Ellen turns twenty one Thursday. I can hardly believe it. I remember pushing her in the grocery cart and her crying, and a lady telling me to enjoy every moment because it goes by quickly. So many parents offered that advice, and all I wanted was for her to go to sleep. The crying hours dragging on. I’d drive around the block at noon, at midnight-”Please, Just Sleep!” And now, I’m on the other side of all of that. Seems like just yesterday.
I was thinking today about what I was doing twenty one years ago. I was just days away from having her. I was getting ready to graduate college. Josh- this guy in my writing class -a total stoner, he’d wait for me after class. He’d stand and look at me for a long time. Who knows maybe he was just stoned. Gina, a friend from class told me that he was in love with me. That made me laugh. They’d all go out for beers after class, and I’d go home. He’d say things like- “I hope she goes into labor and I get to drive her to the hospital.” Mark, another guy from class would say, “Do you think her husband is gonna mind?” Gina said they’d make him pay for all the beers since all his money was from selling weed. Dumb Josh.
I used to go home, and tell my husband. He’d say things like “He’s in love with you?” It was always such a shock to him, and I was never sure if we enjoyed the sentiment for the same reason. Regardless, we’d lay in bed, and laugh about the ridiculousness of it. But, I still think there is something sweet about his wanting me- my belly out to here. Maybe I should have let him drive me to the hospital. Maybe him being stoned wasn’t so bad. But at twenty three- I was young. At twenty three you have these rules. Arbitrary rules. Rules that seem so important and well thought out. After a lifetime, those rules don’t matter. I guess what I mean is that when you’re young, like I was, you think things like: I want a man that likes art.
My ex husband drove a Mercedes, and the night I met him my girlfriend and I were walking to my car, and he was walking to his.We had just danced at the pub to Credence Clear Water Revival. He had his surfboard sticking out of the sunroof. I remember thinking-cool that he doesn’t mind the sand in his nice car. My girlfriend knew him and said-he has nice art. Nice art! That’s what I cared about. Wouldn’t give a thought to the guy who was stoned, but liked the guy with the surfboard and "nice art". None of it really matters after twenty one years. None of it matters after you’ve changed a thousand diapers, held hair back at midnight for the flu, driven in circles from soccer, to dance, to school, to orthodontics, to college. Art, Mercedes, Surfboards?
My daughter is going to be twenty one. It’s been a weird week moving up to it. I mean in so many ways I have changed, but in so many other ways I haven’t. I look in the mirror, and see the skin droopy. I tried on a pair of reading glasses yesterday in the store, and thought- okay, so this is where we’re at now, huh? The salesperson even called me “Ma’am”. It only matters because of where I am coming from. It only matters because of the life that is behind me. Ellen turning twenty one is a moment to think about my own life. I mean-I was only two years older than her when things changed. I hate to even think of it as regret. I know when I talk about it that is what it sounds like. I don’t mean it that way. I’m not sorry for her life, or her coming into the world. I am only sorry for the dumb things that happened before, and after, and still. The quick six week and pregnant relationship, the short engagement, the sad marriage, the volatile divorce- the chunk of emotions that went into all of it. But, her life, and her growing- regret isn’t a word that could be used. I mean-how can anyone be sorry for the friendship and all those lessons.
She said to me a couple years ago-I mean she said it, not knowing her beginnings, or her dad’s and my beginnings. She said while we were driving to Costco. It was a day that we had spent connected. A day where we appreciated one another. She said “Mom, I wish you didn’t have to work. I wish you could have stayed home the whole time with us, and written, and had a husband that loved you.” The windows were down, and I remember her face when she said it. Her brown hair was blowing, and the sun was beginning to set. She was brushing her hair out of her eyes, as the surfboard scent hanging from the rearview mirror swung back and forth. I remember the sincerity in her voice. She didn’t know what she was saying, and how it caught me off guard. I started crying. It just started and I couldn’t stop. She felt bad. “Mom-why are you crying” she said. She was half laughing when she asked because I think it surprised her. I told her that it sounded like such a better life- the one she described for me. “That sounds like such a better life,” I said. “The one you described is so nice.” She felt bad, and she explained she only meant that if I married someone other than her dad that life would look different. She said something so sweet, she said “You wouldn’t have had to work so hard, that’s all. And you’d have had other kids. You wouldn’t even know me and Jen.” I pictured this life in a flash. Me sitting at a desk, writing about simpler things: playgroups, decorating, Bunko parties, and dinner parties. I pictured my husband and me in our garden. I’m wearing a beautiful garden hat and leather gloves. This life is tempting- one I’ve dreamt of often. One where the lighting is just right, and the spaghetti is never too biting.
Sitting in the car that day with my thoughtful daughter- the one who has gone through so much. The one who has suffered the heartbreak of her father, and seen the sadness of her mother is not the life I pictured. It’s not the one that is described when we dream about a future. It’s not the one I wrote about when I wrote my poetry twenty one years ago in college. In the dim light of the sun, and the wind blowing in from the street, cars speeding past, I looked at my daughter. I told her that I wouldn’t want a life where I didn’t know her. "I don’t want that better life," I said, "I don’t want those 'better' kids, with two parents. I want you. I want Jen." It's true today, what was true then. At twenty one, seventeen, ten, five-every minute and hour- I want the mess, and I want the clean up, and I want this story, this picture, this life.