This essay originally appeared in Literary Orphans, Issue 17: Ella
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin.
Their bedroom—I knew it by heart. The Trojan condoms in the bottom drawer of Dad’s night stand; a copy of The Bell Jar on Mom’s side; the shotgun in the back of the closet behind Oxford shoes; and the corduroy sport jackets Dad wore to teach English at our high school.
Mom’s dresser was a trove of white C-cup bras, half-slips, and a jewelry box that opened to a twirling ballerina in a white tutu. She had two kinds of perfume that sat next to the box: Shalimar by Guerlain and Cotillion by Avon. Shalimar smelled spicy and exotic, while Cotillion was delicate and airy. They seemed to belong to two different women. Two women I wanted to be, but didn’t yet know how to become.
As a kid, I took tiny inventories of Mom’s things: the jewelry in that jewel box (mother-of-pearl pin I gave her that said ‘Mother’, lacquered red rose stick pin, string of pearls she wore in her wedding portrait that hung in the hallway); the clothes on the hangers; the sensible shoes she kept in orderly boxes at the bottom of her closet; the Ginny dolls in polka dot boxes on the shelf above whose eyes opened and closed and whose tiny leather shoes had silver snaps. I conducted my inventories in secret, knowing Mom would feel it was an invasion of her privacy. I did it, perhaps, to hew to some form of identity for myself. I had been adopted and while it didn’t occur to me consciously at that time, looking back I realized I felt out of place. Or, maybe I was trying to find my place within the family via objects. Something always seemed to be missing for me, a piece of myself that I couldn’t classify, something within me but at the same time unreachable. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. I am not sure I will ever be able to recognize it.
Next to Mom’s dresser hung a framed print with a shortened version of the poem “Children Learn What They Live,” by Dorothy Law Nolte.
If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.
If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with pity, he learns to feel sorry for himself . . .
As the child, snooping about, I had read the poem many times. It registered to me then as being powerful and bigger than I was, but I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know then what ‘apprehensive’ meant or how to feel ‘envy’ or how to connect all the similes within the poem. I didn’t know what to feel because, I realize now, I didn’t know how to feel much of anything then. I was both inside my head and outside of myself. I took everything in and let nothing out. I gauged other people’s reactions to my actions and then fine-tuned my self accordingly. I tried on personas like pants (one summer I announced to my cousins that I was going to be ‘preppy’ in the upcoming year of junior high). I was trying to mold an identity based solely on how I felt I was reflected in other people. I constantly sought out external, positive validation, and when I got it (only rarely), I questioned its validity.
Dad wanted me to be an Irish step dancer and a concert violinist. I balked at the former (the costumes! the fake hair!), but accepted the latter with modest success: a small college scholarship to Penn State, and Dad’s disappointment that I didn’t go to Juilliard, where my Juilliard-trained instructor told me I could have gone.
Mom kept saying, “Be yourself.” But with no explanation of what my ‘self’ was supposed to be, I felt I was botching the whole thing terribly. In short, I was constantly fighting with the image I saw in the mirror because I was relentlessly playing to an unsatisfied audience who seemed to be demanding their ticket money back.
I was a curious child. I poked around in Mom’s things, messed through the drawers in her bathroom vanity, opened the tubes of Vagisil, took her Tampax out of their cardboard packaging and dropped them headfirst into the toilet water to watch them bloom like white lilies.
“Those aren’t toys, they’re expensive,” she admonished; yet she never explained to me what the Tampax were used for.
When I finally did get my period, at 16 during J.V. cheerleading practice, my friend Wendy passed me a Playtex tampon under the bathroom stall door. It was wrapped in pink plastic. She gave no explanation for how to use it and I was too embarrassed to ask. I inserted it farther than I felt was comfortable, which was in fact, half as far as it needed to go. It hurt like hell. I spent the rest of cheerleading practice performing splits and jumps with said tampon being neither inside of me nor out.
When I was in grammar school, I used to watch Mom get ready for cast parties. Dad was theatre director as part of his duties as an English teacher at our High School, and she was the one presented with bouquets of flowers before each production. She went to the cast parties with Dad after each play wrapped each High School season. There were parties for “Flowers for Algernon,” “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “The Screwtape Letters” (which we were not allowed to see.)
Much of my after-school time in elementary and middle school was spent with Dad in the theatre, racing up and down the carpeted stairs, unfolding the theatre seats and trying to sit in every one as fast as I could, posing in ways that might attract the attention of (all) the leading men who I had consecutive crushes on; caring for a white mouse that was a prop in “Flowers for Algernon”; and messing around with the lights and the sound board while Dad rehearsed his students. I was a demented Eloise and the theatre was my Plaza Hotel.
It seems to me now that I was fusing myself onto other people, flailing around for someone I could identify with, constantly trying to imitate, act, or pretend my way into a character whose part hadn’t been scripted yet. I had no idea who I was.
Watching Mom get ready to go to the plays and the cast parties with Dad was magical because she seemed happy. She was so pretty, bobby pinning her short brown hair in spit curls in front of her ears and pressing her lips on white Kleenex, leaving red puckered lipstick stains. I would buzz around her like a gnat, asking questions and bouncing on her bed. Eventually, Dad would pull into the driveway with our babysitter Kevin Silk and I would skip down the hall to buzz around him in all his teenage cuteness.
The last thing Mom did before leaving the house was to spray Cotillion on her wrists and behind her ears. Then she leaned over to kiss me goodnight on the top of my head. The first thing I did when she left was lock myself in her bathroom, pick the Kleenex out of the trash and squeeze my lips together where hers had been.
Shalimar was the expensive perfume Dad bought for Mom every single Christmas, along with a crisp white blouse with a lace collar. Each year, Dad gave us girls money and instructions shortly before Christmas to “go pick out” these items for her. He would make a big deal of it when she unwrapped the blouse or the perfume, like it was designed to make her feel special. I remember her face being flat and expressionless as she replaced the tissue paper and put the box with the blouse on the floor next to her chair before motioning us to open our gifts, which she had hand made. She was a furious knitter and an expert quilter and sewer. How did Dad expect her to be surprised by these uniform gifts that were given to her year after year? I think now that her expression was one of muted pain for living with a man who didn’t understand her enough to know that, when she wore perfume, Cotillion was the perfume she wore.
Mom was practical and a master of the needle arts. She handled all the bill paying and the books. She balanced our checkbooks all through college. She made lists, did the laundry, made dinner and waited for Dad to come home. She enjoyed sewing her own clothes, and ours when we weren’t yet teenagers who made a forceful stink about it. Her Singer sewing machine, a 16th birthday present from her mother, whirred as we crammed into our small TV room to watch “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Dad put his feet up on the ottoman of his Naugahyde easy chair; my sisters and I splayed out on the brown sectional; or one of us, post-shower, sat on the floor with our legs outstretched and the plastic hair dryer cap billowing its soft heat onto our head. Mom sat in a straight backed chair at her sewing machine and used her knee to work stitches into a piece of calico for one of her dresses. Every line of new stitches meant static fuzzing laterally across the console TV.
“This makes me happy,” I remember her saying, “all of us here together.”
I watched that expensive perfume evaporate over the years. The Shalimar bottle, with its sapphire stopper and tiny gold tassel, sat next to Mom’s jewelry box on her dresser. The white blouses moldered in her closet, collecting dust on their shoulders where they hung on plastic hangers. She would wear some of them when she went to work as a bank teller, pairing them with hand-sewn cotton skirts or jumpers. But mostly, like the Shalimar, the blouses were just too fancy and frilly for her sensibility.
The same poem in the same frame now hangs above a dresser in my bedroom. It carries a heavier weight for me. If Mom were alive still, I might ask her what the poem meant to her. I might ask her if she felt, as I do, that parenting is as much a balancing act as a burden. I might ask her if she felt it was as hard as I do to take care of yourself when you are trying to launch your children into the world.
Mom wasn’t much for expressing her feelings when she was alive. What she did express most times was exasperation. Exhaustion and obligation also shimmered off her like heat rising from beach sand.
I was in the backseat of the GM Sportabout. Mom had picked me up from middle school. It was sometime in the late 70s. We were on our way to my ballet lessons at the War Memorial. I was trying to use the backseat as a changing room, stripping off my school clothes and writhing into my pink dance tights and black leotard. Then as now, I was shy and anxious about my body. I tried lying down to take off my jeans and underwear in order to wiggle into my tights, but that didn’t work, so I tried crouching on the floor between the front and back seats. I tried to fashion a makeshift curtain with my coat to guard myself. As I slid my arm out of my shirt and into my leotard I tried hard not to expose my undeveloped chest or my stomach, the flesh of which flabbed over the waistband of my Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.
I remember Mom glancing in the rear view mirror. Her exasperation heightened with every glance.
“Oh for God’s sake, Megan, no one is looking at you.”
But Mom was looking at me. She was watching me as much as I was watching her. I wonder who she thought she was looking at and why I seemed to exasperate her so much?
“If a child lives with exasperation, he learns to be invisible.”
Our car rides were usually attended to in silence. Me, trying to think of things to talk about with her, but being unsure of what to say or what she was thinking and worrying that she was thinking about how disappointed she was with me. She was absorbed in her thoughts and driving me to and fro, it seemed, out of obligation. She was not about to let me in. So I let her be.
Eventually, when I was in seventh grade, Dad quit his teaching job to start his own contracting business and Mom had to go back to work. I couldn’t get to my dance lessons anymore. She had been my ride. I remember my ballet teacher, Mrs. Watley, calling our house at dinner one night to see if I would be returning to class. I began to tell her that Mom had taken a job and I had no way of getting to class, but in doing so, I got choked up. I loved ballet.
“Oh, Megan, give it to me,” Mom said, grabbing the receiver out of my hand. I sat back down at the dinner table and wondered what I had done wrong. In hindsight I think Mom was embarrassed and maybe even ashamed thinking about my ballet teacher silently judging her to be a bad mother, but at the time I felt like I had done something to embarrass her. She may have been exasperated that she had to take that job at the bank. She hated that job mostly, but did it in order to pay bills and have health insurance because my father’s construction business was floundering and he had been diagnosed with diabetes. But maybe that’s older me overthinking twelve-year-old me; twelve-year-old me just knew that she got choked up, but didn’t cry when her mother shut her down.
Mom had many one-liners that stuck with me over the years. She mostly blurted these out without explanation and quickly moved on. I keep a small, running inventory of the ones that have stuck with me.
“Your grandfather was a sonofabitch as a father, but he is a pretty decent grandfather.” Or, “I always worried that you weren’t picked up enough when you were little because of that flat spot on the back of your head.” Or “Just be yourself” and “Marriage is hard work.” Later, when I was driving her to chemo and letting her know she didn’t have to worry about Dad, that we would take good care of him, even move him up near us so he wouldn’t be lonely she said, “I just want you to know that your Dad is very selfish and he will take over your life if you let him.” She also said this to my husband, Jeff, before she died. We shrugged it off at the time, but once Mom’s absence asserted itself, Dad’s presence began to smother just as she had said it would.
Her “just be yourself” line has always been especially vexing for me because my main problem was I had no clue who ‘my self’ was. I realize now how hard I was trying just to conform to what I thought others wanted of me. My focus as an adopted child was more about trying not to make waves; to be the perfect child. As I try now to come close to identifying my feelings as an adolescent, the closest I can come is that I felt, well, ambiguous. So, when Mom implored me to ‘just be myself,’ I felt at a complete loss. Empty. How could I tell her I had no idea who I was? It would just exasperate her even more. I wanted a reflection that mirrored my own to relate to, or in the absence of that, to understand Mom’s feelings in order to push against them to figure out what mine might have been. But Mom was stoic. She made pronouncements and she moved on. I didn’t ask questions and was provided no context.
Maybe she felt she was protecting us—from her own difficult childhood; from her struggles to be her own person in the face of parenthood. By not sharing her feelings, she didn’t allow me to help her through them or to understand them in contrast or as a complement to mine. And by taking it all on herself, absorbing everyone’s sadness and stress, I feel somehow that that was the beginning of a hot little ball of resentment within her.
Through all of it, Mom would say to me “I just want you to be happy. I just want everything to be perfect.” But she wasn’t modeling happiness and I had demons I hadn’t begun to recognize at that time. I realize now how deeply sad she must have been. There is no simile in that poem for a child who lives with sadness. I understand now how conditional “if” is.
“If a child lives with sadness, she learns to be . . .”
I have not yet found the right word.
In my high school there were a few girls who had “coming out” parties. I was not one of them and I was not invited to any of their cotillions. But I heard about the champagne fountains and the white gowns and wondered why they were dressing like brides. I went to my first cast party for the senior play – Finian’s Rainbow. I was neither a senior, nor a member of the cast, but my role as lead violinist in the pit orchestra gave me enough dorkish agency as a sophomore to attend.
That night I learned the magical power of too many beers, tongue-kissed the leading man in his VW Bug (he went on to be our bus driver), apparently danced on the host’s coffee table, and incurred Mom’s wrath by coming home drunk at 2 A.M.. Me, fumbling with the keys at the front door; a bright light in the hallway and stumbling backwards holding my hand over my face. Mom: “How dare you come in at two in the morning, and you’re drunk! We’ll talk about this tomorrow.” Me, stumbling toward my room in the dark, using the wall as a support before heaving myself on to my bed. Room spinning, me crawling toward the casement window, taking the screen out and vomiting into the backyard before passing out.
Tomorrow came and we didn’t talk about it. Tension-filled silence and furrowed eyebrows conveyed the shame and humiliation that I was supposed to feel as a result of what I had done. I was expected to hang my head, feel the guilt, feel the shame. Dad’s contribution was to say, “So, I heard you had a few last night, eh?”
Mom, no doubt, heard about the coffee table dancing at work over the next few days. She was the head teller at our local bank. The drive-thru window was where she collected all the gossip on me.
The bank’s drive-thru window was made of thick, bulletproof glass that was tinted green and surrounded with polished, stainless steel. The top tilted out and eased down at an angle to be almost flush with the building where the drawer swallowed your money or delivered it. Feasibly, it was designed to bring the teller closer to her customers. I drove myself through many times to ask Mom for money for ice cream or to take my sister’s to the drive-thru at Burger King, or just to say check in because it would be decades before cell phones came into use.
I envied her efficiency as I watched her through the green glass. She would lick her thumb and count out bills, while stabbing the keys of the desk calculator with her index finger. She would then gather the money into a small pile, tap the pile two or three times on its long side to level the bills then put the money into a white envelope which would slide under a stainless steel arm in the drive-thru drawer. Then with her hip, or the heel of her hand, she would push the drawer out to the window of the waiting car. Back then you had to push a button to talk to the teller and vice versa.
“How would you like that, in $20’s?” she might say. What I wanted to hear was “How are you doing today honey?”
Behind that glass with her head down, she had the hardened, frustrated expression that comes from working at a job she considered drudgery. I could see her frustration, but I couldn’t do anything to help her.
When I had difficulty fitting in, or was teased for being overweight, or felt rejected by the popular kids, Mom buoyed me with the “just be yourself” line. She watched me struggle with my body image and identity. I had a sense that she knew my pain intimately, even though I couldn’t locate it yet myself, or even register that it was pain. I was more used to not feeling anything at all.
As much as I was watching Mom, she was watching me. She knew me by heart it seemed, but gave me few clues or feedback as to who it was she was looking at. Which makes me losing her more acute. I couldn’t comprehend the questions I needed to ask her then, but they burst from me now and I want to call her to ask for answers, but she’s gone. Neither of us recognized ourselves in the other. The thing we shared was a shimmery pain that manifested itself in wholly different ways.
After my mother died of pancreatic cancer, my sisters and I took an inventory of her bedroom — the closet, her dresser, the desk – deciding what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw away. I hadn’t known Mom had sought out The Hemlock Society, the right-to-die organization, until I unearthed the brochure in her nightstand. I hadn’t known she was that religious until I found the rosary and the tiny parchment paper bible in the same drawer. I looked in her jewelry box, and it was as if nothing had changed from my childhood. She kept everything we ever gave to her. I took the Shalimar bottle with its evaporated perfume now brown and gummed to the bottom of the glass. Inventorying her things magnified my feeling of loss because it made me look at her in the way I felt I should have seen when she was alive. The things, it seems, we yearn to know have been right in front of us all along.
As I slid the hangers, touching each of the dresses she wore throughout her sickness — all cheap, cotton plaid muumuus she called her “organ friendly dresses” — I suggested we donate them. Dad had other plans. He commissioned memorial quilts with huge, garish daylilies (Mom’s favorite flower) for each of us. The woman who sewed the quilts used the dress fabric to shape the petals and stems and a crude, machined zig-zag stitch to attach them instead of the finer, appliqued technique favored by Mom who had hand-quilted a bedspread for our wedding and crib quilts for my two sons and my sister’s baby who wouldn’t be born until years after Mom’s death. On each memorial quilt, upon Dad’s request, the woman machine stitched “Consider the Lillies,” which, had it been spelled correctly, was a favorite saying of Mom’s. We each hated those quilts and for a while I resented Dad for memorializing Mom during her sickness instead of celebrating her when she was healthy. He still calls me every year on the day of her death instead of on her birthday.
I took the framed poem off Mom’s wall and hung it on mine.
“I know you love your father more than me,” Mom said to me one day when we were alone in the kitchen. I was a teenager then. I denied it, but my denial sounded flat and untrue. Truth is, I didn’t know how to love one parent more than the other so to be accused of feeling that way threw me off kilter. Also, Dad was around less often so it was easier to feel less watched and Mom was the enforcer, which made Dad’s parenting job two-fold – mow the lawn and soak up his girl’s positive attention.
“I just want everything to be perfect,” Mom used to say. But I felt so far from perfect. I didn’t know how to please Mom or myself. That was saved for the girls who had Cotillions, I suppose. Only now do I realize she must have been talking about herself, their marriage, the burden of parenting that fell almost completely on her. No wonder the exasperation. As a parent myself now, I wish I could just dial the phone and ask her, “How did you get through it with us?” At least, as an adult, I could finally empathize with her. We could have had frank conversations. I could have asked her all of the questions I haven’t even thought of yet.
Megan Culhane Galbraith earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been published in Hotel Amerika, Danse Macabre, Drafthorse, The Notebook, TueNight.com, StyleList.com, Rosebud, and on NPR’s 51 Percent. She was selected as a Binders Scholar at Bindercon 2014, served as guest editor of The Notebook, and is on the editorial board of The Grassroots Women Project. Megan is at work on a collection of essays titled, The Guild of the Infant Saviour, and manages a saucy site called The Dollhouse on Facebook. She lives on a small farm in Cambridge, NY with her husband, myriad animals, and two sons who want to be dairy farmers.
You can find her at: https://megangalbraith.wordpress.com/ and@megangalbraith