onbruisedknees

"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Category: Mother

Safe

You know that people do things differently in the South. They even die differently. Still, love strikes you. You work in a floral shop up north where the names aren’t familiar and the addresses are foreign. But when you walk in the flower shop at home to pick out the casket spray, you watch your mama get a good forty-five second hug. Because she lost her mama.

You ruin your vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, clean-eating, low-carb diet because people bring you casseroles. And cupcakes. And coffeecake. Southern love is always shown through food.

You discretely throw away dirty underwear and wash the sheets she died in and cups she drank from. You find her eyeglasses on the table. You water flowers because you don’t want them to die, too. You clean the toilet. The washrags crusted with blood. “Bless her heart,” your mom says as her face crumples. “She was in more pain than she ever let on.”

And the collection agencies and bill collectors continue to call. The phone rings. It does not stop. The abrasive cadence to your cleaning as you scrub sinks, pull sheets tight.  Mom holds the telephone to her ear. Listens for five seconds. Throws the phone back onto the receiver. Mimics their fake professional voices, “No Ms. Fewkes is not available. Ms. Fewkes is dead.”

Her house, which used to have tiny walkways through trash she hoarded, is sterile clean. No pictures or Bible verses or notes on the refrigerator. No purses with mildewed receipts in the pockets. No clothes of all styles and sizes spilling out of closets. No termites, no spiders. A toilet that functions. A shower that’s sturdy. Shiny appliances. Attention to detail. A brand new foundation, un-sunk.  It’s nice. And clean. You’re in awe of the work and the cleanliness should be comforting, but it is not. The house is empty. Gone is every little scrap that frustrated and annoyed you and boiled your blood.

I do not cry during the funeral song. “Mama Liked the Roses” only reminded me of grandma impersonating Elvis. The way she bent her knees and posed, stunningly like Marilyn Monroe, grooved to bluesy melodies, called the king a ‘hunky hunk.’ And I heard floating memories of the song that was ours: “I love you. A bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck and a hug around your neck.”

Silly, beautiful, loving woman. A barrel and a heap of crazy and kind and crazy-kind. And you are your mother’s mother’s granddaughter.

“You’re special,” she said two months ago on the last day you saw her. She tucked it between, “You look just like your mom” and “I like Ashley’s fiancé” and “I’m so glad Kaci didn’t get hurt in that wreck” and “You tell your sister to be careful goin’ to Evansville.” But you heard it—the thing you most needed to hear that day. And remember the rest of your life. You knew somewhere deep that those would be her last words to you. She validates you, still, just as she did after every awkward day of junior high school.

You do not cry until you feel the weight of her gray casket. Until the graveyard part of the service abruptly ends. The end? This wasn’t supposed to be the end. She was supposed to get more life to live. Better life. Better. You look back.  You glance back again, again. Gray casket. Red rose petals in your hand.

“Be careful,” you hear her voice. The tears roll. Finally. The relief. Because you realize she’s the one who is finally free from fear. She’s not merely pain-free.  She is worry-free.  She is safe. Safe and filled. With better life.

Boxed Contentment

My husband asked me a loaded question. He asked me when I will be content. And happy.  I told him I was quite content in my job before I had to leave it. At my best. Kicking butt. But I wasn’t wholly content with life. And everyone knew it. The students. The teachers. My husband was away. I didn’t have him to come home to at the end of the day. Now, I’m content in my marriage. Hold it sacred. But I am not wholly content in life. And everyone knows it.

He always wants to know if teaching makes me so happy then why am I never happy to put the newest teaching resume and application in the mail? I told him I just put in the mail an awesome letter of interest and the most beautiful recommendation letter from my former colleague and one of my dearest friends. I told him I also sent along a copy of the stunning valedictorian speech that one of my favorite students will give this weekend (and will make you rise to your feet in ovation) because it was the best thing that could ever explain the special place I come from and what I’m all about and what that place is all about than anything else could.

Through the eyes of a student. I refuse to play politics. I refuse to play them in Edwards County and I refuse to play them up north. Why? Because what we do should be all for the students. And I want special. I do. I want a special place again.

At my church back home, a lady in Bible study never specifically mentioned her prayer request. She simply asked for the desire of her heart.

The desire of my heart? To speak to people. Full rooms. Auditoriums.  Classrooms. Singe souls. Face-to-face holding a coffee mug gulping cup after cup of grace and love. Or speaking to people through a book. My truth. In writing. Helping them find their own truths. THE truth. Dreams do not simply dissipate. If I feel I was created to do something big and I cannot let it go, please do not put me in a room and leave me to peel away at yellow wallpaper. Because if you’ve read that short story, then you know how it ends. For most people, “the little things” are what breed contentment. But I’m not most people.

“God is contentment. Learn to be content in all circumstances.” Well that’s just the easy answer, people. And the hard one.  And the real one. I know. I KNOW.

She had a baby.  In “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  And in the Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan was a silly little fool who had a silly little fool of a daughter too. And sadly, they weren’t content. But I’m no fool. I know babies fill a certain void of contentment nothing else can. My sixth sense Holy Spirit twitch tells me the women I love who most want to be mothers will be mothers. And my best friend since birth? She’ll birth another miracle this winter.

I see it more for them than I do for me. Always. A few Sundays ago I held my niece through church and I adored. Adored. She smiled. Touched my face. Danced to the worship songs. Fell asleep as I kissed-kissed the top of her head.  And my preteen nephews? Hugs. When they are eighteen and twenty, I will still get those same hugs. Because I’m Aunt Melissa. Because they were already mine at baby and two. Because there are no other two boys I could possibly love more.

I looked up our baby name—the name we agreed on years and years ago. I very well could have still been in high school. I love the meaning of names. I gasped when I read the name’s meaning: “bright and shining light.” I don’t have my shining light yet. Because we are not home. Because I am not healthy. Because I dropped fourteen lbs. and don’t know why. Because my meds are switched constantly. Because my body is screwed up. Because I can’t seem to handle anything. Because I have a Master’s degree to start and finish. Because I have higher-paying jobs to land. Because. Because I’ll screw it all up. Yet somehow, if God gives her to us? She’ll be true to her name. Light. What I’ve quested all along.

And maybe my contentment. Or my green light at the end of the dock. But I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on the girl. Her life is not merely for my contentment. It’s for hers. Are you listening, parents? I lived it. I saw that kind of hurt in the eyes of my students.

Once, I made my Themes class give speeches about their most important message. What did they most want the world to know? I think I assigned these speeches right after we read Fahrenheit 451, a book with an obvious message. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for your message. It’s a message that got stuck in our minds and never left. Why did I assign these speeches? Honestly, I was stalling. I hadn’t finished reading 1984 and didn’t know how to introduce another novel with such huge themes. Prophetic themes. Themes of life. The name of the class.

Some of the speeches were dull. Eating right. Exercise. Being a good person. Blah. Snore. Some students rambled so much that I couldn’t even pinpoint the message. And that’s ok. Because I don’t remember if I gave them much direction and probably didn’t give them a rubric. So I’m sure I gave everyone a good grade.  But some of these students? Their props were meaningful. They spoke eloquently. They interacted with their peers. Made me gawk and gape and wonder what kind of presence was I in? These kids were geniuses.

And one speech I remembered in the middle of the night, four freaking years later because its truth literally woke me and ironically reminded me of how everything I want right now was everything he warned against.

After he spoke, I was so inspired (and he reminded me too much of the unconventional, caged-in high school-me) that I made the students (those who wanted to) run or gallop or skip back and forth down the basement hallway, loudly proclaiming the specific ways they wanted to express themselves and get out of their comfort zones. I’m also pretty sure I got in major trouble for that one. Ah, well. You remember it though, don’t you? Stepping out of your boxes.

This student is in some city right now. He’s a talented playwright, a director, an actor. He impressed me from the moment I met him, and he will be famous. Brilliant.

He began his speech with an analogy and drew a street map of Lincoln Avenue on my whiteboard. Basically, he told us what drove him bonkers, and he said it with a lot of passion:

“You can be born at St. Mary’s. You can go to elementary school at St. Ben’s. On the very same street, you can attend high school at Memorial. You can go to church on this street. You can hop a block over and get your college degree from the University of Evansville on the same street.  You can have a nice Catholic wedding ceremony on this street. You can rent or buy a house on this street. You can do something during the in-between, and then you can go retire at the little nunnery place down on the very same street. And then you can die. And have your funeral. A nice Catholic wake.  On the same street.”

And that is exactly what some people do. And other than becoming a nun because I am not Catholic, I would be perfectly content returning to Lincoln Avenue. I’d happily return to teach at Memorial and then become a professor at UE (some professors in my subject matter departments are getting up there in age, God bless them). I could have my coffee every day at Coffee Cottage. And Barnes and Noble is right at the end of that long street! I could do book signings. I could browse the titles until I went blind and my fingers bled. Bliss, I tell you. Bliss. And my biggest dream ever since Ms. Felling took our class to see Twelfth Night at the May Studio Theater. Magic. I felt magic. I felt home.

I was told that if I can’t talk about a place without crying, then I have issues. I’m constantly told that Memorial is not the pinnacle of success. I’m reminded of law suits that should have been filed and of everything that was unfair and how it sucked everything I had in me right out of me and the retirement is pitiful. I’m reminded UE parking sucks, that we’re still paying on the ungodly tuition, that it is not Ivy League.

The street? It smells like sewer and it floods.

Shit. I just put myself in a box. I would live in a box. I would live in a box on Lincoln Avenue. And I would maybe or maybe not be content.

English: A square open cardboard box. Based on...

Masks Fall

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                     I come into the world impatient and stubborn and restless, an angel hell-bent on not being a present wrapped up in a perfect bow.  My tiny body is overwhelmed by the unruly dark hair I inherited from my father. My mother is sick. In every newborn picture, my mother wears a mask so that she does not breathe on me. In the moments after birth as I drink from her breast, we are close. I imagine her holding me too tightly, wanting me to remain hers forever. Yet there is distance, a barrier.  My infant fingers desperately attempt to claw the mask away from my mother’s face. 

                         At five years old, I sit at the salon with a cape around me.  My dark hair is starting to fall out in places. Soft tufts of hair are coming in golden, like my mom’s. I look a bit like a baby skunk. Tsk, tsk, snip, snip—the dark hair disappears, was never there. My eyes are blue-green-gray. I am my mother’s daughter with my dad’s coal-black eyebrows and glistening long lashes.  But by thirteen, I am no longer my gorgeous mother’s mini-me. I am awkward, ugly, and shy.  My hair is growing in dark again.  “She needs highlights–the blondest you’ve got,” my mother says matter-of-factly.             
                         My mother is mad when I am sick.  She frowns when she feels my forehead.  Life—or the fairytale—is disrupted when something is wrong with me. She is aloof when I am desperate. She is suffocating when I don’t know how to communicate. She covers my depression and anxiety with fresh bright paint, paint that makes her house look beautiful and clean. I manically scratch at the walls and peel off the moldy layers of wallpaper that are stuck to this barricade surrounding me, desperately trying to get to bare plaster. 
                         I date boys because they call, and I’m pushed to get to know people, to be “known.” And then, too young, I fall hard in love with a grown man who takes me horseback riding. With urgency and intensity, he grabs my face and knows how to kiss so deeply he hits my soul, makes me stand in the rain soaked to my core until the mask finally washes away. My mother hates Josh for his maturity and frankness, his natural firmness and authority, his ability to see through superficiality. Josh brainwashes me, my mother says. According to my dad, he isn’t good enough. He’s not the star of the football team, the cocky jock who tries to jam his fingers down the waistband of my jeans during homeroom but won’t acknowledge me in the hallway.  My mother would rather see me with this “Ken” to my Barbie. My dad would rather see me go on shallow dates that mean nothing.
                         If Josh isn’t good enough, I fear I must not be good enough either. I escape, often, to the place that feels most real to me—his parents’ house and more specifically, their swing which feels more like mine than any memory. Their house is beautifully lived in, and no masks are hidden in the closets or drawers. Their moods don’t change and lives don’t stop if they have a guest or an audience. They hand me an always-open invitation for supper. When they are mad, they are mad. When they are happy, they are happy.
                         I break up with him towards the end of high school. They pull too hard; my parents win their tug-of-war. They convince me he’d put a ring on my finger and a baby in my belly. They assure me I’d be stuck forever in my hometown of no opportunities. They say I’ll never get my degree from the university I apply to that makes my future feel packed with possibility. But life doesn’t feel real or even possible when I’m not with him. I am robotic, colorless. I am overcome with strong urges to touch the earth, ride bareback, climb a mountain, skinny-dip in twilight, and feel alive with passion again. I drive to his house and cry in his swing. “Forgive me,” I sob. He looks me hard in the face. “I’m in,” he said, “all in. I’ve never questioned anything with you. This is real. Are you ready not to run? Are you ready for this to be it?” And so I finally stop fighting hands that always held me. I need his touch, his taste, his truth, his voice, his fierce loyalty, his gentleness. I need what feels like home—the highs, the lows—the swing.
                         My mom pretends the wedding won’t happen. So I take the three hundred-count guest list and attempt to plan a wedding myself. If I could marry him again, the wedding would be more rustic, less pink. I’d marry him at sunset in autumn. I’d marry him in my cowboy boots. I’d marry him in a field under a tree with just God attending. We’d whisper vows we wrote ourselves.  We’d make love and wake up covered in leaves.   
                         At twenty-three, I find myself as a new wife in a house my mother swears is haunted. I run my finger over the date 1920 and the words “Aint Love Grand” which are carved into the wall of the closet.  Knowing Josh’s job would force me to often dwell alone, mother makes up ghost rumors. Because I leave mother and father’s house to be united with my husband, her irrational fears and loss of control conjured up an apparition living in the basement of the house.
                         I think I hear noises: gurgles, whispers, creaks. I lock the doors, but she still floats through the walls of our house, making me wonder in my lonely bed if love is really grand or even worth it or if I should have paid attention to her constant alerts of “red flags.” She tells me life could be convenient, more glamorous.  I could go back to school, have a mother-approved house, a husband with a mother-approved job, and have anything “I” wanted. Her ghost-games taunt me, haunt me. I relive the time I told her I was going to see him and she dove into the backseat of my car, then got out, and jammed her foot under the tire like a deranged refugee shielding her child from the bullet. But the bullet is just life. The bullet is the reality of heartache and sickness and inconvenience and messiness and shattered expectations. Sometimes we bleed and scream. Sometimes we nearly die. Sometimes the bullet sticks and stays as new flesh grows over top of it because the body always knows how to repair itself.    
                         I want our mother-daughter relationship to heal. I begin to understand that her suffocation is a twisted form of love, an attempt to fulfill all she wanted to be, a desire to lock me inside a box and remain her companion and company, a gift she doesn’t have to share. I believe she tried to control me because she could not control her own life—her parents’ divorce, her own mother’s breakdown, the fears she allows to control her, her own loneliness, and her own battle with self-doubt.
                         I sit in a chair draped in a cape. “Do I need to mix up your usual?” my hairstylist asks. I pause. I will never grow long nails the way my mom wants me to. I will never be perfectly polished. I will continue to take the anxiety pills that prove I have a problem but ultimately make me feel better. I will continue to write the truth instead of pretending perfection.  I will never have the patience to iron my unruly curls into submission. I will always love the man who fills my soul and tears off my clothes and my masks and my fears. I believe authentic love is unconditional and grand and the hardest thing of all.  I’m learning to understand the mother I love with all of her flaws. I’m learning to love my own.

                         “Brunette,” I blurt out of nowhere. My stylist mixes a shade of color, a liberating hue as dark as years of bleaching is able to stand. I simply was not the girl my blonde hair shouted to the world.  I relax at the touch of her hands massaging the chemicals, the fakeness out of my head. A sly smile crosses my face as my eyes sparkle blue-green-gray. I think of sophistication, my favorite coffee, warmth, my own definition of confidence and demure beauty. The shade appears much darker than my mom’s, still lighter than my dad’s—a transformation that I know in my heart is much deeper than a mere cut and color. She takes off the towel, and the mask—finally—falls.
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