Yesterday, the day before Mother’s Day, I thought about asking my daughter, Allie, to teach my wife, Val, how to love herself. Physically.
Unbelievable, I know. Crazy! Allie was barely home from college and final exams. She was on her way out the door to meet friends.
Too, too weird, she would have said. Actually, she’d say, I am NOT hearing this—we are NOT having this conversation, and she would hold her hand up in the air for Stop just like she did when she was three and wanted everyone to listen.
Of course, I see how it is too weird for words. Perverted even. But I’m at a loss.
The only reason I thought of it at all was because of the article in Redbook—Redbook or Cosmopolitan, one of them. Lately Val has been picking them up at the grocery store checkout and now Allie and Val thumb through them together. Last night they sat on the couch flipping through one, acting all horrified at some designer outfits, collapsing over each other laughing at something else, then getting all serious when they saw something they both liked. Both are seriously into shoes.
It was like the two of them were all of the sudden girlfriends, looking at magazines together, talking and talking, Val hanging on Allie’s every word like it’s this big drama—all the college stuff and friend stuff and boyfriend stuff. Val listened leaning forward as if our daughter’s life is completely different from ours, like it is some brand-new thing open to every possibility, which it is, but it’s still just the way it is. But Val acts as though there is something even more important, important to her, that is going on. At the same time, we both know Allie is just a sophomore in college and, in actuality, doesn’t know half what she thinks she knows, not spit really.
To listen to Allie, you’d think she had the final word on any subject.
Val isn’t happy.
I’ve asked her, what’s up? She says, nothing. Says, I don’t know—nothing and smiles like she’s embarrassed. Where do I go with that? It’s not like I’m a mind reader; none of us are mind readers. Still, Val and I are married thirty-six years; I know when she’s unhappy.
She tries not to show it now that Allie is home for the summer. But I’ve caught her staring at nothing in particular. Once I heard her crying when she didn’t know I could hear. Maybe she cries when I can’t hear.
I remember the two of us starting out, me loving Val, Val loving me—it filled up everything. I have to shake my head at that; I have to laugh. That was something. We were something. Then, of course, there were jobs, our son, our daughter, everything—the rest of the story, as they say. It wasn’t easy, a real learning experience. Lots of ups and downs before we could sail through anything.
But that’s the way things were, not the way things are. Now, I’m not sure if Val even loves me. Still loves me. Not that that’s the most important thing at the moment. But I know my just being around doesn’t solve anything for her.
Regardless, I want her happy. I want her life to brighten up. Val’s face, when she’s happy, there’s no mistaking it. I miss that.
It’s funny how they say, it’s the little things (you especially get that impression from the magazines), but I can see the little things really getting to Val.
One thing I think is that Allison graduates from college next year. Our son Mark is married. He and his wife, Sally, just bought their own place, and are so busy that our son doesn’t have a lot of time to visit or call and talk to his mother.
This morning on her way home from church (Val is the only one of us who goes), she stopped at the kids’ new house. Since it was Mother’s Day, she had told them that she’d stop by. When she went in, my daughter-in-law Sally handed her a big plate of home-made chocolate chip cookies. Sally had made them for Val for Mother’s Day.
The cookies were on a large plastic plate patterned with bright flowers. The whole thing was covered with cellophane wrap. Val said Sally gave her the cookies, then a big hug. Val said she had a hard time hugging back, holding the plate of cookies. Mark was off in the garage working on something to do with their new house. Sally told Val what it was (they have tons of projects going on), but when she told me later, Val couldn’t remember.
Mark came in before she left. Happy Mother’s Day! he said bright and loud because that’s the way Val described it to me. He came up behind Sally, laced his fingers across her stomach, set his chin on her shoulder, his head next to her head, and gave her a squeeze. They looked so happy, she said. Val was still holding the cookies Sally had baked. After a minute Mark let go of Sally and gave Val a big Mother’s Day hug, then he had to go back out because he was in the middle of something.
Val understood that.
We were always in the middle of something when we were their age. What else is there at that age? Anybody with jobs, houses, husbands or wives, kids, is always in the middle of something. Val got that. She was still holding the plate of cookies. She said she happened to notice the plate of cookies was shining. She didn’t know why—something in her eye maybe, or the way the light was pouring in, that and the plastic wrap—but she was struck by it. This big shining plate.
She said this standing in the doorway of our kitchen still holding the cookies. We both looked at them but they weren’t shining then. I looked at her. She was bent a little sideways like her sciatica was acting up but she was smiling. I know Val’s smiles, even if I don’t know what they all mean. They’re part of her secret code. This one looked a little heavy, a little lopsided, like it was about to fall off, like it could fall off any second.
I needed to do something. I got up from the table where I was eating a glazed cake donut. I went over and squeezed the back of her neck. I pat her shoulder. I’m making a special dinner for you, I tell her. Her smile just sticks there. After a minute she goes into the living room and sits on the couch and picks up a magazine. I give her a little time before I follow.
A couple minutes later our daughter comes into the living room from her shower, wet-headed and rosy. She slept in extra late being a college kid just home for the summer and not yet working at her Park and Rec job. She comes out of the bathroom and gives her mother a hug and me a hug. She never was a hugger when she was little. It was worth your life to cuddle that kid. But since she’s been away to college, she’s started hugging us more like she’s practicing or making up for lost time, or like somebody saying goodbye.
Hey, it’s Mother’s Day, I tell her. She says, Oh, smacks her forehead, and goes and bends over the back of the couch where Val is sitting and gives her mother another big hug around the neck. Happy Mother’s Day, she says, then begins singing, Happy Mother’s Day to you, like it’s her birthday and Val tucks her head against our daughter’s arms. She puts both hands up and holds Allie’s arms there while Allie sings happy Mother’s Day.
It makes me think of the Mother’s Day Mark gave Val two plaster of Paris molds of his hands—his little boy hands. He was in first grade and painted the impressions of his hands pink and the outside turquoise. Like he was washing them in water, he said. Washing his hands in water! You’ve got to laugh. Both of us thought that was pretty good. He’s got some imagination, like Val—he doesn’t get it from me. We could see how carefully he’d stayed within the outlines. There was no missing how proud he was. I nearly choked up. Of course, Val cried and laughed, and hugged him, and rubbed his back like she was rubbing the proverbial Aladdin’s lamp. Then she sat back and looked at him—both of us, we just looked.
Now I’m staring. Now it’s me standing here staring at Val and Allie.
When Allie goes off later to visit her friends, I say something casually about it to Val, about the house being so quiet, and she says, Oh, sure. But everybody’s busy. They’re not little kids anymore. She shrugs it off. She doesn’t want to talk. Apparently, it isn’t one of those sharing times they go on about in the magazines.
That evening, I sautéed scallops and steamed asparagus for her, her special dinner, but that was me, and that was later.
The problem isn’t Mother’s Day. It’s not like it just started. Part is the kids growing up, going to college, buying their own house, leaving the nest and all. We know all about the empty nest stuff. Still, it isn’t like Val or I have lived through it. It’s our first time. And one thing I’ve discovered, knowing something doesn’t really have spit to do with living through it. You think it prepares you, all that preparing. It doesn’t. You have to experience it.
But it’s not just the kids growing up. It’s always about more than just one thing. And I can tell that things have been going on, building up behind the scenes.
It’s been coming on like weather—a big weather front.
Val absolutely loves watching The Weather Channel. She stares at the radar patterns and the satellite shots from outer space; it fascinates her. Her face looks like a kid’s when she is watching some huge weather event, which is what they call them, sliding across the mid-section of the country. Shaded one color or another, it’s like a gigantic tide washing over everything.
I think that’s what’s happening. I think it’s like a big weather event that’s been building up for years. Now it’s pushing through.
When I think of huge events pushing through, I can’t help it, I think of when our son was born. Whoa! Val would agree. That was something—talk about an event.
I’d never seen Val like that. Never. We went to a birthing center—a birthing center—I don’t know what we were thinking. At the time it seemed right. The doctor never showed until after the event. Val, me, and the nurse had the baby. Had our son.
Talk about unbelievable—but not Val. During all the sweating and screaming and pushing, she was more believable I had ever seen her, than I ever imagined. I was pretty much useless—not her. She was something else. Our son was something else—our son she grew inside herself like some magic garden.
I can only shake my head.
When she tucked our son up against her to nurse, both of them acting like they knew just what they were doing, like they were born to it, I wept. I bawled like a baby. And Val smiled at me, a smile I still don’t know what it meant, just that it meant everything at the time. She freed one hand from around our son and rubbed the side of my face—and smiled, her face all wet and shiny. Joyful, I’d have to say joyful.
I don’t know what I added, except I was there. Every minute. Every second. The same for our daughter Alison when she was born (not at a birthing center, a normal hospital this time—with a midwife). Again, Val was amazing, cradling this tiny creature that’s our daughter—our college girl! And me, I was there.
That’s what I mean by a big weather event. It’s something you can’t even imagine until it’s happening. Even then there’s no knowing the outcome. The thing about weather is, it never stays the same. Not unless you live along part of the California coast, or in Hawaii, and one of those is set like a trap ready to fall off into the ocean, and the other is basically volcanoes.
Nothing is stable, new weather is always pushing through. A new weather pattern is coming, but I don’t know what it will be. I almost wish it was just that, one of those big low-pressure areas waiting for high pressure to move in and fill it. Then I think about what that could mean, the whole process, anything from rain to hail, to tornadoes ripping the entire landscape apart, tearing real solid things to shreds like trailers, city blocks—people’s lives. That isn’t what I want; that is not what I’m waiting for. There’s something I should be doing.
That’s why I thought about that magazine article. (These magazines have been eye-openers.) Since they’re around, I’ve been reading them too. Because they’re women’s magazines, Redbook, “O”, Cosmo, I figure they have insights into women’s lives. This one was a how-to article about what a woman needs to know to love herself. That was definitely the bigger picture. They gave it as practical advice a woman could use to learn how. Once she knew, the article said, then she’d be able to tell her partner how to love her better as well. There are all these emotions involved besides the physical. The point of the article was that a woman needed to know first. If she didn’t know how to love herself—which I’m not sure Val learned back when we were growing up but which the article said a woman needs to know—otherwise it makes it almost impossible to let someone else, their husbands for instance, know how to love them.
That’s where the idea of asking my daughter came from. In this day and age, you assume girls know things. Plus, I hope Val and I taught Allie how to love herself—how important she is regardless of how confusing it all gets. To know she matters no matter what. I hope we did that.
Val needs to know that too, needs to see not just how important she is to me, to the kids, but that she is important to herself.
I thought if our daughter knew, though it sounds counterintuitive, she would be able to teach Val. Then Val would be able to teach me. How to love her better, to be more loving, more lovable—how to make her feel special. Which is really what each of us wants.
But it’s hard, knowing how to start that whole conversation.
Michael Horton, 73, has worked as a janitor, factory worker, prep cook, bookmobile librarian, head of housekeeping, purchasing agent, and IT guy at different times but writing is what he does. His first published story appeared in Glimmer Train when he was 64, and he has subsequently had stories in Iron Horse Review, Raleigh Review, Whitefish Review, Porter House Review, Red Rocks Review, and Barnstorm, among others; a story is upcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review. His work has been nominated for “Best of the Net” and the Pushcart Prize, and his collection is a finalist for the 2022 St. Lawrence Book Award.
Photos (top to bottom) Jonas Jacobson/Unsplash; Denise Leon/Unsplash; Liv Bruce/Unsplash
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