October 2022
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Scenes from a Marriage, Part Two

Today, sitting in sunshine beside our swimming pool, I think I look like Joan Baez, with my long straight dark hair and wise face. That pleases me, to look like a famous singer who represents moral passion. It was the Seventies.

Patty, Ingrid and Barb — virtually nude in bikinis — sunbathe with me and watch the children play. I adjust my sunglasses and gaze at the empty flower pots lining the fence around the pool.

My four-year-old daughter Mia sits with me, clinging to my leg. Her warm body seems menacing, like she might bite me. I’m not sure why I let that fantastic notion take hold, but I often feel little Mia is a menace. She needs my attention every minute, pulling at me with a neediness that seems a threat.

“Tyler ran away again,” Patty announces, clapping a torn straw hat on her blond head. “Yesterday it took me 45 minutes to find that kid. Sometimes I think he’s smarter than I am.”

“Teach him to read,” I suggest. “God knows you’ve got enough books. He’s nearly four. He can do it.” Patty loved books. They fell from her tote bag, cluttered her car, lay open and spattered on her kitchen counter. She also had a brawny, well read husband who inspired my fantasies.

Patty doesn’t look like a mommy. Her thin, athletic frame is more suited to cross-country running. I’m the one who looks like a mother: tall, full-breasted, a classic matron in a modest one-piece bathing suit. The Fates, however, have not willed me the pregnancy I’ve dreamed of. The three goddesses have instead blessed skinny Patty, who has three boys.

Five years ago I gave up teaching at the high school to be a mother of an adopted infant. Babies were easily available to adopt in those days, and we thought they could be molded into our version of perfect children.

Perhaps the changes we’d brought about in the Sixties made us think we could influence, even create, human beings. After all, we’d burned away entrenched values in the same way the sun burned away the water on our skin. We’d undermined the established culture by confronting restrictive laws, protesting policies of discrimination and war. We could do anything. Except I couldn’t.

I’d assumed I’d be as good at parenting as I’d been at teaching. How hard could it be? Very hard, I learned. Our son now went  to kindergarten, but I spent every day at home with a daughter who resisted direction and scowled at the world. I thought of the self-portrait she’d drawn in preschool — an outline of a head scrawled in yellow with no mouth, like a face on an aboriginal cave painting. I wished I’d run off with the basketball coach. He’d made a tempting offer.

Barb sits up and faces me, smiling under her floppy hat. “Elaine, look at Mia. She’s beautiful! She’ll be swimming and taking that slide in a week. If she grows up to marry my Tyler, they’ll start a new race.”

“If any place can help Mia find herself, it’s our preschool,” Ingrid says as she moves to the edge of the pool to be closer to her son. She sits and dangles her feet, rippling the ice-blue surface.

School? You think she’ll be fine if she adjusts to preschool? Who are you people? She’s a barbarian! There’s something wrong with Mia! Can’t they see it?

In time the sun casts the long shadows of late afternoon, and the three bikinied mothers call to their children, “Five more minutes!,” gathering their towels and totes. When they start their journey down the drive to their cars, they look like sleek princesses of a naked tribe. Soon there’ll be nothing left but dark footprints.

Patty stops on her way and stoops to poke at the dirt strip on the edge of the asphalt. She calls to me, “I’ll bring you some pansies next week. You need something here.”

I don’t want pansies. I want my daughter to validate my mothering and make me happy.

Over time, Patty planted the pansies and they flourished. Within the year red bougainvillea draped the fence, and pink-and-white impatiens enhanced the flowerpots around the pool. Mia mastered the pool slide, as predicted, and her every crisis shook my world, but we survived together.

Supported by Patty, Barb and Ingrid I moved out of my despair like a mermaid emerging from a pool. I can’t report that I started singing like Joan Baez, but I can say I started to speak my truth. After cutting my long hair and exchanging the dark glasses of a sunbather for the clarity of bifocals, I divorced my husband, went back to the classroom and took the children with me to make a life in a small house across the street from a church.

We had few flowers, and no pools, but we did have a healthy avocado tree, and we ate the green fruit year-round.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.