family relationship, semi-autobiographical
According to my mother I exited the womb scowling. The way she likes to tell it, she shoved out all eight-plus pounds of me, which in 1965 was considered quite a hefty load, and I met the world in heavy contemplation, like a crime scene investigator. She’s fond of saying that when the nurse laid me in her arms, my eyes were hidden beneath a spill of damp curls the color of oily coal and her first thought was, “THIS is my kid?” Of course, she says this with a wink and a smile, and anyway, it didn’t take long for the initial errant black mane to soon give way to a less eyebrow raising shade of brown, more reminiscent of the others in the long line of Swedes making up my family tree.
Family stories are a funny breed. With just one telling, a tale can be spun that proves so durable, so flexible it survives decades of telling and retelling at birthdays, picnics and long feasts, without ever losing its luster. Not unlike the mashed turnips and sweet potato pie, details of my feigned illegitimacy – that I’m actually the illicit byproduct of a torrid love affair my mother had with the Viking Baker, an olive skinned gentleman named Constantine - passes around like a salt shaker from sibling to sibling at the holiday table. The story of "Mom's Affair" always begins the same. My siblings fall uncharacteristically silent, then suddenly lock grins as one brother will start by claiming he remembers the Viking Baker's large hands, “like paws,” he’ll say, flashing a grin, and of course, there will be mention of his monstrous feet. My sister will chime in saying she recalls a certain glint in his eye and that he always left with a bounce in his step. My father will neatly fasten the bow with a verbal gem such as, “I was a fool not to realize why your mother always rushed to put on her lipstick when his truck pulled in.” Of course, we’ll all hoot with predictable laughter, our mother will shrug her small shoulders coyly and I’ll roll my eyes feigning emotional injury, a role perfected before I could tie my shoes. It’s odd to think that this silly family fable, one that has become a holiday staple and looked more forward to than indulging in Nanny’s belly-busting eggnog or Aunt Betty’s blue ribbon potato salad, got its start all because I was born with hair the color of oily coal.
I once had a psychic reading done over the phone. The woman, this psychic, who lived a few miles east of the Bourne Bridge on The Cape, told me a minute into my reading that I had “great hair.” I was married at the time, and when she informed me that my hair had been the culprit and what had initially captured my husband’s attention, I fell into quiet despair. My hair was long, almost nipping my waist and hearing those simple words caused me to tumble into a cold space that freeze dried my thoughts, while silmultaneously churning my already steaming, red blood. I was furious thinking that something as inconsequential as HAIR might actually lie at the root of the mess I was in. As soon as we hung up, and without a second thought given, I made another call, this one to Candy. As her name implies, Candy was a sweet girl, a visual feast, a beauty school dropout and ex-military wife, who’d briefly studied under the tutelage of Mr. Ron, one New London County’s finest. And although Candy's pink Caboodle had been collecting dust for over two years, I knew it was never from reach, so I didn't hesitate in surrendering my virgin scalp to her. Candy also happened to be my stepdaughter, a fact that never failed to explode us into fits of hysterical, hyena-like laughter, since I was a whooping fourteen months older than she. So, with a bottle of cheap wine in the fridge and Madonna’s Holiday cranked up and blasting from a cracked plastic radio propped in the corner, Candy braided my hair into a single long rope and taking a deep breath, lopped it off and unceremoniously tossed it on my lap. Groping for it, I was surprised by its weight, but more so by the feeling of history it strands evoked within me. Dealing with my emotions in my usual way, I gulped down the glass of wine in front of me and contemplated what to do. Finding certainty at the bottom of the second glass, I lovingly placed the braid into a quart size freezer bag and placed it on my husband’s nightstand with a simple obituary note attached.
In three short hours, my long tresses went from simple, straight, brown and parted down the middle, to short, spiked and blazing red. I’d instructed Candy that I wanted my new look to be feisty, and red is bold and needs no apologies. The simpler, far less mature truth was, I'd picked red solely for the irritation factor. I knew just how much it would piss off my beloved husband. I kept that sassy cut and color throughout our divorce proceedings, meticulously maintaining the sharp stalagmites with gobs of cheap mousse and ozone-depleting Aqua Net Mega Freeze - the one in the giant blue can. After the divorce had been final for a few months, sans the wedding band and bad attitude, I finally felt safe to put down the hair products and breathe normally again.
My mother is a woman who smoked less than one cigarette in the history of her entire life. A Lucky Strike swiped from the pocked of her husband’s jacket. As a young mother of two, she stood five foot two and weighed in at a slender one hundred eighteen pounds. But, “feeling fat” one day, she decided to pick up smoking after reading about the appetite suppressing powers of nicotine in the November issue of Ladies Home Journal. Three drags and three hours later, still olive green, immobile and clinging to the spinning mattress in her spinning bedroom, she vowed to never again touch a tobacco product. This past May, my mom, now a mother of four grown children and many grandchildren, was diagnosed with lung cancer. On a clear day, in a chic, sparkling Hartford skyscraper, in an equally tasteful suite on the tenth floor of a twenty story building, my parents, my sister and I sat shell-shocked and dutifully still before a white-coated stranger who literally held her future between the fingers of his soft, manicured hands.
“As unlikely as it seems,” the stranger began slowly, opening a manila folder; “it is not uncommon for lung cancer to develop in people who’ve never smoked. People who have spent a good portion of their time involved in this kind of outdoor activity seem to be at higher risk too.” Sensing our tense disbelief and the tightening of our mouths, he continued, “Your cancer, Amy, most likely developed when a mold spore lodged in this lobe of your lung.” Using his slim, golden pen, the stranger took the stance of a sixth grade geography teacher and poked at a section of pink lung the shape of Nigeria. As he pointed and talked, he continued to glance at his mahogany office door, as if expecting Jeeves, his trusty butler, to burst through announcing that it was indeed, tea time, Sir.
“So in essence,” my sister said, her voice wavering and transparent to the grief lying just beneath, “you’re saying she breathed in a random piece of mold that digging in her garden dislodged and that piece of mold turned into cancer?”
“Yes, in a nutshell,” his eyes confirmed, staring at us over his glasses. In that moment, from our place on Mother Earth, ten stories up in a twenty-story building, we watched the comfortable, familiar narrative of our family's story begin to unravel. With our collective hearts wretched and thumping, our minds racing and our lungs dumping, then hotly refilling, we all turned and gazed helplessly at the mahogany office door, willing Jeeves to come through with tea, fresh buttery scones and another possibility.
It had been a year since that visit and a month since I’d last seen my parents. Pulling my car onto their bumpy dirt drive, the old farmhouse loomed warmly in the afternoon, the golden light of the surrounding Maples melting into her brown surface. Turning the key, I sat for a moment listening to the hot engine tick and fighting the lump that was threatening to form in my throat.
“Okay, so don’t freak when you see Grammy,” I cautioned my daughter. “She’s going to look different than the last time we saw her. Don’t be surprised if she’s wearing a wig, or if she isn’t, don’t be surprised if she almost bald, okay? It’s okay. She says she looks worse than she feels, and it’s only hair. Anyway, it’s not a big deal, it’ll grow back. Okay, Sweetie?”
With deep, seeing eyes, my daughter turned from me and gazed out the window to the rolling pastures below and softly whispered, “Jeeze, Mom, relax.” Stepping lightly across the flat stones sprinkling their side yard, stones I’d played hundreds of games of hybrid Hop Scotch upon as a child, we climbed the thick-slabs up to the side door and clicked open the heavy latch. Stepping over the worn threshold, I suddenly felt the need to preserve the moment, to sit in its silence and not change a thing. Pulling my daughter close to me, we stayed there for a moment, rooted in our place, our eyes adjusting to the darkness. Gazing down the long length of dining room to where my parent’s - my children’s grandparents – sat at its end, as they had for the past fifty six years, I drew my daughter closer still and laid my cheek against her smooth brow. Breathing in her scent, I remembered the smell of her hair when she was a baby. That powerful infant scent that causes mothers across the globe to melt to their knees and give thanks to the gods. She too had been born with hair the color of oily coal.