Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A Good Mother by Victoria Oldham

This is an unabridged version of the contribution to the NRHP Exhibition

A Good Mother
By Victoria Oldham, © 2007

She sat on her bed, shoulders slumped, head in her hands, her blonde hair falling in messy waves to her hips.

Pregnant. She had known it was a possibility, had even wanted it, in theory. But at that moment, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, she wondered what she had gotten into. What would she tell her mother? What would she tell Ray?

She had gone to her mother first, and received the reaction she expected, which only served to validate her reasons for getting pregnant in the first place.

“You’ll be a terrible mother, Susan. You can’t even take care of yourself. How stupid could you be?”

She had argued, yelled back, cried. But in the end, she had gotten her way, and her mother agreed that she might as well marry Ray, the “only Mexican in all of La Canada.” Then, she had called Ray, told him the news, and they were married at the Los Angeles County Courthouse the next day. She wore a nice dress, even though it was only in front of a judge. A lady from church even gave her a “little something blue” to pin in her dress. Supposedly, it was a piece of Queen Elizabeth’s dress.

Less than a year later, a few months after her daughter, Elizabeth, was born, she divorced Ray.

One day she walked in and found him in bed with a girl the same age as Ray, eighteen. She had red hair and an obnoxious, high-pitched voice that made Susan want to strike her every time she opened her mouth. Her freckles obscured her features, making her look like something from a Stephen King movie.

After the divorce, she asked her mother and sister for help. They said no, while lamenting her abilities to mother her child. They wanted no part of diapers, or baby vomit, or crying. They would want to look after her when she was older, could take care of herself, but until then, Susan was on her own. Ray pressed for custody. Married to the redhead, he thought they could take better care of his daughter. Susan rocked her at night, thinking that maybe everyone was right. Maybe she couldn’t do it. She locked Elizabeth into her car seat, set out to Ray’s. On the freeway, tears sliding down her face, she looked in the rearview and saw her daughter’s bright blue eyes looking right back at her. She pulled off the freeway and went home. She would do whatever it took, her child would have a good life, and she would provide it.

And then, one day in continuation school, she met Arleta Gomez. Arleta was a largely built, tough Mexican girl. Suddenly, Susan couldn’t do enough to please the girl, get her attention. She baked her cookies, she brought little bits of things that might make her smile. Arleta was her first kiss; at least, the first one that mattered, that made her feel anything.

From that moment forward, she understood why she and Ray hadn’t worked, other than the fact that he loved the freckle faced redhead. She began dating, and even had some long term relationships. Her daughter, though, had health problems. Elizabeth was always sickly, and her asthma had her in the emergency room at least three times a month. Susan was fired from different jobs because she had to leave to rush her daughter to the hospital. Once, the pre-school called and told her that Elizabeth had fallen from the monkey bars and bitten her tongue in half. She was sitting with an ice pack on her tongue and holding the piece of tongue that had come off. Susan had sped to the school, her boss’s cruel words ringing in her ears, “If you leave, don’t bother to come back. You should get a better sitter, or learn to take care of your daughter.” When the doctor came to sew her daughters tongue back together, she had thought she might faint, but she determined to be strong for the tiny little girl being so brave on the stark white gurney.

Lovers came and went, unable to be faithful or unable to cope with a sickly child. One weekend in June when Elizabeth was six, Susan was away in San Francisco with her current partner when her daughter called crying. Grandma had side swiped a car on their way home from the restaurant the night before. She had been drinking, and now Elizabeth was afraid to get back in the car with her. Susan came home right away. The lover left a month later. Ray decided he no longer wanted to be a part of his daughter’s life. The red head had said to his daughter, “Be careful, you don’t want to be a dyke like your mother.” Susan was glad they stopped calling, but her heart ached for the child who did not understand.

Susan taught herself accounting, determined to give her daughter a better life, one that didn’t require her daughter to get pregnant at fifteen just to get out of the house. She lied her way into jobs and then learned how to do the job while doing it. She went to night school, bought books, took exams. Her daughter grew up, liked reading and writing, hated math and science. When she learned to write, her writing was so bad Susan asked when she had learned to write in Spanish. Her daughter started crying, and explained that the teacher wouldn’t let her write with the hand she wanted to write with. “Left handed people were of the devil, and one should always use the right hand to be an angel.”

They moved, away from that school, away from the lover who had thrown dishes at her head. That lover took the sheets, dishes, tv, furniture. It was later stolen from her when she stopped to get coffee, the entire truck taken and dismantled.

Susan found a new lover, in a new place. She continued to learn, to better herself. She bought her first home at twenty eight, her first new car at twenty nine—a BMW, shiny black with crème interior. She called it Oreo. They stayed with this lover for seven years. She fostered her daughters writing, bought her any books she wanted, although she decided that Gone with the Wind was a bit too advanced and risqué for a twelve year old. She proudly watched her daughter win awards, achieve honors, excel. She worked her way up at the CPA firm, becoming one of the best. Her own mother still complained about Susan’s weight, her hair, her skin, her lovers. She complained about not being taken to church, she complained that Susan didn’t do enough for her daughter, or that her daughter was spoiled. Her sister took credit for anything good about Elizabeth, and taught Elizabeth how to bet on horses at the racetrack.

She and her daughter left the lover of seven years, moved to a small apartment in the city, but she drove Elizabeth to her school everyday so that she did not have to switch schools in the middle of the term. She met another woman, Season, and they moved in with her, but that didn’t work out. Season demanded all of the gifts she had ever given Susan back, and so Susan and her daughter sat and packaged all the gifts into boxes.

They moved, and Susan made kept an eye on her daughter’s grades. One day Elizabeth came home at lunchtime, unaware that her mother had decided to work from home that day. A bully was bothering her at school, so she fled every day at lunch to keep from being beaten up. A talk with the principal, and Elizabeth was given a pass to eat off campus at lunch everyday.

Susan’s mother got sick. They moved, took her in, took care of her. Six months later she moved out, complaining about how far she was from her friends, of which there really were none. They moved to an apartment where Elizabeth could walk to school, but it was so small Susan had to sleep on the couch. She met someone, and stayed with her most nights. A year later she and her daughter moved in with the woman in a brand new house in the desert. Elizabeth had her own room at the front of the house, and her own bathroom with tiles she had gotten to choose.

She watched as her daughter excelled in school, watched as she played powder puff football, watched the parade of boyfriends, most of whom she didn’t like. She cried when Elizabeth began dating a Latina girl from her class, and was disappointed that her daughter would have a harder life because of it.

And then the memories started, memories that clouded her vision, memories that took away the present and flattened her in the past, memories where she could smell, taste, touch the abuse all over again. She moved, leaving her daughter with the lover to finish out her senior year of high school, moved so that she could deal with the memories without her daughter seeing her crying in a heap on the bathroom floor. It embarrassed her, and she hated the look of helpless pity in her daughter’s eyes.

Susan met someone. She married her six months later. Her daughter was her maid of honor. Two months later, her daughter left to go to college on a scholarship. Colorado seemed so far away. But sporadically her daughter would surprise her, drive for a day and a half just to see her for the weekend, or Thanksgiving. Her daughter developed a relationship with a woman in Colorado, while Susan’s own lover spent money recklessly, hid it, spent more. Susan didn’t tell her daughter, just declared bankruptcy, sent Elizabeth small care packages to keep her going when she could.

She moved. She lived by herself, learning about herself. She was tired, felt ill all the time. The doctor said Lupus. Confused, she began learning about it, told her daughter, who began learning about it too. Her daughter got sick, the doctor said AIDS. Then, the doctor said MS. No cure. Mother and daughter, in separate states, sick. Susan cried for her daughter, because she had so wanted a better life for her, for them.

Elizabeth smiled. “Mom, we have a good life. You have a house. I have a house. We can learn to live with our diseases. We have each other. I love you.”

Today, Susan stares out her window, rocking in her chair and watching the lightening bugs. The daughter she loves lives in England, too far away to hug, but at least she can be proud of all that she is seeing and doing. Her mother and sister are gone, both from cirrhosis of the liver. She can be proud that she raised her daughter, gave her what she never had. Someone who pushed her to excel, to live. Her own mother was wrong. Susan is and was and will always be, a good mother.

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