She's wearing a crazy, lopsided grin, as she leans into the camera, laughing. The white hair curls around her face, which thows off a shine in the humid Gulf Coast air. Her hazel eyes are alight with beer, or being surrounded by her brood, all in high spirits. It was one of those Mississippi family feeds over Bobby's picnic table, newspapers spread out to catch the juice as we sucked on crawfish heads and corn on the cob. A beautiful evening in May, after badminton in the backyard with three generations of women swatting gleefully at the birdie.
My mother's laughing eyes could be a sign of joy-nothing less, nothing more. Except for the hesitancy pulling downward at the corners of her smile, as if she fears we'll disappear any moment. And of course, she's right. We're only here for a brief visit, the California kids and their partners. After we leave, the daughter and son that live next door in Gulfport will surely be too busy to stop by her house. At least, that what I'll hear, when I ask if she's seen my Southern sister or brother lately.
But I can't help looking at that photo and seeing more than my mother's mirth, or the unspoken plea for longer visits from her children. Or even the exuberance mixed with the loneliness of a healthy, 70-year old widow freed up after years of living with a raging, sick man. Instead, the look on her face reminds me of the mental snapshot I carry from our few conversations about her childhood.
I can see the eight-year old,
grinning at her sobered up father when he finally shows up at
the house again. Maybe he's got a jump rope or jacks for his
only girl. Maybe it was the second or third or tenth time he's
left. The second to last time he'll ever come back. Or ever be
allowed back, by her unyielding, God-fearing mother. Upright
like the straight-backed chairs they'll be selling soon, now
that they have to move into a one-room apartment to survive on
their own. The little girl grows up fast, becoming an office
clerk at 17, a young bride at 19, a new mother at 22. But before
my sister is born, my mother's jolly Jimmy takes off for good,
and Mom is abandoned again. So it's back to the Baptist mother,
who's never really recovered from her own fun-loving man. And
my mother is back to being an office clerk at the shipyards,
where, years later, she gets set up on a blind date with my father.
The man she loved, surely she did. And, decades later, after
the shouting and drinking set in, the man she would never choose
to leave. At least not geographically.
You know what they say about the Pisces thing, don't you? Two fish, heading off in opposite directions? Yeah, I know Gemini twins are divided too, but they're not pulled from the inside out like this girl feels. One half ecstatic and expansive as the clouds, the other half lower than the deepest despair. One side confidently taking on the world, the other side cowering behind a wall of insecurities. One bird itching for her next solo flight, the other bird looking for her place in the flock. One part itching for an endless, open road, one part yearning to be rooted to the ground. The hardest thing about that last split is that it's usually going on at the same time. Like two little fairies perched on my shoulder, each pointing their fingers and bitching at each other.
Settled Miss Suzie always starts
"That's what I want, but I'm not really a nest-builder," Nellie admitted. "I need you to help me create my home. Trouble is, I want to plant my tomatoes, but I don't want to let too much grass grow under my feet. I need movement, freedom to grow myself. I'm afraid of being cast in cement."
"Yeah, that sounds like another one of your excuses for avoiding intimacy".
"Hey, I want to be intimate with the homey side of life. I just don't feel accepted by you. You're always putting me down for not wanting to be like you."
"That's because you're so frenetic. You're peripatetic. The music is always on, and you're always trying to squeeze in one last song."
"Well, at least I feel the need to sing and dance. You're so sedate, I can't get you to kick up your heels," Nellie practically whined to her other half.
Suzie took a big breath, and was about to let loose an avalanche of anger. Then she got quiet, as if she was searching inside herself for some truth. "I need quiet, and down time. I need to meditate, exercise, follow a schedule, and not try to be in two places at once."
"Ok, ok, I admit I cram too much in," Nellie agreed, looking down at her lap and nodding her head in assent. "I'm trying to work on that, I really am. But there are so many friends, so many readings, so much culture, so much poverty, and so many roads to ride. Maybe I just need to remove myself from all this external stimulation."
"It's called life, kiddo.
You'd find too much to do in bumfuck Iowa. Why don't you just
start saying no, sometimes?" Suzie queried.
Suzie threw up her hands. "What can I say? I think you miss more meaningful moments just rushing around from place to place. My way of life isn't about doing things, it's about being. Being whole to myself. You know-
"But life isn't just about yourself!" Nellie broke in. "Oh, I know you don't really think that, it's just sometimes it feels that way, living with you. What I meant to say is I really admire your self-sufficiency, your sturdy foundation, your four walls. Most of all, I admire how you know what you like, and go after it, step by step. But I'm not that planful-never was, never will be. I'm the ocean, you're the shore. I'd like to be more grounded, but I don't want to lose the wild dolphin in me."
"Well," Suzie said, "have we finished our soliloquy yet? Actions speak louder than words, my dear. You might say you want to settle down, but you're never willing to take a chance and plant yourself first."
"That's it-the chanciness of it. It all sounds pretty risky to me," Nellie mused. "What if I pick the wrong plot? What if it's not fertile and I shrivel and die?"
"Your whole way of thinking sounds scary to me," Suzie answered. "Kinda like-'Since I might make the wrong decision, I won't make any decision at all'?"
"Ok, but admit it. You do get stuck in the mud sometime. I mean, you say you wanted to travel, but it took you 40 years to leave the country."
"I couldn't afford it," snapped Suzie. "Besides, I was busy getting established, and settling down."
"Well," Nellie began, searching for some calming words. "Don't you think, well, couldn't it be possible, that we're two sides of the same dream? That we might need each other to keep balanced?"
"It's hard to feel balanced around you," came the reply. Then, begrudgingly, "But you do open my eyes to the big world out there, and that's not a bad thing."
"And you, my dear, keep me looking at the universe within, and that is a very fine thing. What do you say we let down our guard, and embrace each other?"
Nellie looked over at Suzie, who was starting to back away. "Ok, how about just accepting each other?"
She crosses the busy street
from Diesel Bookstore, trying not to stumble in her new suede
clogs. Despite the casual corduroys and leather jacket thrown
over her arm, Chris is feeling anything but unruffled. In fact,
she's afraid of completely losing it on her first "blind
date," set up by her running buddy, Terry. He described
his friend Deena as intelligent and humorous, someone who loves
kids and animals. Someone, he adds, with no neurotic tendencies,
although Chris doubts Terry would be such a great reference point
in the mental health arena. Halfway across College Avenue, Chris
catches herself in mid-analyses, chuckling at her readiness to
plan out her life with a woman she hasn't laid eyes on yet. No
wonder they say lesbians bring their U-Hauls to the second date,
Chris thinks. The first one is so damn unnerving.
To the clang of the streetcar
The hot blast of music
Leaving behind St. Charles
To scurry past shirtless dancers
To collapse in a stupor
Beating to different drummers
Fat Tuesday-how disgusting.
Mardi Gras-flying fish
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