Holes in the Sky
My mother cried when I was born: an all-out, heaving fit. She arrived home from the hospital hard-breathed and hysterical: “A girl!” she wailed. “We’ve had a girl!”
It was a calamity that no one had expected, or understood. My brothers stood there bald-faced. “What does it mean?” Nathan, the oldest, had been through this drill so many times: one, two, three, four, five siblings. He hadn’t expected any sort of surprise.
“It means,” my mother told them, “that we’re going to have to work harder now. We’ve got to keep an eye out.” Girls were fragile; that was her main objection. The 1960s was still an era of motherly panic: polio, SIDS, communism, nuclear fallout. There were a thousand different evils that might steal a child away — a thousand different ways that a mother could fail.
My father was less forgiving. “Maxine!” he belted. “Pull yourself together!”
Girls were fragile; that was her main objection. The 1960s was still an era of motherly panic: polio, SIDS, communism, nuclear fallout. There were a thousand different evils that might steal a child away — a thousand different ways that a mother could fail.
But my mother would not pull herself together. The world was a dangerous place; and being female made a person even more vulnerable. My mother had come of age in the back rooms of circus acts and vaudeville numbers; she knew what it took to survive in a man’s world. Hers was a generation of women who had used beauty to their advantage: they seduced men; they got what they wanted. But I was plain-looking; it stumped my mother. She wasn’t sure what to teach me, so she taught me caution instead. “People take advantage,” she warned. “Any way they can. Even people close to you. You’ve got to be careful.”
Other times, though, my mother wasn’t nearly careful enough: loading me suddenly into the car and driving to Fresno or Sacramento or the winding central coast. Anything to get us out of the house — anything to be on the road again, going somewhere. Long before I was born, my mother had stopped pretending that she could be a good housewife. Organizing kitchen shelves; grilling steaks with a certain finesse; ironing sharp folds into my father’s shirts: these simply were not her specialties. She had other powers instead: worldly, pragmatic powers. Once, when I was five, we got into the car and drove all the way from our home in Lodi, California to Canada. My mother had two hundred dollars in her pocket; we were gone three weeks, sleeping at highway rest stops and camp grounds and church parking lots. When we came home, my brothers pouted; they had stayed home, in school. But I was young; my mother took me with her. It was the best evidence of affection I ever got.
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