Readers: For fun this week, I decided to share with you an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, The Way I Love You. Hope you enjoy this little essay, “Suburban.” Next week, I’ll be reporting from hot-and-hot Alabama! Stay tuned!
We wanted to reinvent ourselves—as naturalists, as rednecks, as anything more rugged than our ’86 Chevette, finally dead and sold for parts–so my mother bought a used Chevy Suburban, a hulking blue-on-grey truck with a hitch on the back for hauling the horse trailer we can’t yet afford. There’s nothing suburban about it. The truck fits right in on the switchbacks where Broome County meets Tioga County, the well-lit streets of Endicott turning to spare and darkened hills in a long, green sigh. My mother has fully embraced barn life, barely inhabiting our duplex on West Franklin anymore, moving her concerns in at the stable with the horses. While I, at fourteen, see other possibilities for this tank—I can fit everyone I know into it and imagine limousine-style traveling parties once I can drive—my mother sees a move toward a new existence, a pre-owned symbol of her earth mother dream.
In upstate New York, mud is the pervading force of spring. The April landscape is greasy with it—embankments sliding into creeks, tires sliding into ditches, children sliding into each other on their walks home from school. I like the slippery feel of mud beneath my leather paddock boots, second-hand, which I am ruining. My mother talks to Judd Spencer, the crotchety white-haired stable owner, who gruffs about one of his boarders shorting him this month, asking if we’ve seen so-and-so hanging around. As I do more often now that I’m a fully sullen ninth grader, I stand apart from the adults to daydream and make patterns in the soupy parking lot, burying my toes in the stewed earth, digging a trench and watching it fill back up with thick, chocolate-colored ooze. Out in the pasture, my horse, Fancy, is covered in mud. Her black mane hangs in crusty ropes, and her soft flank is flecked like a Jackson Pollock.
I’ve started getting rides to school from upperclassmen and drinking the Coors Light my mother keeps in the back of the fridge. These activities will soon replace riding altogether, especially now that Fancy’s shoulder is riddled with arthritis, and I can’t imagine riding any other horse. But each afternoon when my mother comes home from work, she reminds me of promises made. “You will not let that horse stand around in her own filth. I will sell her out from under you so fast…” Even though we both know she could never make good on her threats, I pull on my boots and we head out to clean Fancy’s stall, and once we’re out here together in the musky air, the sweet smell of hay and sawdust softens me, and I relax into the rhythms of the barn. I shovel manure and my mother curry combs Fancy’s mane temporarily back to its sheen, and like always, we talk or not.
Just two years ago, on a frigid New Year’s Day, my mother handed Judd Spencer a check to keep Fancy out of the glue factory, where Judd had threatened to send her once she got too old to breed. Fancy was twenty-three years old then, a former racehorse I just happened to love. Her age made her the only horse we could afford, and we couldn’t really afford what Judd was asking. But love has always driven my mother further into debt—the horse, the truck, and later, a couple of deadbeats who will take brief refuge in her kindness. Years from now, on the day my mother decides Fancy’s good life is finally over, our horse will trot one last time out of her stall to a hole dug at the top of a shady hill. The gold October sun will bring out the dapples of her coat, and my mother will think of a day, many autumns before, when Fancy escaped from the pasture and galloped along Judd Spencer’s lake, how we chased after her but kept stopping just to watch, her wild beauty leaving us breathless as she ran and ran. And after the vet administers the humane shot that ends Fancy’s long and spoiled life, my mother will call me in Ohio to say she’s sorry, as though she could have done more for that horse, as though she could ever do more for those she loves.
Today, Fancy’s shoulder struggles in the damp air, so Mom and I lead her around the arena a few times to stretch out her stiffened joints, feed her an inordinate amount of sugar cubes for her efforts, and then head home, dejected. I have a chill from sweating in the forty-degree weather and blast the heat in the Suburban, though my mother—she doesn’t have to say it—is hot. None of the trees have buds yet, and the radio tells us more snow is coming over the weekend. Everything looks like a giant construction site, piles of snow crusty with salt and sand and dirt, mountainous in every parking lot, fortifying every curb, hanging from the cars that scatter dingy clumps as they clamber over potholes. The whole state has cabin fever, a restlessness gaining momentum because we know, despite the predictions, that winter is almost over. With this restlessness come bad decisions.
On Day Hollow Road, my mother turns to me. “Feel like getting lost?”
This is one of our games, a rural kind of sightseeing. Civil War-era cemeteries tucked inside the broad-leaf woods. Long-abandoned Scout camps along real glacial lakes. Crumbling stone wells in the middle of hilly fields, the houses they once served torn down decades ago. My mother and I like old things, and now we have a vehicle tough enough to negotiate the more difficult roads, the roads our old, rinky-dink Chevette couldn’t navigate. And even though a part of me is anxious to get home and call my friends to see whose house we’re hanging at tonight, my mother’s face is irresistible, her tongue stuck between her front teeth like an excited cat.
I do and do not fully understand that menopause is part of life nowadays. I understand the inconvenience of hot flashes and breakthrough bleeding, but not my mother’s melancholy, or rather, how this melancholy might be different from the kind she felt after her divorce from my father. I don’t understand that these excursions in the woods mean more than usual, that I am the only child she’s going to have, the deal is sealed, and somehow, this is sadder than she expected it would be. Once, when I was little and still carrying around my plastic baby, I asked my mother about having me. She said she never really wanted a child, and then boom, she turned thirty and had to have one immediately, yesterday, which threw my father, who thought they’d agreed on no kids, for, perhaps, an irreparable loop. I’m beyond thinking the divorce was my fault, but it’s not unrealistic to wonder if this kids thing might have had something to do with it, the rules changing on my father too suddenly, tightening his sense that he’d never be able to give my mother what she really needed.
I also wonder if my mother regrets not pushing my father for more children before the marriage dissolved, if there’s some permanent ache that will never ease. The Prozac she takes helps with the mood swings, but sometimes stress gets the better of her and the small failures of our lives—the flooded basement, the dwindling bank account that used to be my college fund—cause mini-meltdowns that exhaust us both. There’s the physical stuff, too, the blood, the waves of heat (we run the air conditioner all night so she can sleep), the irritated bowels that force emergency gas station stops whenever we’re out of the house too long.
We listen to 99.1 The WAAL, singing along with Derek and the Dominoes, cruising the gravelly roads and pointing at displays of winter—the feet-long icicles beginning to drip from every overhang, the sagging power lines—and then at evidence of spring—the muddy dogs chained up outside double-wide trailers and grass seed spread generously over bare front lawns. The windshield fogs as the cool air outside meets the warm air in the truck. We’re ten minutes into the live version of “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad,” Eric Clapton leading us from crazy solo through the chorus again—Ohhhh, why does love got to be so saaayyed?—when my mother’s face changes.
“Shit,” she says. “Shit, shit, shit.” She slows down and flicks her cigarette out the window.
She looks down worriedly at her stomach.
“Oh, Mom, really?” I’m mortified even though we’re alone. “Is there anywhere to stop?”
We’ve gotten pretty good at this kind of improvising. On more than one occasion, my mother has made it to the barn, squatted right down in Fancy’s stall, our horse’s glassy eyes quizzical, and we’ve even pulled off on the highway, my mother barreling over the guardrail and down into a ravine. Only once she didn’t make it, and had to relieve herself in the car while I stuffed a plastic bag underneath her and rolled the windows all the way down in the middle of January.
But this is back country. There’s no gas station or restaurant, and the few dilapidated houses we see don’t look particularly friendly in light of the emergency. My mother turns down a service road on someone’s private property, “No Trespassing” signs tacked up on the trees. We galumph over large rocks blown in by the winter, plow into deep, rim-gouging pits, and finally come to a clearing—a large cow pasture surrounded by a climbable wooden fence.
“All right, I’m going in,” she says, stepping from the Suburban’s running boards.
Sometimes, just to get me going, my mother sings in public, or shows my friends photos of me playing naked in the backyard with the neighbor boy, or tells them how I loved Rainbow Bright well past an age I’d admit to, just to show me that I will survive it all—my adolescence, my parents’ mistakes, whatever embarrassment I deem the end of the world. As she works herself over the fence to defecate and trespass at the same time, the younger part of me wants to sink into one of those mud holes until I’m submerged, blameless. But another part of me, perhaps the part genetically predisposed to improvisation, is aware of my mother’s tenacity. How she will do what needs doing in order to get through her life with as much joy as possible. How she will cut her own trail through fields or finances to find happiness and, sometimes literally, relief. Here we are, two women in the throes of opposing hormones, discovering what makes us as strong and lovable as our regal, dying horse.
When we get home, we’ll inspect the undercarriage of the Suburban for damage, and applaud ourselves on getting it completely covered in mud, like Fancy, like a real farm truck or horse should be. We can handle just about anything now, this oversized vehicle, these sudden, hysterical catastrophes. I’ll have one of those moments that come now and then, a moment when I can see that had my parents stayed together, I probably would have missed out on certain things. There might not be horses, or used trucks capable of conquering fallen trees. There might not be mother and daughter sharing this particular company, still learning about each other even as some things come to an end. Our horse is old, our Chevette is dead, and my mother can have no more children.
But we have a new truck, and we’re masters of the road, and our bodies can still surprise us. My mother hunches over while the cows look on, unimpressed by the turn their day has taken. When she’s finished, she waves. The last of winter’s cold wind blows wisps of silver-blond hair around her face. In my mother, I catch sight of the youth I will hurry too quickly past on my way to that ever elusive thing we call fulfillment. Yet, there are times when my mother and I are fulfilled. There are times we are happy.
My mother hikes her jeans back up and gracelessly re-scales the fence. No one has seen her, but she runs back like she’s being chased and climbs into the Suburban. “Made it!” she says. “I’m the bomb!”
I don’t even roll my eyes. “You did, Mom,” I say. “You’re the bomb.”
We turn back down the road and crank the music up. What else is there to do but laugh and head home? What else is there but the life we have?