Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Shooting the Moon

Deep in the Pennsylvania woods, we encounter a cluster of Mennonites camping, as we are doing. Swinging open the door to the park's bathroom I nearly collide with what must be the matriarch of the two or three Mennonite families. Bonneted, her figure concealed by a shapeless floor-length floral cotton dress, this fifty-something woman is aged by a decade or more. Black Reebok sneakers peek out from under her dress. Where the right half of her face should be is a deep concavity. Cancer, I think, reminded of the post-surgical hole where the bottom of my mother's nose once lived. The Mennonite woman looks at me looking at her.  Her eyes are frank, unflinching, and almost defiant. Her head is tilted up, unafraid of me, and unashamed of her face. I flash to Dorothea Lange's iconic Dust Bowl woman, who greets the camera's eye with dignity and pride, despite her dire circumstances.

My mother did not take to life with a disfigurement. Her demeanor in the years after her cancer surgeries was fearful and humiliated, edging toward paranoid (though her paranoia was and would have been quite justified, given people's tendency to stare at her with disgust and a stunning lack of pretense). The contrast between my mother and the woman I meet in the bathroom is glaring. You can rise above your challenges, or they can rise above you. Is there a third way?

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Back in the bathroom (it rains throughout most of our trip, so I find myself sheltering there), a little girl, by the sound of her three years old or so, sits on the toilet in one of the stalls. I am at the sink and tending to my teeth. I hear her grunt, and I smile, smothering a laugh. This girl has not yet learned to be shamed by the sounds and smells that issue from her body. She grunts some more, and then her voice, ever so high and sweet: "What's your name?" (Grunt.) "Sarah," I reply. "Mine's Jolene!," she exclaims, still pooping. "Nice to meet you, Jolene," I say. I never do get to see her face.

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At the campsite, we play games and games of Hearts, my family and I, while it continues to rain steadily. My younger son has not yet mastered the finer points of the game. Eleven years old is not about subtlety, nor strategy. Eleven years old is all transparent ebullience. To elevate his own interest in the game, he tries to shoot the moon with every hand he's dealt. Gentle reminders about the wisdom of this course of action fail to move him. When that first heart is taken by another player (as it is, inevitably), he turns red and chokes out a laugh before he cries. Each time he is freshly devastated, this intelligent child who refuses to make use of his superior logic. He looks so forlorn that I murmur, "Poor little elf." After we've blown out the citronella candles for the night, after his older brother has shoved off to the bathroom, I grab my elf and hold him tight. I whisper in his ear, "It's so hard to be the youngest. I know, I do." He doesn't answer me, but I know he's heard me, and I hope that he can hold on to this truth during the long years of his adolescence.

Late the next morning, as the rain keeps falling, we are back at the picnic table playing Hearts. And there's my youngest, confident that this time, yes, this time, definitely this time, no question, he's going to shoot the moon, at last.

4 comments:

Christine said...

Oh, Sarah this was sweet and nostalgic, too. Happy summer, friend.

Magpie said...

my child, at nine, still has that lack of pooping shame almost all the time. i adore it.

Elizabeth Dahl said...

Sweet retrospective Sarah. You gather together the past, present and future effortlessly. And you gather us in too.

Nicole said...

This is very sweet and touching. xo