They see my failures now. They are old enough to judge. For instance, I am an absent-minded driver. I have, on occasion, bumped up and over a curb. Driving to Rhode Island with Eliza, we nearly got sideswiped when I began to switch lanes. She was shaken, took a deep breath, but didn’t scold me.
I am not good with directions. I take many wrong turns. It took me years to realize this. It was only after three different times with my grown nephew in the car, not getting him where he needed to be, that it dawned on me. I finally got a GPS, but it picks fights with me. Problem not solved.
They comment on my speed, if I am going over the limit. I realize that I am always in a hurry. I am usually running late, even if only for something imagined.
They hear messages on the answering machine about overdue bills. They see and sometimes eat my kitchen mishaps. I am a bundle of mistakes.
They, they, they are my reflection. They are what I do well. They are lovely, full of light. They walk freely in the world, then come back to me, safe. They are proof that I am competent, successful. That I can do something right.
One day Lena challenges me when my behavior is subpar. I have made a wrong turn, again, and ended up at a toll booth for the expensive Newport Bridge. I do not want to cross the bridge, the expensive bridge, and I ask the toll booth operator how to turn around. She replies that I have to cross the bridge and pay the toll. I rail a bit, in a controlled way, it seems to me, about the inadequate signage. I tell her I do not have the cash, the four dollars. I have just spent twenty-seven dollars on ice cream, which I now regret. She tells me I can fill out a form and send in a check for ten dollars to cover the toll.
Ten dollars! No. I fish through my wallet, the cup holders in the car. A dollar bill, quarters, nickels, dimes, cruddy from spilled drinks. I get up to three thirty five. The girls help search the crannies of the car. The toll operator asks me to move my car, a line is forming behind me. I persevere, remember another zip pocket in my wallet. I get to four dollars.
The Newport Bridge is expansive and beautiful and the sun is setting. I tell the girls to enjoy the view. Lena, who had been making impatient noises throughout my ordeal, says, “You didn’t have to talk to her like that.”
I push down my irritation, don’t let myself admit that she might be right. I am proud that I haven’t completely lost it, frankly. Behind that search for change in the car is the piled up stress of late mortgage payments, bounced check fees, financial mishap after financial mishap, the deep inadequacy of never being on top of the bills. And twenty-seven dollars’ worth of ice cream.
I jokingly ask, “You guys want to go to Newport, as long as we’re here?”
Eliza, ever practical, knowing we have spent four needless dollars to get here, is quick to say yes. But Lena will have none of it. And I remember the ice cream, the dessert I am bringing back for everyone else, cousins, sisters, aunts. So we turn around.
“There isn’t a toll this way, is there?” I ask, hoping against hope. I really don’t have four dollars now. I am trying to keep it together, not let the shame come out as anger. The girls say a sign said two dollars, so I ask Lena to scout the remembered pocket of my purse. But it is two dollars per axle—four dollars again.
A new toll keeper, another unsmiling middle-aged woman in uniform and badge, awaits. Holding down my irritation, I explain my situation to her, that I had crossed the bridge only because there was no turning back, and I returned immediately. She too tells me I can pay ten dollars by mail. I beg her understanding, saying I never wanted to cross the bridge at all, much less twice.
Lena making more impatient sounds, holding her hand to her forehead.
The toll operator calls for a manager, and another woman, younger and bleached blonde, appears almost instantly. She smiles at me, and I feel a flood of relief. She askd who had instructed me to cross the bridge.
“I didn’t get her name.”
“What did she look like?”
“Um—brunette?” Surly? Put upon? My unbending enemy?
The younger (though not young) woman is standing and thus higher than the rest of us, which gives her further authority. She tells the toll keeper, “You can enter it as a U-turn for Mary Ellen.” The toll keeper punches some numbers.
“You mean I don’t have to pay? Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” Relief!
We drive away and I feel the irritation and tension pinging through my body. Lena speaks.
“You shouldn’t talk to them like that—“
I cut her off.
“Lena. You can’t tell me how to behave. My god.” My voice has force and authority. The car goes silent.
I drive on, and the rightness of Lena’s criticism floods through me. But she no longer speaks. I have used my age, my position as a parent, my assumed authority, to silence her. I justified my behavior as due to stress, the ongoing financial mess of my life, and considered I had behaved well under the circumstances. I had not screamed! I had even said I was sorry for my irritated tone.
But Lena is right. Soon she will be an adult, and will be able to assert her rightness, and I will no longer be able bully her into silence. I can see it coming.
I know when we get back, after I have calmed down some more, I will have to apologize.