Philibert Schogt – Under the Mistletoe

Under the Mistletoe
by Philibert Schogt

Early one morning in central France, a woman was coming down a forest path, leafing through a travel guide. Years ago, when her husband had walked here beside her, there had been no need for written information. Now she read that the paths through this wood, radiating at equal angles from circular clearings, were the very ones taken by chevaliers in Medieval days. She sighed and dropped the book into her shoulder bag. The forest was awakening with bird song, sharp in the cold dawn air. The trees, covered with mosses and ivy, were thinner than she remembered, and in spite of fresh horseshoe prints in a muddy stretch of the path, she could not imagine noble knights passing this way. Looking up at the treetops, she smiled upon seeing the dense, bushy clusters of leaves clinging to some of the branches, clusters she had once mistaken for bird’s nests.

“Those are not bird’s nests,” her husband had laughed. “It’s mistletoe.”

Mistletoe,” she had whispered, savouring the magical sound of the word. She had gone to stand underneath one of the clusters, shy in her flowered dress. “You’re supposed to kiss me now.”

Obligingly, he kissed her on both cheeks, then took her by the hand and pulled her back onto the path. “Come on. We’re expected back at the hotel for lunch.”

“But look at all that mistletoe,” she said, gently squeezing his hand.

“Actually, it’s not as romantic as it sounds, at least not from a biological perspective.

“Oh?”

And with a dry little cough he had launched into another one of his lectures. Mistletoe was a parasite. Eventually, those clumps would choke the tree on which they were feeding.

“Really?”

With her husband’s voice ringing in her mind, expounding on the origin of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, on the use of its berries in making birdlime, she arrived at one of the clearings mentioned in the travel guide. She stopped at its edge, hugging herself to stay warm. In the middle of the clearing, jutting out from the bed of rotting leaves, was a small grey stone with a rounded top: an old road marker, perhaps.

“Which way to the hotel?” she wondered aloud. She had walked far enough, and was looking forward to breakfast.

Where’s your sense of direction, darling. Look at how lost you are without me.

She crossed the clearing, stepping carefully around the small stone. To her astonishment, it moved away from her, then froze at a slant, as if it were about to topple over. She bent down to take a better look. What she had thought was a stone turned out to be an owl. It cowered in the bed of leaves, blinking up at her. One leg hung limply behind its body, the talon groping helplessly in search of support. When she moved closer, it puffed up its feathers and tried to retreat, only to sag down farther into the leaves.

She knelt down beside it. Its head and neck were covered with a fine layer of white down. A baby owl. It must have fallen out of its nest.

“You poor thing,” she said, reaching out a hesitant hand.

Don’t touch it, dear. Don’t touch it.

As she stroked its trembling body, the eyes closed. Ants were scurrying around it; a shiny black worm was crawling towards its injured leg. The flesh had torn, the exposed joint was red and seemed inflamed.

“I’ll take you to the village,” she said.

You’ll do nothing of the sort.

“To the nearest farm. They will take care of you.”

You know the French. They’re not as sentimental as we are, honey. The only thing that interests them about an animal is whether it’s edible.

“It needs help,” she pleaded. “It cannot make it on its own.”

Then that’s the way it should be. Survival of the fittest is a law of nature.

She went to the edge of the clearing to pick a few blades of grass. Nothing happened when she held the grass under the owl’s beak. She brushed it lightly over its nostrils. In a dim reflex the beak opened, but only briefly.

A fine mother you would make! Owls are carnivorous, sweetheart. Try feeding it that worm.

She winced. If only she had worn gloves. She should have worn gloves anyway; her hands were becoming numb with cold. Gathering her courage, she picked up the wriggling worm and held it against the owl’s beak. There was no reaction now: the eyes remained closed, the beak would not open.

It’s no use. Even if you feed it now, it will starve sooner or later. Don’t prolong its agony. Leave it alone. Better yet, help it out of its misery. Wring its neck.

She cried out and threw the worm away.

The dampness of the forest floor was beginning to soak through her nylon stockings. She stood up, wiped the earth from her knees, and chose one of the paths leading away from the clearing. One final time, she looked back. The baby owl was sitting where she had left it, motionless as a miniature gravestone.

It’s no use, the whole forest seemed to say. She heard her husband chuckling softly among the treetops. In all her memories of him, he was laughing at her. Even on their honeymoon, here in France, in this very forest, he had laughed at her. About the mistletoe.

She now saw what he had meant. There was nothing romantic about this forest. The trees around her were slowly being choked by the mistletoe, and the ivy winding its way around the trunks would take care of the rest. She hurried on, longing for the comfort of the hotel.

Bonjour,” the woman said as she entered the dining room.

People looked up from their breakfasts and smiled sympathetically.
The young German couple she had spoken to last night greeted her a second time when she passed their table. In the far corner, a lone man sat chewing his bread while staring out of the window at the hotel gardens. She took her seat opposite him.

“Where were you?” he asked her.

“I went for a walk.”

“So I see.” He leaned over the table to pull a twig out of her hair, then went back to eating.

Alison Leigh Brown – Burning in My Bosom

Burning in My Bosom
by Alision Leigh Brown

Don’t you lay your hands on me, is what I’m thinking to myself, although I mean it for Gerald. I would never actually throw such meanness in his face. It’s just I just can’t lose my interior rant as I confront the heavy Arizona heat which makes our motions from car to office, from parking lot to the shopping opportunities we have in abundance, exercises in grit. I grind my teeth; pain radiates from jaw to damp fingers. Improbably, I want to pound him all over with my fists. I see myself slapping the broad shoulders on which I sleep each night. The grocery store is in sight, mirage-like and wavy. My violent urges dissipate, mirroring natural dispersal when our sun finally, blessedly goes down. There’s my enemy Mary, happily navigating her cart to a newly acquired, gun-metal luxury sedan. Her fit body and tidy packages confront me, a challenge. She must have gotten off work earlier to be finished so soon.  Everything she does is superior to what I eke out. Deciding I can’t bear to hear further successes of her perfect Madison, I mimic a forgetful moment and return to my old, unwashed clunker. Christ, it’s scalding in here; I can’t touch my inferior car’s steering wheel with bare flesh. Risking medical grade burns, I turn the key and edge onto the highway, driving with my forearms, my suit a shield for avoiding further damage. I am sweating, really sweating. The cold air finally blows strong. Respite is imminent. “Thank God for small favors,” I say to the dashboard.

I hate that I don’t know if this moisture results from the relentless 100 plus degrees of encompassing dry heat or if it’s a message from my hot flashes. I haven’t had a clear thought in the last four years. Somebody inhabiting my body might get an idea from its erratic synapse swings that Gerald hits me. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is as gentle as my own good daddy. They are decent men and I love them. Nor have I been hit much in my many years on this earth and of course “many” is relative, “much” is relative. I’m one of them, those of us who came of age in the Seventies.  We had faith we would die in our twenties. Remember how it was. An adult would tell us, “You know you really should stop smoking.” We’d roll our well-lined eyes and let them know all about how long we were going to live. “Do you think we’ll be around in twenty years?” we’d say. “Do you think that the planet will be around?” Well. We didn’t know as much as we thought we did.

When Beverly tells me that we are on the verge of World War III and that we should pay close attention to what is happening on the northern border of Iraq, I want to tell her, “Been there, done that,” but since I’m the parent I keep my mouth shut.  Let her think that hers is the final decade. The last century. We’ve all had that escape. And I do mean escape. I still have my moments of clarity. It’s much worse to acquiesce into the real knowledge that each generation is one more chain on the bead of life, one link in the great chain of being, a shell in the stack of turtles under the silk swept marble slab, and so on. Et cetera. I love this world and would rather die than part with it, so I hold my tongue around Beverly.

To get right down to it though, I’ve never wanted to be the sort of person who lies all the time. I’ve never even wanted to lie at all. I’ve made an effort to be honest, to get things right. The result is that no one trusts me because I’m forever qualifying everything as a result of this propensity toward truth telling and other matters of character too. My predilections pop up, priggish and irritating. Take my flight from Mary just now.  Her Madison is the fastest runner at the high school she attends with my daughter. Beverly gets straight A’s but no one knows. It’s politically incorrect to post an honor roll—it could hurt someone’s feelings. I secretly believe that they don’t herald our best and brightest because so many students are the cream. There’s not room in the newspaper; no principal’s door is sufficiently large that the never-ending list of distinction could fit. Still, even if every name were publically cried out, my Beverly’s among them, no one would believe she’d earned a place. She does everything she can to make it look as if she’s given up. Slouching around dressed in rags, she slurs her complicated vocabulary and swears more than I do. Mary gets the showgirl. I get the real deal. I know I should be happy but a little public recognition would be nice once in a while. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just articulating how fine it would be to play Madison’s mom for one second.  I’d hate to live with that girl—I don’t want her. I would just like to feel accomplished.

The other day, Beverly told me that I’m the worst thing that ever happened to her. We were sitting out back after the white Arizona sun had set so we could take in the cooling desert air. I’d been praising the essay she’d completed on Arthur Miller for her American history class. I want her to know I’m proud of her because I am. “You make so much pressure for me, Mom,” she said. “You’re always expecting perfection. I hate you so bad. You are the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Well. I thought, you are one lucky little girl if that’s the truth. I know from our joint therapist that turning such thoughts external is not productive so I follow the doctor’s orders and say in a measured, tolerant tone, “I’m sure you don’t mean that. You’re just feeling stressed out.” My tension is undoubtedly evident to Beverly. When my jaw locks tight, she stiffens and leaves.

I’m not proud of any of this. She just pushes me right over the edge and I’m forever too close to that line anymore. I’m the worst thing! Then she should count her blessings is what I think. She should lie down in our gravel garden and die from gratitude. When she talks I feel as if she’s snarling at me. Because of my advanced age when I birthed her, it is our fact that I’m hormonal when she’s hormonal. Poor Gerald! Poor us!

I should cut her some slack. Here’s the hilarious bit. The worst thing that ever happened to me involves my family of origin too. It’s possible she’s telling the truth. That I am her worst thing. I don’t blame my nadir on my parents. My irretrievable utterance involved a lie, which stemmed from my inability to understand the heaviness of religion, the dark wetness of it. My worst thing is having told a lie about what the other held sacred. I didn’t, and never have had, but he did. I’m pretty sure he did. He testified to it and he’s a good man. A decent man.

Funny word, decent. When I say it I denote high praise, but if you think about it in strictly ethical terms, “decent” is pathetically low on the totem pole of virtue. Do I want Beverly to be decent? Hardly. And I expect a great deal more from myself.  I’ve ceased expecting anything from Gerald. That guy.

After Beverly stormed back inside for comfort from her many friends, I stayed watching the sunset, listening to desert birds, waiting for bats to begin circling. Their arrival is my cue to go inside and make dinner with Gerald. I started thinking about my daddy and how the worst thing that ever happened to me was lying to him, not about where or with whom I was going to stay out past curfew, but about what he most treasured. Beverly is obsessed with honesty.  She doesn’t understand the dissembling of grown-ups in this world: “Why is everyone lying all the time?” I have my theories about this. But God, it’s hard to be a good parent. I want to tell her that there are lies people tell out of self-interest. These are those told by dishonorable people. You only have to identify who they are. Then, on a personal level, you keep your distance. In the public sphere you do everything you can to conquer them, to resist their power. I want to tell her that there are lies we can’t help. They come out of our mouths or into our thoughts as if living creatures circling the skies of our intellect replaced our ghostly inner workings. The bleakness of that position overpowers me. I say instead the immediately regretted, “Not everyone lies all the time.” So of course the conversation quickly turns into bickering, centering on an argument I can’t win. Why didn’t I bring the thing down to specifics? I’m the sort of mother who is always bringing everything up to general principles. I know better. I know that if you put principles before cases, rules before people, you turn out to be a big fat fascist. I know. I know.  So soon we’re just two bodies with alien words swirling around us. I should have told her that lying is complicated, that I’ve been guilty of betrayal worse than hers.  What would have been harmed by telling her that I once told the worst lie a person can tell and to my father, a man I loved and love? I should have told her that in the act of lying I was telling the truth, but that it wouldn’t hold still.

I know she is going through changes that probably make her feel as if her body is masquerading, something she experiences as a foreign object only loosely tied to the essence of Beverly. We could talk about our respective corporeal assaults. Sometimes I lie in bed waiting for my next flash of unbearable light and heat. The minute I feel that prickly demon crawling up my chest I am always already red; I have my gown of transition long before my bedside lamp gives light. I’d like to see my change happen. I’d have proof. My neck reaches for a position which might find rest. Wet and exhausted I wonder whether across the house Beverly is awake, waiting for a change she can catch. I wonder if in those moments she doesn’t have a fond thought for me. I want her to love me, a childish, needy all consuming desire.

I wanted the love of my father that same greedy way. It shames me that I lied to him the way that I did. I was still living in their house. It was around 1977, I can’t be certain of the year. I was almost seventeen, older than Beverly is now. I was constantly angry, furious about their religion, Mormonism. Beverly does not have that cross to bear. I have raised her rationally. When we have our disputes, we talk and talk. We visit therapists.  We work on our relationship. I was humiliated and enraged about being born Mormon, about being forced to come of age in a church decreeing Blacks unworthy for its priesthood. I couldn’t stand it. Never mind that I myself was under an identical prohibition. Cloud ceilings for women seemed less despicable than the Black thing, since hardly any religions preached sex equality. And sweet, sweet Jesus, don’t get me started about their position on the Gays. I watched my friends banished and despised, moving to cities and dying. I felt trapped but all the while I loved my father. My position was untenable. Because I didn’t know enough, I took the role of telling my parents that I could not tolerate injustice, that they had to send me away, back to grandma’s if necessary, that I had to get out.

One evening I say to my daddy, “I cannot be here one more second.  Please let me get out of here.” And I am telling the truth when I say it to him with every bit of truth I can gather in my flowering bosom. And he is about to relent. I can see it. He is going to let me go somewhere else. I have already been taking credits at the college so I could easily transfer to some other place. I’m old enough to take care of myself.

I cannot believe how old I am now. When I look in the mirror I see my young self returning my feverish gaze. When I startle myself in a window I see the same person I’ve always been. Photographs tell a different story.   Pictures of myself alarm me. I scan them closely. The woman in there doesn’t look anything like me, besides which she is so nervous. It’s alarming how on edge she is. Who is hurting her? Is she actually twitching in the snapshot? Is that even possible?

I look a little like Beverly. I am not so much better than she is, bless her lying little soul, which I mean ironically since I do not believe in souls any more than I believe in God although I do believe in duties, and my overriding one is to present a Beverly to the world who is at least decent, which she is after a manner of speaking, with her multiple earrings, her perfect grades, her gauges and scarred skin, her sullen way of looking straight in my eyes and telling me, me, who has loved her more than I ever believed I could love any one thing, that she hates me, that I ruin her life, that I am the worst thing that ever happened to her. I foolishly tried to make a joke. “Oh, I think you meant to say the first thing that ever happened to you.” Our therapist had said that I could defuse some of the hostility in the house with humor. What a joke that turned out to be.  Her advice is so bad that it makes you want to just call one of the hotlines and see what they dish up for free. Beverly becoming woman; me turning crone.

I remind myself excessively that she is merely separating from her mother in a healthy way. By contrast I was forced to extricate myself from my family of origin, to try to open my constricted lungs away from their beliefs so I could breathe. It might have been okay if we had cloistered ourselves in some little town where everybody looked the same and espoused the doctrines of the Church. No. We had to strike out into a city with scarcely anyone like us, taking with us our peculiar clothing, our documented racist beliefs. Our veiled hatred of homosexuals. Even if I had been born later, when the whole thing was more mainstream, when we were running for president and not like Joseph Smith did, getting shot and martyred, it might have been better. It might have been different. I think I tried. I wanted to be good, to be decent.  That from the perspective of the community I was neither, turned out to say more about that institution than my parents or me. I wish I could have those years back. I would have pretended more, told more lies. Instead, there I was trying to sneak jeans into my purse, rolling up my skirts, applying white sparkly lipstick. There I was with the potential of leaving. My father was changing his mind; he was almost ready to let me go with his blessing. My childish breast had to betray me by opening itself up to other lies, other comforts. I had just finished telling my father that I had to go, that I had to get out of there. I was suffocating.

It could have happened that I left for Grandma’s and that would be that.  Instead, I went to a party. I went to a party where the intellectual chatter was up and I was so hungry and alone. An elder of the Church was there talking down the dissent of other youth. Even then, I thought it was strange that LDS elders are eighteen years old. This one, Elder Greene, is about to go on a mission and he is practising his preaching. He’s patiently explaining to eager guests that it must be the case that Blacks do not have the priesthood because it’s a test for all Saints. What he told us was that God’s plan involved determining whether we would remain faithful to Him, even as the rest of the world derided us for our out-of-step beliefs. I found myself drawn into his counterintuitive sense. He said that as soon as enough young people would accept with full faith that those with tainted blood be barred from the priesthood, then, and only then, the prophet would lift the ban—that is, God would reveal a full restoration of the priesthood for our dark brothers. Hadn’t He done the same for our Indian kin in ancient times? I half listened to him and half thought about how one could take a lot of similar doctrines and twist them around. How frightfully disarming to turn roles of power upside down, how terribly easy. How wonderful for us to turn the least harmed into most harmed. We could opine, for example, that God was making us witness the deaths of war so that we could understand the burden of freedom. What I said to Elder Greene was, “Well, it is sure a lot easier for us than for them. They have to acquiesce a hell of a lot more than we do.” I wanted to tell the assembled party about a little boy who had been adopted into a Mormon family. Through the process, they believed the child was white. I heard this tale in Sunday school when I was seven years old. I don’t know if it’s true.  We were told many faith-promoting stories. Our teacher told us that he looked just like us; he appeared as white as anyone. What a surprise then, when on the day before he was to be ordained a deacon, which happens at age twelve, they discovered his blood was one-sixteenth black. How? How was this determined? And just in time! We did not ask and we were not told. His mother sat him down and told him the truth. She had no choice. She told him that he would never be able to pass the sacrament because he could never be a deacon, or a teacher, or an elder, or a high priest. Sister Olsen leaned in close to her charges, to me, to deliver the moral of the story. Some of us were crying. The poor child! The poor family! She’s smiling benevolently, spreading that spirit of tolerance and forgiveness we should strive to attain.  He did not fight against his curse. He did not rage. Instead he said, “I want to do what God wants me to do.”

I felt as if I were on fire hearing that story. I was sweating and I wanted to be screaming, not from some sense of political outrage—I was too young. I just felt like releasing noise and all that heat. So I’m making my theological point while having my different interior thoughts. Robert Greene, the elder, continues telling his telling, ignoring my contribution. I start daydreaming of running through cemeteries hollering, “Don’t cry! They’re not dead! God’s just testing us. He’s trying to make us believe in death.” Elder Greene had a monotonous voice but he sounded sincere. I felt so tired from this life. I couldn’t find a place where my noises would be words flowering sense. “The youth today,” he droned on, “have the largest burden to bear of any other generation. We are the standard bearers.” I could hear his words. All that was required to participate in this glorious new world was to accept what only seemed unjust. I had only to affirm inequality and cruelty. Then injustice would dissipate as all hot things do.

Robert Greene did not stop talking. I did not stop watching. I could see little pairs of students cluster around other elders. There was much laying on of hands. Robert came over to me. “You seem distressed.” It didn’t take a psychological genius to arrive at his conclusion. I was a bundle of nerves. My bones were exploding out of my body. I was so thin you could see elbows on both sides of my arms. I’d been distressed since I received the joint gifts of language and reason.

“I am distressed.” Up close and focused only on me, I could see that he was in a religiously ecstatic state. This gave me confidence. Maybe he would understand fully what my father could only glimpse in pieces. “I am distressed.” My repetition unleashed any remaining inhibitions. Sloppy sorrow poured out all over him. I wanted his blessing. I wanted him to say I could leave. I wanted to be good and decent. I told him how I had passed my CLEP tests, taken many college courses, received A’s. How my parents knew this and approved and had allowed me to stop going to high school, which I hated because everyone hated me. “I’m not the right kind of Mormon. I’m too thin.  My knees hurt constantly. I’m all skin and bones.”  Robert listened. I couldn’t stop talking, I lost track of what I was saying. Mine was a garden of unconnected words. Elder Greene put his hand over my mouth gently but with intent and without my permission. I was stunned. My father was a gentle man; he did not use that gentleness for violent means. I was being silenced. After my initial shock, I didn’t care.  He sat right down next to me, kinship close.

Our knees were touching. I could smell him the way you can when everything is so near liquids start happening. His scent was both clean and sour. I felt his hot breath on my right cheek. I couldn’t breathe. His hands were on my legs, then just one hand. His left one found his bottle of oil in the front pocket of dark suit pants. My daddy had a similar vial for when I was sick. I loved how he would rub that fragrance-free liquid on my head.  He would pray over me and I would feel better. Elder Greene rubbed a little oil on my brow, placed his hands on my silky, blonde hair and blessed me. He prayed with all his heart. His words kept coming.

I do not remember what he said. I do remember that I felt warm and at peace. In fact, I felt so blessed that when I was returned to my father’s home, I went straight into his room. My mother was there too, but she was already absolutely and completely asleep. I wanted to tell my father that everything was going to be okay, that his baby had come in from the cold, that I was returning to the fold. I couldn’t find the right words so I used our code: “Daddy, I felt the burning in my bosom. The Spirit touched me. Daddy, it’s going to be alright.” I made words for my dear daddy who was happy not just for me, but for all of them. “Welcome home,” he said. I like to think he had a good night.

Don’t you lay your hands on me, is what I’m thinking to myself, although I mean it for Gerald. I would never actually throw such meanness in his face. It’s just I just can’t lose my interior rant as I confront the heavy Arizona heat which makes our motions from car to office, from parking lot to the shopping opportunities we have in abundance, exercises in grit. I grind my teeth; pain radiates from jaw to damp fingers. Improbably, I want to pound him all over with my fists. I see myself slapping the broad shoulders on which I sleep each night. The grocery store is in sight, mirage-like and wavy. My violent urges dissipate, mirroring natural dispersal when our sun finally, blessedly goes down. There’s my enemy Mary, happily navigating her cart to a newly acquired, gun-metal luxury sedan. Her fit body and tidy packages confront me, a challenge. She must have gotten off work earlier to be finished so soon.  Everything she does is superior to what I eke out. Deciding I can’t bear to hear further successes of her perfect Madison, I mimic a forgetful moment and return to my old, unwashed clunker. Christ, it’s scalding in here; I can’t touch my inferior car’s steering wheel with bare flesh. Risking medical grade burns, I turn the key and edge onto the highway, driving with my forearms, my suit a shield for avoiding further damage. I am sweating, really sweating. The cold air finally blows strong. Respite is imminent. “Thank God for small favors,” I say to the dashboard.

 

I hate that I don’t know if this moisture results from the relentless 100 plus degrees of encompassing dry heat or if it’s a message from my hot flashes. I haven’t had a clear thought in the last four years. Somebody inhabiting my body might get an idea from its erratic synapse swings that Gerald hits me. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is as gentle as my own good daddy. They are decent men and I love them. Nor have I been hit much in my many years on this earth and of course “many” is relative, “much” is relative. I’m one of them, those of us who came of age in the Seventies.  We had faith we would die in our twenties. Remember how it was. An adult would tell us, “You know you really should stop smoking.” We’d roll our well-lined eyes and let them know all about how long we were going to live. “Do you think we’ll be around in twenty years?” we’d say. “Do you think that the planet will be around?” Well. We didn’t know as much as we thought we did.

When Beverly tells me that we are on the verge of World War III and that we should pay close attention to what is happening on the northern border of Iraq, I want to tell her, “Been there, done that,” but since I’m the parent I keep my mouth shut.  Let her think that hers is the final decade. The last century. We’ve all had that escape. And I do mean escape. I still have my moments of clarity. It’s much worse to acquiesce into the real knowledge that each generation is one more chain on the bead of life, one link in the great chain of being, a shell in the stack of turtles under the silk swept marble slab, and so on. Et cetera. I love this world and would rather die than part with it, so I hold my tongue around Beverly.

To get right down to it though, I’ve never wanted to be the sort of person who lies all the time. I’ve never even wanted to lie at all. I’ve made an effort to be honest, to get things right. The result is that no one trusts me because I’m forever qualifying everything as a result of this propensity toward truth telling and other matters of character too. My predilections pop up, priggish and irritating. Take my flight from Mary just now.  Her Madison is the fastest runner at the high school she attends with my daughter. Beverly gets straight A’s but no one knows. It’s politically incorrect to post an honor roll—it could hurt someone’s feelings. I secretly believe that they don’t herald our best and brightest because so many students are the cream. There’s not room in the newspaper; no principal’s door is sufficiently large that the never-ending list of distinction could fit. Still, even if every name were publically cried out, my Beverly’s among them, no one would believe she’d earned a place. She does everything she can to make it look as if she’s given up. Slouching around dressed in rags, she slurs her complicated vocabulary and swears more than I do. Mary gets the showgirl. I get the real deal. I know I should be happy but a little public recognition would be nice once in a while. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just articulating how fine it would be to play Madison’s mom for one second.  I’d hate to live with that girl—I don’t want her. I would just like to feel accomplished.

The other day, Beverly told me that I’m the worst thing that ever happened to her. We were sitting out back after the white Arizona sun had set so we could take in the cooling desert air. I’d been praising the essay she’d completed on Arthur Miller for her American history class. I want her to know I’m proud of her because I am. “You make so much pressure for me, Mom,” she said. “You’re always expecting perfection. I hate you so bad. You are the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Well. I thought, you are one lucky little girl if that’s the truth. I know from our joint therapist that turning such thoughts external is not productive so I follow the doctor’s orders and say in a measured, tolerant tone, “I’m sure you don’t mean that. You’re just feeling stressed out.” My tension is undoubtedly evident to Beverly. When my jaw locks tight, she stiffens and leaves.

I’m not proud of any of this. She just pushes me right over the edge and I’m forever too close to that line anymore. I’m the worst thing! Then she should count her blessings is what I think. She should lie down in our gravel garden and die from gratitude. When she talks I feel as if she’s snarling at me. Because of my advanced age when I birthed her, it is our fact that I’m hormonal when she’s hormonal. Poor Gerald! Poor us!

I should cut her some slack. Here’s the hilarious bit. The worst thing that ever happened to me involves my family of origin too. It’s possible she’s telling the truth. That I am her worst thing. I don’t blame my nadir on my parents. My irretrievable utterance involved a lie, which stemmed from my inability to understand the heaviness of religion, the dark wetness of it. My worst thing is having told a lie about what the other held sacred. I didn’t, and never have had, but he did. I’m pretty sure he did. He testified to it and he’s a good man. A decent man.

Funny word, decent. When I say it I denote high praise, but if you think about it in strictly ethical terms, “decent” is pathetically low on the totem pole of virtue. Do I want Beverly to be decent? Hardly. And I expect a great deal more from myself.  I’ve ceased expecting anything from Gerald. That guy.

After Beverly stormed back inside for comfort from her many friends, I stayed watching the sunset, listening to desert birds, waiting for bats to begin circling. Their arrival is my cue to go inside and make dinner with Gerald. I started thinking about my daddy and how the worst thing that ever happened to me was lying to him, not about where or with whom I was going to stay out past curfew, but about what he most treasured. Beverly is obsessed with honesty.  She doesn’t understand the dissembling of grown-ups in this world: “Why is everyone lying all the time?” I have my theories about this. But God, it’s hard to be a good parent. I want to tell her that there are lies people tell out of self-interest. These are those told by dishonorable people. You only have to identify who they are. Then, on a personal level, you keep your distance. In the public sphere you do everything you can to conquer them, to resist their power. I want to tell her that there are lies we can’t help. They come out of our mouths or into our thoughts as if living creatures circling the skies of our intellect replaced our ghostly inner workings. The bleakness of that position overpowers me. I say instead the immediately regretted, “Not everyone lies all the time.” So of course the conversation quickly turns into bickering, centering on an argument I can’t win. Why didn’t I bring the thing down to specifics? I’m the sort of mother who is always bringing everything up to general principles. I know better. I know that if you put principles before cases, rules before people, you turn out to be a big fat fascist. I know. I know.  So soon we’re just two bodies with alien words swirling around us. I should have told her that lying is complicated, that I’ve been guilty of betrayal worse than hers.  What would have been harmed by telling her that I once told the worst lie a person can tell and to my father, a man I loved and love? I should have told her that in the act of lying I was telling the truth, but that it wouldn’t hold still.

I know she is going through changes that probably make her feel as if her body is masquerading, something she experiences as a foreign object only loosely tied to the essence of Beverly. We could talk about our respective corporeal assaults. Sometimes I lie in bed waiting for my next flash of unbearable light and heat. The minute I feel that prickly demon crawling up my chest I am always already red; I have my gown of transition long before my bedside lamp gives light. I’d like to see my change happen. I’d have proof. My neck reaches for a position which might find rest. Wet and exhausted I wonder whether across the house Beverly is awake, waiting for a change she can catch. I wonder if in those moments she doesn’t have a fond thought for me. I want her to love me, a childish, needy all consuming desire.

I wanted the love of my father that same greedy way. It shames me that I lied to him the way that I did. I was still living in their house. It was around 1977, I can’t be certain of the year. I was almost seventeen, older than Beverly is now. I was constantly angry, furious about their religion, Mormonism. Beverly does not have that cross to bear. I have raised her rationally. When we have our disputes, we talk and talk. We visit therapists.  We work on our relationship. I was humiliated and enraged about being born Mormon, about being forced to come of age in a church decreeing Blacks unworthy for its priesthood. I couldn’t stand it. Never mind that I myself was under an identical prohibition. Cloud ceilings for women seemed less despicable than the Black thing, since hardly any religions preached sex equality. And sweet, sweet Jesus, don’t get me started about their position on the Gays. I watched my friends banished and despised, moving to cities and dying. I felt trapped but all the while I loved my father. My position was untenable. Because I didn’t know enough, I took the role of telling my parents that I could not tolerate injustice, that they had to send me away, back to grandma’s if necessary, that I had to get out.

One evening I say to my daddy, “I cannot be here one more second.  Please let me get out of here.” And I am telling the truth when I say it to him with every bit of truth I can gather in my flowering bosom. And he is about to relent. I can see it. He is going to let me go somewhere else. I have already been taking credits at the college so I could easily transfer to some other place. I’m old enough to take care of myself.

I cannot believe how old I am now. When I look in the mirror I see my young self returning my feverish gaze. When I startle myself in a window I see the same person I’ve always been. Photographs tell a different story.   Pictures of myself alarm me. I scan them closely. The woman in there doesn’t look anything like me, besides which she is so nervous. It’s alarming how on edge she is. Who is hurting her? Is she actually twitching in the snapshot? Is that even possible?

I look a little like Beverly. I am not so much better than she is, bless her lying little soul, which I mean ironically since I do not believe in souls any more than I believe in God although I do believe in duties, and my overriding one is to present a Beverly to the world who is at least decent, which she is after a manner of speaking, with her multiple earrings, her perfect grades, her gauges and scarred skin, her sullen way of looking straight in my eyes and telling me, me, who has loved her more than I ever believed I could love any one thing, that she hates me, that I ruin her life, that I am the worst thing that ever happened to her. I foolishly tried to make a joke. “Oh, I think you meant to say the first thing that ever happened to you.” Our therapist had said that I could defuse some of the hostility in the house with humor. What a joke that turned out to be.  Her advice is so bad that it makes you want to just call one of the hotlines and see what they dish up for free. Beverly becoming woman; me turning crone.

I remind myself excessively that she is merely separating from her mother in a healthy way. By contrast I was forced to extricate myself from my family of origin, to try to open my constricted lungs away from their beliefs so I could breathe. It might have been okay if we had cloistered ourselves in some little town where everybody looked the same and espoused the doctrines of the Church. No. We had to strike out into a city with scarcely anyone like us, taking with us our peculiar clothing, our documented racist beliefs. Our veiled hatred of homosexuals. Even if I had been born later, when the whole thing was more mainstream, when we were running for president and not like Joseph Smith did, getting shot and martyred, it might have been better. It might have been different. I think I tried. I wanted to be good, to be decent.  That from the perspective of the community I was neither, turned out to say more about that institution than my parents or me. I wish I could have those years back. I would have pretended more, told more lies. Instead, there I was trying to sneak jeans into my purse, rolling up my skirts, applying white sparkly lipstick. There I was with the potential of leaving. My father was changing his mind; he was almost ready to let me go with his blessing. My childish breast had to betray me by opening itself up to other lies, other comforts. I had just finished telling my father that I had to go, that I had to get out of there. I was suffocating.

It could have happened that I left for Grandma’s and that would be that.  Instead, I went to a party. I went to a party where the intellectual chatter was up and I was so hungry and alone. An elder of the Church was there talking down the dissent of other youth. Even then, I thought it was strange that LDS elders are eighteen years old. This one, Elder Greene, is about to go on a mission and he is practising his preaching. He’s patiently explaining to eager guests that it must be the case that Blacks do not have the priesthood because it’s a test for all Saints. What he told us was that God’s plan involved determining whether we would remain faithful to Him, even as the rest of the world derided us for our out-of-step beliefs. I found myself drawn into his counterintuitive sense. He said that as soon as enough young people would accept with full faith that those with tainted blood be barred from the priesthood, then, and only then, the prophet would lift the ban—that is, God would reveal a full restoration of the priesthood for our dark brothers. Hadn’t He done the same for our Indian kin in ancient times? I half listened to him and half thought about how one could take a lot of similar doctrines and twist them around. How frightfully disarming to turn roles of power upside down, how terribly easy. How wonderful for us to turn the least harmed into most harmed. We could opine, for example, that God was making us witness the deaths of war so that we could understand the burden of freedom. What I said to Elder Greene was, “Well, it is sure a lot easier for us than for them. They have to acquiesce a hell of a lot more than we do.” I wanted to tell the assembled party about a little boy who had been adopted into a Mormon family. Through the process, they believed the child was white. I heard this tale in Sunday school when I was seven years old. I don’t know if it’s true.  We were told many faith-promoting stories. Our teacher told us that he looked just like us; he appeared as white as anyone. What a surprise then, when on the day before he was to be ordained a deacon, which happens at age twelve, they discovered his blood was one-sixteenth black. How? How was this determined? And just in time! We did not ask and we were not told. His mother sat him down and told him the truth. She had no choice. She told him that he would never be able to pass the sacrament because he could never be a deacon, or a teacher, or an elder, or a high priest. Sister Olsen leaned in close to her charges, to me, to deliver the moral of the story. Some of us were crying. The poor child! The poor family! She’s smiling benevolently, spreading that spirit of tolerance and forgiveness we should strive to attain.  He did not fight against his curse. He did not rage. Instead he said, “I want to do what God wants me to do.”

I felt as if I were on fire hearing that story. I was sweating and I wanted to be screaming, not from some sense of political outrage—I was too young. I just felt like releasing noise and all that heat. So I’m making my theological point while having my different interior thoughts. Robert Greene, the elder, continues telling his telling, ignoring my contribution. I start daydreaming of running through cemeteries hollering, “Don’t cry! They’re not dead! God’s just testing us. He’s trying to make us believe in death.” Elder Greene had a monotonous voice but he sounded sincere. I felt so tired from this life. I couldn’t find a place where my noises would be words flowering sense. “The youth today,” he droned on, “have the largest burden to bear of any other generation. We are the standard bearers.” I could hear his words. All that was required to participate in this glorious new world was to accept what only seemed unjust. I had only to affirm inequality and cruelty. Then injustice would dissipate as all hot things do.

Robert Greene did not stop talking. I did not stop watching. I could see little pairs of students cluster around other elders. There was much laying on of hands. Robert came over to me. “You seem distressed.” It didn’t take a psychological genius to arrive at his conclusion. I was a bundle of nerves. My bones were exploding out of my body. I was so thin you could see elbows on both sides of my arms. I’d been distressed since I received the joint gifts of language and reason.

“I am distressed.” Up close and focused only on me, I could see that he was in a religiously ecstatic state. This gave me confidence. Maybe he would understand fully what my father could only glimpse in pieces. “I am distressed.” My repetition unleashed any remaining inhibitions. Sloppy sorrow poured out all over him. I wanted his blessing. I wanted him to say I could leave. I wanted to be good and decent. I told him how I had passed my CLEP tests, taken many college courses, received A’s. How my parents knew this and approved and had allowed me to stop going to high school, which I hated because everyone hated me. “I’m not the right kind of Mormon. I’m too thin.  My knees hurt constantly. I’m all skin and bones.”  Robert listened. I couldn’t stop talking, I lost track of what I was saying. Mine was a garden of unconnected words. Elder Greene put his hand over my mouth gently but with intent and without my permission. I was stunned. My father was a gentle man; he did not use that gentleness for violent means. I was being silenced. After my initial shock, I didn’t care.  He sat right down next to me, kinship close.

Our knees were touching. I could smell him the way you can when everything is so near liquids start happening. His scent was both clean and sour. I felt his hot breath on my right cheek. I couldn’t breathe. His hands were on my legs, then just one hand. His left one found his bottle of oil in the front pocket of dark suit pants. My daddy had a similar vial for when I was sick. I loved how he would rub that fragrance-free liquid on my head.  He would pray over me and I would feel better. Elder Greene rubbed a little oil on my brow, placed his hands on my silky, blonde hair and blessed me. He prayed with all his heart. His words kept coming.

I do not remember what he said. I do remember that I felt warm and at peace. In fact, I felt so blessed that when I was returned to my father’s home, I went straight into his room. My mother was there too, but she was already absolutely and completely asleep. I wanted to tell my father that everything was going to be okay, that his baby had come in from the cold, that I was returning to the fold. I couldn’t find the right words so I used our code: “Daddy, I felt the burning in my bosom. The Spirit touched me. Daddy, it’s going to be alright.” I made words for my dear daddy who was happy not just for me, but for all of them. “Welcome home,” he said. I like to think he had a good night.

The next day I had no choice but to recant. By morning that experience was gone never to be recaptured. Now I’m home sitting in my car which is in turn in the garage which in turn is attached to the house. I must exit my car, walk through the garage. I will enter our home to face my family.  Gerald is here; his car is sitting next to mine. Beverly will be there too—it’s Wednesday, the only evening she has no activities.  My task was to bring home the stuff of dinner. I have failed. We will eat out.  I only hope I can bear what Beverly will wear. No matter which persona she presents, I resolve to love that one. I choose the right as our evening sun goes down.

The next day I had no choice but to recant. By morning that experience was gone never to be recaptured. Now I’m home sitting in my car which is in turn in the garage which in turn is attached to the house. I must exit my car, walk through the garage. I will enter our home to face my family.  Gerald is here; his car is sitting next to mine. Beverly will be there too—it’s Wednesday, the only evening she has no activities.  My task was to bring home the stuff of dinner. I have failed. We will eat out.  I only hope I can bear what Beverly will wear. No matter which persona she presents, I resolve to love that one. I choose the right as our evening sun goes down.