by Eileen Workman
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Author’s bio follows the story
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SCHOOL MUST BE OVER. I hear the front door slam mid-afternoon, followed by the stomp of footsteps as Anna seeks me out. Unfortunately, the odor of melting spray starch leaves me all too easy to find.
. . . . .“I hate my nose,” Anna declares, having followed it straight to my ironing board in the den. Sullen, silent, she waits.
. . . . .My hand pauses high in the air and my lungs grow tight. How like my daughter to opt for war before homework. The silence between us lengthens while I hang up a shirt to postpone the inevitable. Stiff fingers struggle to fasten the collar button. Meanwhile, Anna hovers at the edge of my personal space, a tempest in jeans and a faded Billabong tee shirt. I hear the muffled tapping of her toes on the carpet, sense her folded arms, and feel the heat from her gaze scorching my shoulders. All five feet seven inches of this Amazon girl-child are now daring me to respond. Thin and fierce, Anna is primed for combat.
. . . . . I’m not yet ready to engage her.
. . . . . My Anna has only begun to bud. As yet, her gawkiness hides her classic beauty. Gumby limbs divert the attention of the less experienced boys, but grown men see Anna more clearly. I watch them watch her walk at times, feeling proud, amazed, and more than a little afraid for this child who will soon be a woman. Anna has my eyes, except hers blaze with an intensity mine long ago learned to hide from the outer world. Her hair—another genetic donation from me—spills across her shoulders; soft and thick, it gleams like polished wood. Last week she hated her hair as much as she hates her nose today. She begged me to allow her to dye it purple and shave it above her ears. I am still learning to ride out these sudden shifts in Anna’s emotions; to sidestep the whirlpools she constantly swirls in my path.
. . . . .Today it seems clear that Anna feels a need to unload some emotional energy onto someone—anyone, most likely. I just happen to be her favored, and handiest, target whenever this impulse begins to arise. I know this logically; sense I ‘should’ be able to ride out her moods with internal equanimity. Yet knowing and feeling are very different things.
. . . . .“I want a nose job,” she announces, voice tight and hammer hard.
. . . . .I manage to fasten the button at last. A smile tugs at the corners of my lips. Life with Anna has taught me to savor successes, no matter how small. I set aside the neatly hung shirt and consider this fresh Anna problem, silently examining and discarding my various options. Finally, I settle on what I believe is the safest ground upon which to rest.
. . . . .“What matters isn’t your nose,” I offer, “it’s how you feel about yourself on the inside.” Not condescending, but not committing to rhinoplasty either. Let her mull that a bit. With luck I’ve offered her nothing firm to attack.
. . . . .I wait, watching closely as she absorbs my words, then the skin on her forehead starts twitching. My heart sinks. Her expression tells me that—somewhere inside my vague non-answer—Anna has spotted a weakness.
. . . . .“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Here Mom…just look at it.” She scrunches her face and thrusts it aggressively into my own, as if to blind me with the proximity of the all-offending organ. I struggle to uncross my eyes and stare at the straight fine lines of her nose—which looks perfect to me, except for the criss-cross of wrinkles now etched in its Romanesque bridge. It’s the type of nose no respectable surgeon would touch.
. . . . .In truth, Anna’s is the nose I tried to purchase for myself a few years earlier, but after three thousand dollars and two weeks of pain, success eludes me still. Internal scar tissue pulls my nose rather far to the right of center, but I’ve chosen not to endure more pain to correct this brand-new problem. Anna knows this; I made the mistake of confessing my envy last year, in those more peaceful days before she learned to turn my words into weapons against me. The mere memory of those days brings grief, and I feel my back become stiff with reactive anger. So then; let the battle begin.
. . . . .“Fine,” I say, sounding sharper than I had intended. “You can save your money and get it fixed once you can afford to pay for it. It’s your face, after all.” I realize I’ve tossed her a clip of fresh ammunition, but it’s too late now to withdraw. I close my eyes and steady myself for the fury I know she’ll unleash.
. . . . .“You’re so unfair,” she hollers back at me, manufacturing wounded tears. “When Jason asked for a car last year, you bought him a brand-new Mustang. A nose job’s less than half the price of a car, but you don’t care if I’m happy.”
. . . . .I step back warily, letting Anna occupy the high ground she’s claimed for her own. No point in reminding her that Jason needed a car to commute to college, or that the Mustang was our high school graduation gift to our eldest son. Anna doesn’t see shades of gray these days. Only black, and white—and apparently, Mustang red.
. . . . .The tears come so easily to her. I, who seem to have lost my power to weep, marvel at the way she holds them, just so, inside her lids, not allowing them to spill. Their falling would break the spell of rage, and Anna is nowhere near ready to release me. I can feel her creeping toward me, ever so intently, along a murderous tightrope that spans my internal chasms of guilt and pity, yet she doesn’t stumble. Her sense of balance leaves me breathless, makes me ache for her in some deep and primal place.
. . . . .“That’s not true,” I say, still fighting to recover my calm. I am, after all, the adult in this new passion play. I should be able to maintain some self-control. “I care about your happiness a great deal.” Hesitation; then I hear myself add…”Although sometimes I don’t know why I bother.”
. . . . .Damn. I’ve done it now. Pushed her even closer to her own internal abyss.
. . . . .Tears spill then, as fury breaks loose like a fire in Anna’s eyes. “I hate you!” she screams at me, stabbing my heart with her words. “You’ll never understand me at all.”
. . . . .She speaks the truth, I realize, but there’s a limit to what a mother should have to endure. I’m sliding past mine very swiftly.
. . . . .“Go to your room!” I order, feeling myself becoming, in that moment, the sternly unyielding woman she loves to detest. “And don’t come out until you’ve figured out how to be civil.” That last part gets wasted. Anna’s door clips the end of my sentence like a gunshot.
. . . . .I finish my ironing, but my movements are mechanical and my thoughts flit to other things. How, I wonder, did my daughter and I reach this point? I recall fondly her chubby infant fingers pulling hungrily at my breasts. I see the squealing toddler who ran to me in urgent need of a hug after every tumble. I can still remember the pinafore-dressed, plucky first grader who hesitated in the doorway of room seven and gave me a shaky thumbs-up before heading inside. When had all those sundresses and sandals given way to ripped jeans and Doc Martins? When did her hands—the very ones that used to cling to me with such neediness and trust—start choosing her own hips instead? It occurs to me then that it must have been about the same time that my hands began balling in fury instead of reaching out to soothe and summon.
. . . . .I feel trapped inside my own painful thoughts as I unplug the iron. I fold up my board and re-cap the spray starch can. The cupboard where these things belong stands invitingly near Anna’s bedroom; after stowing them, I can’t resist the urge to knock on her door. Though she barges into my private space at the most inopportune times (seeking razors, shampoo, and lately even a tampon) I don’t dare invade her space in that same way. Anna demands her privacy, considers it a badge of adulthood; to grant her the illusion costs me nothing.
. . . . .“What do you want?” The quiver in her voice informs me that her tides have already shifted. I do know my daughter well enough to realize that her highly compressed, adolescent world has been shaken in some profound way—by something that likely has nothing to do with me. Her anger with me she will hold for hours, perhaps even days or weeks. It is only with great reluctance that she lets it go. This current, bleak mood is therefore not of my doing.
. . . . .“May I come in?” I ask.
. . . . .She meets me with lengthy silence. Then I hear a terse, “I guess so.”
. . . . .I enter to see her crying again, only this time the tears look real. They gloss her cheeks and paint dark, wet stripes down her tee shirt. Liquid anguish. I stand there in stillness and watch her weep, feeling powerless in the face of so much emotion.
. . . . .“What is it?” I ask her gently. I fear she’ll tell me; yet feel strangely panicked she won’t. “What’s really going on here, sweetheart?”
. . . . .Anna flings her slender body, face-down, across the full length her bed. Through uncontrolled sobs, she eventually whimpers, “Heather told all of our friends that they shouldn’t like me anymore.”
. . . . .I stare at her, not comprehending this as a crisis. “And…?”
. . . . .“And since everyone likes Heather the best, they just do whatever she says. She’s the most popular girl in our class, mom.”
. . . . .Anna shares this fact as if she’s been given a death sentence. And I realize that, yes—to her—perhaps that feels so.
. . . . .The dark ravine carved out by our twenty-three years of distance yaws wider between us. Did I ever feel such utter desolation? Ancient memories dart like bats through the hidden rooms of my thoughts. I remember the terrible trauma of two-faced friends; the inconstancy of groping boys; the endless insecurities triggered by body, and feelings, and acne, and life in general…
. . . . .In that instant, I want—I actually ache—to reach for Anna. But it is a risk that carries a price tag. Fear of yet another rejection weights my limbs like winter ice. It holds me back from melting into my daughter. Yet her pain feels so real, it’s as if another person has usurped the space between us her room. I take a deep, deciding breath and push beyond it to sit down beside her on her bed. Then I stretch out my arms.
. . . . .“Come here,” I say gently, not believing for an instant she will. “Let me hold you, my love. I’m right here.”
. . . . .With a tiny cry, she dives for my arms and then folds herself, pelican-like, until she nestles against me. I pull her face to my chest with tenderness and slowly stroke her hair, planting gentle, butterfly kisses along the entire crest of her scalp. Strange to realize she no longer fits me as snugly as she once did, but her scent remains the same. I would know my own daughter anywhere just by that scent.
. . . . .Time unravels. The chasm between us dissolves of its own accord. With sudden insight, I realize in that moment my that daughter isn’t ready to become a woman quite just yet. She needs me still, if only for these small moments. A wavering smile tilts the corners of my mouth once again as I relax and allow myself this victory.
. . . . .In this moment, at least, I succeeded in loving Anna.
. . . . .
Eileen Workman spent sixteen years working in the financial service industry, as Vice President of Investments with Smith Barney. The author of Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life (2011) and Raindrops of Love For A Thirsty World (2017) she is currently working on Cultivating Grace, a book about using love to guide one’s actions through the world. She lives in N. California with her husband, writer Dave Workman.