ONE Meg Lindsay
I watch her sleep. The turbulent energy of day has given way to the Elysian simplicity of night. I brush her pink lips with my thumb and her still-childish cheeks with my fingers. Her skin is the softness of every gentle memory and warm sensation I have ever known. It’s all there, in touching her. She will never know how many nights I’ve done this—stolen into her room to watch her—hungrily, desperately trying to fill the hole inside myself with her. I can’t love enough, can’t want enough, can’t get enough of her. The little hands; the messy, sweaty hair; the delicate skin of her eyelids. I never asked for this love, never expected it to be such an unsatisfied pain inside. But now I crave it, no matter how it devours me, no matter if it destroys me, I need to love her. I want to love her.
I never wanted this.
I never wanted to be a mom. There’s the cold, hard truth of it. Lots of people thought it was because I’m self-centered and too career-focused. Lots of people thought it was because I didn’t like children. Lots of people thought it was because I must be infertile.
Lots of people were wrong.
From my earliest memories, “mother” has meant the woman who criticizes, who critiques my every move, who is never satisfied or totally pleased. A mother is someone who loves only if you do what she wants. With a mother, you’re always one step away from emotional abandonment, from becoming an orphan of the heart.
So why would I want to become that person? Why would I want to do that to an innocent child? I don’t dislike children. I dislike mothers.
Why would I ever choose to become what I dislike?
And yet, that’s exactly what I did. I’m not saying my motives were right. I know they were not. But every revolution, every paradigm shift has a catalyst. A shove. A compelling reason to risk everything to find a new path, to change.
My shove, my catalyst, was my mother.
“Tell me again why we’re doing this.” My husband, Lewis, guided our car into my parents’ driveway and shut off the engine.
I stared out the window at the prosy March Sunday, pedestrian as a Schoenberg string quartet. “Because I haven’t seen my sister in two years?” She’d been in France and had only returned home two days ago.
Lewis lifted his eyebrows in an is-that-the-best-you-can-come-up-with expression.
“I know, I know.” I leaned my head against the back of the seat. “How about this one? We’re doing this because I still harbor the thoroughly unrealistic hope that my parents will change if I do the good-daughter thing long enough.”
He opened his door and ducked out of the car. “Give you points for honesty, anyway. Let’s go do this.”
“Besides, I’m going to talk to them about the savings account. I want to use it to pay off my grad school loans.”
He stopped in the middle of the driveway, bringing me to a halt behind him. “Seriously? You’re going to bring that up today?”
“Why not today? I’ve chickened out for six months. I’m disgusting myself.”
“I’ve told you, we don’t need it. If you bring it up, it will be wedding mess Act Two. We’re fine.”
“It’s my debt and it’s hanging over both our heads, and that’s not right. They created a savings account for me, and there’s no reason why it can’t go toward something as responsible and practical as paying off debt. It’s not like I want to blow it on a cruise or something.”
Lewis put his arm around my waist. “I just don’t think it’s worth the trouble. You can’t bring it up without reminding them that the money was supposed to pay for your wedding—to Adam, not to me. They’ve only been talking to us again the last six months. And if you screw it up, I don’t think I’ll be able to fix it with another sob-story letter.”
“So it was my fault?”
I started to pull away, but he tightened his grip on me and pressed a kiss against my temple. “That’s not what I meant. I just don’t want you hurt again.”
My mother eased open the door and watched Lewis and me make our way up the brick walk to the trilevel suburban house where I grew up, her smile so warm and hospitable, I once again believed in it for a second. For one blinding, glorious, faith-filled second the world in my heart seemed to match the world outside.
She waved at me and I headed for her warmth like a kid goat tottering toward its dam. My mom. Mine, mine, mine. Finally I was close enough to touch her. I leaned into the doorway to fill my arms with mother love.
She gave me a one-armed hug, the other arm holding open the beveled glass storm door. “I was hoping you were Beth.”
Of course she was. “She’s not here?”
“She went to pick up a … friend.” My mother suddenly looked like she’d secretly eaten an entire bowl of brownie batter. But she didn’t elaborate as she let us through the door.
We trudged up four carpeted steps and into the living room, where everything was cloyingly symmetrical and perfect in shades of rose, peach, and wine. While my dad gave me an airy hug encompassing all the empty space of the issues we never spoke about, my mom wrapped her arms around Lewis’s slim waist as if he was the best son-in-law a mom could ask for.
He patted her on the back. “Hi, Karen.” Looking over my mom’s head, he nodded at my dad. “Doug.”
My mom stepped away, and no one but I caught the subtle glance of distaste she shot at my husband. She smoothed her palms down the skirt of her Sunday best, wiping away the touch of him. “Watch out, Mom,” I wanted to tell her, “atheism is catching.” But I’d never dare. She and Dad turned their backs on me five years ago when I married Lewis instead of Adam. Lewis’s letter to them had been a masterpiece of pleading and scolding and negotiation—their letting me back into their lives in exchange for his backside in a pew at our church every week. The ultimately ironic sacrifice of love. It had purchased a fragile reconciliation for me, and I wasn’t about to throw it away.
“Aunt Meg!” The screech accompanied a thud against the backs of my knees.
Lewis steadied me. I glanced over my shoulder and down at the brown-haired preschooler pressing his face between my legs. “Hi, Jakey. Where’s your brother?”
He tipped his head up to shrug at me. “Sammie’s playing. I told him to come say hi but he didn’t listen.”
“Little brothers are like that.”
“Like what?” My little brother sauntered into the room, towering over my own five feet nine inches. He barely nodded at Lewis.
He jabbed my arm lightly, grinning. “If so, we learned it from our older siblings.”
Jakey transferred his grasp to my brother’s left leg. “Dad! Come see my Lego tower.”
Joe hoisted the three-year-old into his arms and smiled at me. He loved being a dad. He was the hero, the king, and the object of his sons’ worship. There was triumph in that smile. Invincibility too, as if he half believed the mythology his children had created.
A part of me wanted to punch him. Just to remind him that not all of us adored the very air he breathed. To some of us, he would always be a loved but pesky little brother who had been anything but heroic when his big sister needed it.
“Come on, Grandpa!”
My dad trotted after the duo. My mom had already bustled back into the kitchen, where my sister-in-law, Ellie, was helping get dinner ready. A big banner stretched above the dining table, reading, “Welcome Home Beth and Congratulations!”
Congratulations? For what? Surviving a two-year missionary tour of duty in southern France? Yes, she suffered so much. The Riviera Missionary—poor baby.
That was unfair of me. Maybe she didn’t suffer physical deprivation, but some of the French could be terribly unfriendly, especially to Christian missionaries. She’d been lonely, judging from her e-mails and phone calls to me.
“Meg!” my mom called. “We could use your help out here.”
I winced at the faint accusation. Lewis gave my hand a squeeze, and I leaned in for a kiss. Fortified, I left him standing in the living room, alone, looking as misplaced as he always did in my parents’ home.
Entering my mother’s kitchen, I saw Ellie whisking around, efficiently skirting my mom, as they performed the sort of ritualistic, meal-preparing dance that I had never quite mastered.
I stood on the threshold, trying not to feel the awkwardness welling inside me. “What can I do to help?”
I should have known the dance by now. Ellie didn’t have to ask. She just did. And whatever she did was usually right.
Mom handed me a bowl and a short “Here, grate cheese.” I shuttled off to a corner of the island counter, feeling like an inept eight-year-old. Grating cheese is what you make kids do when they can’t be trusted to do anything else. Everyone knows that.
If a stranger were to walk into our kitchen at that moment, he would have thought Ellie was the daughter of the house, and I was a newly minted in-law. Ellie and my mother laughed and chatted together about the clever things her boys said and made plans to go shopping.
“We’ll have lots to shop for,” my mom told her, “especially now that Beth is home.”
I supposed they meant for Beth’s apartment. At twenty-eight, she’d hardly want to live with her parents for long—even if she had the sort of cozy relationship with them I could only dream of.
Ellie grinned. “Thanks for including me in all of it.”
“Well, of course. You’re family.” She gave Ellie a hug.
My sister-in-law caught my eye, and her smile grew plastic and pinched. At least she was nice enough to look uncomfortable on my behalf. She pulled back from my mom. “So Meg, how’s the symphony going?”
The Nouveau Chicago Symphony—a rebel ensemble of musicians wanting to play crowd favorites and new composers instead of the “moldy oldies.” I was a charter member on my viola, eking out a meager salary as a principal player. My parents had never attended a performance, but Ellie and Joe liked it on occasion, if the tickets were free.
“Great. In fact, I was going to see if either of you wanted a season pass for next fall.”
Ellie shrugged and nodded. “Have to ask Joe, but I think that would be fun. If we can find babysitters.”
I took a breath. “Mom? You interested?”
She had to be interested. Just for once, be interested in something I did.
She reached into the fridge to pull out a fruit salad. “I doubt it, honey. We have some serious reservations about that group.”
Even Ellie looked startled. “About the Nouveau Symphony? Why?”
“They play music from movies we don’t approve of. And I read that their guest composer this year was Sam Chesterfield.”
Oh, she was upset about dear Sam, was she? “Sam’s a terrific composer.”
“He’s a gay activist.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with his orchestral music.”
“Of course it does! There are evil spiritual forces that attach themselves to the music while it’s being composed. I just don’t think it’s right for someone claiming to be a Christian to support gay music or music from rated-R movies.”
Ellie wouldn’t look at me. She and Joe would still probably take a season pass, but she wasn’t the sort to get between my mother and me in an argument.
“Okay, whatever. I was just offering. It’d be nice to actually have some support from my parents.”
“I’m not being judgmental or anything, Meggie, but I’m right—these things do have an impact on us. Look at you—I really do think that if you had directed your musical interest in a more God-honoring direction, you wouldn’t have rebelled like you did and ended up in a godless marriage. You should have stuck to playing on the church worship team.”
Ellie bit her lip, glancing at me with pity in her eyes. “I think I hear Jakey calling for me.” She rushed from the kitchen.
“Could we maybe not have these conversations in front of Ellie?” I handed Mom the bowl of grated cheese. “She shouldn’t be dragged into it.”
“You’re the one that asked about tickets. I was just explaining why I said no.” She set the bowl on the counter and then stirred the gravy simmering on the stove.
What had I thought? That I could soften her up by offering season passes to something she’d never had any appreciation for? She’d always suspected anything beyond hymns and gospel music was the realm of the devil. If it hadn’t been for my dad’s mother, I would have grown up plinking out “Faith Is the Victory” on the piano instead of falling in love with the viola and the world of the symphony. Grandma was the only person who could intimidate my mother. She paid for my instruments and my lessons, and attended all my recitals and performances until she became too sick to leave the nursing home. She died two years ago. There was still an emptiness inside me where she ought to have been.
There’d be no softening of my mother. If I said I wanted my savings account to pay off graduate school debt, she’d respond that if I hadn’t gone to grad school in the first place, there’d be no debt to pay off. And if I’d married Adam Harris the Future Pastor, as I’d been engaged to do, instead of Lewis Lindsay the Atheist Physicist, as I’d done five years ago, then I’d have received the savings account money and wouldn’t have to be asking for it now.
No, there was no scenario in which this was going to go smoothly. Might as well just jump in. “Hey, Mom? I was wondering about my savings account. How much is in there these days?”
She stopped whisking the gravy and stood motionless at the stove, her back to me. “Why are you asking now?”
I swallowed hard, my mouth dry. Brazen it out. “Just curious. I’d like to talk to you and Dad about transferring it into my name.”
The whisking started up again. Her voice sounded deceptively cordial. “Why?”
Arms crossed, I pinched the soft skin on the insides of my elbows. The sharp pain stopped my heart from racing and cleared my head. I kept my voice calm and low. Respectful. “You had a savings account set up for each of us kids. The last I knew, we each had over twenty thousand. For when we got married. Joe got his. I’m married now. I’d like to have mine. Please.”
My mother was silent for a moment. The whisking stilled again, and then resumed more briskly. I saw the tension in her shoulders and neck. “I’m sorry, dear”—still the same cheerful tone—“we had to use that money for other things, since you didn’t need it for a wedding.”
The sound of the front door opening choked off my bitter reply. Mom pushed past me and hurried toward the entryway, calling a greeting to my sister. I followed her into the rush of voices and movement at the door.
It was all I could do not to shove my way forward to grab my baby sister in a hug. The five years that Mom and Dad had refused to speak to me, she’d never disowned me. She’d been the sole family member to defy them and attend my wedding. As the baby of the family, she’d gotten away with it. My brother and Ellie had been too scared to try. But Beth—she’d actually been happy for me. Relieved, even. As if she’d known how unhappy I was with Adam.
“Meg!” she squealed, lurching forward and catching me up in her arms.
I squeezed her tight and closed my eyes. “I missed you!”
“Not as much as I missed you!” She turned her mouth toward my ear to whisper, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
I opened my eyes and looked over her shoulder at another person standing behind her. It was his hair I saw first. That dark, nameless sort of blond that I would have taken great pleasure in calling “dirty dishwater”—except that my real hair color was similar and I hid it with light ash color and golden lowlights. A hot-cold, sick sort of shiver sped through me.
I hated that hair, always cropped and styled so neatly, so rigidly. Countless times, I’d run my fingers through its thick softness only to be told I was messing it up and that there shouldn’t be much touching until we were married. To this day, I’m convinced Adam Harris loved his hair far more than he loved me—which would not have been a problem if he had been engaged to marry his hair instead of me.
And now the hair—and presumably the man beneath it—was standing in the entryway of my parents’ home, its presence stripping away the years. It seemed so natural, so right, so obvious for him to be here as he had been so many times before. The here-and-now was suddenly anachronistic—he’d apparently been the “friend” Beth had brought—and Lewis and Ellie were within the family circle while Adam hovered on the fringe.
I stepped back from my sister. The room grew stiflingly quiet. Adam’s lips scrunched into a tight smile. “Hello, Meg.”
“Hi?” I hadn’t meant for it to sound like a question, but it was all I could manage beyond blinking at him.
My mother pushed past me. “Move out from the middle of the walkway, Meg.” She touched Adam’s arm, drawing him farther into the room. “It’s so wonderful to see you, honey. We would have had you over right when you got home, but Beth said you were sleeping off jet lag. Are you feeling better now?”
“Much better, thanks.” He had the chutzpah to walk right up to Lewis and extend his hand. “Lewis, right? I don’t think we ever formally met. I’m Adam Harris.”
Lewis shook his hand, his face carefully blank. This was a farce, a nightmarish farce.
Was no one going to explain why my ex-fiancé was standing in my parents’ living room? I felt like a cork that had been shoved down a wine bottle’s neck, the only way of escape now too small for me to fit through. The smell of those memories, aging for more than five years, was the worst sort of wine—the sort that swallows the air and makes clear thought impossible.
Lewis walked to me and slipped his arms around my waist. I felt tension in him, but he kissed my ear and whispered, “Do you want to leave?”
I shook my head. There was something important happening and it seemed I ought to understand what it was, but my mind had become a stray dog—matted, trembling, and futilely chasing its tail.
Everyone started talking at once, but none of it made sense. The sound pressed hard around me, saturating the air, filling all my pores, heavier and heavier—
“Someone tell me what he’s doing here!”
My shout cleared the air, silencing the noise. I hadn’t meant to yell. It was all making me crazy.
My sister sidled up to me and took my hand. “He’s not a bad person.” Her voice was soft, pleading, like when we were young and she was trying to talk her way out of having broken the headphones for my Walkman.
“I always liked him. You knew that, didn’t you?”
“I guess so. I suspected. But—”
“We were on the same team in France.”
“I thought he was in Haiti.”
Adam just watched the two of us, shifting on his feet.
“He was, until after you …”
Broke up with him. “And then?”
“He went to France, and I followed him there.”
She shot him a look of pure admiration, and suddenly I knew exactly what she was going to say next.
“We’re getting married, Meg! You have to be happy for us.”
“I …” I wanted to say the words she needed from me. There was so much hope and trust in her eyes. But a spiny knot twisted in my heart. This was why she’d been so supportive when I’d married Lewis instead of Adam. It hadn’t been about me at all. It had been about her. “Congratulations, sis.” I tried very hard not to spit out the words.
Suddenly the banner made sense. Everyone else already knew, except Lewis and me. It was hard to breathe.
Beth threw her arms around me. “I knew you’d understand. Mom didn’t think you would, but I knew you couldn’t help but be happy for us! I want you to be my matron of honor, okay?”
“When?” I hadn’t meant for it to sound like an assent, but she gave me another happy squeeze.
“Thank you!” She grabbed both my hands. “Mom and Dad have been great about the whole thing. Just wait till you hear! They talked the church board into hiring Adam as associate pastor. And they’re paying for the whole wedding, and our honeymoon, and a down payment on a house! I had no idea we had that much in our savings accounts, did you?”
I met my mother’s eyes and read the heartless truth in them. “Had to use that money for other things,” did they? Like securing the only son-in-law they’d ever really wanted. Like rewarding Beth for being the kind of daughter they approved of. It wasn’t the money itself. If they’d asked me if they could use it to help Beth—and even Adam—I’d have readily agreed.
It was the coldness of it all. The spite and spark of glee in my mother’s eyes. I couldn’t look away. She was relishing it—this moment when she got to stick it to me in front of everyone. I’d embarrassed her horribly when I’d thrown over the seminary graduate for the scientist. And she was going to make sure I got my punishment at every opportunity.
I stumbled down the steps to the front door. My hand grasped the knob.
“Meg!” My mother’s voice froze me. “If you leave now, you will never come back. Do you understand?”
I squeezed the doorknob, leaning my weight against it, my breath coming in heaves. My family or my freedom? Inclusion or self-respect? Why did I even have to choose?
A touch on my arm. I looked up into Lewis’s brown eyes. They were soft, glimmering with concern. He gave me a tiny shake of his head. He knew what it was like to have almost no family. It was why he’d been willing to do anything to help me reconcile with mine. I couldn’t throw that away.
I let go of the doorknob. For him. He put his arm around my waist and led me upstairs. I wouldn’t look at my mother. I didn’t want to see the triumph in her smile.