Certain Kind of Mother
Mary Bess Dunn
Mary Bess Dunn
Mary Bess Dunn lives in Nashville, Tennessee. After a thirty year career of teaching teachers at Tennessee State University, she now writes full-time and is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Alembic, The Best of Pif Magazine: Off-Line, Gertrude Press, Quiddity International Literary Journal, The North Atlantic Review, Sanskrit Literary Journal, and online in Folly, The Smoking Poet, Stone's Throw Magazine, and Verdad. She is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee.
Three weeks into retirement from the university, I find I want a clean kitchen floor. I want the wood to sparkle and the corners to be seen. No mop to my name, a PETA t-shirt is my tool of choice. Scrunched beside a pail of soapy water, eye-level with souvenirs of splats and spills, I dunk and wring and rub with fervor. The room sports a hefty scent of ammoniated Ivory when the last plank is wiped, and I twist around to rest against the wall. So this is what it should look like. This floor. This kitchen floor. Won't Jennifer be pleased?
Or will she notice? My daughter hasn't been herself—worried, I assume, about the new marketing position, which I will encourage her to take, regardless of the travel. The girl's lucky to have a job, times being what they are. And travel, as perilous and unpleasant as she describes, is still a good thing. You cannot live your life fearing terrorists or chatty seatmates. Truth be told, I always dreamed I'd travel more than I have. But time passes, you make decisions, and suddenly it's your daughter's plans that hold the promise.
The promotion is a good thing, and she must not worry about me. Divorced, I've lived alone for years, and just because I'm retired doesn't mean I'm retiring. Hopefully she can tell from the way I've spiffed up the place that I'll be fine. Cleaned out piles of New Yorkers, dusted my bookcases, and tidied my desk. If cleanliness is next to Godliness, Jennifer should be reassured. This might be as close as I ever get to the big guy.
At the sound of crunching gravel, I scoot myself off the floor and hop toward the back door, leaving toe prints in my wake.
"That driveway's a mess, Mom."
"It is, isn't it?"
Jennifer's kiss misses my cheek.
The chairs are stacked in the hallway, but she doesn't notice. By the time she's filled the teakettle and set it on the stove, I've wiped the table clean and carried in two chairs.
"Mother." The kettle whistles. Jennifer sets two of my three Wedgwood china cups on the table and pours water over green tea bags. "Rodney and I . . ."
I pull a box of Fig Newtons from the pantry and set it beside my tea. We concentrate on the act of sitting. She pulls thick, auburn hair over half her face. "We're getting married," she says, sending a coquettish peek in my direction. "He's every crush I've ever had, rolled into one."
My heart bumps. Not the sappy kind of bump, but the jumpy kind. "Oh my." I've torn the tab off the box of cookies and am ripping open the cellophane. "Does your dad know?" The question escapes, surprising me.
Jennifer unfurls against the ladder-back chair, which totters now on two back legs; her fingers barely reach the table's edge. One unplanned gesture—one wave of the hand—will upset the balance.
"That's the best part. Rodney actually went to the office and asked Dad if he could have my hand in marriage. Oh my God, can you believe it?"
The chair sways forward. She is upright now, both flip-flops on the floor.
"I'm sure your dad was impressed." My laugh feels like I'm trying to stay inside the lines of a gigantic coloring book.
"He offered Rodney a cigar."
"A bonding moment, I'm sure."
"Are you being snide?"
"Well, I guess it is too much to expect Rodney to ask me for permission." I'm stacking each cookie, one atop the other.
Jennifer's chin glides back beneath a sudden pout. This familiar gesture calls my bluff.
"I'm merely trying to take it all in—I mean, don't you want to at least live with him awhile before you . . ."
"Mo-th-er!" She inserts syllables where none exist. "I will absolutely pretend you did not make that comment." She covers her ears. "I will assume you meant to ask about our plans. Our wedding plans."
My bumpy heart picks up speed. "Wedding plans at thirty-five? Aren't you past that stage?"
"Mother. Wanting a wedding isn't something you outgrow."
"No? But weddings are so . . . so . . . theatrical, you might as well put on a play."
"They do that, you know—wedding theaters—videos in high-definition."
"Mo-th-er—would you rather I elope?"
"Have you considered it?" There may be a lilt in my voice.
"What kind of mother wants her daughter to elope?"
"A wise one?"
Snap, I've gone too far. With a furious thrust of her arm, Jennifer flings all the Fig Newtons into the air; she is crying as they crumble to the floor.
"Honey, stop. I'm teasing." I grab her arm.
"No, Mother, you're not." She jerks away. "This isn't one of those times you can sweep your snide remarks aside with I'm teasing. You meant it," she says, shoving out from the table. "You'd rather I elope!"
She stomps across the room and out the door. As I march to the pantry and take out the broom, I hear her car spewing gravel. "Shit," I say aloud, looking at the figgy mess trampled into my floor. "What kind of mother indeed."
I am sweeping furiously when Mary Anne telephones.
"Isn't this just so exciting? Her father and I are simply thrilled!" She goes on and on until finally, casually, she mentions that "Belinda Gibbs does the best wedding in town."
I grip the broom. "Best weddings, huh? Please don't tell me there's a prize . . ."
"Well, not exactly," Mary Anne says. "But you know, to some folks, a wedding is the defining event of a lifetime, and in Nashville a well-planned wedding says more about you than who your granddaddy was or where you went to school."
I think of my own wedding: the eight bridesmaids, the trumpet, and the doves. "Guess I'd hoped things had changed a bit since Dan and I were married," I say, tightening my lips against an irritated sigh. "Haven't folks wised up? If not to the marriage myth, at least to the wastefulness of high-stakes weddings." Too late I remember Dan and Mary Anne had invited three hundred of their closest friends and business associates to celebrate their union. "I mean, what with the recession and all . . ."
"Oh, honey," Mary Anne gushes all over my faux pas, "it will be fine. I know this isn't your thing, but I'll be glad to help. What with Danny's work, we've been to all kinds of weddings—and I've kept every detail tucked away in my little brain, just in case the day ever came when our Jennifer found her Charming Mr. Right."
Our Jennifer. I swallow the words, but they persist in upsetting my carefully constructed attitude toward Mary Anne. Our Jennifer. I pride myself on my divorce, on convincing Daniel of the benefits of mutual custody. And when he remarried, I championed the idea that with Mary Anne in her life, Jennifer would have one more person she could count on. One more resource, as I liked to say. Like a plumber, or a hairdresser, or a good broom.
I manage a polite response and promise we'll be back in touch.
The kitchen holds the last light of day. I take the vodka from the freezer, pour a shot, and settle in at the table. The window offers a fading view of my undersized backyard, faint with promises of spring. After years of acre lots—Daniel's choice—this tiny plot of land still seems divine. No more yardmen or garden catalogs. A push mower and clay pots are all I need.
The wedding comes to mind. For Jennifer's sake it must be a family affair. Face it, kiddo, I chide myself, Jennifer is the product of mutual custody—and this most certainly will be a mutual custody wedding.
I take a sip of my forgotten drink, but by now the vodka's warm and hard to swallow.
That night I dream an empty bus is parked in my dilapidated drive. The passengers have maneuvered potholes and asphalt weeds to sit in folding chairs in my backyard. They face away from the house. I tie a silver scarf around my head and rush outside, but as I move to greet them, the backs of sloping shoulders all converge, and I realize they are no one I know. My heart constricts. I slide into the only empty chair at the end of one long row. I feel the strangers' eyes, but no one speaks. It has started to sprinkle, and without a word I know it's me they blame.
Jennifer doesn't come by the house for a week. She's called a couple of times, once to tell me they had set the date, and once to announce she made an appointment with the wedding planner, Belinda Gibbs. It was that call that convinced me I'd need pills.
Driving home from the pharmacy, I glance in the rearview mirror and jab at my close-cropped curls. I like the gray, though Jennifer claims it looks cronish. I reach across to the passenger side and rest my hand on the small, white sack with the small, white bottle—pills for the faint-hearted—tucked inside. The pills, with their promise of serenity, taunt me until I approach my house and Percy Warner Park across the road.
Ten years ago, after Jennifer found her own place, it was this park that convinced me to move to a smaller—or, Jennifer's word, hobbit—house with great big windows. The park seduced me with its views of new, green growth in spring and roasted-pepper foliage in the fall. I flick a yearning glance in its direction.
Jennifer's car is parked in the driveway; I pull in and search my purse for my list. Not my list, actually, but Jennifer's. The list of what the mother-of-the-bride is supposed to do. I grab my purse, my pills, my list, and rush inside.
Jennifer is lolling on the futon, and I shake my head at the sight of a 35-year-old, college-educated woman reading Modern Bride.
"So, you're back. Are we over our little tiff?" I say.
Jennifer sits up and swipes at her bangs with plum-colored nails. "Mother, I've finally found the right man, and you want us to run off."
"Promise me you won't become bridezilla—bridezilla with the purple nails!" I attempt a smile and tighten my grip on the sack. "Another bride's magazine?"
She motions me closer. Her smile is wistful as we huddle over the cover tableau of one more flawless bride in wedding white.
"Okay, Mom, let's get going. Mary Anne is picking us up."
"We're driving together?"
"We are. I do not have the time to go back and forth anymore. We're doing everything together."
Going back and forth: the keystone to mutual custody. From the time she was six, Jennifer bounced from my house to Dan's and back again. Each house had its Room-For-Jennifer. She slipped into one (with its bunk beds and stacks of books and clothes tossed on the floor) or the other (a double bed with starched pink shams and built-in shelves for Ken and Barbie) seemingly with ease.
"You did say we'd be doing things together, only I didn't think you'd carry it to extremes." I'd been a bit surprised at her demand. And ashamed. It must have been hard for her, growing up astride two different households. Harder than I can bear to imagine.
So be it. "Let me change," I say over my shoulder. I carry the sack into the bedroom, take out the pills, open my bureau drawer, and drop the vial in a nest of socks and scarves. Idling in front of the gaping drawer, my bus dream comes to mind. Then, as these things do, the silver scarf I wrapped around my head in the dream conjures up another scarf from a lifetime ago.
A single scarf, draped across my absent husband's bedside lamp. The scarf's smoky-blue silk swallowing the room, dissolving thoughts of where I was and with whom, replacing what was clean and crisp and fine with a kicked-off-cover, balled-up-sheet, and sweaty kind of space I knew I'd die for.
"Shit," I say aloud, shoving the drawer closed. This is not the retirement I hoped for. Like when a creek bed dries and you finally see the stones that caused the rapids, all my old decisions are rising up to taunt me. I force my shoulders back and head toward the closet.
By the time I change into a denim skirt and return to the living room, I have resolved that, for once, I'll try to be the kind of mother Jennifer needs. I will try, really I will, to care about flowers, engraved invitations, bridal registries, and gift bags for the out-of-towners. But I will not dye my hair. Or paint my nails.
"Ready?" Jennifer looks up.
I shrug a denim vest over my best cotton shirt. I am not wearing makeup. "Yes," I say, trying to believe I am.
Mary Anne is dressed in a blue knit suit that brings out the gray sparkle in her carefully made-up eyes. Daniel's second wife is not a trophy, in the flashy showcase sense. Comfortably attractive, petite with rust blond hair and untarnished skin, she is a woman who carries herself well.
"Mary Anne!" I say, almost screeching.
"Sara!" Mary Anne stretches her smile, as if hoping it might count as conversation.
"Let's go!" Jennifer insists, managing to hug Mary Anne and me simultaneously.
I step up and into the back seat of Mary Anne's Escalade. "Nice car," I say, feeling my face flush with the effort of my lie. Gas-guzzling SUV's are not nice.
"Isn't it great?" Mary Anne says. "We've been wanting a new car, and with the wedding and all, I figured now is the time."
Wedding talk makes me turn my attention out the window. At the stoplight I look down into the car beside us, where a young child is furiously tugging at car seat straps. The teary-eyed girl jerks a pink hair barrette from her tuft of hair and throws it at the woman who is driving.
"Mary Anne and Dad are also planting trees," Jennifer continues.
"We figure with all the company and parties, we might as well."
"Trees," I say, thinking Dan and Mary Anne's huge home could use a bit of green, something more than sodded grass. As the Escalade moves away from the light, I watch the woman in the car beside us twist around and slap the child with a hand small enough to cup a single cheek. "Now is the time," I manage to say.
The wedding planner's house is deceiving. Small ranch on a cul-de-sac of same small ranches, but its inside smacks you with smells. Cotton-candy sweet, eucalyptus sharp, and heady lavender are a few scents I recognize. We walk through the foyer beneath figurines of cats, hung like marionettes from a ceiling strung with tiny lights.
"Mary Anne, so nice to finally meet you. And you must be Jennifer." Belinda Gibbs' abundant hair bounces behind a headband of fake fur, which appears to stake her face in place as well. Her skin is taut and shiny, with penciled perfect lips and rosy cheeks. She wears a diamond ring. A large diamond ring, I notice, while trying to decide if her colorless nails are chipped or chewed.
"And this is my mother, Sara Wills."
"A girl can never have too many mothers," the woman says. With a glancing, unfocused look, she swipes my outstretched hand with both of hers.
"You think?" My laugh is lost in the shuffle of chairs around an oversized pine table. Its centerpiece is a papier mâché giraffe which seems much too large.
"Now tell me, what do you envision?" Belinda Gibbs situates herself with pen and paper in the chair next to Mary Anne.
I lean, craning toward Belinda Gibbs. "It will be small—just family and a few friends," I offer.
"Though it has grown a bit," Jennifer corrects me.
"The wedding is at St. John's Church, the reception at the Club," Mary Anne says.
"Your theme?" Belinda Gibbs' pen is poised.
I lean again. "Theme?"
"Her vision," the woman nods toward Jennifer. "Her dream—in technicolor."
"Oh!" Jennifer's head bobs. "I want pink."
"Pink. Pink in June is good. Baby soft or snappy hot?"
"Oh God, not pink," I hear myself say. "Pink is so . . . so derivative."
During the next long moment of silence, I study the giraffe's eyes. I decide they are moping.
Belinda Gibbs reaches across the table for a large leather photo album. "Look through this," she says, opening the book in front of Mary Anne. "These are just a few of the weddings I've produced."
"Why, there's Trisha Young and her mom," Mary Anne croons. "And Becky Bates, and . . ."
I've slipped on my glasses, but from where I sit, the album is a blur. Still, following Mary Anne's lead, I let go with several oohs and ahs. I am getting this third-wheel feeling. Belinda Gibbs' apple-seed eyes never once meet mine; only Jennifer and Mary Anne win the woman's gaze. When Belinda starts gushing over baby's breath with pink primrose, I slouch back in my chair and let the giddy talk proceed without me.
The afternoon stretches on; I sit silent and resigned, feeling as if I've somehow measured low on the mother meter. As if Belinda Gibbs suspects I do not have a maternal gene in my body and certainly won't have the wherewithal to be the mother of this bride. Mary Anne, however, has aced the test.
"So. I think I have everything I need for now," Belinda says. "I'll write this up and send an estimate to . . ." Her eyes are on Mary Anne.
"You should send it to me." I pull a smile in place.
"Mom and Dad are splitting the cost right down the middle." Jennifer makes a quick slashing gesture and adds, with a small laugh, "Kind of like they did with me."
Back home, Jennifer gets in her car, and I wave as she and Mary Anne drive away. Above me the sky is spiked with stiff, white clouds hurrying across the last of this long day. Still, there is time. I rush inside. My vest slips to the floor, and by the time I reach the hall closet, I've lifted the shirt over my head and unhooked my bra. I drop everything in a heap, step out of the skirt, and open the door. A pair of bicycle pants—shin length to cover warped veins—hang from a hook on the wall. I study the crotch with its smooth, lambskin padding and hesitate just a bit before pulling off my underpants and pulling on the bike pants with unnecessary force.
The rest is easy. The sports bra, the back-pocket shirt, the shoes, and ankle socks with loony frogs. This is a side of me Daniel never knew—this energetic, sporty side. I only discovered it myself after the divorce. At first I jogged, but when the knees gave out, I picked up biking. I've read that growing old gracefully really means adjusting to your body's disabilities. Making do. This bike, racing red with a cushioned seat, is my adjustment.
Inside the park I take the route that curls through familiar trees I have yet to identify by name. My pedal strokes are fluid and my arms relaxed as I approach the steepest incline with heart and breath in sync and gears adjusted. The trick is to balance slow with steady and think of other things—like pink wedding bouquets or hanging cats.
Or visions. I reach for my water bottle, keeping my sights on the climb before me. In the 1970s the feminist vision was bandied about by women braver, more articulate than I. But I heard their call, read their words, and followed their lead. The lead of women willing to confront what was expected, willing to step outside the shadows of their men. It was a heady time, an angry time, but all the time my Jennifer kept me tethered, kept me real. I pedal hard, crest the hill, and wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. There is a quarter mile of flat and then I descend, forgetting to notice the view.
Two in the morning and someone is banging at the back door. Oh, God. I grab my housecoat and the heavy flashlight and stumble toward the ruckus before I recognize my daughter's version of a whine.
"It's me, it's me."
"Here, I'm here." I unchain the door.
"Why don't you have a doorbell, a simple doorbell? Would that be so difficult?" Jennifer moves past me to flip on the kitchen light. What I notice is the floor; the grime is back.
"Can we have tea? Or no. A drink. I want a drink." She is jerking open cabinet doors.
"I have some great pills," I offer, only half joking. My resolution still intact, I have not used them.
Jennifer holds up a bottle of amaretto. "No, this should do it."
"If you insist." I remove two small glasses from an open cabinet, and set them on the table.
"I should have known. Jelly glasses." Jennifer pours the liqueur and sits down with a shaky sigh.
"Porky Pig and Daffy Duck are waiting at the bottom."
"Okay, let's drink up fast. Cheers!" Jennifer toasts. "Oh, how dare I? Now comes the part about you and your preference for salute! Well, isn't it a bit pretentious—an Italian toast when you've never been to Italy?"
I sip, avoiding her hard gaze. She is baiting me, but the moment will pass. It always does, and then we get to what is true.
"Mother, I gave Binky to Rodney and . . . and . . . he laughed. He said it stank—it needed washing."
Binky, the beloved quilt my mother sewed for Jennifer when she was born. Years of traveling with her from house to house, then to the dorm, then on to her own apartment, have worn the appliqués of Snow White, Cinderella, and Briar Rose into faded figures curious and hard to name.
"Maybe it's time you let it go." I am hoping I look anything but worried. She finishes her drink and pours another.
"See, that's just it. I'm never adult enough for you."
"Jennifer . . ." I feel my own whine.
"Admit it! If you'd had your way, I'd be sporting Birkenstocks and hairy legs."
My resolve is slipping. "I wanted you to be strong."
"And manage my own life."
"Did it ever occur to you that a little guilt is not always a bad thing?"
"We're not talking a little guilt—we're talking guilt that comes from—"
"Well, yes. Church is certainly about guilt," I say, taking the bait, but jerking my hand in the air, palm forward, signaling STOP.
"Depletes the self." I lower my palm and slap the table. "So there," I say with a puny laugh, "Dr. Wills' lecture 101, the lullaby you've heard a hundred times."
"What kind of mother says that to a child?" Jennifer cries.
"I'm sorry, honey. I really am. I just wanted you to have a head start. If you knew what it took me so long to figure out, you could go from there. Not that you wouldn't make the same decisions—not that you wouldn't fall in love—but when you did you'd be more . . . more informed."
"Informed? This is me—Jennifer—your daughter, not some student you're lecturing."
"I've made a mess of it," I say, searching my daughter's face. "A mess of mothering."
"Is this where I'm supposed to throw my arms around you? Where I'm supposed to tell you how I know anything you did, you did for love?"
"It's not really about me, is it?" I say softly.
Jennifer slumps down on the table, her head in her hands. "But don't you see, I'm like you in so many ways. I worry if I'm doing the right thing. I may not be the marrying type. I like my own place, my own routine, my way of being."
"But in just as many ways, you are not like me." My finger touches her single strand of early gray. "Admit it, you like the life of Mary Anne and your dad."
Jennifer tilts her head away from my reach. She stands and walks to the window's blank stare.
"I like the certainty of it," she says.
"But is it? Certain? I don't think so. Not much is. Even Mary Anne and your father are just leaning toward the light, hoping for the best."
"I want a good life."
"It will be."
"Even if it's different from yours?"
"We all have our own ideas of what the good life is—our private vision."
Jennifer's breath has collected on the pane. "There are these moments," she says softly. "Rodney and I can just be hanging out, when I catch his glance, and all I want to do is slip him on a silver spoon and swallow."
Peering down at Daffy Duck, I am silent with the weight of wanting to say something profound. Something motherly. "It is exciting," I manage.
"It's afraiding," Jennifer says. Her smile is suddenly giddy. She presses her finger to the pane and traces a lopsided heart.
Just before the cocktail supper at Dan and Mary Anne's, I returned to my bureau drawer, forced my hands to slither through the socks and scarves, and grabbed the pills. I swallowed two.
Standing here now, in this sprawling group of well-wishers, I feel edgy. A whiff of drenched gardenias announces the short woman with gleaming teeth who clasps my hand. "Sara, so good to see you," she says. "You've forgotten—I'm Lizzie."
I think back to the annotated guest list Jennifer left with me last week. A cheat sheet, Mom—you already know a lot of these people—Mary Anne's friends you've met through the years. Jennifer suggested I study up, and now, with this woman preening before me, I wish I had.
"Lizzie," the woman peers over frameless glasses. "You know, dear, of Lizzie, Bitsy, and Mary Anne."
"Oh yes," I say, ready to hug her, "Mary Anne's Three Musketeers!"
"Yes indeedy . . . and speaking of Miss Bitsy . . ." As if on cue, a pixie of a woman glides over to us.
"We go back a long way—since kindergarten and Girl's Prep days," Bitsy chimes right in.
"And you've managed to stay in touch?" I ask.
Lizzie rolls her eyes. "Oh, more than in touch. We are still best friends."
"Hm . . . my best friends from high school have all scattered," I say.
"How sad," Lizzie says.
"Sad? I like to think we've all gone on to new horizons." I am pleased with my swaggering tone.
Lizzie's eyes narrow. "Yes, that does seem to be a pattern of yours. Going on to new horizons . . ."
"But aren't we lucky," Bitsy adds. "Your new horizons left Danny free to find our Mary Anne!"
My face finds its grimace. "Your Mary Anne should thank me!"
"There you are." Jennifer slides her arm around my waist. "Isn't this the best party?"
"Yes, dear," Bitsy purrs. "Your mother was just telling us how grateful we should be that she decided to leave your father."
Jennifer cringes, loosening her proprietary grasp on my waist.
"Now wait a minute," I say with an empty laugh. "I tried to make a funny—Jennifer, sweetie, you know my sense of humor can be lacking."
"Don't you worry, dear. It doesn't matter," Bitsy says. "After all this time, what matters is you've finally found your man."
"Gracious, for a while there, we had our doubts," Lizzie says. "You just never dated any boy for very long."
My spine prickles. "Like the song says, behind every good woman is a string of good men!" This laugh is larger than intended. "Besides," I add, sensing my daughter's fury, "Jennifer has been very busy—with school and a career."
"Yes, you did get wrapped up." Lizzie pats Jennifer's shoulder, then grabs her hand.
"Almost like you were afraid to slow down. Afraid to commit," Bitsy commiserates.
"Maybe I was," Jennifer says softly. "I certainly had reasons . . ."
Together Bitsy and Lizzie nod. "But here you are, our Jennifer, about to be a bride. We are beside ourselves!" Bitsy says, latching on to Jennifer's one free hand.
Seeing the three of them, their fingers entwined, my smile droops. I imagine a haunting chorus of Red rover, red rover, let Sara come over.
"Excuse me," I say, "while I run to the little girls' room."
I escape to the bar and lapse into brooding. Dan and Mary Anne's house is tasteful in an ordinary kind of way. Not my taste, of course, but certainly Daniel's, with all those heavy gold picture frames and candelabras. Lots of yellow chintz and oriental rugs, no drapes. It has a settled air about it. If Daniel and I had stayed together, our home might look like this. We'd bought a blue chintz couch. And a rug. A large Persian rug.
I ask for wine from the young black man tending bar. "Does it bother you to be the only person of color in this room?" I ask conspiringly.
"No, ma'am," he says, twisting a corkscrew deeper.
"It should," I say and take the drink he hands me.
The man gives me a futile glance and then steps away, as if from something harmful. I feel as if I've lost my only friend.
"Still fighting the good fight." Daniel stands beside me, a fuller version of his younger self. Confident, with happy eyes. The world, his world, always was a good and wholesome place. Before I can think of something clever to say, his elbow nudges mine, and he directs my attention across the crowd. Jennifer and Rodney have managed to find a quiet space. Daniel and I watch as our future son-in-law leans down and whispers to Jennifer. She beams.
"Remember the first time she went away to camp?" I say.
"She kept writing to us about wanting to make friends."
I nod. "And then she wrote about the girls . . ."
"Those hateful girls . . ."
"She didn't make a single friend."
Something passes between Daniel and me.
"I remember," he says, looking down at the carpeted rose beneath his polished wingtips.
I expect him to move on, take up his hosting duties. But he just stands, looking out over the crowd, until a man with a goatee and a plaid vest comes up and demands his attention. "Nice party you got going here, boss." The man raises his drink glass.
"Isn't it though?" I say before gamely plunging back into the crowd, determined to mingle. I make my way from one cheery person to the next. My eyes bat, my laughs are full, and, for a while, I suspect I am having fun. At some point it occurs to me I might be dreaming. Not one of my usual dreams. This dream I had years ago, when Daniel and I were married. These friends, this house—if I had to name what it was I let loose of way back then, this was it. I lift a plate from the buffet table and help myself to caviar and shrimp.
Here was my dream, all grown up—a dream grown up without me.
It is late when I arrive home, kick off my boots, and snap on the kitchen light. A starkly utilitarian glare accompanies me to the sink, where I empty the pills down the garbage disposal and welcome its growl. The light is maddening. I turn it off to follow what the moon allows, making my way into the living room, shoving open the front windows, and falling in a heap onto the futon. The room whirls and with it my thoughts. The evening hadn't been that bad, really. As I threaded my way through the crowd of civilized, gracious guests, they mostly talked of the honored couple, or the weather, or told a lame but not off-color joke.
I turn on my side and bunch the pillow firmly against my cheek. Of course no one mentioned my retirement, my biking, or that I demonstrated against war in the Middle East. I try not to imagine the after-party chatter, but certainly my flowing aqua skirt and shiny boots would be fodder for those women all decked in black.
A chuckle escapes, then a disgusted sigh. I open my eyes. I am very awake. Wired, as Jennifer might say. Suddenly I miss the presence of a man. I rarely get tired of feeling free, but on a night like this, I waver, worried I'll be sorry at some end. The room begins to sway. I roll over, plant my feet on the floor, and sit upright. An owl's lone hoot makes its way from the park, and under the window my single lilac bush smells more than grand.
For three days I trek with Mary Anne and Jennifer to every bridal salon in Nashville. Each dress is lovely, but each one has its flaw. Jennifer doesn't like the sleeves, or the train, or the skirt. We move on.
The Dreams Galore boutique showcases Valerie Castillo's personal creations.
"I don't want sleeves," Jennifer says.
"She wants a shorter train," Mary Anne says.
"And most of what we've seen is much too puffy," I chime in.
Valerie listens with sketchbook in hand, and then her pencil flies across the page. She works for a full five minutes before holding up a replica of the very dress Jennifer has wished for all along.
"Yes!" we cry, grabbing hands and squeezing.
The month of April brushes past, though Nashville's sweet pastels fail to soothe my daughter's nerves. We are again in Mary Anne's car, driving to Valerie's shop for the final fitting. From the backseat, I catch Mary Anne's glance in the rearview mirror. We are each anxious, mindful of what is at stake. "So, Mary Anne, I was thinking about your wedding dress—I remember bringing Jennifer to the church and you meeting her at the side door. Your mantilla veil was stunning."
"And the train with pearls—I thought it was the most beautiful dress ever made,"
Mary Anne sighs. "So Sara, tell us about your wedding dress."
"Well, if I can remember back that far, the empire waist had a blue sash, and I wore a Juliet cap entwined with blue ribbons."
"A blue theme," Mary Anne teases. "Beautiful!"
"You know, I offered my dress to Jennifer."
"Sorry, Mom, your wedding dress has bad karma. Besides, I want my own dress. My own beautiful dress," Jennifer says. "It is supposed to bring tears to my mother's eyes."
"Is that what the magazines say?" Mary Anne asks.
"Yes, that's a sure sign I've found the perfect dress."
"Well, we'll see." I am not a crier. I can hear my daddy now: "Bite the bullet, kid."
At the boutique Valerie ushers Jennifer away to the dressing room. Mary Anne and I sit flipping through still more bride magazines. I scan the pictures like I used to scan event programs as I'd wait for Jennifer's dance recital, or spelling bee, or forensic meet. The empty gesture hides not impatience, but dread.
When Jennifer was three, she ordered me "AWAY!" from the slide we always climbed together. I obliged and then could only watch as she pitched over the edge. The same feeling I had then comes to me now—of being impotent, unable to break the fall, of waiting for the certain crack of bone, the thud.
Mary Anne is giving me a gentle nudge. A rustle behind the curtain prepares me for Jennifer's entrance. But the woman here is not the bride of magazines or fashion shows. This bride pauses, veiled and bare-shouldered, in a cloud of tulle, Irish lace, and pearls, her face anything but vacuous or hollow. The glow from this bride's face makes me believe.
I leap from the couch. I cannot identify the emotion that propels me across the room, making me take Jennifer in my arms and crush her smack against my breast, to squeeze with every ounce of mother I can muster.
"Careful!" Jennifer shrieks, then laughs, then pulls away to set her veil on straight.
Disoriented, I step back. Mary Anne is crying now, in dainty sniffles. She hands me a tissue.
I dab at dry eyes, and look at Jennifer—a grown-up with a dream. This moment, I realize, is of little consequence in the scheme of happy-ever-after, or marching down the aisle to say I do. And yet, I smile. A mother's smile. Smug, and very good.
Jennifer and Rodney celebrated their six-month wedding anniversary last week. She stopped by the house to drop off wedding proofs and surprised me with an impulsive hug. "Oh, Mom," she said, her face radiant, "being married is so much better than getting married!"
Not that everything was perfect after the dress. Bridezilla actually got worse before she got better. Thank the goddesses, Mary Anne was there to calm our daughter down.
Sorting through these photographs is surprisingly difficult. In this one the camera seems to have pocketed my soul. My face is carved and loose beneath a smile forced from smothered fears. My arms are folded tight against my chest, holding all the journeys stuffed within. What the camera misses is the good life that is mine, culled from spirits broken, hearts I've left along the way. This renegade is captured by a flash.
I push away from the kitchen table. I've been hunched here long enough to lose the benefit of natural light. Reaching for the light switch, I'm waylaid by the window's view: my park at its full green best, a sky offering to swallow me in blue, the Indian summer heat shimmering its last hurrah. I jump up, rush to the closet, and change into biking clothes. It's been too long.
Returning to the kitchen, I pass the table stacked with still unsorted proofs. A single photo stops me. Jennifer in her perfect dress, her father in his tuxedo finery, and me in silken blue. We are raising our glasses, and poof, the camera flash has caught our toast. The three of us are straining forward, wide-eyed, looking—you might say—for our certain kind of ever after. I lift the picture and prop it against the salt shaker in the middle of the table, where I can see it even as I head out the back door.