Of Winning with Daughters

Sometimes the most powerful words are your own, recited back to you. Lily is a poet. At 16 she won the Central Oregon Writers Guild poetry award. She won it again this year and I won an award for non-fiction so we each read our pieces at the awards ceremony, mother and daughter. My story started as a letter to her, wrapped around one of her poems, a collage of sorts, hoping to be a collaboration.

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– 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 bounces 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 hope is true.

You are only 17. I sip coffee grown cold waiting for me.

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 my 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 

pushing 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. One late Fall afternoon another boy asked me to go for a ride on his motorcycle. 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 scattered across the center lane of that curved road. 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 lipgloss, and he whispered how love made him crazy. He took me out to a nice 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