What if I'd Said...Just Drive
I had a recurring nightmare as a child: It started with my brother and me in a parking lot in my mother’s Pink Panther Pink ’69 Mustang convertible with a white rag top and a rumble seat instead of a trunk. A limited number of them had been produced by Ford for the county Blossom Time Festival parade to carry all the community queens. The particular parking lot we were in, however, was outside a crumbling brick building in a rather questionable area of a southwest Chicago suburb, near where we lived for a couple of years when I was in elementary school. My mom was a Brownie leader, and used to leave us in the car when she ran in to buy patches [in actuality, she probably only did it once]. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad of a neighborhood, but compared to where we came from, this had a lasting imprint on me.
My brother had once hooked his diapered behind to the gear shifter in my mom’s car, and it had tumbled down the dirt driveway at my grandparents’ with her running after it, and shouting at it to stop, before my brother dove out the window and she managed to jump in and slam on the breaks. It was an old green Ford Torino, or something. So I may have had a subconscious desire to rescue him from that, and this dream took the two of us, somehow from said parking lot near Chicago, careening down a familiar street back in Michigan in our quaint lakeside hometown. I am in all of third grade; he’s in first, and I’m behind the wheel where this street takes us bouncing along the bluff above Lake Michigan, careening and hanging on for dear life, until eventually I can’t keep control on a curve and we go sailing off a cliff, into oblivion. I wake up, sweating, frightened, and feeling like a failure.
A condition that, years later, is oft repeated when I’m a single mom, trying to survive with a delightful, sparkly-eyed little toddler to care for. Alone. With no child support.
Despite that, with my daughter, our meager belongings and hand-me-downs, I left behind the 1200 square foot house my mother shared with her abusive husband, three dogs, two cats (to which I was dreadfully allergic), and their new baby; my littlest half-brother, who came a year and nine days after my daughter and, although he caused my mother months of heartburn and morning sickness, whom I cannot imagine life without.
I moved us into a back alley apartment downtown that had a ‘dining room’ just large enough to fit a half-open oval drop-leaf table that had been my grandmother’s, my daughter's high chair, and a chair for me. Literally, that was it. Someone had given me a piece of carpet to put down, which I had to cut with scissors and nail into place (I was twenty-one years old; what did I know of carpet-laying...what did I know of parenting?). I think it was all of 4 feet, by 4 feet. There was one bedroom, just wide enough for her twin-size bed and an old cane rocking chair from my mother, in which I would read to her every night before bed, and where underneath the swooping wooden arms still crusted her projectile spit-up years later. The room was long and narrow with one closet, mine, but at least it was white, and there was room for her changing-table-turned-dresser on one wall, and an overloaded pink metal book-shelf, just inside the doorway. There was little room for her to play on the floor, and no carpet to cover the hardwood.
I’d hand-stitched her a pink balloon valance, a blue one for our living room that doubled as my bedroom, and stayed up for almost an entire weekend straight to hand-stitch a blue-flowered comforter for myself. I have it in the guest room to this day. My daughter and her husband sleep under it when they come to visit from their new home in New York. She used to curl up under it with me, on the pull-out couch, and watch Looney-Tunes on Saturday mornings while I slept in.
She used to curl up in my lap on the bathroom floor, and lift my tear-streaked face, and say,