“I don’t know what your parents taught you…”
It is not a matter of question. The words drive themselves out of her mouth and across the phone line where they find me staring at my reflection in the hallway mirror. I note the creases in the skin of my forehead, deep and red from screwing up my face in consternation. I dismay at the bags under my eyes, hard earned from so many sleepless nights this week. Has she forgotten the wounded condition of my heart?
Usually I write for myself, but not entirely tonight.
Tonight I also write for her.
“I don’t know what your parents taught you,” she said.
So let me explain.
This is what my parents taught me.
I am ten years old and I can hear someone crying, no, wailing is more like it. Is that a person? It sounds like a person. But then again, it could be a cat. As a farm reared child, I know what a wailing cat sounds like. Wailing cats come with the territory. We’ve got at least a dozen of them roaming around here, most of them belonging to distant neighbors or perhaps they are strays that took up near the chicken houses to feast on the multitude of wharf-rats that roam the ditches at night. Every chance I can, I bring the stray cats tin-pie plates filled with warm milk and bits of bread. The strays aren’t supposed to eat the cat food that we feed our pet cat, Whitey, but sometimes I sneak it to them anyway.
“If you keep feeding them, they won’t eat the rats,” my mother has said.
“But what if they starve?” I am quite worried about that.
“They wouldn’t be here if they were starving,” she has said, but I am not convinced.
“They’ve got it better than most stray cats,” she has argued. “They’ve got a warm and dry barn to sleep in.” But I am still not convinced.
“We can’t afford to feed a dozen cats,” she has continued, but I am still not convinced.
It always ends in partial concession. “If they start to look like they’re starving you can feed them cat food. Otherwise, let them fend for themselves. Ok?”
“Ok,” but we both know well enough that I am going to keep bootlegging out tin pans of bread and milk and occasional cat food.
“You have always had a soft spot for strays,” her familiar voice, her hand brushing the bangs out of my eyes. Many years later, when I have taken in a stray of an entirely different nature and I am beginning to wonder why I ever made that choice, she will remind me of this. When I have all but forgotten about tin pans and milk and torn pieces of bread, she will remind me that I went to great lengths to give a dozen mangy cats a warm meal. And I will remember myself.
I am ten-years-old, and I hear again a noise that sounds like a cat crying, or maybe a cow braying in pain or maybe something else. If it’s a hurting cat, I want to find it. Maybe it is hungry. Maybe it needs a tin pan of milk and bread.
Dusk is settling heavy over the farm, the sky dark purple with just a tiny band of orange light at the edge of the clouds as the sun sinks further down and out of view. Like stadium lights, bright and white, the safety bulbs on the tin-sided chicken houses crackle to life. My flip-flopped feet trek to-and-fro across the course grey gravel and the hard packed earth, searching out the wailing animal, sending wolf spiders scurrying off into the shadows with their offspring huddled on their backs.
No luck around the chicken houses. Maybe the hay barn?
The sky is almost black now, and this does not excite me in the least. I will have to walk back to the house alone. The woods on the peripheral have lost all light, opaque in their darkness, perfectly masking whatever hides there. Coyotes. Mountain Lions. My dad even tells a story of a green-eyed panther that once stalked him near a creek while he was horseback riding. The horse spooked and fled the forest, with him still sitting on her back. And here I am without a horse and only my flip-flops. If I must flee, I won’t get far.
In the near darkness I approach the hay barn, a half-open building two stories tall with round bushels of hay stacked to the roofline. A scattering of stray cats recline in the crevices of the bales, stretching their legs, swishing their tales, dispassionately watching me as I intrude into and investigate their castle.
The noise has stopped now, but still I search. Nothing in the North corner of the barn near the tractor. Nothing in the South corner near the hay-baler attachment. Nothing in the West corner. But then I round into the East corner and there hidden among the bales, bowed with his face in the dirt, hands pressed flat on the ground is my father. His back is to me. He is motionless, except for the rise and fall of his back as he deeply breathes.
Is he ok?
“Dad?” I say tentatively, but he does not hear me.
“Dad?” I whisper again, but it gets no response.
Perhaps I am somewhere that I should not be. Am I going to be in trouble for this? Carefully I tiptoe out of the barn, cringing as the metal door whines on its hinges behind me. Should I run back to the house, quickly, before anyone discovers me? Maybe I will, but it is dark and I am scared. But I have no other choice.
“Heather?” And just as swiftly as I meant to flee, I am found out. I startle, stop in my tracks, turn to see him. The skin on his face is streaked with dirt and the clean negative left by tears. The tracks run up his forehead, like he has been crying upside down.
“Dad?” I say uncertainly. “Are you ok?”
His response is, “Were you just in the barn?”
I nod guiltily. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” he says.
But I say it again. “I’m sorry.”
He sighs heavily, his back slumping further towards the ground. Crossing to me, his arm drapes across my shoulders, his free hand pats the crown of my head.
“Dad, are you ok?”
Another heavy sigh.
“No sweetheart. I am not.”
“Is that why you were crying?” I ask.
He is silent for a moment, staring at the blank space in front of him as if it looks unpleasant.
“I am very sad,” he says lowly, “and I was crying out to God.”
“You were praying?”
“I was praying.”
What about? He doesn’t tell me, but it could be any painful or terrifying thing. When I am grown and walking through the darkest moments in my life, I will look in the mirror and on my own face identify the same hollow eyes, the same creased forehead, the same pained expression of my father’s in 1993. And I will remember where I found him. On his knees.
“I’m scared to walk back to the house in the dark,” I say to him. “Will you walk with me?”
He glances at his watch.
“I have to check the chickens first,” he says. “Do you mind waiting outside? You can’t go in there with your flip-flops on.”
“I know,” I say. “I’ll wait.”
So I stand alone in the white glow of the safety lights, watching moths and gnats beat their wings against the bulbs and die. I am ten. I do not yet know the pain that my life will hold. Or the joy. When I am twenty-two, I will feel a vague numbness in my feet, the first effects of nerve damage from thirteen years worth of chronic disease. In horror, I will have my first adult realization that this illness is going to kill me. Give it forty years, and it will wear my liver down to nothing. I will die before my peers.
Falling to my knees, I will wail like a cat before God. And I will be comforted.
My father exits the last chicken house and finds me underneath the light. He smells of ammonia and corn feed.
“You ready to go?” he asks.
“Yep,” I say, reaching for his hand.
And we walk the gravel road back home in the dark.
My father taught me to say my prayers.
This particular crowd of gals can get a bit gossipy. I am fourteen sitting in a living room with at least ten other females, including my mother. We are probably all related, since everybody in this town is somebody’s cousin.
So far the discussion has included the skimpyness of Julie Jones’ skirt at church last Sunday (Did you see how short it was?) and the fact that Joe Jackman is now working two jobs (two!) to support his family because his wife is pregnant with their sixth child. (Six children! In that tiny little house. You’d think he’d have the sense to get snip-snipped or she’d have had her tubes tied by now.) The discussion has also included other things, less gossipy.
My fourteen-year-old self is sitting on the sofa between two grown women. My mother is across the room in an armchair. Most everyone seems old to me. I do not realize that my mother in her mid-thirties is young. I do not realize that the two old women on either side of me are young as well.
The conversation moves around us. My mother’s face opens up excitedly when she talks about sewing new curtains for her living room. It closes like a door when the discussion turns to whether Joe Jackman can afford to send six children to college.
“Irresponsible!” says someone.
“It’s called family planning,” says another.
But my mother says nothing, and in her silence and lack of expression I learn that the size of Joe Jackman’s family is the business of Joe Jackman and his wife and no one else.
Conversational topics of women are like tangled balls of colored yarn. Start pulling on a blue string and it draws out a red one. Start pulling on the red one and a yellow one comes out behind it. One woman pulls the yellow string until it snags out a green one. In that way, the discussion moves to how much time it takes us all to get ready in the morning. The general consensus is that more than fifteen minutes is unacceptable.
“A little mascara and lipstick and I’m out the door. I don’t have time to stand in front of the mirror.”
“Mary Moesby takes an hour to curl her hair! I would never take an hour to curl my hair!”
My mother is silent again, but I surprise myself and decide to speak. I tentatively take the ball of yarn and pull the string.
“It takes me forever to get ready,” I submit, the words floating from my mouth to the center of the room where they hang over the coffee table like an offering to the god of dialogue. “My hair is so thick it takes half-an-hour to blow it dry. And then I have to straighten it. And I can’t ever decide what I want to wear.”
Silence fills the room. My offering hangs in the air, as of yet unaccepted. Did I say something wrong? I was only being honest.
My mother’s face is a window to her soul. It is open and looking directly at me and I think that maybe she is proud of me, although I do not know why.
“So how long does it take you to get ready?” asks a girl with long black hair. She is someone’s daughter and around my age.
“Oh, I don’t know. An hour? Maybe two?”
I can hear the low rush of the air conditioning blowing through a vent in the floor. The young girl with long black hair says nothing. Everyone says nothing. But my mother’s face is a window to her soul and it is looking at me. She breaks the silence.
“Heather likes to take her time in the morning,” she says. “She likes to sit in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and read. She likes to gather her thoughts while it is still quiet. It really is a wonderful way to start the day.” With the way she says the word wonderful, no one in here will dare have the confidence to question it. Yes. It is a wonderful way to start the day.
I have been rescued.
What she just said is not entirely the truth. Most mornings before school I agonize over my outfit, I redo my lipstick four times, I fret over needless things. But once, just once, I have made a pot of coffee and sat at the breakfast table and been the young woman that she just described. My mother has seen past the self-conscious teenager to what I really want to be, and she has rescued me from a room of catty women. She rescues me.
The conversation moves back to the length of Julie Jones’ skirt, and I and my mother close the doors of our faces and we stay silent.
My mother taught me to be kind to others.
Angry. I am so angry. I am sixteen and I am pinned to the dining room floor, struggling violently with my father. He is on top of me, literally, in attempt to control me. I have kicked him thrice in the shins. If I could get my hands out of his grip, I would punch him.
“I am going to the party!” I shriek for the zillionth time. The words are a bit garbled since my mouth is half squished into the floor. I can taste the Pledge hardwood cleaner.
Dad doesn’t even say no. He has already said it more times than either of us can count. Instead, he keeps me in his grip. I flail, I kick a few more times and finally I grow still underneath him. The dining room falls silent.
“You remind me of a horse I once had,” he says, his speech part muffled into the back of my head. “Every time I tried to put a saddle on her, she would kick me.”
“I don’t want to wear a saddle,” I angrily say.
“I know you don’t,” he says.
“Let go of me,” I demand.
“Honey, you are sixteen. There is no way I can let go of you right now. You aren’t ready yet.”
I roll my eyes. “I wasn’t being metaphorical. Let me up off the floor.”
“If I do, will you promise not to run out the front door?”
I sigh. “Ok.”
“I said ok!”
We both clamber up from the hardwoods, and my father takes his stance between the front door and me. It is dark outside and I watch a streetlamp click on out the window.
“I’m not going to run,” I defend, but in truth I might if given the chance.
My father rubs his reddened shins. “You got me good,” he says.
“I hate you,” I spit.
“I know you do, but I need you to listen to me right now.”
Rolling my eyes, I prepare to not listen, but he launches into the following monologue anyway. As it turns out, it is brilliant and will stay with me forever.
“I need you to know how much I love you,” he says. “You can kick me, you can scream at me, you can say you hate me but I still love you. You’re my daughter. You are my firstborn. I can’t ever stop.”
I stare intently at a knot in the hardwood floors, and he continues.
“You are also the most stubborn and independent woman that I have ever met in my life,” he shakes his head like this baffles him. “I suppose you take after your father. You remind me of myself.”
I am still fixated on that knot in the floor. If you stare at it long enough, it kind of looks like George Washington in profile.
“This is important,” he says, but I am sixteen and barely listening. “I need you to know there is nothing wrong with that stubborn streak. There is nothing wrong with that independence. God gave you your personality for a reason. I don’t want you to ever be ashamed of it.”
My eyes jerk up to meet his. This is new.
“You’ve just got to learn how to be stubborn about the right things. You have got to learn how to take all that passion and turn it towards things that really matter. You have to submit it to God. You are so strong that if you spend your energy on worthless pursuits, you will dig a hole in the ground that you will never be able to get out of. Do you understand what I am saying?”
I nod. I understand perfectly. In fact, I am already digging a few holes with my life, but I have been too prideful to admit it.
“Please,” he says in earnest, “let me raise you. Let me put a saddle on you for the next few years until you are old enough to be on your own.”
“I don’t want to wear a saddle,” I say, less angry now. “I want to be free.”
“I understand,” he says. “But wild horses that run alone starve in the wilderness. You need discipline and you need passionate purpose in your life. Trust me. Those friends of your’s that are running wild will self-destruct eventually. Just wait and see.”
I stare at the floor again. I can’t decide whether or not I believe him.
“You are better than that,” he says in the softest tone of the night. “You are meant for more.” Suddenly he is hugging me and I am letting him hug me. I am burying my face in his shirt and thinking how much I love him. But since I just told him that I hate him, I don’t reckon I can flip-flop and tell him that I love him just yet, so I keep silent.
“I am going to lock this front door,” says my father. “Please, don’t walk out of it tonight.”
“Ok,” I sigh.
“And don’t ever kick me again.”
Slowly I walk up to my room where I lock my own door and listen to angsty music on the radio for three hours until the house falls silent and everyone is asleep. At some point while the DJ is jabbering, I realize that I am sorry for kicking my dad in the shins. Probably, I should go let him know.
Through the still moonlight, I tiptoe down the stairs and across the house to my parents’ doorway, trying to not creak the floorboards as I go. The door to their bedroom is cracked open two inches and I sheepishly place my mouth near the opening.
“Dad?” I whisper, but get no response. As I push the door open, I inwardly wish it would whine on its hinges to announce my arrival, but it stays silent so I clear my throat instead.
“Dad?” I say as I step towards the bed, but the quiescence is not broken so I lean my head near his face and try a little louder.
“DAD.” But still nothing. He is out cold.
Oh. He is out cold. He cannot hear me right in front of his face, so if I were to walk out the front door, crank my car and go to the party…
It is midnight now. The party will be in full swing. The music will be loud. Everyone will be drunk. In about an hour, my best friend will need me to hold her hair while she pukes.
I could go if I wanted to.
But do I want to? Have I ever really wanted to?
I lean down and kiss my father on the forehead, catching a whiff of his familiar smell, gasoline and fresh earth.
“I love you,” I whisper. “And I’m sorry.”
Then I tiptoe back to my room where I sleep until the morning.
My father taught me to respect authority.
What else was taught? A million other things in between.
That sometimes people smile when they are sad, and cry when they are happy.
That we are all fallen humans, so forgiveness is mandatory. Second chances, however, are not necessarily.
That I must think before I speak, but by all means, I must speak.
That where no oxen are, the stall is clean. But there is much value in the strength of an ox.
And more more much more in between.
Is this terrifying? I had never expected it to be. I am nineteen-almost-twenty and I am struggling to get one last shoe into the trunk of my car. The little Toyota is packed to its roof with all my clothes, all my makeup, all my posters, all my books. The only empty space is in the driver’s seat. Even if I wanted to, I could not take anything else with me. There is room left for me and me alone.
Finally, I wedge in the shoe at a forty-five degree angle and, with effort, force the trunk closed. The car will not give to hold more, so I slump back towards the house feeling heavier than I meant to feel. Shouldn’t I be light? Finally, after years of striving for my independence, I am an adult. Shouldn’t I feel free?
Walking into the house, I look intently up the stairs towards my childhood bedroom. Through its open door, I see dust motes floating in a sunbeam that streaks through the dormer window. Should I make one last walk through? But I can’t. It is empty, the closet bare, the space under the bathroom sink vacant. I do not live here anymore, so instead I sink down on the bottom stair and hide my face in my palms.
Here come the tears.
With a basket of laundry in her arms, my mother wanders past and stops dead in her tracks, assuming an expression of utter bafflement.
“What is happening right now?” she asks cautiously, comically, like she does not trust herself to understand.
“I don’t even know,” I sob. I want her to sink down next to me and let me bury my face into the crook of her neck, but instead she remains standing with the laundry basket on one hip and her head cocked to the right side in wonder.
Levelly she says, “The only alternative is living at home forever. Do you want to live at home forever?”
Through my tears, I laugh. We both already know the answer.
“Then you have to go,” she says. “This is how growing-up works.”
Not quite the comfort I expected, but still I nod through my tears. I understand.
“Do you remember when you were six years old,” she asks, adjusting a sock that is about to fall over the plastic lip of the basket, “and you packed that little book bag with a pillow and Kraft sliced cheese and tried to run away from home?”
I look at her and nod again. Of course I remember.
“Well, you weren’t ready then,” she says, “but you are ready now. You are a fine young woman and you are going to do well in the world.”
My father wanders in then, still holding a greasy rag from where he just checked the oil level in my car. He too stops in his tracks and looks confused.
“What is happening right now?” he asks, to which mom smiles wryly and I shrug.
“I’m scared to leave,” I say.
It starts as a small chuckle, and then Dad is laughing so deep that you cannot even hear it.
“Baby girl,” he says eventually, still in baffled amusement, “you have been trying to move out since you were six years old.”
“I know,” I sob. “I don’t understand it either.”
Then he sinks down on the landing and wraps me in his arms. Mom follows on my other side, and the three of us embrace and I cry and I laugh at the same time. Acutely, I am aware that something is changing in this moment. We have begun the move away from the child and her authority figures. Now we edge towards the friendship that only an adult daughter and her mother and her father can have. More suddenly than expected, I am grown.
We hug on the stair landing until I am done crying and we are all done laughing.
My father asks, “Are you ready?”
And I say, “I’m ready.”
Together, the three of us walk out to my car where I climb in and turn the key and the engine rumbles to life. I am told to stop at the gas station on the corner to fuel up, and will I give them a call when I get there?
“I’ll call you,” I say, and I turn out of the driveway with the rearview image of almost twenty years and my father’s arm around my mother’s shoulders, the two of them growing smaller and smaller in the mirror until I breach the rise of a hill and they are gone from sight. Then it is just me and the packed car and the radio and what lies ahead.
My parents taught me how to grow up.
They taught me more than I could ever write with pen and paper
but give me children of my own one day, and in much the same way
I will write it in their lives. That’s my plan.
I don’t know what your parents taught you.
But this is what my parents taught me.