I rolled in on Tuesday night just past seven and found her in the driveway pulled far enough to the left I didn't have to hang out on the street or pull up on the grass which really wouldn't have been an issue either way. She was getting the mail which in itself is not a recently developed skill but getting it every day and dropping it in the same location (I could wish for some place other than the stove top but since an induction stove won't start without the right sort of metal...we choose our battles) is epic.
She stood there pulling out college catalogs (the herpes of the junk mail world. if you haven't been party to it, you just cannot imagine the influx that begins to trickle in at the end of sophomore year and may never stop - Lucia is 26, it's still coming) as if that thing we'd been looking for since the second week of August hadn't suddenly appeared at her feet. We had this idea that it wouldn't come; that somehow the $25 payment I made in early June before her junior year was even complete would have gotten lost somehow and she'd be the one student in her graduating class of two hundred or something like that to be forgotten. Periodically I checked my bank statement to be certain that yes, I did make a payment to the PTO for $25 and there would be a senior sign by the mailbox and we couldn't quite explain why we felt this way after all these years, why would Elizabeth be left out?
That's my stuff.
Her stuff is this: My mom is going to forget this shit again and I'm not going to have a yearbook. One time. One time I forgot to order the yearbook and she didn't have one.
Her stuff is actually a lot more reasonable than my stuff. I do forget stuff. I forget stuff all the time. That's because I don't have a spouse. I tried that once, it didn't work out. He was not a very good spouse. He sort of sucked at it. After the fact I realized he sucked at it because he didn't have the instruction manual. Or, he had the instruction manual or at least the quick reference guide but at some level didn't believe those things applied to him. Yeah, see, this is a problem. If you sign up for the job of SAHD then you get to do the job of SAHD the same way the woman gets to do the job of SAHM if she signs of for that job. Don't get me started. In the end, the GTWM gets to do the job of the SAHM and the GTWM because the GTWD says, are you fucking nuts?! I can't do all that shit! And the world does agree. GTW is Go To Work if you haven't worked that out. Anyway, I divorced my SAHD because it did NOT work out, not on any level whatsoever, not on the SAHD front, not on the spousal front, not on the partnership front, not on the any fucking front and guess who carried that blame? Moi. I even shouldered it for a while. I made an egregious error, I said. No, I did not. I made a very reasonable decision at the time and it did not work out.
So that wasn't going where I expected but that's OK.
We were both worried about that sign for two different reasons. Hers was reasonable, mine was rooted in a very old fear that is steeped in some very old hurts and probably a great deal of loss. To counteract my fear, which might have alleviated hers if she'd understood, I was probably one of the first ten mothers to pay for that sign. As soon as the PTO announcement hit my mailbox I was online with my debit card filling out her information and submitting payment. My kid was getting her sign no matter what.
When I drive home on Tuesday nights I am road weary and also wired, a state of being that leaves you open and vulnerable; it's as if anything floating by can get in, things you might miss entirely could embed themselves before you even noticed they were there. I'm not sure why Tuesdays are different than Thursdays other than there is a sense of urgency. I am already a good way into my week. I have put in two solid twenty hours broken in half with a hotel stay that involves mostly white noise and I know I need to get home as quickly as possible in order to maximize the time I have with this kid before I roll myself into my own bed and right back out the door at 5:45 Wednesday morning for another two days of the same. I am more relaxed on Thursday because it is over. What I do on Friday while still hell bent on getting shit done is different and I'm not going anywhere.
The final stretch of Route 53 North into the Forest is a drive I've been making since I was twenty. Granted there was solid gap between the time Joe and I left, pregnant with Michael for the wilds of the farm in Oxford but the drive is still the drive and the two destinations aren't more than two miles apart as the crow flies. Because the most of the houses up against the road are not new houses and the bends in the road have not changed, other than the one traffic light introduced god only knows when, it is still the road and the drive is firmly embedded in muscle memory as are many other things.
I was so young when we left, driven by that blind sort of hope which has flavor and substance but hasn't had time to solidify into anything particularly measurable. I was twenty-two, I loved my husband, and we were going to have a baby. We headed into this thing which was truly unknown, biting off way more than we would have dared had we really been able to comprehend the possible ramifications which were far more than monetary and tumbled headfirst down the rabbit hole leaving the perceived safety of the Forest and Fairfield County behind us.
Once I wanted to sit my children down and explain a few things but I couldn't figure out how to do it. I wanted to tell them, given the timing of their births and circumstances how differently they'd really been raised. I wanted to tell the girls, listen, Michael, he really had nothing, absolutely nothing. You really don't understand this. One year I came up with $60 when he was twelve years old and bought him his first large Lego set for his birthday and that's all he got and that was seriously EPIC. And this is why he won't let me get rid of the legos in my attic and he's thirty now. Later when he was older and you were younger and there was more money he had more but he was just about out of the house. He had a year of ski school I think and you, Lucia had three and you, Elizabeth had for freaking ever. He had a single birthday party. Just one. OK, one and a half but I botched that first one so badly there wasn't really anyone there. Lucia had one. Just one. Elizabeth. You had a major, different theme'd party every single year beginning in kindergarten. We didn't spend huge amounts of money but we put enormous effort into it. Elizabeth. You. Had. Everything. He. Had. Nothing. Subjectively speaking. Lucia falls somewhere in the middle. Even when Mike and Lucia were small and Mike had nothing, Joe would buy things for Lucia to make her happy. No one understood this and Mike had to live with it. I want to tell them about these discrepancies but I don't really know how. I want to explain how hard it was in the beginning but then I realize it isn't really any easier than it ever was; it's just different and now we have more to some extent and in others we don't. It's an odd mix. I want to explain what happened on that last two mile stretch of Route 53 North...
Like a lightening bolt it went in one side of my head and out the other leaving a twenty-six year burn.
In August, 2005 with my four year old in my arms, I dragged my newly minted fourteen year old by the hand over the border into Weston calling over my right shoulder for my recent high school graduate to hurry and catch up, please, I needed help with the baby, she was getting heavy. I held my head up with my refugee children, and clenched my jaw and looked straight ahead and said, I am from here and I am coming back if it kills me and you and you and you cannot do a damn thing to stop me. I waited a year. It would have been far better if I had come in 2004 economically but I waited a year because moving my boy at the end of high school might have been an unmitigated disaster. As it was, introducing his sister into the Weston pond at the beginning of eighth grade was tantamount to ripping her skin off. She spent the first three months hiding in the bathroom at lunch and the next three in the library. Toward the end of the school year a girl named Callie walked into her biology class and smacked her over the back of head with the great big text indicating that they were now close friends. It has been twelve years. Callie will be a bridesmaid in Lucia's June wedding. Some things take hold and stay but the damage was done and Lucia remained a refugee to the bitter end.
I placed the last of my maternal hope on the baby. Her birthday is in December and in this town they'll enroll them until December 31. We didn't think, given the first two needing to repeat grades that this was a very good idea but went back and forth and in talking to the school decided to give it a shot because the school had no problem cycling them through kindergarten twice. Elizabeth, we were quite certain, was going to cycle twice. Until March she sat there at her desk without saying a word and interacted poorly with the other children despite the fact that at after school care she more or less ran the place. In April she made one giant leap forward and we were told she should progress. We, along with the entire kindergarten staff, were astonished. She repeated this process for the next five years.
At the end of the first year at Lucia's eighth grade moving up ceremony we sat in chairs under a large white tent on the great expanse of lawn on the compound which holds all four schools. They do this every year. The principal asks the student body to raise its hands if it has been here since kindergarten. It looked like more than 75% of the student body had its hands up. He said, this is why you are here. This is why your parents are here. Your parents brought you here for this school and those of you who did not raise your hands and have come recently, welcome. You're here for the same reason. I looked at my five year old and thought, yes, this is is why I came here. I came here to raise one child in a single school system, start to finish. I came to give at least one of my children the chance to grow up in a single town, to not be moved, to define herself in a community, to not have to experience the loss, and fear, and disassociation that comes from being picked up and dropped into the unknown over and over again.
I looked at my five year old and thought, I don't care what it takes, we are not going anywhere.
We picked Weston initially because when Elizabeth was small she stopped talking. She started talking late but in an odd way. She didn't have those first words babies normally have but she sang. She watched Sesame Street and Between the Lions and one day we listened to her singing. Not humming, singing. She made the sounds of the words but only if there was music. She sounded like she had perfect pitch or might have perfect pitch. If you looked at her too closely or tried to interact or sing back, she stopped. Unless it was Baby Beluga and then everybody sang. At fifteen months the words came and there was eye contact and there had always been physical contact but at the same time her SAHD was having trouble being a SAHD and we put her in day care two days a week mostly for more stimulation and to give him some time to do whatever it was he wanted to be doing. At eighteen months her day care provider, a woman who ran a small service with no more than five children under two and a half indicated that Elizabeth was not making eye contact and had stopped talking. kathy was very worried because Elizabeth didn't come in that way. She showed us how Elizabeth avoided the other children but couldn't come up with a reason why because there hadn't been an incident, it just happened gradually. This is the age of parallel play anyway but not avoidance. Elizabeth stopped talking at home and stopped making eye contact. She stopped wanting to be held and pushed away physical contact. She still sang back to the television.
We took her to the doctor who said: we do not diagnose the spectrum this early however, there is a program called Birth to Three in Connecticut and it is free and you should start using it. Do not take her out of day care, Kathy sounds like she knows what she's doing and at this point, don't isolate Elizabeth. So we brought in Birth to Three and found out about play therapy and Elizabeth was in the Birth to Three program until we left Stamford (despite having aged out of it). No one could ever say what happened or why. Elizabeth gradually rejoined us on her own terms but it left us frightened and wondering what she might need in the future. I decided what she might need was the best possible public school system we could find her in terms of funding and expectation.
I remembered the town I left when I was pregnant with Mike. The town in the Forest that existed more or less to fund a school. It was an idyllic town, a small town, the marriage of what was left of a farming community and the top of the middle class. It was an expensive community but it was understated and focused on family, education, and community. I wanted to go home.
So I told the father of my first two children who told his wife who was livid because she did NOT want to live in the Forest. Somehow I got my way on this one. This was the only thing I got my way on and I'm not really sure how I pulled it off. They moved in a full year before we did which put the kids in the nearly untenable position of having to commute from Weston to Stamford to go to school every other week. The suckage meter on that was astonishing. I did not think to ask them much about the town.
When David and I started looking at houses I nearly fell over. There was just no way in hell we were going to be able to swing this. We were looking at the bottom of the market which was 200k above the top of our budget. Had we come one year earlier we might have been OK. But we didn't. There were three houses. One was right at the top of our budget. It would have had to be gutted before we could live in it. The black mold was terrifying. The second was 100k above the top of our budget. We couldn't figure out where to put Mike other than in a very dank basement and the other bedrooms were two small to fit two beds to house two girls.
I cried when we bought our house. It's OK, David said. Someday there will be no alimony and no child support and we will have the whole of your income and the whole of my income and this will be alright and in the mean time we may incur some debt if there are problems but it will all work out. I did the math, looked down the road with a great deal of faith and signed the papers. I can always bail, I thought. I can always bail if the shit hits the fan. I don't want to bail. I want to raise my kid right here, K-12, but if I have to bail, I can freaking bail.
That was in August of 2005. In October of 2009 we were divorced and it was just my salary and one gigantic mortgage. No, one gigantic mortgage and a gigantic home equity loan which had somehow gotten bigger while I wasn't looking because I CHECKED OUT AND STOPPED PAYING ATTENTION (don't do that).
The house could not be sold. Between August of 2005 and August of 2009 when it was reappraised it had lost 35% of it's value. It continued to drop over the next five years while the rest of the country recovered. Today it is worth approximately the top of our 2005 budget. Twelve years later, this house is under water AND the mortgage payments have increased by $1380 a month because the HELOC is no longer an interest only payment.
So. The point of all this is that Life has continued to life. Things don't always go the way you think they're going to. We make the best decisions we can given the information we have at the time and then, more often than not I think, we punt. The searing image of my refugee children in August, 2005 just isn't going to go away. Refugees from what, exactly? From not having enough? From an inconsistent life? From never really belonging anywhere? From an existence when examined, was really way too harsh?
If I was a man I would have many awards by now. I don't know who gives out these awards but I'm quite certain I would have them. This occurs to me only because of how harsh I am with myself as I come to the end of this one particular road having done this thing at a price I haven't even begun to tally yet, having gotten this one last baby k-12 in one town.
This occurs to me because of how harsh I am with myself as I come to the end of the twenty-six year road, having put the first baby on the school bus just after labor day in 1991 when Lucia was just a few weeks old and Elizabeth wasn't even on the map.
This occurs to me because of how harsh I am with myself as I come to the end of the twenty-six year road, having just written the check for Lucia's wedding while plotting out Elizabeth's tuition payments while plotting out how long I can keep commuting to Basking Ridge while trying to figure out what the HELL I'm going to do about the dog when she goes off to school NEXT year.
This occurs to me because of how harsh I am with myself when I realize all the things I have NOT done which I SHOULD have done...
... and I want to sit my three refugee children down and explain to them...
Listen, you have to understand, Momma has worked so very, very hard for longer than you can imagine and while I want to give you all the things you think you should have, you really just aren't going to get them all. You're going to get some of them. And if you give me that look of disappointment and hurt when I tell you no, you're going to break my heart.
I want to say, go ask your fathers but I stopped saying that a very long time ago.
All of this is my stuff. My fears, my belief in my own inadequacy. My belief that I should be able to just come up with it, make it right, whatever it is. Work a little harder, smarter, develop whatever skill set I need to make the money required to get where we need to be...
That last part isn't necessarily wrong, by the way. It's not wrong until I add the fear and the bad feeling on top of it.
If I were growing corn I would need to grow enough corn to have seven years of food put by in case of blight and famine. That's a very simplified metaphor but in the end it's the same drive and focus that catapults the hunter-gatherer away from the fire.
The problem is I've broken the gender box but I've still got the pieces parts of the horrible box called Woman stuck all over me.
So I'm working on that but I'm pretty sure I know now why I find the idea of a male partner absolute anathema at this point. I've got about half a centimeter of tolerance left for anything which smells even faintly of male centric behavior as it relates to expectation of Woman.