Originally mailed on December 21, 1996
Last time I wrote you we were so preoccupied with Louella's troubles here that I didn't have a moment to talk about anything else. I promise I will get to some other news this time around, but first I think we should spend a few more moments on Louella.
She just finished her semester on Friday and is anxiously awaiting her grades. She figured out that if she did very well on her exams and final papers, she could make better than a 3.0 this semester, so that became her goal, and she worked like a demon during the last weeks of the semester. We'll see how she did when the grades come. In the meantime she's working at the mall gift-wrap table during the holidays to make a little extra money (and a little extra money is exactly what it will be, too. These seasonal retail jobs don't exactly pay the big bucks).
No matter how her grades turn out, she deserves a lot of credit for just getting through this semester, what with Sam flaking out and being the on-again off-again father, having to work as well as go to school, and, of course, the crisis pregnancy. The truth is, Louella's nerves are worn to a fine thread, and I think she's keeping maniacally busy to stave off a major depression.
We're doing what we can to help. Nona and I are now officially the "backup dads," meaning that we are on call whenever Sam is supposed to take the boys, and we don't make plans or leave the house until we get a call from Louella saying he has arrived. And if he doesn't show up, the boys come to us. So far we've ended up with the boys about one in three times. Sam claims he wants to make a commitment to the kids but his commitment seems to depend on whether he has anything better to do that day. Sometimes he calls to say something came up -- usually an automotive or work-related emergency -- and sometimes he just doesn't show.
We're trying to make it seem to the boys like everyone wants to spend so much time with them that there's a waiting list, but they get the message loud and clear that Sam's desire to see them is a now-and-then thing, and I don't think they can miss how eager Louella is to have them out of the house for an evening or a weekend. She needs the quiet time.
I wish I could do more for Louella, but when I express my sympathy, she just snaps, "This is what it's like for a housewife after the divorce, Harriet. I'm used to it. You better get used to it, too." See what I mean about worn to a fine thread?
I think it can only get better; the boys will get older and more independent, she'll finish school in another three semesters and be working a regular schedule and beginning to make a decent living. So we're all doing what we can to help her hang in until then.
Did I tell you that Nona and I decided to move in together, but not right away? We think maybe in the spring, when my landlord says he'll release me from my lease without any trouble because it's an easy time to rent.Or in September when my lease is up. Waiting will give us some time to be sure about the change; neither of us is 100% certain. Nona wants to live with me but has reservations about how we will share a house; I want to live with her, but not if it's going to cause problems between us. We're talking a lot about what exactly we would need to make it work. Nona wants me to be tidy, and I am trying to determine whether that's something I can do. I've never been tidy before, and this isn't going to be like living with Dorothy, who could pay to have someone come in and clean up every week.
We're looking into adding a room onto Nona's house; she and her mother bought the house together when Nona was in her twenties, and Nona paid it off with the insurance money when her mom died a few years back, so we think between us we could manage the payment on a home-improvement loan. The house has three bedrooms, but they're small. All the rooms are small, so we think another big room off the living room might be just the thing. With lots of windows and a fireplace. But we'll see.
I talked to my Grandma about why she has been so snappish whenever I've tried to talk to her about moving in with Nona. It turns out that Grandma had a plan whereby I would move in with her when she started to need some help around the house. She figured that as long as I was living in an efficiency, I'd jump at the chance to have my old room back. But if I make a home with Nona -- well, you get the picture. One of Grandma's friends just had to go into a nursing home, Grandma says because her family wasn't willing to deal with her after an only medium-severe stroke. Grandma hates to visit her there (but she goes every week, of course) and she is afraid we'll decide to put her in a home when she gets to be too much trouble. I said, "Grandma, I can't promise to take care of you at home no matter what, because I don't know what might happen to you or what I'll feel able to handle. But I do promise I won't put you in a home lightly, because you're just a little inconvenient, and if you do go into a home I promise both to visit you and to take you on outings as often as I can. OK?"
Grandma said, "That's a mighty wishy-washy promise. Define 'as often as I can.'"
I said, "At least twice a week."
She said, "You promise?"
I said, "I promise."
She said, "And how much inconvenience are you willing to put up with to keep me at home?"
I said, "Plenty, Grandma, but I can't say exactly how much. I can say that you can count on me."
She said, "I used to think so, before you started to have a family of your own. Now I'm afraid Nona will be more important to you than me."
I said, "I can't imagine ever having to make that judgment. Just trust me, OK?"
Grandma said, "I'll try, if you promise to take Flopsy if I die or I can't take care of her, right? You're not going to send her to the pound?"
I said, "Didn't I promise that when you got Flopsy? Besides, I love her as much as you do. She'll always have a home with me."
Grandma is 74 years old and starting to worry about her old age. Now she's got me worrying about it, too. I read the obituaries looking for people who lived to 98 or 99, and I tell myself we've got a lot of time left.
I have some good news, besides Nona and me planning to move in together. I start a new job at work after the new year. The old senior printer, Sheldon, is leaving, and I'm taking his place as Print Shop Manager. It means being responsible for ordering supplies and keeping up inventory, tracking waste, calling the repair company if the equipment breaks down, training new printers, and being the one the front desk calls to schedule jobs and give customers a delivery time. The job pays a little better than just printing, gets me off the press about 10 hours a week. and means I'm first in line for available overtime, so you can imagine I'm looking forward to the change.
Splash is leaving in just a couple of weeks to begin graduate school in Illinois. I can't tell you how much I'm planning to miss her. We're having a big New Year's Eve/Going Away Party, and she leaves two days later. Splash has always been flighty and inconstant, but I've been able to count on her showing up again eventually. I'm not sure I can count on that if she's in another state. And I remember that she was in Europe for three months and never sent so much as a postcard; she says she'll keep in touch with me but I don't believe it.
Remember Romney, Splash's sweetie who ditched her for another FTM and is now living in Seattle? Well, Splash refused to take care of all his business here, on account of how he dumped her without warning. He had wanted her to pack up his stuff and store it at his mother's, except what he needed in Seattle, which she would ship to him, and he wanted her to find someone to rent his room at the co-op. She said No, so he had to come home to take care of it. When he got home, he called Splash to see if she wanted to get together, and she said OK, figuring they could talk about what had happened, and thinking it would be nice to see him and tease him about his scraggly beard and the acne testosterone causes.
They ordered pizza and sat around yakking about his life in Seattle and her plans for grad school, and it was apparently very pleasant. Around 10:30, Splash said, "Well, I'd better get going. I've got to work in the morning," and Romney said, very smooth, "I was hoping you'd stay the night."
Splash said, "I thought you had a boyfriend."
Romney said, "I do, but we agreed that anything that happens when we're more than a thousand miles apart doesn't count."
Splash said, "Oh, you want to sleep with me, but it doesn't count."
Romney said, "I mean, it would be OK with my boyfriend."
Splash said, "What makes you think I'd be willing?"
Romney said, "Because you like me, and we just had a nice time talking, and we always had good sex before."
Splash said, "It just so happens that I have taken a vow of celibacy until I reach Urbana."
Romney said, "Is that a Buddhist thing? I didn't know you were religious."
Splash said, "Not Nirvana, you idiot. Urbana, where I'm going to grad school." Romney grinned at her and she realized he was teasing, so she punched him in the arm. "I didn't want any entanglements here to make it harder to leave, so I decided not to sleep with anyone. Not that I would have slept with you anyway. You're a nice guy but you've been a jerk lately and I suspect your whole motivation in wanting to see me was to try and take the edge off your testosterone-driven teenage-boy-like sex drive."
Later, Splash said to me, "Isn't that just like a man? I mean, he's only been on hormones a few months and already he's a total guy, just wanting sex and being willing to use me to get it, with no concern at all for his relationship with what's-his-name or for our genuine feelings or for the way he's treated me in the past! Unbelievable!"
I laughed. Splash said, "What? What's so funny?"
"Splash," I said, "who was it who, just a couple of months ago, set out quite deliberately to seduce me, with no consideration at all for my relationship with Nona? As I recall, that person was willing to manipulate me with logic, like, 'if you haven't actually agreed to monogamy you must be non-monogamous'; with emotions, like, 'if Nona won't move in with you, she must not really care about you, and wouldn't it be great to punish her for that'; and with sex, using her knowledge of me from our previous sexual relationship? Who was that? Do you remember? It seems to me that if Romney was acting like a man last night, you were acting like a man then."
Splash said, "Harriet, I hate you for deflating my righteous anger and for not letting me stereotype Romney. I may never forgive you for this."
I said, "You can still be mad at Romney. He has been thoughtless lately, but remember he's in a big time of change and people aren't always at their best during major transitions."
Splash said, "Hmph. I'm going to be glad to get away from you, Harriet."
I said, "I'm counting the days."
She said, "You know the most infuriating thing about Romney?"
I said, "That you slept with him."
She said, "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess. It's OK, you know."
"No, it's not. I promised myself I wouldn't get tangled up with anyone before I left. I took a vow of celibacy!"
"Well, Romney is leaving after Christmas to return to his boyfriend in Seattle; if my crack knowledge of geography serves me, that's somewhere between ten thousand miles and half a light year from here, and from Urbana-Champaign, so I'd hardly call sleeping with him an entanglement. Think of it as a last fling, and do it again if you want."
Splash said, "You really think it's OK? And not a sign of my immaturity?"
I said, "The two are hardly mutually exclusive," and she punched me in the arm. I'm sure gonna miss her.
Hey, my mother invited me to her house for Christmas. She says it's the next step in her healing, to have her whole family together at the holidays. I have not yet decided whether to go; I've also been invited to have Christmas with Nona and her family. I'm nervous about meeting all her cousins and aunts and other assorted relatives; I'm nervous about how religious her family is; and I'm nervous about being the only white person there, but Nona says I have to dive in and get used to it sometime, and it might as well be now. Mostly I'm thrilled that Nona wants me to be with her family.
I'm less thrilled that my mother wants me to be with hers; I have refused to participate in most of my mother's recovery activities, like going to her therapist with her, because it seems to me that she thinks getting chummy with me is a quick fix; if I forgive her, she doesn't have to face what a horrible mother she was for abandoning me. I keep telling her when she calls that she has to work it out on her own, and she says that trying to have a relationship with me is part of her working it out. I just don't know; I've been spinning around about this for months. I do go to her house sometimes to pick up Ron to hang out, and it's good not to be sneaking around to see my little brother anymore (though at 15 he's four inches taller than me and outweighs me by 30 pounds, so I guess "younger brother" is more apt). I'm happy to be on a cordial footing with my mother, but I'm not at all sure that getting friendly is either desirable or healthy. And I do not want to go through the farce of exchanging gifts with her!
That sounds like my answer; I won't celebrate Christmas with my mother. But I will drive my grandmother there and drop in for a few minutes to say hello to my brothers before I go over to Nona's.
Wish me luck with Nona's family. I'm sure they'll all see me as an obnoxious atheistic white girl and dislike me on sight. I'm afraid my presence will disrupt their comfortable holiday. Nona says I'm being silly, as usual ("As usual, you're being silly, Harriet," she says to me on almost a daily basis.). She says, "You being white is not going to bother anyone a bit. Black people are used to dealing with white people. You're projecting your own discomfort because you've never before been in a room where you were outnumbered 20-to-1 by dark-skinned people."
I said, "I have so, Nona."
She said, "Oh, yeah? When?"
I said, "When I go to hear you sing in the choir at your church."
She laughed. "I meant, before you met me. And sitting quietly in a pew hardly counts. At Christmas, you're going to have to mingle."
I dread it. And I suppose I'm taking the discomfort I would feel on meeting any lover's family and pinning it on race (that's Louella's theory). I'm just nervous about being accepted by Nona's family; they're very important to her, so I feel I need to fit in with them for the sake of my relationship with her.
One family member I wish I could meet is Nona's mom. They were very close, and Nona misses her especially during the holidays. I'd like to know whether she would like me, whether she would approve of my relationship with Nona. And I find it painfully ironic that Nona loves her mother yet her mother is dead, while I live just a mile from mine and my feelings for her are ambivalent at best.
I'll be in touch again after the new year; hope you're well and happy and tolerate this obnoxious season fairly well. Ho Ho Ho.
© Copyright 1994-1999 Su Penn. Design by David Dierauer.Previous issue | Next issue