Gifts from Maggy
Lucy, my dog, sprawls across my bed and I'm nearly swallowed by a small mountain of down pillows. I'm waking up, sipping my second mug of espresso with two tablespoons of sugar and hot milk and having my first bong hit of the day. Not exactly the breakfast of champions but I like it. The Young and the Restless is on TV and Nick Newman is thinking of sleeping with his slutty secretary, Grace, when Lucy springs up.
She comes to full alert all at once, from a snoozing dog to a tall standing, hackles up, silent attack dog. There's a slight rocking of the bed and the delicate tinkle of her various dog tags. I lean over and look out the second story window of my bedroom to the yard, sidewalk, and street below. Nothing. No dog walking by, no mailman, car, or pedestrian. Then, before I settle back into the pillows and take my second bong hit, I hear the unmistakable sound of the UPS truck's slight screech as it rounds the corner and pulls to a stop in front of the house. The minute it rounds the corner, Lucy is off the bed, down the stairs, at the door and waiting when the UPS guy hits the porch. The second his hand touches the screen door she barks once--deep, loud and with authority. He still has to open the screen door, cross an enclosed porch, ring the bell, and all the time Lucy growls and barks ferociously. It's the confident barking of a very competent watchdog. Both participants know this ritual. She acts tough. He believes her, drops his package, hits the bell, and runs like hell. It's always the same.
I have a cold that's gone bad. I dial my doctor's office and get a busy signal. Hit off. Redial. A commercial comes on and I go down to retrieve the box. It's a big one. I heft it to my hip and grab a knife from the kitchen on the way back upstairs.
I know the package is from Maggy. She sends at least two a month. Thanks to Maggy, Lucy and the UPS guy get to play their ritualized game. Now I have to play the same sort of game with Maggy--different rules, different players, but no less ritualized. After I open the package and sort through the treasures I will have to call her and comment on each piece with interest and enthusiasm, but most importantly my gratitude will have to sound real to her finely tuned ear. I have the rest of the day to prepare my remarks. I'll definitely bathe and change clothes today.
Today's boxes are better than most. These are her rejects from this past weekend's garage sale purchases. It's her obsession. There are five cashmere sweaters. I probably have fifty or sixty cashmere sweaters. I keep the best and pass on the rest of them to friends. This box also contains a pair of Gianni Versace beige suede pants, size 4 (I'm currently an 8 but one of my model friends will be able to wear them) a beaver top hat, some glitzy clip-on earrings, and two pairs of shoes size 7 1⁄2, (her size, not mine). The top hat is my favorite item in this box. I can work up some genuine enthusiasm over a beaver top hat. Who knows, I might want to dress-up like Marlene Dietrich some night.
She's always had the power to wipe me out--mistress as she is of the eviscerating tongue-lash. I know she's just an old woman, opinionated and imperious, alone and hardly much of a threat to me, really. Without me she has no single, aging daughter. Without me she’ll have no one to take care of her when she can't take care of herself. Because of her I have no child of any sex to love me or hate me. Without her I'm home free.
A lifetime of expensive psychotherapy has taught me I can give her the power to hurt me, or not. All the rationality in the world can't make me not fear her, though I still wish it were so simple, since it's hard to love someone you fear. And I do love her. I love her most satisfactorily at a distance. The greater the distance, the more I love her. Once or twice a year I wish her dead with about as much success as I wish I could love her in an uncomplicated way. Not painfully dead, but dead nonetheless.
I'd like to outlive her long enough to know what it is to be free of the need to suppress my rage and be nice, bite my tongue, keep my feelings to myself. I’m so tired of being told I stink and I talk too loud. She has always expected me to share her passions and her prejudices. (She hates fat people and feels entitled to berate them for their food choices in line at the grocery store, while I try to pretend I don't know her.) In person, she requires my undivided, adoring attention. If I don't get that just right it ends in her extravagant crocodile tears and recriminations. I must endure her long rambling critique of everything wrong with me--from my fiscal irresponsibility to my poor housekeeping skills. When I object, whatever the tone of my voice, she says, "Please don't yell, your voice hurts my ears." It's often the only thing she says, but waiting, in case I open my mouth and suck in air, as if to speak, there is the next thrust, "Why must we always talk about the past? You'll never be a grown-up if you can't stop living in the past. Get over it. Move on."
Last time she came to Salt Lake to visit me, my first impulse was to kill myself. Instead I called the therapist I keep in touch with for just such emergencies. It cost four hundred dollars in therapy sessions, canceled bookings (and a pissed off agent), doctor's visits and a new anti-depressant. I spent a month in bed recovering after she left. Usually I can anticipate her impulse to drop in on me and beat her to the draw by scheduling a short visit to Santa Barbara. I can stay in Yankee Farm with my friend Jack.
I'm not proud of this pathetic fear of my own mother; it's such a loathsome admission, and not entirely the truth. What I feel for Maggy has never been simple fear and it's certainly not uncomplicated. Maggy has never been just my mother. We've been rivals since my conception. I worship and fear her as only a powerless rival can. To most people she's a fabulous creature. She was to me too before I got to know her.
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