Canaries In The Coal Mine

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A story I wrote for my son when he moved out of our house at age 18, now 3 years ago. Short memoir.

     My son Edward turned eighteen this month.  He’s just graduated from high school.  Yesterday he got his first apartment and he's so excited.  Spent his first night in it last night.  He couldn't wait.  I don't blame him.  If I had me for a mother, I'd be ready to ship out, too.  He'll probably be seeing a therapist soon, telling him about how I drove him fucking crazy all his life.  

     "Yeah”, he'll say, "She bought me all these pink "My Little Ponies” when I was ten, eleven, twelve, even thirteen years old. She thought it was funny." 

     "I was just on the phone last week with my step sister Lelia explaining to her why I had all those pink ponies.  I swear to God, she still didn't believe me.  Paul had to get on the phone and rescue me.  I'm sure she thinks I'm gay, not that there's anything wrong with that... Why would anyone's mother give him pink ponies?  It's just beyond bizarre.  I had a whole shelf of PonyVille in my room!  When Lelia's little daughter came over one year and saw all those ponies, she was like, "WOW! I love My Little Pony, too!”  Like it was something we had in common.  She was FOUR years old!  I thought I was going to die.  I mean, I gave her all the ponies and told Lelia that my stupid mother gave them to me because she's a weirdo.  Who does that??”

     I can just hear the whole conversation he’ll be having someday with his therapist in my head right now.  

     “Lelia, my step-sister, a Russian orphan who spent the first fifteen years of her life in an orphanage in Moldova, before Paul adopted her and brought her to America knows the PonyVille thing is messed up.  My mother, on the other hand, from the Commonwealth of Virginia, can’t see the problem.”


     "Lelia said to me, 'Edward, you shouldn’t have those My Little Ponies.'


"But she doesn’t sound Russian anymore. She sounds like her husband James, a Gen-Xer from Downstate Michigan, so everything ends in “man." Like this:


     “Edward, you shouldn’t have those My Little Ponies, man; those are for little girls, man.”

     Well, I guess it's lucky in a way that I’m forced to carry this huge grown man on my insurance until he's 26 years old. He should go ahead and start therapy now while I'm toting the note on his health care.  It isn’t cheap, that’s for sure.  Someday he’ll appreciate that.  Maybe not now, but someday.   

     His apartment is a lot nicer than I thought it would be.  I lived in some real shit-holes when I was starting out.  I lived in a furnished attic once.  I couldn’t even stand up straight in the corners and I’m not all that tall.  He found his place himself, got the paperwork all arranged, got his own lease, etc.  Good for him.

     He told Paul he was worried about all the little girls hanging around.  Paul just looked at him with one of those looks, what I can only call "A classic Paul."  You know, the look that's so sage and has seen it all before and can reduce pretty much any situation to anyone's level and he said,

     "Edward, those little blond girls are the canaries in the coal mine.  Having little girls hanging around is a good thing.  They see everything.  When you have little girls outside playing in an apartment complex, that's good.  When the little blond girls are all gone, there is trouble."  

     Of course, Paul is right, like always. I kind of hate that about him.  Him being right all the time.  Can't he be wrong at least on a part time basis, like the rest of us?  Shouldn't he pretend?  Make up some stupid shit just to "level the playing field?"   Can’t he just do it for my self esteem?  Don't I deserve that?  

     I remembered back to when I was a little girl.  I was a canary in a coal mine like that once. For a little while.  Just like these little girls.  Their mothers will remarry and they will move away into new houses somewhere.  But for now, there they are, everywhere.  Seeing everything.  Being everywhere.  Just like I was.

     Edward's huge room is empty now and I have reclaimed my big handicapped accessible room and with it the handicapped accessible shower.  I spent hours scrubbing the marble shower because it would be too embarrassing for our housekeeper to see how scummy it was.  We haven’t let our housekeeper “keep house” in Edward’s room since we didn’t think it was right for a teenager to have a maid.

     “You can’t afford a housekeeper!” we would tell him.

     “Your room is your responsibility.”

     I guess he showed us.  Four plus years of soap scum in my "good shower."  God, I sound like Anne McKinley, my ex Mother-in-Law.  Everything was my “good this” and my “good that” with her.  She was a horrible woman.  Still is. The only reason I know she’s still alive is that Edward sometimes rings her phone just so we can hear her answer.

     “Hell-Low.” She’ll say in that mean old woman voice of hers.  Then she’ll say it again.  And again.  And again.  We burst into laughter and hang up.
I know it sounds mean, but trust me, she’s mean.  We can imagine her there in her “good chair."

     “She’s probably up watching Larry King," Edward would say.


     “He’s still alive?” I’d wonder.

     No matter.  She is.  She wouldn’t let me invite my cousin Valerie, my one and only “good relative,"  my best friend in the whole world to Edward’s baptism luncheon because she said she didn’t have enough of her “good china."   He was my baby.   My “good baby."   Without me and my “good baby," this was just another meeting of her wretched book club or Junior League.

     What was that, anyway?  Junior League?  What was junior about those old women?  The woman was as old as baseball.  She and her sister, Sarah Katherine, an unbelievable ten years her senior, whom she called “Sister," but it came out like “Sistaaah," an affectation my ex-husband Lawrence, a pathological liar and con-man told me she had picked up when she went away to an all-women’s college in “Jaw-ja."


     “Listen to her!!” he’d say,


     “No one else sounds like that!”


Maybe that was the single solitary true thing he had told me in the entire time that I had known him.

     “It’s an affectation they adopted so they’d sound as if they were right off the plantation like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, instead they sound like Gullah, low-country slaves from Georgia.”


     I wasn’t good enough to be a McKinley?  Good. Neither of us are McKinleys now.  It’s amazing what enough money and political clout can do.  Edward’s birth certificate has Lawrence erased from his life and Paul neatly inserted.  Maybe we’re not good enough to go to federal prison, either.  She was and is horrible.


     It's amazing what enough elbow grease and Kaboom shower cleaner can do, too.  It was so slippery in that shower that it's a miracle Edward didn't fall and break his neck and need a fucking handicapped shower.  Praise God, he made it out in one piece and without needing a wheelchair.  

     I'm also in charge of cat sanitation again.  Eight blissful years of kitty love without kitty litter.  It was fantastic! Edward truly did a shitty job, which seems only fitting, considering the task. I've told him over and over and over and over again,


          "No matter how tedious the job, always do your best." 

Clearly, this is another area in which we have failed each other.  We have also failed our feline.  Mao with his dual litter boxes, with literal stink lines coming off of them.  I held my breath and went to work.  


     "So," I asked Paul, "What are we using for liners for the boxes?"  


     Paul began a fairly lengthy dissertation about the size of the bags and the strength of the bags in “mils” and how Edward had started to cut them down to fit the boxes.  


     "Sounds great.  What are we using to cut the bags to size?"


     Paul reminded me about a household device called "scissors."  I guess that’s what he means when he says I’ve got a “special kind of stupid."  Stuff like that.


     Two out of the three orphans Paul had adopted from the Moldovan orphanage had fetal-alcohol syndrome and were retarded.  One of them, Christina, would say,


     “Father, I’m retarded, not stupid.”  So, there is a difference.


I am sometimes stupid, but clearly, not retarded.  Even the retarded girls know the difference.


     I somehow managed to get the bags to fit the boxes, more or less, and to fill the boxes to what I think is about cat cankle deep.  Mao should be happy, since he knows he has moved up a notch in the hierarchy of the household.  I also refilled his dish downstairs of what Edward has come to refer to as his "dirty face-water" since Edward insists that the water was clean and that Mao plunges his filthy face into the bowl and then won't drink it.

     Poor Mao is then forced to drink from my shower after he sits outside like a stalker hoping for a few drips of clean water after I shower.  He also likes to sit outside the glass looking at me naked.  I can see this fat brown cat-shaped silhouette.  I expect him to come and plunge his dirty face into the water.  Instead, he waits patiently for that frosted shower glass to swing open and gingerly steps in for a few sips.  Poor dear. He’s so parched.


     We played the symphony of the vehicles today with me driving Paul over to Edward’s apartment where he had left his car.  The little blond girls were there playing. They were looking out the window because it was raining. They were smiling as they waved to us.

     The canaries are still there in the coal mine.


     That’s a good sign.

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