Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another Lesson from my Life

Growing up I was very much aware that mothers were dispensable. I was also aware that for most of my friends that fact didn’t even appear on their radar screens. To them mothers were fixtures like the kitchen sink or walls of a room—just there, always there. But I knew differently.
My mother’s mother died from complications of diabetes when Mom was 17 years old. But it wasn’t just her death that shaped my mother’s life. For years before her death, my grandmother teetered between this life and the next. Mother often recounted stories of coming home from school and finding her mother in a coma, or family outings where the main event became insulin shock. Because Grandmother’s health was so precarious, the burden of housework and caring for her two younger sisters fell on my mother. On top of this, my grandfather dealt with the situation by retreating someplace deep within himself where no one could reach him. He was kind. He was quiet. He was gentle. But he was a living shadow. The real him lay buried in an unreachable spot.
I know mother never realized how often her past surfaced or in what ways it did. But for me it seemed a running dialogue that underscored everything else. So much of what we did was punctuated by her past. Often she would say things to me like “When I was your age, I did all the cooking.” Or “My mother never could do anything like this with me.” Or “If I ever wanted an ironed shirt I had to do it myself.” As I grew older the dialogue changed to include, “When I was your age, I didn’t have a mother.”
These statements confused me. I was never sure why she was telling me these things nor did I understand the emotion that accompanied them. The heaviness always seemed foreign to the activity they punctuated. We might be playing a game or innocently eating supper and suddenly the words and the far away look in her eyes would descend over the event like a wet, wool quilt. At times I felt like somehow she was blaming me for the fact she didn’t have a mother. I realize now that was absurd, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what I had to do with her past and why she kept connecting me to it as if I were an integral part of what had happened.
This is why I knew that mothers weren’t as constant as walls and sinks. Mothers sometimes died and left terrible scars on the people they loved.
That’s one reason her sickness jolted terror through me. The other reason is that no one explained. When someone said “a fever of one-hundred-and-four” I had no intellectual way of knowing whether that was a good or a bad thing. But the sound of their voices and the looks on their faces told me more than I wanted to know. I heard other words and phrases like “six months pregnant,” “rheumatic fever,” and “stay in bed.” And bed became the place she always was now. Before Mother was constant motion. She rarely even sat down during the day. But even worse, bed was the place my grandmother always was in the stories mother told.
Dad wasn’t used to her like this either. I observed the consuming grimace on his face, and knew that my grandfather must have looked just like that. Surely that was the look that preceded the withdrawal into himself. But the most frightening thing was that I had become invisible. No one saw me. Mother couldn’t see me for the pain and the fever. Dad couldn’t see me for the worry. Neighbors dropped by with food and good wishes, but didn’t think to look for a cowering five year old observing from the shadows of the room. It was mother that was sick. Mother that was the focus of their attention.
Dutifully, however, the Relief Society arranged for me and my brother to be tended during the day while Dad was at work. There were five women, one for each day of the week, who took us into their homes the weeks mother was ill. It was then I discovered that not all days have the same number of hours in them. Saturday and Sunday were very short. We could stay home because Dad was there. Most of the other days were long, but Mondays were so long they never seemed to end. Instead they flowed on and on like a thick, muddy river. The woman who took us on Mondays was older and had only been able to have one child, a daughter my brother’s age and in whom the very breath of life centered for that home.
Anything I did the girl screamed until her mother came running to the rescue. “What’s wrong?” she would ask, her face drawn tight. And Alice would inform her of my crimes. I had touched her toy, or I had looked at her, or I had refused to play with her, or I wasn’t being nice to her. I’d never seen a child exert such power over an adult and while it fascinated me to know that it was possible, I hated being set in the corner to learn my lesson or being made to apologize to “Sweet Alice” when it was Alice who had grabbed the drum sticks out of my hands because they were hers. I took to sitting in a corner plotting ways to escape. I remember wondering why I couldn’t be invisible here like I was at home. But even my withdrawal often sent Alice into shrieking fits and her mother running to save her.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays were long, but not terrible. On those days, I was merely an interruption, an extra mouth to feed, an added task to perform. In those places the pain wasn’t inflicted by anyone. Instead it sprang out of the situation—missing Mom, worrying about Mom, being in a strange environment. Being around people too busy to notice I was hurthing. The miracle was Thursdays which were almost as short as Saturday and Sunday. Sister Loosli was young and had only sons about our ages and in her home I was a person rather than a task. She told me how excited she was to have a little girl about the house. The first day she picked me up, she told me to bring my doll to play with because she didn’t have girl toys. But the best thing was that she bought me paper dolls. I loved paper dolls. But the more amazing thing is that she actually sat down on the floor and played with me. We spent time cutting out the paper dolls, dressing them, and acting out all sorts of plays with them as the main characters. Together we also fed and rocked my Tiny Tears doll to sleep and laughed when she wet her diaper.
Because of all this, I’m not sure why it was on a Thursday that I ran away. Maybe it was that the other women were more controlling and I didn’t have the opportunity. Or maybe it was just that my emotions came to a volcanic boil on a Thursday so I had to run. Or maybe it was that her kindness made me even more homesick. Whatever the reason, it was on a Thursday that feelings choked in me so violently I couldn’t breathe. I knew that to get air, to escape suffocation, I had to go home. No matter the cost. No matter the consequences. I had to go home. And so I ran. It was a fair distance for a five year old, but I had no trouble finding the way.
I remember watching the green shake-shingle house grow closer. I remember the terrible burning in my lungs from running. I remember seeing the front porch steps, and lifting a foot that quivered from exhaustion onto the step. I remember the effort of moving up the steps, panting, reaching out my hand, feeling the cool metal under my sweating finger tips and turning it only to find that it was locked. Falling against the door, the tears gushed—pushed out of my eye sockets by intense pressure.
For a long while I sat on the step. The sun was out, but I was cold. No one passed. I had no idea what to do next. The thought of going back didn’t occur to me. Was mother dead? Where could she possibly be, but dead? She was too sick to get out of bed. I don’t know that I thought about anything but death. Feeling it. Knowing it. Experiencing it. Wondering what would now happen to me. Would the rest of my life be Mondays? Would even the Saturdays and Sundays ever again be good?
I don’t know how long I sat on the hard cement before Sister Loosli drove into the unpaved driveway. I knew it was her, but refused to look. I couldn’t, however, escape the sound of the car tires crunching the gravel. Slowly Sister Loosli got out of her car, walked to the porch, and sat down beside me. I don’t remember her words, but she wasn’t mad. She didn’t yell at me. She didn’t scold. Instead she sat beside me sharing my pain. No longer invisible, I cried and she listened and then explained to me that one of the other sisters in the ward had taken mother to the doctor’s office. Mother was alive and even though she was sick, she would get better. No one had told me that before.
The Loosli family moved awhile after mother recovered. I’ve never seen Sister Loosli again. However, every time I see paper dolls, I think of her with great fondness and gratitude.
The Catholics canonize saints—men and women eminent for their piety or virtue who have made a mark on the history of the Catholic Church. We Mormons, on the other hand, are challenged to be saints. Perhaps the difference is that for us becoming a saint doesn’t mean making a difference in the history of the Church as much as it means making a difference in the history of the people around us. Sister Loosli is a saint.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


I know that if ultrasound scans had been available when mother was pregnant with me there would be a fuzzy picture of pre-natal me with my right thumb in my mouth. How do I know? Because that same thumb spent most of the first eight years of life in my mouth. I found great solace in sucking that thumb. Whenever life presented me with chaos or pain or discomfort (anything negative!), I stuck my thumb in my mouth and things got better. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, the thumb was always available. It always soothed.
But there was one problem. Mother didn’t like it at all. She tried everything to get me to stop. She coaxed. She belittled. She coated my thumb with foul-tasting ointment. She threatened. She bandaged my hand. She scared me with stories of ugly buck teeth and the importance of a beautiful smile. Despite all her lecturing, I had trouble understanding the tension my thumb sucking caused. I could see no way that it hurt her or any one else in the family; so why would she deny me something so wonderful? Why did it make me so unacceptable to her? No one else (except an uncle who made fun of me) seemed to care whether I sucked it or not.
But the message was clear. As much as I loved sucking my thumb, I wanted my mother’s approval even more. So I tried to stop. During the day when the thumb found its way into my mouth, I’d force thoughts of the germs Mother had told me about to parade in my mind. But by the time the thoughts of debilitating disease, intestinal worms, and chronic pain became revolting enough to male me remove the thumb, I rationalized that the germs were washed off and in my stomach anyway. I couldn’t do a thing about it now so I might as well enjoy.
Other times I’d concentrate on how happy she would be if I stopped, and how happy I would be to make her so happy. But then I’d rationalize that what she didn’t know couldn’t make her unhappy and since she wasn’t there at the moment to watch, it didn’t matter. One of us might as well be happy.
Night time was the most difficult. My thumb possessed sedative power. But I tried so hard to sleep without it. I’d put my hand under my pillow to keep it away from my mouth, but it seemed to grow bigger and bigger and the weight of my head on the thumb made it throb. Some nights I swear there was an invisible magnetic force pulling that thumb into my mouth and it was all I could do to resist it. I’d lie awake for what seemed like hours resisting the pull until it finally found its way into my mouth and I’d sleep peacefully. I tried sleeping with mittens on but they came off easily. Despite how it burned my mouth, I sucked off the foul-tasting ointment that Mother said would do the trick. I still don’t understand how I managed to do that while the benign taste of lima beans caused me to dry heave. In short, despite resolve after resolve, the thumb always found its way into my mouth.
After years of sucking, I bore the mark of the thumb sucker–the dreaded buck teeth. Large gaps bordered my two front teeth so that every time I smiled my lower lip slipped behind my two front teeth. Now besides knowing that I was a great disappointment to my mother, I became aware that I was a joke to neighbors and relatives. One Halloween I wore what I thought was a costume in which no one would recognize me. After all, the only thing that showed were my eyes and my mouth. But every house I went to people called me by name. Exasperated by the fact that I hadn’t fooled anyone, I finally asked one lady how she knew it was me. “You can’t miss those Bugs Bunny teeth,” she said with a laugh that I can still hear.
By then stopping the thumb sucking was not just a matter of pleasing Mother or about being laughed at. It was about what I was. By the time I reached eight years of age, I had defined myself as a person who could not keep a promise to myself or to my Mother no matter how intensely I wanted it. I knew I was a hopeless failure. And if I couldn’t please or win the approval of my very own family, how could anyone else like me? The desperation of these thoughts corroded other areas of my life until I knew that somehow, someway I had to conquer the habit or live forever in thumb-sucking hell.
Mother had tried everything. I had tried everything. Or so I thought. Finally one night as I knelt to say my prayers I poured out my heart to my Father in Heaven. I told him I couldn’t stop sucking my thumb. I told him that because I sucked my thumb no one could ever love me. Would He please help me? I begged. I pleaded. I repeated all the ills my mother had told me occurred because of thumb sucking. I told Him I didn’t want any more of those things to happen to me. Please would He help me stop sucking my thumb.
There was no immediate miracle. That night the thumb still found its way into my mouth, but it didn’t taste as good. The next night I prayed again and each succeeding night I repeated my request. And after many nights of praying, I finally managed to fall asleep without the thumb in my mouth. It was a marvelous realization. I could do it!
But the next night the thumb went right back to its accustomed place and we started over. Begging. Pleading. Hoping. I don’t know how long it took, but it was weeks not days before I finally put the habit behind me. But I did put it behind me. The thumb has never been in my mouth since that day. I had done something very, very difficult to do. But I knew I hadn’t done it alone. My Father in Heaven had given me strength that I alone didn’t have. He had empowered me so that over time the horrible habit was broken. And with His help I had conquered.
It would be many years later–when I was fifteen–that I finally got braces to correct the buck teeth. My sixth grade picture captures the Bugs Bunny teeth in all their glory, but there is no record of all the jokes and remarks I had to endure. I had overcome the thumb sucking, but I still had to live with the consequences. People still made fun of me and every time I looked in a mirror or saw a picture of myself, I was reminded of how ugly I was. It took me years to gain any sense of confidence, but the irony is that the confidence finally came from the same source as the lack of it.
Ever since that experience, when I come up against a problem or challenge that looks too difficult, I remember how very hard it was to keep that thumb out of my mouth. “I’ve encountered a thumb sucker,” I tell myself and then I pray and work and pray some more until I’ve met the challenge.
I used to wish I had been born one of those people who are beautiful and wonderful and without problems like sucking a thumb. You know the kind of person I mean–people that life flows to without much effort on their part, people that can do everything the first time they try. But at this stage of life I’m grateful I’m not one of those people because I don’t know how they ever learn to rely upon the Lord. After all, reliance is the first step in our spiritual growth. First we rely upon the Lord, then we grow close to Him, and finally we become like Him. That’s one thing Mother didn’t tell me. Thumb sucking can also be a blessing.

The Pattern

The Pattern
I didn’t know it at the time, but that day when I was five years old, the thing that happened, was a type of my whole life. Looking back I see how it has predicted the rest of my life, as if it set my life on a trajectory it has never fallen off. Sometimes spinning. Sometimes sliding. But always powered by the same missed cues.
Mornings Mom worked hard at scrubbing, washing, dusting, putting away, sweeping, anything that made things cleaner or neater. Even at the young age of five, I was aware that she couldn’t stop. Once her feet hit the floor in the morning it was work, work, work until dark had long had its way with the world. Anything that kept her from her work, no matter how wonderful it seemed to me, amounted to an unwanted interruption.
That’s why Mom vigilantly peered through the kitchen window while she worked watching for visits from Geneal Fowler who lived next door. I never figured out why she watched, because it didn’t change anything. Mother could never be dishonest and not answer the door or pretend not to hear the knock. Instead she would see Geneal coming and say, “Oh, no. I don’t have time to visit today,” then she’d answer the knock, smile, and invite Geneal into her kitchen. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Geneal. They were best of friends. It was just that Mother had to be working–had to be accomplishing something on her always long to-do list and couldn’t bear to be interrupted. Often during the visits she’d keep right on scrubbing and washing while Geneal sat at the kitchen table and chatted. This particular morning, however, Mom sat down across the table and listened.
I liked Geneal. She was everything Mom wasn’t. She moved leisurely, like she was dancing, and she read books, and played the piano, and hummed and sang right out loud. While raising her small children her house was never tidy, but it didn’t bother her. At the time I even suspected that she planned it that way. My guess was that it actually made life more interesting for her because finding anything in her house was like going on a treasure hunt—like playing a game all day long. Among her other talents, Geneal was an actress. I’d heard talk about her great role in the Ward play (which I hadn’t been allowed to attend) and knew that this year she had been chosen director of the Roadshow.
Discussion of that Roadshow had been one of her favorite subjects for a few weeks now so I knew all about it. Every time she sat down at our kitchen table I listened for any tidbit she might reveal. I knew it had an “under the sea” theme and that the costumes were going to be luminous and glitzy with an ethereal quality. I wasn’t sure any of those words meant, but by the way Geneal said them, I knew they were amazingly wonderful.
As the days passed by a great desire stirred in me. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be in that roadshow. I wanted to act on the stage and have people applaud and make them laugh or cry. I was convinced that if I just had a chance to show her what a wonderful actress I was, she would let me be in the Roadshow even though I wasn’t in mutual yet. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to sing and dance and write plays and I feared that if I didn’t start now, people would think I was a scrubber and washer like Mom and I’d be doomed to a life of toilets and ovens and waxing floors while exciting life went on all around me but without me.
Well, this particular morning Geneal breezed into our house in an unusual state of concern. She was still sure they were going to win the Stake competition for best roadshow. After all, they had the best talent, the best costumes, the best music. But there was one problem. She needed someone small and “wiggly” who could play the part of the fish. The girl, the one who was perfect for the part, had broken her ankle and needed to be replaced. What was she going to do? Everything depended upon having a fish who could move with just the right fishy wiggle.
Her words pierced me with the same jolt I’m sure a fish feels when it bites down on a hook. This was my chance. I could wiggle. I could be the best fish ever. I’d been listening from the corner while playing Jacks. I scooped up my ball and Jacks, put them in their bag and stretched out on the floor as if to take a nap. I waited a moment, listening to my mother suggest names for a perfect fish actress. None of them were me. But there was hope. At each suggestion, Geneal sighed and said, “She’s too tall,” or “She’s not agile enough” or “Are you kidding? She couldn’t wiggle if I put ashes in her pants.”
Now was my chance. I imagined in my head a fish swimming in the water. Dad had taken us fishing often and I knew exactly how fish moved. That stroke of knowledge gave me courage. Certainly it was a sign that this was meant to be. From my place on the floor, near Mom and Geneal’s feet, I began to squirm and wiggle, propelling myself across the floor to the oven. Neither of them noticed. Using my feet like oars, I turned myself around then wiggled past them to the back door. In my mind, I looked exactly like the fish I’d seen in the small stream the summer before. My shoulders propelled me, my hips always curved in the opposite direction to make just the right S shape. My arms hugged my body, but I let my hands flail out just below my waist like fins. I wiggled my fingers to simulate the way I remembered the fish fins shivering in the water. But still neither Mom nor Geneal looked in my direction. I stared up at the ceiling and let out a loud sigh. Still they went on talking as if I weren’t there.
I made two more passes across the room and then grew desperate. How could they not recognize the fine acting? I couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better imitation of a fish. If they would just look at me! Again I “swam” past the table, this time with more force, more “S” curve to propel me. And they talked on. Now, in desperation I could think of only one thing to do. I “swam” right into their feet, under the table, where my wiggling couldn’t be ignored.
“What in the world are you doing, Sherrie?” Mom asked. “I haven’t mopped that floor yet today and you are going to be filthy dirty. Why don’t you go into your room and play.”
I wiggled out from under the table in one last burst of energized hope, and gazed up at Geneal. She was looking! Flailing my body like I’d seen fish do when Dad pulled them from the water, I gave it every fish-wiggle I had left in me and ran right into the oven. It hurt, but it was good. I could envision it in my head and I knew I looked just like a real fish! Geneal raised her eyebrows and stared quizzically, but didn’t say a word.
“Sher-rie!” My mother warned, the two long syllables of my name hanging in the air like volcanic ash making it difficult to breathe.
Where had I gone wrong? Dejectedly I rolled over, climbed onto my knees and slowly stood up. I glanced one last time at Geneal, but it was clear she hadn’t recognized me as a great fish-actress. Hurriedly, I fled to my room, buried my head in my pillow and wished I were far away in another world.
A few weeks later, Mom and Dad took my brother and me to the Roadshows. Since I’d avoided Geneal’s visits after the day of my unofficial tryout, I hadn’t heard any of the news. I didn’t know who had the fish part, or if Geneal thought they were good or not. I wondered if I would recognize which part it was and thought about closing my eyes through the whole show so as not to feel the disappointment.
But when the lights went down and the music started, I couldn’t close my eyes. I watched and in the first minute the fish-actress appeared. There was no mistaking. The costume was iridescent and shiny—beautiful. But unlike me, this fish stood on her tail and did a hula across stage. The depths of my misunderstanding jolted through me. Geneal wanted a walking fish not an on-the-floor-slithering fish! If only I’d known. When she said she wanted a fish, the only thought I had was of a fish propelling across the stage head first, tail following. How could I have been so wrong? But in the awareness was a great hope. I could still be an actress. It wasn’t my acting that had lost me the part. It was my misunderstanding. Next time, I’d find out what kind of fish was wanted.
At least that’s what I told myself. But ever since, it seems I’ve been busy trying to fill a niche while everyone around me wanted quite a different niche filled. When I squirm, they want a walker. And when I walk, they want a squirmier. Still one of my most cherished hopes in life is to squirm at the right time. I haven’t given up.