January 31, 2017
I am a terrible mother. I love my daughter, love her so much I’m amazed I actually have to hold her in my arms, that she doesn’t just stick to my side, my heart heavy as a black hole, dense with love, trying to suck her into it. I love her like this, then, minutes later, can’t wait to get out of the house, leaving her behind. I’m told all mothers are like this, more or less, and are all wracked with guilt because of it.
The week I found out about Mary Rose, my beloved Stella Marie was six months old. She had black stick-straight-up hair, blueberry eyes that would find their way eventually to a less exotic shade of hazel, an abiding affection for the decorative moldings of our seventy-year-old house.
She liked to gaze at the corners of windows and doors, reach out as if to grab them, then wag her hands excitedly, like a palsied lady trying to open a wide-mouth jar. Her basic look was one of consternation. She was not a silly baby, even though I’d been known to make her wear a bonnet. She is perfect. The world’s cutest human. Really the world’s cutest human.
And yet, one needs a break. All I wanted to do was go to the grocery store.
“I love Stella, I’m just not interested in changing her diapers,” said Lyle, when I asked if he might watch her for an hour. Made me feel as if I was asking for the keys to the car and ten bucks for gas.
Interested in? We’re not talking a PBS documentary on marsupials here, Lyle. She’s your daughter.”
“Here’s something I read that’s kind of cool—did you know that newborn kangaroos find their way into the pouch completely unassisted by their mothers?”
“Don’t do the changing-the-subject thing. Please?” I rolled the portable dishwasher as close to Stella’s bedroom doorway as I could without disconnecting the nozzle from the kitchen sink. The Perfect Wonderment had been up seven times during the night, but still wasn’t sleepy. The dishwasher was my secret weapon. The whir-whoosh whir-whoosh of the water sloshing around was better than any lullaby. I could hear Stella in her crib, doing one of her Stella monologues in which she seemed to fall back on a word that sounded a lot like intaglio.
“Are there even any dishes in there?” said Lyle. He stood in the kitchen frowning at the dishwasher, as if it were one of his computer problems, his collie eyes made slightly larger by his glasses. He’d lost weight since Stella came, mostly because dinner now was us standing in the middle of the kitchen, eating whatever straight from the refrigerator: cheese, peanut butter on celery, Nestle chocolate-chip cookie dough straight from its yellow tube.
“If you don’t want to help, don’t criticize.”
“I’m not criticizing, I’m just saying. It’s a waste of water.”
“If Stella sleeps, and I get to take a nap some time before the new year, then it’s not a goddamned waste of water.”
“I thought we agreed we were going to lay off the profanity. You know, in front of Stella. And I do want to help. I said I wanted to help.”
“As long as it’s something convenient, you’re all for helping. If it’s a gorgeous day and Stella needs a little air, you’ll walk her around the block. That’s your definition of helping. It’s like when you’re playing on the computer and you tell someone you have to get off and go baby-sit. Baby-sitting is what you do for kids that aren’t your own. It’s what you do when you’re fifteen and want a chance to make a few bucks and see what there is to eat in someone else’s kitchen. You don’t babysit your own daughter.”
“Well…” He pinched the end of his nose, something he always did when he wondered if he should say what he was thinking…“guys do.”
“You know what it’s like, what you do? And probably all men for that matter. It’s like the difference between a deaf person signing as a means of communication and a lovely, well-intentioned hearing person signing as a show of solidarity.”
“You’re starting to go off, Brooke.”
“I am not going off. Why do you say I’m going off whenever I’m trying to make a point?”
“Why don’t you just go get the turkey?”
“Why don’t you just go get the turkey.”
“I thought that’s what this was all about. You wanted to get out of the house and you wanted me to baby-sit Stella, and I asked—just asked, so sue me—when you’d last changed her diaper.”
“So you could be sure you wouldn’t have to change one. Look, you think I enjoy changing diapers?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Okay, he was right. I did tend to rhapsodize about the wonder of Stella’s “projects.” Steam and cut a carrot into bite-sized bits and a mere twelve hours later there they are again, bright and square as ever, cradled in her diaper amid an aromatic little dollop of guacamole-ish doo. I don’t expect the mailman to find this amazing, but I’d like to think that Stella’s own father would take an interest. Is that asking too much? I already know the answer.
The dishwasher did the trick, as I knew it would, and I went out to buy the turkey. Donleavy’s Market is beloved by every impractical person in a ten-square-mile radius. It sells huge, pale bars of French soap and bottles of olive oil for every occasion. (Lyle and I used to like to joke that “Extra Extra Virgin” should be repunctuated to reflect modem sexual reality—Extra Extra: Virgin!)
When I pulled into the driveway behind the market, I saw the lavender Mowers and Rakers truck parked near the back fence. It was hard to miss. It’s a civic institution. The sides were smartly painted with a Gauguin-inspired profusion of red passion flowers, pink hollyhocks, marigolds, irises, and cosmoses, green vines creeping up the M of Mowers, the R of Rakers.
A few yards to the right of the truck, Mary Rose stood on the top rung of a twelve-foot ladder, pruning a fig tree that grew on the adjacent property. Her back was to me, her blond hair held up in a bun with a green pencil. She wore baggy plaid shorts and a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, even though it was forty degrees and raining. Mary Rose was six feet tall and lanky, with broad shoulders and large feet. She was my age, thirty-five, and was a teenager at a time when any woman over five-eight had a cruel nickname, always a variation on the theme of Amazon. As a result, Mary Rose slouched. She sang along with her Walkman, her pruners flashing around among the big, wet leaves, swaying along with the music. This was so Mary Rose. Not simply standing on the top rung of a ladder, but further pressing her luck by rocking back and forth.
To say Mary Rose was a gardener would be selling her short. Yard maintenance in our city was no luxury. In the spring, blackberry shoots grew eight inches a day and the conscientious mowed their lawns every seventy-two hours. Failure to routinely clip, prune, thin, and weed meant a yard reclaimed by forest, a house under attack by wild clematis and morning glory. In our city, it really was a jungle out there.
I admired Mary Rose, and Mary Rose’s life. She was smart, resolute. She kept her own hours and got to work outside. I kept my own hours, too, but as a producer, I spent most of them trying to talk people into things they didn’t want to do. I had to deal with Hollywood people, which had to be much worse than coping with housewives worried about the health of their delphiniums.
This is what I was thinking as I went into Donleavy’s: how Mary Rose was a modern-day…who was the goddess whose named started with an A, the one who was independent and sporty and said what she thought? I didn’t bother with a shopping cart, I could carry what I needed.
Mary Rose wasn’t like any other woman I knew. She never perched on the edge of the sofa with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, wondering why she didn’t have a man, or if she was seeing someone why, in the end, he would prove to be wrong for her. She didn’t worry that she spent too much time working, or not enough time working. She didn’t fret about whether she should have an eye tuck, then worry that she was superficial for worrying about whether she should have an eye tuck. Was it Aphrodite?
I took a turkey from the display in the small meat department. A life-size scarecrow cutely pointed at the stack of birds. They were free-range or had never been frozen, or both.
I didn’t bother with the beautifully calligraphed fine print. I picked one up, cradled it in the crook of my arm. Eleven pounds eight ounces, about like Stella.
Aramaic? No, that was a dead language. Or an aftershave. Lyle would know the name of the goddess, except I was irritated with Lyle, was always irritated with Lyle these days, and would punish him by not asking him when I got home. What about cranberry sauce? Did Lyle like the kind with the berries or without? The kind that retains an imprint of the inside of the can when you slide it onto the dish, or not? Aramis? No that was the aftershave. Maybe I’d just skip the cranberry sauce altogether. Lyle didn’t care about Thanksgiving one way or the other, so why was I even bothering? Lyle thought we should take advantage of the fact that Stella was still clueless, as he liked to put it, and go to our favorite Tex-Mex restaurant on Thanksgiving, where there was usually an hour and a half wait but would be empty on the holiday.
Outside, it was drizzling. I started to run, so Stella wouldn’t get wet, then heard someone behind me yelling. “Miss, oh Miss!” I turned to see a police officer—blond brush-cut, forearms the size of my thighs—trotting up behind me. His gold nameplate said Beckett. “ You haven’t paid for that.”
“Paid for…oh, oh! I thought…” I looked down, expecting to see Stella in her little red fleece jacket and cap, but there was the turkey in my arms instead. The fleshy, nonfrozen breast stared blankly up at me. It seems I was also patting it in a reassuring manner. “I thought this was my baby! I mean, I mistook her…it…” I started to snort. Lyle calls it my grandmother laugh. “This is only the second time I’ve been out of the house without Stella, so naturally, it was just habit… Stella is much prettier than…” I couldn’t stop laughing.
Beckett said he also had a six-month-old. We swapped war stories. He said his wife had inadvertently given him a black eye during a particularly hairy patch of labor.
I said, “Hate to break the news, but it wasn’t inadvertent. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I’m sure your wife appreciates you very much. I’m sure you’re one of those guys who makes ‘involved father’ sound like God’s truth instead of an oxymoron.”
Beckett gave a hardy PR laugh, the kind that displayed his molars to their best advantage, but he didn’t take his eyes off me.
“Oh! The turkey. Let me just get my wallet. Do I pay you—or no, I just probably go get back in line…” I pawed around inside my shoulder bag. No wallet. “Let me just…” I moved the turkey to the crook of my left arm, so I could check my jeans pockets and the pockets of my coat. I have an informal banking system where I leave five-dollar bills in rarely visited pockets, for moments just like this. Two nickels and a penny. This was not good. This was starting to look like shoplifting. “I must have left my wallet at home.”
Beckett took the turkey from me and stuck it under his arm. You could tell he used to play football. A few shoppers in the parking lot dawdled over unlocking their cars, allowing them to stare. Beckett clapped me on the shoulder. “I’ll let it go this time with a recommendation: Get more sleep.”
I had the presence of mind not to blurt out “Easy for you to say!” which is, I suppose, a testimony to my fundamental sanity. I kept quiet, felt my face get hot, then, as I watched him turn around and go back into Donleavy’s, thought I might cry. Tired, that’s all. Tired, and now turkeyless.
At that moment Mary Rose came over. “ What was that all about?” She was pulling a waterproof anorak over her head. Around her waist she wore a tan leather holster, where she kept all her clippers and such. I told her what happened. She lit a cigarette, listened, blew smoke sideways out of her mouth. “Shake it off. I’m sure the cop sees stuff like this all the time. It’s no big deal. Where is Stella, anyway?”
“Home with her father. He can’t get enough of her, you know? I practically have to wrestle him to the ground to get her away from him, just so I can feed her. Joined at the hip. Fathers and daughters, you know how they are. From birth they’re that way. Joined at the hip. Wait, did I already say that?”
I heard my voice go wobbly. Is this what motherhood had reduced me to? Weeping in the parking lot of Donleavy’s, wiping my nose with the cuff of my sweater? I tried to remember who I was: a producer of independent films, a baker of berry pies, an occasional runner, the world’s only adult lover of the knock-knock joke. A sometimes skier. A collector of funny ashtrays. The wife of Lyle. The mother of Stella. Brooke Stellamom.
Mary Rose considered me from beneath her bangs. Artemis. That’s the goddess I was thinking of. The virgin goddess of the hunt. The no-time-for-nonsense goddess.
Mary Rose was not one of those women who believed housekeeping extended to tidying up conversations, filling in all the awkward moments with decorative remarks. “You and Lyle should come with me to the Barons’ for Thanksgiving. I don’t think Ward would mind my asking you.”
I said it sounded like fun! I said I’d ask Lyle and give her a call tomorrow. I hopped in the Volvo (pumpkin-colored, formerly owned by someone with a thing for incontinent cats and vanilla-scented air fresheners), buckled up, gave a goofy wave, and sped off, the Volvo fish-tailing as I hit a patch of soggy maple leaves. I have a peculiar habit. The more bizarre a situation is, the more I’m compelled to pretend it’s as normal as can be.
Mary Rose and the Barons? Audra and Big Hank Baron were among Mary Rose’s biggest clients. I was also related to them in some convoluted fashion which, I’m embarrassed to say, I never remember accurately. I think my grandfather, who had a stroke at the age of fifty-six and didn’t speak for the next twenty years, is Audra Baron’s uncle. Before the stroke, my mother had also been unsure exactly how the Barons were related to us, and after the stroke she was too shy to ask Poppo to scrawl, on his little blackboard, the answer to the question: how are we related to the woman with the hair who threw herself on your chest and wept? I forgot.
The Barons owned one of those West Hills mansions whose grounds boasted 200 year-old trees. They had a foundation (the family, not the house, although obviously the house did too). They had hospital wings named after them. Why would Mary Rose be having Thanksgiving there? I don’t think Ward would mind my asking you…What was that about? Audra and Hank’s son, Ward, was one of those good-looking men—shoulders, jaw, a serious nose that takes your breath away—whose best qualities are visible at one hundred paces. Women see him, meet him, and know this instantly. But they are waylaid by his giddy jokes (“What’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind before he hits the windshield? His butt!”), thinking, hoping, that a third-grade sense of humor is an indicator of wit and character.
I decided that Audra and Big Hank were probably out of town, and Ward was having one of his parties. I remember having heard that he was living at home while his houseboat, moored ten miles west of our city in an anchorage full of artists, filmmakers, and nuts with money, was being refurbished.
It turned out to be nothing like that at all.
KAREN KARBO is the author of fourteen award-winning novels, memoirs, and works of non-fiction. Her first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were also named New York Times Notable Books.
Karbo’s 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was an NYT Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics’ Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her short stories, essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, O, More, The New Republic, The New York Times, salon.com, and other magazines.
She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction and winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award. Karbo is best known for her bestselling Kick Ass Women series, including How to Hepburn (2007), #1 ebook bestseller The Gospel According to Coco Chanel (2009), How Georgia Became O’Keeffe (2011), and Julia Child Rules (2013). In addition, Karbo co-authored My Foot is Too Big for the Glass Slipper with Gabrielle Reece and penned three books in the Minerva Clark mystery series for children: Minerva Clark Gets A Clue, Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs, and Minerva Clark Gives Up the Ghost. Karen grew up in Los Angeles, California and lives in Portland, Oregon where she continues to kick ass.
Adapted from Motherhood Made a Man out of Me, by Karen Karbo, Copyright © 2017 by Karen Karbo. With the permission of the publisher, Hawthorne Books.