Age Twenty-five: The Turning Point

So we come to the end of the October Memoir and Backstory Blog ChallengeThanks to Jane Ann McLachlan for proposing this challenge that has taken me places in memory where I would never have gone otherwise. At times I believed I’d have nothing to write, but it seems memory begets memory.

The end of the challenge brings me to a strange place in my personal history. If you’ve been following these posts, you know that by the time I turned twenty-five, I had two little boys. I was a stay-at-home mom. I couldn’t imagine a different kind of life. I was happy. I thought we were happy.

Christmas

Our first Christmas in the little gray house, my husband and I decided to have a party. I cooked all the food, I cleaned, and I decorated, using lots of freshly cut evergreens and magnolia my parents brought the day before. They took both babies home with them, so we would have our party and the rest of the weekend to ourselves. It was a rare occasion. My husband was in his internship year by then, which meant more nights on call, more time away from home.

We had a great crowd, mostly medical school friends, good food, good wine. I wore a new dress, and I remember feeling pretty. After the last guests left, we stayed up late, picking up glasses, cleaning up spills, putting away food. I was excited and pleased at how well the party had gone, and I kept trying to get some kind of response out of him. I wanted to be told what a good job I’d done. I had done it for him, after all. But I got nothing. He had seemed withdrawn and sad for weeks. Every time I’d asked, he would say he was exhausted, which was true. His schedule was grueling. But I kept after him that night until he told me. Yes, there was something wrong. He wasn’t sure he loved me, he said. Maybe he loved somebody else. What? We had been married three years. We had two children.

I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he got up early and went hunting with friends–another surprise. He hadn’t told me he was going. I was left alone, distraught and uncertain. I missed my children. I called my parents, thinking I would just check on the kids, and my mother immediately knew something was wrong. I told her. I’ve always regretted that.

By the time my husband came home the following afternoon, the little boys were back, too. He had made his decision, he said. He wanted us. Just like that. That easily. And I believed him.

We would stay together for a long time after that Christmas. I gave birth to two more sons. Did I think that having more children would hold him? No. I’d wanted a house full of children, remember? It didn’t matter. He left anyway.

I blamed myself. He was the one who left, but it must have been my fault. All my fairy-tale notions of love and marriage? Destroyed. I hated myself for not knowing what I might have done differently. Oh, I knew all the self-talk and the psychology. I was a psych major, after all. I went for counseling. But still, it was a long time before I could look anybody in the eye and carry on a conversation.

I wasn’t writing back then, but I was getting ready. I believe the surprises, the unexpected turns, the complexities of relationships, the betrayals, the losses, the long years of trying to hold a marriage together, of getting up in the morning and putting on a fictional face to the world (“How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you!”), were the catalysts for stories to come.

I hope stories will surface out of this challenge. We shall see.

Thanks to all of you who have read and followed these little pieces of my past. I hope you’ll come back soon and see what else I have in store. Or in story.

If you participated in the challenge, what did you gain from it? If you were a reader and/or follower, what have these memories sparked for you?

I Refuse to Call This “Sweet Sixteen”

Although I was. Sweet, that is. Innocent, really. Had never been kissed, until my sixteenth birthday. Really.

My mother had given me a pamphlet called “What Every Girl Should Know,” a kind of watered-down version of the facts of life. We had never had “the talk.” My grandmother told me to “keep my skirts down” (she told me that after I divorced at forty, too). About this time, a girlfriend and I took one of her father’s medical textbooks down from the shelf one day and greedily read the facts. I was partly astonished, partly appalled. And during my junior year, this year called sixteen, another friend dropped out of school, pregnant. She would never go back.

Meanwhile, I went on my merry little innocent but angst-ridden way.

This diary should be burned.  It’s solid evidence that I must have been the silliest sixteen-year-old who ever lived.

Diary. To be burned.

I was silly-sick in love with a boy who knew I had a crush on him, and he played me like crazy.  He would put the word out that he was going to ask me for a date for something big–like the Junior-Senior Banquet–and then he’d wait until the very last minute to ask. I was oohing and ahhing and Dear Diary-ing, page after page about how he called or he didn’t call. Meanwhile, I seemed to be having a pretty good time! I had great girlfriends, although my best friend would move away at the end of that school year, and I would never see her again. I was dating at least one other boy, and there was a lot of driving around in cars and meeting up with boys at the Dairy Bar and going to movies and meeting up with boys there.

But this one boy who mattered to me more than the others–he could be loving one day and cruel the next. Looking back, I believe he introduced me to emotional abuse, only I didn’t know what to call it. It was good practice for later, I suppose. If I had understood it better, I would have realized that I was pretty and smart and talented, and he was good looking and not smart and very insecure. The only way he could be with me was to put me down. Sad, isn’t it, that I took that for two years. In my defense, I was only sixteen, and back then, sixteen was very young.

Here’s a quote from the diary: I will never understand boys or men! That about says it, doesn’t it?

Tell-tale words

When you close your eyes and look at your young self, what do you see? 

Age Fourteen: Not There Yet

In terms of maturity, that is, in every sense of the word.

The photo? Another beach trip. Note that the legs are getting longer, but I still look like a child. Love the car, though.

Beach motor hotel, the fifties

I was, however, a mature pianist. I gave a “senior” recital in October after I’d turned fourteen in September. They even trotted out the high school glee club for this one. It was quite a deal. And then it was over. I didn’t want to take piano any longer. What was the point?

The event of the year was a non-event, actually. (I’m fudging a little in order to write about it, but did happen during my fourteenth year.) Had I gone that night, it might have been one of the most memorable of my life. A young singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley was set to play at the Toccopola, Mississippi, gymnasium on March 29, 1955. (Toccopola was, as we’d say, way out in the county. This was not a major tour. Elvis was just getting his swivel going.) I begged to go, oh, how I begged, but my parents said no. So I missed seeing ELVIS IN PERSON, before he hit it really big.

I have fictionalized that night in a long poem. The venue is no longer a high school gym but a roadhouse. Makes it more interesting, I think. In the poem, not only do I go to see Elvis, but my parents . . . Well, you’ll see.

This edited section picks up in the middle:

Summer Nights Like This

. . . and there he was—Elvis,

not yet the King—

just a fresh-faced, pouty-mouthed

kid from Tupelo with a rag-tag band

and the longest sideburns

I’d ever seen. He sang

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine,

get my lovin’ in the evenin’ time”

and the crowd was dancing

and screaming and I was screaming

and the back of my neck prickled

like a ghost had run a finger

across it

and it made me turn and look

and there, across the room,

I saw my mother and daddy dancing . . .

They did the bop better than any of us kids.

When had they practiced their twirls and turns,

their dips and swaying hips?

When the song ended, even Elvis applauded,

but I looked away. I could not bear

my mother’s beauty,

the wild suggestion of my daddy’s touch:

I began to cry,

not for fear of being caught

but because I imagined them young,

I imagined them lovers on summer nights

like this, her naked skin against his,

with all the mysteries I had yet to learn

before them still.