The Defender

I could stay here forever.

Barbarella’s mother (left) and sister (right). "My daughter won't be in today, she's staying home with me... Why do you need to know?... Fine then, she's sick."
  • Barbarella’s mother (left) and sister (right). "My daughter won't be in today, she's staying home with me... Why do you need to know?... Fine then, she's sick."

If I had known of such a thing at age 11, I might have told my mother I was having an anxiety attack. As it was, the only way I could communicate to her my situation was to say, "I can't get out of the car. I can't go there, I just can't! Please? Please don't make me go!" I knew I wouldn't be able to face a day of school the moment she woke me up that morning, but my attempt to fake a fever had failed.

"Come on, Barb, don't give me that," she'd said in response to my exaggerated swoon. "I can see the Ls in your eyes." For many years, I believed in her special power to see a small letter L on each of my pupils if I lied to her. Thus making it impossible for me to lie and helping to mold me into the upfront, blunt woman I am today.

Despite my protests, Mom had managed to get me in the car and drive me to the spot where all the other parents dropped off their kids. Mom knew I was harassed at school for being the "new kid" and the "fat kid" (less than a year before, we moved here from Rhode Island, and I'd been pretty and plump since the age of six). She had secret meetings with the principal as part of her campaign to end my stomachaches -- the unhealthy side effect of stress and stifled feelings. "Please?" I was getting desperate.

"Okay," she said. Elation immediately replaced my anxiety, and my heartbeat slowed as I watched the institution of torture grow smaller in the distance.

When we got home, Mom made the call and I listened as she saved me from truancy. "My daughter won't be in today, she's staying home with me... Why do you need to know?... Fine then, she's sick." Handled like an expert. No matter what happened, however we might have messed up, we could always rely on Mom to defend us or, if necessary, attack on our behalf. In high school, I quickly went from an A to an F in Spanish class. Mom was disappointed in me, but she scolded the teacher for not letting her know about my rapid decline, and I ended up with a passing D-minus.

"So are you sick, or do you want to come with me?" Tough question. If I said I was sick, I would get her doting attention (as one of the middle children — number three of four girls — attention was a commodity I craved). But what a treat it would be to join her!

"I'm feeling okay enough to go," I said, as if she didn't already know this. Oh, my sisters will be jealous, I thought. I get to go to the bowling alley! It seemed that no matter where we lived, Mom always found, and joined, a women's bowling league. My sisters and I had all been before. When we were doing well in school, Mom would cave easily to our requests to let us take a day off and join her. She was particularly easy with me these days, but I never questioned why and couldn't have guessed it was because she suffered as much as I did when she learned what I'd been going through and that she was experiencing — not for the first time — how cruel children can be.

By the time we arrived at the bowling alley, there was no hiding my exuberance. With the money she'd handed me as we walked in, I bought myself a soda and snack. I sat above the "pit" (because you couldn't bring food or drinks down by the lanes) and took out a pen and pad of paper so I could write and draw. Mom would peek back to see my crossed fingers when she was about to throw the ball, and she'd sit with me when it wasn't her turn. I relished the hollow-wooden sound of balls knocking over pins and cheered along with the ladies of the league each time one of them bowled a strike. With all of my worries sitting in a classroom across town and my mom having fun just a few steps away, I thought, I could stay here forever.

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