Of Winning with Daughters


Sometimes the most powerful words are your own, recited back to you. Lily is a poet. You might remember she won the Central Oregon Writers Guild poetry award last year. She won it again this year and I got to stand up with her and get my own award for non-fiction. I wrapped a story, basically a letter to her, around one of her poems

Lily, our 18 year old daughter, won the Central Oregon Writer’s Guild Poetry Award again this year (two in a row). And I won 2nd in the non-fiction category. And for the first time in a long time I feel like I might be winning this motherhood game. But I also might be cheating- I used one of Lily’s poems, collaging parts of it into a story for her, and without her poem the story wouldn’t be much. Here’s the story:

Such Unkind Things 

The way your dark mascara dripped and blurred under your eyes when you peeked out from behind your pink blankie made me think of a Pierrot doll, and I asked if you were okay.

Your whispered response turned into a sobbing storm when I encircled you with outstretched arms, and I thought, How much are you willing to put up with?

I see you reaching for this mechanical boy beneath you, wanting to be wanted, to be seen, to be heard. I wonder at what makes you willing to try so hard.

You might have a bit of a savior complex, I say the next morning after hearing your cries in the kitchen, finding you clutched in your baby sister’s arms, holding her so tight she is bouncing with the rhythm of your heaving sobs before she heads out the door for another day of fourth grade.

Maybe it’s true, you say, as you fill your favorite honey bee mug with lavender tea.

Well, I know you’ll figure it out, you always do, I say, affirming what I want to be true. You are only 17. I sip coffee that has grown cold, waiting.

And then you share a new poem with me, the one that begins as a conversation with your brother who has left, along with the other two, but the one you miss most, the one you wrote that poem for,  All the Unkind Things, about how it’s weird that love is not enough and he’s the only one you talk with about it. I see you two sharing familiar side hugs, his eyes settled on some patch of ground, your hands fidgeting when you say to him, You were there for all the unkind things, when whispers turned into heavy raincloud sobs and realizations folded up like sheets that fell out in wrinkled mumbles.

My brothers scattered in different directions long ago in the aftermath of our parent’s divorce. Maybe I’m trying to prematurely save you from the pain of that fate, but I can barely save myself. And yet I watch your brother help you bring the corners back together.

His words fill holes like spackling in the spaces left behind by all the pushpin ghosts.

He tries to teach you love like putting posters up with tape,

but you can’t get away from tacks that push all those souls through your punctured skin.

I think it scares him that he’s the reason you’re okay. And from all those states away

he somehow helps you keep your shape, reminding you who you are with every word.

He closes up the cracks. And all the unkind things fall away.*

When I was your age I had a boyfriend who was almost always nice to me. In late fall, one afternoon, another boy asked me to go for a motorcycle ride. I climbed on and felt the freedom of a fall breeze speeding through my hair, tangling with his words thrown back at me, my hands clutching his waist.

My boyfriend saw us and chased us down in his midnight blue El Camino. He almost ran us off the curved road before I told my friend to stop.

When my boyfriend jumped out, his long arms were filled with all my leftover things—my art books and colored pencils, a pair of sandals, a favorite sweater, a forgotten hat, my coffee cup and make-up, all held tight in his lumberyard arms for one moment while he stared down at me. Then all my things flew up in the air, my after school life scattering across the center lane. My best pot of pink lipgloss rolled under a passing car and cracked open before I could retrieve it.

My boyfriend said I could go now with the guy on the motorcycle and take all my stuff with me, or I could come with him. I bent down to pick up my stuff, and he bent down to help me. He said he’d buy me new pots of gloss, and he whispered how love made him crazy. He took me out to dinner.

I loved him. 40 years later I still think of him, that first real love. It took until New Year’s Eve to figure out how to say good-bye, but that day I found out I wasn’t willing to put up with such unkind things.

*phrases of Lily’s poem, All the Unkind Things, are collaged in, with permission

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