Out of Kindness

Adapted from “Saints Have Mothers”

Allan Gurganus ‘72

All Saints Have Mothers

Parents of other high school co-eds would corner me at malls: complaining they'd overheard daughters discuss the pain of voluntary department-store tongue-piercings. Such girls texted about which boy had the all-time best hair in grades nine OR ten. --And my Cait? busy shipping back-issue Geographics to three flooded schools in Nicaragua.

"But kids down there read English?" I encouraged her realism.

"What they 'read' is world imagery, Mom. You so understand this already. You, who left library art books beside our toilets all these years, you kidding? See, I believe a child can catch the habit of questioning from even one image strong enough. Art's not even needed, least not at first. Just one amazing news-photo can 'turn' a kid. The urge to read, to strive, goes on like a switch! --But, silly Mom, you know all this. You taught me it!"

Fellow PTA members pressed, "Jean, tell us how you 'humanized' your tween. You could charge for seminars. Your Cait seems welcome in every clique. Goths, jocks, black kids, arty fruitcakes, nobody hates her. Unlike our Millicent, sadly. Oh, and Cait's been real supportive of Millie's ceramics. Been buying the 'artichoke' teapot on-time, a dollar's lunch money per week. --Did you even know, Jean?"

I lied, nodding. "How I managed? You diagnose her. -- I sure don't understand. She was born a very particular someone. I just held her little car coat. We still have the roadkill cemetery. By age three, Cait made me keep a tarp and shovel in the back of our wagon. If I passed some squashed raccoon, a Great Dane even, she'd scream, she'd grab the wheel till I stopped. Out of sympathy, she'd try wrecking us. You would not believe what I have touched and made crosses for. (Don't tell her, but I've shifted that menagerie's improved dirt into our tomato patch.) --Fact is, for me by now, boy-crazy-with-too-much-makeup sounds like fun! Be a relief compared to recycled tin cans with SAVE THE CHILDREN labels Elmer-glued to them, are you kidding?"

Other moms cleared off; they'd heard about my edge. They'd seen my too-elaborate haunted house with me wearing slenderizing black as Hostess Witch. Before the divorce, I always tried keeping my own counsel. Back then, before leaving our house, I'd ask my outfit's separate tops-and-bottoms, "Do you guys agree to even half-match?" But after Eddie moved 3,000 miles due west? I quit editing. I said pretty much ... whatever to whoever overheard.

In a town like Falls, women are so country-clubby they grocery-shop at 7 a.m. wearing best jewelry and full-warpaint. Everybody auditioning. But for what ? And if you're not in one of their three top schlock-reading book clubs, you feel banished. Even certain Atlantic -published writers are discounted. One thing I lack is sponsorship. Candor can leave quite the spatial moat around a person. Intelligence should bridge such gaps. But, they smell your IQ on you. Pisses them off.

In her sunny corner room that the twins envied--Cait's bed linen stayed pulled drum-tight as some novitiate nun's. I'd bring fresh laundry. I'd find my girl's weekly "Must Do" inventory-philosophy printed in three colors on her whiteboard. (I was hardly snooping, was I?):

Caitie-list, today's. 1. Do you really need it? More than others? 2. Hungry? But with a pain in any sense different from the rest's? 3. What expense basic kindness? And, considering it seems easier for you than most, how can you ever run out? Instead of toothpaste (pricey due to ad budgets), baking soda b fine. Once you save some book via memory, why keep it? Brothers Grimm took dictation from old peasant women, did not originate one tale! Popularizers as exploiters? Are novels even valid this late in human history? Can the simply Personal be separated now, teased out, from the general warp-woof of utter Globalism? Fantasy, always a distortion? Argue Escapism's morality, pro-con. Go with the Emerson again. Couldn't X-cessive current-event-junkies like Mom be called escapists too? Explore. 4. Do 12 more improving pushups per day, yes. Reread French essays. "Passé composé" still total ball-buster. Break work into smaller units? Needs breakin. 4a. Wallace Stevens.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar."

5. Whether to dye eyelashes dark ...? Safety issues. But color would keep you fm. looking like washed-out lab rat. Being this Blond so SUX.

--"A good song can only do well." --Woody Guthrie."

I stood here, replenishing her clean little midriff-baring T-shirts. Her fresh ones were resting stacked against my own midsector (fully covered, thanks). Caitie is a list-lover like her engineer dad. They over-trust logic. She sounds, she is, soooo young. Are my girl's jottings admirable or crazed? --Why waste time on such distinctions?--her scratch-pad doodles are the workshop of a somebody.

Here hung the mind-gym of Radcliffe's next early-decision southeastern U.S. shoo-in. That's a fact; and Caitlin Mulray, originally of my own body, was already out there --online, commodified--almost a geographic fact at 17.

I am not like Caitlin, travel rattles me. Stage fright gives me near-strokes, even at PTA. I grew up on one street, married the boy from two blocks over. We then settled a literal stone's throw from our old grammar school.

Yes, I begged Cait not to spend her last high school summer off doing good in Africa. You think she listened? Am I already repeating? Probably. No, she sensed that further volunteering would look excellent on her college applications. So she went. And with her father's blessing. The rest of what occurred to her, then us, the sadness with its killer one-two shock, even got us (under Human Interest) into USA Today . If short and at the back and stuck below bad future gas prices. "A Model Student, a Parent's Worst Fear, and Then ..."

--You know how it is with Mothers and Daughters: Dogs and Cats.

My own mom's name was Iris. My father shortened that to Ice. "Meet my wife, Ice." A trial lawyer, good on his feet, Pop could out-argue most men but never the pale sickly girl he wedded-bedded. Ice informed my kindergarten girlfriends that she had led Raleigh's Cotillion, then played Shaw's Cleopatra at St. Mary's. Ice slept in white gloves full of white cold cream to "save my hands." Saved for what , Ice never said.

My childhood home's side tables were lidded with glass, glass coasters sparing even first-layer protection. Ice's being basted in unguents for life, it finally made her the best-moisturized dead lady in local mortuarial memory. Hateful person, if one singularly brilliant. Ambitious for me, of course--years of lessons at every lady-skill taught within forty miles--dressage, decoupage, floral arranging, piano. And I, offered all that prep, what did I aspire to be? Oh, picky picky, I held out for becoming divorced mom of three .

Still, being a warmer parent than Mother, I've tried becoming super (Cait's word) at least at this. I've honestly given it my everything. Whatever might save or even interest my girl. Whatever that costs.

--All morning on this chugging boat, I've recalled funny talks with Caitlin in my head; and in there, at least, we still share the odd giggle. I'm yet startled by her stray bilingual puns. One in three truly dazzles. Odd, I'm so unused to being on my own without the kids. I am not quite sure how I come across here. They usually interpret for me, protecting their harried, driven mom.

I did not rate a career as concert pianist, though few girl-children ever practiced harder longer. But, now at their school or ballparks you'll find me awaiting my darlings in certain choicer parking slots right up front. Yes, terror of crowds ruined my girlhood ballet recitals but now I'm fearless at beating others into the car-queue by 2:10 p.m. I'm brilliant at finding a really "good spot" one hour early so I can retrieve mine or stay late if need be--whatever my incipient geniuses need--extra-tech-rehearsal, added free-throw clinic. Once there, I am the silhouette, mine is the head stooped over her steering wheel absorbing Public Radio civics, old French tapes, replaying Grand Opera for Dummies . I married Ed while a rising sophomore at Sweet Briar. But even now, tucked over my car's sun visor, you'll find note-cards enabling self-improvement, even at long red lights:

Irr. French verb: Maudire: "to curse."

Like Ice herself, I'm not a "natural" parent--too tense to be literal, not trusting enough to relax ungirdled into being Mother Earth, the turquoise-wearing bread-baker. Still, I've learned to fake a certain bovine calm. But I can ruin even that with stabs at burbling charmingness.

I've sometimes overheard my kids soothe their little friends, "She didn't mean to barge in just now and go so loud. Mom's good underneath. Only, around strangers she sometimes tries too hard is all. But you should see her when she thinks she's mainly by herself. Boy, then she can act almost happy."

Living alone with them, I am in motion by 5:30 a.m. First thing, while compiling school lunches, I read my precious lifeline the New York Times . (I think the headlines are messages seeking my help, smarts, untapped diplomacy.) I'll clip the odd article--anti-doping sports items for my boys, reviews of works on poetry and African economics for Cait. But I won't let them see the whole paper, the rancid world picture, till after dinner-hour. I am their morning filter. The world is too disturbing for those just starting out soft-boned. Let my wee ones imbibe adult-strength Chaos just a pinch at a time. Their homoeopathist, my dosages show mercy.

I'll skip Cait's eye-popping PSAT scores, her all-state-orchestra flute skills. At 16 she won a national contest, Best Poem Concerning the Homeless. Her sestina she titled "Outside It." This meant Cait got published in a regional (if not a national like the Atlantic ) magazine. She was soon enlisted by a local crew that distributes soup and free blankets in our Old Town's most dangerous alleys.

Her adult supervisor, this laissez-faire Quaker wearing filthy wire specs, swore he'd keep an eye on her. But when I asked how many kids worked under him on Caitie's late-night shift, he said, "Roughly 19, take or leave a few, why?"

Sometimes it would be 3 a.m. and she was still out wandering the street of train station bars, her backpack stuffed with pounds of power-bars for favorite junkies. The girl was 17 and scarily pretty. She favored short tops, low jeans. Beautiful navel, if I do say so myself. Some midriffs are too ideal for even Falls' idea of a slum at 3 a.m., thanks.

One night I made Cait hysterical by loading her pajama-ed brothers into our battered wagon while patrolling the town's darkest streets. First I'd find, then guard her. I'd had a premonition. Caitlin, when busted by Mom, would roll her eyes then shoot me the finger whilst struggling even harder to blend in with the Ragged.

Once I caught her supporting a very old bum so he could pee against a wall. First I spotted her pink canvas backpack she won't ever let me wash. Helping him, she looked like a nineteenth century English nurse, newly-graduated. Cait was picturesque in the strong simple way she hoisted this scrawny bearded misfit. She did everything for him except pulling out what my sons these days--somewhat optimistically--call their main drains. She did appear lovely doing it.

I vowed I'd never let my daughter know I'd seen this happen .

--Yes, a girl who'd give away the new novel you are reading, with just 30 gripping pages left to go. Cait passed our stuff to the Needy, meaning those even Needier than we. See, I've been clever at stretching Ed's child support. (My tricks: cheap maple syrup funneled into bottles that once held the real stuff. I only do such transfers late, the kids asleep.)

It gave my darlings a false sense of security. I clearly overdid the job on Cait. First she hated being a spun-sugar blonde; then she felt all guilty for our wealth. If she'd only known!

When I summoned her downstairs to close the front door again, she lectured me--in her most patient singsong--about how Saint Francis, when he sought virtue? had to purge himself of his aristocratic family's lavish clothes? before he could even, like, start being bare-boned good! Strange but in that same sainted way, I--stripped shoeless by my kid--was forced to send off for this footgear needed to begin my own jail-term holiday.

Last spring, she runs in with a letter, tells me the homeless poem has won her a summer internship plus free transportation to said job. "Great, dear. --A ride where?"

"Africa," her smile ignites and she's immediately listing 10 tropical-disease-shots she'll now need. Then I say something awful. I usually do. (Other people claim they regret making certain sharp replies, but they mean they wish they had. Me, I blurt, then waste my life force regretting whatever just leaked.)

"You'll cure disease in Africa over my dead body! --Young lady, you're one inch from getting into Radcliffe (and you know how always felt about that school). Now you want to jet clear to Africa, and why? To hold up old tribal-bums so they can pee against ... straw huts?"

Horrified, she gave me such a look: first pure fear, then--far worse--the visual wash of total Caitlin pity. She settled on the floor beside my rocker. She placed her head so it must be cradled in my lap. I pressed my hand against her warm ear, her cheek.

"What hurt you so early, Mom? Your bitterness scared Dad off, okay. But I keep imagining what it's gotta daily cost you . Was your Ice Queen mom as frozen-solid as you say? Then I totally hate her for maiming you. For how she'd hide your lipstick, follow your dates' cars, eavesdrop on phone-calls. Harsh. I cannot imagine. Gran was truly twisted. --But, look, is it getting worse for you? 'Cause, lately you seem ... Mom? let me take some of it on myself, whatever the burden. I know I'm not super-fun to live with. One grin from me at breakfast seems to work your last nerve. I see it in your face. And I'm sorry. Truly. With me trying everything out and heading to far places, it must make stuff way harder here. Even so, Mom, I can't quite see I have a choice. The divorce made you want to hold us even tighter. Probably natural, you ole sweetie. But, my growing up fast? my taking chances? that's one life path I can't refuse. Ask for anything else, Mom. --Love you. And am definitely going."

(Incredible girl. --Who could not love her?)

Allan Gurganus ’72 is the author of White People and Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, he is a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters