What She Took From Me (published by Pudding House, 2000)
She worries about high fructose corn syrup, melanoma, and fatal car accidents. She worries that I will eat Twinkies for dinner or not eat anything at all. She worries I will be cold at night, or work too hard, or be trapped at a party without a tampon. And of course she worries about boys, and drugs, and too much beer. Then there are storms, droughts, earthquakes, money, poorly installed airbags, ill fitting shoes, brain tumors, varicose veins, declining salmon runs, and airplanes. Oh and I can’t forget pregnancy, cellular phones, and the high cost of a college education. But mostly she worries that I will take her worries with me.
I am tied to this town by strings of anxiety, and my fears are the last thing I want her to carry. She is so truly amazing. Self assured beyond her years, beautiful and smart. I have spent too many years full of doubt. How can I forgive myself if she becomes what I hate most in me?
I am a young woman with pedicured toes and a closet full of old prom dresses. But she sees me running barefoot in a sundress, soles dark with dirt and grass. I own an eyelash curler and multiple pairs of black boots, but I will always be the child she rocked to sleep, and there is comfort in that. I know she doesn’t want to hold me back. I know she yearns to hear stories of my adventures, aches for me to experience the thrills she would never allow herself.
I never got drunk at a party or had a passionate one-night stand. I never cheated on a test, or a boyfriend, or my taxes. I had a chance to go to Europe once to study art history; I declined the offer. I could have gone away to school, or backpacked through South America, or taught English in Japan. I could have jumped into adventure and let it take me somewhere, anywhere. But I stayed here, so sure no one could manage without me. I am good at taking care of people, but I don’t want that for my daughter. As much as I want to hold her and protect her, I also want her to walk boldly in this world.
She holds onto her worries like spare change in a jar—never quite sure what to do with it all. But she sells herself short in a multitude of ways. She is an amazing listener. Truly. It is like a God-given talent the way she listens. She takes problems away. It is not uncommon to walk through the door of our house and find her talking with my friends. They come to see her; they tell her their problems. Warring parents, failed tests, sexually transmitted diseases, broken promises—my mother knows the truth of every rumor ever spread and never says a word, never betrays a confidence. She can also bake amazing chocolate chip cookies. She never looks at a recipe, never measures the ingredients. Just dumps everything in a bowl, and it turns out perfect every time. Everything she touches turns out perfect. She fixes things, repairs things. The biggest mess, the worst problem. She makes things whole again, and she never takes credit for all the good she does, for all the people she has helped.
Taking care of people is my job. I do it well and honor being held in confidence, but taking on the worries of others is a weighty responsibility. I fantasize about hocking my life on Ebay and running away in a Winnebago. I would go to the Grand Canyon just to hear the echo of my scream. Spit over the edge of the Hoover Dam. Get a body part pierced, or tattooed, or maybe I would have my breast surgically lifted back to their proper location. Then I would sunbath nude so everyone could admire the heart on my butt, the ring in my navel, or the perkiness of my nipples. Imagine if I took up smoking or drank Kamikazes in dimly- lit, roadside taverns. Imagine the freedom of just letting go.
My mother secretly longs for me to skip school or shoplift silk underwear. Don’t get me wrong, she raised me to be an honest, loyal, respectable girl, but I still sense her desire for me to take risks. Not climb Mt. Everest or swim with sharks, something slightly tamer, yet adventuresome. Something to make up for her sobriety. And I love that side of her. That she encourages me to be a little left of center. Like when I shaved my head for the state swim meet or wore the black patent-leather go-go boots to my grandmother’s funeral. It has always been okay to be myself and to experiment at being myself. She never allows her wild side to show.
When you spend your life being the rock, the solid one, it isn’t easy to move. My life has always been heavy, but I gladly hold that weight so she can glide and soar and experience the lightness I know exists.
It is sad really. I will never be as light as she wants me to be. I can’t go out in the world and travel with a free spirit, take risks, be completely confident and bold while the mother I love sits at home nursing an ulcer, worried to death that I might return home with a broken leg, a broken heart, a broken spirit. Or worse, not return at all. I learned at an early age, you have to take care of people, and I am getting very good at it.