When our children were young, my neighbor Kathryn and I, prompted by two or three chronic speeding offenders, chipped in to buy two signs for the alley. They are there still, though the bright yellow enamel has faded to a pale shade just slightly lighter than dry mustard. There is an old-fashioned picture of a boy running, embossed in the metal below the words:
The lack of punctuation and its effect on the meaning of the words never occurred to me until years later. And the irony. Our children were not slow; they were endlessly energetic and impulsive, following their joyous souls where they led. Hence the sign. And of course we saw them as precocious when perhaps they were only exemplars of the Lake Wobegon effect: where all the children are above average. Our lives revolved around them, they were front and center in nearly every conversation. They had to be: we were stay-at-home moms. What could be more important than her son and daughter, my daughter and son?
We took walks together, rising at six to circle the campus of a private college. Three miles, almost. It wasn't a marathon, but it was enough for a half hour of uninterrupted conversation. And of course we spoke mostly about our children, and about the best ways to "parent" them. (You never said "raise" or "rear" them.) I remember a lot of talk about Dr. T. Berry Brazelton's ideas - he was the Dr. Spock of our era; about magnet schools and toilleting (never "training" - the child took the lead, and you followed); about whether her son would have a growth spurt. Although six months older, he was more than a head shorter than my daughter. Seeing them together was like seeing a smaller version of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. And that is how I will always remember them: one stocky, one gracile. My daughter holding him at arm's length as he took swings at her and we swooped in to intervene. Use your words!
We had conversations about concerts and plays and movies, and many discussions about our husbands. Even more about family dynamics. We were obsessed with families. Her mother-in-law was in the throes of an attempt at recovery from the alcoholism that would eventually kill her. She was a "dry drunk." Kathryn's three siblings were in therapy. My parents were repressed. I was living a stunted and painful existence. Our families of origin had been hotbeds of dysfunction. We read Alice Miller's "The Drama of the Gifted Child," and though I do not recall a word of it now, I remember it being about family systems and how they damage children. We were not going to allow our children to be damaged, as we had been.
Oh how damaged we were. But we were healing.
How strange it all seems now, how vastly removed from the present. A little embarrassment peers through the nostalgia. The walks lasted for a year or so, through rain and bitter cold and a few times when we saw the northern lights like flapping green curtains as we rounded the stone buildings and headed home. In many ways, these were the most intimate times of my life. We talked about things we never spoke of with others - money, sex, politics, religion. We told each other our truths.
And then one day she appeared on my doorstep, a cigarette between two fingers.
She did not smoke.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I got a job offer. My old boss wants me to come back. And he's offering me a lot of money."
"How much?" She quoted the sum, and my heart sank. I knew she would take the job, and that my life would be changed irrevocably.
And she did, and it was.
* * *
The walks ended. I continued them alone for a time, but it wasn't the same. I felt lonely, and I didn't feel safe. I started to walk, by myself, after dinner. The conversations I had were in my head but that was okay. Eventually I went back to work myself. Our children disengaged. Things happened: her son and daughter followed their father into chemical abuse and dependency; mine followed me into bipolar disorder.
Their lives sped up. So did ours.
Kathryn finished her four-year degree at the age of fifty-something. She called one evening to ask if I had a certain shade of thread, knowing that I would always bring over three or four spools, and that one of them would be the right one.
One shade matched perfectly. We sat at the lace-covered dining room table, drinking tea. She had served me tea the first day we met.
"The worst part was algebra." She spoke as easily as if we had just said good-bye after one of those brisk morning walks. "I had to take algebra. And I wanted to build this little shed for my back yard. A place to do gardening, to have people over for a glass of wine, or drink my coffee in the morning. So I drew up the plans, and set them here, on my table, while I did my algebra homework. I'd look at them, and get inspired. I told myself that if I passed this course, I could build my shed. I got an A. And I have all of my materials."
Kathryn is a grandmother now. I am not, and perhaps will never be. I know I am not ready to become one. It is a role I hold at arm's length in my head, the image of her son flailing away at my daughter forever seared into my brain.
At the time it had seemed so shocking. Now I think it was kind of cute.