With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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While my father was alive, our home was filled with Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. After he died, the house fell silent. I had to care for my younger sister after school while my mother worked to support us. I was painfully shy and socially backward. The only thing I enjoyed was playing in the band. I had no close friends and was never asked for a date.
In the weeks before graduation, the girls talked of dresses, hairstyles, and parties. I was glad I would have to wear my band uniform under my gown. There’d be no new dress to reveal my shapeless figure, no heels to accentuate my awkwardness.
The graduation ceremony took place on the football field on a hot June day. The bleachers swelled with family and friends. From the band section, I looked for my mother and sister, knowing they might not be there — my mother often had to fill in for an employee who didn’t show. I’d gotten used to it. But that day, I felt abandoned and more alone than ever.
I remember walking, head down, and nearly stumbling as I made my way up to the platform. When I was handed my diploma, there was none of the cheering and applause that had greeted other graduates. I was glad to get back to my seat.
While the speaker reading the list of names droned on, I noticed a small package being passed along the rows of bleachers where the underclassmen sat. It reached a band member and was passed from flutes to clarinets, and finally to me. I was shocked to see my name printed on the wrapping. “Open it! Open it!” everyone around me urged. I blushed as I unwrapped the box.
Inside lay a hand-carved wooden heart, lacquered to a shine, on a bed of cotton. There was no card, no clue as to who had sent it. I searched the bleachers where I’d first seen it being passed, but no one looked my way.
That was in 1951. I still have that heart and never learned who sent it. It was the first time I ever felt loved.
I was looking forward to graduation, to wearing the white-lace dress my mother had bought for me, and to spending graduation night with Suzanne and Brian. Technically, Suzanne and Brian were girlfriend and boyfriend, but I was best friends with both of them, and we three were always together.
Just a few days before graduation, I was driving and Suzanne and Brian were sitting together in the back seat, looking smug. During a long pause in the conversation, Suzanne looked at Brian and asked, “Should we tell her?” He just grinned, so, with pride and embarrassment, Suzanne told me that they had “done it” the afternoon before in Brian’s bedroom, and were planning to do it again after graduation. She probably wasn’t even aware of how it made me feel: callow, unsophisticated, left behind.
After the graduation ceremony, Suzanne and Brian vanished into the parking lot, and I rode home with my mom, dad, and younger brother. I was lonely and restless; my parents’ love and pride were somehow intolerable. So, for the first time, I deliberately lied to them. Some kids were having a party, I said. Could I have the car? A few moments later, I was nosing the old olive green Ford Maverick through the quiet streets of my neighborhood, heading west toward the interstate, into the darkness of the country.
Having no particular destination in mind, I opened the windows and let the moist, warm Gulf Coast air flood the car. I drove without thinking, just a little bit too fast, watching the lights of small communities appear and fade.
Not wanting to go too far, but also not wanting to return home while my parents might still be awake (I wasn’t up to lying again), I ended up at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. The few customers glanced up as I walked in and took a seat at the counter, but if they were curious about the seventeen-year-old girl in the white-lace graduation dress, they concealed it well.
Curling my hands around a cup of hot coffee, I felt separate for the first time in my life — separate from my friends and family, alone inside my skin with my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t know it then, but eventually I would grow to treasure such moments, and the sense of being fully present with myself.
In June my youngest children will graduate from preschool. This will be my fifth year having children in the school, and by now I know the entire proceedings by heart. The ceremony takes place at dusk at a picnic shelter in our city’s prettiest park. Huge papier-mâché bugs that the kids have made are hung all around, the families bring cookies, and the kids perform a musical program. Many of us parents have even learned the hand movements that go with the songs, we’ve seen them so many years in a row. After the program, each child is called up to receive a diploma tied with colorful yarn, declaring that he or she “has achieved social and emotional growth.”
People look at our family of five and assume that we’re done having kids. I don’t know if I could have convinced my husband to go for three if we hadn’t had twins the second time, but I can’t imagine having only two — it would be much too quiet around here. Although my husband feels strongly that three is plenty, I still talk wistfully about having another baby.
What I really want is another year of safety, of bread-dough menorahs and Santa Lucia crowns in December, of field trips to the library every Friday in the summer, of toilet-paper-tube binoculars that end up in the recycling basket.
My two boys are looking forward to sitting with their friends instead of their parents, to multiplication tables and the rough-and-tumble games older kids play. I can’t see what’s ahead for me, though; I just feel the loss. When I leave that picnic-shelter refuge this year, I’ll have no choice but to grow up.
My father was an orphan who emigrated from Finland in 1912 when he was twenty years old. My mother’s parents also came to this country from Finland. I was an only child because my father didn’t think he could support more than one. He told my mother at my birth, “I won’t have my kid become one of those rotten, spoiled American brats.”
I got no physical affection from my parents. I was not allowed to cry, even if injured. I was not allowed to laugh during meals, and I had to work hard in school to get top grades. My father, a self-taught fiddler, paid for my violin lessons, which I took from a woman with his same standards of perfection. I was afraid of my father, and my mother used the yardstick on me if I didn’t come in when called.
I got good grades and became an accomplished violinist. I was popular at school and wanted to attend school activities, but, except for musicals, I was not permitted. My father told me I couldn’t date boys until I was eighteen.
My high-school graduation was held in Seattle’s Meany Hall. All the great concert artists had appeared there, so it was a thrill for me to perform two solos during the graduation ceremony and receive great applause. Afterward, some friends invited me to attend the dance with them. I was eighteen and was sure it was finally going to be all right, but my father said no. I begged and pleaded, but the answer was still no. I should have run away, but I had no courage or self-esteem.
I still remember sitting in the back seat of our car with my violin case, crying as if my heart would break. I had never hurt so much in my whole life. I had done everything that was expected of me, yet it still wasn’t enough.
Anita B. Beltzer
Grand Island, Nebraska
I eagerly awaited my graduation day, the culmination of three years of 250-mile round trips to the city to obtain a master’s degree in social work. Three years of juggling work, school, and family, of abdicating my social life, of getting by on too little sleep for too many nights in a row — all this would suddenly, miraculously, come to a screeching halt.
Graduation day came and went, pomp and circumstance and a sea of black gowns and colored tassels. I went about the business of being a psychotherapist, something I had been practicing for the previous twelve months as an intern. Being a “real” therapist, however, seemed no different than being the “pretend” therapist I’d often felt like during my internship. I wasn’t any wiser, had no more magic, felt no more prepared to have troubled individuals put their trust in me than I had when I was still a student. Back then, however, I could excuse my inadequacies and insecurities; after all, I was just learning.
When, six months ago, I agreed to supervise an intern, Theresa, I was quite certain she would discover within a few days that I was a fraud. I was not at all prepared when she instead began to develop her own insecurities and fears. Truth was, though, she was a natural. She was inexperienced and needed some polishing, but she was far ahead of the many other prospective interns I’d interviewed.
I began to see myself in Theresa. I felt her agonies. She helped me to understand how far I had actually come, something I had previously been unable to see because I was so focused on my feelings of inadequacy. I think that, when Theresa is awarded her master’s degree in just a few weeks, I will finally graduate, too.
I remember walking down the aisle at my wedding and stepping onto the stupid white bridal carpet I hadn’t wanted but my mother had insisted on having. “If you don’t have one,” she had hissed in the florist’s, “people will think there’s a reason.” I decided at that moment that, when I had children of my own, the great events of their lives would be theirs, not mine.
But here I am, awaiting my son’s graduation from high school and pressuring him to let me have an open house on graduation day. I tell him it’s a chance to have his friends over — I’ll fix good food — but what I really want is to parade him in front of my friends, this man-child who came out of my body seventeen years ago, now ready to leave home. I offer incentives. I tell him he can wear whatever he wants — even the jacket with the biohazard bag safety-pinned to it. I’ll know it’s him inside those clothes; I have even come to take wicked pleasure in my friends’ fearful looks at his pierced eyebrow. I suggest to him that Wet-Nap, his punk-rock band, can play at the event. He looks at me as if I’m crazy: “Why in the world would you want a punk-rock band at your ice-cream social?” His father suggests mildly that perhaps he would go along with the idea if we called it a “ground-glass social” instead.
Is there a way to make the open house his event, not mine? Would it be OK, I bargain with that angry young woman in her long white dress, if his graduation belonged a little bit to both of us?
My high-school graduation was outdoors. The sky was lavender, the wind was blowing softly, and a row of buses was waiting to take all those who had put up sixty dollars to Disneyland for the postgraduation all-nighter. The drivers gunned the motors during the second half of the proceedings, stirring the crowd into a pre-Disney frenzy.
When the ceremony ended, those of us who weren’t going on the buses gathered in the parking lot by the metal shop, in sudden, desperate need of a party. Each of us had a few reefers, and if we couldn’t get to a party we could at least sit on a hill somewhere and smoke them, assured that we would remember those joints for the rest of our lives, just like everyone said we would.
Pen was having folks over to her place on a county road with no speed limits, and we were invited if we picked up Steve, a sophomore who had two cases of beer at his house. We found Steve in his kitchen, throwing up into the garbage disposal. The beer was all gone, and Steve, upset that we were graduating without him, was crying and vomiting both at once. We left him there and went to the party anyway.
Pen had a lot of her organic-type friends over, and her dad’s ex-lover — the first gay man I had ever been introduced to — and Carmine, a red-haired pot grower. We sat in the living room, smoking reefer after reefer until I could get no higher and was all pasty inside. The full moon shot through the window like a sword. Carmine said his brother was dead; he’d fallen out of a car in Oregon. Someone brought some beer, and we drank it and got louder.
Pen’s fourteen-year-old sister, Persephone, came out in a leotard. She’d been sitting in her room reading The Hobbit. She shouted at us for being loud and high, and told us that her dad was an alcoholic drug user, and so were we. We laughed and invited her to join us. She ran back to her room, crying. I remember thinking how beautiful she was.
Later, when the early-morning sky had turned a deep, dark lavender, we decided to go back to see how Steve was doing. We found him still in front of the sink; he hadn’t moved for hours. By the time I drove home, it was getting light out. I lay on the lawn, pulled a joint from my sock, and smoked it, looking up at the sky. I thought of Steve, and Persephone, and how the sky hadn’t changed a bit.
My four years at a small university in Pennsylvania were the most difficult of my life. I needed 135 credits to graduate; I flunked a course and had only 134. Heartbroken, I went to the dean and pleaded my case. He said I could make up the course in summer school, but I could not graduate.
I told my parents in tears. Seeing my pain, my mother said, “Sidat, graduate.” She had grown up in Trinidad and had not been to college; obviously she didn’t understand. I explained the situation again. With great compassion, my mother told me that I didn’t have to let anyone stand in the way of my graduation. I had worked hard and could graduate with my class if that was what I wanted; I could go through the ceremony and enjoy the day, even though I would not receive my diploma.
I did just that. Afterward, my friends and family gathered for a picnic. It was a truly happy occasion. Four months later, when I received my diploma in the mail, it was just a piece of paper.
Falls Village, Connecticut
Three days after I turned in my master’s thesis, I gave birth to my daughter. When she was five days old, we dressed her in a white cap and gown with a red tassel on the mortarboard, and I carried her with me through the processional. My department got into the spirit and awarded us a joint degree. After shaking hands with the department head, I stood in front of the podium, degree in one hand and baby in the other, and felt like a symbol of the modern woman.
Now I am a stay-at-home mom. I spend most of my time driving — to the preschool, the pediatrician, the pharmacist, the grocery store. Every now and then I receive news that a former classmate of mine has received a promotion. I try to tell myself that there are phases in life and right now I am in my child-rearing phase. Later will come the phase when I have time for professional success. But this rationalization echoes the centuries-old story of women postponing their lives.
I have a newborn son now, and my daughter brings home colds and flu from preschool. On my refrigerator, taped to Christmas-card photographs, is a piece of paper I use to keep track of who has taken what medication and when. I chart which of them has had Tylenol, decongestants, and antibiotics with check marks, dates, and times. For several weeks, I have been administering breathing treatments with a nebulizer to my son every two hours around the clock. I record his breathing rates and treatment times.
By the glow of a street light shining through the window, I measure albuterol and a saline mixture. Over the hum of the nebulizer, I hear a car drive by and the slap of a newspaper hitting our driveway. In the morning, I will unwrap the paper and set it on the pile to be read. Each day I intend to read the paper to stay connected to the outside world. The stack is getting high.
Three years have passed, and that moment before the podium was the easiest it has ever been to hold a degree and a baby at the same time.
The night before I graduated from Harvard Law School, my boyfriend and I had a terrible fight. We were bedding down on the floor of our small apartment, my parents asleep in our bed one room away. He was cold and punishing and miserable — maybe because my parents were there, maybe because I was graduating from Harvard, maybe because I had gotten my hair cut short that day. I slammed my fist into the pillow over and over, screaming in a hoarse whisper: “I hate you! I hate you! I hate your fucking guts!”
The next day my eyelids were taut and red, and I wore dark glasses from champagne at 7:30 A.M. through diplomas at 2:00. My boyfriend joined my parents and me for the separate law-school ceremony — lunch, short speeches, and the delivery of diplomas. He did not speak to me, he did not look at me, he did not hug me or hold my hand or kiss me or smile at me. Instead of being angry, I felt frightened and alone and responsible for having yelled at him.
We shared a lunch table with a couple of friends and their parents, chatting in the cool shade of the massive trees. About midway through the meal, he spotted a woman he knew and abruptly went to talk to her without telling me who she was or how he knew her. He kissed her on the cheek and they laughed and talked and smiled. Ten minutes went by, then twenty. I looked around the table. If the others had noticed, they weren’t letting on. Thirty minutes. He and this woman were directly in my line of vision. He was warm and charming and sexy as hell; this was his other self, and part of my punishment was watching it.
At forty minutes I excused myself and wove my way through knots of black-robed students and their families. It took all I had to keep my eyes dry, to not open my throat and moan and wail. I swore I would leave him. He was cruel. I was sick to stay with him. I went into the women’s room. My throat ached; my stomach hurt. I calmed myself with promises to leave him, then returned to the table. He came back several minutes later. I asked who the woman was, and he said, “A friend.”
When we got home that afternoon, he had a huge bunch of flowers waiting for me. I was relieved and gave him a big, teary hug and kiss. He was sweet and lovable and funny when my parents took us to dinner that night. I loved him, I was proud of him, and I wanted to be with him forever.
One grueling year later, we split up.
Linda worked for me the morning of my graduation from the University of California at Berkeley. After she fed, washed, shaved, and dressed me, she lifted me into my power wheelchair, draped my graduation gown over me, and taped my mortarboard to the back of the wheelchair’s mirror, a few inches behind my head. We agreed to meet at Zellerbach Auditorium an hour before the ceremony.
The mortarboard fell off the mirror as I drove the wheelchair to campus. A man stopped his car, got out, and put the mortarboard in my lap. Linda retaped it backstage at the auditorium.
“You know,” she said, “I hate ceremonies. I’ll probably miss my own graduation. I’ll be off hiking somewhere. But this graduation is special to me.”
She promised to meet me on the other side of the stage, blew me a kiss, and left.
When it came my turn to go on stage and receive my diploma, I had to concentrate to avoid driving into the dean or off the front of the stage. But it was hard to concentrate, as I was stunned by the roar of applause and the sight of my father running across the front row of seats, his flashbulb popping. Somehow, I made it to the other side of the stage, where Linda told me, “I tried to see you, but it was hard — all these tall guys were standing in my way. So I jumped up and down and yelled, ‘Let me see! He belongs to me!’ ”
The superintendent of my high school called me recently to say that he had read a review of my book in the local paper and was proud that a student from the school had become “famous.” I didn’t bother to ask what he thought of the book, a bitter critique of America’s foreign policy; I figured he hadn’t read it. To my surprise, he asked me if I would give the commencement address for the high school. I accepted.
Later I asked myself, What the hell do I have to say to a bunch of conservative kids from Grand Rapids, Michigan? All I recalled about my high-school graduation thirty-seven years ago was that Sally and I made love that night on the beach at South Haven, the waves of Lake Michigan hitting the white sand. I considered telling them about Sally. Or I could tell them that I don’t recall a single word from all of the graduation ceremonies I attended, except officers’ school, where I was told I had to defend America against communism. I could say something about the fuss over family values, but how do you explain a moral debate to a bunch of horny kids anxious to get to parties on Lake Michigan?
“I can’t do it,” I told my dad, who had served on the school board for decades and had convinced the superintendent to ask me to speak.
“What do you mean you can’t do it?” my father said.
“I don’t think I have anything to say that would be acceptable.”
“Too late. They have you scheduled. See you on June 14. I’ll pick you up at the airport.”
I rewrote the speech at least ten times.
Returning to Grand Rapids after more than thirty years was like visiting a foreign country. Everyone in the airport was white, Anglo-Saxon, clean, and robotlike. Dad took me out to a dinner with lots of mashed potatoes.
At the ceremony, the superintendent introduced me by reading off my degrees and titles and ended by holding up a copy of Who’s Who in America and saying, “Our speaker tonight, a graduate from this school, is listed in this volume. I am proud to present . . .”
As I approached the podium, thunder clapped and lightning flashed over the football field. I made a few remarks about Mother Nature determining the course of events; then the sky opened and a torrential rain began to fall. The superintendent rushed to the microphone and announced that my address would be printed and sent to all graduating seniors. Then he dismissed the students, to loud cheers.
That night, I asked my father if I could borrow his car for a drive to South Haven, promising to be back in time for my morning flight.
The thirty-mile trip was nostalgic. I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of good wine and a corkscrew. The storm had blown over by the time I arrived in South Haven, and the stars shone down on the beach. There were signs everywhere: No Alcoholic Beverages, No Fires On The Beach. They hadn’t been posted when I was a kid. We live in a damn police state, I thought, but no cop arrested me as I uncorked my bottle of wine and walked a mile or two down the beach. Sitting down to listen to the waves, I took out my speech and allowed each page to fly away in the wind.
The next day, as Dad drove me to the airport, he reminded me to send a copy of the graduation speech to the superintendent. At home, I tried to locate the speech on my computer, but it was lost. The superintendent never asked me for a copy, anyway. Just as well. What the hell can graduation speakers really tell young people?
Terence M. Ripmaster
Hackettstown, New Jersey
I was thirteen when I graduated from childhood into womanhood. I found blood on my white cotton underwear, and Mom slapped my face. “Now you’re a woman,” she said. She put a small black hat with a veil on my head and stuffed a dish towel between my legs. Grabbing my hand, she pulled me across Bryant Avenue in the South Bronx to Mr. lzzy’s Drugstore, where she shoved me up to the counter. “Mr. lzzy, Rosie is a woman today. We’ll take a big box of Kotex and a sanitary belt.”
I was ashamed and embarrassed, but also proud. I knew that blood meant birth and rebirth. I knew I’d have to give up my dolls and stuffed animals for the hands of boys becoming men. It scared me. It thrilled me. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Los Angeles, California
There were more tears than smiles at my high-school graduation in the Missouri Ozarks. This was the end: the end of school, the end of the town, the end of all the homes and businesses in our community. The construction of Bagnell Dam was almost finished. Soon the Lake of the Ozarks would flood the valleys of the Osage River and its tributaries. Before another spring, the town would be underwater.
We had watched surveyors tramp over our hills to figure the extent of the lake. A price had been set on the family farms. Workmen had cut off the tops of trees so they would be beneath the water level; in December the cedar crowns had been sold for Christmas trees.
The community church where our graduation ceremonies were held was doomed: altar, pews, stained-glass windows, even the old books in the library. By a technicality, nothing could be salvaged except the tombstones and coffins. Trucks came and took those away.
The night we got our diplomas we sang “Happy School Days Now Are Over,” and felt a mix of euphoria and fear. Then we sang “Till We Meet Again,” and I remember grim-faced farmers turning to one another to shake hands, women sobbing in each other’s arms.
The town has been on the bottom of the lake for sixty years now, and water-skiers and speedboats skim the surface.
Kansas City, Missouri
I’ll show them, I thought. I don’t need them. Karen, Jane, and Becky had put up with my hanging around all through high school. Why tag along for the humiliating finale?
Instead of going to the graduation dinner and dance, I left town and went to our cottage, where I spent most of the weekend on a lawn chair in my new bathing suit with the plunging neckline, soaking up the hot June rays. I envisioned their envious faces when I returned to town tanned, confident, and independent.
On Sunday night I lay in bed dead still; the pain of my sunburned body brushing against the cotton sheets was unbearable. My skin felt as if it had shrunk one size and might split.
Later that week at Karen’s house, the three of them rehashed what I had missed at graduation while Karen’s mother, a nurse, examined the blisters on the fleshy area between my breasts, a part of my body that had never before seen the sun.
“I know it’s itchy,” she said, “and it’s going to be painful for about two weeks. You have a second-degree burn.” She sighed. “Kathy, you’re so pretty and have such beautiful white skin and rosy cheeks. Why did you do this to yourself?”
At the word pretty, Becky, Jane, and Karen looked over at me. Seeing the same tall, awkward, slightly overweight girl they had always seen, they shrugged and continued talking.
Vancouver, British Columbia
The second time I was sent to prison, I decided I might as well get my high-school diploma. Passing the courses was fairly easy for me. I’ve always read a lot and had a good basic education.
Our teacher’s name was Ms. Lambert. She had a small bone structure and wide-eyed expression that reminded me of a lemur. Sometimes she would ask me to help another man who was having trouble, but I tried to avoid it. It’s not that I didn’t want to help, but many prisoners take offense quickly if they feel you’re questioning their intelligence. Ms. Lambert’s helpful attitude and unflappable nature made her a natural, though.
After six months, most of the guys — myself included — were ready to graduate. Ms. Lambert was proud of us, so she decided to have a little graduation ceremony. At first we thought the ceremony would be held in the classroom, but Ms. Lambert wanted to hold it in our housing unit so that the other men could applaud our efforts. There was some apprehension about the idea, but we agreed.
On graduation day, Ms. Lambert showed us the black nylon gowns she had borrowed from her church choir; she wanted us to wear them. We tried to explain the sensitive position we would be in wearing gowns in prison, and how fast teasing can escalate into violence, but Ms. Lambert was adamant and refused to bargain.
By some miracle she finally managed to coax us into the gowns. There was a little horseplay once we were dressed, but it didn’t relieve the tension.
Finally, Ms. Lambert led us out in front of our audience and began making a speech. The guys in the front row were laughing at us. I could feel my face flush as my anger began to rise. I looked to my right to gauge my friend Speedy’s reaction, and he appeared pissed as well. Then he turned to me, and I saw how ridiculous he looked in that gown with a frown on his face. We both burst out laughing.
That broke the tension, and everyone ended up having a good time, much to Ms. Lambert’s delight.
San Francisco, California
On most significant occasions in my childhood, one of my parents was on a binge of some sort. The other would always stay home and nurse the impaired partner. My mother spent most of her time in bed, woozy from nonprescription drugs — mouthwash, nose drops, sleeping aids. The highlight of her week for almost twenty years was Saturday’s electroshock therapy for her depression. The treatments impaired her memory for life. My father worked hard and drank in his off hours until he passed out. It seemed that just the effort of resisting drink the rest of the time consumed most of his energy.
If my parents attended my high-school graduation, where I directed the class in singing “Climb Every Mountain,” I cannot recall it. My memory of graduating from college is similarly blank, probably because I was preoccupied with planning my wedding, a one-way ticket out of the family.
A few years later, my father threatened to lock my mother up and throw away the key, and I stood up for her, causing a terrible breach between us. Years passed, and my mother became so agoraphobic she stopped going out, so confused she once sent my son Sean a birthday card addressed to Eric. My father was more fortunate than she and at last found sobriety in his late sixties. When he learned that I intended to finance a master’s degree in social work with bank loans, he insisted on sending me checks for two thousand dollars at a time, instructing me to let him know as soon as each one ran out. He never let me pay him back.
With only an eighth-grade education, my father knew nothing about clinical social work. He never asked me what a psychotherapist was or why I wanted to be one. Although his own life was fraught with suffering and pain, he never learned the language to express love or pride or regret. But the summer I graduated, my seventy-nine-year-old father drove two and a half hours by himself to my graduation under the bluest, most forgiving sky I can ever recall.