My father’s mistress was dying of vaginal cancer and my mother went to see her. I can imagine how disarming Mom was when she entered the hospital room of her rival. I’m sure she stopped to check her make-up under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway, and dabbed Ooh La Pink lipstick over a smile she’d rehearsed in the car’s rear-view mirror. She would have pulled up her girdle and sucked in her stomach before entering the sterile room with a vase of American Beauty roses from our garden.
Mom would have posed the bouquet on a table with the largest blooms facing the bed and paused to admire the flowers. With the same gentle hands she would have touched the shoulder of her rival’s once voluptuous body, now flaccid, rank and shrouded in blankets the color of her parchment skin. My mother probably held Liz in her arms while she cried and begged forgiveness.
The story goes that Liz said God was punishing her for the way she had lived her life, and Mom said she knew Liz never meant to hurt anyone and only wanted a little happiness for herself, and God wanted us to be happy, and fun and laughter were gifts from God.
They’d shared the body of a man who could not love them, like all the men they’d known who told them what to do, who to be, and never saw who they were. To Dad, they were just “Broads makin’ a comeback.” Defeated by the prize-fighter who had to win each round, the mistress and the wife, the floozy and the saint, probably rolled their eyes and laughed at their lousy taste in men.
I know my mother thanked the mistress for making my father happy and giving me a Madame Alexander doll. I’m sure Mom kissed the once strawberry-red crown of hair. Liz died one week later.
All hell broke loose. Liz’s death and Mom’s mercy were the talk of the town. Someone gossiped. I bet it was one of the fishwives at church or a customer from Dad’s bar, who derided Liz’s confession and Mom’s benediction. I would like to pause here and tell the gossips about the upshot of their slander. Fifty years later, I want them to know, my bond with my mother was forever broken.
One night, there was a crash, a thud, a whimper and I ran from my bed to the living room to shield her from him. One of my parents must have said the name that must not be spoken.
The words “No Daddy No,” choke my throat.
Mom screams, “Toodie Toodie Toodie,”
A shadeless lamp lies sideways on the carpet among Mom’s books. The dog yelps in the corner. Dad must have kicked it and a pane of glass from the French door. My feet might be cut but there is no blood. There is a rip in the frill of my Peter Rabbit nightgown but I keep screaming, “Please don’t hurt her anymore.”
Mom wraps her arms around my fat tummy. There is blood on the yoke of her nightgown. Dad must have shown her the back of his hand. His brick-red knuckles bulge through leathery hairy skin. My father’s face is demented; a snarling werewolf with vicious hazel eyes stares down at me. I meet his stare, and love the way my ten-year-old body feels. This is the ugliest part of me. How much I love my own anger.
“Toodie, Toodie, Toodie,” Mom yells.
Today, when I replay this memory, my knees still turn to jello. I gasp for breath and do not understand why she used to call me Toodie. Perhaps it was from a limerick or refrain that soothed her like a blessing that became my curse. Toodie never Clare, or any of the other names on my birth certificate, Sharon, Lynn, Hermine. Toodie was an apparition only Mom could see. I was exiled for seeing the truth.
Call it trauma, but either way the wound made me go sideways through life. The sounds of violence revved my amygdala into overdrive. The weight of shame lodged in my gray matter. Call it the curse of the ancestors, passed down in grandmother’s amniotic fluids, but we all know that when the truth hurts—the mind and the body go blank and the soul flash freezes.
Mom spun our response to the scandal like a Public Relations pro, with a stiff upper lip.
She decreed that boarding school would be an enriching experience. Being educated by nuns and living with girls like me would make me strong. After all, Mom had been sent away to British boarding school during her formative years. I was sent away to protect me from gossip.
The taillights on Dad’s Cadillac disappeared down the driveway of Saint Joseph’s Academy. I stood beneath the statue of Mother Mary and touched her outstretched palms and prayed to her for her protection. The Blue Lady did not shimmer or speak. Her heavenly dress was faded by the sun. Her smile had faded too. Our Lady of Grace could not comfort all the sad sad girls who stood at her feet and shared the secrets of their hearts. The Blue Lady did not bless me. I could not feel her touch or the love in her heart for me. I could not feel my breath.
The Mother was mute.
“Stop pouting,” Sister Alice, my fifth grade teacher said, “You should be grateful to be here.”
I had escaped my parents’ marriage. Outlaw classmates taught me to pilfer frosty bottles of chocolate milk from an ancient vending machine, and penny-candy from the nuns’ closets. I was initiated by broken girls like me, who got angrier and fatter each month.We all woke up sobbing at night, and sought salvation in pancakes and deceit.
The rush of escape was an adrenaline high as potent as free sugar.
Clare Simons is aging gracefully in Portland Oregon and awaiting further instructions from the universe. She has been deeply loved by a Guru and by a great man, and has come to understand that those loves are one in the same. Her memoir, Devoted explores faith, doubt and food.
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