March 22, 2004
How to begin this? It’s early morning and I’m sitting here wondering where you are, hoping you’re all right. I haven’t slept since you left. Your father says there’s no sense in phoning the police yet; you’re probably just blowing off steam, and you’ll be back as soon as you run out of money or the car runs out of gas, whichever comes first. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, he says. What with the way you spoke to me last night, it would take more forbearance than anyone’s capable of not to react the way I did, and besides, it wasn’t even that much of a slap.
Still, I blame myself. I keep seeing the look on your face as you brought your hand up to your cheek—the shock, the hurt, then the cold stare that bordered on hatred. When I heard the back door close in the middle of the night, I thought to myself, Well. There she goes. But it was only when I was standing on the driveway in my nightgown watching the taillights of my car disappear down the street that I understood just how bad this has become.
I’ll try not to insult you by saying I know how it feels to be fifteen. (I can see you rolling your eyes.) But believe it or not, I was your age once, and I had the same ugly fights with my parents. And I promised myself that if I ever had a daughter, I would be a better parent to her than mine were to me. My daughter, I told myself, would never have to endure the same inept upbringing that I did. I would be the perfect mother: patient and understanding, kind and sensible. I would listen to all my girl’s problems, help her when she needed it, and together we would build a bridge of trust that would carry us both into old age. Our relationship—it seemed so simple then—would be marked by love, not war.
Well. Things don’t always turn out the way we want them to, do they? Sometimes when I’m yelling at you for coming in late, or criticizing your choice of friends, or your taste in clothing, or your apparent indifference to anything having to do with family or school or future, I hear my mother’s voice coming out of my mouth. My mother’s very words, even. In spite of all my best intentions, I find myself becoming her. And you, of course, become me, reacting the same way I reacted when I was your age, revisiting all the same hurts that I suffered, and so completing one great big vicious circle of ineptitude.
I want to stop this. I’ve thought and thought, and I’m not sure how to go about it, except maybe to make it a rule to do everything that my mother didn’t do and not to do everything that she did—a crude way to right the wrongs, no doubt, and not altogether fair to my mother, who on occasion could be a decent person.
But one thing I’ve realized that my mother never did—and this was perhaps her greatest failing as a parent—the one thing she never did was to give me any good honest advice about growing up. Oh, she gave me plenty of rules, to be sure. She was a fountain of rules: sit up straight, keep your legs together, don’t run, don’t shout, don’t frown, don’t wear too much makeup or boys will think you’re a tramp. But she never told me what I really wanted to know: How does a girl grow up? How does a girl make it through that miserable age called adolescence and finally get to become a woman?
This was something I thought I might be able to help you with. I always pictured us sitting down together and having a talk, mother to daughter. You’d take your earphones out, I’d turn off the TV. Your father would be out running errands and so we’d have the whole afternoon to ourselves. In this talk, I would begin by telling you, as straightforwardly as I could, the story of my own adolescence. My intention would be not to shock or embarrass you, but to try and show you we’re not all that different, you and I. I do know what it’s like to be your age: I was there once, after all. I lived through it. And hearing the mistakes I made, you might learn from them and not have to repeat them. You could be spared my scars, in other words, so that the life you grow up in might be better than the one I had. Today, I thought, would be a good time for us to have this talk, your fifteenth birthday.
As nice as it sounds, that probably isn’t going to happen, is it? I think I made sure of that last night when I slapped you and drove you from our home. I could hardly blame you now if you don’t want to listen to me. It’ll take more than apologies for you to begin to trust me again.
So what I’ve decided to do is that while I’m sitting here waiting for you to return, I’ll write down in a letter everything I’ve always meant to tell you but never have. Maybe a letter is a poor substitute for the talk I always wanted us to have. But it’s a start at least, and I hope you’ll find it in yourself, if not today then sometime in the future, to accept it in the same spirit that I write it. Think of it as my birthday present to you—something that my mother never told me, but that I’ll endeavor now with all my heart to tell you: the truth about how a girl grows up. The truth about life.
I’m on my third cup of coffee now and there’s still no sign of you. Your dad’s out back mowing the grass like nothing ever happened. I’m not going to get all panicky, not yet. It’s still early, and I intend to keep my mind from imagining the worst. But I do hope you’ll be back in time to spend at least some of your birthday with us. I do hope you’re okay, Liz.
“Begin at the beginning,” Sister Mary Margaret always told us.
The beginning of this, I suppose, is 1969, when I was your age, a freshman in high school. We still had the farm then—you know, the old house in Zachary where your Mams and Gramps used to live. Zachary wasn’t like it is today. It really was the sticks then. I often felt we might’ve been living on Mars for all the contact we had with the rest of the world. Our house was at the end of a gravel road, a mile and a half from any other home, and I mostly hated living there. I was only a farm girl in the sense that I could ride a horse and, if forced to, I could milk a cow. But as a teenager, generally I wanted nothing to do with cows and horses and alfalfa crops. I went to school, read magazines, and watched The Partridge Family on TV on Friday nights, suspecting that everyone in the world lived a more glamorous and exciting life than I did. Probably a lot like you.
Your grandparents were Baptists, as you know, and certainly more strict with me than I’ve ever been with you. They were what, if you were feeling generous, you might call conservative. If you were feeling more honest, you might call them narrow-minded and racist. Mom loathed The Partridge Family—thought it was a disgrace that a single mother would tramp around the country with all those long- haired kids in a painted school bus. And Dad—well, your grandfather loathed the blacks. Sorry to say.
The schools in Louisiana were just then getting integrated, if you can believe that. I’m sure I’ve told you this before. Nineteen seventy was the year all the white students from Zachary High and all the black students from Lincoln High were to be mixed up together at one school. You can imagine the commotion this announcement caused, especially among people like your grandfather. There were rallies, the National Guard was called in, the KKK was called in . . .
And my parents began talking of sending me away to Catholic boarding school in Baton Rouge. Better that, my father said, than letting me spend one single day sitting side by side in a classroom with those “god damn coloreds.”
Now here’s the part I never told you about, at least not in any detail. You’ve only known him as “a boy I grew up with,” but he had a name. It was Tim Prejean.
Tim was seventeen, a senior at Zachary High School when I was a freshman. We met—or I should say, we first spoke—at the Freshman- Senior Get Acquainted Dance. I was standing with my girlfriends near the bleachers in the gym, all of us in our pressed bell-bottoms and platform shoes, when he came over and asked me to dance. “Hey, um, Laura,” he said, or something to that effect. “Wanna dance?”
I was surprised he knew my name. We rode the same bus to school in the morning, and I’d seen him in the cafeteria, but we had never before openly acknowledged one another. Tim wasn’t one of the more popular boys at school. His shoulders were too narrow and his neck too thin, and he went in for the geek clubs like the Eagle Scouts and Ham Radio Enthusiasts. But he had wonderful dark brown hair that hung down low over his forehead so that it almost covered his right eye, and on the night of the Freshman-Senior Get Acquainted Dance he wore aftershave and a blue blazer over a dashing white turtleneck. The song, I remember, was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies—a dumb song, and not an easy one to dance to. Still, he was a senior, and I was a freshman, and there were crepe paper streamers and colored lights overhead—probably someone had spiked the punch, too—and taken all together, it was enough to make our meeting that night, no matter how clumsy, feel thrilling and romantic.
We began dating, although we didn’t call it that. We sat together on the bus going to school. We sat together at lunch. We sat together on the bus coming home, and then we talked to each other on the phone in the evening. When we could, we met at the Greenwoods Mall on the weekends. It was always a little awkward because he had his friends and I had mine, and there was the two-year age difference between us. But the biggest problem was his family.
The Prejeans weren’t “landowners,” as I had been taught to call our own family. The Prejeans came from Cajun stock, and anyone who spoke any French in Zachary in those days was considered little better than black. “Swamp rats” my father called them, or worse, when he was joking with his farm buddies, “bayou niggers.”
Tim’s father, Jack Prejean, owned a dusty radio and TV repair shop in downtown Zachary that hardly anyone visited anymore—anyone in this case meaning white folks like us. His shop was on a mixed street, as it was called, and most of his customers were black. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Prejeans lived in a camping trailer parked in a clump of woods at the far edge of Zachary, out past where Kleinpeter Dairy used to be. By most outward appearances, in other words, Tim’s family lived up to the stereotypes people like my father had of people like the Prejeans.
But the Prejeans, I knew, hadn’t always been this poor. They had once lived in a tidy two-bedroom house within walking distance of the elementary school. Mr. Prejean’s radio and TV repair shop had once done a respectable business, too, before Greenwoods Mall was built and people started vacating the downtown. But it was Mrs. Prejean’s disease that finally and truly ruined the family.
This was before Tim and I began going out together, and I only knew the Prejeans insomuch as everyone knew everyone else in Zachary in those days. But even I knew about the disease. That was how people whispered about it: “the disease.” It was, I’d heard rumored, syphilis, and what little I knew of that made it sound especially ugly and obscene, something dimly associated with soldiers and black people and Frenchmen. Mrs. Prejean—Suzy—made occasional outings into town during the early stages of her illness, and a Suzy Prejean sighting was always the subject of gruesome telephone gossip among our neighborhood moms. The school bus passed the Prejeans’s house every day coming and going, and I would sit pressed by the window watching for her ghostly figure hiding behind the white curtains, wondering what the disease looked like, imagining the house itself to be pale and radiant with sickness.
Jack Prejean didn’t have any medical insurance, and a year of hospital bills took all his money and most of what he owned. When his poor wife finally died, in a wild display of grief and love he sold their house to pay for her funeral. It was a huge affair, with an extravagant velvet-lined brass casket laid out on the altar among an astonishing array of flowers and candles. There was a full choir, with an organist brought in from Baton Rouge, and a whole gang of priests and servers in red and white robes swinging censers. After the service we followed a sleek black hearse and three rented limousines to the cemetery, where we watched as the beautiful coffin was lowered into the ground below an elaborate white marble memorial of a life-sized woman in classical dress reaching out to pluck a rose from a vine. The Suzy Prejean funeral was such a big event in Zachary that year, in fact, that people who barely knew the Prejeans, people who didn’t really give a good damn about them—people like my mother— turned up in their best Jacqueline Kennedy outfits at St. Aloysius Catholic Church to be a part of it. Funerals were especially popular in those days.
The extravagant service, though, still wasn’t enough to redeem the character of Jack’s wife in the eyes of the town, or at least in the eyes of my parents. Even when we found out it wasn’t syphilis but ovarian cancer that had killed Suzy Prejean, my parents still figured, in their own mean way, that the Prejeans had got what they deserved.
“All the flowers in the world can’t buy salvation,” was how my mother put it.