This is the last mask I will wear, the one called wife. It was never mine by choice but came hidden in a box with a ring.
How it clung to me, hid me, bent my will and my purpose until I no longer knew myself; my dreams drifting away on far flung currents.
Your joys became my joys, your interest-my interests, and I smiled because I loved you, did my duty by by you and the family. But the family shrunk away until it was just you and me and the boy.
What was fun? I washed my 1000th dish, smashing it just to hear it break. What was joy? I fold away another mountain of laundry that will appear again the next day.
The boy made me laugh and in him I remembered joy and fun. He was full of monkey tricks and more wisdom than I will ever fathom. Such a mind behind those chocolate brown eyes, such a heart of strength and love.
He is grown, and you are gone, and this mask called wife lays in tatters, torn as it was from me by a hundred punishments. But you were not the only villain. In pretending that we were happy I committed the ultimate betrayal, the betrayal of myself.
When the snow piles up against the house or its grey and ugly outside; when the Salt Lake City inversions turn bright summer sunlight into a grey haze, it’s then that old memories turn gold bright and beautiful. If I close my eyes and turn my face towards the florescent sink light I can almost see the golden light Mommy describes when she talks about her early life in California. There are Orange trees and swimming pools, fast horses and English sports cars.
We cruise through Topanga Canyon or old L.A in a convertible Triumph TR3. At a stop light we look right as Mommy describes seeing Goldie Hawn in the convertible beside her. She waives and Goldie waives back. It’s the 60’s and everything is alive with movement.
Then we’re off to Griffith Park to ride Saddlebred horses through hundreds of miles of California trail. Mommy eats handpicked oranges from her saddle bag, her friend, the one who looks like Kim Novak, rides beside her. Picking up the pace, they gallop up a hill, stopping at the top to look out on endless blue sky, golden chaparral and red brown earth. Mommy’s palomino rears like the movie horse he was and they laugh because even when he’s bad he’s beautiful. Moose is wild and dangerous; he is exactly the kind of horse Mommy likes. She talks with pride when she tells me they had to drug him when he was a movie horse on Marlon Brando’s film One Eyed Jacks. Moose half killed a groom but it was Mommy who broke him when no one else could.
Now we’re hiking through Topanga Canyon. There are scorpions and wild flowers, old mine shafts and rocky cliffs that we climb with just our bare hands. Carefully, we look for rattle snakes and spiders as the door creeks open on an old cabin where the Mexican General, Pancho Villa, hid out with his men. She tells me about the cougars that drank out of the swimming pool on the Topanga canyon ranch and of the deer and the wild fires.
I hear the roar and crackle of fire as it eats up miles of Canyon, its speed increased by the seaward rush of the Santa Anna winds. When the fire gets too close the horses are freed from their paddocks to run from the rolling brush fire down towards Malibu and the sea. Every last horse thunders to safety accept for the old mare called Chunga, who goes to stand with the fire fighters because she’s too old to panic and too smart to leave the safety of people.
Mommy’s life is a movie, its color and imagery are brighter than any world I’ve ever known. Her stories, the good and the bad, are my stories because I have lived them over and over all my life. Once, she even met Marilyn Monroe. I see Marilyn as Mommy saw her, at the ranch wearing a stained white blouse and blue jeans. She laughs and is sweet in a way that makes everyone else instantly comfortable while a kind of angelic aura magnifies her unearthly beauty.
“When did you go to school, Mommy?” I ask, because we never talk about the normal stuff, the day to day stuff.
“I didn’t.” She says, “School was dangerous. There were gangs and girls who cut tattoos in their skin in the bathrooms. I loved going to Sana Monica High but when they made me change schools I stopped going. No one made me go. No one cared because I was a girl and I didn’t need an education. Being pretty was enough.”
She suddenly looks sad under the glare of the florescent light as if unearthing this new injustice hurts even more than the other ones she tries to hide. Watching her, I realize she’s thought too much, remembered too much. I watch her hands maneuver through soap suds while her face and glorious red hair are reduced to dark shadows in the bad light. I glance from her to Ali, a knot already forming in my stomach. My sister sits in her high chair, her face and chubby fingers covered in smashed banana. I feel the wave of grief that comes sometimes like a tidal wave off my mother. Mommy is like her horses. She is wild and wild women like wild horses may be broken but never tamed.
I understand Mommy. I’m not like her but I understand her because I understand horses; especially the wild ones. She could leave us if she wanted to. Like a wild horse, her need for freedom is stronger than the family ties that bind her. She could break free and go back to California, back to Malibu, movie stars and Griffith Park. She could buy another English sports car and wreck it the way she did the others. She could swim with sharks or with Kirk Douglas’s two boys the way she used to. She doesn’t have to stay, a fact she’s told me to my face. I look from her to my sister feeling the old fear, the one that says we’re on our own because Mommy can’t be trusted. Yet she’s here, right now. She hasn’t run yet and she may never go. Though our bond is tenuous at best, I need to believe that she, like her memories, will always be near.
When my son crashed his scooter I patched up his cuts and gave him pudding. Pudding is the cure for all that ails us. It’s my go too medicine for post doctor’s visits, bad colds and scooter crashes. Nothing says, “There, there, you’re all better” like tapioca. My favorite brand is Kozy Shack because it really is Cozy. I taste it and I’m back in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her stir a large pot of pudding on the stove. Kozy Shack tastes like Grandma’s homemade pudding. It’s that good. But I digress.
My son crashed his scooter. He cut up his knee and was just fine until we went to change the bandage and found that the gauze had stuck fast to the scab. Horror struck, my son sat on the bathroom floor and refused all medical help. He’s ten now which means that he doesn’t have to do anything we tell him to. So we sat on the floor with him offering up salve, Q-tips and my grandmother’s advice. “Pull the band aid off fast honey. Doing it slow will just prolong the pain.” The look of horror he gave us after this bit of advice is forever emblazoned on my memory. So we sat, coaxed and cajoled for a good hour while he fought, cursed and accused us of thinking thoughts of unconscionable cruelty.
Children are god’s way of testing our sanity. I’ve failed miserably and come to the conclusion that crazy and child rearing are like oil and water. At one point as he yelled at us to not touch the band aid, I began laughing hysterically. There was no good reason why. The moment was far from funny but we’d reached that point in parenting when the good parent stands by and watches the crazy parent snap. I snapped and Dan sat there looking lost between his strong willed son and his madly euphoric wife.
I could have pinned Duncan down, removed his band aid and then washed out his deep cut. The old me would have done that. The old me was tough and efficient. The old me cornered injured horse and dressed their wounds no matter how bad it hurt them. The old me got things done. The new me is more compassionate and far less organized. The new me picked up her son, sat him in her lap and rocked him until we’d both calmed down enough to deal with our wounds. In the end we pocked, prodded and prayed the band aid off with gentle kindness and no old fashioned efficiency.
I like this new me, I like that my hardnosed, grab the bull by the horns upbringing has sloughed off enough to where I can sit, listen, crack up, recover and still stay nice. Maybe it’s the years of therapy? Maybe it’s my loving marriage? Maybe I’m just a better person then I was? Whatever it is, Duncan and his fear of pain were heard. No bandage was ripped away and no one’s boundaries where pushed. In my war with the moment I didn’t get mean or forceful, I just laughed until I found my patience, my peace and my unending love for this funny little boy who shares my life. God bless children, mad mothers, patient fathers and the tub of Kozy Shake pudding that made everything better in the end.