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Authors: Lauren Slater

Playing House

BOOK: Playing House
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Author’s Note

I have observed elsewhere that there is a significant difference between the truth of experience and the facts of everyday life. What I write about in these pages is often emotive, what I experienced, observed, and felt in different parts of my life. Some of the details I’ve forgotten (and occasionally I make note of that in the text), and some I’ve remembered, perhaps imperfectly. So I may not have all the facts in exact order, but I have no doubt about the truth of these stories.


Books by Lauren Slater

The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals

Blue Beyond Blue: Extraordinary Tales for Ordinary Dilemmas

Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century

Love Works Like This: Moving from One Kind of Life to Another

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir 

Prozac Diary

Welcome to My Country

Edited by Lauren Slater

The Best American Essays 2006

The Complete Guide to Mental Health for Women

This one is for you, Benjamin


I sometimes feel like flinching from the self portrayed in these pages, a self as selfish as she is honest. My hope is that the honesty redeems me, at least to some extent.

Without meaning to, thinking I was writing a series of separate pieces, I accidentally composed, over many years, a story of how I formed a family, the people I pulled around me, loving them so imperfectly, learning to love as we inched along, feeling for the contours of our space. Truthfully, I know very little about love. Just yesterday, driving my now-thirteen-year-old daughter to the orthodontist, she asked why she does not know her grandmother, my mother, who is a total absence in our lives. It was hard to explain to her then, as it is now in these pages (and I’ve tried), the wretched way we were under my parents’ care, four children and a father perpetually pale, in flesh and spirit both. Eventually, when things got brutal enough, I left my family for a foster home and never went back, reuniting with my sisters and brother when I was well into my twenties and finding their faces as familiar as they were strange. How do you explain the severity of such a rupture to your daughter? How do you tell her that, in truth, you did not learn to love as a child and thus have come to the task of mothering with deep deficits? These pages describe the deficits and, equally as important, they describe my attempts to cope with them, to find my flame, my love, all crumpled and warped by water but still there and there for the taking. I took it and from it fashioned a house, a marriage, two fantastic children, and a train of enchanting animals to round out the shelter I built—birds, cats, dogs, and . . . a mule.

A mule? Why would anyone ever want a mule? In some sense this is what I am, sterile inside, an animal incapable of breeding or even of sex. Mules cannot perpetuate themselves, and thus, I must assume, they do not mate. These pages describe, in some metaphorical sense, a mule-woman, a woman who shuns sex, who could not believe she could care for children and therefore birthed two babies with deep misgivings. And yet, despite my obvious limitations, my brayings and buckings and truculence, I see in reading these pages that I have somehow learned to come around. I have shed the old matted fur of mental illness and frank violence and allowed myself to find enchantment in all the likely places, inside cupboards painted deep pink and the melted wells of scented candles that we, as a family, sometimes light on Chanukah, the flames flexible, bending, providing for me an alternate image, so the mule is replaced with warmth, from the outside and from the inside, too.

These pages mark the path I’ve walked—heeled, hooved, barefoot, clad and unclad, way up and deep down—to family, a constellation I’ve created even as it creates me, shaping me over and over again, I, changing with my children, who both tug and tether me, who lead me while I lead them, my husband here too. And so onward we go, we four, flickering, bickering, lost in a lacuna and found in much mud, with spoons and socks and pillows and pencils and all the other accoutrements of home; we hold on hard. We have each other. In the end—and there is, most definitely, an end—this is much, much more than enough.

Tripp Lake

At the age of nine years I went to my first overnight camp, located in Poland, Maine, way up off 95, by a kidney-shaped lake where, across the shore, we could see the serrated lines of red roofs and, on sunny days, white sails walking along the water. The camp was called Tripp Lake, and it was for girls, or so my parents said, who were especially competitive, girls like me, not yet pubescent, packed with all the power of a life that has yet to really unfold, bringing with it the hard parts, the shames, the sadnesses, none of that yet. I wore my hair in what was called a “pixie cut,” which was a nice way of saying it was short as a boy’s, a crew cut really, and at that age white-blonde, so the stubble glittered silver in the summer sun. I spent my evenings playing capture the flag, an exhilarating game that requires fast feet and a bit of cunning.

Understandably, my parents thought it best to send me to a place where my energies could be shaped and expanded. I agreed. I thought I might be Olympic quality, like those skaters I’d seen or the skiers hunched over their poles, ricocheting down mountains where ice hung from all the trees.

I remember the first night at the camp, but no, let me begin before then, at the bus stop, about to leave and feeling, for the first time, a shudder of intense grief. My mother, an aloof woman whom I nonetheless adored, looked pale, her eyes foggy and distant. My father was a small man in the bakery business. Lately they’d been fighting. She wanted something grand out of life, something more than a muffin, whereas he was content to nozzle whipped cream on top of tarts. I loved my father, but I loved my mother more, more problematically is what I mean, in the crooked, hooked way only a daughter can.

I hugged my parents good-bye, and when I hugged my mother I could feel a circle of sadness in her. By leaving I felt as if I were betraying her. I had heard their voices at night, his quiet, hers shrill,
, and I’d seen my mother sometimes sitting on the porch looking out at nothing. She was a severe and brittle woman, and even at that age I knew brittle was breakable. Sometimes, driving in the car, she crushed the accelerator to the floor, just for the feeling of speed, and other times she cried with her mouth closed. I had the feeling, there at the bus stop, that she wished she were me, about to board a bus heading for the horizon, a green-striped bus with Peter Pan dancing on its flank and girls unabashedly eating apples. And because I felt her longing, inchoate, certainly unspoken, my chest seemed to split with sadness, and also guilt. This was a new emotion for me, an emotion that sat in the throat, an emotion that was maybe more imagistic than all the others. Guilt made me imagine that while I was away, my mother would come undone, her arm would fall off, her hair drift from her head. Guilt made me imagine that she would sit at night and cry, and what could I do about that? I wanted to say I was sorry, but I didn’t really know what for. I couldn’t have said it then, what I’ve since felt my whole life, that separation is a sword, painful, to be avoided at all costs.

My first night at camp: I could hear the flagpole rope banging against its post; I could hear the cry of what were maybe coyotes in the woods and the susurration of thousands of tree frogs. I couldn’t sleep, so I stepped outside, onto the damp dirt that surrounded the cabin, and in the single spotlight that shone down I found a tiny toad, no bigger than a dime, with still tinier bumps on its taupe back. I lifted the amphibian up. I could not believe god or whoever could make an animal so small, an animal that would have, if I cut it open, all the same organs as me, in miniature, the locket-sized heart, bones like white wisps. How easy it is to break an animal; I could have crushed that frog with my fist, and part of me wanted to, while another part of me wanted to protect it, while still a third part of me wanted to let it go.

Before camp I’d been a more or less happy girl, but that first night I couldn’t sleep, and by morning a wild sadness had settled in me. Where was I? Where was she? Someday I would die. Someone somewhere was sick. It was as if a curtain had been pulled back to reveal the true nature of the world, which was terror, through and through.

I became, for the first time in my life, truly afraid that summer, and the fears took forms that were not good, that did not augur well for my later life, although I didn’t know it then. That first day, sitting on the green lawn, watching a girl do a cartwheel and another girl mount the parallel bars, I developed an irrational fear that is still hard to explain; I became hyper aware of my own body, the swoosh of my blood and the paddling of my heart and the
huh huh huh
s of my breath, and it seemed amazing and tenuous to me, that my body did all of this without any effort on my part. As soon as I became aware of this fact—almost as though I’d discovered my lower brain stem and how it’s hitched to the spinal cord—as soon as I came to consciousness about this, I thought, “I can’t breathe.” And truly, it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought, “I am thinking about my breathing, and if I think too hard about my breathing, which you’re not supposed to think about, I will concentrate it right away,” and I swallowed hard, and then I became aware of all the minute mechanisms that comprise a swallow, and so I suddenly felt I couldn’t swallow anymore. It was like the lights were going out in my body, while meanwhile, in front of me, girls did cartwheels on the green lawn, completely unaware that I was dying.

After that, the fears came fast and furious. I was afraid to think about walking because then I would fall; breathing, because then I would suffocate. Swallowing was the worst one of all, to suddenly feel that you have no way of bringing the world down into your throat, of taking it in, no way. I then became afraid of the camp dining hall with its vicious swordfish mounted on one wall and its huge bear head with eyes like my mother’s, dull, distant eyes, eyes at once wild and flat. I became afraid of pancakes, of toothbrushes, of cutlery, of water, the counselors urging me into the lake, where fronds fingered through the murk and scads of fish darted by, making a current cool against my legs.

That first week at camp, I fished a dime out of my uniform pocket (we wore only blue-and-white standard-issue uniforms) and called my mother. From far, far away I heard her voice. When had her sadness started? With my father, or before that, with her mother, who insisted that she, the oldest of three girls, do endless tasks and child care, so she was never able to shoot marbles, too busy shining the silver? My mother, I knew, had been a good girl, exceedingly good, and because of that, she hated my grandmother. She called her “Frances,” and all holidays were barbed affairs, my mother sniping at her mother, making faces at the food, because she, if only given the chance, could have done better.

My mother did not go to college, despite the fact that she’s bright. In my imagination, when I construct a history for her because she’s so closed about her own, she wants to be a singer on a lit stage, or she wants to be a painter with her canvas at a quiet lakeside. She wants something larger than her own life, larger than her husband’s life, larger than the house and kids, where what she does all day is clean. Much, much later on, when I was near grown, after she and my father divorced, my mother would develop a passion for Israel, its military might, and she became fiercely, ragefully Zionistic, and, totally bursting the caul of her confinement, she smuggled Bibles into the USSR. But this was later, after she found an outlet for her energies, and if only I’d known that was going to happen, that she was going to get into something good, if only I’d known, maybe my fears would have been fewer.

BOOK: Playing House
11.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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