American

An Ordinary American Life

My mother was a good-looking broad. When she was young she could have passed for a movie star with her nineteen-inch waist and double-D bust. She had giant hazel-green eyes and a bright smile. She was dramatic and sometimes the class clown yet the only makeup she wore was lipstick.

The one-year anniversary of her death is chewing through the pages of the calendar to November 30. Just like Richard Thompson sang, the ghost of you walks. I pick at my grief, trying to make it bleed so I can feel close to her again. 

Maybe I hope to understand myself better by understanding her. There's a lot I wonder about, for instance, why didn't she take better advantage of her physical beauty? Mom knew that life was a contest. She had been her high school Homecoming Queen and the runner-up to Miss Orlando in 1958. She said the pageant had been rigged, that the winner had been some rich man's daughter. So why didn't she play the game better?

Sure, my father may have seemed like a catch initially. He was handsome, came from an upper-middle-class family, and had lovely manners. But he became chronically ill only two years into their marriage. Why didn't she try to find a financially secure, not mentally ill husband after she divorced him twelve years later? She was barely forty and still beautiful.

Could be she did not wear plunging necklines and thicker eyeliner because she didn’t feel good. She wasn't up for it. When you have migraine headaches, depression and anxiety, five pregnancies in five years with only one miscarriage, weight gain, and prescription drug dependency, it's hard to feel pretty. She lacked ambition. There were people who called my mother a hypochondriac. Those people needed to walk a mile in her non-fussy shoes.

Maybe using her looks simply wasn't her style. Mom was not a flirt. It's possible that her experience of sex had been a drag, and lord knows she had plenty to complain about. But I think the real problem was how near the end of her emotional rope she swung. Mom was simply too exasperated to be sexy. She took whatever came to her, too defensive and too tired to reach. Besides, that would have been vulgar and for all her faults, being vulgar was not one of them.

All of this to say, I think my mother experienced an ordinary American life. She had been lucky in some respects, like being born an attractive white person in the U.S. of A. And the dream she claimed to have wanted more than anything in the world, having children, was realized. She got five of us. But her marriages were awful and she lost several houses; she had a low earning capacity; and after decades of warding off one shit show after another, she wore out. Something Broke Her, the song Sarah Silverman recently wrote and sang at the Blue Bird Café in Nashville hit emotional pay dirt for me. In the American tradition, she compared and blamed, took offense easily and the only things she truly never gave up on were her children and her anger. She had all she could take. She made peace with "I can't." 

But on a good day, she was funny as hell.

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