"Give praise to the bridge that carried you over." George Colman.
We all have them. Bridges. People who act as our bridges to carry us over. I have so many.
My Da, of course. The one who did the most, probably, which is sort of marvelous considering that I only had him for about a decade. I learned a LOT in that decade. Lessons on parenting. To this day, when I have a decision to make regarding my daughter, I think to myself: What would Da have done? He taught by example. He taught me how to be enchanted by people, the world, songs, words. And he did this simply by being that way himself and sharing it with me. I am an enigma, even to myself at times. I feel things so deeply on the inside, but seldom, if ever, show them on the outside. My Da had a wonderful, full throated laugh and a way of looking at the world that was magical instead of practical.
My mother. For a long time, I couldn't believe that anything good came from her. Age brings wisdom. And I see so many people around me who blame all of their personality defects on their parents. I think that adults need to take responsibility for themselves. So, yes...she hurt me. Probably worse than anyone else in my life. She disowned me when I was 24. Died furious at me. She always said that she was upset because she wouldn't see me in heaven, but I know with certainty, now, that she was more upset that I had embarrassed her in front of the eyes of a small town. She was a major contributor to her church, headed the Society of Mary, often rebuked others for their un-Catholic ways. And here she produced a daughter who not only left the church, but was bi-sexual. She felt that I had humiliated her, especially when I refused to concoct some sort of lie to help her save face.
But, my mother gave me many other things. She was tough, never one to complain or whine. I learned strength of spirit from her. She also taught me through example, although the lesson learned was opposite of what I learned from my Da. I learned what not to do from her. I learned the importance of loving unconditionally not because she was able to do that, but because she was unable to do it. I felt the blow first hand and am determined that my own daughter will NEVER experience that sort of pain.
I learned all about gardening from both of my parents. They were both avid gardeners, avid farmers.
My sisters and I have often talked about how my Da would have handled my bi-sexuality. We will never know. I like to think that he would have loved me no matter what, but I also must admit that he was a very religious man, very devoted to the Catholic church. Time would have told the story on that and I will never know if he would have stood with mother and disowned me....or not.
My kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Howard. She taught me how to skip. She was 65. We were her very last class. She retired after us. I remember sitting with a group of girls on the playground and they all decided to skip around in a circle together. I tried to join in and simply could not master skipping (this trait of uncoordination would repeat itself over and over again as I grew up...I am a very bad dancer...) One morning, my mother told me that I would stay late after school for the next few days with Mrs. Howard, that she had requested some extra time with me. I was surprised as I excelled in school. But, when school ended and we were alone, Mrs. Howard took my hand and we walked outside to the black top in back of the school.
"I am going to teach you how to skip," she told me. And she did. She made it fun as if we were playing a special game. I am now 53 and with my arthritis, could NEVER teach anyone to skip. She was 65 and as I recall, rather hefty. But she taught me.
She was a bridge.
When my Da died, my life became a dark place for a very long time. I lost my voice. Literally. Well, I guess it is more accurate to say that I buried my voice. I refused to speak for several months. I got by in school because I had always been a quiet child. I mouthed the words in music class and no one noticed. I passed all my tests, kept up my grades, but I refused to speak. My friends noticed, but never commented on it. I didn't really have any close friends, so they just adapted to my mute state.
My mother was another story. She finally sat me down and told me that if I didn't resume talking, she would have to spend money to pay for a doctor to help me do it. That money was needed for my baby sister's special goat milk and she would have to do without it and get all itchy from drinking cow's milk.
I started talking again. Couldn't let that happen. At first, my voice sounded rusty. It had gone unused for so long. It was whispery and words sounded wrenching and untrue. But, with use, I improved.
The music teacher touched my shoulder as I walked out of class a few days later. He smiled down at me.
"I am glad that our little mockingbird decided to sing again," he said. "I always thought you had a beautiful voice, Maria."
I can't remember his name now. He was a priest in training. But, he was a bridge. He was the first person besides my Da to tell me that anything about me was beautiful.
Animals can be bridges too.
After my Da died, I would often take an apple or two out to our family horses. Their names were Cassidy and Mr. Spot. When my voice came back, I used it to tell them all the stories that I only told my Da. I have always been afraid of horses but I think my will to tell stories was greater than my fear, so I told my stories to them, gingerly holding an apple out and trying not to shrink away when their huge heads took them in.
In high school, there was Miss B. She taught English. Introduced me to Shakespeare, Milton, Dickinson, Poe, Yeats and Hawthorne in school. Aside from school, she invited me to tea at her huge home, where she served us Earl Grey tea in mismatched cups and saucers, telling me how she went all over the world to collect them. It was at those tea parties that she told me about Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Lanford Wilson.
"I'm not allowed to teach you about these writers in our school," she said, her voice halting and careful. "But, I sense a kindred soul in you. I think you will see their brilliance."
She gave me books to read that I never showed to anyone. I knew that most had been banned by the Catholic Church and she could have lost her job for just telling me about them.
I inhaled those books, fell in love with words. Just as I had fallen in love with Shakespeare and Yeats, I fell for Tennessee Williams' snidely tender poem, Life and ached when Stanley stood outside screaming for Stella. The first time that I read "Romeo and Juliet" in the classroom, aloud with my bored to tears classmates, I had held back smarting tears and wondered what the hell was WRONG with all these idiots sitting in chairs beside me, staring out windows. Didn't they see how gorgeous these words were? I looked up helplessly and my eyes met Miss B's sympathetic ones. She got it. She got this...feeling. I wasn't alone.
A very large bridge, that tiny woman.
As I sat next to my first dead body in med school, I looked across at my debonair classmate. A tall boy with an elegance about him, even at his young age. His eyes were the lightest green that I had ever seen and he had a little mustache that would have looked weaselly on anyone else, but looked roguish on him. He was making notes in a book as he casually ate a chicken salad sandwich with the crusts taken off.
I laughed and asked him how he could EAT standing over this...this...corpse. He smiled and said, "Well, I always eat at noon." We became fast friends and he became my study partner, my dance teacher and my fellow rabble rouser. His name was Vince and it would not take long before we were both casually eating our lunches over the cadaver that we eventually named Eunice.
He has been my friend for almost three decades and was the bridge that crossed me over a sticky break up, many, many nights of debauchery and a fervent plea to help me stop drinking so much, taking so many drugs. He and his partner, Thuan, visit us at least twice a year. He is now a renowned oncologist, filthy rich, and spoils us all rotten.
There was Tinton, the man who fathered Liv. The young, fearfully smart guy who followed me around like a puppy at a Halloween party and ignored me when I told him that he needed to find some younger woman who could throw her hair around properly. The same man who visibly blanched when I told him of his impending fatherhood and whose first words afterwards were: "You told me that you were barren!" When I told him that I had thought that I was, I mean good hell, those were MY tens of thousands of dollars that I had spent fruitlessly on in vitro, how was I to know that he had some sort of super duper sperm?....he hadn't laughed or even cracked a smile, just shook his head and said that he felt trapped. The same man who almost cried with relief when I told him to just go on with his life, that I wasn't expecting any assistance from him.
And the same man who came back when Liv was three and looked into my eyes hopefully as he pleaded to see her, meet her.
The man who sat outside in our back yard, fumbling around in a feeble attempt at singing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" to Liv, complete with finger gestures as she looked at me over his head in disgust. Did he think she was a BABY? She was learning to write her name and he was singing nursery rhymes to her?!
He caught on. And now, he sees Liv whenever he can get time away from his geology expeditions. He calls weekly and they text daily. They plan vacations together every summer and some holidays. He visits and stays with us, tucked up in the attic room with the bed that is really too short, his legs hang a bit over the side, but he loves that bedroom because it used to be the maid's room 100 years ago and he finds the tiny porcelain bath and faucet beguiling.
Mostly, though, he is the one person in this world who is as besotted by Liv as I am. We talk on the phone with the fever of teenagers about her. Isn't she incredible? God, she is so smart, so funny, such a perfect little person! And we made her! She's ours. And her own self, just as much. How did two misfits like us get this perfect gift?
He is my parenting bridge.
There is Nirvand. Tinton's best friend and sidekick, his partner in work. Nirvand came to me several years ago when Tinton came to spend Christmas with us and asked if he could bring his friend from India who had no where to go for the holidays. We became close friends. Nirvand reminds me that I am still attractive, still have some oomph, and is the best listener I have ever met. He taught me how to do something called "the hand dance", an Elizabethan dance with elaborate gestures. He attempted to teach me how to cook Indian food and when it backfired, he blamed himself for being a poor teacher instead of letting me take the true blame for being a poor student. Nirvand sends me poems from Yeats ("One man loved the pilgrim soul in you..") and Lee DeWyze songs just when I need them, which is quite a feat as he shares Bing's opinion that he is merely a passable coffee house singer. He keeps my poet's soul alive and well.
A gentle bridge. And a surprise one.
My sisters. Smaller, twisty bridges, but bridges all the same, for various reasons.
There is Harriet, aka "the bestie." We met when we both volunteered at toddler lunch at our children's Montessori school. She is the one who inadvertently named this blog when she made me chortle after a long horrible lunch with 40 toddlers. When someone asked her another redundant, amazingly annoying question and she answered him sweetly and then muttered under her breath, "For fuck sakes, just eat your cupcake, Ronald." It became the battle cry of our friendship. Whenever one of us was bitching too much or caught in something big and bad, one of us would look square into the other's eyes and say, "Just eat your cupcake, Ronald."
And then we could maybe laugh. At least a little bit.
Harriet is my shoulder, my fellow IT girl, the one whom I can say anything, do anything, be anything and she won't leave. She's gone through pain (the early death of her beloved little sister) and made heroic,loving decisions (taking her sister's two children and raising them up with her own) and she is the second person whom I call when I am really, really upset or really, really happy.
And that bridge leads me to the biggest one:
My partner, my lover, my friend, my strength. The one who never gave up on me even when I gave her one reason after another to go. Her arms shelter me from everything, encircle me when I'm too cold or too tired, and carry me when I can't walk, literally and figuratively. She makes me laugh when I feel like crying, provides tenderness and warmth when I am being hard headed and cold, and lets me fall asleep on her shoulder when she is trying to watch Mad Men. And even when I snore. Which hardly ever happens, because, seriously, I DO NOT really snore. Ever.
Bing is the one who sees me at my worst and doesn't tell tales to anyone about that. She points out pretty birds when she is driving and I usually reward her for this by yelling, "Honey, look out! Stop looking at birds and DRIVE, willya? You almost decked that pedestrian!" She frowns when she sees me eating snickers bars and smiles when I eat yogurt. She keeps a sharp eye on our financial state and if we are able to retire in ease, it is largely because of her.
She plays Ventura Highway on her guitar and dips her shoulder at that tricky beginning part which makes me tingle in my lady parts.
Her students cherish her and ten years after they graduate from high school, send her notes that say things like Thanks for making me work so hard and for believing in me and thus making me believe in myself. You were the one person who seemed to think I could be a success and look here, now I am a doctor, a lawyer, a fellow teacher, a vet, a bookkeeper, own my own hair salon, an accountant, a drummer in New York, a guitar teacher in Shreveport and I AM a success. I love you for taking the time, Ms. Lastname.
She buys coats for students who she sees shivering as they walk to school in ragged sweaters.
She tells me that she loves me daily, even when sometimes I make it very, very hard. Tells me that I am crazy beautiful, insanely smart, wonderfully talented and a good mother (this usually as I am sobbing because I have made some parenting misstep.)
My most substantial bridge.
And there have been smaller bridges too.
The transgendered man at that bar in NYC who danced to Michael Jackson's Human Nature with me and then rode the subway with me back to my hotel because I wasn't familiar with the city.
The man in the cheese aisle of Whole Foods who made me laugh and then asked to buy me coffee on a day when I was feeling totally unattractive and uninteresting.
The cashier in the cafeteria in my building who shares parenting stories with me so that I don't feel like I belong on the island for misfit parents.
LOTS of people in Louisiana who gave me such lagniappe when we visited, made me feel right at home.
Writers of so many books that changed my life. Too many to list.
Singers of so many songs that changed my perspective or maybe just made me smile or cry. Too many to list.
The woman in the car next to mine who looked over at me and smiled as I rocked out to Muse's Uprising and then began rocking out with me until the light turned green.
The ticket taker at Aksarben Cinema who always admires my clothes.
The librarian who helped me find that elusive book and when I confessed that I sometimes hug books that I love, confessed that he did too.
The neighbor who came over and helped shovel snow when Bing's back was hurting and my RA was swelling. Liv and I baked cookies for him and his wife and he smelled one of them and pretended to faint with pleasure.
So many bridges.
And I've learned from you all and loved you all.
In my own way.
Who were your bridges?