Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

And I Cry
by Kimber Pflaum

My daughter is all grown up now. Or so says the law. She's 19, the age at which many of us leave home to explore the world and ourselves, the age at which life takes on a distinctly new color, odor and palpability, and the age at which we couldn't really give a rat's ass what our parents think.

From the moment Merisa could navigate a tampon, she longed to be free of her parental unit (that would be me, single mom, aka P.U.). While we were very close, she yearned to make decisions on her own, to have a car and a job that would provide rent, gas and beer money, and like most young girls, she yearned to get a guy. Once she acquired the basics, she set out to make every mistake I hoped she'd never make. I wondered if this was deliberate, like those guys on Jackass whose job it is to entertain people with their stupidity, risking life and limb. It just seems so obvious that it's gonna hurt.

Merisa is my baby, the youngest of four daughters, the final inheritor of all previously-worn clothing, the butt of her big sisters' practical jokes, and the child her siblings lament is the spoiled one. For years she was a popular kid excelling in every sport imaginable -- her room filled with trophies and ribbons. Then one day she was ditching school and hanging out with the kind of kids you know are up to something that can't be good. Looking back, it was when estrogen did a hit and run on her that things began to change for all of us. But her female biology is the least to blame.

On her 17th birthday, Merisa left home. Her only bread crumb was an incredibly rational letter that explained how she was legally an adult and any resistance on my part would be futile. She was thorough enough to include information and phone numbers for several state agencies she'd been in contact with where I could confirm that she did indeed have legal legs to stand on. To my dismay and surprise the police confirmed their efforts would be a waste of time if she was so determined.

She'd done her homework and I gave her an "A" for that, certainly not because I thought it was a smart decision, but because her reasoning had at least the sparkle of logic from a na´ve and insane mind. Somewhere during this time we traded places -- she became the cool, collected P.U. and I digressed into the living hell of a angst-ridden teenager. I waited impatiently for her phone calls, and with Caller ID, I wrote down every number from which she ever called me, even pay phones. I tortured her sisters to keep tabs on her and I interrogated anyone who might have information on her activities. Report of a Merisa-sighting grabbed me by the jugular every time. And I cried.

What was she up to? What did she look like? Was she eating? Had I taught her enough to keep her safe from doing things she would regret? My baby was out there in the big bad world where she had to fend for herself without so much as a high school diploma, a world where kids grow up too fast and make the kinds of mistakes that can't be fixed. Each day, my nerves frayed a little more, like cutoffs right out of the dryer.

After a few months, Merisa moved in with her big sister Jennifer and her fiancÚ. However, my relief was short-lived because there Merisa met and fell in love for the first time. Mind you, falling in love was okay. We all have our own roads to travel and we usually survive even our most moronic decisions and humiliations the first go-round. But Merisa said yes to a relationship with a Bad Boy ľ not just a Bad Boy, but a bum. You know this guy:

-he makes her feel loved and beautiful, and he can't stand to be without her

-he wants her to belong to him so he can show her off to his friends

-he wonders what she's doing when he's not around and calls her constantly

-he gets jealous when her line of vision includes any other male

-he tells her to do what her little heart desires, as long as it doesn't conflict with anything he thinks she should do

-he is of the "Do as I Say, Not as I Do" mentality

-he's screwed around on her at least once, though he swears never to do it again

-he indulges regularly in mind-altering substances.

Merisa supports him financially -- that includes his probation fees -- as he patently refuses to get or keep a job.

They've been together two years now and I see her second-guessing all that she knows to be right and fair and decent. I wonder at what point she said to herself, "His behavior is okay. This is the best life offers." Or, "He can't let me go, so he must love me. I'm the one who can change him. Without me, he would fall apart." When did she get so wrapped up in his blithering mumbo-jumbo, his expert manufacture of excuses for his never-ending indolence and tantrums, that she couldn't remove his grip from her heart and walk away? What happened to her sense of self-image and entitlement to better things? What happened to just saying no?

Only one thread runs through the fabric of my anxiety: Am I to blame?

I became an adult in the Made-For-TV-Movie decades, the seventies and eighties. It was the era of tumultuous home cinema where real women were saying not just no, but "Hell no!" and meaning it. I watched Farrah Fawcett douse her husband with gas and torch him in The Burning Bed, along with numerous other "women finding empowerment" movies. While melodramatic, they carried poignant messages about the traditional male-dominated household to young girls learning to be women, women climbing the corporate ladder till their heads hit the ceilings and women defending their right to be stay-at-home moms. We were all anxious to model our foremothers, Steinem, Gurley-Brown, Friedan, to name just some, and to pave the way for the next generation who would hit the bar scene just about Millennium time.

I wanted to pass on the lessons learned to my own daughters to save them the grief of living with a man who would be king, as I had done. I made myself the prime example by leaving their self-indulgent, alcoholic and abusive father -- a Bad Boy if ever there was one. Merisa was two-and-a-half when I did that. Unfortunately, my next divorce prospect was a Bad Boy in disguise. He was a hard-working, family-loving guy who got big points for taking on a woman with four kids. But he also couldn't stay off the sauce. Though he had managed to do so the first two years of our relationship, once he started pounding his Vodka and Cran again, the benders never stopped. As it turned out, I showed my daughters how to move from one unhealthy relationship to another. But didn't I also show them how to walk away when things were untenable, when the consequences for staying in a relationship gone bad would serve no good purpose?

In 1993, the girls and I came to Texas where we moved in with my parents temporarily. Despite my own father's long stint as a Bad Boy, he had settled down and become an ideal role model. He was fun, witty, creative and intelligent, and gentle yet firm. He worked hard and cooked like a French chef, showed my daughters all the love a father could, and he loved my mother. Our temporary living situation turned into four years, but having Dad's influence was a great trade-off.

I dated during that time and not long after we moved out on our own, I met my next husband. I'm ecstatic to say that Derek is nothing remotely like my first two husbands, and I am convinced that four years of dating all types of men helped me to break the pattern of chasing after Bad Boys. Derek and I share a truly loving and equal relationship. While he's a rare bird, I believe there are far more Dereks out there than Bad Boy addicts will acknowledge. Merisa was 14 when Derek came to live with us. But was it too late? Had the consequences of my poor choices already imprinted her mate-selection wiring so that her lot in life was preordained?

Long ago, after my brother's bitter divorce from a Bad Girl, he decided he would be the one to take his daughter on her first date. When Tahra was 15, he did just that. He bought her flowers, opened her doors, took her to dinner, showed her intelligent conversation, topped that off with a movie, and then brought her promptly home by eleven o'clock. He said, "I wanted to set the standard. If the guys Tahra dates don't do these things for her or treat her the way I did, they're not worth her time. I wanted to show her what was acceptable."

My niece is fortunate to have a father who cares. My daughter's father disappeared abruptly from her life within six months of our separation and divorce. His intention was to hurt me, so he became the pillar of deadbeat society. His absence over the last 17 years has done much more damage than if he'd actually been around to make her life miserable like the rest of us P.U.s trying to raise fine, upstanding citizens. There's no doubt that his sad contribution to her self-image has been major and shameful. Still, I can't help but feel like I'm the one who's let her down. I'm the one who raised her. I'm the one who dragged her on my life's roller coaster ride. Did I really think she would survive unscathed because I wanted her to so badly?

I am racked with guilt and a slew of "if-only"s. If only I'd done this or said that or modeled different behavior. If only I'd set higher standards, challenged her more or dared her to be mediocre. If only I'd been less protective, pushed her more or pushed her less, had mother-daughter talks that were more teen-friendly, less preachy, fearlessly to the point and less soft-pedaled with doctor-recommended nuances.

He is poison, the young man Merisa has chosen to love. He is the wedge imbedded in our family's structure. He has taken away her innocence, gradually killing off her faith in the good men and the hope of what life could be as she resigns herself daily to accepting less than she deserves. Her siblings disdain him and his continued presence tests their sisterly love. Merisa no longer encourages us to accept him. Not even she accepts him as she once did, yet she stays, railing at my careful expressions of concern, deemed as interference and reproach for her decisions. She slips through my loving fingers like rain through a hammock, and our relationship sags with the weight of my worry. She demands the freedom to make her own mistakes for reasons those of us who have already walked that path know she will later regret.

I wish the life-affirming growth pains of adulthood on my daughter at the same time I fear that the lessons will be more than her precious spirit can bear. And I stand on the edge of the deep blue ocean that is my daughter, her spirit the teeming reef, and argue with myself. Jump in, rescue her from the man-boy who would pollute her waters with his slick, insidious oil, or root my feet in the sand and observe, be there with open arms during her lowest tides. From as far away as I dare, I watch her spiral under the crashing waves of new disappointments that numb her shores, as they do mine, with a cruel coldness. And I cry.
Kimber Pflaum is a freelance graphic artist, writer and novelist. She is the proud mother of four beautiful and headstrong daughters, nana to Mack and Ash, and wife to a musician/magic man. She makes her home in Austin where she is hard at work on essays and pfun, pfearless pfiction (short stories and her second novel, a sassy romantic comedy).