The Director of The Landings — the independent retirement “village” where my mother lives — is a bully, pure and simple. Residents’ requests are ignored, cooks quit every week, and occasionally some poor old person will find his lease is not renewed for no discernible reason. This woman has an alarming resemblance to Glenn Close with a rabbit boiling on the stove. She’s reportedly got the owner of the place wrapped around her perfectly manicured finger. She cruises into work in her Cadillac and hurries off to lunch with her slightly smaller but no less blond assistant. They are always hurrying somewhere, blowing by in a hurricane of perfume.
Fortunately we don’t have much truck with them.
In her little apartment, Mom is claustrophobic and lonely. To combat both issues, she keeps her door open and plays piano, hoping to lure in admirers. She’s pretty effective at it. People wander by, hear Bach or Debussy, and stick their head in the door, curious. Slowly, but surely, she makes a few friends.
One of them is a woman named Carol, a retired art teacher. My mother’s hobby for many years has been watercolors. Some of them are pretty good. Emmy still has the painting of a clown walking a chicken on a leash that my mother painted when Emmy was just a baby. So Carol and my mother decide to paint together. The Landings has an art studio. We saw it when they took us on a tour of the place. What we hadn’t noticed is that no one was actually using it. Like so many of the amenities at The Landings, it is only there for show. The tables aren’t placed at a convenient height for painting, and my mom, being handicapped, has great difficulty in there. But no adjustments will be made. Still somehow my mother and Carol manage to paint together.
Carol has a daughter my age, and like me her daughter is constantly stopping by to help her mother with one thing or another. Mom gets confused and calls the daughter “Carol’s mother.”
“Carol’s daughter,” I correct her.
“Oh, yes. Of course,” she replies, but next time she does it again, mentioning something about “Carol’s mother.” And that’s what we are: mothers to our own mothers. I am constantly wiping my mother’s face, washing her hair for her, and exhorting her to get out and do things with friends.
My daughter Emmy is also trying to find a way to fit in at her new high school — a private school where the kids have all known each other since kindergarten. She’s been pestering me to try to get her into the other private school where some of her friends are, but it’s not doable. We’ve already gotten a scholarship at this place, and it would be way too late to get one anywhere else. She’s despondent, but one day she comes eagerly over to the car when I pull up.
“There’s auditions for a play,” she says, her eyes bright. I can’t help but remember the three-year-old Emmy who stood on a five-inch curb and exclaimed, “It’s a stage!”
“Do you want me to come with you?” I ask.
So I find a seat in the back of the auditorium to watch the auditions. The kids are good, but Emmy’s cold reading is brilliant. She’s funny and quick. The woman who will be directing the show is not actually a teacher. She’s been hired from a community acting group. After the auditions, she bounces back to where Emmy and I are sitting together. Her eyebrows leap to her hairline when she sees me. I’m the only mother there, but she seems friendly and enthusiastic about Emmy.
“You’ve got a real instinct for theater,” she says to Emmy. Then still smiling, “I’m not going to cast you in this show, but I hope you’ll audition for one of the shows I’m doing in the community. You’re really good.”
Emmy and I are confused. If she’s so good, why isn’t the woman going to put her in the show?
“It’s probably because you’re a freshman,” I tell her as we’re driving away. But later we find out that another freshman was put in the show. It’s baffling.
Over the next few years Emmy will have her share of successes and crushing disappointments. For the disappointments, I usually trot out the old story about being a finalist in a screenwriting competition and being sure that I was going to Hollywood and then not making it and feeling like the air had been sucked from the planet, or the sun had suddenly expired. And then a couple of weeks later my friend Mikey died and I had to take over his classes and be there with my friends to help them as they grieved and suddenly not getting that award and that new life in Hollywood didn’t matter so much. I don’t think this story helps, but I tell it anyway.
Although Emmy’s audition didn’t land her a role in that show, it did garner attention from the school’s young theatrical genius — a senior.
“Your audition rocked my socks,” he told her in the hallway the next day. And as the director of the student-directed play that year, he took her under his wing. Emmy found herself ensconced with the nicest, smartest, most intellectually adventurous group of kids in the school. Hallelujah.
But there are still a few bumps in the road.
One day I pull up to the school to pick up Emmy. She lands in the passenger seat like a wounded bird.
“What’s wrong?” I ask her.
Immediately she begins to sob, heart-wrenching, wheezing, mucus-manufacturing, chest-heaving sobs. The story emerges in fits and starts.
“There were these boys . . .in one of the classrooms . . . and I had to go in there to get a . . .book I’d forgotten.”
Blood begins pounding in my head like African drums.
“They saw me and they started laughing. One of them said . . . ‘it’s that girl . . .Emmy . . . she’s so weird.’ . . . and they kept laughing at me.”
“What did you do, honey?”
“I turned and ran!” she screams at me.
So there are a lot of things worse than being laughed at, but at that moment with my child sobbing in my car, I’m wanting to go kick some juvenile ass. Rage seethes through me like red hot lava. I’m pissed off at these unknown boys but even more pissed off with myself for letting her come to this school full of rich assholes. (I know. Many of the parents turn out to be incredibly kind and some of these kids will become her lifelong friends, but none of that is registering in the moment.) I can’t do anything except try to stifle a terrible memory that suddenly surfaces.
Our paths only crossed once. She was on a blue bike riding across the newly built wooden bridge that spanned the Willow Branch Creek. She didn’t have a “cool” bike with a banana seat like we did. She was not cool. She was blond and pale and plump. She wore the plaid skirt and plain white shirt of the Catholic School. My friend Carmen and I spied her. There were two of us and one of her.
“Fatty Patty,” we taunted. She tried to ride past us, but as soon as she crossed the bridge and was on the concrete walkway, we closed in. “Fat bitch,” we called her. One of us grabbed her bike and the other pushed her and she fell to the ground. Perhaps she skinned her leg or the palms of her hands as she fell. But there she was on the ground while we stood above her. Tears streamed down her face in helpless impotent rage. She screamed at us to leave her alone as she stood and lifted up her bike. Tears streaked her red face. Even as she rode off on her blue bike, pedaling furiously to escape our insults, I knew she was — at that moment — far superior to us. My throat constricted. I wanted to call out, “I’m sorry. Please . . .” I doubt I could have articulated what was in my heart. But if I could have, it would have been “forgive me” — anything to erase the sudden shame I felt. I was a kid with a heart full of pain and she was my mirror.
I guess I figured that I’d see her again somewhere and I could make it up to her. But I never did see her again. She was probably afraid to come through the park after that — that beautiful city park with its old oaks, its thick carpet of grass and the playground and basketball court just past the azalea bushes.
My karma wasn’t exactly instant, but it came. In December Carmen and I and the park boys rode our banana-seat bicycles on a mission. We were headed to the barbershop that belonged to Harold’s grandfather, located in what we then called “colored town.” This was in the late 1960s, and the good folks who divvied up the tax dollars neglected to fix the roads in this area of town. When the front tire of the bike I was riding hit a pothole, I flew face first over the handlebars, grinding my lips on the gravel road.
Hours of plastic surgery restored my lips but left me looking freakish with oversized lips on my small face and a scar running down my chin.
“You’ll grow into the lips and the scar will fade,” the plastic surgeon assured us.
It didn’t matter what the future held. I became a pariah among the park kids with Carmen as their ring leader. They called me names. They laughed at me. They told me I was ugly. I had not yet read The Metamorphosis but I knew how it felt to wake up one day as a cockroach. Unlike the girl on the blue bike, I did not lash out angrily. I suppose I thought they were right. I was hideous to look at and not worthy of their company.
Eventually I found a new friend. She also earned the disapproval of the park kids. She was a “rich kid,” they accused. But they kept their taunts in check because already she possessed something, some aura of redneck aristocracy, that alarmed the boys and cowed the girls.
Soon Carmen concocted an excuse for a fight. She claimed I was after a boy that she liked. I had no interest in the boy and I didn’t want to fight Carmen though if it came down to it, I thought I could win. Carmen was soft and plump, and though I was small, I was wiry and came equipped with a gut full of rage.
It came down to it. My new friend and I were playing tetherball, the one game I was really good at it because I could smack the hell out of that ball, when Carmen showed up, like a gunslinger in a Western, and issued her challenge. I reluctantly followed her to a grassy spot behind the azalea bushes. The other kids circled around us, all but one of them rooting for Carmen. I felt like a fool standing in the circle. I wasn’t mad at Carmen. I didn’t hate her. But I was supposed to beat her up or get beaten up.
My new friend stood in the crowd of park kids, arms crossed, green eyes narrowed, waiting to see what I would do. So when Carmen came after me, I balled my fist as if I were getting ready to smack the tetherball, and I hit her. Soon all was a confusion of yells, slaps and punches. Then Carmen began crying, her face turned red, and the tears made a snotty mess of her face. She yelled that I had hurt her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You go to hell!” she screamed.
There was nothing I could do. My green-eyed friend and I walked away.
That was a long time ago, and yet I still have pockets of shame and guilt. The girl on the blue bike is one of them.