by Marion Smith
[p.79]The Virgin River Inn in Mesquite is right off the freeway. They advertise rooms for $19.99. Gamblers’ cars drive to and from Las Vegas all night long. I’ll gas the car for Jeanne, then meet them in the east parking lot. Duncan said they’d be in a blue Chevy Lumina. Please be there.
Thank goodness we didn’t tell anyone but Jeanne and Chris. If there are police interviews, no one else will be incriminated. All the kids and our friends think we’re spending the week in Palm Springs. We’ve had plane reservations to go there for a month, via Ontario. I wonder if anyone will try to find us. Clint’s wife would think of us first. Don’t think. Drive.
The Virgin River. Mormon pioneers established a settlement next to a river named after the Catholic Virgin Mary. Yet Mormons, like Protestants, don’t pay much attention to the mother of Jesus. I know a woman in California named Maria Virgin. I wonder what it’s like to grow up with a name like that? Or the name Judas?
We should’ve known that Clint was a Judas. When Tina and Jeanne complained about his looking at them, his grabbing and pinching them, how could we not have known?
I talked to Duncan back then, when Jeanne was twelve.
“Something has to be done,” I said. [p.80]Katherine and Clint had been married two, maybe three years.
“I’ll talk to him,” Duncan said. “It’s ridiculous. We don’t have to put up with this.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I don’t know if I could do it.”
They rode the double-chair ski lift together.
“Young girls are very fragile and private,” Duncan said without looking at him. “They need space. They misinterpret teasing or affection. You need to keep your hands off them.”
Silence during the rest of the way up and down the run; then they came home.
Duncan and I thought it might work for a while. But what if Clint told Katherine? What would she think?
There was such denial in Duncan’s and my family backgrounds: my mother doing anything to preserve family pride, to look good to others; Duncan’s family thinking nothing bad ever happens to good Mormons. It isn’t just the way the world was then, in the 1970s—when child sexual abuse didn’t have a name, and “divorce” was a more terrifying word to us than “cancer.” It isn’t just the Victorian sexual repression in which we both were raised, where mothers hid Life magazine from their children when it carried photos of childbirth, and books had blank lines in place of words like “damn” and “hell.” It isn’t just my false pride and drive to be a perfect mother and have a perfect family and to always value my sons- and daughters-in-law. It isn’t just the church mandate to have big families, put family first, and avoid divorce at all costs. It isn’t just Duncan believing that no returned missionary could do anything evil, especially when he’s in a bishopric and going to the temple every week.
It’s our need to protect—our family, our daughter Katherine. Even more than my denial and my hubris, it’s my damnable need [p.81]to protect and to have everyone happy. And this overprotectiveness rebounded on all of us a hundredfold.
Christmas 1985. Jared and Rachel and Clint and Katherine have made a Christmas video of their children talking about Duncan. It’s a surprise for him.
We’re all there that Christmas—all in Salt Lake.
Two weeks before I almost died. Tina and I had gone to a convention in Arizona. I’d been weak and sick, but the doctor thought it was a virus. He didn’t know, nor did I attach any significance to the fact I’d been taking an anti-inflammatory drug for some broken ribs. Unknowingly within a few weeks I had a bleeding ulcer.
Tina can’t talk about it. She saved my life. In the emergency room they gave me seven pints of blood. It wasn’t that bad for me; no out-of-body experience or regret in those few coherent seconds as I phased in and out of consciousness. I remember being extremely grateful to the doctors, and kept telling them so. I didn’t want Tina to cry. She kept yelling at me through her sobs, “Try, Mom, try.” Mostly I wanted to live to see a tree again. I had to see greenery. When they took me to my room, I made them move the bed so I could see green trees.
Duncan flew down a few hours later. I loved what the doctor told him, “She’s tough as boiled eels.” I want that to be my epitaph. It was hardest on Tina. As always, she was great in a crisis. Jasmine seemed to feel nothing. Numb. Sixteen and numb.
They all came for Christmas Eve. Except Clint. He said he was staying home to put the children to bed. Actually, Jared and Katherine were in an awful fight about him. Jared had finally spoken to her of Clint’s “inappropriateness” around Rachel. Katherine was furious and said no one understood his way of expressing affection—that we were cold and physically unexpressive by comparison.
[p.82]I remember we sat in front of the fire on aqua-colored couches. Katherine was in a turtle shell and wouldn’t speak to anyone. Yet it was a time of closeness when people wanted to find words for my near-death. I needed to. Duncan and the children needed to.
Katherine went home early. Jared and Rachel had to leave because of their children. None of us could have guessed it would be the last time we really spoke or listened to each other as a family unfiltered by a cloud of pain.
I knew how much I loved my children and Duncan. But now there was a new and different silence inside me. I was tired. Tired of my children’s needs, of monitoring, of being the mediator, of doing vicarious emotional work, of responsibilities, of guilt and pain. Maybe that night I wanted to run away, to go through the snow and stars and darkness to a place of numbing cold. Or have I made that up in retrospect?
Six weeks later, I was in the therapist’s office with Elizabeth the day she talked. “Tough as boiled eels,” the doctor bad said. But this was too much.
At last, I see the Chevy Lumina. Jeanne is bolding me and crying. Duncan looks into my soul. I nod.
“Oh, Mom, are you all right?”
“Here are the keys, sweetheart,” I finally manage to say to Jeanne. “The car’s full. Our garage opener is in that left side pocket. Please, please don’t drive too fast.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine. I slept a little on the way here. It’ll be hard not to call you though.”
“If we have any problem, we’ll find a way to let you know.”
“Here, Jeanne,” Duncan says. “Here’s a little extra cash for the road. Don’t talk to anyone but Chris.”
“You think I’m crazy? I need to go. Be careful.”
We watch her pull out.
I’m curled up on the back seat of Duncan’s rental car. Duncan says to sleep. I can’t, but it feels good to lie down. We haven’t talked. No questions, no details. Try to sleep, close your eyes. The freeway is straight and fast to Las Vegas. Everything’s going to be different now. I can stop flossing my teeth or using my seat belt. I won’t become an old woman plucking out the whiskers on my face.
A terrible line has been crossed. There’s no turning back. No forgiveness. No atonement possible. I accept that.
Who was that person? Who was he? Who am I?
On a ferry from Algeciras to Tangier, a berserk Moroccan ran through the public rooms of the ship stabbing strangers. A tourist finally hit him on the head with a bottle and the crew secured him. I didn’t know where Jasmine was. She was only four! In panic, I ran from deck to deck to find her.
After things had calmed and the Spanish Guardia had arrested the man, I felt so guilty. How could I have left her for even a moment on that ferry?
That night in Tangier, perhaps because of the madman, Tina won’t leave her little sisters to go to dinner with us. She wants to stay with Jasmine and Jeanne while Duncan, I, Jared, and Katherine have dinner. Duncan and I decide there’s no danger in leaving them locked safely in their room for an hour. They have Vienna sausages and crackers and raisins from our suitcase for dinner. We don’t want them to eat the food in Morocco. Secretly, I’m glad Tina won’t leave them.
Tomorrow night, I thought, we’ll see a belly dancer gyrate to Moroccan drums. Well sit on brocade cushions on the floor enraptured by her movements, and Duncan and I will be proud [p.84]of the experiences we’re giving our children on these trips. I’ll watch Duncan and Jasmine dance together on the tiny ballroom floor where the belly dancer just performed. Jasmine doesn’t even come to his hip.
What was it like—back then when they were little?
It’s so hard to make my brain go back.
I wanted and worked to be the world’s best mother.
I remember writing Blake once that “I want to spend my time giving mush and music lessons to a bunch of kids.” I wanted to line up my kids in a straight row under the covers, clean and shiny, just like my dolls had been lined up for Santa Claus. It was supposed to work—wanting them so much and doing everything you could to raise them properly. I’d followed the formulas, read the books, attended the lectures, listened to church edicts. We tried to give them everything—the lessons, vacations, family nights, Sunday school, Primary, scripture readings, books, pets, parties, family prayers, seminary classes, sports, sunshine and exercise, opportunities to give to others, and even some discipline—our weakest area. I gave them my time and energy, my night thoughts and morning labors; my tears and prayers and chauffeuring and hugs and kisses; my screams and rages when it was all too much; and my laughter.
Still something wasn’t working somehow. Duncan and I had all these kids and we loved them. I was certain of that. Yet there was too much tension, fighting and jealousy.
I was pregnant or nursing a baby for fifteen years of the first eighteen of our marriage. That included two miscarriages. Sometimes the only thing that kept us sane were our trips alone when we left the children to baby tenders. One of them muttered as she was walking out the door with her paycheck, “I won’t come again, Mrs. Greer. Children I can take, but a hamster running across your face in the middle of the night is too much.” Tina [p.85]talks now about how awful it was when we left. Now I wouldn’t dare leave them again—not even to be alone with Duncan.
There were wonderful times, of course. The neighborhood pet shows and parades and plays, Saturday afternoons stretched around a pool with the youngest child having to be rescued three or four times, new words and new teeth and first steps of the newest baby, rides to collect autumn leaves, reading at bedtime, school programs and church presentations, hearing their most precious prayers, their lovely little bodies running naked through the house after bath time, delight in their learning and cleverness, Christmas Eves, Duncan and Jared wrestling on the lawn, birthday parties, baking cookies, baseball games, the sweetness they often showed each other, bathing dogs, piano recitals and swim meets, dance programs and debate meets, making movies, trips in the blue van or the green station wagon, sleeping parties, horse rides and charades and kick-the-can—life was varied and rich and never boring and in many ways good.
So what were the bad times like? The night a neighbor came over with a gift for our three-week-old fifth baby. Duncan, as usual, was out-of-town on business. About 7:30 I was trying to nurse the baby and put dishes in the dishwasher while Jared and Katherine screamed at each other in their bedroom. Two-year-old Jeanne was dumping buckets of water on the bathroom floor; and four-year-old Tina had accidentally locked herself in her bedroom. Fortunately, the neighbor took the door off the hinges for me, then retreated as fast as he could. That night after the kids were finally in bed and I was still walking around doing dishes and nursing the baby, I looked at the dirty kitchen and started to cry. How could Duncan desert me? How could I possibly give these kids all they needed? What was the matter with me that I couldn’t manage better?
I wish now I’d never read a book on child rearing. If I [p.86]hadn’t been so insecure, the books might have helped, but as it was, they only offered more “mother should” to swim in my head with other “should” and “perfects.” After all, it was the 1950s. I was only doing what every American woman was supposed to do, along with the added mandate of creating the perfect Mormon family.
God knows there were rewards. I knew the continuity of the generations, in my arms and breasts and lap. Watching a little girl in pony tails with blue eyes ride Dumbo at Disneyland, or blow her crazy Play-A-Tune Christmas horn for eight hours; and then she’s all legs building huts with Tina. Then she’s skinny dipping in our pool and she’s got little bumps and nipples and you gasp at her lovely body and smile at her self-consciousness. Then you’re spending afternoons at every dress shop in town until you find the perfect black velvet formal, tiny bows on the shoulders, and her hair in ringlets with a pink ribbon to match the boy’s corsage; and then she’s gone and you’re entrusting her to a person you hardly know. You don’t know how he likes his meat cooked or if he’s a chocolate or caramel person, ketchup and mustard or just plain mustard. He’s nowhere in your memories. You never saw him play the trumpet in fifth grade or lose at Little League or go off winter camping. And now you’ve put her hand in his, this stranger, and prayed you’ll love them both as one.
You never could give her up that way if you didn’t have the teen-age years to break you in, and if you didn’t believe in the coupling of all creation, and if you didn’t believe this is a good man who’ll treasure her. And then suddenly, she’s gone.
Then there’s baby Shawn holding his first sparkler and getting a puppy from Santa Claus, and you know the giving never ends, and that’s all there is.
Salman Rushdie has a female character in Shame who embroiders her life history into exquisite scarves, the most remark-[p.87]able in all of Pakistan. I wish there were a way to remember in silks—ambers, blues, and mauves, burnt umber, taupe, and emerald green. I’d use them all as threads to tell a murder.
Because suddenly … there is much more to the story.
The man your daughter married isn’t good.
He isn’t good at all.
Oh god. Get us to Las Vegas.