panel from the tomb of Sancho Saiz de Carillo in Burgos
I never have been great at telling jokes. I always forget the punchline.
Have you heard this one?
A woman walks into the middle of the room
carrying a large pan of water.
Suddenly she empties it over her head.
Oh, wait. Maybe that was the punchline.
Let me try that again. My little sister's oldest daughter was four last year. In their house, "shut up" is a bad word. And "stupid." Last year my sister had occasion to put her little daughter in time out. My sister stood her darling in a corner and walked away, coming back a few minutes later to her unrepentant offspring doing a spiky little dance and singing with acidic sweetness, "Shut up. Stupid. Shut up. Spam . . . " - because someone (okay, yes, her Auntie MJ) had told her in a moment of jest that "Spam" was a bad word, too. And she didn't want to miss any of them.
Ah, daughters. And mothers of daughters. If you're one too, you know what I mean when I say I love my daughter - and this is not a cliché - more than life itself.
You also know how little choice I had in the matter. I was remembering yesterday, talking with a friend who is just beginning this motherhood gig, about the time I slipped down the icy back steps, my feet flying up into the air, my body landing flat on my back. I did nothing to protect myself from the fall, no self-preserving reflex kicked in - but my baby daughter clapped her hands and gurgled, strapped snugly in her carseat, still held up a few inches in the air, never touching ground.
Hard-wired protectiveness with no thought on my part - probably the closest I'll ever come to utter selflessness.
I found this automatic reflex reassuring at the time.
Less reassuring was the time when I had two small daughters - one floating on a raft with the slightly older daughter of a friend, my other daughter still a bundle in the crook of my arm. The raft tipped. My two-year-old daughter plunged into the water of Lake Powell. Bobbed back up thanks to the little orange life-jacket I'd just buckled on her. I ran to get her.
But - remember - my other daughter was still a bundle in my arms. I turned back to put her down. But where on that slanting sandy shore could I put her that she wouldn't roll in? I turned back to the water. Turned back to the shore. Turned back to the water.
If my friend hadn't been there to jump up and fish both her daughter and mine back onto dry land, I'm afraid I would have worn a trench down to the molten core before being able to break that mindlessly desperate loop.
When my oldest daughter was barely born I remember staring deep into her dark wise eyes, vowing to be the woman I could see reflected so tinily there. Oh, I would be so wise and careful and I would show her everything. I would be the mother she deserved.
Kathe Kollwitz, "Sleeping Woman with Child"
Motherhood, above all, has taught me how to fail. Over and over again.
But there are some mistakes I've never made.
Yet. Until this past year.
Yet. Until this past year.
I've never squabbled with my children. Power struggles? Ridiculous. I knew who was three and who was thirty. I knew my child was a child. I was the adult. I knew the great project of childhood was developing autonomy. I knew how to step back and allow that advancement. I had had six younger brothers and sisters. I was a champion babysitter. The hours of actual motherhood were a strain for me - but knowing how to urge and jolly, when to be firm and when to laugh with a complicit twinkle, how to beam out acceptance and love while giving correction at the same time? Child's play. Literally. I had the knack. Strangers in public would compliment me on the reasonable and gentle way I had with my children. Who were often enough well-behaved to elicit the preening reflex in their mother.
Oh, here's the punchline, I remember now:
A woman goes up to her mostly grown daughter.
Wanting to apologize, she says,"I was being immature."
The daughter says, "That had crossed my mind."
The truth is, I never had power struggles when they were three or eight, because I was older than three. Or eight.
I was seventeen all this time.
And honestly, my seventeen year-old self has a hard time remembering to be motherly sometimes lately. Motherly meaning reasonable, measured, kindly. My seventeen year-old self also wants to be going off to college. Is prickly about imagined slights. Doubts her value. Stays up too late. Resents the eagerness of the real seventeen-year-old to go off and leave the old mother behind. Resents the unrequited grief she feels.
Wait, wait - I just remembered - the joke goes like this . . .
A woman has gone to the store
to fetch butter and bagel chips and who knows what else
especially requested by her nearly grown daughter.
I forgot to say -
First the woman had said "No. I don't have time
to run all over the place running your errands,
when you won't even . . ."
But then the woman thought better of it.
So she went to the store.
And when she comes back her daughter is coming out the driveway.
"Where are you going?" says the mother.
"I'm on the way to the store."
"But I just went to the store."
The daughter rolls her eyes.
"Well, there's no food in the house," says the daughter.
"Of course there's food in the house," says the woman
which is true and reasonable,
and the woman feels
that this is a criticism
of her lack of ______
and recent housekeeping _______
which it is.
The woman begins in, "Do you realize . . . ? Do you have any idea . . . ?"
and unravels into "You are so . . . ! I can't believe how utterly . . . !"
The woman doesn't say "Spam."
But that is because she knows that just because something is obscene
doesn't mean it's really a bad word.
By now the woman and her daughter are in the kitchen.
The woman is filling a pan with water to cook pasta.
She puts in too much water.
And because even in a rage,
even in the ruins of her seventeen years of motherhood,
in face of her utter failure to be the woman she meant to be,
still she is eco-friendly.
So she carries the too-full pot toward the plant in the front room.
It is not just the pot that is too full.
This moment. This bitter grievousness.
This inability to shut herself up.
this is not how this moment feels . . .
vintage postcard - chicks 57
"Don't do that again, okay?" says her husband.
"It ruins floors, you know, all that water."
Are we all laughing yet?