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Authors: Jane Juska

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BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
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ON MY HONEYMOON, my untimely pregnancy returned me to my virgin state: no sex, no lovemaking; I was bleeding, I was an untouchable. My son no more than a pea pod inside me, I spotted all across the country as Tom and I drove to the Midwest to visit our parents. I began to bleed in Lovelock, Nevada, site of our first married and fully chaste night together, continued intermittently all the way across the country, and stopped right after I told my parents I was pregnant. Andy was born just fine six months later.

Archbold seemed the same. My parents seemed the same. It was I who was different. I could feel my mother's eyes on me throughout dinner. She and Tom talked enthusiastically about the Cleveland Browns' chances for the upcoming season. My father, whom I had consulted about the spotting, watched me as I stuffed my mouth with baked potato running with butter, beef tenderloin pink and juicy, and fresh peas from my grandmother's garden. My mother looked at me disapprovingly. I swallowed and said, “I suppose you're wondering about my expanded waistline.”

“Expanded everything,” my mother said.

“I'm going to have a baby,” I exclaimed proudly. Somehow, I thought having a baby was terrific. I was happy. I was married and I was pregnant, something my mother had always wanted for me, just not in that order. Why was my mother folding her napkin and pushing her chair away from the table?

Her eyes blazed. “It doesn't mean you have to get fat. What will I tell people?” She left the room.

Late that night, Tom slipped into bed beside me. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“Talking to your mother. She summoned me.”

The queen bee, I thought. Tom wasn't the first of my boy-friends to choose my mother. Frank, when he left me, had said, “It's really your mother I've fallen in love with.” What the hell, I, too, loved my mother more than I loved me. So did my father.

“What did you talk about?” I asked Tom.

“I didn't talk much at all. She did most of the talking.”

“What did she say?”

“She apologized.”

“Apologized for what?”

“For you. For your behavior.” The way he said it, I knew that my mother had won. He believed her. He hated being caught by a girl, now his wife, who had trapped him. And now he would have to tell this to his own mother; he would somehow have to defend this pregnant stranger to his Catholic mother and convince her that his life was not ruined. “Did you ever love me?” he wanted to know.

“I love you now,” I said. And I did. I was pregnant and, until the baby came, he was all I had. I loved him desperately.

The next morning, we packed up and bid good-bye. My mother never spoke to me again. Of course, she would have; of course she would have fallen in love with my beautiful son. She would have held him and, when he got older, played catch with him and shown him how to hold a tennis racket. And she would have talked to me, her firstborn child, about how to be a good mother and how to stop his crying and how to tell colic from whatever else kept him up all night and how not to feel guilty when I had to go back to work when he was so very very little. She would have talked to me; she would have made everything all right. But my mother died four months after Andy was born. No one knew she was so sick, not my doctor father, not even the surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic, where they operated on her heart, a successful operation, they told us. “I'm going to die, aren't I?” she said to my father. “Of course not,” he said. “The prognosis is good.” At six o'clock the following morning she died, all alone. How could I have let her die alone? How could she leave me so alone? What would become of us without her?

EIGHT

A Woman of Many Parts

My mother was a remarkable woman. She was, as these pages have shown, Victorian in her view of sex. In all other ways, she was ahead of her time, outside of her time, and fascinating to all who knew her.

I disappointed my mother terribly. I had done the very worst she could imagine. How could her daughter have allowed this to happen when, all the years of her growing up, they were not just mother and daughter but best friends? It was a betrayal my mother would never get over.

In the days of our friendship, when I was fifteen, before my sexuality made me an alien, my mother introduced me to New York. At fifteen I was as awkward an adolescent as an overweight, acneified girl could be. My mother, all by herself, put the two of us on the train and off we went. I think she had it in mind to let the city she and my father loved shake some of the hayseed from my hair. I suspect she was beginning to worry about my ever being suitable enough to attract the kind of boy she planned for me to marry. She had never been to New York without my father; there was a certain desperation to this trip. Whatever her motives, she introduced me to the city with which I would have a lifelong love affair.

My mother was tall—five feet, nine inches—with long arms and legs. Her nose had been broken on the basketball floor where she played center for her high school team. It had healed into something handsomely Roman. She moved elegantly, gracefully, with a golfer's easy stride. When I saw Glenn Close on the screen in
The Natural,
I caught my breath. My mother was just that beautiful.

My father used to joke, “I married your mother so I'd have time to beat her at something.” A fine athlete himself, he never did. She was happiest on the tennis court or the golf course. She played like a man. She was beautiful to watch. When we moved into the house in Archbold that was built for us, right across the street from my paternal grandparents (now, there's a story), my dad bought the lot in back of the house and had a tennis court made, the first tennis court in all of Fulton County. It was 1938; people came from some distance and slowed their cars almost to a stall to see this remarkable sight: a woman, the wife of the town doctor, dressed in shorts, slamming the ball back across the net every time and every bit as hard as what her husband returned to her. Trophies decorated the mantel over our fireplace.

When television came to our town, she watched hockey, baseball, and football. On football Sundays she would stick a pot roast in the oven around ten A.M., put the oven on low, and say, “This will be ready around two; don't bother me.” And she would position herself to watch football on, almost all the time, a snowy screen.

She listened to baseball on the radio. From her childhood on, the Detroit Tigers were her team. In the basement of our house, my mother sat before the mangle, ironing the sheets and pillowcases she had laundered and bleached and blued and fed through the wringer and hung on the line in the backyard to dry but not quite, just damp enough to send through the mangle without burning. On one corner of the mangle sat her bottle of Coke, which she bought by the case. On the other corner, perched on its ashtray, a Lucky Strike sent its smoke spiraling into the air. My mother was an ironing fool. Sheets, dish towels, my brothers' T-shirts, my father's shirts and shorts: nothing escaped the mangle. On the shelf nearby sat the radio. The ball game was on, the Tigers were playing. My mother was a happy woman.

The Detroit Lions were her football team. She hated the Cleveland Browns with a passion. “The only team in the country where the quarterback doesn't call his own plays,” she would remind us in scathing tones. When a Cleveland player was injured and lay writhing on the turf, she would say, “I hope it's nothing minor.” We learned to hate the Browns, too. And Ohio State. The Red Wings were her hockey team. During hockey season she showed by example how to hate most of Canada.

Some of the finest times she and I had together were listening on the radio to Indiana high school basketball, especially the tournaments. My mother taught me how to score those games, showed me how to signify baskets attempted, baskets missed, made, one point or two. Together, we followed teams right through to the finals, which were broadcast from courtside far away in Indiana. The reception was often crackly, so we had to lean in to the radio and listen through the scratchiness for what was happening. Then we would come out of our huddle to mark our score sheets. During halftime, we talked about who would foul out.

At dusk, on warm spring and summer evenings, we sat on our front steps and watched the cars go by. As dark came on, she taught me how to identify the makes of the cars by the spread of their headlights: Oldsmobiles wide, Pontiacs narrow. In between cars she would point out the bus carrying Seventh-Day Adventists. “They don't eat meat,” she said. “That's why they're so pasty.” She passed judgment: “Well, they can't go into the army, but they can drive their cars like a bat out of hell.” She was referring to Mennonite boys, conscientious objectors during the war, who were unfortunate enough to drive their cars past my mother's scrutiny.

During the war, she taught me how to knit. She knitted sweaters and scarves for Bundles for Britain while I sat beside her and knitted long chains. She was a nurses' aide at the hospital. She ordered chocolate and cigarettes from the black market in Chicago. They came wrapped in plain brown paper, and my mother put them in a drawer we were forbidden to touch.

She taught me how to fold towels properly and how to miter the corners of sheets. She taught me to dislike cooking, cheer-leaders, bell peppers, bowling, and Spanish. She taught me the pleasure of lying on my stomach in the springtime in search of four-leaf clovers. She told me that Loretta Young got her face lifted in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and that Spencer Tracy would never marry Katharine Hepburn because he was Catholic. She told me that Negroes wore suits of a special kind of blue called electric. She taught me not to mind when my grandmother said mean things to me. She showed me where to find wild violets.

Our mother died too young, at fifty-five, and for the last ten years of her life, she was unable to play tennis or golf or anything else. For a while, it was thought that her allergies to rag-weed and wild mustard were what made her breathing difficult, but gradually, she was exhausted, struggling for breath during the winter months, too. Trips to and from University Hospital in Ann Arbor showed lungs black from tar, and soon emphysema emptied her of the energy so natural to her her whole life. She must have been furious. A couple of years ago my sister, who grew into a fine athlete herself, said to me, “Write something about Mom.” I did and, because my sister and I are both teachers, titled it “The Very Best Teacher in the Whole Wide World.” I hand it off to you. It is about my mother's finest gift to me.

THE VERY BEST TEACHER IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD

In my mother's kitchen, I learned Latin. In an early memory I am ten, my brother eight, and it is 1943. Far away across the seas bombs are bursting, but here, in northernmost Ohio, my brother and I are bored. We are hanging around our mother in the late afternoon, as she prepares dinner. “There's nothing to do,” we complain. “Well then,” our mother says, “mildew and boohoo.” We stamp our feet then, and screw up our faces; she is no help at all, no matter that she explains to us that her mother, our faraway grandmother, advised her and her sisters to do the same—mildew and boohoo—when they complained. “Manufacture something,” she says then. “What's manufacture?” my brother wants to know. “It's from the Latin,
facio.
” Our mother looks up from the sink where she is peeling potatoes and out the window, across the fields, far away to the University of Michigan, where she once captained the field hockey team and majored in classics. “It means ‘to do, to make, to build . . .
facio, feci, factum:
to make or do.' ” Her feet begin to scuff the floor: “Mildew, boohoo, to make or do, it's from the Latin and it's for you.” And she picks my brother up way high, tucks him under her arm, and shuffles off to Buffalo right there in her Ohio kitchen while her children shriek with delight at the wondrousness of this person who belongs to them.

I am too big by then to dance with my mother high above the floor, and so I stop their silliness by asking, “What's the other part of that word, ‘man-you' something?” It works. My brother sticks his tongue out at me as my mother swings him back to earth. “It's Latin,” she says. “It's from the Latin
manus
meaning hand.
Manus,
one hand,
manus,
more than one hand. Manufacture, to make by hand.”

That settled, she returns to her chores. “Time to set the table,” she says. Happily, we move to do her bidding. “Can you speak more languages?” I want to know. “Fork goes on the left, turn the blade of the knife toward the plate, and yes, I know Greek and a smattering of French.”

Our mother is so smart! She knows smatterings and everything! How ever did she get that way?

When I reached ninth grade, I signed up to take Latin. Mrs. Bourquin, our teacher, taught me to conjugate and decline with the best of them. But it wasn't the same. Mrs. Bourquin did her job just fine, but she never got that faraway look my mother got. She never danced to the language. “Latin is a dead language,” she told us. She told us that at least once a week. She would tell us that in all different ways though her frown remained the same. “Nobody speaks Latin,” she would say, rescuing her handkerchief from deep within the bosom of her dress (not bosom
s
I would argue later, to the delight of the snickering boys who took wood shop). Mrs. Bourquin was tendentious. From the Latin
teneo,
meaning to hold.
Teneo, tenere, tenui, tentum,
to hold. To hold to one view, to be biased. That was Mrs. Bourquin all right. Maybe to her Latin was dead, but it wasn't to me, not as long as my mother scuffed her way across the kitchen linoleum, conjugating as she went.
“Amo, amas, amat”
(step tap, step tap, step tap), “I love my daughter a lot. Amamus, amatis, amant ” (step tap, step tap, step tap), “the boys for her will pant.” “Mo-ther!”

Just before our father came home was quiz time. “All right, now, pay attention,” she said. She took two tall glasses out of the cupboard. “These glasses are for—?” “These glasses are for a libation,” I answered as I tore the iceberg lettuce into the bowl. “Libation, from the Latin
libo,
meaning to drink.
Libo, libare, libavi, libatus,
to drink.” My feet were beginning to tickle. “Correct. And when will we drink it? Quarter those tomatoes, don't slice them.” “Before dinner.” My right foot slid behind my left. “Correct. So what do we call this drink your father and I will have before dinner?” “A preprandial libation.
Pre
meaning before,
prandial
meaning meal,
preprandial,
before the meal.” (Rock, step, ball change.) “Correct,” said my mother. “You get an A.” And we would do a buck and wing into the pantry.

At school, I got an A in Latin I and in Latin II, and that was the end of my formal training in the language my teacher could never convince me was dead. At home, we all spoke Latin. My father, the doctor, dissected for us the language of his profession, proclaiming the beauty of its specificity as he went: “The suffix -itis!” he would call down the length of the dinner table. “It means?” “Inflammation!” we would call back.

“Tonsillitis?” “Inflammation of the tonsils.” “You get an A,” he would exclaim, “especially you,” and he would pass his hand over the forehead of our youngest sister, who always had an
-itis
of something.

Every once in a while, I caught my mother and father smiling at each other from their opposite ends of the table. They were pleased with their children, we knew that. They gave us A's all the time. Many years later, I understood that my mother and father were pleased with each other; in their very secret way, they were dancing together to a language that would keep us a family long after we tapped our way out of the warmth of that Ohio kitchen, long after the light went out.

As you will recall, I ended the family idyll by getting pregnant before I got married. So the last part of the piece I've given you is wishful thinking.

My mother would have loved my son, her first grandson. She was, after all, partial to boys.

BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
10.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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