativity and or housecleaning and cooking. My only anxiety hangs on living in the Time of Coronavirus and avoiding it because I don’t want to be exposed and not be allowed to see my kids. This is mostly abstract pondering. I have no fear of death, although I cannot dwell on getting there too long without worrying.
I still read a lot. I am pickier about books and find more joy in rereading old favorites, often because I can’t remember them or how they turn out. This makes me laugh and read and fall asleep and read into the night. And it reinforces the truest thing about my life, that it really has been “just a chair of bowlies.”