Tag: single parent

Hi, Ho the Derry-O

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In honor of Mother’s Day — which falls on May 13th this year — Baltimore-based fiction writer and Goucher prof Kathy Flann shares creative nonfiction that radically redefines the term soccer mom.

My mom bought me a toolkit and a train set, which, in the early 70’s, were pretty weird toys for a girl. It was a pre-plastic era, and all of the toys had the metal heft of the real article. They were miniature, yes, but didn’t have the garish colors or distorted proportions of today’s Fisher Price. I can still feel the boxcar wheels click onto the steel tracks and the serrated dial adjust the jaws of the wrench. “I wanted her to know she could be anything she wanted,” my mother likes to tell people. But when she asked me one day, in our avocado kitchen, what I thought that might be, I revealed a narrow concept of the word anything. “I want to be a farmer’s wife,” I told her.

When my mom tells this story at dinner parties, it always kills.

If I happen to be there, I protest, “But wait, you don’t understand–” I am drowned out by the laughter. And I taper off. I don’t really want to be the person to dim the white afterglow of a well-delivered joke. Plus, it would be impossible to explain the But feeling in my chest with same cha-ching as my mother tells that story.

If I did explain it, though, the first thing I would say is that, at five years old, I believed that farmer’s wife was a job. I developed this impression from my picture books and probably just from the air I breathed in 1974. Boys were farmers. Girls were farmers’ wives. Just like boys were pilots and girls were stewardesses. Boys were firemen and policemen. Girls were, well, missing from those parts of the books.

Take This Chevette and Shove It!

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Last week, I asked my grown children if they remembered our whirlwind trip to the Food-A-Rama one night, 10 minutes before closing, when they were small. We divided and conquered every aisle with seconds to spare. They remembered better the torturous day we lost the car at the mall, and we reminded one another of some really good, really hard times.

At 26, I became a single parent of two toddlers, ages four and two, and a newborn, not yet eight weeks old. I’d caught my husband with his “woman on the side,” and in an instant, knew I’d leave. After I changed the locks on all the doors and filed for divorce—on the same day I caught him—it never occurred to me that his perspective of the situation would be radically different. In his mind, wives of cheating men simply resigned themselves to being long suffering, and stayed married for the sake of the children. My staunch belief that a happy mother equaled happy children cancelled the social teaching that staying in a miserable marriage served the kids’ best interest. My white-hot fury at my husband’s betrayal at a most vulnerable time—just after having delivered a third baby—coupled with my inability to become a polite shrinking violet, left no room for either discussion or reconciliation. I sent his “woman on the side” a thank-you note for “willingly taking my cross and bearing it,” along with the gift of his soiled laundry and dust-collecting sundries, more or less saying, “He’s yours, lady. Enjoy!” Angry at the unexpected turn of events, he divorced the children as I divorced him.

In the short term, a huge obstacle to getting my daughters’ ears pierced had been removed. (Ear-piercing a tradition for Italian baby girls but an act he’d considered mutilation.) So one afternoon, the kids and I launched our lives as a single-parent family at the mall, getting the girls’ ears pierced. Technically, I was still married, but I felt as though I had lost 175 pounds of dead weight. A long, minimally successful but epic battle over child support ensued. He paid the bare minimum, and I refused to give up the effort to increase the pittance.

Barely into adulthood, possessing not more than a shred of parental experience, I found myself armed with a degree in English, with a concentration in writing, a thin resume, devoid of any first post-college positions, a thinner wallet, an emptied bank account (he also divorced me from my savings), and three babies addicted to the bad habit of expecting three or more meals per day. I took stock of two things: First, I loved each child unconditionally; second, we lived in an ethnic conclave with my parents, extended family nearby, and an assortment of elderly widows who loved being additional nonnas or grandmothers, which made us luckier than many single-parent families.

Blissfully ignorant about the nearly impossible challenge of making a healthy enough living as a writer to support three children, overflowing with naive optimism, I bounced my brood around the poverty line for more than a few years. Because our two cars belonged to my soon-to-be-ex, I was forced to walk the children to and from the Food-A-Rama on Broadway with bags of groceries hanging off the baby’s stroller (and my arms), while keeping two toddlers entertained with stories and word games so they wouldn’t run ahead. During this early phase, turn-off notices from the utility company became ubiquitous.

The children and I survived exquisite chaos.
 
Thrilled that the girls would agree to play quietly in the living room, I left them to their own devices and honed my writing skills on a manual typewriter at the dining room table. I was landing regular story assignments–the children and I began to equate stories with money, but often the equation failed. One January, despite having six stories published, none of the publications had yet sent payments, and we found ourselves literally penniless. I wept while stacking and re-stacking the bills, praying that a check would arrive before the already extended BGE due date. That weepy night, I vowed to file criminal non-support charges against my ex, and kept my promise.
 
I soon learned that quiet children could translate into trouble, like my older daughter’s playing barber with a set of safety scissors. She chopped off half of my younger girl’s gorgeous curls. Crying over the lost curls, steeped in money woes fueling deadline pressure, I simply chopped off the other half, stuffed the pretty hair into a plastic bag for safe keeping, hid the scissors, moved the typewriter to a better spot to watch them more closely, finished my story, submitted it, then took the baby to a hairdresser friend for a fix. Hair, after all, grew back, but money didn’t, and I was determined to freelance my way into a full-time job, which I did eventually.

*
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It was a post-soccer-practice trip to the supermarket on a school night, that’s an adventure I’ll never forget. We four arrived at the Food-A-Rama ten minutes before closing. Frowning cashiers suggested we return the next morning, but with an empty fridge at home, and three post-practice-hungry children in tow, this option was unacceptable to me. The clock gave us 10 minutes, I insisted, and much to the employees’ chagrin, the manager allowed us exactly that time limit to grab our grub.

Clock ticking, I raced a shopping cart to the front of the store, tore our ambitious list in four parts, kept one, gave each kid one, and said, “Go.” For eight minutes, we dashed around the store, to and from the cart like game show contestants, slam-dunking items, collecting every noted selection and then some. We laughed all the way home. As I unpacked the goods, I discovered that each child had improvised, adding favorites like toaster waffles and a jar of melted marshmallow. They’d sneaked the sugary candy-in-a-box cereal brands they knew I’d never buy on a normal day. Faulting them for their choices seemed pointless when dinner had yet to be prepared and eaten, homework checked, and baths taken, so we could all crawl into bed past bedtime, only to begin our routine again at dawn.

*

After a rare trip to White Marsh Mall, I couldn’t remember where the red Chevette was parked. My father drove 45 minutes, piled us all inside his Taurus and slowly patrolled each parking lot until we found it. He yelled at me the entire time, but diligently helped us search, all the while swearing I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached to my neck.

The bequeathed red Chevette has seared itself into all of our memories: the car that we renamed the “ShoveIt,” which transported us around town on a wing and a prayer. ShoveIt died every morning at the same spot on I-83 N, just before the North Avenue exit, and after about five minutes of pleading, “Please God, make it work,” and nonstop attempts to start the thing, it roared to life as mysteriously as it had died, and off we went.

At red lights, the three kids used to rock in the same direction to see if they could get the car to do the same thing. It did. One morning, we walked to the Chevette and found the door wide open–someone had attempted to steal our ShoveIt in the middle of the night but thought better of it.

*

Nothing came easily. We learned to laugh more often, perhaps as a defense–but it helped. Growing up in a single-parent family forced my children to learn responsibilities that children of two-parent households embrace later. They separated clothes and operated the washing machine and dryer before they hit double age digits. They learned the difference between wants and needs, understood the importance of family and extended family, and accepted that modern families could consist of a myriad of configurations. They accepted early not everyone got two parents.

I learned how to juggle responsibilities, nurturing my children and my writing dream–oftentimes dropping the balls, only to pick them up and continue.

Now my kids stand on the threshold of their own parenthood. I still work as a full-time writer. For me, their childhoods flashed like the illumination of Chinese fireworks at New Year’s Eve, a burst of brilliant, happy colors in the midnight sky. Only by the grace of God, only with the help of family, friends, and neighbors, only with the understanding that despite our imperfections, mistakes, missteps and faulty memories, we remained bound to each other by an invisible but unbreakable thread, we muddled through each day.

The Arrow from My Bow

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I was ashamed, but I did it anyway.  Over twenty years ago, I had a daughter without the man who had told me he was my best friend.  He wasn’t at Union Memorial Hospital when she was born.  He had moved to North Carolina to reconcile with his wife.  

I have difficulty with intimacy.  My relationships with men have not been satisfying. 

When my daughter was born, she screamed.  I knew that was supposed to be a good sign, but it was painful to hear her in distress.  My obstetrician placed her on my chest.  I reached for her, stroking her.  Trying to comfort her, I called her, “Sweetheart.”  Instantly, she stopped crying.  Her little head bobbed in the hospital blanket, following the sound of my voice. 

My bond with my daughter is the best one I have.  For her, I devote my time, resources and affection.  What I knew about parenthood was this: I didn’t want my child to be raised like I was.  That is probably a standard vow that many make who have survived childhoods that lacked stability or support.  Mine was fraught with the neglect of a woman who was unable to care for or nurture me.

I did not want my daughter to ever wonder if she was loved or wanted. 

My daughter’s father moved back to Baltimore when she was a toddler and re-entered our lives.  He took us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  To the Aquarium, downtown.  To Hershey Park. 

I craved him and eventually we resumed our romance.  But he was still married.  I told no one, but my daughter knew.  She told me she could hear her father’s voice when he visited me after she was put to bed. I tried not to think about the kind of example I was setting. 

Again, I was ashamed, but I did it anyway.

I had to work full time and put my daughter in day care, but we spent our free time together.  We took daily walks to the playground next to the Bykota Senior Center or along a wooded path behind the Towson YMCA we discovered together.  We went to Pumpkinland at Weber’s Farm.  She had her picture taken on Santa’s lap in his workshop on the promenade of the Inner Harbor.  At the end of each work week, we went out on Friday night dates; to Friendly’s on York Road and a movie at the Towson Commons.  My daughter also rode the horses on Friday nights.  She’d wave to me from the carousel, centered in the food court of the White Marsh Mall. 

We spent a week’s vacation every summer visiting relatives with children – her cousins – in Massachusetts or Prince Edward Island.  Twice, I saved enough to fly with her to Orlando.  Before we left for Disney World, she patted down her clothes that were stacked inside my suitcase.   My daughter gave me a grin I still remember, before we closed the suitcase together.  

We weathered temper tantrums, of course.  I remember one at the Carroll County Farm Museum Fall Harvest Days when I had to carry her to the car.  We stopped at a small dairy store about a mile from the farm museum, though.  Sitting on a wooden bench outside the store, we were both soothed by ice cream.

From age 10 on, my daughter was passionate about horses.  I was her chauffeur, but I was not a fan.  The barns smelled.  They were suffocating in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter.  I never enjoyed rising before dawn on weekend mornings to follow a horse trailer to a show who-knows-where.

But we did most of our talking in the car.  She spoke of the horses as though they were human.  I’d learn about her friendships.  Her schoolwork.  We talked about her uncles, aunt, cousins.  My parents, her grandparents.

We did not talk much about her dad.  He left his wife again when my daughter was twelve, for someone else.  Not me.

Last year, my daughter graduated from college.  She has chosen to remain in the city where she went to school.  I miss her every day and recently drove up to see her.

She called me to confirm the night before I was to come.  And then she called me a minute or so after we had hung up, to ask me if anything was wrong.  She said she’d detected something in my voice.  “Nope,” I told her.  “Nothing’s wrong.”  I cherished her concern, though.  She was emerging from her awkward, uncomfortable urge to get away from me.  An urge I’d tried to overlook. 

The summer before she left for college was the worst one for me.  By then, I no longer knew all of my daughter’s friends. 

One night in mid-August, 2006, my daughter did not come home.  I woke at four a.m. with an horrific knot in my stomach.  The pain would not subside; she was nowhere in the house.  By seven a.m., I was panicked.  I forced myself to make coffee, walk the dog, water my impatiens.  By eight a.m. I was calling every one of her friends I knew and got the phone number of the boy with whom she went out.  When I got a voice message on his line, I called the Baltimore County Police. 

The officer sat in my dining room, writing on a form that was encased in a metal box.  I tried not to cry while he asked me what happened.   Had we fought?  What was she wearing?   I’d sewed one of the straps back on her white dress just as a car pulled up in front of our house.  It was driven by a dark haired young man.  She hadn’t introduced me to him and he did not get out of the car.  Once more, shame engulfed me.  I couldn’t give the police officer a license plate number or description of that car.  I was a horrible mother whose daughter had disappeared with some stranger I hadn’t bothered to check out.

The officer asked me if my daughter had ever been fingerprinted.  I told him she had, that a criminal background check was required when she worked at St. Timothy’s riding camp.  The officer had one final question, and he cautioned me not to be alarmed.  Did my daughter have dental records?

I knew why he was asking.  I nodded my head, tears brimming.  Forcing my fingers, I signed the form allowing access to her records. 

The black techno cube on the officer’s shoulder crackled.  He jumped up, excused himself and turned around.  The voice coming from the box described my daughter’s white dress.  And then the blessed words:  She is walking down York Road.

The officer smiled at me, “Ma’am, we’ve found your daughter.  I’m going to go pick her up and give her a ride home.”

The relief.  The elation I felt was quickly extinguished when I saw my daughter: “What the hell!”  She called me a psycho mom.  None of her friends had a mom like me.  I suffocated her. 
A week later, I drove her to college and helped lug her stuff up to her freshman dorm room.  The crush of her absence hit me as I climbed back up the steps to our house.  My neighbors from both sides of my rowhouse were enjoying the beautiful summer evening.  Citronella candles glowed.  A grill was smoking.  The neighbors knew where I had been and asked me how it had gone.

I could not speak.  I simply cried.  They invited me to join them and I did. 

Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:  “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth … Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”  I believe that I learned to nurture myself by caring for my daughter.  With her, I am content; committed.  Loved.

 Five years later, I drove to my daughter’s.   She had introduced him to me a year before.  I was pleased then that he was nervous about meeting me.

Seven months later, he spent Thanksgiving with us in Baltimore. The last time we were all together, in February, he picked up the tab of more than one hundred dollars at a delicious seafood restaurant.

My daughter chose a good man.  This early spring, they sat side-by-side at a comfortable corner table.  It was one of the first warm days of the year and the whole wall behind us was open to the sidewalk.  My daughter’s former college roommate was our waitress.  I am concerned that no one with whom she has graduated is working in the field in which they majored.  I am hopeful the recession will ebb.  My daughter is paying for her rent, utilities, and food with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs.  I am paying off all of her college loans.

But we did not talk of money when we sat together, sharing a smile over the table.  We laughed.  We toasted our threesome and I ate the best French toast I’d ever tasted.
 My daughter is beautiful.  She wears layers of colorful clothes that I never recognize.  I no longer buy her anything for her wardrobe and she has a style that exudes her originality.  Her hair is auburn with natural red highlights.  I was delighted to see these red strands again.  She is no longer dying her hair ebony. 

As I watched her, I realized with a jolt how comfortable she was with this man.  And he smiled when he talked to her.  Watched her when she spoke, nodding his head.  The devotion was natural between them. 

My daughter’s boyfriend has introduced her to his family.  They share their lives; they live together.

Choosing not to lean on anyone was the only way I knew how to survive.  But my daughter is taking a different path and I marvel at how well she is doing it. 

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