Life lessons are often difficult. An eleven year old girl's heart will learn this one.
(based on first hand experience)
It was brisk and clear the day she met her new mother Kathryn, when she was nine years old. The wind carried the smell of fresh roasted peanuts from one of those old-fashioned vendors, and wafted past them, leaving gentle ripples on the lake. The ducks gathered around them like pigeons in a plaza, hungry for the bread crusts in the plastic baggie she held.
As Beth's mother leaned forward, she was mesmerized by the woman. She was, in her eyes, the mother she’d always dreamed of. She could almost imagine her in the kitchen with her apron on, baking chocolate chip cookies and smiling sweetly. Her jet black hair framed her small round face. The horn-rimmed glasses she wore often slid down her nose. Even beneath the coke bottle lenses she could see a sparkle of excitement in the woman's eyes. She too, had been dreaming that day, about the family she’d wanted for years. Beth tugged at her inexpensive brown overcoat to get her attention.
“Um, what should I call you?”
“Well,” she answered. “Let’s sit down and talk about it, shall we?”
Under a big weeping willow tree at the edge of the lake, they found a bench that afforded some privacy.
“I’d like you to call me mother.” She told Beth as they both munched on heart-shaped cookies covered with cherry-red sprinkles for Valentines Day. And then, looking right into Beth's eyes she said,
“Wouldn’t you like to have a new mother?”
Beth's eyes lit up like sparklers on the Fourth of July.
Even though the adoption took almost a year, Beth began calling her “mom” from then on. She thought she was the luckiest girl in the world to have a mother who chose her. After nine years of instability, and insecurity in foster home after foster home, she was finally going to have a mom of her very own.
Her new mother explained everything; a judge was going to make it legal, and official to the world. Beth couldn’t have been more excited or proud. Not only did she get two new parents, and a new home, she could choose a whole new first name to go with it if she wanted.
Dara, her twin, wasn't excited at all, she thought a day would come when their real parents would rescue them. Beth told Dara not to hold her breath and to be grateful to have new parents who would adopt them.
"You could change your first name too if you want girls," Kathryn explained, pushing her glasses up, a habit she was unaware she had.
"Sounds cool, I kinda like the idea" Beth's eyes lit up at the thought of a fresh start. Dara, didn't care either way. All she cared about, was making sure things were okay in the new home.
Beth quickly learned her new mother was strict, demanding and even rigid. Kathryn demanded perfection. Beth didn’t get a real taste of her wrath until the summer of her eleventh year when the family traveled to Europe.
She could never forget the muggy day early in August when she made her mother angrier than ever before.
"Don't forget to do your chores before you go play"
Beth was in charge of doing the laundry, a seemingly simple chore. The washing machine,on the other hand, was one of those old-fashioned types, rarely seen in the United States. Europeans waited months, even years to get appliances. The one in the bathroom of the home they were renting for the month, was outdated.
It was one of those primitive types. It had to be manually drained. A long black hose draped over the bathtub faucet, for draining. When the hose was left unguarded, and not securely tied to the faucet it would rear up like a snake, spraying water all over the bathroom.
In her haste to play she’d thrown the hose in the tub and left it. By the time Kathryn discovered Beth's mistake; the entire floor was soaked, clear out to the hallway.
"Beth! Get in the house right now!"
"Beth, I need you in the bathroom this instant!"
Oh, no. She'd heard that tone before. Wondering what she'd done now. Beth took off her rollerskates and went into the house, her head low, worried. Seeing the water mess, Beth knew instantly she was in major trouble.
She promptly decided she could clean it up with a couple of small red and white checkered hand towels, the closest things she could find. When mother saw the mess, she came charging down the hall like a bull in heat, grabbed the towels from Beth and dragged her into the bathroom.
“What is this?” she screamed, pointing to the special wire rigged to hold the wild hose.
“It’s for the hose,” Beth said in a tiny voice, knowing she'd blown it and all hell was about to break loose.
“Then would you mind explaining all of this water!” as her arm shoved Beth's face deep into the puddle of water slowly oozing across the tiled floor.
With the second hard shove, Beth heard the cracking sound as her nose broke, and watched the water turn pink as her crimson blood spread through it.
She could feel the warmth running down her face. She didn’t dare move. Kathryn yanked Beth's head up by her hair, and shoved the checkered towel over her nose. Then, she led Beth to the living room to sit down while she stood over her like an unhappy God.
Just then, her mother whipped off her glasses, so fast she heard them break too, as Beth's nose had only moments before. Suddenly, she was face to face with her mother's cold brown eyes. Beth had never seen her mother quite so angry before, as out of control or crazed.
As she cowered on the floor, she remembered the way the fear felt as it crept through her body. It sent shivers up and down her spine. At Kathryn's insistence, the family gathered in the living room, so they could discuss Beth's lack of concern for her chores.
Even though she was tall for her age, she felt very small right then. It was a feeling she would become familiar with in her mother's presence.
They talked for hours, the whole time Beth sat with the blood-stained towel over her nose, in excruciating pain. She tried to ignore it. It gave her something to hide behind, leaving only her frightened eyes visible.
It was later on the same day, she saw her dad cry, big gulping sobs and tears. After hours of verbal harassment from her mother, her father decided he could not live with Kathryn's perfectionist attitude any longer.
He asked their mother for a divorce. The girls were shocked!
Later in the evening, she watched as her father packed his suitcase and walked out of her life. The next day, her eleventh birthday, she knew in her heart he was never coming back. At the breakfast table, Kathryn gazed at Beth, silently blaming her for the end of her unsucessful marriage. Without her glasses, her mother's eyes appeared hardened, and as cold as stone. Her face lost its softness.
With her father gone, Beth's mother became obsessed with making both her and her twin sister into perfect children. Beth had always been well behaved, but her twin Dara was always in trouble. She'd been getting on Kathryn's nerves for years. Their younger sister, was the favored child and managed to escape the majority of Kathryn's wrath.
All of them learned the signs, they knew when her anger was building. They made a pact to help each other out when the tirades began. For the most part, they were able to make it through their teen years, unharmed with the exception of the hidden bruises from being slammed against the cabinets when Kathryn really became angry.
The final blow didn’t come for several years, long after Beth left home. She never turned back after she left. She had little contact, not even by phone, with her mother after she was on her own, until right before her wedding day. She sent an invitation,purely out of some inbred sense of loyalty, never expecting to hear back.
She was surprised to find a package from Kathryn among her gifts. Her mother had sent red checkered hand towels with an explicit note attached. They were for cleaning up the little messes in life. Beth was so humiliated and angry, she threw away the towels.
She knew she could never repair the relationship with her mom. At that moment she hated her. She wrote scathing letters to her, which she never had the courage to mail. She wanted to hurt her mother as much as she’d been hurt by her.
Gradually, as the years passed the anger faded, to be replaced with a small piece of understanding. Beth's mother never changed over the years, only her perspective did. After having her own children and facing parenthood first hand Beth was able to understand some of the frustrations Kathryn must have felt.
She could not excuse her actions. In retrospect, she could see Kathryn was a frightened, lonely, woman, faced with single parenthood, searching for acceptance in a world that didn’t have a place for a woman alone.
Today, Kathryn sits at her desk from nine to five, she's two years from retirement, and has only one friend in the world, and he's a cat she found on the way home one day. Her oversize glasses still slide down her nose. Wisps of gray intermingle with her jet black hair, serving as reminders of the passing years. Her sleepy brown eyes have lost their excitement, just as she lost one of the twin daughters she chose to adopt over thirty years ago.