My mother was there as expected. She was the one who took the children to church, a responsibility she shouldered in spite of our resisting tears and lateness. It’s Sunday. Go to church. No questions. Up on the podium, I bravely spoke about honesty to a sparse but attentive audience. I told the story about how I learned to tell the truth from my dad. I’m telling the anecdote about eating the prohibited jelly, however I'm omitting important details, such as the truth that I didn't actually eat the jelly though I said I did. The truth didn’t fit my point well. I wanted to claim that Dad taught me to value honesty even when it was about little indiscretions. I left out the entire scene where he paced in front of a row of five scared children cracking a belt and speaking in a deepened Tennessee hills’ voice that terrified us until the guilty party was forced to confess. I didn’t say that he threatened to beat everyone until someone confessed. I also didn’t say to the congregation or to my father that I knew who ate the strawberry jelly.
Temptation. The Lord knows the art of temptation. Do you recognize the line from Enchanted April? That strawberry jelly was just sitting on the shelf offering a special kind of temptation. We yearned for the taste of summer freedom from this forbidden fruit. My sister couldn’t resist. I knew she wouldn’t confess. I knew no one would. I knew we would all be needlessly beat if someone didn’t confess. I said I did it. My jellied legs were ordered to Mom and Dad’s private bedroom where I was taught honesty by my father- the same father I was lying about during my maiden speech.The father I was devoted to in spite of the beatings and his absence. My father who taught me to value honesty. I can still hear his voice, Take your pants down. Bend over.
I highlighted my father’s integrity in the speech my mother attended. The speech father didn’t hear. When I finished, I don’t remember my mother's praise. I remember her tight face; it was a face that yearned for validation from a daughter and a face that could never receive. Mom was playing the thankless mother role while her middle daughter praised the absent father. She didn’t see her daughter’s hidden hope that if she were good enough she might somehow earn his love and feel safe. I admit that I was the daughter who felt sorry because she couldn’t appreciate her mother. I was the daughter who was shamed into silence. My mother didn’t tell me that day that Dad didn’t deserve my devotion though she knew about the beating. Mom, how could you allow it? You used our fear of being beat to control us. Just wait until your dad gets home then you’ll get it. Instantly, that would silence us. Why didn’t you protect me, Mom?In all of the silences between us over the years, my mother never learned the truth about that incident. She never knew how much I lied in my speech about honesty. She didn't know I did not agree to these repeated beatings. Our Father who art in heaven...hallowed be thy name. I would do anything for my father but it would never be enough. In my mind, Mom was responsible for his behavior. Why is it we always expect more from our mothers? After the service, the members congratulated me. All strangers. All empty. All those who weren’t in my life except on Sunday. Soon the final stage of my confirmation would come and we would celebrate the official ceremony. This was the day that my mother’s extended (and unknown to me) family could be invited to our house for a big party. I would wear a white dress and after my first trip to the hair salon, I would have an up-do. Stepping in a pair of low heels, I would receive all of the attention of a grown up girl- just the way my sisters had before me.
It came down to this- my mother said, “I will give you one hundred dollars if you take that instead of a party.” One hundred dollars! That was a lot of money. More money than I had ever received before. If I accepted the money there would be no party. That was the deal. Mom said I might not get that much money in gifts even if I had a party. So it was a gamble. Should I take the sure money or have a party? I could tell that my mother wanted me to take the money so I did. I knew she didn’t have time or the desire to throw another confirmation party. Now I’m twelve again. I’m angry. I’m the older woman now and I’m fighting for the girl who was tricked by her mother- her mother who was jealous of the girl’s devotion to an undeserving father. The mother who wanted to be done with this child raising drill and just get on with her own life. I’m the woman remembering the girl. I was conned. I was conned by my mother who didn’t want to do the mother thing anymore and by my father who just didn’t do.
My parents are fighting again and I don't know how to stop it. Stop the yelling. Stop it! Only I don’t say anything. I'm listening to an old fight. It reminds me of that scene in Nine Months where the quirky character Gail (Joan Cusack) says to her husband, “I can’t believe you are fighting during my moment. My moment! My miracle! She screams at him while he is punching and wrestling with another father in the delivery room. The laughter lightens me enough to remember that Dad was absent during my birth. According to Mom, he went out and got drunk while she was having a baby. (Really she can't remember which child it was.) Apparently, he met one of my uncles and they took off to celebrate. Mom said she could have died while he was out getting tanked. I heard this fight many times over the years. I don’t know the true story but I do know that Mom couldn’t get over it. She needed recognition and support, he wasn’t there.
At home, I’m sitting on the stairs after my big ceremony. I’ve been confirmed but not affirmed. We arrive to an empty house. No dinner. No cake. No one’s there. I’m so alone. I feel this space gaping wide and wider still. Mom walks up to me with the one hundred dollars. Here’s your money. Remember our deal. Just the money. I look at the money. No card. No friendly faces. I’m sitting alone in my white dress. My piled up and sprayed-still hair is wilting. The curls stretch out on one side more than the other. The hair pins press against my scalp but I don’t take them out. No one is here. Mom’s gone. Did she know how I felt? I prostituted myself for one hundred dollars, and she made the deal.
[Enchanted April- this is a hyperlink to Elizabeth von Arnim's novel, which is provided by Project Gutenberg.]