Print Story 38
By toxicfur (Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 02:31:25 PM EST) (all tags)
On the sixth of this month, I turned 38. Here is where I am: I have an exceedingly comfortable life, for the most part. I have a nice house. I have a great job. I have the material possessions that I need and that bring me pleasure. I have two dogs and a cat. I have this nagging fear that I've reached whatever it is I was striving for all through my 20s and early 30s. I'm here. I made it. Now what?

When I look in the mirror without my glasses, I see Mama. The shape of her blue eyes and the way they crinkled at the edges when she smiled. The way she held her mouth as she peered at herself in the mornings and arranged her hair. The line of her jaw and the shape of her nose and the color of her skin. I look into the mirror and Mama looks out at me, and every single time, my heart breaks with longing, and I whisper, "Mama."

When Mama was 38, she started college for the time that it stuck. She tried the college thing before, somewhat aimlessly at first, and then with the idea of preparing herself for an office job. The first time she went to college was when she was right out of high school, dreading the experience but going because that's what she was supposed to do. It's what her parents expected. It's likely what her parents told her she had to do. During her freshman year at UNC-Greensboro, she met my dad, and when she was 19, she married him, and when she was 20, she had me. She tried going to a technical school for graphic design, and she hated that too.

She wanted to be a mom.

When I was in elementary school, Mama went to James Sprunt Community College for a little while. She wanted to learn secretarial skills, and I pored over her textbooks, fascinated by typing and Gregg shorthand. I sat in front of the old Royal typewriter and learned how to use the little correction slips that came in a tiny, flat box, and she taught me how to tell when I was getting to the edge of a page and when to push the return lever back to the other side. I typed stories and nonsense words and pushed the return lever again and again. Nothing has felt more satisfying. I also filled up school notebooks with attempts at shorthand, and tried to figure out why anyone would want to learn to write in a new way when the old way worked just fine.

Before she finished, she quit going. No one said anything about it; just one day, she wasn't going to school anymore.

When I was in middle school, she went back to James Sprunt for more updated office skills. She'd started working in the office of StevcoKnit, the local textile mill, and she wanted to love her job, she wanted to move up.

"You would really like this," she told me, handing me the latest textbook, this one on BASIC programming. "It's so neat. I wonder if they'd let you come take the class, too."

We didn't have a computer at home, just a typewriter, upgraded to an electric one that had built-in correction tape. It wasn't as much fun as the old one, and I didn't type my stories on it. Instead, I filled up journals longhand, hiding them in my room, or tearing pages out and storing the pages in books I knew no one would ever accidentally pick up and flip through.

Mama tried to enroll me in the BASIC class she'd taken, but the college had rules -- no one under the age of 16 could take a class. Mama was more disappointed than I was.

And then, again, she just stopped going.

It was one of our late-night talks. Daddy was working, my brothers were in bed, and it was just Mama and me in her room. All of those conversations are the same in my memory. The content is different, but the setting is the same. I sit on her floor, looking up at her, the cigarette smoke swirling around her face. The pain in her voice. The beauty and love in her blue eyes, so much like mine, even then.

"I want to leave Daddy," she confessed in the dark.

My heart sped up. I wasn't sure if it was fear or elation that I felt.

"I can't yet," she confessed softly, in the dark. "We need a better income. That's why I tried to go back to school. I don't know how I can support ya'll without a better job."

I don't remember what I said. Maybe nothing. Maybe a confession of my own: "Please, Mama, please get rid of him."  Maybe I reached for her, offering comfort, lending her what little strength my teenaged self had to give. Maybe a bit of brash and unrealistic optimism: "We can manage. No matter what, we can manage." Maybe all of those things.

When I was 17 and Mama was 37, Daddy packed up his Oldsmobile with his clothes, his Craftsman tools he'd had since he'd worked as a mechanic when I was 5, and he left. Mama was, by then, working in the factory part of the textile mill, and we were only barely scraping by, even with his income.

"We'll be fine," she told us, and then, in private, with me sitting on the floor of her dark bedroom, she fell apart, again and again.

When she was 38 and I was 18, she started college again, and it stuck.

When she was 37, she found out that her mother's breast cancer had returned. Grandmama had been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was about 10, and after a mastectomy and chemotherapy, it stayed gone well past the time when everyone thought she was cured. Except for the times when it was the middle of summer and too hot for her prosthesis, we never even thought about the cancer she'd gone through. At least, I didn't.

When the cancer came back, it was worse, metastasized through her organs. More chemotherapy, more radiation, but this time, no cure. When she was 38 and her mother was 67, Mama decided she wanted to be a nurse, and she threw herself into her schooling with a passion that I had never seen. That first year, she told me, she wouldn't be taking nursing classes. She wanted to get the distribution requirements out of the way first, before she applied to nursing school. It was too much to finish in just two years, she explained, especially since she still had to work and take care of my brothers and Grandmama.

I started college the same year. I was an arrogant 18-year-old who thought she had college figured out from the moment she stepped on campus. I went to freshman orientation by myself, borrowing Grandmama's car to drive the 35 miles to campus for the weekend, and I found the dorm where I'd be staying and shed my old, shy self from high school and talked to the other nervous kids in the dorm.

I was surprised at how many of their parents came. I didn't even realize that there were events for parents – I hadn't read whatever materials had been about parents when the brochures came – and when my roommate for the weekend said she was going out to dinner with her parents, I just shrugged and felt superior. I didn't need my mommy to come to college with me. I knew everything I needed to know, and I could rely on myself. This college thing? It was just more school. School I could do. And as long as I was in school, the only person I had to take care of was myself, and that in itself felt like more freedom than I deserved.

Mama approached college differently. She was the shy new student, struggling to find her footing. She hesitantly told me about the friends she was making, and I could tell that she struggled with the idea that she was now, finally, after so many years of blue collar work, of struggling to feed her family, finding connections with people who had lived the life she'd always believed she would have, way back in those days when Daddy made promises she'd believed. When she'd optimistically built a house on Stevens Street for her growing family. When she'd sent me to private kindergarten and thought that her parents had been wrong about her needing an education.

I went home every weekend during my freshman year of college. "My grandmother is dying," I told my roommate, over the endless soundtrack of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Thurn & Taxis. She smoked a cigarette and nodded empathetically. "I just want to spend as much time with her as I can." It was a good excuse, though in my heart, I didn't really believe that Grandmama was dying, even though they'd found that the cancer had spread to her brain. I couldn't imagine my life without her, and therefore, she wouldn't die. She couldn't.

I really went home every weekend so I could give Mama a break. So I could hang out with my brothers and do my laundry and help Mama with her homework and do all of those things I thought were essential to keeping my family together. I flipped through her textbooks, not so I could figure out what magical things Mama was learning, but so I could make cracks about the poor quality of the education she was getting at a community college versus the amazing things I was getting from my small state school.

In truth, it probably wasn't so different, but I was learning that, regardless of what my high school English teacher was saying, I was a good writer, at least for UNC-Wilmington, at least in the classes I was taking. I aced my English classes, and basked in the praise of professors who I thought were all-knowing gods. Mama struggled with her classes, with figuring out what her teachers wanted. She was a good writer, too, but she was struggling to get B's on her papers.

"These comments don't even make sense!" she complained to me, handing me the latest in a series of essays she'd written. "I do not like this woman, Mrs. Pridgen."

I scanned it quickly. "No, they don't make sense. You would've gotten an A in my class," I said. "Mrs. Pridgen is an idiot."

"I bet even you couldn't get an A in her class," Mama said, her eyes gleaming just like Grandmama's did when she teased me.

"I bet I could!" I said, aggrieved.

"Prove it," she said.

"Okay," I said. "What's your next assignment?"

I tossed off a three page paper on the nature of reality and how we can never know if something is real or not. "It's utter bullshit," I told Mama, handing it to her. "Utter, utter bullshit. But it'll get an A."

The next weekend when I got home, Mama said, "I have something for you, smarty-pants." She handed me the essay. It had gotten a 100. Even I was astonished.

"She wrote all over it, though," Mama said. "She didn't think it made any more sense than I did."

"Of course it didn't make sense. It was bullshit, I told you. But you still got 100 on it." I grinned at her. "Now maybe you can help me with my math homework," I said.

"I doubt it," she said. I doubted it, too, because I was 18 and thought I knew everything, but I wanted so badly to show her that we were the same, both college students, both figuring what the fuck the game was and how to twist the rules to our liking.

When Grandmama and Granddaddy drove me back to school Monday morning before Grandmama's chemo appointment, I sat in the back seat and leaned my head against the window, wondering what it would be like if Mama and I were in the same classes, what it would be like to show her my world, to let her learn from my textbooks. We were the same.

Twenty years later, here I am, at what feels like the pinnacle. I'll stay in the same job. I'll finish my book and start working on a second one. I'll ride my bike and walk my dogs and bitch about the weather and watch my nieces and nephews grow up through pictures on facebook. And I'll wonder if I'll ever share that kind of moment of discovery with anyone again, that step into the unknown, into shared dreams.

< ChHuSiMeet WrapUp | on traveling >
38 | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)
Ahhh TF by Breaker (4.00 / 1) #1 Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 06:02:10 PM EST

That is all.

Thanks very much, Breaker. by toxicfur (4.00 / 1) #2 Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 06:05:31 PM EST
It's been a summer of remembering and nostalgia here at chez toxicfur.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
[ Parent ]
Beautiful. by clock (4.00 / 1) #3 Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 08:03:12 PM EST
Thank you for sharing.

I agree with clock entirely --Kellnerin

Hug. by MrMole (4.00 / 3) #4 Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 11:36:28 PM EST


it probably wasn't so different by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #5 Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 07:07:52 AM EST
Here in Virginia lots of people do their first 2 years in community college and then transfer to a university. The classes transfer directly.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Yeah, probably quite similar by toxicfur (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 07:34:59 AM EST
But in my 18-year-old head, I was going to a "real" college. Granted, my "real" college, which had some awesome profs and students had the ability to get a good education if they tried, was by no means a great school. For both my mom and me, we learned what we needed to learn to get to where we wanted to be -- that, I think, is the most important thing.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
[ Parent ]
well done your mama by Merekat (4.00 / 1) #7 Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 09:58:46 AM EST
My mother is still insecure and defensive about not having gotten to go to college.

My mother was too. by toxicfur (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 10:07:06 AM EST
Next year, I'll tell the story of when Mama was 39, and her mother was dying, and she was so disappointed that her mother would never see her actually become a nurse. It meant a lot to my mother to make her parents proud, finally, after spending the previous 18 years being the black sheep of the family.

I kind of went through something similar -- even though I'd gotten the education, I didn't use it for quite a few years (taught some, but mostly just waited tables), and I would get a bit defensive about my choices. I was so happy when I could tell my mom that I'd gotten a good job at a university, with benefits, using my degrees.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin

[ Parent ]
It's the heat. by technician (4.00 / 2) #9 Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 10:25:12 AM EST
That constant reminder of mortality.

The heat, makes us all sort of slow and sweet. We're like honeysuckle, this stupid heat and us; invasive and cloying.

How many wise people over ten thousand years have said, hey, it ain't the destination, it's the ride? Those people never had air conditioning. They had to keep their chins up, moving forward, because there wasn't a pint and refrigerated air at the end of the day. Hell, until monks came along and codified both beer and time, we had no concept of the end of a day. Just, oh shit, it sure got dark.

None of that eight hour seven day a week thing. There's this whacked out primitivist writer who insists that before electricity and modern whosiwhatsits, aboriginal dudes could see the rings around Saturn with their bare eyeballs, could hear the ocean from the desert, could sense the turning of the weather days before it happened. All this modernity, making us weaker. With it, all those goals. That really nice couch. The perfect jacket. More than $50k in savings. Being at the top of our game.

The rearward view, our future planning tied to where our past has left us lacking.

After a certain age, we stop looking forward for much more than just planning for a pleasant look back.

Will you ever X or Y or Z again?

Will dreams ever gel into reality?

The heat makes us southerners slow to a crawl and that gives time for all our stories to wash over us like a slow tide we've been able to outrun. And that'll leave you with so much regret about things, even if we don't call it regret so much as nostalgia.

Regret, sometimes disguised as ambition.

I wonder, for myself anyway, if my concerns about my life story will ever overcome my fear of making it new.

If one day I'll just say, yeah, I did that. I ain't doing it any more, it's all past tense.

Don't mistake a summer for a lifetime. That's as much for me as for anyone, that admonition. Eventually time will sort our parts into vastly smaller, less connected ones. Between that time and right this second, we have to assume there is no destination. What we make of that information is entirely up to us.

But goddamn, it's too hot to do anything else right now.

I need to have adventures. by toxicfur (4.00 / 1) #10 Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 06:31:32 PM EST
Or something. Who knows. Maybe just start keeping a journal again, so I can see that things actually keep happening, even if all the days run together in a largely pleasant blur.

But right now, it's too fuckin' hot for adventures. I have all the mental energy that summer brings, when my brain zings with ideas and stories and creativity. So I sit on my couch in front of my fans, and I think, and I remember, and let the days pass in a pleasant blur while I think about how I climbed my mountain, and how my mother climbed as much of hers as she could manage.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin

[ Parent ]
Happy birthday by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #11 Tue Jul 17, 2012 at 10:23:36 AM EST
Melancholy and all

Iambic Web Certified

38 | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)