As the mother of a three-year-old, I contemplate the day when I can micro-manage all of my daughter's major decisions. Terrified my kid will make huge mistakes just like Mommy did, I'm already formulating a way to convince my daughter to remain a virgin until she is at least 19, along with a million other, "Oh, yeahs…"
Flapping away from the nest when I was 19, I landed in New York City, for one of those crazy gigs you can only do as a baby: camel wrangler and sheep herder for Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Show. A whole $250 a week and all the alfalfa I could inhale. Dad had failed to keep his garage safe, and an act of carelessness perpetrated by family or friend, it resulted in the garage exploding and almost every thing I owned being burnt to a crisp or melted. Everyone else's belongings suffered minor damage; my life was devastated. So going to New York was more like being ejected from a spiraling F-15 than it was a graceful entrance into the adult world.
My tangible past being literally erased from existence, I had to reinvent myself. Only I didn't come with instructions. Today, I know the best lesson I can teach my daughter is that you must teach your children about everything you know. My existence is proof of luck, not great brainwork. Now I'm on my feet and have perspective, but this was only after having spent twenty years scrambling around like Scooby-Doo on ice. I should've been home and in my bedroom when the garage exploded. Instead, I was out getting drunk and high because nobody told me that was a real sign of trouble.
Am I blaming my mother for my life? Yes. She birthed me, and it would've been helpful if she'd told me that it's not normal for a woman not to wear clean underwear or socks for years on end (her deal, not mine). Who knows who I'd be today if mom had stepped between Dad and the rest of us when he was drunk? When I was in kindergarten, another five-year-old -- not my Mommy or Daddy -- taught me to tie my shoes. At eleven, a girlfriend had to show me how to use a broom: housekeeping and common sense were alien practices. My first gravy-making effort included pouring copious amounts of flour mixed with water into a cauldron of fried chicken grease. The flames licked the ceiling. It was over quickly, despite my having no idea that tap water is the worst thing for a grease fire. I tried to make an angel food cake once and didn't know that there were other temperature options besides BROIL. Two hours and ninety minutes on BROIL seemed about right. In my world, you made angel food cakes and Shrinky-Dinks the same way. By the time I was twenty-three and about to move to LA, I had never even opened a personal bank account.
Of course, there was the time I was allowed to take Mom's El Camino into the worst traffic circle in Monmouth County, New Jersey, at rush hour, without a driver's license. This first solo run resulted in me driving up an off-ramp, where I then T-boned a car driven by a pregnant woman (who happened to know my parents) and whose elderly mother was in the passenger seat. When Mom and Dad arrived, they were more concerned about getting into trouble with the pregnant woman (who was shouting, falsely, that she was bleeding) than they were about the fact that I was hyperventilating, trembling and ALIVE. The state troopers shook their heads in disbelief that no one was hurt, and that both cars were fixable. I shook alone while the victim's elderly mother put a stranger's arm around me with the sympathy of an older woman… an older woman who was ignoring her pregnant daughter's hysteria… Talk about traffic circle going nowhere.
Adolescence brought a desperation for good information that was unmatched. Once, I returned to school wearing a wool suit in August before a harsh battle with Chicken Pox had fully healed. Why? Because it was the day sex-education films were to be shown. I eagerly returned to school despite the parade of scabs and cystic formations that covered my pubescent face -- the rest hidden under the heavy suit.
This leads to the first period. It was literally part of a ‘real' curse. The Curse of Tut. The year was 1979. Our class was to go on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History in New York to see the exhibit of King Tut's Tomb. Finding a splotch of fresh blood on my panties that morning, I was frustrated more than scared. Throughout childhood, my mother did nothing to conceal the shelf-load of old style belted menstrual pads and the odd large box of Tampax, but their purpose or connection to reality remained a mystery. Her pads were for bathroom lab science projects with other household chemicals, and the tampons were strictly for opening and holding under the tap, to watch their super-absorbent capabilities.
Summoning up courage after a few pantless and panting minutes in our foul filthy bathroom littered with what my father kindly referred to as "used shit paper" (our toilet rarely flushed properly and the rest of my family seemed to be ignorant of common sanitary practices), I whined, "Mooommm?" In a moment, she knocked. I cracked the door open just wide enough to feed my bloodied panties through the gap and avoid eye contact. From the other side of the door I heard a whimpering, "Oh, noooo."
Wasn't she supposed to be the expert? If she's worried, what should I be? What seemed like hours later, another knock came and the door creaked just wide enough for a tampon to creep in, like a big hook in a scary vaudeville show. The door closed on me.
Obvious to me now -- and maybe to the rest of the population -- tampon application is pat, but I had no clue as to what to do with this thing back then. Single tampons don't have directions printed on them. I must've been in the bathroom a long time because Mom eventually returned with a knock and a mousey, "You doin' okay?"
Too embarrassed to ask for help, I laid the stupid thing lengthwise across the crotch of my underwear -- like a hotdog on a string inside my labia buns. Fortunately, my jeans were so tight that the spilled blood couldn't make it much past my clamped private parts. The girlfriend who taught me how to sweep was understandably rolling on the ground at the bus stop the next day as she explained that the tampon goes, "Up your coochie, you stupid idiot!"
By the time I was finally getting the odd date at the age of nineteen, my signals about how to act around men were scrambled. I thought it was normal to take abuse, not talk about things, supplicate, not ask for what I wanted, fear rejection, stay in a bad place because I thought there was no other place. Young, dumb, selfless, insecure and big-tittied, I was a car wreck waiting to happen. A lump settled in my throat for years after I heard U2's Bono sing, "Your wheels are spinning but you're upside down..."
My mother taught me never to lock doors, close windows, secure the car, wear a seatbelt or do anything reasonably; leave the home open to all and everything except the honest discussion about life and the plain truths of reality. Exposing myself in this uninformed way through my twenties, ineptitude became my secret guardian angel. Taking stupid chances, success came professionally despite the brainwashed belief that I should fear authority, never take a risk, and think small. After sixteen years of mistakes, accidents, faux pas, disasters, tragedies, failures, humiliations and a lot of rubbernecking along the highway of life, the silt shifted and I realized I'd become mother to myself somehow.
Even when I thought Mom and I were connecting, after I had become pregnant and toward the end of our viable relationship -- before two devastating and wholly preventable strokes rendered Mom voiceless and paralyzed in a nursing home -- it's clear that it was just a wishful illusion of friendly inclusion. The reality was that Mom failed to do more than send some cigarette smoke-infused blanket she'd knitted for someone else, and some cheap polyester baby gear. She even gave my lifelong hope-chest of generations-old baby clothes to a stranger.
Ultimately, Mom wouldn't even come out to visit and help when my daughter was born, even when we offered to Amtrak her and a friend to LA (she refused to fly). She sent one card after little Polly was born. When I made the trek to Kentucky where she lives, I noticed her still bending over backwards for almost everyone but me and Polly, who she had to be dragged to come play with or watch. Polly's Gramma never said, "Nice job. She's so beautiful." Not once.
Recalling teen-hood and how thoughts of suicide soaked me, it's no wonder parental pessimism is so strong. When I was about fifteen, having seen all the TV specials and news reports, I knew that you should cry for help any way you can. So I went to Mom.
"What would you do if I said I was thinking of killing myself?"
A hypothetical cry for help was all I could muster. Frozen for a minute, Mommy dragged off her cigarette with a strangely humored expression.
"Well, knives and razors are really bloody, hanging really hurts and jumping you could just be paralyzed, it's awful messy." If I said anything in reply, it's long erased.
I've been hit by bad drivers and scam artists, fired by whackos, seriously robbed by men, had my wallet stolen, got attacked in a subway once by a preppie masturbator, lived on the west and east coasts, been stabbed in the back by so many ‘friends' that I can't turn without feeling sore, I've been fingerprinted and mug-shot, sued, harassed, evicted, I even lived with my boyfriend's ex-wife for a year and a crack addict who stole my stuff when I was at work. I've been stranded on the freeway, helpless and in the rain in the middle of the night, I've skidded on ice and crashed into a utility pole. Aside from rape, plane crashes and murder, there are few other things that haven't happened to me or at least occurred to me.
This mother is eager to teach her daughter everything she knows and more.
Theorizing the inevitable embarrassment of conversations about normal vaginal discharge, pap smears, cramps, STD's, men, sex and babies, there's still no guarantee that by the time we get there I will be able to force condoms into her hand without flinching or shaming her. The alternative is failing to act -- the way I grew up.
The plan is to coerce her willingly into a pure form of instinctive self-confidence by spinning my true stories of disaster, tragedy, triumph and miracles. I'll still be swabbing her earlobe when she defies my order not to pierce her ears, goes to a strip-mall and gets mutilated. I would be naive to believe that she's going to think I'm cool forever. Like the tide coming in, her candied cries of "Mommy!" will wash up next as "Mama," then "Mom," then "Ma," and finally back to "Mom" again. If things get really twisted, I might expect the odd phase of calling me by my first name. She does it now at three, anyway.
It's been said there's no convincing your kid that you're not a controlling paranoid freak that won't allow sleepovers without inspecting the property first. Polly will be pissed at me because I make her play in the part of the yard where I can observe her at all times. No doubt she'll stonewall me for weeks when I refuse to let her go on a weekend ski trip with her classmates.
She's not the one I distrust. It's the world.