I am nine or ten years old, standing in the hallway and picking at the door jamb with my thumbnail when I tell my mother that when I grow up, I want to work in the car factory where my father works. “I want to make Jeeps, just like Dad does,” I say.
My father wears a jacket when he goes to work in the plant, shiny red with his name embroidered in gray on the breast, his union local numbers splashed across the back. Everyone knows him, loves him, calls him for help when they get written up because they missed three days of work on a drinking binge, or they need to finagle an advance on their vacation pay to make this month’s child support payment. His official job title is ‘union steward;’ very important, which is what I want to be, too.
My mother stands in the hall and tells me, “No, you don’t. Your dad got a job there because he couldn’t get one anywhere else. And now he’s stuck there. You need to go to college if you want to get a good job, not work in a car factory.” Or something to that effect. I don’t remember the actual words, just a feeling of withering while I continued to pick at the door jamb. And the new knowledge, lumpy and strange, that even though I’d always been proud of my father, I wasn’t supposed to be any more.
When I am in eighth grade, I win my school’s spelling bee and earn a place at the local bee. Dad takes me, because Mom has a class that evening. She’s learning how to paint daisies on the sides of hand-woven baskets.
I win the spelling bee. The night of the regional bee, the one that determines who will go to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., my parents get into a fight. About what, I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because they were always fighting. To punish my father, Mom tells him that she’s staying at home and we can go without her. When we get to the university where the bee is held, my grandmother keeps feeding my father quarters for the payphone. He calls my mother again and again, apologizing, but she will not budge.
I win the spelling bee again. When we come home, my mother is sulking and silent in the kitchen. I pretend I’ve lost, until I haul out the giant trophy and tell her we’re going to Washington, D.C.. Suddenly my family is laughing and planning, the tiny living room abuzz with excitement.
Sometime in May, before we leave for the national bee, I come home from school and my mother is waiting for me with a gift. It is a gold necklace with an icy blue topaz pendant the size of a raisin. She hands it to me in the gray velvet Osterman box, telling me that she’s proud of me for winning the spelling bees.
Much later, when I go off to college, I will lose the necklace and the pendant.
I am a sophomore in college when I am run over by a car on campus at the corner of 18th and Summit. The guy who hits me comes tearing around a corner and hits his brakes as the front wheel of his car catches my foot and slams me to the ground. I lie there for a moment, befuddled, and then peel myself off the pavement so that oncoming traffic doesn’t finish the job this guy started. He is apologetic, blubbering and in shock, and he hands me his information scrawled on the back of a chocolate M & M’s box, the kind that Boy Scouts and cheerleaders use for fundraising. I continue the walk to my boyfriend’s house anyway, my original intent that morning, with jeans split open at the knees and blood everywhere. He isn’t there, so I walk back home.
Later in the day, I call my mother to tell her this story, eager to share the wild and exciting news that I was hit by a car. She tells me that I need to get to the emergency room even if I feel fine now, because I might not feel so well later. I do as she says, spend five hours in the emergency room and am diagnosed with some bad sprains and bruises, but my legs and ankles are mercifully intact. I go home on crutches, one ankle in a soft cast. My mother calls me later in the evening and says she’s going to come down to stay with me. She shows up, brings me groceries and sleeps on the couch in my ratty student apartment. When I wake up in the morning, she’s done all the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. She goes with me to the doctor’s office the next morning for more x-rays, and picks up my medication. And then she is gone.
We are on vacation in Virginia Beach when my mother declares the need for some beauty supplies. Using her little card that gives her entry into shops that sell only to licensed beauticians, she gathers a rainbow of nail polish, a handful of nail files and some polish remover at the first store we find. Settling the bottles onto the checkout counter, where they click like marbles, my mother realizes she’s forgotten her wallet. She leaves me at the counter while she goes out to the car and as soon as she walks out the door, the pimple-faced teenage clerk leans down to me and drawls in a near-whisper, “Are those her real nails?” Oh yes, I nod vigorously, aglow at the thought of her lacquered crescents, thinking of all the time my mother devotes to her fingertips.
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