Matriarchs and Matadors

“You can have it if you want it,” his mother said to no one in particular, handing us her ring. It looked in need to be polished. My fiance set that stone in the middle of a princess ring we chose together, and it came back beautiful. During this time, his father sends a copy of an email to him. He’s contacted a pastor friend for marriage counseling on our behalf: She’s a Catholic, She’s from a broken family… it reads. I learn that the way they return to you in the distance is steadfast; everything you’ve said is what you become. I string my wedding ring around my neck during the pregnancy of our firstborn, on a silver chain she brought from her house. I was swollen, making room inside myself that wasn’t there. Stretch marks would later remind me that I’d somehow made it happen. I would name my daughter after my mother-in-law, and we operate in bloated gestures like these through the years; stretch marks just the same; indicating that something good was once here, that sometimes registers as damage. I try desperately to rub out the stigma of Collateral when any of us begin to crossfire.

His parents squirm when they come back to visit in the thick of it. They talk loudly through the baby crying, in thin conversation: the weather, sports, their jobs- but never my motherhood. My husband tells me I’m in the teenage years with his parents- I’m too emotional, I expect too much: I need to accept them as they are. At times this feels like an impossible application to consider with absolutely no outside help. “If you’re so miserable staying at home, then why are you doing it?!” she’s snapped. It’s sad to me that she views the act of trying in this way. And while it’s true that I clearly struggle, she says it pushing the baby back at my hip and I wobble in postpartum stitches to tend to him. Nana doesn’t change poopy diapers. She doesn’t deal in the Shit. My husband says it’s typical; she’s been a smoker since fourteen; she has many vices to curb the growing pains. She doesn’t show them though, instead ducks in corners and basements, thinking I don’t see her life in a cloud of smoke and mirrors. It occurs to me there are two ways to approach a handicap: If a quack tells you there’s a slim chance that you will walk, you either choose to believe the break will heal stronger or that you don’t have legs to stand on. I know I’m going to walk away fortified, even though it fucking hurts in the beginning. My children will see me crawl before we stride, but we do it together; become an Us. The next visit we will travel back home to Them.

We used to make the trip every summer and haul our bikes on the back of the car, even in the rain. He and I come with a different kind of baggage now. We arrive tired and the kids are hard-wired to run around after a four hour trip has taken us eight, and in every way costs us double. “We don’t sleep,” he and I tell them every time, “There’s nursing, and comforting and the children don’t eat well in this house.” They don’t want to acknowledge the demands. The next morning, his father is up at 5 dressed to golf, and she sleeps in past eleven, traipsing down the staircase, her ridiculous hair in a mess of comfort and not caring. In my dreams, my children have grandparents that can’t wait to see them. Grandparents I’m fiercely jealous to be around because my babies are so engaged they forget about me. Ones that have plans to take them to the park- but in reality the ball is always kicked back to me.

She avoids us in the kitchen when we’re back, behind beef shoulders, carrots, and tin colanders of lima beans. His father sits at the dining room table baiting us with radical political views. Often times I’ve bared my soul on various issues of humanity for him to pull the rug out; reveal in the final hour his extreme opposition was a farce- he just wanted to see what I would say. It’s not true of course. I know where my husband has come from. “You’re in love with a man that I’ve raised,” his mother is quick to remind me, failing to acknowledge that he’s any different now. Our life together, a bean that she shells in the worst way. Dinner is served and they sit back in their chairs, both of them waiting to revel in the compliments that come from being well seasoned in the fine art of The Roast. But none come from me. I want to slay the bully in them with kindness or realness or anger, but I keep my mouth shut as not to completely unhinge. I don’t want to be the matador anymore: I’ll care for the children and she can serve the beef. Dessert ends by asking about church. He’ll tell them we don’t have plans to attend. Days will pass and my husband will receive emails about the benefits of spanking children, Obama’s missing birth certificate… and when I prepare to do laundry I’ll spot an unfamiliar book stuffed inside our suitcase next to my Billy Collins: What To Do When You’ve Been Left Behind after the Rapture.

So it comes to be that the holidays and birthdays which would round out our calendar years before our children came now circle the drain. And by the time the end of summer rolls around, my husband will tell me that his mother has been crying. That she’s been keeping a journal. “What could it possibly say?” I’ll ask him, “How have I wronged her? We don’t even speak.” She’d be disillusioned to think I’m somehow game to keep score with the broken pencil of my mind- my laundry list so literal I often find in the daily mess most feelings are swept with the dirt and Cheerios and rogue Lego… I now spend my life in quick surveys of the dust pan: What’s it all worth? Deciphering if that building block is something worth crouching for. How many goddamn times have I stepped on it? A naive part of me thinks I have a choice, but he stands there, my son watching my every move, and as I’m about to toss it all shouts, ‘That’s mine to build on, that’s not fair!’ I catch myself; rinse it in the sink, pat his head and butt up my shoulder against the refrigerator. What is fair anymore?

I’ll come back one Christmas when I can stomach the thought of her cooking. I have no other grandmother to offer them myself- a dagger she cuts me with, going down her list as she cooks; serving me up the carved roast beast of my truth. She’ll say something I don’t like. I’ll say something she doesn’t want to hear. But it’ll never all be on the table. I’ll sit there with my hands in my lap, reaching; my left hand ring twisting between my fingers. Every year back in the bedroom the same: My husband laughs to himself thinking out loud, “The Immovable Object and the Unstoppable Force, up against each other. It’s impossible to know which will ever prevail,” as I search for it again in the dark; the diamond in the Rough.

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