Overlooking all but the Obvious

Posted by on Oct 7, 2008 in Mother in Laws, Reckless youth | 0 comments

At eighteen, alone and armed only with the innocence and audacity of youth, I took the train from Louisville Kentucky to a place through the looking glass, Washington DC. My mother had driven me from Beaver Dam to Louisville with dire warnings and instructions that I completely ignored. In my pocket book I had the hundred dollars she had given me, along with an envelope that had a boy’s address and an invitation from his mother to visit. Since I had met him in September we had bandied about terms like forever and love and marriage like we knew what they meant. Now this cold January day I looked out the train window into the back yards and industrial wasteland of America, believing only a tiny portion of the things I told myself and my family about him. The steel rail rocked me finally to a fitful sleep as it carried me safely to my doom.

I was wide awake long before the conductor announce Union Station around 10 the next morning. I pulled my round blue American Tourister suitcase down from the overhead rack and clutched it firmly by the loop handle and stepped off the train into the cold bright January day. I walked briskly along with the stream of people who obviously knew where they were going and pretended I did too. I was giddy with excitement because I knew that the boy who wanted to marry me would be eagerly awaiting as soon as I went through the iron gate into the station.

I did not see him immediately, so I slowed down and scanned my surroundings with an anticipatory smile frozen on my face. Seconds turn into minutes as I milled about the station staring at the rushing press of strangers, hands wrapped tightly about my oh so chic hatbox suitcase, my navy blue suit now rumpled, my new leather pumps feeling a bit tight . Nothing in my previous life had prepared me for being stranded alone in a large city. I grew up in a town of 2000 people all of whom would have taken me in if I had knocked on their door and told them my plight. I had been in a Baptist college for one semester in a town of 7000. The only two people I knew that lived in DC were my boyfriend John and the president , and I didn’t know how to get in touch with either of them. The prototype edition of a cellular phone was still 15 years in the future, so I looked about for a phone booth. I was stunned when I saw there were five phone books, each of them the size of the giant bible my mother kept on the coffee table in our formal living room. I picked one at random and turned to the F’s. My heart sank where a cursory scan revealed there were more than a dozen pages of John Freeman listings.

At this point it might have occurred to any sensible girl to use her return ticket immediately, but I was a month and a week past 17, not an age especially given to sensibility. I stepped through the tall outside doors into the frigid air with a ghost of hope that he was waiting in his father’s car. Instead I found rows of yellow cabs lined up at the curb. I had never ridden in one before in my life, but it looked like I was going to have to chance it. I told the driver the address from the envelope without giving him the quadrant, and fought back tears as he became impatient with me for not knowing. He softened a bit when I told him my problem in an accent that made my lack of local connections obvious. By the time he got me safely to what was then the Italian middle class neighborhood of Anacostia, he told me he was going to wait until I was sure I wanted to stay before he left.

We pulled up in front of the row house around noon and while I puzzled over the tip and the fee for my rescuer the front door opened and the face of my consort appeared in the glass screen door. His neck was wrapped in a plaid muffler and he had an ernest and contrite expression, but he did not open the door until I walked up the steps. Greeting me with a quick kiss on the cheek he apologized for not meeting me. I was waiting for an explanation of the catastrophe that must have occurred to keep this boy from me, the one who told me I was more important to him than oxygen. That’s when I met Josie, his mother.

“Well see,” she said, “She made it here safe and sound. Glad to meet you. John wanted to come get you but I couldn’t let him come out in the cold when he had a sore throat.” She launched into a long and detailed medical history of her only child which should have sent me screaming back to the taxi, but at this point I was so relieved to be safe I just smiled, waved the driver on, and embraced my future mother in law.

By the end of the day I was in deep cultural shock. My mother’s home was immaculate and orderly but this house was so clean it set my teeth on edge. The living room sofa had custom made clear plastic slip covers. I could see my reflection in the kitchen floor. Nothing, even a visit from the first girl their son ever brought home, disrupted the family schedule. Saturday morning they cleaned an already spotless house. Saturday afternoon they shopped for the exact same groceries they purchased the week before so they can make the exact same meals they ate the week before, and pay the cook the exact same compliments. The cook is Josie’s mother who came to live with them right after John was born. She does not go anywhere with them except church, not even the grocery, and she retires to her room each evening after she does the dishes. Even on this brief visit I realize that life in the Freeman household is scripted. My mission, if I choose to accept it, is to bring chaos into their otherwise orderly existence. I start my job on the very first night by asking why John has a plate of lettuce when the rest of us are eating a tossed salad.

Josie laughs along with John’s grandmother and they explain that little John, just turned 21, is a bit of a picky eater. I wisely kept my theories on picky eaters to myself, but made a mental note that this is one thing I will have to fix after we’re married. The gods must still be laughing about that ambition because when we split up 7 years later he still picked through canned Campbell’s soup discarding the vegetables he refused to eat. By that time I had also found out that his eating habits were the least of my problems.

The rest of the story is so deeply personal I am loath to share it. Let me just say we were predictably bad for each other and for most everyone around us. It took us so much longer than our family and friends to realize it was over. The day I finally had to go I turned one last time to hold him, something we had not done for months. Even then I was still foolish enough to believe he would be less selfish in divorce than he had been in marriage, just because he told me so. Turning from him, I left my childhood behind in that embrace and walked out the door with my son.

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